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…
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–
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…
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!
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…