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.

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.

Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Silmarillion”: Beginnings

I recently finished reading Corey Olsen’s excellent Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and I was struck by how easy and conversational Olsen managed to be, even while conveying the rich literary tapestry and meanings of this oft-overlooked book. My finishing of his book just happened to coincide with my beginning a re-read of The Silmarillion, so I thought I’d take a stab at providing an in-depth commentary of what in many ways is the work of Tolkien’s heart.

While it is true that The Silmarillion has grown in popularity as the years have progressed, it’s also true that it is still one of the lesser-appreciated parts of Tolkien’s expansive corpus. Part of this is because, for better or worse, it is sometimes difficult to make headway through the elevated diction and because the names (both of individuals and of peoples) are sometimes bewilderingly similar. It’s small wonder that most people begin it but give up before finishing.

To put all of my cards on the table…that was true for me once, too. In fact, I only read The Silmarillion from cover to cover for the first time a few years ago, and while I’m sad that it took me so many years to really appreciate the beauty and the tragedy of this work (both in terms of its composition and in terms of its subject), another part is glad that I waited until I was mature enough to truly appreciate it. While I still have some difficulty keeping the Elvish names straight (including the different tribes), I feel like I have a firm enough grasp on the narrative to be able to offer commentary.

To those who have never read The Silmarillion, I would definitely recommend starting with the Second Edition. This actually contains a letter that Tolkien wrote that sets out the broad outline of the various stories, and it is enormously helpful as a guidepost for which parts of the true touchstones of the story, both narratively and thematically. That way, even if you sometimes get a little lost in the weeds, as it were, you can always refer back to the beginning to get your bearings. While his letter doesn’t detail every part of the ensuing stories, the higher points are addressed.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention how grateful I am to Christopher Tolkien for all of the intellectual labour he put into making sure that this book saw the light of day at all. Tolkien was infamous for continuing to make adjustments to various aspects of his mythology, right up until his death, and I cannot imagine the tremendous amount of effort it took to bring this book into being. Christopher himself admits that he was only able to attain so much consistency, given the state of the record. In my opinion, what he has created for us is nothing short than one of the greatest works of epic myth-making in the modern world.

In the posts that follow, I hope to take a leisurely stroll through the book, beginning with the creation of the Valar and touching down into all of the various tragedies that befall the Elves as they labour through the many ages of the world. For the most part, I’ll keep my commentary rather light and accessible, rather than allowing myself to get lost in the jargon that is so common to literary criticism. Part of what I enjoyed about Olsen’s book was that he managed to speak in a way that was understandable to many different kinds of reader, and I aspire to do the same with this series.

I do hope that you’ll join me as we embark on this extraordinary journey, and that some of you at least share your thoughts with me. If nothing else, I sincerely hope that at the least this series of blog posts will help you find new ways of enjoying and appreciating Tolkien’s The Silmarillion.