Our meeting was slow to start as it began with matters relating to the Society, the films, and the prospect of new members coming to the Society as a result of interest generated by the films, but we finally got back on track.
Our topic for the afternoon was the chapter ‘The Fall of Gondolin’ in The Book of Lost Tales 2. Once the ‘Any Other Business’ had been set aside, it was quickly noted that the chapter closely resembles the story as it is found in The Silmarillion, although some elements are left out, others are put in, and there are other changes to details.
As Laura pointed out, one of the more noticeable changes is the absence of the 7 gates into hidden realm. The secret passage is not as complex as in The Silmarillion, and so the wonderfully detailed descriptions of the gates are missing.
Pat was impressed by the great musicality and variety of sounds included in this version. A distinction was noted between the musical sounds of nature while Tuor is in the wild, and his own playing of the harp, and the more ‘Wagnerian’ and martial sounds used to characterise the later part of the story. Anne described them in terms of great Wagnerian ‘themes’ – piling up imagery.
Laura continued the analogies when she remarked that Tuor is a Siegfried figure, but unlike the Germanic hero, Tuor mellows with time.
Mike approved of what he described as a ‘fast-paced story’, and there was general agreement that this story was enjoyable to read, but Mike was not so pleased with the 7 names of the city of Gondolin – yet more names!
Pat was again impressed by the highly visual description of Ulmo, and both Anne and Mike suggested that when Tuor speaks to Turgon it is as if Ulmo’s thoughts are channelled. However, the way Ulmo commands Tuor to speak to Turgon: ‘Words will I set to your mouth there’ is reminiscent of God’s instructions to Moses before he confronts Pharoah: I will…teach thee what to say.’
Laura also noted that this encounter between Tuor and Ulmo includes a kind of ‘Annunciation’ prophecy as Ulmo speaks of a child that shall be born of Tuor.
Mike commented that the city of Gondolin provides a very glamorous setting at the start of Tuor’s life there, and Julie observed that Turgon is not like Thingol of Doriath in his welcoming of this Man. But Mike pointed out that Tuor does not arrive to demand Turgon’s daughter as Beren visits Thingol to request Luthien’s hand in marriage. With Tuor and Idril the attraction grows after he has been accepted by Turgon her father.
Pat and I remarked on the quality of Tuor’s voice which amazes the people of Gondolin because it is ‘deep and rolling’ while their voices are ‘fair as the plash of fountains’. As Pat pointed out, the description of Tuor’s voice echoes conventional descriptions of the Sea, and again links to Ulmo.
Anne was interested in the way Tuor withholds information from Turgon and wondered how the outcome would have changed if he had not done so. In this context – the construction of the escape tunnel, she also observed that it reminded her of Colditz.
We considered the practicalities of disposing of vast quantities of rubble that must have been dug out to create this new secret tunnel. Ian finally remarked that often people see things happening but just don’t ask about them. I suggested that being a ‘legendary tale’ this was the kind of detail that can’t be asked.
Mike diverted us to more thoughtful matters when he questioned Tolkien’s apparently uncomplicated pairing of beauty and goodness and ugliness and evil. I agreed that it seems simplistic, but I thought that in fact ‘goodness’, or ‘virtue’ within the confines of the stories is never quite as perfect as it seems no matter how beautiful a character may be. Even Luthien, the most beautiful Elf ever to have existed, was from one perspective wilful, rebellious, and deceitful. Arwen, her descendant, similarly follows her own choice, to the distress of her father, and her grandmother was no less rebellious. I also cited the example of Aragorn, who, while not ‘beautiful’ was virtuous.
Ian then remarked that the key to this might be Frodo’s observation that he would ‘feel foul and seem fair’ if he was wicked. This, Ian suggested, is a sign of how mixed up the moral qualities have become in the Third Age, so moral identity is less easy to judge. The further back you go, Ian suggested, the clearer the division appears after the mixing of LotR.
Among the archaic vocabulary Tolkien includes in this chapter, Mike queried the use of ‘rede’ – to advise, and asked if it was connected with ‘read’ (in the ordinary sense). I thought it would not be, but upon checking discovered that Mike was indeed correct: ‘rede’ and ‘read’ both derive from OE ‘rædan’ – to advise.
Pat then directed our attention to the description of Tuor when Idril first sees him, and Mike suggested that it has an erotic edge, but as he observed, Tolkien was a young man when he wrote this version. Ian checked and found that it would have been composed while Tolkien was recovering from his time on the Somme. As Laura observed, he had got himself a ‘blighty one’, and made extraordinary use of his convalescence.
Anne was surprised that she had found herself deeply involved by the battle for Gondolin, as she usually finds battle unappealing. Laura remarked that the mechanical beasts of war were like the tanks of World War 1 because they contain Orcs and are very dangerous to those inside, as well as to the defenders of the city.
Ian remarked on Tolkien’s writing of the sounds and sights of war with the accuracy of experience.
Pat drew us away from these practicalities with her observation that on one page detailing the various battalions of defenders colours are mentioned 20 times. We spent some time considering the range of colours – Ian suggested they were not the full spectrum, and Laura found the precise descriptions unappealing. I remarked that the finely described devices and liveries reminded me of the importance in the Middle Ages of heraldry, and the heralds’ need to identify all the knights and their followers.
Julie thought the gold and silver tassels included in one livery would be hazardous in a battle
Pat was impressed by little Eäredel’s bite which put Meglin at a disadvantage momentarily. But Anne was concerned by the earlier description of the infant, which sounded to her as if it was seriously anaemic: ‘this babe was of great beauty; his skin was of a shining white’. I thought this conformed to an ancient idea of nobility.
Mike picked up the occasional use of the verb ‘egg’, and wondered if it was related to the noun. Ian checked and cited the Norse origin as ‘egg’ = to urge on, and found in the process the famous example from Caxton’s preface to his Eynedos which shows the problems of dialect forms.
Anne thought the relationship between Tuor and Voronwë resembled that of Frodo and Sam, though not everyone seemed persuaded of this. Voronwë is certainly not as deferential as Sam, but there is a pattern of supportive companionship.
Glancing at my notes, I am startled to see an entry for myself that seems to read ‘great measles’, instantly prompting medievalist conjectures about Tolkien including leprosy in the text. A moment’s consideration reminds me that these are actually ‘great weasels’, one of the predatory animals that encroach upon the borders of Gondolin along with the ‘sons of Orcs’. [Note to self – handwriting practice!]
However, the great weasels reminded both Laura and Julie of Toad of Toad Hall.
Anne commented that Idril reminded her of Cassandra in her increasingly gloomy prophecies, and Laura remarked that Turgon would then echo Priam, and she found this appropriate as Turgon focuses on defending the beauty and wealth of his city. Laura further observed that Turgon utters a serious complaint against the Valar. There is no reverence for them.
Anne remarked on the ‘spell of bottomless dread’ with which Melko controls his slaves and vassals. It sounded to me like the most terrible kind of brainwashing.
Laura was disturbed by the concept of the machine/dragons that screamed when injured by defenders of the city in the pitched battle, and she wondered to what extent they were ‘alive’. I suggested it was just the sound of metal contorted under any kind of extreme pressure. Ian proposed 2 possibilities, (1) that the creatures were ‘cyborgs’, sentient but mechanical, and (2) that they were steam powered. Julie thought that some where indeed alive, and Laura pronounced this to be yet another of Melko’s cruelties.
It was generally agreed that this story was an easier read than some we have read recently, and yet it did not provoke the same intensity of discussion as some of those. It was almost as though we all enjoyed the atmospheric descriptions and found less to challenge than usual. Maybe it reflects Ian’s earlier comment on things being simpler and more straightforward at this very early stage in the composition of the legendarium. It seems as though it was perhaps mostly too beautiful, with less tension and uncertainty than we are used to.
We have a month’s gap before our next full meeting. Some of us will meet on 22nd Sept while some will be at Oxonmoot. Ian helpfully proposed that those meeting in the Southfarthing should compare The Silmarillion account of Gondolin with the one we have just read.
For our first meeting in October we shall read the next chapter: ‘The Nauglafring: The Necklace of the Dwarves’. A glance at Beowulf and the episode of the Brising nacklace may be worthwhile.