J.R.R. Tolkien rivaled entire civilizations as a maker of myths. With his obsessive, decades-long iteration on his own expansive work, the author essentially mimicked the passing and reshaping of legends from generation to generation. The Fall of Gondolin was the first story in the Middle-Earth mythos Tolkien penned, and this new volume documenting the evolution of the cornerstone of his world-building is a fitting final project for his son, Christopher, now 93. In the style of Beren and Lúthien, the previous Great Tale published as a standalone book in 2017, this edition of Gondolin is an essential historical reference for Tolkien devotees.
In this account, Tuor, fated hero of men, journeys to deliver hope to the hidden elven stronghold of Gondolin at the behest of Ulmo, Lord of Waters. It’s a load-bearing pillar in the grander narrative that eventually came to encompass better-known works. Tolkien explicitly expressed his wish later in life that the three Great Tales of Middle-earth’s early days — The Children of Húrin, Beren and Lúthien, and The Fall of Gondolin — along with The Lord of the Rings and other writings, should be considered as “one long Saga of the Jewels and the Rings.” Within this broader Silmarillion scheme, the importance of Tuor, and particularly of his son Eärendel (or Eärendil), cannot be overstated.
The characters and imagery of the earliest complete Gondolin text — elven champion Glorfindel battling a Balrog on a perilous precipice, iron dragons laying siege to a pristine city, eagles descending from their mountaintop aeries to aid an orc-embattled caravan — are already compelling. But when Gondolin was first conceived in 1916 as the kernel of a new legendarium, the ties that bound it to the canon of what would later become the First Age of Middle-earth were not yet fully developed.
This edition also presents a number of subsequent versions, most notably those from the Sketch of the Mythology (1926) and the Quenta Noldorinwa (1930), as well as a heartbreakingly unfinished, highly detailed last iteration from 1951. These retellings offer shorter accounts of Gondolin’s doom, but emphasize links that enrich the sprawling world. For enthusiasts, these glimpses into the burgeoning interconnectedness of Tolkien’s fiction are fascinating. By the Sketch, for example, Tolkien had altered Tuor’s parentage to establish a kinship between him and his dragon-slaying cousin, Túrin Turambar, and in the last version, the two Great Tale heroes actually briefly cross paths.
A chapter toward the end of this volume titled “The Evolution of the Story” grants deeper insight into the workings of Tolkien’s mind throughout the development of his mythology. At times, it seems he was overcome, against his will, by his desire to create a complete and coherent universe, even as he strove to write The Lord of the Rings as a more accessible, standalone text.
“It has bubbled up, infiltrated, and probably spoiled everything…which I have tried to write since,” Tolkien wrote of The Silmarillion to the chairman of publisher Allen and Unwin in 1950. “Its shadow was deep on the later parts of The Hobbit. It has captured The Lord of the Rings so that that has become simply its continuation and completion, requiring The Silmarillion to be fully intelligible.”
Tolkien’s melancholy regarding the state of his life’s work and the practical and financial barriers to its publication in the early 1950s may have been what caused him to abandon the last version of Gondolin just as Tuor reached the fields of Tumladen and glimpsed the white city beyond. The near unmanageable breadth of his writings, however, is precisely what has allowed Tolkien’s legends to flourish now for over a century.
Casual Lord of the Rings readers may struggle to comprehend much of Gondolin beyond the striking illustrations from longtime Middle-earth artist Alan Lee, as the book assumes significant prior knowledge of other sources. Particularly heavily referenced is last year’s Beren and Lúthien, which Christopher believed at the time would be his final venture into his father’s opus. This supposition of a pre-existing understanding of Tolkien scholarship serves as The Fall of Gondolin’s primary weakness when viewed as a self-contained read, but the inscrutability is also something of a strength. Patient and dedicated readers will find among the references to other books and their many footnotes and appendices a poignant sense of completion and finality to the life’s pursuit of a father and son. Deep delvers of Middle-earth lore will be rewarded with a thorough understanding of one of modern fantasy’s seminal works. A-