The Silmarillion by J.R.R Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien
Published by Del Rey Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
When The Lord of the Rings came out, readers were captivated by its depth, not only the wealth of detail but also the hints of thousands of years of history. Soon there was an enormous clamor for the stories behind the songs and sayings.
What people didn't realize was that the stories had already been written. In fact Professor Tolkien had been working on the stories of the First Age since his youth. Because he had been under the impression that there was little hope of actually getting them published, he had set them aside in favor of what would ultimately become The Lord of the Rings.
Now that there was a clear and definite market for the stories of the First Age, Tolkien had to take them up once again and put them into some kind of publishable order. However, the perfection which he sought continued to elude him. He could not find any overarching structure to unite the disparate manuscripts. Worse, there was nothing comparable to the hobbits to mediate the story to present-day readers.
When Tolkien died, the manuscripts of the First Age narratives remained in a chaotic tangle. It fell upon his son Christopher to impose some kind of order upon them and bring them to print. This was no easy task, for a lifetime of working and re-working had left multiple layers of story, rather like an archeological dig at a long-inhabited site.
This volume is the result. In it Christopher Tolkien drew together a coherent storyline from the confusion of his father's manuscripts. It is heavy reading, since there is no effort to make the narrative friendly and accessible to modern readers. Many readers, expecting a work of modern fiction similar to The Lord of the Rings, with the features that drive modern fiction such as close identification with a viewpoint character, were sadly disappointed and complained that it read like the Old Testament. It might just as well be compared to the Norse sagas, for it has that same sense of cool remoteness, of tales being told to an audience that knows them well and therefore has no need of suspense, for such devices would be of no use.
There is a brief foreword and preface to the second edition, in which Christopher Tolkien sets forth the circumstances under which he and Guy Gavriel Kay set forth to take the enormous pile of manuscripts that had been accumulating for a lifetime and somehow place a seal of finality upon them. Where there had been an endless array of possibilities, of narrative features that were introduced, set aside but perhaps not permanently abandoned, reintroduced in new form, it was necessary to make a definite decision as to what form the narrative would take. Should elements from very early drafts that were never definitely rejected be reintroduced to later versions that were built up from a very spare sketch of the mythology, or would it represent the pollution of the later refined forms by a less mature imagination?
And to dispel any notion that the problem was entirely that of a literary heir all too aware of being inadequate to the task of completing the master's work, Christopher Tolkien includes a letter of his father's to one Milton Waldman in which he sets forth some of his working method in writing, and particular some of the inconsistencies in tone and deep philosophy which had subsequently come to cause him great distress in his efforts to put his earliest work into publishable order and present the stories of the First Age in complete form. It wasn't just the concern of loss of the sense of depth that one gets from the glimpses of stories otherwise untold, those "far trees" he mentioned in "Leaf by Niggle" and its accompanying essay "On Fairy Tales," but a very real awareness that he had never created a cohesive edifice, but a palimpsest of successive narrative versions that might well be far beyond his power to transform into a single narrative.
So it is with those caveats that readers now approach the synthetic text that Christopher Tolkien created from his father's manuscripts. It begins with the "Ainulindale," the creation story as told by the elves. It's a rather different creation story than the familiar Genesis narratives, yet there are hints of it in the use of the plural in both the P-tradition and J-tradition creation narratives, in the "let us create" phrases, in the plural name Elohim as one of the names of God. More than one theologian, particularly Jewish and Muslim thinkers, have suggested that God is addressing the assembled angelic powers, a form that suggests the possibility that the angels were asked to participate in the creative act. (Christian theologians have generally understood these plurals in Trinitarian terms, of the First Person of the Triune God speaking to the Second and Third Persons of the Trinity).
What is simply hinted in the Genesis narrative and expounded upon by theologians in the Primary World is made explicit in the principal creation narrative of Tolkien's Secondary World. Perhaps it being the elves' creation narrative, and their special relationship with the Valar and Maiar, is what makes the difference. Because the greatest of the elves, the Eldar or High Elves, lived in Valinor and saw the Valar face to face, there is not the problem of them mistaking the Valar and Maiar for gods and according them the worship that belongs properly to Illuvatar, as humans have done so many times in the history of Middle Earth.
In this narrative we also learn the story of the first Fall, that of Melkor, the eldest and most splendid of the Valar, who corresponds to Lucifer. In the elves' account the nature of his Fall becomes more subtle, a yearning after hidden knowledge that leads him astray, and likewise the evidence of it is not an open and obvious political rebellion of the sort we see in John Milton's Paradise Lost, but the introduction of discordant themes into the Great Music that Illuvatar teaches the Ainur, the angelic hosts, that they might improvise upon it and elaborate upon it for His and their pleasure. Even then Illuvatar is patient with him and seeks to counsel him to change his attitudes, and it is in his sullen reception of the criticism that Melkor seals his Fall, setting the stage for the glories and tragedies of the Silmarillion proper.
After the "Ainulindale" we have another prefatory document, the "Valaquenta" or account of the Valar. Listings of the gods and goddesses and their respective powers are fairly common in polytheistic traditions, and this imagined elven accounting follows patterns we see in the Greek classics and the Norse sagas. However, unlike the Greek gods with their endless lusty affairs, the Valar are quite staid, their marriages quiet and unremarkable like idealized versions of Tolkien's own quiet years of marriage to his own wife, and generally what an idealized Catholic marriage was seen to be in the time of his youth.
After these two documents we have the Quenta Silmarillion proper. It begins with a brief mention of the first conflict on the newly-made world between the Valar and Melkor, when the latter destroyed the two Lamps the Valar had created to light the world and thus drowned the first home of the Valar, the island of Almarien. As a result Melkor fled eastward and northward to his terrible fortress of Utumno, while the Valar retreated westward to the easily defended land of Aman, where they raised defensive mountains and hallowed the land as Valinor, the land of the Valar.
In this account we see Tolkien's imagining of a primitive cosmology similar to that held by many early civilizations, in which the earth was flat, resembling a plate or shallow dish and floating upon a cosmic ocean or cloud-sea. In later years it would trouble him greatly, because such cosmologies are the result of the limited understanding of human minds, and their presence in the Bible is generally understood as God choosing for whatever reason not to disabuse his chosen authors of their mistaken notions about the structure of the universe in the process of inspiring their writings. But if the elves were supposed to be learned far beyond human limits, and to have learned the secrets of the making of the universe alongside their craftsmanship from the lips of the Valar themselves, was it truly believable for the elves to hold such a primitive idea of cosmology? His solution, that the earth, and by implication the entire Solar System, was remade into its modern form as a result of the fall of Numenor and the removal of Valinor into another plane of existence, was not entirely satisfactory for him, since it required a remodeling so massive and absolute as to be effectively a re-creation. Yet to imagine the modern cosmology to be true from the beginning and the earth to always be a planet orbiting a sun that was a giant nuclear furnace and the moon as another world orbiting the earth, a world on which people could eventually land and collect rocks, even play golf, was to destroy the wonder of the tales in which the sun and moon were the last fruit of the poisoned Trees of Valinor, their light tainted by the venom of foul Ungoliant Mother of Spiders, and that the unsullied light of them was preserved only in the Silmarils, the glorious jewels of which the planet Venus was the sole survivor, the other two having been lost in the pits of the earth and the depths of the sea.
But the stories of the founding of Vailnor, of the creation of the Two Trees, of the Great Journey of the elves and their learning among the Valar that led to Feanor's creation of the Silmarils, all those things are really backstory to the heart of the Quenta Silmarillion. And that of course is the tragic story of the rebellion of the Noldor and their valiant but ultimately hopeless battles against Morgoth, as Melkor is now known, in Beleriand which borders upon his terrible fortress of Angband. There are tales of heroism and noble self-sacrifice, and tales of treachery and betrayal. And key among them are those three tales that go back to Tolkien's very first efforts to set down the world he could see in his mind: the story of Beren and Luthien and the Sindarian kingdom of Doriath, the story of Turin and his hubris that destroyed the Noldorian redoubt of Nargothrond, and the story of Tuor and the hidden kingdom of Gondolin. Each was told in full just that once, in the notebooks that he called the Book of Lost Tales, and although Tolkien would set forth many times to retell them with the mature skills of his later years, each time the impulse would falter before he reached the end.
And then there is the story of Earendil the mariner and the desperate quest to reach Valinor and beg the assistance of the Valar for the beleaguered elves and humans, many of whom had no part in the rebellion of the Noldor yet were enduring terrible suffering as Morgoth's orcs ran wild over the once-fair lands of Beleriand. It was intended to be an epic sea voyage of a scope at least comparable to Homer's Odyssey, but with a purer, more noble protagonist who would not stoop to the low cunning and even outright treachery displayed by Odysseus. However, Tolkien had never been able to solidify the amorphous notions that floated within his mind and produce a coherent narrative from the various sketches he'd produced back in the Lost Tales days. As a result, the final form here is but a sketch, little more than a hint of the grand voyages undertaken by that hero born of a lineage so intermingled that his sons were given the choice of allying themselves with the kindred of elves or that of humanity.
After the Quenta Silmarillion we have two more narrative pieces. The first, the Akallabeth, is a recounting of the events of the Second Age, which were covered in chronology format in the Appendices to The Return of the King. It is a tragic story, yet one all too familiar, of a people who are given a great gift, only to find that it makes them want more. When Morgoth's power was broken, the noble Atani, the human tribes who'd allied themselves with the Noldor and Sindar to fight in a war that was not their own, but was against cosmic Evil embodied in the form of Morgoth, had lost the only home they knew in the destruction of Beleriand. As a result, the Valar wished to provide them with a reward comparable to the removal of the repentant Elves to the island of Tol Eressea on the margins of Vailnor.
Yet the Vaiar could not abrogate the Gift of Men, that is, the mortality of humanity, and bring humans to the Immortal Lands. As a compromise, Ulmo the Vala of the Sea raised a new land in the center of the Sea that divided mortal and immortal lands. This became Numenor, the westernmost of mortal lands, and the Valar endowed it with rich gifts.
For the first few generations the Numenoreans were grateful and joyously received the visits of elves who taught them various arts and crafts. In time they built their own ships, but they were firmly banned from ever traveling westward toward the Immortal Lands. As a result they travelled eastward, to the lands their ancestors had left behind, and there found other human communities living in far more primitive situations.
At first the Numenoreans paid forward the gifts of the Valar and the elves, teaching the eastern peoples their skills and helping them better their lives. But in time the Numenorians began to resent the boundaries placed upon their ambitions, what we would call a glass ceiling. They wanted to enjoy the endless lives of the elves, not have an expiration date set on their lives from the moment they were born. But they dared not gainsay the Valar, so instead they channeled their discontent into empire-building among the lesser peoples.
But as time went by, they began to openly turn against the elves who had taught them. They no longer used the elvish languages, but turned back to their ancestral language, harsher and more guttural in sound, perhaps from influences by the Dwarves in the early history of humanity. It was in this time that Sauron who had once been the lieutenant of Morgoth raised his own banner as a Dark Lord in the lands of the East, and from time to time the Numenoreans sent forces to aid the elven kingdoms. When Sauron judged the Numenoreans to be ready, he pretended defeat and allowed himself to be captured and taken in chains to Numenor itself.
There he goaded the aging king Ar-Pharazon, called the Golden, into open defiance of the Valar. No longer would the Numenoreans be content with the lot of mortal humanity, but would march upon Valinor and demand immortality as their right as equals in might with the elven kingdoms. Thus they built a mighty armada and set sail, blotting out the setting sun as they passed Tol Eressea where the elves made their home.
But the Valar did not surrender as Sauron had expected them to. Instead they laid down their guardianship of the material world and called upon Illuvatar Himself to set things to rights. Thus Illuvtar remade the world into its modern form, removing Valinor into Heaven and making the earth round so that all trips east or west ultimately returned a mariner to the starting point.
In this process Numenor was shattered and destroyed, and the sole survivors were a small group of Elf-friends who'd stood off the eastern shores in tallships, and who barely managed to maintain control as the tsunami-like waves and hurricane winds flung them eastward to what was henceforth known as Middle Earth. It was they who founded the kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor which would play such an important role in the Third Age and The Lord of the Rings.
The final narrative, "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age," is a retelling of the story of The Lord of the Rings. However, while the familiar narrative of The Lord of the Rings is told from the perspective of the hobbits, "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age" is feigned to be a document written by one of the loremasters of Gondor under the reign of King Elessear. It is of course a terse summary, but the differences of perspective are interesting to note.
In addition to the narrative texts there are several family trees, an index with definitions of the terms indexed, and an appendix of linguistic elements in Quenya and Sindarian names. There is also a map of Beleriand, done in the same style as the map of Middle Earth that appeared in each volume of The Lord of the Rings.
It has become popular to deride Tolkien's work as reactionary, even regressive. But while it is true that Tolkien was very much a man of the Nineteenth Century rather than the Twentieth at heart, and in many ways felt more akin to the Middle Ages than the Modern Era, he still produced a tremendous contribution to English letters. A flawed contribution, but what work of any size is without flaws? Even the Bible, which Christianity holds to be the inspired word of God, has its humorous little moments like the time when Paul the apostle finds his memory isn't as clear as he'd like on just how many people he's baptized. And in the end, as a reader I'd rather a flawed but ambitious epic than a careful tale that hits all the politically correct checkboxes but has that sour medicinal taste of Good For You.
Review posted August 20, 2012.
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