Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Fall of Gondolin

I have three fat hardcovers sitting on my nightstand ("bedside table") at the moment: The New Urban Crisis (by Richard Florida), Crude Volatility (by Robert McNally), and The Fall of Gondolin (Tolkien, compiled and edited by his son Chris). Two of these were procured from my public library, the third was purchased new from the local Barnes and Noble.

Guess which one I chose to own.

I've been wanting to write a post for a while about fallen "lost kingdoms" in the fantasy setting...not only the ubiquitousness of the trope (going all the way back to Plato's Atlantis), but the absolute usefulness of such for your fantasy adventure game (or literature, for that matter). Having an Atlantis (or Lemuria or Numenor or Valeria or whatever) can be used to EXPLAIN so many things in your setting...like, where did these weird monsters come from, who invented magic, why are there dungeons dotting the wilderness, etc. Not only that, but with enough time having passed between the fall of the ancient empire and the "present day," there's plenty of excuse for a DM to change meanings/explanations with "new revelations," as warranted by situation and circumstance.

[plus, I have to say that I love...and am happy to steal...certain concepts that come out of these fallen empire tales. I think Martin's "Valerian steel" makes a great justification for a +2 magic blades, for example (+1 blades being of the "castle-forged" variety) and I once did a whole magic system based on MZB's Fall of Atlantis book]

But Gondolin is a little different.

I've long been fascinated with Gondolin. Really. I purchased my copy of The Silmarillion probably in the early 2000s (before I started this blog, but not long before) mainly to read about this place (Gondolin) that I'd only heard of...anecdotally...in Tolkien's more famous novels (though wasn't I glad to find all the other juicy fantasy goodness therein!). I'm almost positive my first exposure to "Gondolin" as a concept was during my reading of The Hobbit (sometime in elementary school) when Elrond informs the protagonists that their swords were made in Gondolin for "the Goblin Wars" and that Glamdring had once been worn by the king of Gondolin.

And I'm sure that I probably confused Gondor with Gondolin the first time I started reading The Lord of the Rings (around middle school)...though by the time I finished the trilogy (late in high school) I managed to figure out these were two VERY different things in Middle Earth, in terms of both place and history.

The Fall of Gondolin book is new, a compilation of all the tales written of Tuor (a human transplant to the elven stronghold) and the final days of the city-state, plus commentary and history provided by Chris Tolkien. It is not a single tale, but a record of the many times Tolkien sat down and rewrote the thing. After all, it was the first of his (written) stories of "Middle Earth." For those who haven't read it, I'll provide am all-too-brief synopsis:

Tuor a pseudo-neanderthal hobo wanders the wild coastline for many years, wishing he had a boat. One day a god rises from the sea and gives him a message to deliver to Gondolin, along with an elven Sancho Panza sidekick to show him the secret entrance to the city, which is hidden inside this circle of mountains. The message: the elves of Gondolin need to stop sitting on their duffs and take the fight to Melko (later Morgoth, AKA Satan) or their city will fall. High King Turgon likes the young man but has zero intention of marching to war when he's spent centuries building up his arsenal behind the most siege-resistant city that ever existed. Tuor quickly gives up his task, partly because he prefers civilization but mostly because he's smitten with Idril, the king's daughter. Once he's shaved and groomed, she likes him, too, and they get married.

Unfortunately, there's another elf, Maeglin (cf. Iago) who's not thrilled with Tuor's arrival, and doubly irritated with his marriage into the royal family (something he hoped for himself). While wandering in the mountains, he's captured by Melko's minions and turns coat, agreeing to aid in taking the city. Melko starts kitting out his army in plans for a sneak attack.

Meanwhile, Idril has a premonition/dream that things are about to fall apart and tells Tuor that he needs to gather some loyal henchmen, dig a secret escape tunnel out of the wine cellar, and  don't tell Maeglin anything. Fortunately, Tuor is like most of us and has an easier time following directions when they come from his wife than when they come from God. When the sneak attack arrives during a city-wide holiday party he's not totally unprepared and is able to muster the city's defenses (as much as can be managed against a combined force of balrogs, metal-plated fire-wyrms, and more orcs than the world has ever seen). It's a lost cause and a lot of heroes die heroically, but Tuor is able to escape the final sack of the city...along with his wife, child, and a few hundred followers...and make it back to the safety of the wilderness. The End.

[Maeglin, in case anyone was wondering, gets thrown off a building (by Sancho, I think)]

It's a nifty little tale, both vivid and gripping, and I find it fascinating that Tolkien wrote it in 1917 while recovering from trench fever during the Great War (i.e. World War I). It was the first story he wrote of his Middle Earth "mythos," long before his children were born and he started telling them hobbit stories at bedtime. It was based in large part on his experience with a mind-shattering war, and it is the foundational piece around which he had to fit all his other later stories (the Simarils, the War of the Ring, etc.). He attempted re-writes of the thing multiple times over the course of his life, but only his first draft was ever completed...though for me, despite its flaws, it reads with the kind of mythic majesty that one only finds in the fiery inspiration that first births such creations.

[I'm not really trying to be "poetic" with that last sentence...I'm trying to sum up my feeling on the subject in a single thought. I've had similar experiences with my own writing (at times); I've known other artists who had similar experiences with their works of art...not just writing, but visual, or musical. Sometimes some raw creativity gets lost in later attempts at refinement. Perhaps that's one of the reasons that we tend to hold the works of young artistic geniuses in high esteem, as over time the fire dims and one's accomplishment shifts to longevity and quantity of output from actual, creative quality. Maybe...but I digress]

Anyway, for a D&D setting, such an event can serve some of the same purposes as any other "fallen kingdom" story. It can explain why a people (elves, in this case) are scattered and few and don't build cities or particularly large communities. It can explain why certain magic artifacts have been scattered about (looting, refugees). It can provide a large adventure-site for exploration (if you can find one of the secret ways that lead to its ruins)...one somewhat easier to get to than a sunken island.

For me, I also look at the tale as one with a lesson to be learned regarding good and evil. Well, maybe more of a reminder than a "lesson." It's a reminder that when there's evil in world, evil that we're aware of, we need to find the courage to confront it, rather than sit in our comfortable, protected strongholds...especially if you have the power to do so. Turgon was given a great gift in Gondolin: a place to build his city in peace and security, a place to grow his people, a place with the time and resources to equip them with the tools needed to wage war against a real force of evil in the world (Melko). And then he sat on them. And did nothing. And a god sent a messenger to tell him to get it in gear. And he still sat, comfortable and complacent and secure.

And while he did that, evil bided its time, and found a way to destroy everything Turgon had created.

Maeglin was a bad actor who helped bring down Gondolin, but there are always bad actors. Appease one...or exile him or make him a "non-person"...and another one will probably, eventually show up to spoil your applecart. Even if Maeglin had not been tempted by evil left unchecked, someone would have. That is what evil does: it sways us to its side and corrupts us, makes us forget our better, higher purpose. Tolkien's allegory is often blunt in this regard (orcs being corrupted elves, balrogs being corrupted angels, etc.), but Maeglin is a far more subtle one...and just as true.

We live in an imperfect world, and we are imperfect people. It makes for a good testing ground for us, a place to develop our souls...it also (to use Tolkien's creation allegory) makes for a rather amazing symphony of divine music, when one can see it from a "higher perspective," filled with dazzling notes of touching beauty. But that development of our souls requires struggle...painful struggle at times. No, we can't ever achieve "total victory" over capital-E evil, no more than we can ever file off all the flaws that lurk in the shadows of our own hearts. But then, "victory over evil" isn't really the point...it is the struggle, the fact that you have the courage to try, and the conviction to endure the test...to strive against that which we know is wrong IS the point. The striving is what matters.

Failing to stand against evil may buy you some time, but it always, eventually leads to ruin.

Nothing lasts forever.


  1. First of all, this is the most musical and soaring post you’ve written in the years I’ve read you, and bully for that.

    My commentary on it is that it’s almost impossible to imagine the implied setting of fantasy medieval Europe or wherever within which D&D is presented without some Ur-kingdom which has fallen.

    Where did these things come from? They’re not new. They were made before the dark ages that preceded this one. It’s the only way it makes sense.

    Plato lived in a time that followed a long dark age after the fall of the eastern Mediterranean and Levantine kingdoms of the Bronze Age. He knew ruins and buried secrets lay all around. He knew of the Trojan Wars and likely of the Exodus. And from these mythical journeys he conjured up Atlantis.

    All cultures are built on something that came long before (except maybe those first ones 12,000 years ago, I don’t know.) The point is, whatever setting you make up or adapt for D&D is in a way either a fallen empire or a rebirth from the time of a fallen empire.

  2. “Glory dwelt in that city of Gondolin of the Seven Names, and its ruin was the most dread of all the sacks of cities upon the face of Earth. Nor Bablon [Babylon], nor Ninwi [Nineveh], nor the towers of Trui [Troy], nor all the many takings of Rûm [Rome] that is greatest among Men, saw such terror as fell that day upon Amon Gwareth in the kindred of the Gnomes; and this is esteemed the worst work that Melko has yet thought of in the world. "

    It's interesting that this is how he starts the legendarium, with the fall, and that it is the greatest fall among many, the archetype to which later falls (in this text seeming definitively to occur in the same world) are compared.

    Also interesting is the fact that Tolkien is about twenty-five as he writes this, and in the middle of the greatest conflagration in the history of the world thus far . It is essentially juvenilia which he refines later on, but he continues to refer back to it as though it was a power source for later texts: that point of inspiration, that age he was, that time and place he was at. The Elder Days before the Fall. Almost as though the sweet melancholy of older Tolkien is in part about the remembrance of his youth and its passing.

    Beautiful post btw. Thanks for writing it.

  3. Wonderful post. And my favorite of all three excellent books. I had always wanted a more detailed story of the Fall of Gondolin, it captured my imagination the first time I read the Silmarillion. I was not disappointed. If anything the book exceeded my hopes.