Bilbo and Frodo’s Birthday, in the year that marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Hobbit – what a conjunction! With half the group at Oxonmoot or, otherwise occupied, 5 of us met to discuss the differences between The Tale of Gondolin in the Book of Lost Tales 2 and the same story as it appears as a chapter in The Silmarillion. There was a good deal to say even though it was our second meeting on The Tale.
Pat began by observing that the Tale has a kind of ‘musicality’ to it that is entirely missing from the chapter in The Silmarillion, which in contrast very abrupt. She thought that generally the prose of the Tales so far was more beautiful than other versions of the same stories.
Anne agreed, adding that the prose of the Tales is more lyrical and ‘literary’ than that of The Silmarillion.
Kathleen remarked that the version in The Silmarillion reads more like a report. I thought it showed the ‘stripped-down’ style I associated with accounts of mythology.
Pat commented that The Silmarillion does not include any really lovely prose, and Anne remarked that she was not so impressed with ‘literature’ in it.
Kathleen was more specific when she commented on the use of a beautiful vocabulary in the Tale. I had noticed an interesting insight into Tolkien’s perception of linguistic aesthetics in the list of names given in the Notes. Tolkien’s ideas about phono-aesthetics are quite well known and he provides evidence of this through descriptions of 2 names. From his comments on the name ‘Gondolin’ we learn that the ‘Gnomes’ (so-called at this time) used this name for their city and it means in their language ‘stone of song’. This is a figurative use of ‘song’ and was used to signify that the stone was ‘carven and wrought to great beauty’. The clear existence of figurative language in the vocabulary of these early Elves must signify their development of poetry, and also implies their perception of finely carved stone in terms of harmony, counterpoint, and rhythm. I mentioned that this reminded me of fine in Anglo-Saxon, Viking and Icelandic and Celtic interlaced carving and illumination.
The second example of Elvish/Tolkienian aesthetics follows immediately in the Names list under ‘Gothmog’. This captain of Balrogs has the name Kosomoko in early Qenya = Gnomish Gothmog. A variant form in the tale of The Coming of the Valar in BLT 1 is Kosomot.
The difference in form accompanies the difference in parentage and function, but of more significance is the remark interior to the story that ‘The Eldar named him ‘Kosmoko or Kosomok(o) but, ‘tis a name that fitteth our tongue no way and has an ill sound even in our own rougher speech’.
The perception of the difference in aesthetic quality between Elvish names and those of the servants/sons of Melko is less surprising than the remark by the speaker Elfrith that his people’s language is ‘rougher’. Given that the form of his name is Anglo-Saxon, emended from the more Elvish ‘Elfriniel’, Tolkien appears to keep up the fiction that there is a distant link between his Elves and the Anglo-Saxons, and distinguishes between their respective languages on grounds of aesthetics. At least that’s how I interpret this. Other interpretations would be most welcome!
After our diversion into linguistics Pat brought us back to the text of the Tale with her observation that Ulmo seems more powerful in The Silmarillion than in the Tale. He still performs his vital role of directing Tuor towards Gondolin, but without quite such an impressive ‘epiphany’.
Anne commented that Christopher Tolkien must have been a great organiser to have assembled all the disparate parts of his father’s writing into so many volumes of posthumous publications while Tolkien was the great creator. Anne then qualified this when she remarked that all Tolkien’s major works are pervaded by a sense of weariness – every main character suffers this in some form a good deal of the time. We conjectured that this related to Tolkien’s own life, which was clearly exhausting on many occasions as he juggled creative writing with teaching, research, domestic responsibilities, even war duties for a while, so he must have been permanently tired. It was suggested that setting his creative work aside would have eased his burden, and the fact that he continued to create suggested to us that he was a driven man.
Pat then compared this putative profile of Tolkien with the fantasy output of C.S. Lewis, suggesting that Narnia, for all its battles, has the feeling of much less struggle.
Changing tack, Anne went on to point out to us an ‘Icarus’ moment, when Melko is said to have captured many of the eagles and tormented them to get the secret spell of flight from them. When this fails he has their wings cut off in an attempt to make great wings for himself.
It is not the only echo of ancient Greek legend that we have noted in the story, and Anne described it as evidence of Melko’s ‘hubris’.
Pat was charmed to find Legolas Greenleaf mentioned in the story. We spent some time considering the number of balrogs, and their attributes, Glorfindel (replaying the old controversy over whether there were 1 or 2 in Middle-earth), and noting the repetition of names in the Third Age, such as Gothmog (lieutenant of Minas Morgul), and Ecthelion (father of Denethor).
Anne picked out what she described as a ‘tourist detail’ in the description of Gondolin with its squares and fountains and the palace.
Pat was interested in the fogs and vapours that filled the great vale around the ruined city, as it is expressly said that there had never been such phenomena before. We agreed that the great fires caused by the dragon machines had combined with the waters of the fountains and little streams that ran from the great rock and created the atmospheric novelty. It is also the means by which the remnant of the Elves can escape even in broad daylight across the open vale without being seen. Pat summed it up perfectly when she described it as a ‘cloak of invisibility.’
I thought the ending of the Tale showed far more emotion than the coldly business-like ending in The Silmarillion. The end of the Tale reminds us that we have been listening to an extended oral account of Gnomish history that touches its audience deeply:
Then said Littleheart son of Bronweg: “Alas for Gondolin.”
And no one in all the Room of Logs spake or moved for a great while.
And so we had to call our discussions to a halt too. Our reading for next time remains the next chapter of BLT 2 The Nauglafring.