Academic journal article Mythlore

The Fall of Gondolin and the Fall of Troy: Tolkien and Book II of the Aeneid

Academic journal article Mythlore

The Fall of Gondolin and the Fall of Troy: Tolkien and Book II of the Aeneid

Article excerpt

IN CHAPTER 23 OF THE QUENTA SILMARILLION, entitled "Of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin," J.R.R. Tolkien describes, in some eight paragraphs and less than 1,600 words of prose, how in the First Age the Elven city of Gondolin, ruled by Turgon, was overrun by Morgoth, whose Balrogs, orcs, wolves, and dragons destroyed the city. The brief account highlights the death of Maeglin, the dark elf who betrayed his people, and the escape of the human Tuor, his Elven wife Idril, and their son Earendil, along with the remnant of the Elves of Gondolin. But as for the battle within the city, the narrator says only,

Of the deeds of desperate valour there done, by the chieftains of the noble houses and their warriors, and not the least by Tuor, much is told in The Fall of Gondolin: of the battle of Ecthelion of the Fountain with Gothmog Lord of Balrogs in the very square of the King, where each slew the other, and of the defence of the tower of Turgon by the people of his household, until the tower was overthrown; and mighty was its fall and the fall of Turgon in its ruin. (Silmarillion [Silm.] 242)

The story referred to--The Fall of Gondolin--can be found in a much fuller form in The Book of Lost Tales Part II, a collection of Tolkien's unpublished writings edited by his son Christopher and published in 1984. In nearly thirty pages and over 16,000 words, Tolkien tells a much richer and more moving story of the events summarized in Quenta Silmarillion; the longer narrative takes us through the details of the battle in painful, heroic, and tragic tones. And the story Tolkien gives us reminds us of another tale: we have a city thought impregnable, an enemy who enters through treachery and guile, defenders who are caught unawares, and a citadel set in flame; we have a hero who leads the resistance but, upon the death of his king, is forced to retreat, escaping with his son and the last survivors by a hidden path and into an extended exile. The similarities with the story of the fall of Troy as told in Book II of Virgil's Aeneid cannot be denied: Tolkien certainly borrowed from the first-century Roman epic in telling us the story of the fall of Gondolin. In fact, that Tolkien himself clearly meant for us to connect the fall of Gondolin with the story of Troy is strongly suggested in the last lines of The Fall of Gondolin wherein the narrator muses, "Nor Bablon, nor Ninwi, nor the towers of Trui, nor all the many takings of Rum that is greatest among Men, saw such terror as fell that day upon Amon Gwareth in the kindred of the [Elves]" (The Book of Lost Tales Part II [BoLT2] 196). Certainly we can trace clear parallels in motifs and episodes in the two works; however, I would draw our attention to the ways that Tolkien's story diverges from Virgil's work, ways that ultimately redirect the meaning and impact of the story of the fall of the great city. In short, Tolkien did not just gloss the epic: he changed its entire focus, for Tolkien's work, though drawing on the Roman narrative, is ultimately both Germanic and Christian in its themes.

Tolkien's connection with the classical world--the ways he tapped into the philosophies, myths, literatures, and histories of the Greeks and Romans--has been explored by various critics. Both new perspectives and thorough reviews of major critical observations can be found in the section "Tolkien and Ancient Greek and Classical and Medieval Latin" in Tolkien and the Invention of Myth: A Reader, edited by Jane Chance. (1) Various entries in the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment likewise address the points of connection between Tolkien's works and his classical sources and inspirations. Still, only one critic has previously directly addressed the relationship between the accounts of the fall of Tolkien's Gondolin and the fall of Troy in The Aeneid: in his 1992 essay "Aeneidic and Odyssean Patterns of Escape and Return in Tolkien's The Fall of Gondolin and The Return of the King," David Greenman notes various similarities and differences between the two tales. …

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