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Morgoth's Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

Published by Houghton Mifflin

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

After having successfully completed The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien returned once again to the stories of the Elder Days. With the growing success of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien had an even stronger reason to get these manuscripts put into some form of a publishable order. The bits and hints about the elder days which had appeared in The Lord of the Rings had created an intense interest among fans in hearing the full stories behind those bits and snippets, an interest that was convincing his previously skeptical publisher that there was a real market for a full recounting of the tales of the Elder Days, tales which had previously been regarded as too remote and inaccessible for anything but a very small edition that would probably lose money.

Unfortunately, the momentum that had built up through the 1920's and 30's had been lost during that long detour through the end of the Third Age, and could not be easily regained. Worse yet, in the rush of writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien had introduced all manner of new elements that had to be somehow reconciled with a much earlier vision of his Secondary World. How could he integrate Galadriel and her backstory into the story of the Noldorian princes which had already gone through several false starts and reverses in the course of their development? How could he account for the presence of the ents, particularly when Treebeard's dialog with Merry and Pippin makes it clear that his own personal memories traced back to the time before the Moon and the Sun first rose? Obviously the ents could play no active role in the battles of the elves and the Fathers of Men against Morgoth for the simple reason that their strength would have been too overbalancing to maintain the idea of a precarious stalemate that is eventually tipped in Morgoth's favor until Earendil's daring trip westward to appeal to the Valar themselves. However, their presence had to be at least hinted at, even if they would never actually enter Beleriand during that critical and tragic period of Middle Earth's history.

Thus it was slowly and hesitantly, with many false starts and backtrackings that Tolkien set about a new and expanded version of the Quenta Silmarillion and the Annals, now renaming the former Annals of Valinor the Annals of Aman. In addition he reworked the Ainulindale, the story of the music of the Ainur, the angelic beings of whom some would enter creation and become the Valar and Maiar. Feeling the need to recapture some of the systematic discussion of the names and natures of the Valar which had been lost when he had written out the Sketch of the Mythology, he composed a new beginning chapter for the Quenta Silmarillion, in the first attempt called "Of the Valar," but subsequently retitled Valaquenta (in the final published Silmarillion it would be separated into a stand-alone document between the Ainulindale and the Quenta Silmarillion).

Fatal doubts about the viability of many of the basic myths began to assail Tolkien. In the exuberance of his youth he had created a very "primitive" mythos of a flat Earth rather like a ship, but now that the mature Tolkien looked back at it, he no longer was sure that it was even believable as a story. He even considered throwing it all out and rewriting it so that the Earth would be round from the beginning, but this would mean discarding the entire story of the Two Trees and the creation of the Sun and the Moon, which were in many ways central to the structure of the mythos -- the Silmarils were to have been the last unsullied light of the Two Trees, while the Sun and the Moon were to some degree tainted by Morgoth's malice, having been made from the dying Trees after Ungoliant had poisoned them. If the Silmarils no longer possessed that wondrous origin, would they still be prizes of such extreme value that an entire era could center around the battles for their possession?

At the same time, Tolkien was also struggling with the nature of the orcs and other evil beings in the service of Morgoth and later of Sauron. In the earliest versions of his mythos he had given little thought to the origins or natures of the Dark Lord's minions. It was simply assumed that a Dark Lord would be surrounded by hosts of foul beings who existed primarily to do his bidding and who could be slaughtered in vast numbers by the heroes without moral qualm. However, in The Lord of the Rings he had established as a major teleological element the idea that nothing is evil in its origins, not even the Dark Lord, but rather evil is a turning away from good. If he held to his belief that evil could not create, only distort, then the orcs and other creatures had to come from some previously extant race -- but which one? What would be implied if he stated that Morgoth had created the orcs by capturing and corrupting members of one or the other Speaking People until they not only became individually evil, but transmitted that evilness genetically so that all their descendants naturally embraced evil and flinched away from the good?

Tolkien also looked deeper into Eldarian society, exploring the nature of their customs of naming, of marriage and of family life. Part of the impetus for this was the matter of Finwe and his remarriage -- if elves were regarded as naturally monogamous, and if no elven soul ever left the World, but was reborn into another elven body, how could Finwe have remarried in the manner of mortal Men, who leave the Circles of the World when they die and thus whose marriages are only until death do them part? As Tolkien explored the legal and social framework in which Finwe's second marriage took place (an act which he increasingly came to regard as having been the source of so much of the grief that later befell the Noldorian princely family, being as he now knew it to be contrary to the nature of the Elves), he realized that the immortality of the elves would have profound effects on every aspect of their family life and society, and wrote out a lengthy treatise on the nature of their familial relationships and customs relating to betrothals and weddings, to the naming and the raising of children, and even to the division of labor within Elven society. For instance, while male elves generally concentrated upon the crafting of physical objects and female ones on the raising of children, elven craftswomen were by no means unknown, nor did the reserving of the baking of bread to feminine hands mean that male elves were uninterested in the culinary art, and there were in fact many male elven chefs of great reknown.

Most interesting is the idea that those who would be great healers generally abstained from the arts of war and from hunting, since it was believed among the elves that bringing about another creature's death diminished the capacity to heal. As a result, healers were more likely to be female elves, who generally did not fight or hunt unless in situations of desperate need -- although when their backs were to the wall, elven lasses were known to be quite ferocious fighters on the line of battle, and even a mother elf would take up arms against an enemy immediately threatening her children rather than stand helplessly and let her entire family be slaughtered alongside herself. Although male elven healers were not common, neither were they unheard-of -- but all of them refrained from the arts of war or hunting save in direst need lest the shedding of blood lessen their healing powers. It is particularly interesting because the one character in The Lord of the Rings who is portrayed as employing elven healing techniques is Aragorn, who is of course a great warrior and whose healing powers are suggested to be related to his being the rightful, albeit uncrowned, king of Arnor and Gondor. On the other hand, he is reckoned as a Man, his elven heritage having grown distant through both the many generations and Elros' choice to be numbered among humanity rather than elvenkind, so things may work differently for him.

Nor did humanity get short shrift, as the "Athrabeth Finrod Ah Andreth" shows. Cast in the form of a discussion between Finrod and the mortal woman Andreth, it explores the ideas the human population of Middle Earth held about their own mortality, its nature and its origins. It is the first extended exploration of what happened to Men in Middle Earth between the time of their awakening and their arrival in Beleriand that Tolkien had undertaken since his abortive account of the mysterious sorcerous being Tu or Tuvo and his elven assistant Nuin in the first volume of The Book of Lost Tales.. As such there seem to be a considerable degree of hesitation in his work, represented by repeated false starts and emendations as he shifted back and forth. There are hints that he was struggling with the propriety of developing a fictional theology of the Fall so widely at variance with the Biblical one, even through the lens of a character who is only repeating to an Elf the stories that her people have passed through the generation. At length he apparently rejected the entire thing as simply too much of a theological hot potato to handle and said only that the Edain told their Elven allies that a darkness lay in their past and they did not wish to remember it or talk about it.

This volume is of particular interest because it shows a mature writer struggling with the works of his youth, attempting to rework them to match his adult vision while at the same time retaining the joy and sense of wonder that his younger self had imbued into the originals. We see a similar process in Marion Zimmer Bradley's development of Darkover, particularly in the rewriting of her early work The Sword of Aldones as Sharra's Exile, although not so deeply or intimately because we do not have access to her notes, only the occasional glimpse offered by published letters or essays. In MZB's case as well we see elements which her younger self enthusiastically created as part of the sense of wonder of an alien world subsequently being reconsidered or even discarded by the more mature writer who was attempting a more systematic and logically consistent imagined world.

Table of Contents

  • Ainulindale
  • The Annals of Aman
  • The Later Quenta Silmarillion
  • Athrabeth Finrod Ah Andreth
  • Myths Transformed

Review posted January 14, 2010.

Buy Morgoth's Ring: The Later Silmarillion, Part One (The History of Middle-Earth, Vol. 10) from Amazon.com