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When the original can't be improved: Tolkien's The Fall of Gondolin

I'm trying to limit my exposure to politics (with mixed success), and one way I'm keeping my spirits up is revisiting the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien.

I recently re-read his posthumously published The Fall of Gondolin, edited by his son, the later Christopher Tolkien.

All of the professor's work improves on repeat reading, and this was no exception.  I was able to appreciate its form, language and genius behind the earliest of his tales of Middle Earth.

What is perhaps most striking about the tale is that it never got a full revision.  After its initial composition during WW I and final edit in the 1920s, Tolkien never returned to the story, despite major revisions to the peoples and events surrounding it.

Late in life, after Lord of the Rings was completed, he started a new version but halted when the main character, Tuor, reached the fabled city.

The story of the sack is uncharacteristically grim and bloody.  Perhaps this is due to its proximity to the Great War, which was surely fresh in his mind.  Of particular interest was the tank-like steel serpents, whose armored hides protected the troops within and whose many limbs allowed them to slither forward until they reached the walls and bent slowly upwards to disgorge their cargo.

The elves themselves are different, some bent, others blacked by heat, and the tone of the tale is one of foreboding and hopeless valor in a losing cause.

Obviously, I cannot speak for him, but I can say that when I write fiction, I mentally enter into a particular place, and I can very much see him wanting to complete the revision for artistic reasons but being unwilling to place him in the same mental space necessary to do it.

We can look at his strong Catholic faith and assume that for the most part, he escaped the horror of the First World War relatively intact.  Yet English reserve has its limits, and Tolkien himself referenced how impossible it was to be unchanged after having almost all his close friends killed.

It may have only been when he reached the city of Gondolin itself, that the reality of what he had to do caused him to set the project aside one more time.

I may be wrong, and certainly there were other areas of work that demanded his attention, but I think that is at least a plausible reason why that particular part of his writing was left in its original state when so many other areas received constant and thorough revision.


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