Ozymandias's Reviews > The Fall of Gondolin

The Fall of Gondolin by J.R.R. Tolkien
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really liked it
bookshelves: fantasy

This book was not wholly what I was expecting and it’s probably best to go in knowing what to expect (and more importantly what not to expect). I had thought (having somehow neglected to read Beren and Lúthien) that this was a completed version of one of his father’s unfinished works like The Children of Húrin. However, the length of that draft manuscript appears to have been unique among Tolkien’s work. His other two great tales of the Elder Days exist only in much shorter or unfinished forms. Which is what we’re given here.

As such, this book bears more in common with Christopher Tolkien’s massive “making of” books than with a finished novel. The skeleton of this book is built around the two largest versions of this story. One is an early draft from 1916, written when Tolkien was a young man fighting in WW1. The other is a much more polished version from 1952 that is, alas, unfinished. Both are about fifty pages in length but there are a surprising number of differences and, despite my initial intent of reading only the most complete version, it’s really necessary to read both to appreciate the story.

What occupies this book is the story of the human Tuor, his discovery of the hidden Elvish city of Gondolin, his rise to high status and fathering of Eärendil (father of Elrond), and his efforts to defend and ultimately escape from Gondolin. It was one of the few sections of The Silmarillion that held my interest enough for me to remember. As with his cousin Túrin, Tuor’s story is a tragic one, although he personally is not a tragic hero but rather the witness to great tragedy. The characters are, as ever, a little stilted, but the basic plot is strong enough to make up for it. I find all Tolkien’s Elder Age books unpleasantly fluid (at least Aragorn and co, however superhuman they were as warriors, had unquestionable limits, as did their world) but this one is at least told from a personal-enough level to make the antiquity and strength of Gondolin work. I’m starting to suspect that my main objection to the Elder Days stories is that The Silmarillion is distant, impersonal, and overstuffed. When told as individual and developed stories these tales work.

Gondolin is a powerful story of loss and unlike most of his work (which Tolkien always hotly denied was allegorical in nature) it wears its influences on its sleeves. This first account was written while he was recuperating from the Battle of the Somme and the tone is all despair and loss. It’s more emotionally raw than I’m accustomed to with Tolkien and it is impossible to miss the inspiration for accounts of metal-wrought devices unloading wave after wave of orcs to destroy forever the beauteous kingdoms of the West

The flipside of being more raw is that it’s also less polished. Tolkien had yet to work out a readable style and there are far too many unworkable archaisms, most notably the constant refrain of Behold! when in fact there is nothing to be beheld. It’s just an interjection like alas or damn. Behold! as an early work (indeed, the earliest) it also fits poorly with the background established in The Silmarillion and features some odd-seeming anachronisms, most notably the appearance of Legolas Greenleaf and the description of the Grey Elves as “gnomes”.

I found the revised version a far superior telling of the story and consider its incomplete nature (it only covers the first tenth of the earlier version) a great loss. This story was well on its way to standing proudly beside the Lord of the Rings for sheer enjoyment. But behold! that was not to be. What really makes the revised story work is that Tuor has a purpose from an early stage. In the original he’s basically led around by Ulmo (Lord of the Sea) like a fish with a hook in its nose. Here he feels the call, travels through some beautifully-described wilderness, has an awe-inspiring and memorable encounter with Ulmo (sold wonderfully by a beautiful Alan Lee painting) where his quest is explained, meets his companion, and sneaks his way through Orcs up to the gates of Gondolin. And there, before we even set eyes upon the wondrous city, the narrative ends. Behold! What a loss! (Alright, I’ll stop)

Something about Gondolin always resonates and yet, as Christopher points out, for all its importance it was one of the least developed of all his father’s stories. It only exists in one completed independent version and that the first. Odd. One does not need to be an amateur psychologist to suspect that the account of the devastation of war and loss of a wondrous city was just too personal for Tolkien to write about except in distant terms. It’s no coincidence that the final account of Tuor ends just when he reaches Gondolin. And yet even in incomplete and unpolished form the story is powerful and well worth the reading. Indeed, I would say that this work is essential for understanding Tolkien’s later writings. I find its narrative simpler and more compelling than Túrin’s high tragedy or Beren and Luthien’s fairy tale romance. This is a story with teeth and it’s a great shame that we will never see it in a full and developed version.

Editorially this book is more of a mess than it needs to be. The two novella-length accounts of the Fall are what we’re all here for. But aside from the two accounts described we get several much smaller (often only two or three page) descriptions of the Fall mixed in with the others. As with his History of Middle Earth books, the writing is presented in chronological order to make obvious the changes. But this was a mistake here. Better to present the story as it was intended: as a story. It’s certainly being marketed as such, and not unjustly. There’s enough meat here to serve as a stand-alone (if unfinished) work. Leave the literary analysis and further details to appendices and footnotes where they belong. If you’ll take my advice you’ll read the two big stories (perhaps even starting with the latter as a sort of prelude) first and save the side notes for the end.
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Reading Progress

September 7, 2018 – Started Reading
September 7, 2018 – Shelved
September 7, 2018 – Shelved as: fantasy
September 7, 2018 –
page 142
44.38% ""Now Tuor journeyed south along the coast for full seven days, and each morning he was aroused by the rush of wings above him."

Who said there's no sex in Middle-Earth?"
September 7, 2018 – Finished Reading

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