Book Review: J.R.R. Tolkien. The Fall of Gondolin. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. Illustrated by Alan Lee. London: HarperCollins, 2018. 9780008302757. US $30.00.
“Glory dwelt in that city of Gondolin of the Seven Names, and its ruin was the most dread of all the sacks of cities upon the face of Earth. Nor Bablon [Babylon], nor Ninwi [Nineveh], nor the towers of Trui [Troy], nor all the many takings of Rûm [Rome] that is greatest among Men, saw such terror as fell that day upon Amon Gwareth in the kindred of the Gnomes; and this is esteemed the worst work that Melko has yet thought of in the world. (‘The Original Tale’ 111)”
Like the majority of Tolkien’s lore, the Elvish city of Gondolin appears only as an allusion in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Elrond tells Gandalf in The Hobbit that his sword Glamdring was forged there, while in The Fellowship of the Ring, he refers to it as the birthplace of his father Ëarendil. Gimli sings its name as he recalls the ancient glory of Moria, while Galadriel, who was alive when it stood, speaks of Gondolin as yet another ruin the world has endured, in what she calls “the long defeat” the Elves have fought.
A byword for lost beauty, tragedy and the inevitable downfall of all fair things, Gondolin was one of countless tombstones upon the map of Middle-earth, its own legend undisclosed until Tolkien’s posthumous works began to be published.
Editor Christopher Tolkien writes in the preface that The Fall of Gondolin is “(indubitably) the last” of his editions of his late father’s works. Soon to be ninety-four, he has spent more than forty years distilling publishable narratives from J.R.R. Tolkien’s voluminous writings, notes, and revisions, beginning with the Silmarillion in 1977, continuing through Unfinished Tales and the 12-volume History of Middle-earth, and concluding with standalone editions of the three Great Tales of the Elder Days: The Children of Húrin, Beren and Lúthien, and now The Fall of Gondolin.
The perseverance of Christopher’s work is testament not only to his own dedication as Tolkien’s literary executor but also, of course, to the late fantasy writer’s popularity. If dollar values are any indicator, the appeal of Middle-earth is growing, and has maintained a hungry market for more stories, old or new. So far, no literary works other than those by Tolkien himself have been licensed to appear, though other media have taken creative liberties, as Amazon’s upcoming television series will no doubt continue to do.
Nothing of volume, popularity or demand should cause one to overlook the uniqueness of The Fall of Gondolin, however. The prologue notes that Tolkien, in a letter to W.H. Auden in 1955, referred to the tale as “the first real story of this imaginary world.” The publication is striking in terms both of its texts and of its editorial commentary, and as the last of Christopher Tolkien’s editions it deserves commemoration, even as Tolkien fans everywhere owe its editor a debt of gratitude. The last living witness of his father’s original vision, Christopher has been tireless in bringing the legendarium of Arda to print, fulfilling the wishes of his father, for whom The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were relatively incidental.
The Fall of Gondolin, like Beren and Lúthien, presents a number of early versions and sketches of a legend which The Silmarillion contains as a brief episode. Longest and most important are the earliest (c.1916) and latest (1951) texts, which, when read together, leave the reader with a vivid impression of what a finished, synthesized narrative might have looked like.
Gondolin, the Hidden Kingdom, was the last stronghold of the Elves to fall before the ending of the First Age, when Sauron’s master Morgoth sought to obliterate or enslave every last shred of goodness in Middle-earth. A kind of Elvish Prester John, Turgon, the king of Gondolin, built his city in a hidden valley shown to him by the sea-god Ulmo, and kept its location a secret from outsiders for more than five hundred years. With its inevitable downfall came the deliverance of Middle-earth, when Tuor, a Man, found the city, and married the king’s daughter.
Of that union between Man and Elf came Ëarendil the mariner, whose embassy to the gods saw Morgoth defeated and what was left of the world saved. Readers of The Lord of the Rings will recall it was Ëarendil who wore a Silmaril on his brow, who became the star whose light filled the Phial of Galadriel, and whose grand-daughter Arwen married Aragorn in Lothlórien.
Although the texts in The Fall of Gondolin show the discrepancies of an ever-evolving body of legend―the Noldor Elves are referred to as Gnomes, for example, while Tuor’s lineage and origins are reshaped―they also contain specific cultural, architectural, and military details unprecedented in Tolkien’s works. The Seven Gates of the city; its composition and layout; its festivals; the twelve noble houses of Gondolin and the raiment of its warriors; descriptions of these and other elements stand out amidst the aloof high style of the Elder Days narratives.
As for the battle, Tolkien is in fine form here, and the fight for Gondolin rivals Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith. There are biomechanical creatures never again seen in the legendarium, including steel serpentine personnel carriers which can surmount walls, and “creatures of pure flame that writhed like ropes of molten metal […] and upon them rode the Balrogs in hundreds.” The fights, whether full-scale or duels, abound with superlatives (“the most stubborn-valiant that is remembered in all the songs or any tale”).
And to top that all off, The Fall of Gondolin is the only narrative to describe what one of the Ainur―or gods―really looks like.
For all its power, majesty and uniqueness, however, J.R.R. Tolkien abandoned the story, which Christopher Tolkien attributes to “despair of publication”. “For me,” he writes, “it is perhaps the most grievous of his many abandonments.” It is this editorial frankness, in addition to its tragic story, that makes The Fall of Gondolin especially poignant.
It may now seem preposterous that Tolkien might ever have despaired of such a thing―until, perhaps, one considers The Silmarillion, and the comparative lack of esteem it has enjoyed. As he wrote to his publisher in 1950, The Lord of the Rings “is not really a sequel to The Hobbit, but a sequel to the Silmarillion. […] Ridiculous and tiresome as you may think me, I want to publish them both – The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings – in conjunction or in connexion.” But in the end the publisher only went with one of them― the one he had requested Tolkien provide after already rejecting The Silmarillion over a decade earlier.
It is likely that The Fall of Gondolin will not be enjoyed by those who did not enjoy Tolkien’s other posthumous publications. Its apparatus is scholarly, its story inconsistent and incomplete. It has a glossary of archaic and obsolete words. Rather than continue to treat these narratives as the cod liver oil that maximizes one’s digestion of the Lord of the Rings, however, or to assert Tolkien’s own tastes, we might simply honour the vision of it all, whose genius inspired everything its author wrote. Whether stories for his children, a popular sequel his publisher wanted, or a grand cosmology to which his invented languages were fiat, everything must be thanked for everything else. Without one, we would never have seen another.
Harley J. Sims is a writer and independent scholar currently living on a mountainside near Vancouver, British Columbia. He has recently published his first book, the Unsung, a literary epic fantasy. He can be reached on his website at http://www.harleyjsims.webs.com