Recent Dorkiness

Wrestling With Tolkien, Part Two

Go here for Part One. Okay, so... Before we continue with my look at the Silmarillion, I have a confession to make. I freaking hate Elves. I know, I know. The Elves were Tolkien's favorites, an immortal people of incredible power and sadness that encapsulated many of his core themes. He made up a whole language for them, and used his Middle Earth history to help him shape it. And it's way better than the other fake languages out there, like Klingon or Esperanto. Okay, okay... I kid Esperanto! If it's good enough for Bill Shatner, it's good enough for me! Eclipso right back atcha, JT! (I bet you thought I was gonna slot in a picture of funnybook villain Eclipso there, didn't you? Well, think again! I've got that side of my dork brain under control this time, and-- ...shit. Where was I? Oh, yeah. ELVES. Tolkien loved 'em, and Peter Jackson did his level-best to make them cool. Legolas alone was like some kind of ninja Tonto in those films, except without all the kidnappings and Kemosabes. And the elf army we see in battle at Helm's Deep are stone bad-asses, their sacrifice given pathos by the death of Haldir.

(Also known as “That Guy the Elf.”)

Granted, the presence of the elves at Helm's Deep is a total and somewhat controversial invention of Jackson's. Some say that it undercuts Tolkien's over-arching theme regarding the passing of the elves from Middle Earth as the world comes under the care of Men. But I kind of like it, myself, because it speaks better to the issues raised at the Council of Elrond, the idea that evil can only take root when men of good faith allow it, and that only if the various peoples of Middle Earth work together can they hope to defeat the evil out of Mordor. This is an even more important Tolkien theme, I think, and after the breaking of the Fellowship, having the elves fight at Helm's Deep pays off on that theme in a very real, very visceral manner. It makes me like them more, too.

Which is important, because the impression I get of the elves overall is that they’re all into art and music and love, and they’re peaceful and serene and at one with nature… In other words…

…they’re hippies. Magic immortal hippies. And that bugs me. This is a personal problem, I realize. I was a punk rock kid back in the day, and there’s little a punk hates more than a hippie. Which is weird, now that I think of it. I mean, both communities are all about freaking the squares to make a point, and there’s a serious DIY aspect to them both, too. But where the hippies are all about peace and beauty, the punks are all about anger and ugliness. It’s the eternal struggle between optimism and cynicism, an enmity that’s even been captured in song:

So, considering how heavy Tolkien lays on the elf-stuff here, I hope you can understand when I tell you that it really took me a while to work my way through the early chapters of “The Silmarillion.”

(Which is not to be confused with The Silmarillion. You see, the book as a whole is a collection of tales and histories that takes its name from its longest section: the history of the Silmarils, aka “The Silmarillion.” Which, yes, is a little confusing. But whaddaya want? As I said last time, everybody’s got two names in this thing, too. Absolute clarity was not foremost in Tolkien’s mind.)

I’ll grant you, it starts off well enough. If you’ll recall, the Valar had been given dominion over Middle Earth by Iluvatar, and spent a lot of time building up nice and beautiful things, only to have Melkor come along and kick them over.

Classic hippie vs punk conflict.

Anyway. Melkor finally kicked over the lamps the Valar had made to light Middle Earth, and they’d had enough. They gathered their power together and banished Melkor into the Outer Darkness. Boo and Ya.

Except… The Valar look around and realize that the land was pretty much ruined by the fighting. So instead of dusting their hands off and fixing things back up, they decide that Middle Earth was ruined and essentially just abandon it, retreating back into the West to make themselves a super-cool  god-city to live in. Then, once that’s done, they decide that they’re tired and take a good long nap. During which Melkor proves the Council of Elrond exactly correct by sneaking back in and taking over Middle Earth while the Valar sleep.

Worst. Gods. Ever.

Actually, though, this is another of my favorite things about Tolkien’s creation myth. The Valar are presented simultaneously as wise and powerful shepherd/creators of all the world, and as a bunch of children left in control of an ant farm they’re not remotely prepared to care for properly. It’s not just that they’re flawed. They’re… incomplete somehow, each one actually incapable of making good decisions because they don’t understand Iluvatar’s creation as a whole. That’s appropriate, I think, formed as they were from individual thoughts of the true creator. But once given separate existence outside Iluvatar’s Mighty Brain, they can’t see the Big Picture anymore, only their part in it. And so they make mistakes. Dreadful mistakes.

But their individuality also brings out new ideas, and develops things in a way that Iluvatar might not have done if he’d kept it all in his own head. We get hints of this all along, from the symphony that wove reality into being on, but the biggest example is in the creation of the dwarves. Aulë, the Valar god of… making stuff… grows too impatient while waiting for the elves to come forth out of whatever primordial magic ooze Iluvatar formed them out of, and decides to make his own people to practice on. But he does it in secret, in his underground workshop, and the whole affair has the sort of furtive tone one normally associates with a teenage boy hiding porn under his mattress.

(Yes, I had the balls to type “Gimli Porn” into an image search. All for you, Damian! All for you!)

Well, Iluvatar (being Capital-G God and all) knows this is happening, and calls Aulë out for it in much the same way He chastised Melkor for trying to jam out on his own in the big Before-Time-Began Orchestra. Which is to say, He yells at Aulë for making something that Iluvatar didn’t think of first. But unlike Melkor, Aulë gets all apologetic for it, and is getting ready to KILL HIS OWN CREATIONS WITH A FUCKING HAMMER when Iluvatar stops him. “Just kidding!” Iluvatar says, and tells Aulë that He’s decided to adopt the little bastards into his Great Plan for Creation, and embues them with THE SECRET FIRE of life and will of their own (something Aulë, being only a little-g god, isn’t capable of).

An aside: Exactly how many dwarves did Aulë make? Seven. Which I freaking love. Tolkien is not often what I would call “playful” in The Simarillion, but that fun little detail makes me smile every time I run across it. The biblical/historical tone of The Silmarillion means that Tolkien doesn’t give us much detail on what it was like in Aulë’s workshop, but I now picture it being kinda like this…

Of course, there’s every chance I’m a low-grade moron.

There is one catch to Iluvatar’s embrace of the dwarves: since the elves were due to be the FIRST Children of Iluvatar, He puts the dwarves into suspended animation inside a mountain until such time as His favorites see fit to come crawling out of the elf-slime. From this, we learn any number of things. First, it means that the dwarves are sort of the demi-human version of Ringo Starr.

No, seriously! Ringo was both the oldest Beatle (having been born first) and the youngest (having been the last to join the band). And so the dwarves were created… first… but came to life… after the elves… and…

Alright, so I’m DEFINITELY a low-grade moron…

The second thing we learn from the story of Aulë and the dwarves, though, is that it’s okay to defy the Will of Iluvatar if you then supplicate yourself to Him entirely and show a willingness to completely destroy whatever it is you’ve done to piss Him off. The third thing we learn is that Iluvatar embued the Valar with a tremendous will to create, but denied them the ability to do so in the most significant manner. This breaks Tolkien’s cosmology down very neatly: Iluvatar makes sentient beings, the Valar make the physical world, and the Children of Iluvatar use the fruits of the Valar’s labor to live, thrive and survive. But it also leads  me inextricably to my fourth and final observation on the story: Iluvatar is a big jerk.

He puts Aulë through some pretty severe mental and emotional torture here. I mean, the Big Guy’s actually WEEPING as he picks up that hammer and prepares to set-to on the proto-dwarves, and Iluvatar keeps him on the hook right up til he starts to swing. I understand the whole parent/child relationship Tolkien’s developing here, and the value of object lessons in teaching even child-gods important lessons about how the world works. But that’s some cold shit.

And worse, Iluvatar comes off pretty condescending about the whole thing. In fact, He comes off as kinda condescending in all His interactions with the Valar, not so gently “reminding” them of things they couldn’t possibly know, and–

Yeah! Kinda like that! Every time one of the Valar talks to Iluvatar, I’m reminded of the Road Dogg. And man do I ever hate the freaking Road Dogg!

(What? This IS “Wrestling with Tolkien,” after all!)

Road Dogg analagies aside, however, every time Iluvatar “advises” one of the Valar, it feels like He’s annoyed that they bothered Him. I suppose all that sitting around on His big Heaven-Throne and THINKING REALLY HARD about INEFFABLE GOD THINGS is work that requires a bit of concentration…

click to embiggen

…but it’s still hard for me not to find Him at least a bit off-putting. This is, of course, most likely intentional. As Jack Kirby captured in the above illustration, it’s man’s lot to simultaneously worship and rail against God. For religious people (which both Tolkien and Kirby were), that tension is the very basis of faith. When you have faith, you worship. And when your faith falters, you rail. Me, I just look at incidents like the dwarf thing, and assume that’s the part of Iluvatar that became Melkor at work.

Anyway. Where was I? Ah, yes. The Valar are off in their AWESOME GOD-CITY while Melkor lords it over the twilight-shrouded Middle-Earth, a situation which lasts for an age or two. My pitiful research on the subject has told me nothing, but I do wonder if perhaps this was Tolkien’s way of reconciling creation mythology with evolution theory and what science was revealing in his lifetime about the true age of the Earth. Regardless, the stalemate lasts a long damn time. But then, while none of the Valar are looking… the elves show up, and everything changes.

The book swiftly becomes a shit-load more boring, for one thing. This is pretty much where my childhood attempts at reading The Silmarillion stopped dead, and (now that I think of it) might be the origin of the lifelong ELF-HATE I copped to at the beginning of this piece. I’ve pushed past it now, understand, but for a while there my reading slowed to a crawl. I was seriously thinking that I’d made a dreadful mistake by making this re-reading into a public spectacle, and briefly considered hiding the whole thing under a rock (a great big ELF ROCK). But in the end… my desire to entertain you, my beloved readership… with my pain… won out.

But that is, perhaps, a story better left to next time.

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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/.

14 Comments on Wrestling With Tolkien, Part Two

  1. Most enjoyable reading Mark. I never really considered Iluvatar as a big jerk before… always read it and thought of him as… the Capital-G God in this universe & and as the Bible points out Capital-G God in “our” universe does similar stuff… so I always went with the “well, that’s what Gods do” line of thought.

    Oh yeah, you really put a nasty mental picture in my head with that “Gimli porn” line… eye-yeee!

    Like

    • Yeah, believe me: the nekkid Gimli picture I posted was one of the tamer things I saw.

      And as for Iluvatar being a jerk… I’m sure Tolkien didn’t see it that way. He was setting up a monotheistic creator-god who, in demeanor, is not at all unlike the God of the Old Testament. But in making Iluvatar’s angels into a pantheon of lesser gods, with more distinct personalities than the Christian angels generally get, Tolkien’s made that attitude difficult for a secular reader to accept. It’s hard to read that scene with Aule getting ready to take a hammer to the dwarves, especially, without feeling a little squirmy about the sadism of it.

      I don’t think this is a reading that Professor Tolkien would agree with (something I’ll talk a little more about next time), but I really do think that the evil of Melkor originates in Iluvatar himself. Which is why it’s such an integral part of the world.

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  2. I’m glad you pushed past your elf hatred and moved on into the meat of the book. As you know, it’s one of my favorites for the depth it gives to the world of Middle Earth, and it’s tremendous fun seeing some of the foundations laid, as it were. On top of that, the epic grandeur and sheer poetry of both the language (yes, I know it’s not all like that) and the story makes me shiver. Feanor, though not a good person, is tremendously engaging, as are Turgon, Fingolfin and many of the “fallen” elves—aside from Thingol who fell in love with Melian, the more interesting ones are the flawed ones.

    I’ll tell you, though, as a fairly religious, if in a somewhat non-standard way, person myself, I don’t agree with your take on Illuvatar and the Valar as aspects of the mind of God. I think it’s a perfectly valid reading of the text, but it comes slam up against the idea of free will. The Valar are free-willed, independent and reasoning beings who began to grow and change from the moment they gained existence. Melkor’s fall exactly mirrors Lucifer’s (which, I admit, is addressed in only a limited fashion in the Bible itself, primarily in the works of the prophets).

    As an aside, the parallels between Melkor and Lucifer are astonishing. I found this passage which could almost be about Melkor:

    How you have fallen from heaven, O star of the morning, son of the dawn! You have been cut down to the earth, you who have weakened the nations! But you said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God, and I will sit on the mount of assembly in the recesses of the north. I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’ Nevertheless you will be thrust down to Sheol, to the recesses of the pit.

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    • I don’t disagree with you, honestly. The Valar and the Maiar certainly do have free will, but I might argue that it’s of a limited sort. To use Tolkien’s musical analogy, they get to create their own parts of the celestial orchestra as they see fit, but only working around Iluvatar’s central themes. He tells Melkor, in fact, that even his attempts to break away and create his own music are all part of the grand design. Iluvatar built these limitations into them, and so to my way of thinking, their free will only goes so far.

      As for how close Melkor is to Lucifer… Yeah, tell me about it. Considering how much Tolkien abhored direct allegory (even going so far as to criticize CS Lewis for making Aslan so obviously Jesus), I’m kind of stunned at how close the characters are. But I’ll probably be talking about some or all of this in my next Silmarillion post, so I’ll stop for now.

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  3. Hey, I just hopped over to your web page via StumbleUpon. Not somthing I might generally browse, but I enjoyed your views none the less. Thank you for making something worth browsing.

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  4. Are you planning on picking this back up at any point? I’m hosting a Middle-Earth group read this summer, but did a series of posts summarizing the Silmarillion ahead of time to fill people in on what I thought were the most important bits.

    We have similar takes on what you’ve read so far and I’m curious to know what you think of the rest.

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    • I’m working on part three now. Got distracted with some other projects, and hit a slight snag in the structure of this third part. But I’m hoping to get it posted this weekend. That should get me through the Feanor stuff, then I’ll tackle the rest. Which I haven’t actually read yet; those other projects have had me VERY distracted…

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  5. <>There is a little bit of multiple interconnectivity working at here, IMO… Take a look: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_Sleepers

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  6. This is in relation to this previous piece of your article: ”

    An aside: Exactly how many dwarves did Aulë make? Seven. Which I freaking love. Tolkien is not often what I would call “playful” in The Simarillion, but that fun little detail makes me smile every time I run across it. The biblical/historical tone of The Silmarillion means that Tolkien doesn’t give us much detail on what it was like in Aulë’s workshop, but I now picture it being kinda like this…”

    Like

  7. “There is one catch to Iluvatar’s embrace of the dwarves: since the elves were due to be the FIRST Children of Iluvatar, He puts the dwarves into suspended animation inside a mountain until such time as His favorites see fit to come crawling out of the elf-slime. From this, we learn any number of things. First, it means that the dwarves are sort of the demi-human version of Ringo Starr.”… Check this: “Ilúvatar’s making the Dwarves sleep in caves till the Elves had awoken is like God’s treatment of Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn son, conceived by a means disapproved by God (Genesis 16:1-3), got an inheritance from God, but had to yield the firstborn’s place and blessing to Abraham’s legitimate son, Isaac (Genesis 17:15-21). Plus this one by Verlyn Flieger:”Two critics have identified a different Tolkienian analogue for Abraham and Isaac. First, Verlyn Flieger, in SPLINTERED LIGHT, p. 100, writes:
    “Aule’s unquestioning acceptance of Eru’s chastisement and his willingness to destroy his creatures recalls the unquestioning obedience of biblical Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac at his God’s command.”

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  8. “As for how close Melkor is to Lucifer… Yeah, tell me about it. Considering how much Tolkien abhored direct allegory (even going so far as to criticize CS Lewis for making Aslan so obviously Jesus), I’m kind of stunned at how close the characters are. But I’ll probably be talking about some or all of this in my next Silmarillion post, so I’ll stop for now.” There is no contradiction here, IMO… Melkor is not an Alegory of Satan…he didn’t “symbolize” the Demon…He IS Satan Himself, with another name in a fictional past of our Universe; the same Cosmos described in Bible ( That is the main difference to Narnia). On the other hand Aslan was a manifestation Christ Like existing in a Parallel Universe that didn’t jibe with some Ortodoxical conceptions associated with the Catholic undertanding of Christ. For more useful insights take a look in these articles http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Letters+to+Malcolm+and+the+trouble+with+Narnia%3A+C.S.+Lewis,+J.R.R….-a0171579958 and http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Disparaging+Narnia%3a+Reconsidering+Tolkien's+view+of+The+Lion%2c+the…-a0330143655

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  9. Take notice that Tolkien didn’t find fault with the two first parts of the Cosmic Ransom Trilogy also writen by Lewis, Out the Silent Planet and Perelandra, in which we also have an analogue/ homologue of the Christian Demon, also called a Dark Lord as Melkor/Sauron, and a counterpart to Ilúvatar (Maledil)…but in both of them the Cosmos of the books is “our” Universe, “our” reality…Tolkien , indeed, disliked the last book of the series, That Hideous Strenght, but NOT because of the World Building implying or incorporating a Christian view.

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  10. http://forums.theonering.com/viewtopic.php?t=59445 Very insightful discussion about the topic of Satan/Morgoth and Allegory.

    Like

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