|The three 'Great Tales' of J.R.R. Tolkien, conceived early in his life, are now the final word on his fantasy world of Middle-earth.|
By the time The Book of Lost Tales came out (in two volumes, 1983-1984), I was starting to think that Tolkien’s family, and his eldest son, Christopher, in particular, were trying to milk more money out fans and readers with a bunch of incomplete story ideas and discarded drafts of tales that I had already read. After Lost Tales, Christopher carried on with his History of Middle-earth project and I became disinterested in his work, which was basically the publication, over multiple volumes, of different versions of the stories his father revised and discarded while working on his trilogy and the tales of the Silmarils. It all just seemed too greedy and commercial to me, at the time.
Years later, I saw what Christopher was doing in a different light. It finally occurred to me that his father had struggled with his massive fantasy world and the myriad of characters and stories that took place there over a period of time beyond reckoning, from the creation of Middle-earth through three ages of history. J.R.R. Tolkien, as with many writers, went through many iterations of his story ideas. Names changed, events were altered, ideas were refined and/or completely discarded. Christopher simply wanted to bring this great mass of creative content to life for those of us who were so enamored with Arda and Middle-earth.
In my 40’s I began purchasing some of these additional edited works. The Lays of Beleriand is Volume 3 of the History, The Shaping of Middle-earth is Volume 4, and The Lost Road and Other Writings (Volume 5) were added to my collection. I was not particularly interested in previous drafts of The Lord of the Rings (featured in three volumes in the History series), but the variations of the central tales involving The Silmarillion captured my attention. Later, I purchased Morgoth’s Ring (Volume 10) because it offered special insights about how Tolkien viewed the nature of evil in Middle-earth (and, by analogy, in our modern world as well).
Then, in 2007, The Children of Hurin was published. I was excited to read this one because, unlike most of the History Series, there was enough finished material here from his father for Christopher to piece together an authentic and complete new story of particular significance about Middle-earth prior to Tolkien’s famous trilogy. My favorite chapter in that work is the story of the Battle of Numbered Tears (Nirnaeth Arnoediad in the elvish language Tolkien invented), which had great implications for Middle-earth. It was here that Morgoth defeated the combined armies of elves, dwarves, and men and began a long, dark period of evil’s reign.
Hurin was part of what J.R.R. Tolkien considered three great ‘unfinished’ and critically fundamental tales regarding Middle-earth, from what he termed "the Elder Days". After the Battle of Unnumbered Tears the great warrior Hurin is captured and imprisoned by Morgoth, who also puts a curse on Hurin and his family so that evil will befall them all their lives. His son, Turin, is sent to the hidden elvish Kingdom of Doriath for protection in those dark times. Meanwhile, Hurin’s wife gives birth to a daughter, Neinor. Ultimately, the dragon Glaurung enchants Neinor and causes her to forget who she is.
The narrative proceeds through several misadventures befalling Turin, which leave him basically an outcast. Years later, he meets Neinor. The two fall in love and marry, ignorant of the incestuous nature of their attraction. She becomes pregnant, but before the child is born Turin does battle with Glaurung and terminally wounds the beast with his sword. Blood from the dragon is spewed upon Turin during the melee and he faints under the combination of toxicity, fatigue and pain.
Much as in Romeo and Juliet, Neinor finds Turin seemingly dead. Glaurung recovers enough to sow the dragon’s final malice before it dies. It tells Neinor the truth about her incest with her brother and the child she is carrying. Upon which Nienor commits suicide. Turin then awakens (of course) and, learning of the death of his lover and that she was, in fact, his sister, he falls on his sword. Later, Hurin is released by Morgoth and arrives at the graves of his children, suffering further when his wife, Morwen, ends up dying in his arms.
This is a dark, ultra-tragic tale, which is reflective of Tolkien’s fundamental disenchantment with World War One and with the beginnings of modernity. The grim bleakness that affected Tolkien is reflected throughout all of his works, less so in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings than in The Silmarillion and his unfinished works, of which The Children of Hurin is the most complete.
Last year came another tale of heroism and misfortune, Beren and Luthien, probably Tolkien’s greatest story of all. Unlike Hurin, however, Beren and Luthien, while offered as a complete story in The Silmarillion under the chapter “Of Beren and Luthien," is featured in its various incomplete fragments as a story in development that had several iterations and was only arranged in a completed fashion later by Christopher Tolkien. The completely pieced together story is NOT part of the Beren and Luthien, however. The 2017 book, like much of The History of Middle-earth, is offered as a study of Tolkien’s struggle with various aspects of the narrative.
The seed of this epic story was sown as The Tale of Tinuviel, written in 1917, one of Tolkien’s earliest forays into Middle-earth, unfinished, of course. Beren and Luthien contains large passages from The Lay of Luthien (part of the History’s Volume 3). So there is an equitable mix of prose and poetry. While not as finished as Hurin, Beren and Luthien is probably the most important of the many stories conceived by Tolkien, including The Lord of the Rings itself. Tolkien took a special interest in this narrative and related to it very personally, going so far as to see Luthien in his wife and to have her headstone engraved with “Luthien” at the time of her death.
This is a story of profound love, obviously. It is also another tale of forbidden love. The human warrior, Beren, ended up as an outcast after The Battle of Sudden Flame. He happens upon the elf princess Luthien, daughter of the king of Doriath, and they fall in love. Beren asks the king for Luthien’s hand and the King, knowing his daughter’s desire to be with Beren, agrees to their marriage under the extraordinary condition that Beren bring the king a Silmaril from Morgoth’s crown, something considered impossible given the Dark Lord’s immense power.
Nevertheless, so great is his love, Beren starts out on a long quest to steal the sacred jewel. Luthien ultimately follows. Together, through much adventure and hardship, the task is accomplished. Two of the many things that happen along the way are that Luthien becomes pregnant with Beren’s child, and Beren is mortally wounded. Luthien sings a song of such despair that Mandos, one of the mighty Valar, grants Luthien the wish that Beren will be returned from the dead at the price of her forsaking her immortality and be subject to mortal death like a human. Beren and Luthien, live out the rest of their lives together uneventfully in a secret place, raising their son, Dior.
It is a classic love story, filled with emotional depth and high adventure, threading the central story of the Silmarils (more important to Tolkien than the more famous Ring of Power) through the end of the First Age and into legend by the time of The Lord of the Rings, set at the end of the Third Age. Among all of Tolkien’s many regrets, the fact that he was never able to get this story into finished form and published (his publisher had little interest in The Silmarillion), was the most heartrending. Despite writing the most popular work of fiction in the 20th century, Tolkien felt that his primary vision was a complete failure. It was only after his death that his son Christopher brought it to light. It is another of the three ‘central’ tales of Middle-earth before the Third Age, slightly alluded to in the Ring trilogy.
In his introduction to Beren and Luthien, Christopher Tolkien wrote: “In my ninety-third year this is (presumptively) my last book in the long series of editions of my father’s writings, very largely previously unpublished…” But it was not to be so. This year he published The Fall of Gondolin. In this introduction, he quotes the sentence above and adds: “I used the word ‘presumptively’ because at the time I thought hazily of treating in the same way as Beren and Luthien the third of my father’s ‘Great Tales’, The Fall of Gondolin. But I thought it improbable…The presumption proved wrong, however, and I must now say that ‘in my ninety-fourth year The Fall of Gondolin is (indubitably) the last’.”
The Fall of Gondolin is one of Tolkien’s earliest stories. The writing began in 1916 while serving as soldier in World War One. Unlike so many of Tolkien’s other efforts, the original narrative is a complete story. Though he would toy with expanding it later, as Tolkien did with virtually everything he wrote, those efforts would not push the story to any particular conclusion. Tolkien abandoned the work in the early 1950’s. The version of this story presented in The Silmarillion goes beyond the original story with the added adventures of Tuor discovering Gondolin.
But, to me, the original story is complete, if brief. That version of The Fall of Gondolin has fleshed-out characters and lengthy details of an incredible battle when Morgoth attacks the fortified elvish city. The great drama of the battle as told in the earlier work (what Christopher calls “the old story”) is reduced to a rather bland, factual account in The Silmarillion.
So this new Tolkien book is a kind of a return to his roots, where he began his quest to interpret Middle-earth. The book gives us “the old story” of The Fall of Gondolin exactly as it was first published in 1984 by Christopher as a chapter in The Book of Lost Tales: Part Two. All the dramatic details of the battle are present. The new book also contains several other fragments and versions of the story along with a lot of interesting insight on the development of the tale in Christopher’s excellent commentary.
The great issue in Christopher’s mind is why his father put so much effort into expanding the story only to leave it unfinished. Written around 1951, "Of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin," the title of “the last version”, is a long narrative of how Tuor searches for and ultimately discovers Gondolin but strangely ends just as Tuor reaches the hidden city before the great battle is fought. Only “the old story” tells of the battle for the city.
The Fall of Gondolin was central to Tolkien’s vision of the Elder Days of Middle-earth. So why did Tolkien abandon “the last version”? According to Christopher, it was because Tolkien’s publisher refused to consider The Silmarillion for publication after The Lord of the Rings was completed. Tolkien sank into depression that his grandest stories would never see the light of day after he had toiled so long to write a trilogy he was induced to produce but nevertheless always considered a minor effort compared with his more expansive narrative. Simply put, Tolkien would have rather written a fully fleshed out Gondolin, Beren and Luthien and Hurin but instead The Lord of the Rings consumed him not out of personal drive but, rather, at the insistence of his publisher. Tolkien became disheartened at what seemed to him to be forced labor as prospects for the larger stories were squashed. All work on Gondolin and most of the rest of The Silmarillion ceased.
The highlight of the whole narrative, for me, is the battle for the city written in 1916 - 1917. Here we find the great struggle between Morgoth’s (known as Melko in this version) vast army of Orcs, dragons, and Balrogs commanded by Gothmog, the Lord of the Balrogs. The battle is full of back and forth action, obviously inspired by what Tolkien witnessed in the trenches of the First World War. Tuor is heroic in the city’s defense, but less so than Ecthelion, the King of Gondolin. Incredibly, Ecthelion slays three Balrogs including Gothmog, at the cost of his own life. Even these great feats of heroism are not enough to save the city, however.
With this 2018 publication, the long matter of J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings, taking up many volumes, is ‘indubitably’ complete. Christopher Tolkien has done the literary world a great service in bringing to light his father’s unfinished works and multiple variations of stories over roughly a 35 year creative period. Far from being a mere enterprise of cashing in on the Tolkien name, The Silmarillion and all its many unpublished pieces and forms is a fascinating look at how the author struggled with this sprawling epic only to become famous for something he never really intended to write, while his primary narrative project ended in his utter despair.
It is simultaneously wonderful and sad that, as a lifelong Tolkien fan, I have now read the final pieces of Tolkien’s literary puzzle; that the stories I loved in high school (and still do to this day) are juxtaposed against a much vaster, almost limitless, canvas. The foundation for this fantastic infrastructure resides with the three great, tragic pillars of the Elder Days mentioned in this post.
This nostalgic and melancholy appreciation for Tolkien’s work in the context of my life as a reader is very similar to how the elves themselves feel on Middle-earth at the end of the Third Age, the time of The Lord of the Rings. Their days are over and they are fading into the west toward Valinor. The rule of Man has arrived and the Fourth Age is about to begin. The elves accept their fate but experience their time on Middle-earth as a distant glory, a fragmented greatness, a loss and faintness of precious things that have vanished for a people who are immortal and must bear the weight of the past forever.
The Fall of Gondolin is the end of Tolkien. All we can do is marvel at his rich and entertaining fantasy realm, most of which was published incomplete long after his death. But it is similar with any classic author. The literature is still touching and enjoyable to readers, like the past deeds of long-dead elves, like the glory of their immortality as they walked Middle-earth, did battle against evil, and sought to live in creative harmony in Tolkien’s multi-cultural, multi-racial realm.
It is worth emphasizing that all three of these Great Tales are essentially tragic. Virtually all of Tolkien's close friends died in World War One. The post-war malaise that affected all of Europe weighed especially on Tolkien's heart. So it is understandable that while The Lord of the Rings is laced with tragedy, the stories Tolkien held most dear are far more tragic. He poured his innermost self into The Children of Hurin, Beren and Luthien, and The Fall of Gondolin as he did with most of the major themes of The Silmarillion. For Tolkien, a devote Catholic, the Christian concept of the "Fall of Man" was not an event in the past so much as a continuing misfortune. Humankind continued to fall and to fail. This is the central tragedy of his life experience and his epic fantasy stories.
Fortunately, these unfinished tales and fragments of stories found life after Tolkien's death, and the literary world is richer for it today. I understand how Tolkien experienced and expressed tragedy as an underlying theme throughout Middle-earth. Tragedy is a classic aspect of western literature. Tolkien viewed world "progress" as more of a diminishment than an advance. I can't say that I agree with him on this account, though certainly in these dark days of American democracy it seems like he wasn't far from the mark. But as I assess the fullness of Tolkien's published and, more importantly, his previously unpublished works, it isn't the tragic nature of it all that affects me so much as the simple sadness that this long journey is over. It has passed as the elves passed into the West, as all things pass through the mechanics of evolution and change.
I feel fortunate to be here at the journey’s end, knowing these books will go ever on even as I remember the first time I read the trilogy in my youth, happily ignorant of the extent of Tolkien’s vision and discontent. I have enjoyed a front row seat to what has been revealed during my lifetime in The Silmarillion and all the other volumes. They are all "old stories" now. Yet some of them are "new" in a way. The Fall of Gondolin was never rendered in such a complete and satisfying manner as in 2018. Its fragments are fresh even if the text is over 100 years old. To read some of this for the first time, along with the rest of the world's Tolkien fans, is a cheerful experience despite the sadness of arriving at the end of the road.