How Tolkien's last great tale The Fall of Gondolin came together
The most mythical element of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth stories is that they never really seem to end. Just last year, the late author’s son Christopher Tolkien published Beren and Lúthien, a book-length treatment of one of Middle-earth’s early legends. Christopher warned in that book’s foreword that it might be his last edition of his father’s unpublished writings. That has now proved false, thanks to The Fall of Gondolin, which tells the third of the “Lost Tales” of Middle-earth (along with 2007’s The Children of Húrin). With this trilogy finally concluded at age 93, Christopher now writes that “The Fall of Gondolin is indubitably the last” of his father’s writings to be published in this form, but even so, the doors to Middle-earth remain open.
“I think working on these books gives [Christopher] a new lease on life,” says illustrator Alan Lee, who has been working on new Tolkien books and Peter Jackson’s film adaptations alike for decades now. “He threw himself straight into Fall of Gondolin. We didn’t actually know about it until this time last year there was a potential other one. I’m sure he’ll be happy to have those books in his hand. This particular journey is completed.”
The Fall of Gondolin centers on Tuor, a man who comes of age in a desolated Middle-earth dominated by Morgoth (Sauron’s mentor and predecessor as Dark Lord). Only the hidden Elvish city of Gondolin remains free from Morgoth’s iron grip. Tuor is sent to find it, but as the title suggests, this story does not have a happy ending.
Unfortunately, Tolkien never perfected the Gondolin story. He came close in 1951, but abandoned that “final version” after realizing his publisher was not interested in stories from Middle-earth’s early age at that time (they were eventually condensed and collected by Christopher into The Silmarillion). Instead, Tolkien left behind several versions of the Gondolin story, written over the course of decades. Christopher’s new book collects them all, along with explanations of the differences between them and why his father’s conception of the story changed over time.
The Fall of Gondolin is a different kind of read from The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. On top of the incompleteness, one particular scene is unlike anything in the earlier books. The person who first sets Tuor on his quest to find Gondolin is not a person at all, but rather the sea god Ulmo. Though originally created by a supreme god known as Eru Ilúvatar, Middle-earth is more directly watched over by a divine pantheon known as the Valar. Morgoth was one, before rebelling against Ilúvatar’s plan to conquer the mortal realm for himself.
By the time of the Gondolin story, the rest of the Valar have mostly abandoned Middle-earth, leaving its inhabitants to fend for themselves against Morgoth. Only Ulmo is still “filled with pity for the exiled Elves in their need, and in the ruin that had now almost overwhelmed them.” He sends Tuor to find Gondolin, as the first step of a master plan to end Morgoth’s reign of terror once and for all. To make sure Tuor gets the message, Ulmo appears to him in full power and majesty: the Lord of Waters rising up out of the deepest part of the ocean.
Middle-earth is well known for its collection of wizards and ringwraiths, and characters like the wizard Gandalf sometimes hint about an unseen hand guiding the events of Lord of the Rings. Still, burning bush style divine intervention is on a different level. Lee says he had to work to make his illustration of this scene not look out of place.
“It’s very tricky, trying to draw something that’s so unexpected and magical,” Lee says. “Tolkien’s world is full of creatures, but apart from the Nazgûl who can take on this kind of spirit form, they’re all very much flesh and blood. What is Ulmo actually made of? One of the things I do to avoid making a real misstep with problems like this is to step back quite a lot. By covering much of the figure in water and vapor and burying it into the atmosphere as much as possible, I’m keeping some distance from it. That makes it easier to bring those intangible qualities into play. I started one version where I was a lot closer to him. He filled the page, and it just didn’t work. I abandoned that and pulled back, and made him an embodiment of the environment.”
Lee eventually succeeded, and his stunning depiction of Tuor’s divine encounter — with Ulmo towering above the waves, as clouds and lightning flow in and out of him — adorns the book’s back cover.
Though its aspirations are more mythic, The Fall of Gondolin does echo Tolkien’s more popular stories, strengthening the idea that these are all part of the same mythological tapestry. The epic mountainside duel between the Elf warrior Glorfindel and a demonic Balrog, for instance, prefigures Gandalf’s battle against another such creature centuries later. Tuor also ends up becoming the grandfather to Elrond Half-elven, who will one day set the Fellowship of the Ring on their great quest.
“What makes The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings work as well as they do is that they are set into this cultural background with its own history and languages. You get so much more from those particular stories if you actually delve back and enjoy the mythology of Middle-earth,” Lee says. “In that process of the myths changing and developing, you get all these echoes of the earlier stories running through the later ones. It makes the whole thing richer and more satisfying and more dense.”
Though he makes no promises, Lee suspects that Christopher’s Middle-Earth swan song might be his as well. The Fall of Gondolin, therefore, marks the end of an era. J.R.R. Tolkien once described it as “the first real story of this imaginary world.” For now, it is the last. But as with mythologies, it’s only a matter of time until a new generation reconfigures the Middle-earth myths anew.