Monday, October 15, 2018

The Fall of Gondolin: A Review and a Farewell

THE FALL OF GONDOLIN, by J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, concludes what might be considered the Great Tales Trilogy, begun with THE CHILDREN OF HURIN and continued in BEREN AND LUTHIEN, in which the three most engaging strands of narrative from the Middle Earth 'Legendarium' are followed and developed, from their earliest conceptions to their last and latest forms. This book, as the others before it, incorporates the artwork of Alan Lee, a name that has come to be associated by an entire generation with the Tolkien brand, in eight color plates and fifteen pencil sketches. A fold-out map of Beleriand is included, the part of Middle Earth where the story takes place, and which has been drowned for many centuries by the time the events of THE LORD OF THE RINGS take place. It is, altogether, a lovely and lovingly-made book.

THE FALL OF GONDOLIN gathers together scattered material mostly already published throughout the monumental twelve volumes of THE HISTORY OF MIDDLE EARTH into one convenient location. This allows the development of this Great Tale to be examined more minutely and the workings of J. R. R. Tolkien's mythopoeic mind and methods, his hopes and dreams, to be laid bare. Someone who has had the time and leisure to follow these threads for nearly forty years, and has had access to every volume in the ever-growing mythos, may think there is nothing new to be found, but such a person would be wrong. The ever-maturing insights of Christopher Tolkien into his father's work, the scholarly labor he brings into classifying and clarifying the different layers of composition, the guardianship and identification he has come to have with that work, has reached its ultimate expression in this book. And at ninety-four (thirteen years older than his father ever lived) Christopher states that this is 'indubitably' the last volume of his father's 'Legendarium' he will ever edit. It is the end of an age. Whatever follows after this must be at best third-hand accounts and analyses, and more or less faithful 'retellings' and retailings from the authentic material.

The story of THE FALL OF GONDOLIN, both of the tale itself and the real-life account of its development, tells of a high achievement that 'founders'. The story follows the fate of the hidden Elvish realm and city of Gondolin, which has been preserved in hidden secrecy from the malice of the Dark Lord, Morgoth. The time of its fate draws near, however, and the great Vala of the sea, Ulmo, who still pities the Elves in their exile, sends the man Tuor to warn the Elven King Turgon of approaching doom. The downfall of the city, the workings out of hope and treachery and fear and fidelity, and an epic battle and defense, are the substance of the narrative. The story's finest flower and embellishment in its last version ends at the poignant point where the questing Tuor pierces the encircling mountains and gets a vision of the white city of Gondolin from afar off. There Tolkien drops the tale, perhaps too tired and in poor hopes of ever getting his stories of the First Age published, perhaps despairing that he could ever raise his powers again high enough to match the visions of his youth. It remains, as Gimli says in THE RETURN OF THE KING of the works of men, a 'might-have-been'. But it is a glimpse, a far-off dream, that can still stir the heart.

And so Christopher Tolkien lays down his steward's rod. I must confess that, after what was the obvious necessity of having a version of THE SILMARILLION edited together, I had some doubts about his releases of Tolkien's unpublished works, fearing a mere 'cash grab'. But the years of his scholarly application and the wary preservation of his father's legacy, even in the face of enormous sums of money to be had, has led me to be ashamed of my original fears. If J. R. R. Tolkien has been Earendil, a star rising with hope unlooked-for in the firmament of literature, Christopher Tolkien has been his son Elrond, preserving lore and wisdom into another age. I believe I have said it before: when we enjoy these posthumously published works of Tolkien we are not merely reading the work of one great man; we find the work of two.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Saturday, October 13, 2018