Many people find it surprising when I tell them that new works from J.R.R. Tolkien are still being published, considering the man himself died all the way back in 1973. I say new works, but much of the contents of The Fall of Gondolin, released earlier this year, have already been published.
Christopher Tolkien, the son of J.R.R., and 94 years old himself had already published the works contained within The Fall of Gondolin in his History of Middle Earth series back in the 1980s and 90s. So why buy this book? Well, much like with last year’s Beren and Luthien, The Fall of Gondolin brings all the different versions of the titular story together and in doing so gives it a previously unforeseen coherency.
The Fall of Gondolin is part of the Middle Earth Legendarium, which is the setting for the famous The Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit books. The story is set in the First Age of Middle Earth, over 6000 years prior to The Lord of the Rings, at a time of greater magic, legends, and drama than that seen in the later phases of Tolkien’s world. In this age, the Dark Lord Morgoth, to whom Sauron is but a servant, resides in his enormous castle in the far North of the World. For many centuries, the Noldor (High Elves that include Galadriel and Elrond) have held Morgoth in check with a large circle of fortresses held by even larger armies.
Eventually, the tides turn, and Morgoth defeats this encircling force. He slowly discovers and destroys all Elven cities in the continent of Beleriand. All except one: The Hidden City of Gondolin. Gondolin was built by the Noldor King Turgon, who saw the inevitability of defeat against Morgoth and so led his people to build their city in an incredibly difficult location to assault. Turgon refused to let any outsiders come in, for fear of Gondolin being discovered by Morgoth’s spies. Gondolin thrives and soon becomes the grandest city in Middle Earth, and Turgon’s justified paranoia ensures they have a large army and huge stores of weapons.
Of course, this story is called the ‘fall’ of Gondolin, so naturally, all this ends in despair. Our primary hero is Tuor, a Man who has lived much of his life as an outlaw and wild man following his people’s subjugation by Morgoth’s armies. Tuor finds himself drawn into a quest to seek out Gondolin and warn its people of the city’s incoming Doom. Eventually, he finds the city, marries a sexy Elven princess and helps fight against Morgoth’s evil armies. If any of you have read the Silmarillion, this should all be pretty familiar stuff to you.
However, the enjoyment, as with all Tolkien’s works, comes through his beautiful prose and legendary mode. The man truly was a master of his craft and his grasp of language is something that all his imitators lack. When you read his descriptions of Morgoth’s huge serpents and dragons slithering over the hills surrounding Gondolin, preparing to engulf the fair city in fire and blood, it truly feels as though you are reading an epic ancient tale of old.
Part of what makes The Fall Of Gondolin worthwhile for any Tolkien fan is in seeing how the story evolved over time. The story of Gondolin is the oldest of his great tales of the First Age (the other two being Beren and Luthien and The Children of Hurin), as Tolkien started writing the first version while recovering from injuries sustained during the battle of the Somme. This context is readily apparent in the story itself; The Fall of Gondolin is greatly concerned with scenes of battle and bloodshed, as well as showing the great toll it has on a society.
I was reminded of the Iliad and its long lists of dead heroes, as more and more of the great captains of Gondolin fell fighting the servants of Morgoth. It is notable that only in the earliest version of the story is the great battle and destruction of Gondolin portrayed, possibly due to Tolkien’s growing disinterest with depicting warfare itself after he left the trenches of the First World War. Later versions place the tale more in line with what is in The Silmarillion, with Tuor being cousin of Turin, the hero of The Children of Hurin, and the son of Huor.
While I am heartily recommending this book to all Tolkien fans, that does come with a few asterisks. This is not an entirely completed narrative, like The Children of Hurin. This is far more akin to Beren and Luthien, where it is a series of different attempts by Tolkien to complete the story but never quite making it the entire way. Still, uncompleted stories are the bread and butter of all more serious Tolkien fans out there, so it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. What this book does lack, however, are tellings of the story written in a more poetic mode. What made Beren and Luthien so enjoyable for me, was the enormous amount of poetry present throughout the book.
Tolkien’s poetry, mostly taken from his The Lay of Leithan, is absolutely beautiful and perfectly structured, and I read through most of the book in a couple days. Conversely, the majority of The Fall Of Gondolin comes from various early attempts at The Silmarillion, which means that much of it is written in a dry, general manner. Still, I enjoyed reading through it and found out a lot more of the tale of Gondolin than I had known previously, so it is certainly worthwhile. There are some great extracts (including the beginning of a planned longer version of the story written after The Lord of the Rings, already included with The Unfinished Tales) and some great passages by Christopher Tolkien dissecting the work.
Additionally, Alan Lee has returned to do the illustrations once again, and they are the same high quality we have all come to expect. The man has a brilliant eye for detail and his style matches with the high fantasy of the First Age wonderfully. The images in this review are examples of his work included in other Tolkien books. Overall, if you are a massive Tolkien fan you should definitely read The Fall of Gondolin, but if you have only read The Lord of the Rings but want to check out his other works, you should probably read The Silmarillion or The Children of Hurin first.
There is a sad air surrounding to the book, in that it is certainly Christopher Tolkien’s last, as he himself states in the prologue. He has been running his father’s literary estate ever since his death in 1973, and the man has done an amazing job at bringing previously unseen texts to light and navigating through J.R.R. Tolkien’s often incomprehensible notes. For some fans, Christopher Tolkien is a controversial figure, as he has held on tight to the right’s for Middle Earth (the only reason The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films have happened is because J.R.R. Tolkien himself sold them) meaning that there have never been adaptations to Tolkien’s great tales of the Elder Days. Personally, I stand by his decisions, as many of these works would be nigh impossible to adapt well and it might just sully the image that Tolkien’s writings have.
Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy were great but they did have their issues, which became much more apparent with his The Hobbit films. Do we really want The Silmarillion become the next Cinematic Universe? With Ryan Reynolds as Feanor and a solo film about Mim the Dwarf? Christopher Tolkien did sell the rights to a Middle Earth series to Amazon for the massive cost of $250 million, but with all the rumoured stipulations and off-limits material, I can’t help but feel that he fleeced them. When Christopher Tolkien does finally pass through the walls of Arda, I do wonder what will happen to J.R.R.’s legendarium. Will Christopher’s successor have the same rigid integrity, or will we see Turgon and Tuor action figures included in the next Happy Meal?