The Fall of Gondolin

gondolin.jpg

Christopher Tolkien has published what appears to be the final book written by his father, J.R.R. Tolkien. No one expected to see The Fall of Gondolin, so it is quite a surprise:

While this story may be the last Tolkien book to be published, it is actually an early tale and foundational to the author’s entire concept of Middle-earth. It was first written in 1917 while Tolkien was recuperating in a hospital from trench fever after the Battle of the Somme. “It’s a quest story with a reluctant hero who turns into a genuine hero—it’s a template for everything Tolkien wrote afterwards,” John Garth, author of a book about Tolkien’s experience in World War I tells Alison Flood at The Guardian. “It has a dark lord, our first encounter with orcs and balrogs—it’s really Tolkien limbering up for what he would be doing later.”

Christian Holub at Entertainment Weekly explains that the new book tells the tale of Tuor, a man living in an age where the world is dominated by the dark lord Melko—known in other Tolkien books as Morgoth. Only one place, the hidden Elvish city of Gondolin has resisted his reign, and Tuor is sent to find the place. He does, but so do the dark forces of Melko. In the grandest Tolkien battle scene outside of The Lord of the Rings, the author describes a mechanized army, similar to the newly introduced mechanized warfare he’d witnessed during the Great War, falling on the city.

I am not a fan of the Hobbit movies; Tolkien gave us battles, but not of the size and scope that were depicted. I do not believe Peter Jackson was ever the right filmmaker for The Lord of the Rings, either; his movies are beautifully framed junk and everything is a near-miss and, hey, what if we spin the camera around this way and that way? Everyone seemed stiff at times, but you really have to credit what Elijah Wood and Sean Astin did to make it all seem like an actual epic quest. It wasn't all bad, of course.

The best description for Jackson's approach would be to call it expensive fan fiction. Beyond that, everything I actually liked about the books disappeared. If they can make a movie about Han Solo, why the hell can't they make a movie about Elrond?

The Fall of Gondolin explores the history of Middle Earth, and gives you a sense of Tolkien's decision to build the languages, the different inhabitants, their entire, well-imagined back stories, and their place in the story. It's not enough to talk about the tribes of Elves or Men or Dwarves--their foundational epics and their sense of who they were had to be built, painstakingly, one generation at a time.

Aside from George R. R. Martin, who does this anymore? Plenty of writers make the attempt, but Tolkien, being an academic, had the knowledge to create the framework that his son has spent decades trying to organize and preserve for proper release. His achievement as a curator is no less of an accomplishment than his father's as the creator.

If someone else decides to make films of these stories, I'm fine with that. I really don't need to see any more of Jackson's vision. To me, it was always about the history and the relationships, and not so much the sword play and the massed formations of troops. Having seen the horrors of war, I don't think Tolkien wanted it to be fetishized in the manner in which it was, I really don't. There was always a purpose to the violence, and that's where all of the effort went.