Enjoying “The Silmarillion”: “Of the Coming of the Elves and the Captivity of Melkor” and “Of Thingol and Melian”

We arrive now at the point in the narrative where the Elves first appear. Before they do so, however, the Valar undertake an effort to capture and imprison Melkor, so that Middle-earth can be made safe for the Elves. Gradually, the Elves begin their migration westward, and while many do make it to Valinor, many more also tarry or are lost.

I’ll be honest. Keeping track of the various Elf tribes can get a little overwhelming, particularly since their names are, superficially at least, similar. Luckily for us, Christopher has included a diagram at the end of the book that shows in visual form the relationships among them, but it does get a bit cumbersome shuttling back and forth between the main narrative and the supplement. It’s also difficult to keep track of the various royal figures, again because so many of them have names that sound quite similar: Fingolfin, Fanrfin, Feänor. For my own sanity, I’ve decided to simply focus on those characters and tribes that seem to be the most important for a given part of the narrative. I find that each time I read the book I find the lineaments getting clearer and clearer, so it’s important for first-timers not to allow themselves to get too entangled in the weeds on an initial reading.

Even this early in the story, we get a sense of the sorts of character traits that will lead the Elves to both their greatest accomplishments and some of their most spectacular follies. This is most clearly seen in the fact that so many of them turn aside, unwilling to pass out of Middle-earth for one reason or another. This decision will come to have momentous consequences for them as the years progress, and they find that their own way of being in the world–even their very language–is sundered from their brethren. Only those who take the hardest road–a recurring theme in much of Tolkien’s work–will be rewarded by going to Valinor and experiencing the joy of being next to godhood.

One exception to this is, of course, Thingol, whose encounter with the Maia Melian utterly transforms him and allows him to come closest, in my mind, to the radiance of the Elves that do go to the West. Together, of course, they will have their own part to play in the saga of the Silmarils, those precious gems around which so much of the later events of The Silmarillion will revolve.

What’s more, we also get a clearer glimpse of Tolkien’s vision of how evil works. First of all, it cannot create, it can only mock and destroy. Indeed, one of the greatest tragedies that takes place in this chapter is the capture of some of the Elves by Melkor, who then undertakes their torment and torture until they are something altogether different, the brutal and monstrous Orcs. I’ve long thought that these creatures were some of the most fascinating that Tolkien ever created, in their own way just as tragic as their long-lost Elvish brethren. To my mind, one of the greatest tragedies in all of Tolkien’s mythology is the undying enmity between the Elves and the Orcs, two branches of the same tree turned irrevocably against one another by the machinations of another.

It is also interesting to note how deep has been the change in Melkor. From being one of the greatest beings in the created universe, he has become a dark and terrible force. What’s more, so deep does his evil go–in both a metaphysical and a physical sense–that even his defeat by the forces of the Valar is not enough to fully eradicate the damage that he has done. But then, that is the nature of evil in Tolkien’s world. It can never be fully eradicated; somehow, it will always find a way to return. This theme will carry right through to The Lord of the Rings, for the characters know that, while Sauron might be vanquished, someone will almost invariably rise up to take his place. It’s an admittedly rather pessimistic way of looking at things but, given that Tolkien was writing in the shadow of not one but two World Wars, with a possible third on the horizon, this shouldn’t surprise us. He might have been writing of an ancient past, but his works were very much of their time.

Next up, we’ll meet some of the particular Elves whose doings will be such an integral part of the history of Middle-earth.