Sculpted in the clay of language

(PRNewsfoto/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Christopher Tolkien made it perfectly clear in Beren and Lúthien, published in 2017, that it was the last book he would produce as the editor of his father’s considerable legacy of unfinished writings. As he was then in his 93rd year, this seemed a reasonable point at which to hang up his red pencil (or whatever it is that editors have instead of spurs). But here we are, little more than a year later, and I’ve just finished reading The Fall of Gondolin.

With the publication of this volume, there is now an independent book dedicated to each of the three central legends of J.R.R. Tolkien’s invented mythology, so I can understand why Tolkien fils may have decided to put off his retirement a little longer. The Children of Hurin, published in 2007, presented its eponymous narrative seamlessly, as a continuous work of prose, stitching together and reconciling various sources without any overt editorial presence; Beren and Lúthien, on the other hand, simply presented the various fragmentary versions of the tale (most or all of which had already been printed elsewhere), with a considerable amount of editorial commentary to clarify their relationship to one another, and to the final definitive form of the mythology that provides The Lord of the Rings with its backdrop. The Fall of Gondolin follows this latter approach.

As such, and like Beren and Lúthien, its contents have already been published elsewhere in the various volumes through which the evolution of Tolkien’s oeuvre has been elucidated. However, putting them in one place enables the interested reader to stitch together in their imagination a rather more complete and detailed version of the narrative than was previously the case. Of the two complete versions of the story, that found in the Silmarillion is cursory, and that previously published in the Book of Lost Tales is grounded in a much earlier version of the mythology than readers of the Lord of the Rings or the Silmarillion will be familiar with. However, reading them both in conjunction with the incomplete last version enables us to form a pretty clear picture of what the detailed prose epic that Tolkien had in mind would have looked like, had he possessed the energy to finish it.

It is, like the other two great narratives of the cycle, something of a Wagnerian tragedy, although it ends on a rather more hopeful note than the overwhelmingly grim The Children of Hurin. Like all of Tolkien’s work, it’s shot through with regret and nostalgia for a lost and unattainable past, but there is also a great deal of pleasure in describing the glories of the imagined Elvish civilisation, and most notably a profound love for the natural world. It is a tale in which the divinely inspired human virtues of faith, honesty, loyalty and courage are pitted against the deceitfulness and malevolence of a supernatural enemy. Clearly Tolkien’s Christian beliefs underpin this, but also, through his influence, the vast majority of the fantasy fiction that has been published subsequently.

This huge moral confrontation is matched by the epic character of the material conflict that the narrative concerns; the splendour of the city of Gondolin and its inhabitants is one of the abiding achievements of Tolkien’s ‘legendarium’, and one which casts a long shadow through his better known works. But there is also a delicacy to this work, and a precise concern for the particularities of the landscape through which the protagonists travel. The language is very much in the ‘high style’, which some will find stilted, but it is deeply musical, and I think it’s fair to say that the work is essentially driven by an unaffected love for language itself. Language is the clay in which Tolkien sculpts his world, at a far more fundamental level than almost any writer I can think of. He is not the most self-aware of writers, and certainly not the most progressive, but at his best (as he is at several points in this volume), he is, for me, one of the most moving.

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