Over the past few years there has certainly been no shortage of Middle-earth inspired projects for fans to get excited about. From the controversial Shadow of War video game series to the upcoming biopic starring Nicholas Hoult, Tolkien’s cultural influence is showing no signs of slowing down. Now, from out of the blue, HarperCollins has announced that 2018 will see a new addition to the legendarium in the form of The Fall of Gondolin. Set thousands of years before Bilbo Baggins ever left the Shire, this is the tragic story of a hidden Elven city’s last stand against a monstrous evil.
It is perhaps tempting to dismiss this news as a cynical cash grab. After all, with series like George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire causing a resurgence of mainstream interest in the fantasy genre, Tolkien is more popular than ever. Attaching his name to a project is a guarantee of a large and eager audience, a money-making opportunity that has not escaped Hollywood’s notice. The poorly received The Hobbit trilogy, much criticised for the likely profit-driven decision to split one book’s worth of content into three films, is an obvious example of source material and fan enthusiasm being shamelessly exploited. More recently in late 2017, Amazon broke the news that it had purchased the rights to develop a The Lord of the Rings TV series and the rumoured budget of over $500 million is leading some to speculate that it will be the most expensive series ever made. Clearly there are a lot of people who believe that Middle-earth is a key to financial success.
The poorly received The Hobbit trilogy, much criticised for the likely profit-driven decision to split one book’s worth of content into three films, is an obvious example of source material and fan enthusiasm being shamelessly exploited.
That said, to levy accusations of money-grabbing at The Fall of Gondolin is hugely unfair. To begin with, the book has been curated by the inimitable Christopher Tolkien. Now ninety-three years old, he has dedicated much of his life to the mammoth task of sorting and editing his father’s manuscripts for posthumous publication, and his vehement opposition to the commercialisation that the series has undergone is well-documented. You can be sure that any book with Christopher Tolkien’s name on the cover was compiled in the genuine belief that it would be a worthy addition to the canon.
Moreover, The Fall of Gondolin is a story with real value in Tolkien’s legendarium, a story that would benefit hugely from a re-packaging. It marks the last of the three centrepiece legends of The Silmarillion to be published in a standalone format – The Children of Húrin having been released in 2007 and Beren and Lúthien only a year ago in 2017. Admittedly it seems unlikely that the book will contain much material that has not already been published in collections of Tolkien’s manuscripts, but part of the value of a standalone edition is the increased accessibility. For fans who don’t want to wade through the twelve famously dense tomes of The History of Middle-earth, a single and tightly-focused volume will be a breath of fresh air. Collecting and re-organising this material will certainly make both the literary history of the project, and the narrative, much easier for a wider audience to appreciate.
The Fall of Gondolin is a story with real value in Tolkien’s legendarium, a story that would benefit hugely from a re-packaging.
And to be sure, The Fall of Gondolin is a story that deserves appreciation; it is far more than just another chapter in the long history of Middle-earth. This book has a fantastic and deeply resonant story to tell. Yes, it has all the trappings of the prototypical fantasy war epic – elves, magic and an unambiguously evil, dark force – but thematically it is far more distinctive. Our heroes, as powerful and courageous as they are, stand no chance against the enemy’s onslaught and any escape is fleeting and terrified. It is a tragedy and, in the end, there is very little to be gained from the glorious deeds which are carried out.
In general, the extent to which Tolkien’s writing is influenced by his own involvement in the Great War is a matter of considerable debate among scholars, but with a story like this, filled with indiscriminate slaughter and tank-like metal monstrosities, it is difficult to avoid drawing some conclusions to this effect. Indeed, John Garth, an award-winning Tolkien biographer, has written movingly of the relationship between Tolkien’s writings and his wartime experiences. He recounts how Tolkien began to pen his first war narrative, an early version of The Fall of Gondolin, while hospitalised and bedridden after the Battle of the Somme. The story developed over time, losing some of the more explicit references to the First World War, but its origins gave it an emotional core that have more than earned the story a place among Middle-earth’s greatest legends.
The Fall of Gondolin is due out in August this year and is likely to be the final content we see from the Tolkien family. It is fitting that our last journey into Middle-earth should be centred on a narrative as tragic and relevant to us today as it was a hundred years ago.