Tag Archives: the lord of the rings

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.

*Danishes.

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Tolkien’s mythology

As I mentioned here once recently, I am reading the letters of JRR Tolkien right. They provide a fascinating glimpse into the mind of the man — mostly, so far, into the long labour that went into The Lord of the Rings, although some highly Roman Catholic epistles and ones of more literary and philological concern have made their way through the editors’ net.

I have to confess that I have never read The Silmarillion. I tried twice, maybe a third time. I will try again — it took three tries to get me into Paradise Lost, and then I gobbled it up! (My review of Milton’s epic here.) One reason why I think I will survive my next reading of The Silmarillion is the fact that I have now read Letter 131 of late 1951, which runs pp. 143-161, to Milton Waldman of Collins, whom Tolkien hoped would publish The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings since things seemed not to be progressing with Allen & Unwin at the time. This letter is a long description of Tolkien’s mythology as represented by The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings.

I think it is important to think of this series of tales of Elves as mythology and not as the history of Middle Earth. First of all, Elves do not originate in Middle Earth but Valinor. Second, history to our mind is a different sort of thing from myth — even if the etymology and use of mythos by ancient Greeks was not clearly delineated from ‘historical truth’ as we think it. Tolkien wished to produce a mythology as grand, as big, as cosmic as the unified myths of the Greeks and the Norse.

Furthermore, myths are often told in a different mode from histories or modern novels. One of the things I found offputting in Jean Anouilh’s Antigone is that the power of Sophocles’ mythos was stripped away by the cynical, post-War Frenchman. There is no good and evil, not law of heaven or nature vs law of man. There is just … raw humanity? Pain and ambiguity. We certainly live our lives in a world of pain and ambiguity — but romance and mythos are not genres intended to relate that world; that is the job of historia or political science/philosophy.

Tolkien knew full well, as his letters to Christopher attest, that in real wars there are orcs on both sides, and noble men on both sides as well. This is a man who fought in WWI; one of his sons suffered PTSD because of WWII. He is not unaware of the murkiness of real humans and real human motivations.

But the good and the beautiful — to kaló. These are still real, substantial realities — and these, alongside the depths of evil in Morgoth and Sauron, are what Tolkien relates in the mythology of The Silmarillion and the romance of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It is worth remembering the creative force of the good; it is worth remembering that is a better way to live; it is worth remembering that some things are worth fighting for — things like trees and architecture and gardens and friendship and beership.

I have suddenly moved from what makes Tolkien’s work like other mythologies to what sets it apart. Greek mythology comes to us in a vast myriad of sources written over a millennium by a combination of both Greeks and Romans. It is not a thematically united body of work, and it frequently contradicts itself. This is no surprise; it was not made to convey scientific realities, after all.

Tolkien’s work, on the other hand, as this letter shows us, is tightly controlled by a single author, auctor, creator, a single mind, a single man. As a result, he has particular themes that he explores. He has precise ideas of what makes the Valar, the Elves, the Dwarves, the Men, the Orcs, the villains what they are; he grasps their substance, their essence, in a unified way that we do not get from natural-born mythologies that arise out of the chance of cultural circumstance and hundreds of authors.

These thematic unities are, I imagine, what make The Silmarillion readable? I’ve not succeeded yet, of course. But still. They are also what make Tolkien’s work Catholic — they draw out themes such as sub-creation, the tendency of humanity towards misuse of power, the allure of power, the need to protect the simple and beautiful, the unrelenting drive towards the good. Certainly not themes exclusive to Roman Catholics; but certainly typically Catholic themes!

And because Tolkien was crafting a mythology and not a world, his work takes on a different feel. His goal is twofold: To create histories and stories that correspond to his imaginary languages and to craft a united, substantial mythology. This is similar to yet different from Robert E Howard’s pseudo-historical essay, ‘The Hyborian Age.’ This essay exists to provide a grand backdrop for Howard’s adventure stories; this is a necessary thing for the good fantasy writer — it gives verisimilitude, and a clear idea of what Hyperborea is, who Picts are, and where Cimmerians live, as well as all of this in relation to Atlantis, helps the author maintain consistency in references.

Tolkien, on the other hand, wrote The Hobbit, an adventure story ‘for boys’ (and girls!!). And as he wrote, his pre-existing mythological world invaded the story quite outside of his own intention. He did not, that is, take The Silmarillion and decide to flesh out a story from it, or to write a story set in that mythological world. In fact, there is no room for hobbits in that work, anyway! But Tolkien’s mythology invaded, anyway.

When it came time to write a sequel — something that lasted from 1937 until 1951, with revisions until 1954 (I think?) — Tolkien could not help weaving the story more and more tightly into the mythology had had already crafted. The result is a world already old, not only with its own history but with its own songs, its own divine beings, its own demons, its own magic, its own cultures, its own topography. The ruins of The Silmarillion dot the landscape of The Lord of the Rings the way acqueducts and the Villa of the Quintilii dot the landscape on the bus ride to Ciampino airport in Rome.

These facts do not make Tolkien’s mythology and fantasy novels better, necessarily (although I still think The Lord of the Rings is the perfectly-crafted example of its genre), but they do set Tolkien’s storycraft apart, both from ‘real’ mythologies and from other fantasy stories.

The Hobbit: Please Only Make Two Films

I have read The Hobbit four times. Once when I was in Grade 4, once in Grade 12, once aloud with friends in between degrees, and once again during my Master’s at U of T. I am likely to reread it again this September, along with Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.*

The Hobbit is one of my favourite books. I used to say that it was my favourite, but as the years go by and I read more books, it becomes harder to say which of them ranks number one. It depends on the day, really. Nonetheless, it is one of my favourite books, and it is a novel. A magnificent novel, in fact.

Some people think certain bits of it childish. And what of it? That is part of the charm of The Hobbit. This is an adventure story set in Tolkien’s mythic world, and it ties into that world in a few ways, but it is largely about the adventure — it gives us a hobbit’s-eye view from Hobbiton to the Lonely Mountain and back again.

And the heart of a good story is the story (Tolkien said so, in ‘On Fairy Stories’). Tolkien has provided us with a wonderful, fun story. High adventure is all the novel was meant to provide. And it does so with aplomb. And the centrepiece, if you ask me, is the Lonely Mountain. It is Smaug, the wyrm.

Yet.

Not central to this story is where on earth Gandalf has got off to. Something to do with some person called the Necromancer who lives in Mirkwood. This is part of the wider world of the setting of the novel, but it is non-essential to the action and plot of The Hobbit.

If Peter Jackson wishes to include the Necromancer in his films, that is all fine and well with me. It will help draw the connection with The Lord of the Rings, as will, of course, gollum, gollum — who is an integral part of The Hobbit.

But to use the 125 pages of appendices to take a face-pasted, high-flying adventure that Tolkien was able to tell in less space than any of the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings and make it into a film trilogy is no longer to tell the story of The Hobbit. It is to take the prelude to The Lord of the Rings and make it a prequel, giving on-screen, visual answers to questions we already know the answers to.

As well, three films will give him unwarranted opportunity to expand the Battle of the Five Armies, an event that takes fewer than 20 pages (10? I forget) in my copy of the novel. The battle is not the most important part of the story. Bilbo is, and he is unconscious throughout most of it. But we have already seen in The Two Towers and The Return of the King that Jackson likes to draw out his battle scenes unnecessarily.

What I think we are seeing here is not simply a difference between the ‘mature’ storytelling of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit with an attempt to reconcile it with the whimsy that guides so much of The Hobbit, but a difference between types of Tolkien fans.

There are those who are Middle Earth fans. They read the original four novels and gobbled up The Silmarillion when it appeared. Unfinished Tales and The Book of Lost Tales kept them happy. They read every volume of Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle Earth and then The Children of Hurin. These are the fans who learn Elvish and probably write fan fiction. These are a good breed of fan, and I am happy to have them around. They are absorbed in the world of Tolkien’s mythology and very clever, with an eye for detail and precision in interpretation that is often unrivalled by other readers.

I am one of the other readers. I am a fan of Tolkien’s writings, especially his novels. What The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit do that none of the other Middle Earth writings do, is set a story, a modern novel, an adventure, in the midst of a grand sweep of epic proportions, blending verse and prose, high adventure and deep themes in a tight, well-knit plot that has been worked and reworked, both in terms of story and of style. This love of the writing itself drives me to read Farmer Giles of Ham, Tree and Leaf, and Tolkien’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I also read The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun (I blogged about it here), partly for Tolkien’s poetic ability, partly from a love of Norse mythic/heroic tales.

As a member of the second of these two categories, what matters to me is the story of the novels, not the rest of the history of Middle Earth. To say that The Hobbit is sparse on these details and needs supplementing is like saying that Captain America was sparse on details about Hitler and WWII and needed supplementing.

Nonetheless, I believe that a two-film version of The Hobbit would satisfy Tolkien fans of both types, whereas a trilogy would satisfy the first and leave the second type saying, ‘Well, I know this a story Tolkien wanted to tell, but it’s not The Hobbit anymore.’

*The important thing about rereading a book before a film is not to read it less than a month prior to the film. The experience will ruin both film and novel.

Q is a space fairy

I recently watched the “top 1o” episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation (‘TNG’; as listed here).  Two of these episodes featured the character Q (played by John de Lancie).  Q is there at the beginning and at the end of TNG.  He is a being of great power, almost beyond limits.

He (and possibly the whole Q Continuum?) put humanity on trial for being a “dangerous, savage child-race.”  Q made the USS Enterprise-D fly all the way to the ‘Delta’ Quadrant where they encountered the Borg (the journey at full speed would take several decades; Q brought them there in a moment).  Q could make people travel through time (or seem to), create scenarios right before their very eyes that seemed very real, snatch people right off their starships — basically, mess around with how human beings interacted with what, for us, is a stable space-time continuum.

Q is also responsible for Lt. Worf’s line, “I am not a merry man!” (see it here!)

But what is Q?  I think he’s a fairy.  Trek will probably tell us that he is a highly-evolved being with powers to control things and perceptions that we, too, may some day develop.  I think, though, that he’s a fairy.  The things he does are basically magic, after all.

But not only is Q essentially a magical being, he is also capricious.  Star Trek likes to have evolved beings with, in the words of Capt. Picard in Star Trek: First Contact, “an evolved sensibility.”  Q lacks this.  But why should he mirror a more highly evolved version of human ethics and good behaviour?

Fairies don’t.

And by fairies I mean those “dancing companies of Longaevi who haunt woods, glades, and groves, and lakes and springs and brooks; whose names are Pans, Fauns . . . . Satyrs, Silvans, Nymphs . . .’*  I mean the Sidhe.  I mean elves.  I mean leprechauns.  I mean the Gentry, the Children of Dana, Puck, Auberon, kelpies, wood-sprites, brownies, the Dagda, the man with the thistle-down hair and so on.  Not “little twinkly guys” who live in your garden.  Beings of great power who can perform, often with ease, what we consider “magic”, but — if you recall Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings, they don’t really get what we mean by that.

Fairies are capricious.  They do things for their own realm, for themselves, not for us.  For example, to resuscitate a young woman recently deceased, a fairy may take her pinky finger.  This finger will give her a link to the realm of the Sidhe, and she will spend her nights dancing in an endless ball, never sleeping.  Or someone accidentally stumbles into a fairy ring.  He dances, has a jolly good time, finally escapes the dance, and finds it’s 200 years later.  Poor soul.  Or they’ll turn your head into that of an ass.  For fun.

They don’t operate the way humans do.  Fairies operate by their own ethics, morals, and so forth.  They sometimes play tricks on us — “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”  They sometimes use us for their own ends.  They sometimes exact a terrible price for something that seems relatively trivial to us.  They sometimes do great, magnificent things for us for no apparently good reason or benefit to them.  They operate by their own whims.  They are, then, whimsical.

Q plays games with Capt. Picard.  He says that this enables him to see how humans act much better than confrontation, and gives insight mere observation never can.  He also, as mentioned, puts humanity on trial.  He does things to Picard to show Picard insights into his own life.  He is capricious.  He is whimsical.

Q is a fairy.  A powerful being who is not God/a god who does things to humans for his own pleasure and for reasons humans do not always perceive.  He is whimsical.  He is a space fairy.

*CS Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, 122, quoting Martianus Capella.