The Fall of Gondolin: A welcome addition to Christopher Tolkien’s close looks at his father’s work

The Fall of Gondolin by Christopher TolkienThe Fall of Gondolin by Christopher TolkienThe Fall of Gondolin by Christopher Tolkien

Last year, when Christopher Tolkien published Beren and Lúthien, an exploratory history/retelling of one of his father’s three “great tales” of the First Age, he noted that due to his 93 years of age, “it is (presumptively ) my last book in the long series of editions of my father’s writing.” That parenthetical qualifier turned out to be a good idea, as here we are a year later, and he’s back with The Fall of Gondolin. With this text, along with Beren and Lúthien, and the prior publication of The Children of Húrin, the three great tales have all been published in stand-alone format, and it is perhaps this as much as his age (now 94) that has him calling this “indubitably the last.” As J.R.R. Tolkien (and from now on I will use “Christopher” to refer to Christopher Tolkien and “Tolkien” to refer to his father) himself might say, “mayhap then has finally come to an end the Fourth Age.” A bittersweet thought, though is any other emotion more appropriate when discussing Tolkien’s work?

But before we mourn the end of Christopher’s long work, we should consider this “indubitably” last one. Of the three tales, The Children of Húrin is the most novel-like in terms of a full narrative, simply because Christopher had more material to work with. The Fall of Gondolin is more akin to Beren and Lúthien in that the book has, at its core, a lengthy revised version of the tale, preceded and followed by several different versions of varying length, some fits and starts of poetry, some of Tolkien’s notes/outlines/”sketches,” and some shorter excerpts from other Tolkien works that add needed narrative context. The two major versions presented are referred to as the “Lost Tale of the Fall of Gondolin” (shortened here to just The Tale) and “The Last Version of the Fall of Gondolin” (shortened here to LV), with the former coming in at roughly 75 pages and the latter around 55 pages.

As usual, Christopher pops in directly after each piece, or sometimes via footnotes within the piece, to offer up some context or further explanation/clarification. After the LV, he has a section that looks more fully at the story’s evolution and makes some specific comparisons of the various versions, especially the two lengthy ones. The Fall of Gondolin closes out with a list of names, a few more notes, and a glossary. Finally, the book contains 15 illustrations and eight gorgeous full-page color plates by Alan Lee.

As with Beren and Lúthien, with regard to the stories themselves (as opposed to the analysis), there is little “new” here; the various versions can be found in others of Christopher’s HISTORY OF MIDDLE-EARTH books. What the stand-alone offers that those books do not is a single-minded focus on one story, allowing us to trace the tale’s evolution more fully and in more detail. I’ve personally found that singular focus to be well worth the purchase price despite owning the versions in other books. Also, I should note that both the publisher and Christopher are (and have been) quite upfront and transparent about this. There’s been no attempt to present these as “new” texts.

With regard to the story itself, for those who don’t already know, it tells the tale of a great human hero, Tuor, who is guided by Ulmo, one of the Valar (think: a god), to the hidden elvish city of Gondolin, built by the elf-lord Turgon. By the time of the story’s events, Gondolin is the last of the great elf refuges, the others having fallen to the dark Valar and uber bad guy Morgoth (if you know Lord of the Rings all you need know is that the Dark Lord Sauron was just a flunky of Morgoth’s, like his personal assistant or executive secretary). Through Tuor, Ulmo warns Turgon it is time for him to march to war if there is to be any hope, but Turgon spurns the advice and trusts instead to the secret nature of his city and its strength of arms and people. Given the title, it isn’t spoiling anything to say Turgon did not choose wisely, and so in one of great tragedies of the First Age, the city of Gondolin is destroyed.

Looking at the two main versions offered here, The Tale is told in a purposeful old, grand style. A lot of sentences beginning with “then” or “now”: “Now Tuor learnt many things … Now however was the guard of the hills maintained … Now this great work was finished … Now it was said … Now for his skill …” [these all from 1 ½ pages only]. A lot of “there’s,” “wherefore’s” and “for’s.” A lot of passive voice and odd syntax reversal. To today’s ears it will overall, I think, sound more than a little overwrought and forced. The narrative also bogs down in a few places with some, I’d say, inordinate details regarding some places Tuor “tarries” in or which elves make up the Great Houses of Gondolin and what their armor looks like and what their specialty is. That said, many parts are beautifully written. And given the incredibly condensed version of the fall we get in The Silmarillion, it was wonderful to see the battle itself in all it grand and glorious (and not so glorious) detail, even if it goes on perhaps a tad too long. Here’s a taste:

Then said Rog in a great voice: “Who now shall fear the Balrogs for all their terror? … come ye of the Hammer of Wrath and we will smite them for their evil.” Thereupon he lifted his mace and its handle was long; and he made a way before him by the wrath of his onset … all the people of the Stricken Anvil ran behind like a wedge, and sparks came from their eyes for the fury of their rage. A great deed was that sally, as the Noldoli sing yet, and many of the Orcs were born backwards into the fires below; but the men of Rog leapt even upon the coils of the serpents and came at the Balrogs and smote them grievously, for all they had whips of flame and claws of steel, and were in stature very great … and the number of Balrogs that perished was a marvel and dread to the hosts of Melkor, for ere that day never had any of the Balrogs been slain by the hands of Elves or Men.

The Last Version, meanwhile, tones down the old-style epic vocabulary and syntax and is more in the style of LoTR. And while I became a bit restless at some of the setting descriptions in The Tale, I loved the details here: the abandoned elvish city Tuor finds, the description of Ulmo coming out of the sea (“his long hair fell down as foam glimmering in the dusk … [and] he was clad in a gleaming coat, close-fitted as the mail of a mighty fish, and in a kirtle of deep green that flashed and flickered with sea-fire as he strode slowly toward the land”), and the seven gates of the Gondolin that Tuor must pass through. By now, as well, Tolkien had made some changes to more directly connect the Fall of Gondolin to his larger mythology, and so not only has Tuor become the son of Huor and nephew of Húrin (of the other Great Tale), we get a bitter flash of overlap as the tragic hero son of Húrin — Turin — passes by Tuor in the wilderness, on the way to his horrific fate.

Unfortunately, cruelly even, Tolkien abandoned this version, what Christopher calls “this essential and (one may say) definitive form and treatment of the legend,” just after Tuor passes the last gate. I’m with Christopher when he confesses that for him it “is perhaps the most grievous of his many abandonments.” As for why he did so, Christopher’s guess, based on some letters of this father’s he excerpts, is that Tolkien was so dismayed at not being able to publish all of his First Age material together with LoTR, which led him to great “despair” even as he became resigned to its impossibility. And so all we’re left with is a painful “what could have been,” as we contemplate how the Last Version would have shown us the various set battle moments: the charge of the Stricken Anvil elves into the Balrogs and dragons, the death of Turgon atop his tower assaulted by dragons, the face-off between the elf-lord Ecthelion and Gothmog lord of Balrogs, Glorfindel taking down the Balrog on the cliff, the reunion of Tuor and his elf-wife Idril, who was foresighted enough to plan an escape tunnel. Sigh.

For Tolkien completists, it goes without saying that The Fall of Gondolin is a must-add to their collection. For those coming to the story only from having seen the Peter Jackson films or perhaps having read just the main narrative of the books (not the appendices), it’s a far tougher call. While there’s much to enjoy here, I think there would be too little context and too much analysis for them. But for those who have ventured beyond The Hobbit and LoTR into The Silmarillion, I believe The Fall of Gondolin offers up a wealth of enjoyment from the narrative alone, while the additional segments will only enhance that enjoyment. If this is indeed the last of Christopher’s long, valued work, it’s a strong end. But here’s one person who is hoping that a year from now, a somewhat-shameful 95-year-old will explain how, when tearing out a wall to add a new fireplace in the old family home, a new manuscript came to light and, well…

Published August 30, 2018. In the Tale of The Fall of Gondolin are two of the greatest powers in the world. There is Morgoth of the uttermost evil, unseen in this story but ruling over a vast military power from his fortress of Angband. Deeply opposed to Morgoth is Ulmo, second in might only to Manwë, chief of the Valar: he is called the Lord of Waters, of all seas, lakes, and rivers under the sky. But he works in secret in Middle-earth to support the Noldor, the kindred of the Elves among whom were numbered Húrin and Túrin Turambar.

Central to this enmity of the gods is the city of Gondolin, beautiful but undiscoverable. It was built and peopled by Noldorin Elves who, when they dwelt in Valinor, the land of the gods, rebelled against their rule and fled to Middle-earth. Turgon King of Gondolin is hated and feared above all his enemies by Morgoth, who seeks in vain to discover the marvellously hidden city, while the gods in Valinor in heated debate largely refuse to intervene in support of Ulmo’s desires and designs.

Into this world comes Tuor, cousin of Túrin, the instrument of Ulmo’s designs. Guided unseen by him Tuor sets out from the land of his birth on the fearful journey to Gondolin, and in one of the most arresting moments in the history of Middle-earth the sea-god himself appears to him, rising out of the ocean in the midst of a storm. In Gondolin he becomes great; he is wedded to Idril, Turgon’s daughter, and their son is Eärendel, whose birth and profound importance in days to come is foreseen by Ulmo.

At last comes the terrible ending. Morgoth learns through an act of supreme treachery all that he needs to mount a devastating attack on the city, with Balrogs and dragons and numberless Orcs. After a minutely observed account of the fall of Gondolin, the tale ends with the escape of Túrin and Idril, with the child Eärendel, looking back from a cleft in the mountains as they flee southward, at the blazing wreckage of their city. They were journeying into a new story, the Tale of Eärendel, which Tolkien never wrote, but which is sketched out in this book from other sources.

Following his presentation of Beren and Lúthien Christopher Tolkien has used the same ‘history in sequence’ mode in the writing of this edition of The Fall of Gondolin. In the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, it was ‘the first real story of this imaginary world’ and, together with Beren and Lúthien and The Children of Húrin, he regarded it as one of the three ‘Great Tales’ of the Elder Days.


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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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3 comments

  1. So what you’re saying is I need this book, haha.

  2. David Currie /

    Great review though I would have got my hands on this whatever!

  3. Dan Diehm /

    I agree with the sentiment that it was his greatest abandonment. I almost cried (as an adult male) the first time I read “Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin”, in Unfinished Tales, when it ended abruptly.

    If I could somehow meet and talk to Professor Tolkien, the one thing I would beg of him would be to finish the Gondolin story in the mode of the Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin.

    The next thing I would beg would be that he also did the Tale Of Earendel in the same manner.

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