13 December 2018

[Perrin Lovett] - A Book Review of Tolkien's "The Fall of Gondolin"

A story a century in the making. A book published 45 years after the author’s death. The latest in a long line of best selling works. Earlier this year came the “completed” master legend of the last days of Turgon’s hidden kingdom. Here follows my account of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fall of Gondolin, the good, the great, and the quirky.

But, first, a few notes on how to read Tolkien, especially this tome. A virgin perusal is possible, provided the reader is possessed of what passed for, say, an eighth-grade education, circa 1960. (What that translates to, today, I do not know, though I suspect it leans towards the graduate level). While I’m about to highly recommend the book, I do not recommend it as an initial foray into Arda (the physical World of the Legendarium). Hence,

Start with The Hobbit. Read it at least twice. Then, read The Lord of the Rings (“LOTR”) - cover to cover - to include the important Appendixes. Read LOTR again. Next, read The Hobbit and LOTR, back to back. Then, read The Silmarillion - thrice. The initial criticism of Christopher Tolkien’s editing work will be manifestly obvious and seemingly justified during the initial and subsequent reading. What he painstakingly assembled immediately following his father’s passing at first looks like a neverending cobbling of names, places, dates, and more names. The basis for concern melts with the third reading as a thing of pure majesty presents itself. Somewhere around the twelfth consideration, the work takes on a pleasure all its own as the now academic reader skillfully seeks out well-known favorite passages.

Read The Hobbit, LOTR, and The Silmarillion in succession. Then, and only then, one may (and should) move into The Lost Tales, Unfinished Tales, the various volumes of The History of Middle Earth and other, associated works. Somewhere, during this time, a gander at the various explanatory Letters Tolkien sent is advisable.

Nearing finality in this educational process, one approaches The Children of Hurin, Tolkien’s grand tragedy to rival (I say “to best”) anything by Sophocles. Released in 2007, Hurin fully completes the tale glimpsed in some of the above works, a good novella stretched into a great novel. Hurin also set the stage for the first of two “disappointments” in the saga.

Last year we were treated to the full-length version of that base tale of eternal romance, Beren and Luthien. I say “disappointment” only because, unlike Hurin, Beren is not a completed telling. Rather, it is a “how the story was crafted over many decades” book, literally tracing the development, draft by draft, from WWI until near the time of Tolkien’s death. It’s fascinating, but what you get in the end is essentially the final product recorded in The Silmarillion 40 years earlier. Still, fans, we take what we can get, right?

So it is with The Fall of Gondolin. This is not an end-to-end expose of, perhaps, the most dramatic, action-packed legend in all the annals. But, it does, in primitive and rather disjointed format, link everything together. And, it’s all awesome.

Here, I pause to credit the masterful dedication of Christopher T. in revising, editing, and publishing so much we would otherwise miss. He says, and I believe him, that this is his finale. Then again, he hinted as much when Beren hit the shelves. If this is his end, the end of 70+ year tenure as vice-regent of Middle Earth, so to speak, he’s more than earned the retirement (and all the honor and gratitude we can heap on him). Thank you, Sir!

It occurs to me that more stories lurk in that vast archive housed, in all places, at Marquette University. Something tells me another generation or other appointed editor is already sifting through it. With any luck, a hundred years after people have forgotten the tedious Crowleyisms of Rowling’s inexplicably popular rubbish, they’ll still look forward to something new from the master of the Anglo-Saxon, our Literary Professor Emeritus.

Now - and, thank you for bearing with the preface - on with the book:

I have, here, no real Easter eggs. As I warned, The Fall is not really for the uninitiated, the faint of heart, nor the post-literate. I warped through it, the first time, in about an hour. This is due to: my pre-existing knowledge of the story; my understanding of Christopher’s editing style; the prior reading of Beren; some excellent outside reviews, and; the terrific, easy, and user-friendly layout of the Kindle version.

By the way,

Picture courtesy of Amazon, Tolkien, Tolkien, and Lee!

The first hint the casual reader may discover, of the grandeur of Gondolin, is in The Hobbit. This was the fabled city from whence came the blades of Gandalf and Thorin, originally made for the Goblin Wars. Therein, encircled and protected by near-impenetrable mountains, reigned Turgon, upon a time High King of the Noldorin Elves.

Of Tuor and His Coming Into Gondolin, we know from the Unfinished Tales. Orphaned Tuor, tallest of mortal Men, found the unlikely favor of Ulmo (Poseidon), Lord of Waters. He came to Gondolin following adventures wet and cold. There, he found the favor of the King and the love of his daughter, Idril. Theirs was one of a mere handful of mixed marriages and breedings (of Men and Elves), the progeny thereof being Earendil, future father of Elrond and Elros.

One of the most idiotic of all criticisms limply cast at Tolkien is his alleged forsaking of romance and of strong women. Forgetting, if it’s possible, Eowyn, Arwen, Galadriel, Gilraen, Morwen, Nienor, Luthien, Rose Cotton, “Gimli’s women,” Lobelia, Melian, Varda, Yavanna, and the literally scorching-hot Arien, Idril holds her own against both counts of libel. Her enduring love of Tuor and her unrelenting bravery in the defense of her people and her child suffice. When violently assailed by her wayward and lusting cousin, we learn she fought “like a tigress.” And, her plan was the contingency that saved the remnant, quite possibly preventing the First Age from ending prematurely and with total victory for Morgoth (Lucifer). Tolkien didn’t write weak women. Nor did he write weak fiction.

Not weak, but, as edited by necessity, confusing - hence my approach advice in the delving. The last telling of Tuor’s arrival, essentially that of Unfinished, comes towards the end of this book. A link is provided (in Kindle), instantly redirecting the reader back to near the beginning and the actual Fall of the most beautiful city of Beleriand.

In studying this demise it is helpful to know, in advance, something of how the peoples and the histories converged toward finality, of who made the cut and who didn’t, who became whom, and so forth. The Gnomes, for instance, were working placeholders; the “men” of the Gondolidrim are, in fact, Elves - Tuor being the only actual Man in the Kingdom at the time (though not in history). A healthy peremptory education prevents getting lost in an otherwise incomprehensible tangle of names, races, titles, and descriptions. But, once one has it - whoa!

Now comes the action, more action, and then, some more riveting action. Imagine, those of you of mere LOTR acquaintance, Minas Tirith falling, in spectacular fashion, during Sauron’s assault during The Return of the King. Imagine the peak valor and feats of heroism of that work, augmented and repeated side-by-side over and over again.

In The Fall we learn a bit more about Morgoth’s creation of the dragons, the slithering and winged. We also find out that Balrogs can be slain without the accompanying death of the slayer. Glorfindel (sorry Peter Jackson victims) finds and ends his “buddy” up on the mountainside. Ecthelion takes out three demons in rapid succession, only meeting his end killing the fourth - Gothmog, no less. Tuor slays five and grievously wounds a dragon and does so mostly unscathed.

Towers fall. Wolves run. Eagles fly. Snakes crawl. Evil wins the glorious day (night, rather) only to set up its eventual defeat at the hands of the temporarily vanquished. It’s a wild, violent, noble ride worthy of any acclaim ever aimed at the creation of Eru Iluvatar.

So… Five Stars. Highly recommended. Applause. Buy it today, read it when you’re ready.

And, another hardy thank you to Christopher Tolkien, illustrator Alan Lee, and, especially, to our most prolific Survivor of The Somme, Sir John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Excellence mirroanwe!

THE Legend. Picture from Biography Online.

Perrin Lovett
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