Thursday, January 14, 2010

Blogging The Silmarillion: Of the coming of elves, and several degrees of separation

Part two of Blogging the Silmarillion picks up with the end of chapter 1of the Quenta Silmarillion (“Of the Beginning of Days”) and continues through the end of Chapter 5 (“Of Eldamar and the Princes of the Eldalie”).
“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.”

–J.R.R. Tolkien, Letters

If the opening chapters of The Silmarillion introduce us to the first painful split on Arda—the evacuation of the godlike Valar from Middle-earth to Valinor, a sort of heaven on earth—in the following chapters the sunderings both multiply and grow more acute. First, we’re introduced to the divisions between Men and Elves—both are Children of Ilúvatar, but have some important differences. Next comes a series of painful rents that occur when the Elves dissolve into various groups, sometimes freely and other times against their will. Finally, there’s the little matter of death, the king of all sunderings.

Why is The Silmarillion so concerned with these small separations (adding up to a great fall) from the early paradise of Middle-earth? I believe the reason is twofold. First, we know that Tolkien constructed his legendarium to create either a foundational myth for Middle-earth and/or for England itself. He needed to provide an explanation for how magic went out of Middle-earth, and how it evolved (devolved?) to become the humdrum, human-populated England that we know today, and/or the Fourth and subsequent Ages of Middle-earth. Each step away from Ilúvatar/the Valar/Valinor/the Elves is a distancing from this magic time, and a step closer to the prosaic age of Men.

Secondly, remember that Tolkien was suffused in death from his earliest days. Both his parents died when he was young, and two of his best friends were killed during World War I. How to make sense of this tragedy? Spend your life creating a grand myth to explain it. The Silmarillion provided him with a stage on which he could grapple with its mystery and create a myth for death itself.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.


Taranaich said...

Great stuff again, Brian. I particularly loved this bit:

"The sea-god Ulmo uses an island to transport the Elves across the sea to Valinor, which verily rocks."

It verily does!

Great choice for Terrific Tolkien too: how can you not love two deities having a good old fashioned barnstorming bonafide Texas slobberknocker? There is one other "influence" I can think of: Jacob's smackdown with the angel in Genesis. It isn't the struggle between light and dark as the Tulkas/Melkor showdown was, but it's the first thing that came to mind for me.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Al, thanks for the feedback.

It's amazing how much world-building and detail is packed into The Silmarillion, and if you take out the indices and so forth it's only 315 pages hardcover. It's loaded with so many one paragraph or one sentence descriptions of wonder that a lesser author would need 20 pages to tell (and in so doing, drain the magic right out).

Good call on the biblical reference. One of these days I need to read my King James version, cover-to-cover. I know it will help enrich my reading experiences. There's a lot of good storytelling, epic poetry, and yes, even smackdowns to be found in the bible.

Taranaich said...

I think the "loaded" aspect of The Silmarillion is what makes me love it so much. The only other author who really came close in that regard was Olaf Stapledon, IMO.

King James? Ya filthy heathen, it's Gutenberg or nothing! :P

Regardless of one's spiritual opinion on the bible, there are a lot of great stories in there. Lots of blood & thunder, betrayal, intrigue, heroism, courage and all that epic stuff. REH certainly thought so.

Eric D. Lehman said... a GOOD thing. That's unfortunately not what most people get out of the Tolkien books. Everyone wants to be an elf.

I'm actually writing something right now on that very theme...

Brian Murphy said...

Eric: Yeah, Tolkien has gotten a lot of grief (some warranted, perhaps) for his depiction of Elves as Übermensch. But the more I read about deathlessness, the less appealing it seems.

Still, selfishly, I wish we could have gotten another 10 years or so out of Tolkien. I would have liked to have seen him finish a bunch more of those tales.

If you're up for sharing what you've written, I'd be interested in seeing it.

Eric D. Lehman said...


Thanks! When I finish the novel this summer, you'll get first look. I'm currently finishing my second book under contract, but since they are a strictly history publisher, they have no claim over my next book unless it is a straight history.

Which it is not. Much more up your alley...

As for 10 more years out of about 30?! I just looked at the Fall of Gondolin in the Book of Lost Tales today...brilliant work, but just shy of completion. Alas!