Beyond the Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote an impressive number of works, and another one is being released this month.
In April 2018 news broke that a “new” J.R.R. Tolkien novel would be published and available in August 2018. The Fall of Gondolin has been described as the first “real” story of Middle Earth. It will extend the Lord of the Rings canon, giving diehard fans something to do after their 11-plus-hour movie marathons.
That’s right: It takes 11.4 hours to watch all three extended editions of the films to witness the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy — and that’s ignoring the new Hobbit trilogy (and the classic cartoon version). True fans of the works of J.R.R. (John Ronald Reuel) Tolkien know the LOTR saga is only a blip in the history of Middle Earth — the casual moviegoer has likely never even heard of The Silmarillion, which documents the entire history of Tolkien’s world up until the events of the Lord of the Rings.
In other words, those 11.4 hours would make up less than a chapter of the chronicle of Middle Earth — which is not to say they’re unimportant. No, quite the opposite.
Tolkien, whose works have been published posthumously under the guidance of his son, Christopher Tolkien, had three narratives from The Silmarillion that, in his opinion, warranted full-length novels. These stories have been pieced together from his unfinished works. For those unfamiliar with the history of Tolkien’s publications, here is a breakdown (timeline courtesy of the Tolkien Society).
1937: The Hobbit: or There and Back Again is published in London. The Tolkien Society says this now-famous novel began as a story jotted out on a blank exam page and first became a bedtime story for Tolkien’s children. This is the story of Bilbo Baggins, whose quiet life in the Shire is, to put it lightly, disrupted when Thorin and co. hire him as a “burglar.” This story takes Bilbo from the Shire to The Lonely Mountain to take back a Dwarfin Kingdom from the dragon Smaug. The quest drives a young Hobbit to find his courage and along the way discover a mysterious ring — setting the stage for the future Lord of the Rings trilogy.
1954: The Fellowship of the Ring is published, followed by The Two Towers.
1955: The Return of the King is published, the third and final installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy which, of course, would remain Tolkien’s most famous work.
1973: J.R.R. Tolkien passes away at the age of 81, leaving behind a wealth not just of dollars but of unpublished writings in the care of his son, Christopher Tolkien.
1977: The Silmarillion is published under the supervision of Christopher Tolkien. It provides an overview of the mythology of Middle Earth written by J.R.R. Tolkien, including stories of the origin of the universe, the High Elves and the Early Ages.
1980: Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle Earth is published. The Numenoreans, a race not far removed from human, were gifted with long life and would eventually leave Numenor for Middle Earth. Lord of the Rings moviegoers will recognize the name Isildur — son of Elendil. He was born in Numenor and became High King of Gondor and Arnor. He is famous for being the one to cut off Sauron’s finger and obtain the One Ring, but he failed to destroy it. The rest, as they say, is Lord of the Rings history. If that doesn’t sound familiar, the name Aragorn (great-great-grandson of Isildur) likely rings a bell. Aragorn was the last of the Dúnedain, a race even closer to human than Numenorean but still known for long life. Still nothing? OK, how about the name Viggo Mortensen? Enough said.
1981: With the help of Christopher Tolkien, biographer Humphrey Carpenter finished The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, a collection of 354 letters written by the author himself. His correspondences — with family, friends (notably including C. S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia), and publishers — are revealing. Through them, readers can unearth the man behind the novels and come to understand his inspirations. For example, Tolkien was considered a devout Catholic, and it’s thought that his faith inspired C. S. Lewis’s transformation from atheist to Christian. Both authors created worlds through their writing that contain undeniable elements of Christian allegory. For Tolkien, a good example is in the Elves, a race that represents perfection unattainable by men after their fall from grace (and Tolkien’s canon shows that men are good at nothing if not falling from grace — looking at you again, Isildur). That said, Tolkien discussed the details of the religions of his written world at length. In one letter, freely available through his estate, Tolkien discusses the contrasting views of depravity and death held by Christians, elves and the men of his novels. His explanations show how careful he was in devising a world that gave each race a position in the spiritual as well as physical status quo.
1983 – 2002: The History of Middle Earth series is published in a whopping 13 volumes (the 13th volume is dedicated to providing an index for readers to navigate the other tomes). The texts are comprised of Tolkien’s writings — some never-before published and others republished from other texts — with annotations by Christopher Tolkien. While this series is possibly the penultimate guide to Tolkien’s world, it also drew ire from critics who began to question whether Tolkien’s son wanted to honor his father’s work or merely profit from his fame and the fervor of the LOTR fandom. (This line of criticism is alive and well in anticipation of The Fall of Gondolin. The Onion released an article in April 2018 with a title that could have been from any major news outlet: “New ‘Lord of the Rings’ Book ‘The Fall of Gondolin’ To Be Released This Year.” Why doesn’t this sound as outlandish as the average Onion article? Well, possibly because the idea of a “new” book from an author who’s been dead for 45 years is satire enough. That said, the novel remains enough of a mystery that fans will find it difficult to resist seeing what Christopher Tolkien has been up to.)
2007: The Children of Hurin is published by Christopher Tolkien. Like The Fall of Gondolin, this story was earmarked by Tolkien himself to become its own full narrative. That said, his son was left with the task of transforming his notes into a full-fledged novel. It tells the story of Turin and Nienor, the children of Hurin who were cursed by the original evil of Middle Earth, Morgoth, when their father dared to defy him.
2017: Beren and Lúthien is published by Christopher Tolkien, rounding out the trio of stories that Tolkien envisioned as stand-alone novels. Beren, a mortal man, must complete the impossible task of robbing the evil Morgoth in order to marry the elf Lúthien. The challenge was set forth by Lúthien’s father, an elvish lord who deemed Beren unworthy of his daughter.
And this wraps up the works both written by Tolkien himself and completed by others from his notes on Middle Earth. Throughout his career he published numerous other books, including an adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and a translation of Beowulf that was completed by Christopher Tolkien. His academic pursuits took him from earning his degree at Exeter College at Oxford University to a professorship at Leeds and then at Oxford. In the interim, upon completing his degree, he enlisted in the British Army during World War I. During World War II, he was recruited as a potential code breaker. He was a member of celebrated literary circles T.B.C.S. and the Inklings and was in every way a man as interesting as his books.
With that (believe it or not) brief summary of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, the lay reader is ready to open the pages of The Fall of Gondolin. While this article avoided too many spoilers, Tolkien experts are undoubtedly already familiar with the tale of the Elvin city. That said, fans will have to read carefully to see what is old, what is new, and what is unexpected in what may be the final great story from the mind of J.R.R. Tolkien.