Great Tales of the Elder Days: A Review of The Fall of Gondolin, written by JRR Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien

Few fantasy series are as popular as The Lord of the Rings.  Originally published between 1954 and 1955, this trilogy was written as a sequel to J.R.R. Tolkien’s earlier novel, The Hobbit, published in 1937.  The tales of Middle-Earth, of hobbits and elves and men, inspired generations of writers and storytellers in a way not many other works of fiction have.  Many novels and series attempted to capitalize on Tolkien’s success, but none ever came close to his great heights.  Years later, Peter Jackson adapted the books into a beloved film trilogy, and film history is full of movies and TV series trying to mimic his feat.

I was caught countless times, and angered my middle-school teachers, reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in class.  In fifth grade alone, I must have read and re-read Tolkien’s creation over half a dozen times.

J.R.R. Tolkien only saw those four books published in his lifetime, but he imagined a world so much larger and wrote so many more stories, all taking place in Middle-Earth.  Poems and short stories and entire histories of his fictional constructs; he put more thought into these stories than any other author before or after.  Since his passing in 1973, the Tolkien estate has been managed by his eldest son, Christopher, who is also an accomplished literary editor in his own right.  While running the Tolkien estate, Christopher has made it his mission to collect his father’s works and release them to the world, after assembling and editing the complete stories.  In this way, the world has been able to read the tale of Beren and Luthien, The Children of Hurin, The Silmarillion, and now The Fall of Gondolin.  Tolkien originally imagined his series as one long work, The Saga of the Jewels and the Rings.  The stories and books may be fragmented now, but the literary world is better having seen JRR Tolkien’s imagination in the light of day.

The Fall of Gondolin follows Tuor, son of Huor, a man of the first age of Middle-Earth.  The Lord of the Rings takes place during Middle-Earth’s third age, thousands upon thousands of years after the events of this book.  At this time, Sauron has yet to come into his own power, and is instead subservient to an even greater dark lord: Morgoth.  Morgoth rules all of Middle-Earth with his armies of dragons, orcs, and Balrogs.  Tuor’s story begins not long after Morgoth cemented his power and annihilated the elven cities which stood against him.  As a human, Tuor is beneath Morgoth’s attention.  The god of waters, known as Ulmo, sends Tuor on a mission to find the last elven stronghold, a hidden city called Gondolin.  There, he is to marshal the elven armies and lead them to victory against Morgoth.  Except the hearts of elves are not as pure here as they are in other fiction.  The elven king takes no action and is betrayed by a trusted advisor who leads the armies of Morgoth to the city’s front door.  The elves are forced to flee as their city burns beneath his wrath.

The Fall of Gondolin is one story, but Tolkien himself never finished the tale.  In this book, Christopher presents six different versions his father worked on, with the first and the last being the most complete.  There are differences between the six versions, some larger than others.  The spelling of character’s names changes as Tolkien tested out what sounded best, and a few plot points differ.  Characters also receive fleshed out backstories as he went into the later stages of his writing.  Overall, the story is consistent across his work.  Christopher presents each version, in the chronological order of writing, as best he can tell.  With each version, we are presented with entries from Tolkien’s journals, notes on the story, letters written by the man, and Christopher’s analysis on what it all means.  From Tolkien’s own writings, Christopher is able to tell that the story of The Fall of Gondolin was one of the very first creations in Middle-Earth, inspired by the events of World War I and what Tolkien understood of the horror of war.  Christopher has spent his life examining his father’s work, and the insights he provides between the stories are a fascinating look at one of the world’s most influential authors.

That being said, The Fall of Gondolin is not a quick nor easy read.  Being an assembled book of different stories written at different times, the writing itself is not what modern readers are used to.  J.R.R. Tolkien, at the beginning of his career, wrote as a classic British gentleman would.  His old style is comparable to Victorian or Edwardian writing styles.  Today, it feels outdated.  He even chose to use older English spellings and vocabulary in some cases, to better fit with the aesthetic.  As he wrote more, and the years went by, his writing style changed into something more modern.  The first version of Tuor’s story and the last could not be more different, despite showing the same events.  In the last, we are in the moment with Tuor.  We actually see his journey, rather than are told about it.  But J.R.R. Tolkien is not the only Tolkien writing in this book.  Christopher’s style can easily be described as old-fashioned.  The man is ninety-three years old this year, and still sharp.  This is a story from another time.

Part of the reason why Tolkien’s stories has lived long past the death of the man is because of how human his non-human characters are.  Where most fantasy novels today deal in tropes and one-note civilizations, Tolkien created as vast genealogy of elves, all with very different societies and sets of values.  They are not peaceful, they are not wise, and they are not truly immortal.  The Fall of Gondolin opens with a recap of certain events from The Silmarillion which are relevant to this story, chief among them the story of how a group of elves chased Morgoth back to Middle-Earth.  This group of elves lived with two other groups in the land of the gods and defied them in their wish to hunt Morgoth.  They slaughtered their neighbors for ships and made a vow to recover treasure Morgoth had stolen, regardless of who stood in their way.  By the time The Lord of the Rings occurs, elves have had time to reflect and finally gain the wisdom they are known for in popular culture.  But in the ancient days of Middle-Earth, the only different between man and elf was in how long they lived.

Reading The Fall of Gondolin is like reading a history book, and with good reason.  Middle-Earth may be a fictional world, but J.R.R. Tolkien painstakingly crafted an entire history of his world.  He began with a creation myth and, in the end of The Silmarillion, is able to connect Middle-Earth to modern Earth.  The Fall of Gondolin adds another chapter to this extensive history and helps complete the work he began back in 1917 in the back of an army barracks.  Tolkien may not have had confidence in the moment, but Middle-Earth captivated the imagination of readers around the world and continues to show the power and importance of fantasy.  The story of Middle-Earth is a story which will never fade.

The Fall of Gondolin may be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 8 days

Next on the List: Vox, by Christina Dalcher

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