The Fall of Gondolin
by J. R. R. Tolkien
edited by Christopher Tolkien
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018
Christopher Tolkien, in this new volume, brings to a conclusion his decades-long endeavor to present definitive critical editions of his late father’s writings about wizards, hobbits, and all things Middle Earth. The Fall of Gondolin follows last year’s Beren and Lúthien, which appeared on the tenth anniversary of The Children of Húrin, which was something of a surprise sales hit, obviously tapping into an audience considerably enlarged by the critical and commercial success of Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. All three of these slim volumes follow a similar plan: first, an introduction by Christopher Tolkien trying to manage to impossible feat of simultaneously giving newcomers a kind of overview of what they’ll be encountering and also giving die-hard fans a detailed play-by-play of how he’s treating their sacred texts. Then, readers get sequential iterations of the tale in question, carefully culled from J. R. R. Tolkien’s notes, sketches, and from The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. And finally, as one more treat that makes these volumes so attractive (and, for those so inclined, collectible), there are eight gorgeous new illustrations by long-time Tolkien artist Alan Lee.
Those various version tell the story of a dark hero, Tuor, in the age before the events of The Lord of the Rings, and his story plays out against a backdrop featuring far more mythological than what readers encounter in the famous trilogy: in this story, men and elves interact with the gods Tolkien has set over Middle Earth, and his High Elf lords fight with monsters, and all of it centers around the hidden city of Gondolin, a long-ago legend to figures like Gandalf and Aragorn in The Fellowship of the Ring.
As with all the foundational stories of Tolkien’s legendarium, the story of Tuor’s lonely quest to fulfill his destiny is compellingly constructed, more concentrated than the narrative of The Children of Húrin although less evocative than Beren and Lúthien. It’s naturally not best served by the archivist approach Tolkien fils takes in these volumes, however attractively they’re presented. And despite the most conscientious Preface imaginable, there’ll be very little that any reader new to Tolkien will be able to make of passages like this:
Then did Rog shout in a mighty voice, and all the people of the Hammer of Wrath and the kindred of the Tree with Galdor the valiant leapt at the foe. There the blows of their great hammers and the dint of their clubs rang to the Encircling Mountains and the Orcs fell like leaves; and those of the Swallow and the Arch poured arrows like the dark rains of autumn upon them, and both Orcs and Gondothlim fell thereunder for the smoke and confusion. Great was the might of ever increasing numbers were borne slowly backwards till the goblins held part of the northernmost city.
Probably this isn’t even a glancing blow, let alone a mortal wound. The Children of Húrin amply demonstrated that these volumes will be greedily consumed by their cognoscenti (an attractive boxed set of all three books is scheduled for the autumn), although the note of finality in The Fall of Gondolin is somber. Christopher Tolkien is in his nineties and plans no further books; the literary legacy of his father will soon pass into other hands.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.