‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Tuesday 11 September 2018

J R R Tolkien, "The Fall of Gondolin" (2018)

We've been here before, in The Silmarillion, in greater detail in Unfinished Tales and even (briefly) in verse form in The Lays of Beleriand; any Tolkien fan worth his or her salt knows the story of Tuor and the fall of Gondolin. Tolkien considered it one of his legendarium's three ‘Great Tales’, stories from his imaginary world eons before The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings—the other two being Beren and Lúthien and The Children of Húrin.

So: Tolkien's son Christopher has, over the last four decades, edited eleven thousand (give or take) posthumous volumes of his father's unpublished writing. The previous instalment in that endeavour, 2017's Beren and Lúthien opened with him declaring: ‘in my ninety-third year this is presumptively the last book in the long series of editions of my father's writings’. Such presumption evidently proved premature, for here is The Fall of Gondolin (HarperCollins 2018), plumped-up with eight full-colour Alan Lee illustrations and prefaced by Christopher Tolkien's wryly revisited promise: ‘I must now say that, in my ninety-fourth year The Fall of Gondolin is (indubitably) the last’. This is the end/Beleriand friend/The end.

I didn't need this book. I bought this book anyway. I already knew the story of the mighty human warrior, Tuor, beloved of the Vala Ulmo (a sea-god, Tolkien's Poseidon), who travels through a Middle Earth occupied by the forces of darkness under the evil Vala Melko (in essence; an in-the-world Satan) and his armies of orcs, Balrogs, dragons and other nasties. If you're a Tolkien fan, you'll know it too. Tuor eventually makes his way to the elven city of Gondolin, hidden inside a sealed ring of mountains and maintaining its precarious existence as a free polis under the Noldoli king Turgon (‘robed in white with a belt of gold and a coronet of garnets was upon his head’). Tuor becomes one of the warriors sworn to defend Gondolin. He marries the king's daughter Idril, and they have a child: Eärendil, the half-elven, who will grow up to become the famous mariner, which figure, indeed, was the starting point for all Tolkien's middleëarthy imaginings. But King Turgon's nephew Maeglin is angry that Idril has married a mortal man instead of him. He betrays Gondolin to Melko, in return for a captaincy in Melko's evil army and Idril as his prize (joke's on him though: ‘but Melko wove about him a spell of bottomless dread, and he had thereafter neither joy nor quiet in his heart’ [68]). Melko assembles a huge attack force, including some rather cool steampunky giant robo-dragons:
Melko assembled all his most cunning smiths and sorcerers, and of iron and flame they wrought a host of monsters such as have only at that time been seen and shall not again be till the Great End. Some were all of 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. [69]
That last detail speaks to one of the mythic underpinnings here: the Fall of Troy. Tolkien writes a Vergilian Troy-centred rather than a Homeric Achaean-centred account of the sack of the city, and here, for about twenty pages, The Fall of Gondolin earns its place in the world of books. The retelling of Tuor's story in Unfinished Tales, though written in a more novelistic and readable style than The Fall of Gondolin's archaic thee-and-thou confection, unfortunately ends before the actual sack of the city. This book gives us the whole thing, and works up a fine head of steam doing so.

Here, then, and for the first time, we get a vivid account of the assault on the city: swarming orc armies, the robo-wyrms (some iron, some brazen), ‘creatures of pure flame that writhed like ropes of molten metal’, gigantic dragons, all are excitingly described. Gondolin is destroyed and many Noldor killed, king Turgon amongst them. Evil Maeglin tries to lay hands on Idril, but Tuor breaks his arm, leaps onto the battlements and chucks him over the side: ‘great was the fall of his body and it smote Amon Gwareth three times ere it pitched in the midmost of the flames; and the name of Maeglin has gone out in shame from among Eldar and Noldoli’ [82]. The city cannot be saved, so Tuor, Idril, little Eärendil and various others (including, I was surprised to see, a young Legolas Greenleaf) pass through a secret tunnel out of the city, over the mountains and down into Dimbar, then down along the river Sirion to settle eventually in Avernien. As we all know, Eärendil went on to become a mariner/who tarried in Avernien/and built a boat of timber felled,/in Nimbrithil to journey in. But that story is beyond the remit of this particular volume.

This version of the story fills 75 pages of this 302-page book. The rest is the sort of thing we're familiar with from previous Christopher Tolkien productions: variant versions of the same story, the story told again in multiple drafts. We get ‘The Earliest Text’ (‘important elements in the early evolution of the story’, CT glosses, using important in an idiosyncratic, and indeed fallacious, way, ‘are my father's hurried notes’); then a ‘short, prose’ retelling, then ‘the form of the story of the Fall of Gondolin that my father wrote in 1926’, then the version of the same story upon which CT based the relevant Silmarillion passages, then finally a 55-page version from 1951 which takes us up to Tuor seeing Gondolin for the first time but doesn't go any further. The remainder of the volume is notes, a list of names, a ‘glossary of obsolete, archaic and rare words’, more notes, family trees and a map. That is to say, something over a fifth of this book is a new version of The Fall of Gondolin, and the rest consists of other versions and para-gubbins related to that version. Expanded polystyrene, really, howsoever handsomely packaged.

I still bought it, mind.

What did I buy? (Why did I buy it? Well, duh). So: the first version of the story here dates from 1917, when Tolkien was recovering from the Somme, which gives the iron war-dragons filled with warriors an interesting context (Christopher Tolkien edited the iron dragons out of his 1977 Silmarillion redaction because he thought they jarred with the broader mood or atmosphere of the legendarium—a pity, that). The downside is that the whole is written in a stiff-necked archaic lo!-prithee-forsooth style that is grating is small quantities and immensely wearing in large ones. Here's how Turgon greets Tuor:
“Lo! thy coming was set in our books of wisdom and it has been written that there would come to pass many great things in the homes of the Gondothlim whenso thou faredst hither.” [55]
Whenso thou thither readst, mayhap thy teeth will itch as verily did mine. Here's Turgon on Valinor:
“The paths thereto are forgotten and the highways faded from the world, and they that sit within in mirth reck little of the dread of Melko. Nay, enough of my people have for years untold gone out into the wide waters never to return, but have perished in the deep places or wander now lost in the shadows that have no paths, and at the coming of next year no more shall fare to the sea, but rather will we trust to ourselves and our city for the warding off of Melko, and thereto have the Valar been of scant help aforetime.” [57]
The aim, here, is for a formal elevation and dignity, pursuant to tonal grandeur and resonance, but the effect tumbles into mere quaintness. It's a question of stylistic judgment, a bar this book repeatedly fails to clear. Elf used to be a twee and pretty-pretty sort of word, and Tolkien can take the credit for shifting and dignifying the semantic field of that particular piece of nomenclature; but Gnome, his preferred term for the Noldori in this volume, has not been so modified, and so today evokes tiny ceramic beardos dangling their fishing rod into the rainfilled hole of a discarded tractor-tyre. Or David Bowie novelty singles.
But the Gnomes were numbered        by name and kin
marshalled and ordered        in the mighty square ... [33]
Names in all Tolkien's drafts tend to be fluid, of course. Melko later became Melkor and then Morgoth. Tuor, here, is sometimes ‘son of Peleg’ and sometimes ‘son of Huor’ (‘war? Huor! What is it good for?’). The Lord of the Balrogs is called Gothmog which sounds more like a cat in a miniature Sisters of Mercy leather jacket than a terrifying flame-demon, and ‘Penlod, tallest of Gnomes’ and ‘Rog, strongest of Gnomes’ are names it's hard to imbue with the requisite prestige. Rog is that character's whole name, of course. It's not short for Roger. Even Tolkien would baulk at ‘Roger the Gnome’.

There are a couple of other curious details. Turgon has a fountain in his courtyard that spouts up twenty fathoms, which seems both a lot, and is moreover a word more usually associated with depth than height. Also we learn that Melko has been capturing eagles and torturing them to learn the ‘magic words’ they use to fly, hoping to be able to fly himself and so contend with his fellow-Vala Manwë, the god of the air. That eagles fly not because they have gigantic wings but because they can speak certain magic words seems a curious thing to believe, especially for an intellect that is literally godlike.
Thorondor, King of Eagles, loved not Melko, for Melko had caught many of his kindred and chained them against sharp rocks to squeeze from them the magic words whereby he might learn to fly (for he dreamed of contending even against Manwë in the air) and when they would not tell he cut off their wings. [106]
It's all a bit King-Louie-in-the-Jungle-Book:
Now I'm the king of the wingers, yeah
The jetblack V.I.P.
I want to fly and I'll tell you why
So I can fight Manwë.
But it's easy to snipe. To be fair to Tolkien, he never authorised the publication of these early sketches, and can hardly be blamed for occasional lapses in tone. And there is something more interesting at work here.

Tolkien's influence flows down the broad, deep channel he himself inadvertently excavated, the one now called contemporary commercial Fantasy. There is a lot of this latter, but they that sit within the mighty citadel of modern-day 1000-page epic high-fantasty novels reck little, by and large, of the profoundly moral purpose of Tolkien's writing. He was deeply and indeed fundamentally invested in the belief that life is a series of ethical engagements with the world and the people in it. His writing repeatedly returns to the way heroism entails not just knowing the right thing, but finding the strength to do the right thing. Over and again he explores that ethical point at which courageous determination blurs into mere stubbornness, where brave engagement with a dangerous world flips over into wilful retreat from that world. One of the ways he renders this in his fiction is through the logic of the seige: Théoden, King of Rohan, really should have listened to Gandalf and ridden out to meet Saruman's army rather than retreating into Helm's Deep. Denethor is in many ways an admirable figure, but turns in on himself, using his mighty strength of will to clutch at his own power instead of turning it outward to meet his enemies. The key point in the Gondolin story comes when Tuor first arrives at Turgon's court, and says what the god Ulmo had instructed him to say: ‘to bid you number your hosts and prepare for battle, for the time is ripe’. Turgon's reply embodies wrong judgement in Tolkien's ethical cosmos, not because it is wicked, disingenuous or selfish, but because Tolkien believes we have a duty actively to go out and engage evil, not to hunker down and hope merely to avoid it:
Then spoke Turgon: “that will I not do, though it be the words of Ulmo and the Valar. I will not adventure this my people against the Orcs, nor emperil my city against the fire of Melko.” Then spoke Tuor: “Nay, if thou dost not now dare greatly then will the Orcs dwell for ever and possess in the end most of the mountains of the Earth, and cease not to trouble both Elves and Men ...” But Turgon said that he was king of Gondolin and no will should force him against his counsel. [56]
He should have listened to Ulmo's messenger in this. Tuor, or not Tuor; that is the question. And the answer is: Tuor.


  1. Or what?

    "Penlod, tallest of the Gnomes" has surely escaped from Discworld.

    "Ay, verily, I am Penlod, tallest of... all right, all right, you don't need to rub it in. Penlod. Pleased to meet you."

    Tolkien-sceptic though I am, I couldn't help wondering if it was possible to get the back-story (or back-legends) to LOTR in a single, identifiable and - not to put too fine a point on it - readable form. (The Silmarillion is many things - and that's half the problem.) And that in turn made me wonder if George Lucas was a disappointed Tolkienophile - one of the many who seized on the Silmarillion when it came out, and put it down again soon afterwards - and he determined not to make the same mistake when he plugged in the back story to his Epic Fantasy Trilogy. Not sure what that would tell us, except that there are worse mistakes you can make than writing the Silmarillion.

    1. Sure, Phil. Show up in my comments being funnier than me. Go right ahead. I mean, some might consider that bad manners, but I say: go riiight ahead.

    2. For verily, I am Phil, smartest of the commenters!

  2. By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
    By the shining Big-Sea-Water,.....

  3. The part about the eagles is interesting, and makes me wonder how far Tolkien got imagining the cruel distortions Morgoth would perpetrate on the world.

    Elves – Orcs
    Ents – Trolls
    Dogs – Wolves
    Eagles – SuperMelkor
    Bees – ???

    Now you mention it, it’s a little surprising we don’t see more mechanised weaponry employed by the forces of the Enemy. Certainly JRRT loathed the stuff. I suspect it would have severely challenged the suspension of disbelief, but if I’d first encountered mecha-wargs along with the rest of the wonders of Arda - who knows?

    1. That's why Christopher cut such references from the material he assembled into the Silmarillion, though such references were all over the early drafts of his father's legendarium. This Brett Holman blogpost has some interesting things in it, including the fact that during his time on the Western Front he was deeply impressed by the military balloons: "made quite an impression on him. In 1924, he recalled that 'German captive balloons hung swollen and menacing on many a horizon' ... But Tolkien's interest was philological too. After the war he speculated that the world 'blimp' was a portmanteau word deriving from 'blister' and 'lump': 'the vowel i not u was chosen because of its diminutive significance -- typical of war humour'. But more significantly, in a lexicon he worked on during the war for his invented Elvish language, Quenya, he added an entry for pusulpë, 'gas-bag, balloon'"

    2. Thanks Adam, I wasn’t aware of this.

      Good to know we can describe our politicians in Quenya if we need to.

  4. I don't know whether it's a useful parallel, but Tolkien's unexpected machinery (and the wartime context) reminds me of that uneasy transition from brooding feudalism to mechanised middle-class horror in the _Gormenghast_ trilogy.

    1. That's a really interesting comparison. I wonder if it's relevant that in Tolkien 'machines' are actively cast against the forces of goodness by wicked people like Saruman, whereas in Gormenghast Titus (eventually) goes out and encounters motor cars and so on, as passive entities in the world.

    2. Well I don't know. I think that's very relevant. I think that's part of why Tolkien is an easier narrative. He gets edgy about almost-machines, though. Wroughtnesses for social control, eg rings of power, can go bad. But in a way, Titus too is forced out, by the corruption that's entered the previously inviolate city-fortress. And the tech in Titus Alone is dodgy af. There's the police-state tracking with the floating spy-orb, the death-ray that is used to kill all the zoo-animals in revenge, the horrible factory which gets exploded ... It's not that the scientists are straight-up Hollywood-friendly villains as Tolkien does it, but they're detachedly wicked in the sense of being powerful controllers of society who are indifferent to some kind of individual humanity Peake asks us to connect with in the main characters. In LOTR, the middle classes go out and return unto the middle classes, and clean out the bad guys who've occupied the wrong (ie dominant) social positions on the way. In the Fall of Gondolin though it sounds as though it's the old days when the aristos has shut itself away from evil and/or the industrial revolution, is infiltrated by wickedness, gets de-aristocratised one way or another by attractive lower classes, is overwhelmed by technology employed by organised opponents for violent social control, and drifts off into pieces. Which is sort of what happens in _Titus Alone_ too. I am so out of my depth here I'm getting nervous about the Kraken. (But John Wyndham on war is another story.)

    3. I meant the whole trilogy instead of that last reference to _Titus Alone_.

    4. John Wyndham, interestingly, shares a grim distinction with Peake; both were in uniform (Peake as an official war artist, Wyndham in the Royal Corps of Signals) during WW2, and saw Bergen-Belsen first hand. The holcaust marks both their work, though in different ways. It is, I suppose, a different understanding of evil to the one Tolkien experienced watching his friends get ground under the wheels of industrialized war on the Western Front.