February 3, 2019


A Hope Beyond Our Sight: a review of The Fall of Gondolin  by J. R. R. Tolkien,  edited by Christopher Tolkien.  (Reviewed by Ben Reinhard, 2/03/19, Kirk Center)

Some of the defects in this early "Tale" are, however, a net benefit for our understanding of Tolkien's legendarium. The comparatively artless composition of the story leaves many seams showing--a disappointment to the aesthetician, maybe, but a treat for the student. It is common knowledge that Tolkien's imagination was formed throughout his career by his academic study and by his Catholic faith, but in his mature works his artistry is often so skillful that its roots are concealed. This is not yet the case in the "Tale," however, and as a result Tolkien's imaginative debts are obvious. So for instance the Lord of the Waters, Ulmo, is in this version heavily indebted to the classical Neptune--complete with an undersea palace, the music of horns, and a ride in a chariot drawn by sea creatures (compare, for instance, Gondolin 45 with Aeneid I.124-56). The debate between Tuor and Turgon on pp. 56-7 owes much--up to and including its chiastic structure--to council scenes from Greek and Roman epic. Most importantly, the fall of Gondolin itself is a transparent re-presentation of the fall of Troy as anticipated in the Iliad and recounted in the Aeneid. The connection between Gondolin and Troy is encouraged, indeed demanded, by the text itself: as the narrator Littleheart says, the fall of Gondolin "was the most dread of all the sacks of cities upon the face of Earth. Nor Bablon, nor Ninwi, nor the towers of Trui ... saw such terror as fell that day" (Gondolin 111).

Once the relationship is recognized, endless similarities can be supplied. Each work (Iliad, Aeneid, the "Tale") gives a hero (Hector, Aeneas, Tuor) who must balance his duty to protect his wife (Andromache, Creusa, Idril) and son (Astyanax, Iulus, Eärendel) with his desire to heroically protect his city; each city has a lord (Priam, Turgon) who refuses divine counsel and stubbornly trusts to the pride of his city; each assault features crashing towers and animals bearing enemy soldiers in their bellies--the Trojan horse for the Aeneid, and orc-bearing dragons for the "Tale" (see Gondolin 69ff). As the city falls, the survivors escape by a secret way to the sea.

For all this, the "Tale" is not a straightforward retelling of the fall of Troy--and the differences give us a valuable glimpse at Tolkien's moral imagination and visionary creativity. So, for instance, the tale of the fall of Troy is dominated by three villains: the liar Sinon, who betrays the Trojans; the brutal warrior Pyrrhus, who slays Priam and takes Andromache as his sex slave; and the amoral and calculating Ulysses, who casts Astyanax from the battlements of Troy. In the "Tale" these three villains coalesce into one--the dark elf Meglin--who betrays Gondolin to Morgoth, attempts to carry off Idril, and intends "to take Eärendel and cast him into the fire beneath the walls" (Gondolin 80). But unlike the classical Hector--or even pius Aeneas--Tuor never wavers in his duty, putting the safety of his family over the prospect of a glorious death in a doomed defense. As a result, the traitor Meglin fares in Gondolin as Ulysses ought to have fared in Troy: the new Hector catches him in the act, and Meglin is thrown from the ramparts himself. His family secured, the new Aeneas leads child and wife safely from the sack of the city to a dim and distant new hope.

The rescue of Eärendel brings us to what is, perhaps, the central animating idea of all of Tolkien's works: the hope "beyond the walls of the world," as "On Fairy Stories" has it. Eärendel is simply Tolkien's most transparent Christ figure. His name and basic character are drawn from an Old English paraphrase of the fifth O Antiphon, and his literary descent is borne out in his role in the Silmarillion. Both man and immortal, he intercedes with the gods to win mercy for his exiled and sinful people; in the apocalyptic War of Wrath, he defeats the great dragon and secures the eucatastrophic victory. Some version of the tale dispense with any typological subtlety whatsoever: in the 1951 version, Eärendel has become "a hope beyond thy sight, and a light that shall pierce the darkness" (Gondolin 166).

The hope embodied in Eärendel marks a significant departure from Tolkien's classical models: for all their differences, both the Iliad and the Aeneid root their hopes, such as they are, firmly in this world. It also introduces the central moral conflict of the story: a distant hope from outside the world can be hard to credit; Turgon and his people prefer, as he says, "to trust to ourselves and our city" (Gondolin 57). The exiles mistake the land of their sojourn for the promised home. The conflict between the great otherworldly hope and its counterfeit in this-worldly satisfaction is the great unifying theme in the tale's development, and remains consistent through the successive versions (see, for instance, Gondolin 77, 124, 133, 138).

The central Anglospheric insight being that humanity is insufficient to the task of perfecting the world and hope lies beyond Man. It's how we managed to avoid every utopianism.

Posted by at February 3, 2019 8:16 AM