A Valiant Attempt for History: A Book Review of The Fall of Gondolin by J.R.R. Tolkien
The final, original texts of J.R.R. Tolkien’s history of Middle Earth made its way into the light, late August of 2018. The scraps of notes and strewn lines of poetry were so scrambled the published book almost never came to be. Christopher Tolkien, the heir of J. Tolkien’s work, legacy, and passion, almost retired after the previous release in 2017 of Beren and Luthien. The left behind bits and pieces from his father’s journals would not let him rest, so he took up the charge once more to share the final tale, The Fall of Gondolin.
The story of the man Tuor and the final battle at Gondolin is a grim tale of immense destruction by an evil being. C. Tolkien annotates for us Melko is also Morgoth, the evil entity that would empower Sauron to attempt to rule Middle Earth. While many stories about good versus evil exist to entertain us, C. Tolkien sets this text apart by showcasing the multi-dimensional realm of his father’s thinking. The Fall of Gondolin is a collection of the same story written in many different forms.
In Additional Notes by Christopher, he shares the revelation he had when the piles of notes, written decades apart, began to show similarities. The names and places altered but one theme remained true. A man living among the Noldoli elves would save the Noldoli from total extinction. He alone would be awoken from the stupor of shock when their hidden fortress was sieged and spring into action to save lives. The Tolkiens create a valuable lesson for readers from the hodgepodge of notes about a fallen, majestic city: Vanity and arrogance can lead to generational disaster, while valor comes from knowing your frailty.
Upon completing The Fall of Gondolin, I have a greater appreciation of the masterpieces that are The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Stories are personalized by characters. Plots arise from life experiences and trials. Memorable lessons intertwine in epic sagas because the storyteller ties us to the first threads. J. Tolkien mastered these skills and with this final book, his son exposes the bones of his father’s craft so we might understand and enjoy the process.
I was reserved about choosing this anthology to review. A tragic ending is guaranteed with a title like The Fall of Gondolin, and I doubted the story to have a positive outcome. Even more dissuading, it was not a secret that this story was never completed. J. Tolkien did not finish the saga nor is there evidence he planned on releasing it to the public. As I forged ahead, reading the original text and each of C. Tolkien’s asides and annotations, I became convinced this intensive process is how great stories are formed.
I rate The Fall of Gondolin as a stop before you finish read because the story is not complete nor solidified. There is a lot of value for Tolkien fans because C. Tolkien is a true purist when it comes to preserving his father’s methods, works, and intentions. This book remains only a collection of ideas and story prompts uplifted by the fame of J. Tolkien. Many of the versions of the story did not even end at the paragraph nor were they useful in understanding the lineage of future characters. If you are a dedicated fan who loves the history of Middle Earth there is great information to be gleaned. C. Tolkien does most of the heavy lifting for enthusiasts by grouping notes together and organizing a helpful index. If you are a writer who appreciates the creative process of others, then this book is interesting for its nonlinear flow. C. Tolkien includes the dates that each version was transcribed, helping readers to see the development of the story over time.
As a Tolkien admirer, I was left wanting. The poetic verses of two of the versions were remarkable, the way church liturgy stirs awe and wonder. But like numb, memorized stanzas, The Fall of Gondolin lacks connection and heart. The completed works of late Tolkien are special. His novels that were published in his lifetime contained mirth, heartache, and comradery. His notes, unfinished, seem empty without him. I think J.R.R. Tolkien understood the universal code of human emotion. And his son, Christopher, preserved the patterns of his father’s writing but could not replicate the personalness.
For more reads like The Fall of Gondolin, see the selection below:
Here are some guided questions for reading The Fall of Gondolin. Leave a comment about any of the questions below, to share your thoughts with all of us.
Why do you think J.R.R. Tolkien created a story about the first time the Noldor elves and men came together to battle against evil in Middle Earth?
What character traits did you notice about each race, (men, dwarves, elves, balrogs, etc.) from Tolkien’s story about the city of Gondolin? Share specific examples from the text.
Comment about the evolution of Tolkien’s writing over the years. What significant changes in style, from the 1917 version to the more modern adaptations, could be mirrored in his other books?
What were your feelings about the love story of Tuor and Idril? Do you respect or get annoyed by Tolkien’s choices to use less female characters and amorous scenes?
Did any elements surprise you about the villains, Melko and Meglin?