Though he very rarely talked about his service in the First World War—his silence most likely the result of survivor’s guilt, something he shared with most of his post-war friends—J.R.R. Tolkien said that his invented worlds really took form in “army huts, crowded, filled with the noise of gramophones.” The war, he realized in hindsight, had forced him to imagine a beauty and wonder beyond the brutal life of the trenches.
Because of Tolkien’s adamant rejection of formal allegory in his own writings, many of his greatest supporters denied for years that any passage (or passages) in The Lord of the Rings had anything to do with the war itself, at least directly. As early as the 1950s, however, Tolkien’s good friend, C.S. Lewis, was challenging this view, (he had also gone through the war, a volunteer despite being Irish).
Though Lewis remembered the fonder parts of it in his autobiography, especially the friendships he formed, the first bullet that flew past his head roused him to think, “This is war. This is what Homer wrote about.” No doubt the two survivors had talked innumerable times—privately—about their own experiences in the war. In his praising review of Tolkien’s trilogy, Lewis wrote that the battle scenes have “the very quality of the war my generation knew. It is all here: the endless, unintelligible movement, the sinister quiet on the front when ‘everything is now ready,’ the lying civilians, the lively, vivid friendships, the background of something like despair and the merry foreground, and such heaven-sent windfalls as a cache of choice tobacco ‘salvaged’ from a ruin.”
Still, it must also be noted that Tolkien revealed in a speech at the University of St. Andrews in 1939 that the Great War had “awakened” his imagination. Certainly, in the trilogy itself, as he admitted toward the end of his life, the crossing of Frodo, Sam, and Gollum into the region of Mordor mirrored much of what he had seen in the Great War. “Dreadful as the Dead Marshes had been, and the arid moors of the Norman-lands, more loathsome far was the country that the crawling day now slowly unveiled to his shrinking eyes,” Tolkien writes. “Here nothing lived, not even the leprous growths that feed on rottenness. The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails upon the lands about.” Though the horrifying imagery continues in the story at some length, it is worth noting here that few passages in 20th-century literature so perfectly captured the feeling and atmosphere of the Great War.
Having already lost his mother and his father at a young age, Tolkien also lost two of his three closest friends during the war. Prior to that war, he and his three friends had dedicated themselves to sanctifying the world through poetry and literature. We had, Tolkien believed, “been granted some spark of fire—certainly as a body if not singly—that was destined to kindle a new light, or, what is the same thing, rekindle an old light in the world.” Given the depth of feeling Tolkien possessed toward his friends and the burdens of the Great War, there is no reason to underplay his words. By 1916, he had already begun his Elvish languages as well as his first stories for those languages, in addition to writing much poetic verse. “The greatness [of the four friends] I meant was that of a great instrument in God’s hands,” Tolkien wrote in 1916, as “a mover, a doer, even an achiever of great things, a beginner at the very least of large things.”
Of the original stories that Tolkien wrote for his nascent mythology, the first real attempt at depth as well as breadth was The Fall of Gondolin, most likely begun in 1916. From there, the story took on an unwieldy and unpredictable life of its own, like many of Tolkien’s writings. Tolkien’s wife, Edith, wrote out the story sometime in 1917 after he had first written it, and Tolkien offered a version of it as a public essay in 1920 at Exeter College, Oxford. The story appeared as one of the most drawn-out of Tolkien’s Lost Tales (the first version of the larger mythology that would one day become The Silmarillion); in slightly different form in the 1926 “Sketch of the Mythology”; in yet again slightly different form in the 1930 Quenta Noldorinwa; and, finally, in 1950 and 1951, as Tolkien was trying to write the history of the ages preceding the now completed but yet unpublished The Lord of the Rings. The final 1951 version ended up, more or less, in the 1977 Silmarillion.
While one should accept Tolkien’s claim that he disliked and did not intentionally employ formal allegory, it would be foolish to assume that the loss of family and friends, the Great War, and the advent of the modern world did not profoundly influence his writings. These events all shaped his mythology, which he used as a way, as he noted to his friends, to sanctify the world and to correct that which had gone wrong. The Fall of Gondolin, in particular, considers issues of prophecy and calling, friendship and betrayal, loss, acceptance, love, pride, and, most importantly, perseverance. In it, one finds passionate love stories, heroic battles to the death, prophets lost and distracted, organic machines of immense power, distraught gods full of charity, confusion of purpose, kings living as outlaws, and soul-piercing beauties.
A secret city of the Elves, Gondolin served as the only significant safe haven during the ravages and tyranny of the devil figure of the mythology, Morgoth (aka Melko, aka Melkor), the brightest of created powers who came to resent his maker, Iluvatar (God the Father). Alone in the East of the world—Beleriand and Middle-earth—the Elves continued the traditions of the holy powers in the West in Valinor, even in their exile. From the hidden realm, the Elves could live, but they could also use it as a base to reclaim the lands from evil and ruin:
In those days Ulmo was filled with pity for the exiled Elves in their need, and in the ruin that had now almost overwhelmed them. He foretold that the fortress of Gondolin should stand longest of all the refuges of the Elves against the might of Morgoth, and like Doriath never be overthrown save by treachery from within. Because of his protecting might the spells of concealment were strongest in those parts nearest to Sirion, though there the Encircling Mountains were at their lowest.
In that same version, Tolkien described Gondolin in idyllic terms:
Upon Amon Gwareth, the Hill of Defence, the rocky height amidst the plain, was built Gondolin the great, whose fame and glory is mightiest in song of all dwellings of the Elves in these Outer Lands. Of steel were its gates and of marble were its walls. The sides of the hill the Gnomes polished to the smoothness of dark glass, and its top they levelled for the building of their town, save amidmost where stood the tower and palace of the king. Many fountains there were in that city, and white waters fell shimmering down the glistening sides of Amon Gwareth. The plain all about they smoothed till it became as a lawn of shaven grass from the stairways before the gates unto the feet of the mountain wall, and nought might walk or creep across unseen.
For better or worse, the Elves chose the comfort of isolation rather than the mission of world redemption. Meanwhile, Morgoth’s reign grew, and, ultimately, he laid siege to the city. In one version of the story, the water god Ulmo offers aid to the Elves by giving them the city.
More moving, yet deeply disturbing, is Tolkien’s description of the perversions wrought by Morgoth:
Then on a time 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; others of bronze and copper were given hearts and spirits of blazing fire, and they blasted all that stood before them with the terror of their snorting or trampled whatso escaped the ardour of their breath; yet others were creatures of pure flame that writhed like ropes of molten metal, and they brought to ruin whatever fabric they came nigh, and iron and stone melted before them and became as water, and upon them rode the Balrogs in hundreds; and these were the most dire of all those monsters which Melko devised against Gondolin.
While one might readily find such a description of organic machinery later in the 20th century, to describe it as such in 1917 is somewhat bewilderingly advanced. Equally important, one can readily imagine Tolkien’s creations as something that might appear from the German advance, as tanks replaced cavalry. True to Tolkien’s romanticism, machinery almost always appears as tyrannical and anti-humane in his literature.
Additionally, following the Western tradition going back to St. Augustine and Boethius, Tolkien believes that evil exists not as a thing in and of itself, but as a rape, an imitation, and a desecration of an original good. Orcs, for example, are tortured and inverted Elves:
How it came ever that among men the Noldoli [one form of Elf] have been confused with the Orcs who are Melko’s goblins, I know not, unless it be that certain of the Noldoli were twisted to the evil of Melko and mingled among these Orcs, for all that race were bred by Melko of the subterranean heats and slime. Their hearts were of granite and their bodies deformed; foul their faces which smiled not, but their laugh that of the clash of metal, and to nothing were they more fain than to aid in the basest of the purposes of Melko. The greatest hatred was between them and the Noldoli, who named them Glamhoth, or folk of dreadful hate.
One might also think of the Hebraic tradition of God as the all being—I Am That I Am—with all else radiating from him in what later thinkers might call the “economy of grace” or “great chain of being.”
And yet, true to Tolkien, those most misunderstood, ignored, or mocked in the world often, at some unexpected point, find their true natures revealed to the world and, most importantly, to themselves. Tuor, the outlaw turned heroic king in The Fall of Gondolin, becomes fully himself at one moment as he looks toward the sacred West:
Then Tuor arrayed himself in the hauberk, and set the helm upon his head, and he girt himself with the sword; black were sheath and belt with clasps of silver. Thus armed he went forth from Turgon’s hall, and stood upon the high terraces of Taras in the red light of the sun. None were there to see him, as he gazed westward, gleaming in silver and gold, and he knew not that in that hour he appeared as one of the Mighty of the West, and fit to be the father of the kings of the Kings of Men beyond the Sea, as it was indeed his doom to be; but in the taking of those arms a change came upon Tuor son of Huor, and his heart grew great within him. And as he stepped down from the doors the swans did him reverence, and plucking each a great feather from their wings they proffered them to him, laying their long necks upon the stone before his feet; and he took the seven feathers and set them in the crest of his helm, and straightway the swans arose and flew north in the sunset, and Tuor saw them no more.
When Tolkien published his massive three-volume trilogy, the masterful The Lord of the Rings, in 1954 and 1955, he was originally hoping to complete an even longer version, all in one volume. The hoped-for book would have been almost double the size of The Lord of the Rings and would include a fleshed-out version of The Silmarillion, to be called The Saga of the Jewels and the Rings. Those familiar with The Lord of the Rings know how often the stories of the Elder Days appear at critical moments in the trilogy. When the Ringwraiths are about to attack the hobbits and Aragorn on Weather Top, the ranger tells the ancient and timeless story of Beren and Lúthien, almost as a preparatory prayer in anticipation of battle. Galadriel, in a moment of confession, admits she has lived in Middle-earth since before the fall of Gondolin. When Sam and Frodo wonder what their fate is as they approach Mount Doom, they compare their own experiences with those of a previous age, recognizing that they exist in the same story, just at a later time.
Indeed, the very phial of Galadriel, which proves critical in the suffocating darkness of Shelob’s lair, contains the very light that had first existed close to the time of creation itself. Truly Frodo and Sam occupy the same story as Beren and Lúthien.
Yet Tolkien’s inability to finish the stories of the Elder Days, The Silmarillion, along with his exhaustion after 11 years of writing The Lord of the Rings, frustrated his own desires. Additionally, the British government continued to impose its own wartime restrictions on paper, even into the 1950s. Tolkien’s publisher had originally wanted and expected a sequel to The Hobbit, not an epic covering thousands and thousands of years, written with the depth and feeling of The Aeneid.
Even after the successful publication and critical reception of The Lord of the Rings and his own retirement from teaching, Tolkien found it painful to finish The Silmarillion and his own mythology. He often spent his time instead on questions best left to his publisher and writing gorgeous essays on the philosophical and theological implications of his created world.
It would take Tolkien’s son, Christopher, four years after his father’s death to compile and publish The Silmarillion. Even then, in 1977, it remained more a beautiful outline than a true representation of the early mythology. From there, though, Christopher’s output was nothing short of stunning. In 1980, he published Unfinished Tales and, between 1983 and 1996, the 12 volumes of The History of Middle-earth, a massive undertaking of love and piety. Silent for almost a decade, but infuriated by the travesty of the Peter Jackson movies, Christopher reappeared in the publishing world, hoping to reclaim his father’s ideas, words, characters, and stories for an audience desiring more than action sequences and computer generated eye candy. He hoped an audience for poetic wonder still existed, even in the 21st-century wasteland of modernity. Over the last 12 years, Christopher has come back with a vengeance, publishing his father’s scholarly work on his many varied mythologies as well as specific stories from The Silmarillion, but, most notably, the three that mattered most to his father: the tale of Beren and Lúthien, The Children of Húrin, and, as of last fall, The Fall of Gondolin.
As with the other books that Christopher has edited, this latest Tolkien release, The Fall of Gondolin, follows the chronological evolution of J.R.R. Tolkien’s various tales. As always, Christopher offers not just the chronology but an insightful examination of why his father chose this or that, as opposed to that or this. Presumably, The Fall of Gondolin is the son’s last, though not all of the father’s writings have yet seen print.
Now aged 94, Christopher must be praised mightily and in every way for his service not only to his father, but, frankly, also to Western civilization. After all, it would not be too much of a stretch to compare his father’s mythology to that of Homer, Virgil, and Dante. And, it bears repeating: though J.R.R. Tolkien despised formal allegory, his created mythology, begun sometime around 1913 and still not completely finished—despite the work of father and son—reflects all of our anxieties and desires in the modern and postmodern worlds. If we speak exclusively of J.R.R. Tolkien in relation to the mythology of Middle-earth, we have created a grave error. Truly, we must properly speak of the Two Tolkiens: J.R.R. and Christopher.
Bradley J. Birzer is The American Conservative’s scholar-at-large. He also holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.