Recent Dorkiness

Wrestling With Tolkien, Part Three

So. Elves. Crapped on them last time, then didn't actually get to them. That will change. But first... I looked back in shock (shock, I tell you!) when I realized that it had been over a month since my last post on The Silmarillion. Hadn't intended to let things go this long, but a couple of projects outside the nerd farm kind of got in the way, and I didn't have time to write anything here beyond the usual funnybook reviews (which, believe it or not, go a lot quicker than even something as sprawling and messy as these Tolkien commentaries have been). If you really feel the need to refresh your memory on my previous ramblings, you could go here: Part One or here: Part Two . But I'd just keep on reading if I were you... So again: Elves. As I've already discussed at length, I was really enjoying Tolkien's opening mythology. Then the Elves show up, and...

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Oh! Excuse me! I must have dozed off there. It's just that the book becomes so incredibly boring when it gets to the Elves. The story just stops dead so that Tolkien can spend an interminable chapter recounting the names and philosophies of all the various Elf tribes and their leaders. I mean, I thought that the chapters detailing the Valar and the Maiar were kind of tedious and impossible to remember, but that was a cakewalk compared to this! I was kind of following it at first, but after a couple of pages it just turned into a blur. I was plowing through it, not even realizing that the words had stopped meaning anything until I came up hard against something I recognized... “BlahdeblahdeblahsillyElfnameblahblahblahlikesmusicblahdeblahGaladriel--”

Wait, what?!

Suddenly, I was paying attention again.

“Hey, there’s somebody I know! And she’s… Hrm. Uhm…”  (backs up, reads sentence again) “…the daughter… of this other guy… the Elf…”

Sigh.

So, yeah. Galadriel pops up pretty deep into the Elf discussion, and when I got to her I realized that I really needed to go back and read it all again, because I remembered very little of it.

Fun fact: Galadriel is essentially a second-generation Elf (or maybe it’s third), born even before the Valar found them (or maybe after), and… Wait. Either Tolkien’s not entirely clear on the sequence of events here, or even after going back and re-reading the whole chapter it still didn’t stick. Gimme a minute… Ah! Yes! She’s third-generation, and was born after the Valar found the Elves (Thanks, Wikipedia!). But, still. Galadriel is among the very oldest creatures living on Middle Earth at the time of Lord of the Rings, and actually knew the gods in her youth. Just to put things in their proper perspective when she talks to little Frodo Baggins of the Shire.

But where was I? Ah, yes. Elves. Dull. Hard to keep straight. To be fair, they’re all well-considered creations that flesh out the race beyond my earlier characterization of them as a bunch of pointy-eared hippies. It really is a wonderful bit of world-building, and they all sound like they’d be fascinating to read about… in a traditional narrative. Unfortunately this is anything but. It’s difficult to keep all the various characters straight, and slogging through the pages of genealogy is pretty tedious to boot. Tolkien does spice it up a little with the stories of which elves went where and why, but ultimately it’s still just a big Elf List. You know that part of the Bible that’s all begetting? This is kind of like that, except with less sex behind the syntax.

Probably not as much incest, either…

Worst of all, though, this flurry of Elf talk means that we don’t get the lowdown on the AWESOME GOD-FIGHT that goes down once the Valar realize they’ve screwed up and let the Elves live under Melkor’s rule for so long. Because the Elves don’t know much about that conflict, see, so Tolkien only describes it in the vaguest of terms. I like to envision it looking a little like this:

But that’s just me.

GOD BATTLE 2 sounds fantastic, though, like the greatest Loser-Leave-Town Match of all time. Lots of stuff gets torn up and it all ends with Melkor being defeated and taken captive by the Valar. Of course, he does come back wearing a mask…

…but I’m getting ahead of myself. Being an immensely powerful being of pure god-thought, Melkor can’t be killed. So they toss him in the dungeons of Mandos, MASTER OF DOOM(!), to rot until further notice.

In the meantime, the Valar look around at the mess that’s been made of Middle Earth and decide once again that it’s too broken to be worth fixing. So then Manwë (King of the Valar, in case you’ve lost your Silmarillion score card) decrees that all the Elves are to go to Valinor, the Valar’s super-cool god-city, for protection and education. Most of the tribes make the trip, but some don’t. The Elves that decide not to heed the summons aren’t forced to go, but Manwë still kind of writes them off as a lost cause.

Which is really interesting to me, because Tolkien casts this decision to bring the Elves to Valinor as a mistake. He once confessed in a letter to his son that the older he got, the more his politics leaned toward anarchy. This was a position that, like The Silmarillion itself, developed over the course of years, and it makes the book a little schizophrenic. On the one hand, the word of Manwë is treated as something to be obeyed without question. But on the other… his decisions often lead to ruin, and the rebellious Elves come off all the better for it.

This is not a criticism of the book, understand. I knew going in that it was less an attempt to create a coherent entertainment than it was a lifetime’s worth of mythological noodling. Tolkien’s son was often working with versions of these stories that were written decades apart, and he did the best he could to keep everything consistent. But there were bound to be inconsistencies, and those philosophical shifts make it more interesting to me, rather than less.

Anyway. Manwë brings the Elves to Valinor, which doesn’t seem entirely in keeping with what Iluvatar asked the Valar to do. He told them to prepare a world for His children to live in, and to teach them how to live in it. But what Manwë does instead is to remove them from it, and abandon the world to its own fate. Now, the Elves that stay aren’t abandoned completely; they receive teaching and protection from a couple of the other Valar who choose to do so, and one of the Maiar actually marries an Elven king. But I have to wonder why Iluvatar doesn’t lay the smackdown on the rest of them, or at least show up to yell at them in their heads.

Ultimately, I suppose it all comes down to free will. The Valar and Maiar definitely have it to some extent, but Iluvatar yells at them if they get too far out of line. Which I guess means that Manwë’s decision to home-school the Elves is just a calculated error rather than outright deriliction of duty, and thus isn’t as bad to Iluvatar as Aulë’s creation of the dwarves, or Melkor’s grandiose acts of evil and destruction. And speaking of Melkor… He becomes particularly interesting when looked at in this light. For all that I’ve talked about him being Iluvatar’s very own Monster from the Id…

…I am aware that’s not how Tolkien saw things, at all. My reading comes from a secular viewpoint, but Tolkien was a devout Catholic, and as such almost certainly created a God for Middle Earth that was all-wise and all-good. To him, Melkor’s rebellion is less the result of his nature as a thought of God made flesh, and more the result of his own free will. Of course, Iluvatar (and Tolkien the incipient anarchist) loved and encouraged that free will: Melkor is considered the greatest of the Valar, not only because he’s the most powerful, but also because he shows the greatest independence. So I think his real sin, in Tolkien’s eyes, is most likely one of pride: his own personal glory prevents him from seeing that Iluvatar is infinitely wiser and more powerful than he.

I don’t entirely disagree with Professor Tolkien in this, either. I dislike blaming the parent for the sins of the child. Eventually, we all have to stand up and take responsibility for our own actions. In this case, though, the parent is omniscient and all-powerful, and the child is only encouraged in the behaviour that gets him into trouble in the first place. So I suppose what I’m really saying here is that, from my perspective, Iluvatar had to know that Melkor would go all Marilyn Manson on Him, and therefore must have decided that the world needed evil.

The Silmarillion certainly does. Because the age of peace and prosperity that happens while Melkor’s locked up in Mandos’ dungeons is pretty freaking dull. The Elves learn a lot, and come to love and excel at different things, and everybody is very happy. Which is great for them as characters, but not so much for the reader.

Luckily, however, Manwë eventually makes another really bad call and, after an age or two to consider his crimes, lets Melkor out of the dungeon. He’s learned his lesson, you see, and he’s totally not the Melkor of old, all prideful and destructive and desirous of the SECRET FIRE (!). No, he’s now helpful Melkor. Friendly Melkor. Humble Melkor, who only wants to teach the Elves and not KILLCRUSHDESTROYdestroy– Nonono. Nothing like that. Nothing like that at all…

And Manwë, not understanding evil at all… buys it. Thus turning the weasel loose in the henhouse, and dooming his Grand Elf Experiment to failure. But that, I think, might be a story better-told in one go, and I don’t have room for it now. But next time…

Elves! Evil! Fire! Blood! Carnage! Shadow! And we finally find out how The Silmarillion gets its name…

(Which in my head looks an awful lot like this.)

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About Mark Brett (404 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/.

5 Comments on Wrestling With Tolkien, Part Three

  1. Keep ’em coming Mark. I’m really enjoying your take on the book. I’ve gotta agree with you about the Elves naming thing… it is reminiscent of the begets in the Bible.

    I also really enjoyed the way you described Melkor later on…

    “No, he’s now helpful Melkor. Friendly Melkor. Humble Melkor, who only wants to teach the Elves and not KILLCRUSHDESTROYdestroy– Nonono. Nothing like that. Nothing like that at all…”

    Sarcastic a little? Noooooooooo, not in the least.

    Like

  2. I think Iluvatar becomes kind of an absentee parent after a while, which is pretty messed up, given that everything goes to hell. I always hope that upon re-reading there will be more smiting.

    Like

  3. More smiting would be good!

    I really like that “absentee parent” description of Iluvatar, sj. I hadn’t thought about it in those terms before, but… yeah. It’s like he steps back after awhile, to let his kids make their own mistakes. No matter how enormous those mistakes become. Hmm… Thank you. That’s good food for thought.

    Randy: Thanks for the kudos! I was just happy to work in the Barbershop Sketch. One of my favorites, sadly overshadowed by the classic it segues into. Between that and the Dusty Rhodes comparison, writing this post made my inner moron very happy indeed.

    Like

  4. “Worst of all, though, this flurry of Elf talk means that we don’t get the lowdown on the AWESOME GOD-FIGHT that goes down once the Valar realize they’ve screwed up and let the Elves live under Melkor’s rule for so long. Because the Elves don’t know much about that conflict, see, so Tolkien only describes it in the vaguest of terms. I like to envision it looking a little like this” You will certainly like it :http://pt.scribd.com/doc/34511320/Grant-Morrison-s-18-Days-free-preview

    Like

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