Thursday, 20 September 2018

The Fall of Gondolin by J. R. R. Tolkien

When I started reading The Fall of Gondolin, I must admit, I didn’t like it. The narrative sort of clunks along, seemingly going nowhere, but highlighted by archaic words and other difficult to follow language. It feels very much like Tolkien himself either didn’t know where he was going with the story or was afraid to jump in and really tell it. Eventually, around the time our hero Tuor actually finds the hidden city of Gondolin the story really starts to pick up. The archaic (and I mean archaic for Tolkien) writing continues to appear, but as the narrative continues to gather pace, it becomes less noticeable. Then Morgoth launches his final assault upon the city, and I was spellbound. The battle is epic in every sense of the word. Dragons and balrogs tear through the gates; armies of elves launch counter-attack after counter-attack. Heroes fall as the lines of defence crumble. Really, if you like epic fantasy, you’ll love it. Then the narrative ends, at page 111.

The next section of the book comprises 4 fragments that tell part of the story, written at different periods in Tolkien’s life, and give a glimpse on how he was shaping the tale, both to be a better story and to better fit in his greater mythology.

Then comes the incomplete ‘Last Version’. This was Tolkien’s attempt to rewrite the whole story, some 35 years later, after he finished work on The Lord of the Rings.

This version is everything that the original is not. Now the story of Tuor is a conherent narrative. All of his moves seem to make sense as part of some greater story. Gone is the young Tolkien’s stuttering voice, replaced by the master of Anglo-Saxon metre. Seriously, take a look at this little example:

Here the hands of the Valar themselves, in ancient wars of the world’s beginning, had wrested the great mountains asunder, and the sides of the rift were sheer as if axe-cloven, and they towered up to heights unguessable. There far aloft ran a ribbon of sky, and against its deep blue stood black peaks and jagged pinnacles, remote but hard, cruel as spears.

This is a master at the pinnacle of his craft! And then, just as Tuor reaches Gondolin once more, the story ends, abandoned by Tolkien. It is heart-breaking that he never finished what clearly could have been another masterpiece.

There are many who have avoided this book because it is not a complete narrative in the same way as The Children of Hurin. (See my review of that book here.) For my part, I completely respect Christopher Tolkien’s decision not to assemble such a work. While any author could take these pieces and stich them together, the differing voices, even where both are Tolkien at different stages of his life, would be jarring. It is better to present the pieces just as Tolkien left them.

For myself, I have an abiding interesting in both the creative process that goes into building a story, as well as a deep interest in mythology and how mythological tales get changed and modified over time. So this book with all its fragments, and its commentary by Christopher Tolkien, was right up my alley. Not only do we get to see some of Tolkien’s best writing, we also probably see some of his worst. In some ways that is very jarring, in others, it is beautiful.

I have seen a few reviews that have complained that his book contains ‘nothing new’. That may be true. I don’t claim to own every Tolkien book published, and probably couldn’t remember it all if I did. I can say, it is nice to have all of these related stories and fragments collected together so that they can be seen side-by-side, to see how the story, and the author, changed in the telling.

9 comments:

  1. The Hobbit is by far his best book. LotR rambles far to much, with so many unecessary chapters and characters. Not sure I would want to read this, sounds like The Silmarilion.

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    1. Personally, I enjoy the rambles in The Lord of the Ring, but if you don't like that, I think it is pretty safe to say you won't like this.

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  2. Interesting. I can barely remember reading the Silmarilion. Maybe I should pick it up again.

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  3. The Silmarillion is tough going - tougher than this, even though that is all narrative an this is not. After The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I would actually suggest reading The Children of Hurin next.

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  4. This sounds very much like Silmarilion which I found 'turgid.' I love Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit but have struggled with the releases by Christopher Tolkien. I sometimes think he should have accepted that his father had written two wonderful books and left it at that.

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    1. The Children of Hurin is a wonderful book, in my opinion. This book has good and bad.

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  5. Alright...so just to be clear, this is a story and not a history? I was not at all interested in the history books but loved Children of Hurin and The Silmarilion. Those two books felt like epic sagas to me.

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    1. It's the history of a story... So basically, one complete narrative, about 80-odd pages, then several other fragments of that story written at later times with connecting commentary.

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