A ‘new’ book by the late J.R.R Tolkien, published on the 30th of August, may well be his last. The Fall of Gondolin tells the story of the beautiful Elven city of Gondolin and its eventual destruction by Morgoth, the original Dark Lord and source of all evil in Middle Earth; Sauron, the main antagonist of The Lord of the Rings, was originally his lieutenant. Despite its very recent publication date, the book has been in the works for a very long time—Tolkien wrote it while in hospital recovering from his time at the Somme in World War One. The work was edited by Tolkien’s son Christopher Lee and illustrated by Alan Lee, the same artist who worked on The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
John Garth, a Tolkien biographer and author of Tolkien and the Great War, describes the book as “a quest story with a reluctant hero who turns into a genuine hero – it’s a template for everything Tolkien wrote afterwards […] it’s really Tolkien limbering up for what he would be doing later.” Richard Ovenden, the current Bodley’s Librarian (head of the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford), says of Tolkien, “he was a genius with a unique approach to literature […] his imagined world was created through a combination of his deep scholarship, his rich imagination and powerful creative talent, and informed by his own lived experiences”.
Tolkien is undeniably one of the greats of the fantasy genre. But others, partly influenced by him, have forged their own paths. Ursula Le Guin, who died earlier this year, made a name for herself in the male-dominated genre of fantasy and science fiction; literary critic Harold Bloom wrote, “Le Guin, more than Tolkien, has raised fantasy into high literature, for our time”. As a left-wing feminist with interests in anarchism, environmentalism, and Taoism, Le Guin’s work consciously addresses issues of race, class, gender, state, and society. For her, fantasy presented the opportunity to explore not only impossible alternate realities but also possible ones—to give a voice to images of what society could look like. Famously, she commented that “we live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art – the art of words.”
Applicants for English Literature might like to explore the history of fantasy and science fiction, examining Tolkien’s legacy and the themes he introduced to fantasy literature in particular. Students may also be interested in the socio-political aspect; do these genres have a prophetic voice in society? Do you agree with Isaac Asimov that “science fiction […] serves the good of humanity”?
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