Essay by Roger Echo-Hawk
On Thursday, May 25 the Tolkien Reading Circle gathered to discuss “Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin” in Unfinished Tales. We delved into Tolkien’s process of invention, the versions of the story, and where Tuor fits in the sprawling fantasy legendarium of the First Age of Middle-earth. We agreed that it is interesting to glimpse the inner secrets of Tolkien’s artistry, studying the texts issued by Christopher Tolkien in his multivolume The History of Middle-earth.
The making of Middle-earth occupied Tolkien’s imagination for almost six decades. That world is made of stories that never stopped evolving, and even his two published novels underwent various revisions after first appearing in print. It seems arguable to see all of his fictional Middle-earth stories more as unfolding narratives than as finished projects. This is a particularly useful lens to set on Tuor and the tale of Gondolin.
Tolkien first invented Tuor sometime during 1917, setting the character in an embattled version of what would later become Middle-earth, a realm of cataclysm and cosmic conflict. Tolkien sent Tuor into one of the legends of The Book of Lost Tales (volume 2, p. 144-220). He enters “The Fall of Gondolin” as a minstrel led by fate into lonely journeying full of rainbows, secret rivers, the cries of white gulls, and sable seashores. The opening scenes of this story are rich with poetic landscapes. Here we find the Land of Willows with waterlilies and butterflies – the likely prototype of the later realm of Tom Bombadil. This idyllic journey leads to the hidden city of the Gondothlim, “the dwellers in stone.” Guided by the will of Ulmo, a divinity of the world, the story brings Tuor to marriage with the daughter of the king of Gondolin, and then to war and the fall of the city in a great battle.
It was perhaps ten years later during the final years of the 1920s when Tolkien revisited this story, producing a much condensed version – a version that appeared in The Silmarillion as Chapter 23, “Of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin” (p. 238-245). Tolkien dropped much of the poetic drama of the original journeying – deleting the first occurrence of the Land of Willows and retaining only a brief respite there at the end of the tale.
After completing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien returned in 1951 to the tale of Tuor, setting down a new account of the journeying of Tuor, “Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin” (Unfinished Tales, p. 17-56). It is also evident that as he prepared the story he had in hand the old manuscript of “The Fall of Gondolin,” borrowing and reshaping elements of the original story. This final version was both new and never finished.
In The Book of Lost Tales and The Silmarillion the legend of Tuor opened at the close of the story of Túrin. Christopher Tolkien took the 1951 version of the tale of Tuor and presented it as if it could be read as a free-standing story, but it is more clearly intended to serve as a kind of counterpoint to the dark doom of Túrin. Tuor’s fate is guided by the will of Ulmo, who seeks to help the Elves and humankind; while Túrin suffers from the ill-wishing of a different divinity, Morgoth. The tales are not isolated stories, but are meant to help unfold together a cosmic vision of the First Age of Middle-earth.
Readers of The Children of Húrin who wonder at the absence of any sense of eucatastrophe should keep in mind that Tolkien intended to set that tale in the midst of the legend of Beren and Lúthien, the tale of Tuor, and other stories. Despite its editorial presentation as a stand-alone novel, it should not be read that way.
The poetic nature of the tale of Tuor makes it a kind of visionary journey. It is arguable that the unfinished 1951 version was crafted at the height of Tolkien’s literary powers – a story into which he poured his most refined poetic essences. This craftwork must be understood as the outcome of a long-term creative process. It was not birthed purely in a moment of free-standing genius.
We can trace in its pages various trajectories of inventive magic. In The Book of Lost Tales version of the Tuor story, for example, the Noldoli come to Tuor and guide him “by their blue lanterns” down a riverside to beautiful regions of that ancient world. The lanterns vanish from the version in The Silmarillion. But they return in the circa 1951 Tuor story: “And then Gelmir brought forth one of those lamps for which the Noldor were renowned; for they were made of old in Valinor, and neither wind nor water could quench them, and when they were unhooded they sent forth a clear blue light from a flame imprisoned in white crystal.” These lamps materialize again in the later telling of the tale of Túrin in The Children of Húrin (p. 152): “These Noldor possessed many of the Fëanorian lamps, which were crystals hung in a fine chain net, the crystals being ever-shining with an inner blue radiance marvellous for finding the way in the darkness of night or in tunnels; of these lamps they themselves did not know the secret.”
The accretion of poetic invention gave Tolkien’s detailing a special sense of glimmering depth. And so his lyrical prose holds the power to enchant. And his vast epic project to populate Middle-earth with places and people and events kept emerging onward as a labor of love that never came to an end. He went on inventing, creating, remaking – a long journey of re-envisioning the magic of that world. When we turn those pages, we must keep in mind the illuminating backcloth of these evolving truths.