Recent Dorkiness

Wrestling With Tolkien, Part One

So, yeah, as a card-carrying dyed-in-the-wool dork, I am of course a fan of JRR Tolkien. I read the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings in quick succession when I was 10 or 11, have returned and re-read them more than once in the years since, the full magilla. Except... Well... I've never read the Silmarillion. I've owned a copy for years. I've made more than one attempt to scale that literary mountain. But I've always failed. Whether it was the Biblical tone of the early pages, the dry historical aspect it takes on later, the mix of those approaches with the balladry... I just don't know. But I've never been able to do more than dip a toe into the book here and there, soak up bits and pieces of it, often out of order, or purely for the purpose of research to answer lingering questions for myself. Questions like, “What exactly IS Gandalf, anyway?” or the simple and often-asked “Balrog?” (The short answers to those questions, by the way, are, in order, “An Istari,” and “It's a Maiar.” Which tell you absolutely nothing, but bear with me.) But, you know... I'm a grown damn man. It's far past time for me to stop making excuses. If I want to read this thing, I just need to sit down and do it. Moreover, if I am to consider myself a genuine professional dork rather than a faker or (worse!) a poser... I HAVE TO read it, if only for my own nerdy betterment. And so here we are: The Silmarillion, from page one. My impressions and (hopefully) insights into a book that's flummoxed me for most of my life. Complete with whatever half-assed research and dubious scholarship I can muster to accompany it. Speaking of which... For those of you who aren't familiar with the Silmarillion (though I can't imagine anyone who fits that description is still reading at this point), it is in many ways Tolkien's life's work, a collection of notes, poems, ballads, scriptures, histories, and

Tolkien the Elder

genealogies that inform and lurk in the background of his more popular works. He started work on it as early as 1917, and continued on, writing in what his son Christopher describes as a series of battered notebooks and scraps of paper, through the writing of his novels and beyond, right up until his death in 1972. He never stopped tinkering with it, changing it, adding to it. Christopher, in his introduction to the book, makes it sound like both an idle time-killer and an obsession. Or, in other words... a hobby.But a serious hobby, to be sure. Tolkien the Elder very much wanted this work to be published, and initially considered it essential that it be released in connection with the Lord of the Rings. His history of Middle Earth was originally intended as a mythology for his beloved England, a creation myth and heroic story-cycle for a land that had none (the Celtic tradition being entirely too... Scottish for his liking, I suppose). He disabused himself of that notion eventually, but kept working on the Silmarillion anyway, still intending to publish it when and if he ever managed to hammer it all into a shape he was happy with. Then he died. But his son's wish to honor his father (and, no doubt, his fans' desire for more Middle Earth goodness) still made that publication happen. Christopher Tolkien cobbled together the various disparate elements of his father's notes as best he could, picking out the least-contradictory versions of stories and histories written and changed over the course of 50 years, filling in holes in the history by making stuff up out of whole cloth where necessary, and getting the help of fantasy author Guy Gavriel Kay in polishing the more unfinished prose. That the resulting book feels more like a patchwork quilt than a cohesive work is unsurprising, and in fact was Tolkien's intent. The Silmarillion is supposed to be a collection of tales, songs, and histories told by the various peoples of Middle Earth, a fictional “found object” of a culture relating its own story. So a few inconsistencies would be okay. Still, compiling all those notes into something that made even the slightest bit of sense was a tremendous undertaking for the younger Tolkien, and if the final product didn't entirely reflect his father's final intentions for it, well... At least he made sure we got to read it. The Silmarillion hit bookstore shelves in 1977, five years after its author's death, and met with... mixed reactions. Critics who were expecting another lyrical fantasy epic blasted it as “lifeless,” and the work's mixed narrative styles threw casual readers off. Few loved it, it seems, and most found it a fascinating curiosity, at best. It's grown in stature and respect since, of course, and I know at least a couple of people who do genuinely love it (though, it's worth noting, not as much as they love Lord of the Rings). At this point, it's sort of like the dork Ulysses: it's difficult, and a little boring, but to be a serious student of modern fantasy writing, you kind of have to tackle it. Which brings us, again, to page one. Here goes...

The Silmarillion is divided into several different “books” chronicling the history of Middle Earth, from its mythological beginnings to the War of the Ring and the end of the Third Age (as chronicled in the Lord of the Rings). So far, all I’ve read on this attempt is the creation myth, comprising the first two books, the Ainulindalë and the Valaquenta, and the beginning of the third and largest book, the Quenta Silmarillion itself.

Which… That right there might be enough to tell you if you’ve got what it takes to tackle The Silmarillion. If you hate long, hard-to-read names, you might as well stop with the table of contents. Because if you can’t parse Ainulindalë, just hang it up. The book’s stupid-thick with that stuff. Seriously. You’ve never seen such an amalgamation of umlauts and weird multi-syllables in your life. Crazy. But, once you sound it all out, also quite beautiful. I mean, here:

Sure, it helps that it’s Liv Tyler saying it, but damn. That’s some pretty shit.

Where was I? Ah, yes…

Page. One.

This is the part of the book that reads like the Bible, and with good reason: it IS the Bible. A devout Christian of the Roman Catholic variety, Tolkien does something quite ingenious with his creation myth. He establishes a single, monotheistic Capital-G God who creates and orchestrates the actions of what are essentially angels, who then go on to become a pantheon of gods (lower-case) for Middle Earth. These angel-gods do all the heavy lifting in the shaping of the physical world, and– but I’m getting ahead of myself. First, God.

No, no! That’s Odin! Tolkien’s God is named Iluvatar. Or Eru (if you’re sexy).

(Another problem for casual readers: everybody’s got at least two names.)

We’re not given a description of Iluvatar in the text, but in my head, I picture him looking a little like this:

Which probably just means I’m brain-damaged, but what the hell. If I can’t slip Kirby into a conversation somewhere, it’s probably not a conversation worth having.

Anyway. Iluvatar forms his angels (the Ainur) each out of a separate part of his own mind, and sets them to playing a tune. As they learn their parts, the music grows. They start to collaborate and add to it, while still playing around Iluvatar’s central theme, and in this way they create the world out of song. I like this idea particularly. It’s similar to the concept of “the Music of the Spheres,” which–

DEATH! BY! SINGING!

No, no, no! Well, okay… yes. Superman IS using the music of creation to annihilate the spirit of Darkseid, the embodiment of Anti-Life, which actually isn’t too far removed from what Tolkien… Dammit, where was I?

Oh, yeah. The Music of the Spheres. Traditionally, that’s the mathematical/religious harmony of the orbits of the stars and the planets, aka the music of God. But here Tolkien reverses it. In his cosmology, creation doesn’t MAKE music. Creation IS music. It’s one of those ridiculously elegant and lyrical ideas that leap up unexpectedly out of his tales of Hobbits and magic rings to raise the whole work above the level of pulp. It also underscores the importance of music in all his work. It’s why Tom Bombadil sings all the damn time…

…and why music (from simple Shire tavern songs to beautiful Elvish compositions) raises the spirits of the listeners: it puts them just a little bit closer to the creator.

Of course, not everybody wants that. And so, even back in Iluvatar’s heavenly orchestra, there’s discord. Discord that comes from Melkor, the most powerful of the Ainur, who tries to create a tune of his own. His notes aren’t as elegant or good as his creator’s, but they are loud and catchy, and they draw other Ainur away from Iluvatar’s theme and into Melkor’s. Because, you know. There’s always one, right?

So there’s a heavenly cacophony for a while, but Iluvatar brings it all back home by introducing a couple of new themes of his own that overtake Melkor’s and bring the concert to one hell of close. Iluvatar gives Melkor a verbal beat-down for his rebellion, but makes all his discordant notes a part of creation, anyway.

Which brings us to the next thing I really like in Tolkien’s creation myth: the reason for the existence of evil. If all the Ainur are aspects of Iluvatar’s mind, then Melkor’s rebelliousness and ultimate turn to the shadow must be a part of him, too. Which fascinates me to no end. Melkor’s very existence implies a mean streak in Iluvatar himself. He obviously likes Melkor’s rebelliousness, and even encourages it, albeit (in my reading) as a bit of reverse psychology. He yells at Melkor for trying to create something of his own, because that’s actually not a power Iluvatar’s given him. So Iluvatar’s essentially taking his rebellious teenager and telling him, “You’re not good enough to have your own shit.”

No wonder the poor bastard went all emo on him.

But I’m getting ahead of myself again. And I may be mis-reading this sequence anyway. What Iluvatar actually tells Melkor is

And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.

Which is a little different. What he’s really saying is that anything Melkor creates that’s not a part of Iluvatar’s grand scheme is actually part of Iluvatar’s grand scheme anyway, whether Melkor knows it or not. Granted, that might be even more likely to goad this angel/god/kid into rebellion, just to prove dad wrong. But it also speaks to Tolkien’s wider themes. For Tolkien, evil always creates its own downfall, and in doing so brings about a greater good. In Lord of the Rings, for instance, Saruman despoils the forest to raise and equip his army, thus awakening the Ents to action, and spelling his own doom. Sauron puts so much of his power into the One Ring that he can be killed by its destruction, and in the attempt to get it back incites Aragorn to claim his birthright and bring about the Age of Man. And Darkseid, in mastering Anti-Life, leaves himself open to being destroyed utterly by Kryptonian vocal chords recreating the music of Life.

…wait. I got off-course again there somewhere. Ah, never mind…

Whether Iluvatar’s got a mean streak or not, he does play a nasty trick on his new creation by setting Melkor loose on it. Because once the song’s over, Iluvatar fills the Void with this amazing thing they made by uttering a single note.

Yeah, that’s the one. In the middle there.

He imbues this new thing with THE SECRET FIRE (the energy of life itself), but it’s formless. It’s all potential, essentially, and so Iluvatar sends some of the Ainur out of heaven to shape it into the thing they made with their song. There’s a bunch of them, and in entering the physical world, they take on new forms and powers, taking control over various basic aspects of life and matter. The most powerful of them become the Valar, a pantheon of gods for Middle Earth.

The second book (The Valaquenta) is all about the Valar and their names and their jobs, and beyond a few key figures I can’t keep these guys straight at all. There’s Manwe, god of wind, and Ulmo, god of the sea, and Mandos, lord of the dead and Master of Doom…

Oh, for–

Anyway, once I read MASTER OF DOOM, the rest of the Valar just kind of turned into static for me. There’s a lot of them, and it’s hard to remember them all. Maybe I’ll get them straight as I get deeper into things. Well, okay. I did like Nienna, the Lady of Tears and goddess of the Grief That Heals All Wounds. But the rest of them just run together.

Except, OH YEAH… Melkor. He goes along to help shape Middle Earth, but as soon as he gets there… instant asshole! The other Valar build beautiful things and Melkor kicks them over like a bully does sandcastles. And when he’s not doing that, he’s out roaming around in the darkness trying to find all that SECRET FIRE Iluvatar put into the world. But he can’t. Because it’s secret.

(Maybe he should have had a chat with the One-Armed Man…)

Melkor’s inability to find the SECRET FIRE makes him even more bitter and even more angry. He eventually gets so petulent that he KICKS OVER THE SUN, and the other Valar decide they’ve had enough. But because Melkor’s the most powerful of them, they very nearly lose that fight until the emergence of… TULKAS THE MIGHTY!

(Okay, that’s actually Jack Kirby’s Atlas. But Tulkas could totally have been a Kirby character. Just sayin’…)

The last of the Valar to come down from heaven, Tulkas fights and laughs and laughs and fights! He laughs in Melkor’s face! And kicks his ass out into the darkness!

The Valar are aided in shaping Middle Earth by other, lesser Ainur spirits (demi-gods of a sort), who in the physical world are known as the Maiar. Melkor (much as he did during the big heaven-concert) seduces a number of them over to his side as spies and shock troops in his constant struggle to MAKE SURE THE VALAR CAN’T HAVE ANYTHING NICE. Tolkien details a bunch of the Maiar, too, but I can’t remember any of their names at this point. Except for… wait for it… the Balrogs! (ta-daa!)

So, yes. Balrogs are a type of angel/demi-god that Melkor twisted around to the dark side until they became horrible demons wreathed in smoke and flame. Which makes that whole closing scene in the Caves of Chaos– I mean… the Mines of Moria… even more terrifying than it already was. Gandalf dies fighting a genuine, unreconstituted, honest-to-god demon, an evil that’s been festering away literally since before the dawn of time. Damn. Those dwarves didn’t stand a chance.

This, of course, brings us back to our other question. If Gandalf can kill THAT (even if he dies doing it)… What the hell is HE? Well, this super-dramatic scene gives us a hint:

(“Fly, you fools!” is my favorite line in Tolkien, by the way. Just FYI.)

As part of the pre-fight shit-talk, Gandalf tells the Balrog that he is a servant of… THE SECRET FIRE! Which means that he’s a servant of Iluvatar himself. Or, to put it another way… an angel. So there’s that.

And actually, I lied up above. I can remember the name of one other Maiar, who was also seduced by Melkor: Sauron. But I’m sure that guy won’t turn out to be important at all…

Next time: Well, I don’t know, do I? I suspect Melkor will get up to more monkey business, and we might be seeing a few Elf babies, too. But I won’t know until I read a bit more…

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About Mark Brett (432 Articles)
Shaved Yeti. Alien. Writer of stuff. Read my fiction at http://reportsfromthefieldblog.wordpress.com/. Read my thoughts on comic books and other dork culture ephemera at https://dorkforty.wordpress.com/.

7 Comments on Wrestling With Tolkien, Part One

  1. This is awesome.
    Full disclosure: I was never able to get through TLOTR until after I’d read THE SILMARILLION. I thought it was dead boring. But the creation myth and all the history fascinated me, and after I was done with it I was champing at the bit to get my hands on TLOTR…and the rest is history. Or something.
    My own basic thoughts about Tolkien’s over-arching philosophy is that he was basically a product of his times: A European (Engishman, whatever) of the WWI generation. Most of those fellows were borne down with a general sense of decline, obviously due to the tragedies they’d lived in their youth: the world’s best years were over and it was all downhill from now on. Everything used to be better. Everything used to be cleaner, prettier, more whole. Order spiraling inevitably into chaos, style of thing.
    You see it in the original creation myth (Melkor spoiling the music before it is even finished) and in the next chapter, which is an expansion of the creation story (Melkor spoiling stuff before it has time to come to full fruition) and all the way through to nearly the last line of the book, where he refers to the world as “Arda Marred.”
    I came to discover that ALL of Tolkien’s work chronicles decline. When (if) you make it through the SILMARILLION you will probably recognize this yourself: The tale of the Silmarils, and in particular the tribulations of Beren and Luthien, parallel the tale of the Ring–but are a deeper, grander, more important, more beautiful and tragic saga. Everything used to be better in the past–grander, more beautiful and dire, more significant, etc. Even Sauron is a pale successor of a greater evil.
    I don’t know how scholarly you want to be about Tolkien; but if you have not read his preface to the mid-60s edition of TLOTR (his final revisions and corrections to the work) you must track it down and read it. The other thing you must read is Christopher Tolkien’s foreword to THE SILMARILLION, long and dull as it is in parts, because it explains a great deal about not only the MS’s he worked from, but his father’s philosophy and his intentions for the work.
    What you wrote was really interesting and amusing, and, um, happy reading.
    P.S. The Web site below is not mine; it’s just my most habitual Web haunt. You may like it or you may hate it.

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    • I’ve got a sense of the decline already, Joyce. It’s evident just from Lord of the Rings itself. Even the Hobbit, really.

      I have read Christopher’s foreword, and (just this morning) his foreward to the second edition, as well (picked it up for my Kindle, because my paperback copy is decaying and was playing havoc with my allergies). That edition also has a letter from Tolkien to his publisher about his intent for the Silmarillion. I’m about halfway through that, and it’s fascinating. At this point, it’s almost convinced me that Tolkien wasn’t writing so much about a decline for the world as a whole, but a rising action for human beings as we move away from elves and wizards and establish a direct relationship with God. But I want to read more to see if that comes through in the text at all, or if he changed his mind later and just decided that it was all falling to crap.

      Thanks for the praise, though, and the thoughtful comment. Both are much-appreciated. Now… Crap! I better get back to reading…

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  2. Hey Mark… I really enjoyed reading your take on The Bibl… uh… The Silmarillion.

    Just one thing, you can’t really be a Tolkien dork unless you go all the way and read his ‘Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth’ (put together by Christopher), his 12 volume set ‘The History of Middle Earth’. Now that is really tough stuff to plow through… and then there is the 2 volume ‘The History of The Hobbit’ by John D. Rateliff which contains substantial text fragments.

    And, a true dork got them when they first came out, (one by one over a period of about 13 years) in hardback of course… so yes, I’m a Tolkien dork and proud of it. I’m assuming that Peter Jackson is using stuff from all of these sources as a basis for all of the extra stuff he’s putting into his 2 movie version of ‘The Hobbit’

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    • I got two volumes of the History of Middle Earth for Christmas a couple of years back. They were much-appreciated, but… Yeah, I’ve never done more than sampled them for interesting parts. They’re still sitting on my “to-read” shelf, though. Maybe, once I’m done with the Silmarillion…

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      • Yeah, the History… is a tough thing to get through. If I hadn’t been buying them one at a time and reading them at about a pace of a book a year, I don’t think I could have gotten through them at all.
        There is also Tolkien’s ‘The Children of Húrin’ which is a longer version of chapter XXI in The Silmarillion (it’s told a couple of other places too). I kind of think that will be the last of hisTolkien’s Middle Earth works that Christopher Tolkien edits… he is 87 after all.

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      • Heh. I bought Children of Hurin on a whim, then heard such bad things that I actually donated it to the library without reading it. Wasn’t that actually written by someone else? Or am I thinking of a different book?

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  3. Hmmm… Hadn’t heard anything about it being written by someone else. It is a tough read (not as tough as The Silmarillion). It might be that Christopher brought in someone to help smooth things out, the way he brought in Guy Kay to help on The Silmarillion… but, I haven’t heard that.

    I passed on ‘The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún’ which came out after Hurin, and is inspired by the legends of Sigurd and the fall of the Niflungs from Norse mythology. I picked one up in Borders when it first came out, skimmed through it and said to myself “Eh, no I don’t think so”.

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  1. Wrestling With Tolkien, Part Two « Dork Forty!
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