The Fall of Gondolin
By J.R.R. Tolkien
Edited by Christopher Tolkien with illustrations by Alan Lee
I’m going to start out by saying something which probably won’t encourage you to keep reading: this is a pointless review. It’s pointless because The Fall of Gondolin is a Tolkien deep-cut, targeted to the most die-hard of die-hard fans, and you likely know already whether you want to read it if you’re one of those fans. Having read The Silmarillion is the minimum pre-requisite to The Fall of Gondolin; ideally, you’ll want to be well-versed in most of Tolkien’s major works and have a firm grasp on the ways in which his mythology morphed and developed throughout his life and career. But let’s say you’re a Tolkien die-hard and, for whatever reason, you’re on the fence regarding whether you should read The Fall of Gondolin. This review is for you.
The first points of comparison for The Fall of Gondolin are 2007’s The Children of Hurin and 2017’s Beren & Luthien (Tolkien considered these three stories to be the “Great Tales” of the Elder Days, and while they all appear in abbreviated form in The Silmarillion, it’s simply thrilling to finally see them all in stand-alone editions). In The Children of Hurin, Christopher Tolkien brought together disparate Tolkien texts to create a complete novel-length narrative, the full realization of the story told so briefly in The Silmarillion. Beren & Luthien was not a novel-length narrative because the texts to support such a creation simply did not exist; rather, it was a succession of retellings of the same story as Tolkien changed it over time and linked it more and more inextricably with the mythology of Middle-earth. Beren & Luthien was, in truth, a work of nonfiction, the study of an evolving story that deepened, darkened, and transformed.
The Fall of Gondolin, although it resembles Beren & Luthien more than The Children of Hurin, lies somewhere between the two. This is again a succession of retellings, all of which have been published before (although never juxtaposed in this fashion), but this time, Christopher does not seem interested in chronicling the evolution of the story (The Fall of Gondolin doesn’t change as drastically as Beren & Luthien) so much as coming to terms with why his father started but never finished it in the form of a novel-length narrative. Ask virtually any Tolkien fan, myself included, about “Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin” (the portion of the full-length Gondolin story completed by Tolkien before he abandoned it; it was previously published in Unfinished Tales and closes out The Fall of Gondolin), and they will tell you it belongs alongside Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” as one of English literature’s most tragic “what-could-have-been”s.
Unfinished as the story still may be, it’s difficult to overstate how significant the release of The Fall of Gondolin is for Tolkien fans. Not only does it complete the set of the three Great Tales alongside The Children of Hurin and Beren & Luthien, but it’s a release we thought we’d never see: Christopher Tolkien, who is now ninety-four years old, stated in Beren & Luthien that he was unlikely to compile any further editions of his father’s work. But what was tentative in 2017 becomes certain in 2018—The Fall of Gondolin was the final piece of the puzzle, and I believe Christopher Tolkien can rest easy in the knowledge that he has solidified his father’s legacy. Without Christopher, we wouldn’t have The Silmarillion or Unfinished Tales or The History of Middle-earth or The Children of Hurin or Beren & Luthien or The Fall of Gondolin. These are indispensable texts; without them, understanding the clarity and strength and resonance of Tolkien’s mythological vision would be impossible.
I haven’t yet said anything regarding the actual story of The Fall of Gondolin because, frankly, if you don’t already know it, this book probably isn’t for you. But just in case: the version which opens The Fall of Gondolin contains the complete tale, albeit in abbreviated form at roughly a hundred pages. This is the first story from his legendarium that Tolkien composed, shortly after the Battle of the Somme in late 1916-early 1917, and it portrays one of the greatest defeats from the First Age of Middle-earth (roughly 6,500 years before the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings)—the siege and destruction of the hidden Elf city of Gondolin by Morgoth’s armies (orcs and balrogs and dragons, oh my!). It’s a thrilling tale, perhaps most memorable for Glorfindel’s showdown with a balrog, and an important one; the refugees from Gondolin include Tuor and Idril and their son, Eärendil, a character who is central to Tolkien’s mythology as the one who brings about the War of Wrath, the defeat of Morgoth, and the end of the First Age. (Hey, you know the planet Venus? That’s actually Eärendil. Long story.)
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention Alan Lee’s illustrations. Tolkien fans know his work well, and he again delivers in The Fall of Gondolin. If the lack of new narrative content disappoints you, at least revel in the iconic scenes which Lee brings to life. I am particularly fond of his depiction of the Glorfindel/balrog battle and of Tuor’s encounter with the Vala Ulmo. But is The Fall of Gondolin itself, overall, worth it? That depends on your knowledge of and relationship with Tolkien’s works. I again stress that this is a repackaging of already-published variations on the same story, but it is a beautifully-presented repackaging designed for fans who are interested in easy reference, in teasing out the nuances between variations, and in exploring how those variations manifested throughout Tolkien’s life and career. If nothing else, this is a meaningful note on which to end. Gondolin was Middle-earth’s first story, and now, in a sense, it is the last. If we were to map Tolkien’s legacy over the timeline of his legendarium, we might say that the First Age ended with the death of Tolkien himself in 1973. The Fall of Gondolin, then, marks the end of the Second Age. Let the Third Age begin!
Review by Erin Larson