Book Notes: Elaine Stritch and J. R. R. Tolkien

Today I finished reading Alexandra Jacobs’ biography of Elaine Stritch and Christopher Tolkien’s edition of his father’s writings on the Gondolin story.

The Stritch biography is casual, eminently readable, and fairly superficial. Jacobs never spends more than a couple paragraphs on any subject involving psychological depth: alcoholism, sexuality, the precise roots of Stritch’s showy, sometimes cruel public persona. Precisely how much you enjoy the book will depend on your interest in the names and stories of B- and C-list celebrities of the mid-20th century, who come and go as quickly as the citizens of Oz in Jacobs’ brisk overview of a career that never quite took off in the way it might have. Stritch reached iconic status without having any sustained success to presage it: that she won her only Tony Award for her career retrospective one-woman show is telling. Quite why that happened is certainly too deep a subject for Jacobs, who is content to run through amusing or alarming anecdotes about her behavior without connecting any dots. So driven is the book by Stritch’s resume that her nearly ten-year marriage to John Bay, and his death from a brain tumor, barely leave an impression. If I sound down on the book, I’m actually not: what it sets out to do, it does very well, and anyone fascinated by Stritch should read it. Just go in expecting synthesis, not analysis.

The Fall of Gondolin, read in the wake of Christopher Tolkien’s death last month, inevitably feels like an epilogue to his nearly fifty year effort to organize, elucidate, and publish his father’s writings in the Silmarillion tradition. Like Beren and Luthien, it examines complete texts and excerpts from different versions of its title story, one of the key narratives of what would eventually be called the First Age of Middle-Earth. Together with The Children of Hurin, the three books can perhaps be seen as an alternative point of readerly entry to that Age, over the published Silmarillion, which can be rather daunting. The editorial apparatus of Beren and Luthien and The Fall of Gondolin can be daunting as well, of course, though it’s much restrained by comparison to The History of Middle-Earth, and the key texts are more independently readable and more attractively presented.

The Fall of Gondolin is dominated by the only two non-epitomizing version of the Gondolin story J. R. R. Tolkien ever wrote: the very early “Lost Tales” version, and the incomplete account he began and abandoned around 1951. The 1951 version was previously published in Unfinished Tales, but I don’t believe I’ve ever read it before; if I have, it’s been years. It’s strikingly good, especially by contrast to the Lost Tale, which is nightmarishly clotted and clunky in its style. Christopher Tolkien remarks that the abandonment of the 1951 version is perhaps the saddest of his father’s many failures to complete Middle-Earth writings, and I’m inclined to agree. Like The Children of Hurin, which was also incomplete but had been developed enough that a continuous version could be contrived, it brings the control of prose style that Tolkien developed in the course of writing and revising The Lord of the Rings to bear on Middle-Earth material that otherwise exists only in summary versions and juvenilia. The late revisions to the Lay of Leithian, the verse version of the Beren and Luthien story, are likewise marked by a richness of detail and style that suggests what might have been had Tolkien had the time to bring the whole mass of Silmarillion material up to date.

Full tellings, however fragmentary, of these Great Tales make the status of the Silmarillion as an invented mythology more than an abstraction. To read a part in detail is to recognize the scope of the whole, and moments of heroism and loss, sacrifice and redemption that can feel meaningless when summarized have extraordinary power when described in the plain yet powerful style Tolkien had honed by this point, with its calculated archaic flourishes and its clear, quiet evocation of the natural world. What makes The Fall of Gondolin a truly fitting capstone to the history of the Silmarillion is that it also describes what we know about the never-properly-begun Tale of Earendel, which was to be its culmination. That story, into which all the interwoven strands of the Silmaril saga feed, was once not simply the end of the First Age but the end of the entire mythology, before the development of The Lord of the Rings into a tale of the future of that same world. The summaries of the Tale of Earendel used here were written before that happened, and so they have a finality and a grandeur that the later, “true” version can’t. It’s ironic that the very evolution as a writer that allowed Tolkien to begin his most effective versions of the Great Tales not only resulted in a work whose editing, publication, and subsequent fame prevented their completion, but also made those tales less complete and forceful than they had previously been. Something as vast and complicated as the Silmarillion was, perhaps, always doomed to be seen only in fragments and imperfections, and The Fall of Gondolin is, now, the last piece of that perpetually incomplete puzzle.

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