Despite my fascination with JRR Tolkien’s Middle-earth canon, or “legendarium”, I am fairly critical of the well-known “barrel scraping” which characterises much of his posthumously published works*. For every enlightening edition like the Unfinished Tales there are laborious books like The Lays of Beleriand to wade through. I don’t argue the value of exploring the creative origins of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings but one suspects that not all of the speculative thoughts or idle jottings of the British author are worthy of examination in quite such discursive detail. A version of the old adage about avoiding too close a look at how the sausage is made seems appropriate here.
That said, some of the stories and scraps of stories released in the decades following the writer’s death in 1973 have undoubtedly added further interest to his fictional mythology. The most obvious example is 1977’s The Silmarillion, which summarises a host of in-universe histories from Middle-earth’s First and Second Ages, recounting events otherwise mentioned in passing by the main characters in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Likewise the aforementioned Unfinished Tales, published in 1980, is a treasure trove of near complete narratives or snippets of lore, some of which can stand as embryonic stories in their own right.
One of my favourite pieces from that book is the partial tale called Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin, which sketches out one of the earliest penned and most concrete myths in the development of the Middle-earth cycle. This narrative describes the founding of the hidden city of Gondolin by the Elf-king Turgon of the Noldor, the arrival of Tuor, a lost prince of the Edain or Mortal Men, the betrayal of the fortified-city to Morgoth, the supernatural enemy of elves and men, and its subsequent destruction by his armies. It also relates the flight of desperate refugees from Gondolin to other parts of Beleriand, a region of north-western Middle-earth subsequently submerged in a great inundation, tying the tale to other important sequences from Tolkien’s writing.
So, I must admit that I am looking forward to the projected August publication of a new book, The Fall of Gondolin, a standalone version of the original 1917 story but recounted in a somewhat more cohesive form, thanks to the creative editing of Tolkien’s son and indefatigable archivist, Christopher. Given the diverse source materials there will of course be episodic parts, unavoidable synopses, lacunae, speculations and plenty of footnotes. However the chance to read a near continuous narrative of the Tuor tale, with some new additions from Tolkien’s papers, is not to be missed. Hopefully it will live up to my expectations.
* In fact, some of the least successful scrapings have focused on Tolkien’s non-fantasy works, including The Fall Of Arthur, a fragmentary draft poem of dubious merit based upon early British-Welsh myth, and the rather more interesting Beowulf, a poor translation of the Medieval English legend with thought provoking notes.