Ossus Library Index
Fantasy Index


by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien
(2018, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Great Tales of Middle-Earth, book 3


The evolution of the Fall of Gondolin from the Lost Tale to the final form, with commentary by Tolkien's son.


-- First reading (ebook)
December 5th to 12th, 2020


The story of Gondolin is one I’m least familiar with of all the tales of the Silmarillion, probably because Tolkien rarely revisited it in all his drafts, which I’ve hungrily read in The History of Middle-Earth. That said, it goes into a lot of detail of a lot of wandering, and while the scenery is very nice and incredibly described, it’s not very exciting, and I found myself wondering how much I would miss if I skipped forward. The descriptive style, however, give us a huge battle for the fate of Gondolin, with all the lieutenants and their battles. However, the later version, which only goes as far as Tuor’s arrival in the city, is so much more majestic, with Ulmo’s appearance and the seven gates, but it’s still long. I can’t even imagine having an entire book about Earendil’s wanderings, as we know that it would be completely independent of the struggles of the elves and Morgoth, so it would take on a completely different tone, and I fear it would resemble Tuor’s wanderings. As for the analysis of the writings, I found Christopher Tolkien was not as engaging as he has been in the past. Instead of highlighting the similarities and differences of the text, he pretty much summarizes it, using long quotations from earlier in the book, almost as if he was trying to fill up space. There were some interesting notes, but very little that I hadn’t picked up on my own, which is unusual in this kind of work, as I’ve always enjoyed his analysis in the past.

Spoiler review:

I have normally enjoyed the books in the History of Middle-Earth, from Unfinished Tales, through the twelve book series of Silmarillion and Lord of the Rings drafts, and now this trilogy of documents. The commentary is genuinely interesting, even when the content is not (aside from some specific examples). In Beren and Luthien, the subject matter and commentary was very interesting. In The Children of Hurin, the story was allowed to move along without interruption, with commentary at the end. In both cases, the author gave some interesting details, sometimes repeating stuff he’d written earlier, often coming up with new observations. But in this book, the commentary felt uninspired. Simply repeating various passages and essentially summarizing them doesn’t add any value. Describing, for example, Tuor’s only encounter with Turin, and explaining how this is the only time he ever sees his cousin, even though their parents were close, does. For the most part, the commentary is of the former sort, while I would have much preferred more of the latter.

The material itself is probably the least known to me, and I suppose that’s because Tolkien didn’t write much about Gondolin aside from the Lost Tale. The rest was done in outline form, even as the story evolved. But it’s incredible how much the story did evolve just in those outlines. It’s too bad Tolkien didn’t return to finish this story properly, the way he did so many others. However, I didn’t enjoy where he was going with some of it. Even the Lost Tale, where he describes Tuor’s endless journey to Gondolin, things drag on forever. The battle for the city is similarly long, but at least engaging. I don’t see why Tuor should have gone off wandering forever, and had a Ulysses-type epic afterwards, and it’s probably for the best that this part never got completed. It would have been a huge departure from the rest of the tale, in both content and scale.

This book did manage, however, to give me some insight into the story development. I had previously read the different versions spread out over many books, where here it was easy to see how the story changed. The scene where Tuor meets Ulmo is much more dramatic and engaging than the earlier version, and I can see how Tolkien would have developed this compared to the flute playing in the river-lands. This is Christopher Tolkien’s last book, and I’m glad that he was able to tackle it before his retirement, as it is truly one of the three great tales of men in the Elder Days.


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