Enjoying "The Silmarillion": "Of the Beginning of Days" and "Of Aulë and Yavanna"

I’ve decided to change the title of these blog posts to “Enjoying The Silmarillion,” because I do think that one of the things that people often overlook when they read this book is that, if you approach it in the right way, you can actually find yourself enjoying it, not just appreciating it (though hopefully you’re doing the latter as well).

So, with that bit of housekeeping out of the way, let’s get right into it.

In the first couple of stories of The Silmarillion, we are told of the way that Ilúvatar, the One, created the Valar and the Maiar, great spirits of varying powers and abilities. From the beginning, the vision of the One is challenged by Melkor, the mightiest and most powerful of the Valar. The contest between the Valar who remain loyal to the vision of Ilúvatar and Melkor forms the foundation upon which the other great events of Arda are built.

Even at the very beginning, we are shown of the way that one of Melkor’s greatest desire is to claim for himself the ability to create something from nothing. It is in part of his nature to continue to struggle against the limitations imposed upon him by the One. However, as the text makes clear, no matter how much Melkor tries to fulfill his own desires, he finds that he is merely contributing his own part to the grand vision that his maker had already intended.

Two things have always stood out to me about Melkor (who will later become known as Morgoth). First is the fact that, counterintuitive as it might seem, he is the most natively powerful of his brethren. For me, it’s always a little hard to wrap my head around the idea that evil–if we can describe Melkor in such a way–should be so much more powerful than good. But of course, that has always been a key part of Tolkien’s vision of the world, and it is the very fact that evil is so powerful that makes the attempts to either confront it or to mitigate its actions that much more meaningful.

Second, The Silmarillion also makes it clear that everything that Melkor does eventually feeds into the greater purpose. No matter how hard he tries to enforce his own will upon Arda, to put his own will in opposition to that of his maker, he remains powerless to have any lasting effect. There is, thus, an eternal sort of optimism in this book, that no matter how difficult or terrible the world is or may be, no matter how tremendous the power of evil may be, all of it will ultimately fulfill the purpose of some greater power.

One of the other things that really stood out to me as I was reading was the role of gender. The text makes it clear that the Valar do not have any sort of gendered essence as we would understand the terms. Instead, they take on the guises that seem most fitting to them. There’s something refreshing about a cosmology that doesn’t necessarily see the gods themselves as being essentially male or female, but something more and beyond that.

I was also particularly drawn to the personality of Aulë. Of all of the Valar, it seems that he is the one whose desires and abilities will come to shape the destinies of the people who come after, and it’s interesting to speculate whether Tolkien felt a particular affinity with him. If he did, it would be easy to understand why. After, Aulë is the Valar most interested in the making of things, and given that Tolkien was himself a greater maker (though of words and worlds rather than physical things), it would be easy to see why he, and his avatars in his fictional world, would feel so drawn to him.

Even in these early chapters, we get strong glimpses of the philosophical underpinnings of The Silmarillion as a whole. For Tolkien, the power of creation is, seemingly, the key to godhead. Even Aulë, who actually creates the Dwarves in despite of Ilúvatar’s command not to do so, cannot imbue his creations with a will independent of his own. As subsequent chapters in this great saga will show, the power of making–as well as the tremendous toll that it takes upon those who engage in it–can be both a good and an ill.

As essential as free will and creation are to Tolkien’s philosophy, equally important is the imposition of mortality. For the Elves, life is eternal, and thus they have a very specific sort of burden to bear. They must watch the world go on and change around them, even as they remain the same. For Men, however, the opposite is true. They yearn for everlasting life, yet one gets the feeling that none of them really and truly understand what a burden it is to have to shoulder the burden of the ages. The unfortunate thing for both groups is that neither of them can really and truly understand the other; their ways of being in the world are utterly different. Just as importantly, they each possess a relation to the world that the other, at least to some degree, desires.

Though these early chapters of The Silmarillion aren’t quite as action-packed with deeds both great and terrible that the following ones are, they are nevertheless essential to understanding the events that will later take place across the face of Middle-earth. And, while it is true that the prose here is more than a little portentous and pondering, to me it is only fitting, since we are dealing with the creation of the world and the affairs of gods. Lastly, these early chapters reveal a great deal of the true richness and fertility of Tolkien’s imagination, his ability to take the bare bones of myth and transform them into something different.

Next up, we’ll start diving deep into the affairs of the Elves, whose fortunes will be bound up with the Valar, especially Melkor.

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