Friday, January 29, 2010

Epic battles of Middle-earth in miniature

I'd like to offer a half-hearted apology to readers of The Silver Key who don't care much for Middle-earth. Until I get through Blogging the Silmarillion, for now and in the foreseeable future it's all Tolkien, all the time.

But although I've been shirking RPGs and gaming these days, I thought gamers and Tolkien fans alike would appreciate this link. It's a site with some great pictures of miniatures and detailed descriptions of some of the large-scale battles of Middle-earth, from The Silmarillion all the way up through The Lord of the Rings. These were articles originally published in Miniature Wargames magazine; the owner of the Web site is apparently the author.

Awesome stuff. My personal favorite is Helm's Deep. That and the picture of Eowyn and the Witch-King from the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.

I love miniatures and wish I had the time and patience (and talent) to do work like this.

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.

“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.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Blogging The Silmarillion: Melkor strikes back, and the pride and exile of Fëanor

Part three of Blogging The Silmarillion continues with chapters 6-9 of the Quenta Silmarillion.


Say farewell to bondage! But say farewell also to ease! Say farewell to the weak! Say farewell to your treasures! More still shall we make. Journey light: but bring with you your swords! For we will go further than Oromë, endure longer than Tulkas: we will never turn back from pursuit. After Morgoth to the ends of the Earth!

—from Fëanor’s speech to the Noldor, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion

Difficult and boring. Too dry. Too much history and too many names. Not enough heat and passion.

These are some of the typical complaints often leveled at The Silmarillion. As you can probably guess I don’t have much sympathy for them, and I hope that my first two Blogging The Silmarillion posts have helped dispel the myth that nothing exciting or worthwhile happens in this book. But after 50 pages of The Silmarillion it’s not an unfair question to ask (literally and figuratively): What’s the story, JRRT?

The disappointed and befuddled critics who reviewed The Silmarillion back in 1977 wanted a main character upon whose sturdy frame the story could be told; at the outset of the book such a protagonist does not seem to exist. Instead of hobbits, we’re fed a steady diet of creation myths and lists of demigods.

But I would counter with: Did these critics and disappointed readers ever get beyond Ainulindalë and Valaquenta? And if they did, how did they miss the great, proud, headstrong, damn the torpedoes Noldorin Elf known as Fëanor? Fëanor is what I would consider the first “big name” in The Silmarillion, a larger than life hero that seems to have strode out of some wild northern legend and into the pages of Tolkien’s magnificent legendarium. He shatters the pale, washed-out, emotionless Elven stereotype that people have unfairly associated with Tolkien.

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

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.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Blogging The Silmarillion: The creation of Arda and myth-making

Blogging The Silmarillion: Series introduction

In part one of Blogging the Silmarillion, I’m sharing my thoughts on the first two sections of the book, “Ainulindalë,” and “Valaquenta,” as well as Chapter 1 of section three of the Quenta Silmarillion, “Of the Beginning of Days”.

The Silmarillion begins with “Ainulindalë,” which means “Music of the Ainur." This is Tolkien’s creation myth. As I re-read this chapter, I was struck by its affinity with John Milton’s Paradise Lost, both in terms of its imagery and characters, and in its thematic similarity to the Christian fall of man. The language is also similar, biblical and epic and “high.”

In “Ainulindalë” we learn that Ilúvatar is the creator of the known universe, including Arda. This place of wizards, heroes, orcs, dragons, and dark lords, has an omnipotent, single creator. This is an incredibly important fact. We can guess at the presence of a creator in The Lord of the Rings, but only barely. For example, Sam, journeying with Frodo in the heart of Mordor and at the nadir of his faith and endurance, senses the presence of something greater beyond this world, buoying his spirit and giving him the strength to continue:

"Far above the Ephel Duath in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach."

Though we don’t have a name for which to assign Sam’s divine revelation, upon re-reading The Silmarillion I realized that this is Varda (Elbereth), whose face radiates the light of Ilúvatar. It’s always been one of my favorite moments in Tolkien, and The Silmarillion helped me understand why.

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

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Cimmerian sighting: Blogging The Silmarillion

Nevertheless it was the work of his heart, which occupied him for far longer than The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. The better-known works are in a way only offshoots, side-branches, of the immense chronicle/ mythology/legendarium which is the ‘Silmarillion.’

--Thomas Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien,
Author of the Century

Few works of fantasy are as maligned and misunderstood as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. As the late Steve Tompkins noted, it’s a work that seemed to have been much-purchased upon its 1977 publication but is anecdotally little-read, and is certainly the subject of many strong opinions, both positive and negative. Wikipedia sums up a good portion of the critical response to The Silmarillion upon its release as follows:

Some reviewers, however, had nothing positive to say about the book at all. The New York Review of Books called The Silmarillion "an empty and pompous bore", "not a literary event of any magnitude", and even claimed that the main reason for its "enormous sales" were the "Tolkien cult" created by the popularity of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The School Library Journal called it "only a stillborn postscript" to Tolkien's earlier works. Peter Conrad of the New Statesman even went so far as to say that “Tolkien can't actually write.”

Putting the ridiculousness of “Tolkien can’t actually write” and “a stillborn postscript” aside, there is some truth to the difficulty of reading The Silmarillion. Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey remarks in The Road to Middle-Earth that “it could never be anything but hard to read.” It’s not hard in terms of diction or structure, but rather, as Christopher Tolkien explains in Part One of The Book of Lost Tales, because it “lacks mediation of the kind provided by the hobbits (so, in The Hobbit, ‘Bilbo acts as the link between modern times and the archaic world of dwarves and dragons’).” The second reason is because it is not written as a novel. There is no main character in the foreground through which the story is relayed.

Prompted by the 118th anniversary of Tolkien's birthday and the dawn of the New Year, it’s my intention over the next several weeks to blog about The Silmarillion. I’m re-reading it in its entirety after the interval of several years and thought it would be enjoyable to write down my thoughts, impressions, and observations, and hopefully in the process make a small case for why it’s well-worth reading. I did something similar recently here at The Silver Key while re-reading The Lord of the Rings, and had a lot of fun with it. Please note that I am no self-appointed scholar or expert on Tolkien, just a fan. Writing about that which I read helps to further my own understanding and appreciation of the material.

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