The present volume collects several drafts from Tolkien’s vast archive. A helpful essay explains how the story changed over the years. In short, the evil overlord Morgoth — called Melko here — seeks to dominate the entire world, but the hidden elvish city of Gondolin remains out of his grasp. Readers of “The Silmarillion,” also edited by Christopher Tolkien and published posthumously, will recognize Morgoth. For the sake of context, Sauron — the villain in the “The Lord of the Rings” — is one of his henchmen.
From his fortress at Angband, Melko creates a hideous mechanical army. The description is genuinely frightening: “Some were all iron so cunningly linked that they might flow like slow rivers of metal or coil themselves around and above all obstacles before them, and these were filled in their innermost depths with the grimmest of the Orcs with scimitars and spears; others of bronze and copper were given hearts and spirits of blazing fire, and they blasted all that stood before them with the terror of their snorting or trampled whatso escaped the ardour of their breath.” We are reminded that Tolkien first drafted this story while in the hospital recuperating from the Battle of the Somme.
As the title indicates, things don’t go especially well for the inhabitants of Gondolin, which includes our heroic human warrior Tuor. There’s love and warfare, jealousy and treachery. Without giving more away, I’ll mention that one or more familiar characters might make cameo appearances. In detailing this vital — and indeed tragic — tale of Middle-earth lore, “The Fall of Gondolin” provides everything Tolkien’s readers expect. Given his ability to create unforgettable characters such as Tuor and classical good-versus-evil myths, it’s no surprise these stories remain so massively popular. You don’t need a monster or a critic to tell you that.
And yet, having designed and taught a university course devoted to J.R.R. Tolkien’s singular oeuvre, I’ve come to appreciate the one literary element that rules them all and makes Middle-earth so remarkable. With apologies to Westeros, Narnia and whatever the Star Wars universe is called, Middle-earth stands as the most immersive and detailed fictional realm of our own age because of the different languages Tolkien — master philologist that he was — invented to describe it. Spending time in Middle-earth provides an opportunity to revel in his etymological derring-do.
Characters and places go by different names depending on who’s talking, and that adds a welcome dosage of realism to the fantasy. There exists an intense sense of linguistic immersion that I’ve not found in much other literature. (Though Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Earthsea” series does come to mind.) Beyond that, “The Fall of Gondolin” demonstrates yet again that Middle-earth boasts its own rich cosmology and history.
As far as Tolkien books go, however, this may be the end of the line. In his preface, Christopher Tolkien writes that he thought “Beren and Lúthien” would be the final of his father’s stories published on his watch. “The presumption proved wrong, however,” he writes, “and I must now say that ‘in my ninety-fourth year “The Fall of Gondolin” is (indubitably) the last.’” If that proves to be the case, his stewardship of his father’s legacy has been a tremendous success.
Last year, Amazon Studios purchased the rights to produce a new television series set in Middle-earth. (Amazon’s founder and chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post.) It’s an exciting prospect. With the right showrunners and writers, ones who recognize the value of etymology, that project could very well invite another generation of adventurers into this wondrous realm. If Christopher Tolkien’s yeomanlike work on “The Fall of Gondolin” does indeed represent the end of an age, it might also — like the destruction of the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom — point to the start of another.
Andrew Ervin is the author of the novel “Burning Down George Orwell’s House” and the novella collection “Extraordinary Renditions.” His most recent book is “Bit By Bit: How Video Games Transformed Our World.”
By J.R.R. Tolkien. 304 pp. $30.
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