The OF Blog: J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion

Friday, October 03, 2014

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion

There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made.  And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad.  But for a long while they sang only each alone, or but few together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly.  Yet ever as they listened they came to greater understanding, and increased in unison and harmony.

And it came to pass that Ilúvatar called together all the Ainur and declared to them a mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed; and the glory of its beginning and the splendour of its end amazed the Ainur, so that they bowed before Ilúvatar and were silent. (p. 15)

J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion is a challenging text for reader and critic alike to parse.  It is not precisely a novel, nor is it merely a collection of short fiction; it contains elements of both, yet even applying the descriptive "mosaic novel" only scratches at the complexities of this posthumous 1977 publication culled from nearly six decades of work on the mythology of Middle Earth and of Arda as a whole.  Reading it closely reveals certain odd constructions, things that jar readers who come to The Silmarillion from reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  Yet there is something moving within these oft-truncated stories, something that amplifies the echos of those wondrous murmurs from the hobbits when they heard an Elrond or Aragorn chant a snippet of tales from the Elder Days of Middle Earth.

Although Tolkien does not open here with an "In the beginning," the opening section, "Ainulindalë" (the singing of the Ainur), certainly reveals the beginning of the Kingdom of Arda, of which Middle Earth is but a part, with the singing of the angelic host of the Ainur of themes introduced by the God-analogue Eru Ilúvatar.  The language here hearkens back to several creation myths in its lofty, at-some-remove, style.  It works on a cosmological level, but it certainly differs significantly from the later, more action-packed tales in the book.  The first Fall, that of the mightiest Ainur, Melkor, presents this Satan in a more comprehensible fashion than the Tempter found in the three Abrahamic religions, but when read independently of the rest of the tales, it is weaker precisely because there can be no further levels that it can tap; it is the source, the beginning, and many sources are small rivulets compared to the raging rivers that they begin.

The second section, "Valaquenta," is a recapitulation of the end of "Ainulindalë" and it traces the origins and diverse nature of those Ainur, the Valar and their lesser brethren the Maiar, who chose to enter into Arda at the Beginning after Ilúvatar's Three Themes were sung in order to make concrete the vision they beheld of the music they had sung.  It too is fascinating on a mythological establishment level, but it too is weaker because there are few connections to the later stories and to the two Third Age stories published during Tolkien's lifetime.

The third and largest section, the "Quenta Silmarillion," tells of the first battles on Arda between Melkor and the other Valar and how the Children of Ilúvatar, the Eldar Elves and Men, along with the adopted race of Dwarves, came into being.  The language in these tales is compressed, in part because many of these tales seem to be intended more as linking sections to three greater tales (those of Beren and Luthien, of the children of Húrin, and of the fall of the hidden Elvish city of Gondolin) than as anything that might otherwise constitute novella or novel-length stories of their own.  But yet in reading them and considering their placement, a case could be made for these tales to be a sort of echo of the Three Themes in how they unfold, with certain rises and falls of tone, as the hope of the exiled Noldor fades as they learn that their rebellion and kin-slaying before returning to Middle Earth will render any attempt to subdue Melkor/Morgoth ultimately futile.

Certainly there is a melancholic beauty to many of these stories of valiant stands and heroism in the face of calamities.  The duel of the Noldorian king Fingolfin and Morgoth, the cursing of Húrin's family by Morgoth, the three Kinslayings due to the lust for the stolen Silmarils (the foremost reason for the war of the Elves and the Fathers of Men, the Edain, against Morgoth), each of these feels like a grandly tragic tale, one that might induce weeping from those presenting it.  It is here that the necessary editorializations by Tolkien's son, Christopher, and Guy Gavriel Kay, are most apparent.  The two had to cobble together tales that were either completed in 1920, 1930, 1937, or maybe post-1955 LotR and make them feel uniform.  Some tales, like the end part of the "Fall of Gondolin," were never extensively revived when others were.  Others were complete, yet their cosmology was at odds with other stories.  Although much of this was not readily apparent in 1977 when The Silmarillion was first published, the later volumes of Christopher Tolkien's The History of Middle Earth reveal that some of the choices he and Kay made in 1977 might have been in error in light of certain textual evidence that emerged from a more careful study of Tolkien's notes and alternate versions of certain tales.

Although these later revelations mitigate some of the concerns about the consistency of the text, The Silmarillion as presented certainly is a flawed book.  It contains powerful stories, stories that readers can find in more fleshed out (and yet "incomplete") forms in later Middle Earth-related posthumous releases, but there is an enforced flatness to them that makes it feel that the reader is reading a detailed synopsis of a series of wonderful tales rather than moving works of their own.  The Silmarillion ultimately is just a halfway-work; it is halfway between being a collection of tales and a unified work in which the tales flow smoothly into one another.  Yet even in its unfinished, sometimes inchoate state, there is a charm about the tales that does make the reader want to learn more, to see deeper into the tale, and to experience just what it was that drove Tolkien to make this the work (with several interruptions) for nearly his entire adult life.  Despite this, The Silmarillion just is not a work that can be read independently of Tolkien's other works; for a fuller effect, the more scholarly The History of Middle Earth will enhance these tales, provided one has the stomach for copious notes.  Sadly, the most striking thing that came of this first re-reading of these stories since my early 20s back in the mid-1990s is that there were so many promising angles that were abandoned.  What could have been!  Yet marred, like Arda after Melkor's corruption of it, as it is, The Silmarillion certainly provides glimpses into the myriad literary and mythological concerns that Tolkien had and for this alone, The Silmarillion as is provides us with much more than if it had been left only as a series of brief allusions in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.


Kathiravan Isak said...

Now you've piqued my interest: which angles in particular do you regret weren't explored?

Larry Nolen said...

Most of what I wished to have appeared in this version was published in the 12 volume History of Middle Earth: A longer Tuor/Gondolin story (I wonder if edits could be made to make the Lost Tales version of the Fall compatible with the post-LotR story of Tuor's arrival); more on the origins of Orcs (found in Morgoth's Ring); a bit more on the War of Wrath (again, covered in the various stages published in the History of Middle Earth series). Things like that, more or less. The published Silmarillion condenses so many of the stories in order to have anything at all appear.

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