The Fall of Gondolin
By J.R.R. Tolkien
You cannot move these days for ever-expanding big-budget fantasy franchises. Star Wars, Harry Potter and Marvel have all pushed beyond their original markets, and now can be found in cinemas, bookshops and video games, not to mention supermarkets, where you can buy branded T-shirts, lunchboxes, pencil sharpeners and more.
The most obvious – and most tasteful – exception is the fantasy world created by J.R.R. Tolkien, whose estate has so far proved miserly with spin-offs. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was a 20th-century English academic specialising in medieval literature. His love of Anglo-Saxon epics such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf inspired his own attempts at writing, and his first concerted effort, The Hobbit, was published in 1937.
Following the surprisingly wild adventures of diffident Bilbo Baggins, who joins a band of dwarves on their quest to seize treasure stolen by the dragon Smaug, the novel became a global phenomenon but was hailed largely as a work for children. This success pushed Tolkien’s publishers to request – or probably demand – a sequel, and Tolkien delivered The Lord of the Rings 12 years later. Divided into three separate books (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King), the winding story required almost 10,000 manuscript pages and 455,125 final words. The central threads – the quest of two hobbits to destroy a terrible ring of power, and of one man to reclaim his lost throne – were woven into a vast tapestry of mythology, geography, politics, language and substories.
Tolkien’s twin masterpieces, which regularly top polls of favourite books, initiated a new quest: to make a movie. For decades, however, Tolkien’s imagination far outstripped cinema’s technological capacity to realise it. A cartoon version was serviceable, but fans had to content themselves with two radio presentations by the BBC until, with the new millennium, along came film director Peter Jackson, whose The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-03) wowed audiences and critics, earning close to US$3 billion at the box office and winning 17 Oscars. Jackson repeated the trick, albeit to decreasing effect, with three Hobbit films (2012-14).
The resurgence of Tolkien mania has seen the release of a few additions to the writer’s vast narrative network: The Children of Húrin (2007), The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún (2009) and Beren and Lúthien (2017). All required the editorial intervention of Tolkien’s son, Christopher, to spruce up the text.
In the preface to Beren and Lúthien, Christopher Tolkien writes, “In my ninety-third year this is (presumptively) the last book in the long series of my father’s writings.” And yet he admits that one final work nags “hazily” at his imagination: “The third of my father’s ‘Great Tales’, The Fall of Gondolin.”
Now Christopher presents this final Middle Earth episode to the world.
The Fall of Gondolin tells two tales. The first is that of Tuor, a typically rugged Tolkien hero who endures many trials to arrive at the Elven city of Gondolin, where his talents are spotted by the king, whose daughter he falls in love with, and he helps the indigenous population fight an evil warlord.
The second narrative tells how The Fall of Gondolin came to be published at all, with a subplot about its relation to the broader Tolkien universe. It is a prequel in more than one sense: Tuor’s story predates those of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and Christopher has found evidence that his father wrote a version as early as 1916.
Of greater significance for Tolkien fanatics is his revelation in a letter to the poet W.H. Auden that The Fall of Gondolin was “the first real story of this imaginary world”.
Tuor, like his more famous descendant Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, is a solitary warrior living in semi-exile. Driven by “magic and destiny”, he leaves his confinement besides Lake Mithrim and enters an Elven world.
What we learn about Tuor comes from his actions, and the effect is akin to playing a video game: our hero moves from scene to scene, overcoming obstacles, fighting foes and moving towards a grand finale. Instead of an inner life, Tolkien provides external gods to shape his path. During one of Tuor’s hiatuses, we learn that his guiding spirit, the godlike Ulmo, “grew in dread lest Tuor dwell forever here and the great things of his design come not to fulfilment”. In the evil corner is Melko, who commands goblins and balrogs with a power even The Lord of the Rings’ Sauron would envy.
Narrator Littleheart’s habit of giving the game away robs the narrative of the sort of thrills found in contemporary thrillers. The tale climaxes with a battle, Tolkien hurling us into hand-to-hand combat, where heroism does not always survive. War lends Tuor fresh dimensions, if not actual depth. He is torn between public duty and personal love as Melko’s hordes overwhelm Gondolin. Tuor’s story is concise and pacy. Tolkien contrives longueurs but also inserts plenty of action, described in occasionally eye-watering detail (“Lug he smote with his axe that his limbs were cut from beneath him at the knee”).
Tuor’s old-school quest and Christopher’s scholarship, which is often so exacting about his father’s source material that it becomes strangely moving, are both enjoyable. Whether such standards will survive into the franchise’s future remains to be seen.