Daniel Larison, senior editor: The Fall of Gondolin by J.R.R. Tolkien: This new volume is the final edition of Tolkien’s writings on Middle-earth prepared by his son Christopher. It is effectively the last of the unfinished tales to be published. It contains the original version of the tale of Idril and Tuor and Melko’s conquest of Gondolin, the secret haven of the Noldoli (later Noldor), and the later revisions that Tolkien made to the story over the following decades. First composed while Tolkien was in the field hospital during his service in WWI (most likely during the Battle of the Somme), the original story tells of how the man Tuor discovers the city and how he came to marry Idril, the daughter of King Turgon. Tolkien intended to follow this story with the tale of their son, Eärendel, but like the revised version of this story that one was never completed. We see the early stages of Tolkien’s world-building with this glimpse of heroes from the First Age. In the early version, the Noldor are still referred to as Gnomes, Morgoth is dubbed Melko (instead of Melkor), and Tuor is not yet related to Turin, one of the children of Hurin. Many of the main characters and events from the story had an enormous influence on the shaping of Middle-earth, and we hear some of their echoes in the deeds of the more familiar characters that we encounter in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s scholarship in Anglo-Saxon comes through with some of his word choices–using rede when he could say counsel or advice–and his wartime experience lends his descriptions of the battle scenes a striking, brutal realism. Unfortunately, the revised version ends with Tuor’s entrance into Gondolin, and so we won’t ever know what the completed tale would have been like.
Gilbert T. Sewall, contributor: I’ve been reading University of Virginia historian Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804. This impressive 2016 survey combines decades of fresh, often harsh scholarship that supplants old-style accounts of patriots and English tyrants. Backed up with extensive notations, Taylor’s book unravels complex European commercial and power relations in eighteenth-century North America. Beginning with a continental overview and a distinct chapter on slavery, Taylor cuts to the 1774 Coercive Acts to give a detailed account of events culminating in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. After victory, there were winners and losers; the landed and commercial elites were winners. These Federalists used the “creative fiction” of a sovereign people, Taylor suggests too cynically, taking control of a new republic in their self-interest. He minimizes rapidly ascendant American nationalism extant from Boston to the Carolinas. Covering many dimensions ignored in the past, Taylor features—I give just two examples here—the plight of the Loyalists and Haiti’s rebellion as trigger for the Louisiana Purchase. Lest we forget slavery was in the social equation and gender relations were not equal, Taylor makes certain to check all boxes, sometimes tendentiously, detracting from an otherwise welcome account. Destined to become a classic, Taylor’s overview joins established works by Samuel Eliot Morison, Richard Hofstadter, and Gordon Wood.
I’ve revisited another classic, Edward Banfield’s The Unheavenly City, a 1968 masterwork in sociology that would have trouble getting published today. Amid civil disorder, the eminent Harvard sociologist drew a pessimistic picture of the urban lower class, concluding that many human infirmities were intractable. The “capacity of the radically improvident to waste money is almost unlimited,” he said frostily. Upon publication, the book drew cries of racism and blaming the victim, and his career never quite recovered. Banfield observed a person’s relation to time influences all aspects of life: manners, consumption, childrearing, sex, politics—everything. Those who are more future-oriented are better able to deal with setbacks, plan ahead, and make choices that pay off in the long run. For Americans of all races and backgrounds, Banfield would say today, food stamps, Section Eight, and AFDC sap incentive. The dissolution of families makes things worse. Gobbling junk food, playing the lottery, watching trash TV, taking drugs, and casually having children out of wedlock are not ways to improve your life. A depressing thought here: urban collapse and expansion of a government-supported client class accelerated after Banfield published his grim account. Worth a detour on Banfield is Daniel’s diSalvo’s thoughtful appraisal in National Affairs.