Tag Archives: christopher tolkien

Tonight I finished The Silmarillion

First-edition cover, George Allen & Unwin, art by Tolkien (a heraldic device for Lúthien). Click the image for copyright info.

Having put our son to bed, my wife and I were preparing to have Grendel’s favourite snack* with a cup of tea, and discussing our relaxation plans for the evening. I said I wanted a cup of tea because I was almost done The Silmarillion. She said she was impressed. It’s not that impressive that I’ve read all those other boring because I had to read them. But she tried The Silmarillion and didn’t finish.

So did I. Twice.

Or was that three times?

I have to say, it takes a particular kind of Tolkien fan to like this more than The Lord of the Rings or to be really, really excited about re-reading this book. The Silmarillion is a hard book to get into, especially if (as on my first try) you mistakenly think it is a novel. It is not. It is less of a novel than The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien denies that LotR is a novel, FYI).

This is big mythology written in faux-archaic English from the creation of the world to the end of The Lord of the Rings. (By far, the best faux-archaic English I’ve read yet.) It was edited by Christopher Tolkien (with help from Guy Gavriel Kay) out of the various versions and notes of his father. The elder Tolkien had intended to get this published, but when he brought it to his publisher, he was told to do something more hobbity instead (so we got The Lord of the Rings, praise Ilúvatar!). That is to say — however difficult this book is, unlike some (most? much? all?) of the other posthumous disiecti membra doctoris Christopher has inundated us with over the years, some version of this was meant to see the light of day.

Anyway, this probably makes me seem like I’m down on The Silmarillion, and all the people who do ‘philosophy and fantasy’ or ‘theology and fantasy’ or ‘Tolkien and Northernism’ or what-have-you are preparing to troll me. I’m not.

I really, really like the first few pages. After that, there is a certain amount of slogging to get through to bits that I liked. Interesting stories — like making the trees of light in Valinor, or Melkor riding Ungoliant to undo what the Valar do, or the creation of the Dwarves, or the departing of the Noldor for Middle Earth, or the fight that one guy with a forgettable name had with Morgoth and cut off his foot, or Beren and Lúthien, or the fifth battle against Morgoth, or parts of the extraordinarily long and depressing tale of Túrin, or Earendil, or what-have-you — simmer in the midst of a barrage of names and long non-descriptions of imaginary places that are mostly names of rivers and mountain ranges and the points of the compass with no maps to help.

The interesting stories and parts of stories are really interesting, though. Don’t get me wrong. I even get the depressing ones. In fact, you can see the unsurprising interweaving of Tolkien’s Catholicism and his Anglo-Saxon/Norse philology in some of the depressing parts (which is to say, they have interest!). In The Silmarillion, even the evil, even the discordant notes, works as part of the harmony of the whole — somehow. What Melkor/Morgoth intends for evil, Ilúvatar will have turn out for good in the end.

That is Catholic. Augustinian, even.

But all joy is tinged with sorrow. Happiness has a cutting edge of grief. The elves are fair and wondrous, but also sad. This sort of sorrow runs through a lot of Anglo-Saxon literature.

All of this to say — I enjoyed The Silmarillion overall, whether I can pronounce the titles of its different sections or not.

In the end, I do have mixed feelings about The Silmarillion.

Basically, I feel as though, if I’m going to put this much effort into a book, I’d rather it be actual ancient mythology, and not a philologist’s dream-child. I like it, but I feel that the reward may not be worth the effort of a second reading — for me, at least. Those of you who revel in this book and drool over your print-fresh copies of The Fall of Gondolin — have at it.


Characters take on lives of their own…

… and sometimes their authors don’t necessarily ‘create’ them.

I am reading two books from that delightful group of second-quarter Oxford literati known as The Inklings but Also Dorothy L. Sayers Who Wasn’t an Inkling (What with no Inklings Being Ladies). One is The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, carefully selected and edited by Humphrey Carpenter with some help from (the ever-present) Christopher Tolkien; a birthday gift from my delightful wife. The letters are fine specimens of epistolography (a genre whose ancient form I discussed once) and give us insight both into the development of The Lord of the Rings and the mind of Tolkien — father, philologist, Roman Catholic. I am at a stage of my life where it is his philology and Roman Catholicism that interest me most.

The other book is The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy L. Sayers, which is an extended discussion of the analogical language we use about God. Her goal is to unpack the historic creeds through the analogy of a maker, since God is described as ‘creator’. The theory is that if humans are made in the image of God, then they, too, must analogically be ‘creators’ of a sort as well. The kind of maker Sayers has chosen is the author, since she is herself an authoress — but she believes her analogy would hold in other creative arts as well.

In  one of his letters to Christopher, Tolkien says:

A new character has come on the scene (I am sure I did not invent him, I did not even want him, though I like him, but there he came walking into the woods of Ithilien): Faramir, the brother of Boromir — and he is holding up the ‘catastrophe’ by a lot of stuff about the history of Gondor and Rohan (with some very sound reflections no doubt on martial glory and true glory): but if he goes on much more a lot of him will have to be removed to the appendices … (letter 66, p. 79)

Because only so many letters or poems or essays or short stories can be consumed at one go, I alternate between the two books. Thus I soon found some amusing anecdotes from Sayers in her chapter about predestination, such as this conversation:

“I am sure Lord Peter will end up as a convinced Christian.”
“From what I know of him, nothing is more unlikely.”
“But as a Christian yourself, you must want him to be one.”
“He would be horribly embarrassed by any such suggestion.”
“But he’s far too intelligent and far too nice, not to be a Christian.”
“My dear lady, Peter is not the Ideal Man; he is an eighteenth-century Whig gentleman, born a little out of his time, and doubtful whether any claim to possess a soul is not a rather vulgar piece of presumption.”
“I am disappointed.”
“I’m afraid I can’t help that.”
(p. 105)

Of course, one would like Lord Peter Wimsey to convert. But is such a thing in accord with the character as Sayers has created him? And once Faramir has strode into the story, Tolkien must ask, ‘What sort of brother would Boromir have? What sort of sons would Denethor be? What sort of father is Denethor?’

Although I am a mere occasional dabbler in fiction, part of the creation of verisimilitude is the willingness to allow the worlds and characters to produce what they will, regardless of the will of the creator — so long as it is fitting. From what Sayers says, and from the letters of Tolkien, there is still much slog and careful work. But once you’ve established Wimsey, you cannot do things with him because you simply fancy doing them. And if the story produces a Faramir — well, that’s only fitting.

As a Faramir fan, I’m quite glad he decided to turn up.

High Adventure: The Fall of Arthur

The second piece of High Adventure my wife gave me for Christmas 2014 is J R R Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur. I recommend it — here’s my Goodreads review.

The Fall of ArthurThe Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Someone mentioned to me that Christopher Tolkien must be scraping the bottom of the barrel by now — if The Fall of Arthur were any good, surely it would have been published 20 years ago! My cynicism runs slightly differently — if The Fall of Arthur were destined to make a lot of cash, it would certainly have been published 20 years ago. It isn’t, so it wasn’t. But it is still worth reading.

So why only three stars, if I recommend it?

If I were judging merely J R R Tolkien’s poem, I would give it four, maybe even five, stars. However, the poem is only 40 pages of this book. The rest is Christopher’s explanatory notes and appendices. Most of these I am glad for, but some I am not, as you shall see.

My second ‘warning’, if you will, is that this poem is not for the faint of heart. It’s probably not for anyone who doesn’t like Old and Middle English literature or who is unacquainted with Arthurian legend. The explanatory notes do help clear up some of the oblique references in the poem, so if you’d like to try your hand at reading mediaevalesque narrative poetry, this is as good a place as any to begin — with the benefit that this poem is shorter than the contents of The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrún (I think).

But I do, I really do want to recommend this book. Because I really like it. When I read the aforelinked Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, I learned that modern English has so similar a natural cadence to Old English that one can write poetry in modern English using Old English meters and alliteration. This is what Tolkien did in Sigurd, and that’s what he does here. And it works.

The poem begins:

Arthur eastward in arms purposed
his war to wage on the wild marches,
over seas sailing to Saxon lands,
from the Roman realm ruin defending.

This is not the time to discuss the niceties of versification, but I find this Old English meter works for narrative poetry. I like it. Combined with Tolkien’s word choice and imagery, it is here moody and evocative, full of depth and power.

Tolkien here tells the tale of Arthur from his departure to engage in war on the Continent up to the battle at the beach upon his return to wrest his kingdom back from Mordred’s hands. The poem stops abruptly, unfinished. But here is the melancholy tale of the sundered Round Table, of chivalry lost, of doom, death, and deceit.

Such gloom, such moodiness, does not, from what I’ve read, tend to weight heavily upon the Arthur story as told. It does, however, weigh upon Old English literature — a literature that never knew Arthur, yet whose moods lend themselves to this fatal clash of uncle and nephew, father and son, king and regent, right and might.

One of the themes of much Anglo-Saxon poetry is exile — whether from the perspective of the exile, or of the wanderer, or (as in ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’) the wife left behind. Canto III of The Fall of Arthur gives us this with great pathos, bringing the narrative to Benwick and Lancelot, where the tale of Lancelot’s exile from Camelot is told allusively. And Lancelot wishes to be reconciled with his liege, awaiting Arthur’s summons at any moment.

It is a summons that never comes. Lancelot is not at Camelon fighting Mordred.

The main knight in this tale is Gawain, likened by Tolkien time and again to light and brilliance. He leads the knights in Europe and the ships back to Britain. He is all glory and power. Tolkien has found a way to reconcile two Arthurian traditions, one which favours Lancelot, the other which favours Gawain, without compromising the characters of the two knights.

As you can see, I really do like this poem.

Following the poem, Christopher provides some very helpful notes on it, which I recommend you keep your finger amongst, or at least a second bookmark. After the notes on the text are three appendices (these Tolkiens like their appendices): The Poem in the Arthurian Tradition, The Unwritten Poem and its Relation to The Silmarillion, and The Evolution of the Poem.

The first of these appendices will be especially helpful to those unacquainted with the wider tradition of Arthurian literature. I was glad to read it, although I skimmed some of the long extracts from Mallory and completely skipped some of the Middle English verse Christopher quotes.

The second is also very interesting. Here selections of continuations of the poem drawn from Tolkien’s notes are presented with some commentary and questions of where the poem may go from there. Then a long and involved discussion of the relationship of the unwritten poem’s Avalon to Númenor and The Silmarillion ensues. I’ve not read The Silmarillion, and am far more interested in Avalon than in Númenor, but I’m certain other fans will relish every word.

The third appendix I didn’t read, frankly. I skimmed over it and set it aside. I’m sure other people will find the textual criticism of Professor Tolkien’s notes of interest — I do not.

Finally, there is an appendix on Old English Verse that repeats material from The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun.

All in all, I really like this book, even if not all of Christopher’s material is to my taste. It’s a shame J R R Tolkien never finished the poem.

View all my reviews