Thursday, January 28, 2010

Blogging The Silmarillion: Of northern-ness, the death of Fëanor and the creep of doom

Part four of Blogging the Silmarillion continues with chapters 10-15 of the Quenta Silmarillion.
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“If we insist on asking for the moral of the story, that is its moral: a recall from facile optimism and wailing pessimism alike, to that hard, yet not quite desperate, insight into Man’s unchanging predicament by which heroic ages have lived. It is here that the Norse affinity is strongest: hammerstrokes but with compassion.”

—C.S. Lewis, “The Dethronement of Power,” from
Tolkien and the Critics

J.R.R. Tolkien said in a letter that “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” While true, this oft-quoted statement has led some critics and observers to pigeonhole it and his works as simple analogues of Christianity. This leads to conclusions that The Silmarillion is a parable of the Fall of Man, for instance, when in fact Tolkien’s legendarium is perhaps more akin to a hauberk of hard scale armor, its iron plates hammered together from a mosaic of influences, both Christian and other.

The deeper you get into The Silmarillion the more you feel a coldness grip your spine. It’s a bitter wind whose source is the wild North. As the late Steve Tompkins once said, “Norse and Celtic elements are as integral to The Silmarillion as are hydrogen and oxygen to water; the book is so northern that compasses point quiveringly in its direction.” While it may have been only hinted at in past chapters, this northern-ness resounds like the great hammer of Thor in the section of The Silmarillion that I plan to cover here.

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

13 comments:

Lagomorph Rex said...

Another great entry into this series.. looking forward to the next one.

David J. West said...

Awesome Brian-sending people to check it out from twitter etc.

You mention in terrific Tolkien Maedhros loses his right hand and I can't help but think of Tyr losing his right hand to Fenrir the wolf.

Gotta love the indomitable Nordic heroics.

Ed Ross said...

The articles are amazing- I salute you sir. I don't know if the Silmarillion I have was edited later, but didn't that elf regenerate his hand? I remember reading an explanation that elves were mightier or something in that age. In my AD&D(ish) campaign I use Tokien's history for the elves.

Brian Murphy said...

Lagomorph Rex: Thanks, much appreicated.

David: If you think that's norse-inspired, wait until the tale of Beren and Luthien. Now there's a Tyr motif!

Yes, I do love the northern heroes, which is probably why Tolkien's tale resonates so strongly with me.

Ed: It's been a while since I've read The Silmarillion, but I'm not remembering Maedhros regenerating his hand. It hardly mattered--the heroes were mightier then, and he simply learned how to wield his sword better left-handed!

Eric D. Lehman said...

Hmm...I didn't remember that great bit with Fingon.

Can't wait until Fingolfin challenges Melkor at the gates of Angband.

Trey said...

I'm a late comer to this series, but nice piece.

I've always been a bigger of fan of pulp fantasy or sword and sorcery. A few years ago though, I listened to the Silmarillion audiobook. Being bitten my the linguist bug like Tolkien, I really loved hearing the fruits of his glossopoesis pronounced aloud. It really enhanced the sensation of being immersed in a real mythology.

Brian Murphy said...

Eric: Yeah, I realized how much I had forgottten until this re-read, too. The Silmarillion is only 300 pages but it contains a metric ton of detail. The entire aside with Fingon rescuing Maedhros is only about a page and a half (it would probably be an entire book in The Wheel of Time).

Trey: Thanks for stopping by. One of these days I hope to purchase a copy of the audio book of The Silmarillion. Does the narrator actually read aloud the indices as well?

Taranaich said...

Hell, every page in The Silmarillion deserves an entire book! But then, that concision is part of the charm, too.

I think there's definitely something to be said for the Biblical aspects of The Silmarillion (like the Satan dynamic with Morgoth and Feanor), but as you say, it's as northern as the Aurora Borealis.

Incidentally, Feanor's capture is one of the reasons I'm not a fan of the "giant balrog" as seen in many illustrations and the films. If the Balrogs were twice the height of an elf or so, Feanor looks like a badass: if they're five times their size, the Balrogs look like wimps. Know what I mean? It's like a field mouse facing off against several cats, rather than several giant rats.

Along with the size of the passage in Moria and a few other clues, I prefer to think of Balrogs as roughly twelve or fifteen feet. About the same height I consider the Ice-Giants in "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" to be, as a matter of fact.

Brian Murphy said...

Taranich: I always thought that the Balrogs were 12 feet tall or so--Tolkien of course never offers this level of description (that I'm aware of), but they do use their whips to ensare their foes. If they were 40 or 50 feet tall, all that would be required is a crushing hand.

The bigger question of course is: Do Balrogs have wings? Let's not get into that debate :).

Taranaich said...

Well, there's this quote from The Book of Lost Tales:

"Then Glorfindel's left hand sought a dirk, and this he thrust up that it pierced the Balrog's belly nigh his own face (for that demon was double his stature)..."

Glorfindel would've been in the region of six feet, likely more, leading to the Balrog he fought being twelve feet. It's an early version of the legendarium, but it's never contradicted later by Tolkien, so it stands to reason that they remained that same size. Naturally, a 12-foot demon of shadow and flame is still pretty damn intimidating.

Regarding wings, I never really felt the "need" for wings, and the "simile" argument convinces me. Still, I don't "mind" winged Balrogs.

Gabriele C. said...

That scene with Fingon rescuing Maedhros is one of my favourites.

And I agree about the Norse feel of the Silmarillion. There's a darkness about the whole book that you won't find in Greek mythology. for example.

Brian Murphy said...

Nice find, Al. I didn't remember that bit from The Book of Lost Tales. I haven't read that in several years.

Gabriele: Agreed on both accounts! Just picturing Fingon playing his harp in those desolate, sheer, jagged mountains... and then in response a clear voice picks up the melody of his harp--well, it's beautiful stuff.

Tolkien was certainly much more of a northern persuasion than Greek. That also comes from his teaching Old English and northern literature courses as a college professor for 20-odd years.

Falze said...

The entire aside with Fingon rescuing Maedhros is only about a page and a half (it would probably be an entire book in The Wheel of Time).

No, the actual event would only be a page and a half, but there would be 859 pages of other people wandering around being glum.