The same can be said of the “Tolkien hoard” — the reams of drafts, faded notes, indecipherable scribbles, and fragmented stories that were never published in Tolkien’s lifetime. But because of the tireless work of his son, Christopher, we have an even richer understanding today of Middle-earth than we did when his father died in 1973.
Ever since the publication of The Silmarillion in 1977, Tolkien fils has slowly worked through these materials and produced annotated versions of tales taking place long before the events chronicled in The Hobbit (1937) and Lord of the Rings (1954–’55). Now, with nearly 30 works added to his father’s oeuvre, Christopher Tolkien is finished. His service as his father’s literary guardian and interpreter ended last August with the publication of the earliest story of Middle-earth that Tolkien ever wrote, The Fall of Gondolin. “I ‘presumed’ […] that Beren and Lúthien would be my last,” he writes in the new book’s preface, referring to another story that he edited and published in 2017. “I must now say that ‘in my ninety-fourth year The Fall of Gondolin is (indubitably) the last.’”
What a long and distinguished run — and what a high note to end on. Christopher Tolkien’s edition of his father’s Gondolin manuscripts is nothing less than a triumph — a substantial contribution to our understanding of his father’s early vision of the Middle-earth cosmogony and a gift to all lovers of Tolkien, young and old. And Alan Lee’s accompanying illustrations — along with a foldout map — enrich this book even more, giving Tolkien’s First Age a vivid physical reality that Westeros and Narnia just don’t have.
Not everyone will agree, I’m sure; Philip Pullman certainly won’t. Last fall, Pullman published the essay collection Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling, in which he doesn’t hesitate to dismiss Tolkien’s world-making. For him, Tolkien’s characterizations are shallow and the settings “no more real than the horse-brasses and the posthorns in an Olde English theme-pub — a place called The Hobbit and Firkin,” he writes in the essay “The Republic of Heaven.”
“C’mon now,” I’d like to tell him, “lighten up.” There’s room enough for everyone in fantasy, isn’t there? Pullman’s certainly free to dismiss whomever he likes, of course, but it seems beneath the dignity of Lyra Belacqua’s creator to sound so jealous of another’s success.
At the very least the publication of this book gives us a reason to applaud the son’s long commitment to his father’s work … and to readers (like this reviewer) who see Tolkien’s early vision of Middle-earth in the tale of Gondolin’s destruction.
The human hero at the center of The Fall of Gondolin is Tuor — Elrond of Rivendell is descended from him — who searches for the hidden city of Gondolin, an elven stronghold that has escaped enslavement by the evil Melko, predecessor of Morgoth and Sauron.
In the original 1916 version of the story — which opens the book and runs to about 75 pages — Tuor is sent on his quest by the sea god Ulmo, one of the Valar. Ulmo wants Gondolin to raise its army against Melko and his shadowy legions of Orcs, Balrogs, and other ghoulish creatures before they find and attack the city. But Tuor fails to persuade them to fight — they are confident (too confident) that Melko will never find them — and he decides to join them in their idyllic seclusion instead. He gives up the goal of his quest and weds the king’s lovely daughter, Idril.
Whenever an author introduces a note of hubris, you know it’s a bad sign — and suffice to say that the smugness of the citizens of Gondolin is the key to their undoing (like Théoden’s flawed conviction, in 1954’s The Two Towers, that the Hornburg can resist any force).
But that isn’t the only version of the Gondolin story in this book. Many of the best Tolkien scholars, especially Tom Shippey and Verlyn Flieger, have reminded us that Tolkien’s vision of Middle-earth was constantly evolving. And as that vision evolved, Tolkien struggled to adapt and adjust his material to harmonize with these changes. His son provides us with other draft variations assembled in chronological order, with commentary. Over 35 years, Tolkien continued to change and expand the story before finally abandoning another version — to his son’s initial perplexity — in 1951 (a version of which appears in 1980’s Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth).
All of these drafts display a style that’s far from the conventional storytelling you find in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. The Gondolin drafts are steeped in grandiose, archaic expressions and the kind of reversed syntax that Yoda would probably like: “Here they abode very long indeed,” or “Timber he had that came down the hidden river; a goodly wood it was.” At first the style makes for tough reading, but soon it grows on you like moss on Treebeard’s chin.
To be fair, these drafts are First Age stories, and they’re supposed to sound like the foundational myths of Western civilization. Tolkien didn’t hide the fact that he believed his vision of Middle-earth’s ancient days deserved to be placed alongside the world’s great epics. Gondolin’s fall wasn’t just some quaint fairy tale that he scribbled as he recovered from trench fever during World War I. For him, its tragic fate ranked — outranked, actually — what happened to some of the greatest cities of antiquity:
Glory dwelt in that city of Gondolin of the Seven Names, and its ruin was the most dread of all the sacks of cities upon the face of Earth. Nor Bablon, nor Ninwi, nor the towers of Trui, nor all the many takings of Rûm that is greatest among Men, saw such terror as fell that day …
Even though the collapse of Troy and the sacking of Rome don’t measure up to the tale of Gondolin’s terrible destruction, Tolkien couldn’t finish it. Why not? Was his artistic vision just too big for his talents? Hardly. Even as late as 1951, long after he’d demonstrated his artistry with The Hobbit and had Lord of the Rings under his belt, Tolkien’s last attempt at the story takes us only as far as Tuor’s arrival at the Gate of the Noldor (a name for the craftsman elves). In this draft, he doesn’t fall in love with Idril or help the city-dwellers escape destruction. All Tuor gets is a glimpse of Gondolin’s gleaming armies before the narrative breaks off.
So what happened? For Tolkien’s son, in a chapter near the end of the book called “The Evolution of the Story,” what finally snuffed his father’s enthusiasm for his Gondolin narrative (and other uncompleted First Age works forming the core of The Silmarillion) was his pessimism over publishing them despite the success of The Hobbit. Tolkien wanted these stories published with Lord of the Rings as “one long Saga of the Jewels and the Rings,” but in the years right after World War II, that was an unrealistic expectation. Everything was in short supply, especially paper, and this would have been a ridiculously expensive undertaking for any publisher. Tolkien realized that. Disappointedly, he gave up, and his son describes his gloom in another work, Morgoth’s Ring (1993):
[L]ittle of all the work begun at that time was completed. The new Lay of Leithian, the new tale of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin, the Grey Annals (of Beleriand), the revision of the Quenta Silmarillion, were all abandoned. I have little doubt that despair of publication, at least in the form that he regarded as essential, was the prime cause.
“Despair of publication” — it is hard to believe that Tolkien ever worried about such things. But he did. He worried about publication, and he worried about making money, just like any writer. His doubts that Gondolin and the other heroic tales would ever be published in a form “he regarded as essential” were enough to discourage him.
Of course, that didn’t end his career. Far from it. Three years later, Lord of the Rings appeared in three volumes, followed by other stories, works of scholarship, and translations. Tolkien was fêted and celebrated as the modern-day equivalent of an Icelandic skald crossed with a medieval scholiast. Fans wouldn’t leave him alone; the counterculture movement (and Led Zeppelin) embraced his mythology as their own; awards and money flowed in — his old friend and colleague C. S. Lewis nominated him for a Nobel Prize. Life was good.
And yet. One can’t help seeing something in those photos of him tucking on his pipe — something wistful about the eyes — that suggests the master was still thinking, even then, at the peak of his success, about all those precious pieces of his legendarium that remained in fragments at home.
Anything, even a fragment — as the Staffordshire archaeologists know well — can be valuable. They can tell us a great deal, despite what’s missing. That is certainly true of the Gondolin fragments. They provide us with an opportunity to glimpse some of the first great figures and dramatic situations of Tolkien’s mythology — figures and situations that would later resurface, more fully integrated and realized, in the pages of Lord of the Rings.
Already in 1916 we have the golden-armored elf Glorfindel — second only to Elrond in Rivendell — long before his crucial appearance late in The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), when he stops the Black Riders from nabbing Frodo. Glorfindel plays a similar role in the 1916 fragment as the Gondolin citizens flee the burning city. But instead of the Nazgûl, he faces a terrifying Balrog — its whips blazing and crackling — that bars the people’s escape. As Glorfindel leaps to the rescue, Tolkien writes,
[his] left hand sought a dirk, and this he thrust up that it pierced the Balrog’s belly nigh his own face (for that demon was double his stature); and it shrieked, and fell backward from the rock, and falling clutched Glorfindel’s yellow locks beneath his cap, and those twain fell into the abyss.
Their deadly combat should be familiar to any student of Tolkien. In Fellowship, Gandalf replaces Glorfindel in a fight with the horrific Balrog known as Durin’s Bane in the Mines of Moria. They take a similar plunge into the abyss, too … but with a much better result for Gandalf.
The Gondolin drafts anticipate and echo the famous stories of Middle-earth’s Third Age in other ways as well. We encounter Elrond’s father, Eärendil, as well as Círdan the Shipwright, who is the master of the Grey Havens. We meet the elf Legolas Greenleaf — who, despite his name, is not the warrior of Lord of the Rings. This Legolas isn’t gifted with a bow, but he is “night-sighted,” which enables him to lead the Gondolin citizens through pitch darkness to safety. These drafts also contain plenty of wolves, Orcs, eagles, and dragons — and Melko’s evil influence hovers over the landscape with the same shapeless menace as Sauron’s.
What also hovers over these drafts — particularly the 1916 version — is Tolkien’s brief experience of World War I. Some critics have been reluctant to draw too close a connection between Gondolin’s destruction and Tolkien’s experience of the Battle of the Somme, but it seems equally bizarre to ignore it. That battle was fresh in Tolkien’s mind when he was invalided back to England — ironically, to Staffordshire, where that Anglo-Saxon booty would stay hidden for nearly another 100 years — and started writing about Gondolin as he recovered.
In the draft that opens this book, as Melko’s forces drive toward Gondolin’s walls, they employ strange, armored machines — “things of iron that could coil themselves around and above all obstacles before them.” At the mention of those coils, one can’t help imagining the caterpillar treads of a tank (the first ones ever used in warfare appeared on the Western Front) that Tolkien might have seen while he was there:
[T]heir hollow bellies clanged beneath the buffeting, yet it availed not for they might not be broken, and the fires rolled off them. Then were the topmost opened about their middles, and an innumerable host of the Orcs, the goblins of hatred, poured therefrom into the breach.
The 1916 fragment alone is worth the price of this book. It is thrilling to consider — even if some would object — that in this apocalyptic scene we have a veiled reference to the horrors Tolkien might have witnessed on the Western Front.
Late in his life, when Tolkien looked back on his first yearnings to create a fresh mythology for England, he said that he had had in mind
a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story […] I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd.
But it really wasn’t absurd, even if Tolkien pretended to be embarrassed by his own grandiose vision. In the end, though he died far sooner than he expected, Tolkien had achieved this goal. Gondolin and the other pieces remained unfinished, but that is okay: their state of incompletion fits with his vision of the legendarium. Some tales are complete, others aren’t, and “other minds and hands” are welcome to step forward and contribute, too.
Tolkien’s son certainly seems to be the best example of one of these. The same can be said of Alan Lee … and John Howe. Howe’s A Middle-earth Traveler: Sketches from Bag End to Mordor gives us not only the massive vistas of Tolkien’s world (the majestic view from atop Minas Tirith or Ilúvatar’s creation of the universe) but also a great deal of minutiae — what you’ll find in a hobbit’s kitchen, the variety of axes and war hammers used by dwarves, the styles of armor worn by Orcs, the mess and disorder of Radagast’s leaning study, and the details carved into the logs of the skin-changer Beorn’s home.
A conceptual artist (alongside Lee) on Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films, Howe gives us in his book a rich and exhaustive — though not exhausting — taxonomy of goblin faces, twisting forests and passageways, fortresses, castles, and caves inhabited by the human and nonhuman citizens of Tolkien’s work and Jackson’s franchise. His tome is a lovely addition to anyone’s expanding collection of Tolkienana and an ideal shelf companion for the book — brought out a few years ago by the same publisher — of Tolkien’s own drawings of the world of The Hobbit.
In his introduction, Howe says that, as he began to create his own versions of Tolkien’s world, he realized that a “sense of reality, of personal experience, pervades much of Middle-earth.” That sense is so strong, in fact, that “we are tempted to seek out a real place for every locality he describes,” whether it’s the Shire’s resemblance to the English countryside or Tolkien’s 1911 walking tour of Switzerland that inspired Esgaroth, the wooden Lake-town destroyed by Smaug.
But the same can be said of Howe’s drawings, too — many of these were inspired by New Zealand localities as he worked on Jackson’s films. “So many of the fantastical landscapes we painted to replace the green screens were almost directly taken from real landscapes we wandered through,” he writes. Howe likens himself and the films’ other artists to “hobbits with sketchbooks, drawing the world as they went. There. Back again. And the journey between, which is of course the best part.”
He’s right; often the journey is the best part, in writing and in many other parts of life, too. Christopher Tolkien would probably agree. His own journey with his father’s work has lasted more than four decades and has given us so much that is essential to the legendarium.
And now, with that journey done, the only thing left to say to him is also the simplest: thank you.
Nick Owchar is a PhD candidate in English at Claremont Graduate University and the founder of Impressive Content, an editing and content production service. He was formerly the deputy book review editor of the Los Angeles Times.