Tolkien's cosmological vision

Before Frodo and Sam, there were Beren and Luthien. A case for revisiting "The Silmarillion."

Published February 18, 2005 9:00PM (EST)

In the last dread days of disco-dûr, in the midst of the Seventh Age -- known in perhaps a more familiar tongue as "the Nineteen Seventsies" -- there emerged from the House of Houghton Mifflin, and later from that of Ballan-tine, a great book of which much was expected, though few but the most ardent of devotees could wholly comprehend it. It has, in the Tolkienian spirit, valiantly returned.

"The Silmarillion," J.R.R. Tolkien's fantastically complex, comprehensive and, yes, uneven mythological narrative was his life's work -- the underlying structural legend of the world into which young Frodo Baggins would later walk, many millennia hence, on his arduous journey to cast the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom. Its narrative principally concerns the time before "The Lord of the Rings," from the genesis of Eä and Arda (the universe and Earth, in Tolkien's legendarium) to the creation of Middle Earth and its denizens -- the divine, the Elvish, and the human, with nary a hobbit in sight.

"The Silmarillion" was published and edited by Tolkien's son Christopher, four years after the Oxford don's death in 1973, to largely negative critical reaction (The word "genesis" earlier was not idly chosen -- Tolkien's creation myth approaches both the tone and the style of the Bible and could be thought of as a "Bible of Middle Earth" of sorts, though Tolkien would certainly have stressed a distinction.) Its legacy is troubled, though for a time, quite like the One Ring, it passed from the minds of men (apologies -- the temptation to drift into legend language is impossible to resist sometimes).

Now a new generation, armed with extravagantly appendixed, extended editions of Peter Jackson's trilogy of films on DVD, has the opportunity to contend with its knotted and besotted history. The professor's pre-magnum opus has been re-released, bound in a gorgeously illustrated, and pleasantly weighty, hardcover edition that sits comfortably in your lap, just as all grand fairy tales should.

By virtue of aesthetics alone, this new volume of "The Silmarillion" should bring a great many more readers into fuller appreciation of not only the book but also Tolkien's universe at large. Exquisitely illustrated by Ted Naismith, who worked on Robert Foster's "Complete Guide to Middle Earth," this new edition is the model of what a 21st century, ancient cosmological text should look like, if that makes any sense. I feel almost silly for saying it, but it's a really pretty book: From the typescript to the spacious layout -- not to mention the extremely useful appendixes of genealogical tables, notes on Elvish pronunciation, indexes of names, and linguistic elements of Tolkien's two Elvish tongues -- the publishers have done well to give Tolkien's saga a tangible feeling of the momentous mythological history its author meant it to be.

But what exactly did Tolkien mean for us to make of "The Silmarillion"? And what the heck is a Silmarillion anyway? (I promise it's not just the name of a late-'70s progressive rock band.) The answers to those questions are conveniently found in a 1951 letter -- included in this volume -- which Tolkien wrote to his friend Milton Waldman, an editor at the publishing house then known simply as Collins. Christopher Tolkien explains that this lengthy letter was the result of his father's working out difficulties that arose over his insistence that "The Silmarillion" and "The Lord of the Rings" be published in "conjunction or in connexion ... as one long Saga of the Jewels and the Rings."

"The Silmarillion" as published is a compendium of five works: the "Ainulindalë," a cosmological myth that recounts the creation of the universe by Eru Ilúvatar (God) and the music of the (angelic) Ainur; the "Valaquenta," a comparatively brief description of the Valar and Maiar, supernatural beings; the "Quenta Silmarillion," or "Silmarillion" proper, which forms the bulk of the collection and recounts the fall of the most gifted kindred of Elves whose fate is tied to the Silmarilli, or Silmarils -- jewels into which was imprisoned the light of the world; the "Akallabêth," concerning the downfall of the Númenóreans -- the Kings of Men -- and the destruction of their Atlantean island Númenor; and finally "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age," which takes us from the forging of the One Ring through more familiar territory -- the passing of the Ringbearers into the Undying Lands at the end of the "Rings" epic.

Tolkien began work on "The Silmarillion" as early as 1917 when, as a British officer stationed in France during World War I, he was laid up in a military field hospital with trench fever. What began as a language lover's way to entertain himself by inventing creatures (Elves) who spoke invented languages (Quenya and Sindarin, derived from Finnish and Welsh), became a way for Tolkien to bestow upon his beloved England a mythology all its own. (For more on the life of Tolkien, please refer to Salon's own Andrew O'Hehir and his magisterial treatise on Tolkien's treatment by intellectuals.)

Tolkien wrote in the letter to Waldman, "I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish (which greatly affected me); but nothing English ... Of course there was and is all the Arthurian world, but powerful as it is, it is imperfectly naturalized, associated with the soil of Britain but not with English; and does not replace what I felt to be missing." E.M. Forster had similar feelings, expressed in "Howards End": "Why has not England a great mythology? Our folklore has never advanced beyond daintiness, and the greater melodies about our countryside have all issued through the pipes of Greece. Deep and true as the native imagination can be, it seems to have failed here."

What Tolkien gave us in "The Silmarillion" and "The Lord of the Rings" is an amalgam of myth, fairy story, heroic legend and still yet another element, truth. He explains, "I believe that legends and myths are largely made of 'truth', and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear." Perhaps that is why Tolkien's myths feel so familiar in their foreignness: They tap into a collective, unconscious sense of loss -- loss of the once oral tradition of storytelling and mythmaking -- rekindled in "The Silmarillion" with the epitaphs and purposefully grandiloquent speech of gods, Elves, and Men (believe me, I'd say Women too, but Tolkien so rarely did) in a time before religion (as we know it -- mythmaking was itself a form of religion).

For a work that according to his son became for the elder Tolkien "the vehicle and depository of his profoundest reflections," it is especially sad that "The Silmarillion" was deemed largely impenetrable, even by many Tolkien fans, upon its release in 1977. The extravagantly stylized language, a seeming overabundance of genealogical history, and a lack of deeply crafted characterization were cited as its major faults. (Claims of impenetrability did little to damage the book's sales, though. "The Silmarillion" sold over a million copies that year, soaring to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, and it continues to make a positive impression on its publishers' balance sheets today, both in the United States and the United Kingdom. It's a book that everyone wanted but seemingly no one wanted to read all the way through.)

Negative reactions were, alas, nothing new to Tolkien's works of fantasy. In 1956, modernist critic Edmund Wilson famously scoffed at "The Lord of the Rings," calling it "juvenile trash." In 1961, Philip Toynbee prematurely celebrated the fact that Tolkien's "childish" books "have passed into a merciful oblivion." In a sense, "The Silmarillion" drew criticism for not being trashy or juvenile enough.

A review in the September 1977 issue of the Economist was so virulently dismissive of "The Silmarillion" that it required a seemingly palliative preface directed at Tolkien enthusiasts, acknowledging that those readers would "have little sympathy with the 'curmudgeonly' note of the following article by one of our reviewers." (The editors then revealed that they published the review "in the interests of provoking further disagreement between those who live outside the Tolkien world and those inside it.")

The great chasm between those wholly taken with Tolkien and those who avoid his works of fantasy like a medieval plague has always been as unbridgeable as, say, the abyss at Khazad-dûm into which Gandalf and the fiery Balrog fall. Yet much of the criticism originally directed at "The Silmarillion" singles out Tolkien's liberal sampling of European lore as well as his reluctance to flesh out his characters beyond their heroic (or villainous) archetypes. But isn't the creation of archetypes the greater part of what mythmaking is all about? I am no Oxford medievalist, but it seems to me that creating enduring types to which succeeding generations can attach new significance is a success, not a failure.

John Gardner -- the author of "Grendel," and who, like Tolkien, was a noted professor of medieval literature and a scholar of ancient languages -- reviewed "The Silmarillion" for the New York Times upon its release in 1977. He wrote, "If 'The Hobbit' is a lesser work than the Ring trilogy because it lacks the trilogy's high seriousness, the collection that makes up 'The Silmarillion' stands below the trilogy because much of it contains only high seriousness; that is, here Tolkien cares much more about the meaning and coherence of his myth than he does about these glories of the trilogy: rich characterization, imagistic brilliance, powerfully imagined and detailed sense of place, and thrilling adventure." A lover of languages, Gardner had none for his fellow scholar: "Tolkien's language is the same phony Prince Valiant language of the worst Everyman translations and modernizations."

These are fair criticisms, if a bit stuffy -- but to be fair, Gardner's review is not wholly damning; he does have (tempered) praise for "the total vision, the eccentric heroism of Tolkien's attempt," which is certainly a large part of its importance. While I agree with Gardner that "The Silmarillion," and its forest of names denser than Fangorn, might not make for the simplest reading immediately after finishing the last bit of your Longbottom Leaf, I do think that there is something more primal, more vital -- and more pagan than papal -- to its appeal. (Yes, Tolkien was a Christian, but the myths he imagined here are intended as fundamentally pre-Christian.)

Sure, there are certain interminable portions that read much like those sections in the Bible where W begat X, who begat Y and Z, and some stories are given inexplicably short shrift. But that only reminds me of something else Gardner said (though not in that Times review): "Reading the Bible straight through is at least 70 percent discipline, like learning Latin. But the good parts are, of course, simply amazing. God is an extremely uneven writer, but when he's good, nobody can touch him." The same is true for Tolkien and "The Silmarillion" (and no, I'm not comparing Tolkien to any manner of Supreme Being, though the most fervent of Tolkienians might wish me to).

Despite its complexity, "The Silmarillion" has at its core the simple, cyclical story of a fall -- a great fall, with many smaller ones within. Tolkien himself said, "There cannot be any 'story' without a fall -- all stories are ultimately about the fall -- at least not for human minds as we know them and have them." Its story arc is one suffused with loss and bereavement, tracking the gradual darkening of the original light of the world; things are created, then marred or destroyed, then are re-created, but with less luster -- lights shine with less brilliance, men act with less virtue -- as things grow further away from their original perfection. The one bright thought that remains with the reader throughout is the comforting knowledge that the time of "The Lord of the Rings" is still to come.

It's not a complete downer though. "The Ainulindalë" offers many beautiful moments -- the idea that the world was created out of themes given to the Ainur by Eru, out of which they made "a great music ... of endless interchanging melodies woven into harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights ... and the music and echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void" -- and others more sinister.

Here appears Tolkien's great villain, Melkor, later called Morgoth. The most powerful (power was always close kin to evil in Tolkien's world) of the Ainur -- the fallen Angel greedy for glory -- Melkor began singing his own song, clashing with the harmony of the other Ainur, thinking himself greater than the rest. Eru responds by laying down the ultimate corrective: "And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined."

Tolkien's greatest gifts to us in "The Silmarillion" are his villains. Melkor/Morgoth, who ever opposes the immortal Valar, sets forth the cyclical making and unmaking of the world by destroying the beacons of light that the Valar construct to illuminate the world for the coming of Elves and Men. The most dramatic scene of bold destruction comes in "The Silmarillion" proper, when Morgoth and the monstrous, never sated spider Ungoliant -- in my view the vilest, most sickening, and best-named character in the book -- poison and kill the Two Trees of Valinor that had lit the world before the coming of the Sun and the Moon, while also stealing the Silmarils and darkening the world again.

Thus the epic is set forth. The Noldor Elves -- the central figures of Tolkien's tale and those in whom we might recognize a bit of the author in their "love of words," who "sought ever to find names more fit for all things that they knew or imagined" -- are doomed to desire possession of the Silmarils.

"The Silmarillion's" most fully realized and emotionally invested fairy tale is the story of Beren and Lúthien. Beren (which if it isn't, should be Elvish for "badass") is an outlaw wanderer (a man) who falls in love with the Elf Lúthien Tinûviel -- "the most beautiful of all the Children of Ilúvatar" -- after watching her dance and sing alone in woods lit by moonlight. She returns his love, but the two are parted by Lúthien's father, King Thingol, who challenges Beren to win the hand of his daughter with a task he knows will seal the man's doom: "Bring to me in your hand a Silmaril from Morgoth's crown; and then, if she will, Lúthien may set her hand in yours." Beren responds, laughing, "It is for little price ... do Elven-kings sell their daughters: for gems and things made by craft. But if this be your will, Thingol, I will perform it. And when we meet again my hand shall hold a Silmaril from the Iron Crown; for you have not looked the last upon Beren son of Barahir." (I told you he was a badass.) It is an incredible story, long, exquisitely detailed, and poignant, so I am loath to give away its truly gripping ending, but I may already have said too much. (The story is invested with even more meaning by the knowledge that Tolkien had "Beren" inscribed on his headstone and "Lúthien" on that of the love of his life, Edith Bratt.)

Had I but world enough and time, I'd tell you about the unluckiest man in the book, Túrin Turambar, whose life resembles that of Oedipus and other doomed figures, and of Dior, one of Tolkien's few "multicultural" heroes (being part Man, part Elf, and part Maia -- a lesser Ainur), the Elf-on-Elf crimes that forever doom the Noldor, and of the origin of the Orcs (corrupted Elves in a sense, bred in envy and mockery of them, and perhaps the vilest deed of Morgoth, for they hate all, but hate their creator most for birthing them), but I don't, so I'll leave those for you to discover.

As is often the case, the greatest pleasures are the small ones: Reading a familiar description or seeing a familiar place name will, for the Tolkien fan, set off a flood of memories of what will come to pass in later "years." And of course, revisiting "The Lord of the Rings" becomes all the richer with all of this new-old knowledge, throwing various elements of the story into fuller light. (When Aragorn recounts the love story of Beren and Lúthien to his enthralled hobbit band on Weathertop before the Nazgûl attack, you realize how close their tale is to his and Arwen's.)

Reading Tolkien's "Silmarillion" is like looking at a frayed and faded picture of your grandfather and all of a sudden recognizing why your nose is shaped just the way it is. "The Silmarillion" is both profoundly satisfying and profoundly warming, even despite those who think its prose cold and unfeeling. It answers -- at least for Tolkien fans always desirous of more -- the fundamental question, why? If Tolkien knew (and he probably did) why the sky is blue, the answer would be in "The Silmarillion."

"The Silmarillion" is a special work because it offers what few other books of Tolkien's do: a true beginning, a fresh start. It is the beginning, of all things. For those willing to surrender themselves to his bookish universe, watch the films, or at least make a valiant attempt at penetrating the veil of scholarly geekdom surrounding most Tolkieniana, the opportunity exists here to start from scratch, from the One, Eru, "who in Arda is called Ilúvatar." Both the Tolkien arriviste and the scholar -- for once on a level playing field -- are presented with the clean slate of creation time where myth can be made and remade within the mind of the reader. A final word is always difficult, so perhaps it's best to leave you with the Oxford philologist's opening lines in his letter to Milton Waldman, lines that are quintessential Tolkien:

"My dear Milton, you asked for a brief sketch of my stuff that is connected with my imaginary world. It is difficult to say anything without saying too much: the attempt to say a few words opens a floodgate of excitement, the egoist and artist at once desires to say how the stuff has grown, what it is like, and what (he thinks) he means or is trying to represent by it all. I shall inflict some of this on you; but I will append a mere resume of its contents: which is (may be) all that you want or will have use or time for."

By Peter L'Official

Peter L'Official is a writer living in New York.

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