We’ve explored The Hobbit. We’ve picked apart The Lord of the Rings. We’ve had some lighter weeks with LOTR‘s Appendices and Bilbo’s Last Song. Now it’s time to kick things up a notch and begin the next leg of the quest: The Silmarillion. This is where the rubber meets the road, the point that separates the enthusiasts into two camps: the fans who think they know and the scholars who know they want to but will forever be learning. Fans may or may not drop off at this point. I’ve heard it said that of those who own and have read the previous books, perhaps 10% of those own a copy of The Silmarillion… and of those, perhaps 1% have actually read it cover to cover, and of those, perhaps 1% actually understood it. At one time, this may have even been true. But I have to believe this is some major hyperbole today, given that the Peter Jackson films have opened up a new generation of fans with an insatiable hunger for Tolkien’s writings. There was a time when The Silmarillion was nigh-unapproachable, scary for the depth of its contents. Today, epic level High Fantasy is ubiquitous thanks to those inspired by Tolkien, and readers are more prepared than ever to crack the book and make an honest go of it. The internet has certainly been a great resource for sharing and discussing Tolkien’s ideas. The high tide raises all boats.
Before we get in there and get our hands dirty, it’s of immense help to understand what it is this book is supposed to be, and what it is not. Let’s start with the latter point. The Silmarillion is not a novel as were The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. These books were a children’s adventure and an adult’s novel respectively, whereas The Silmarillion is something altogether different. This is something that first time readers often do not understand, and why should they if they’ve never read it? The initial experience takes them by surprise. I know that was certainly my reaction. Surprise quickly turns to confusion, and then to frustration. The rumors of this sort make their way around to others who inquire about this tome. It makes it very daunting to approach the book, like some higher level, esoteric rite of passage for Tolkien aficionados. It’s easier than we might think. And it’s more difficult than we imagine.
So now that we know what it isn’t, let’s discuss what it is. The Silmarillion is referenced throughout the previous books, referring back to the annals of Middle-Earth’s rich history. If all we’ve read before is translated from The Red Book of Westmarch, chronicling the end of the Third Age from the point of view of some Hobbits, The Silmarillion is the lore of the world from its creation as documented by the Elves. Right there, you already know it’s going to be a higher level read, without the levity and simpler perspective of a Hobbit. It’s a collection of smaller tales, of which the previously-referenced Quenta Silmarillion, or Silmarillion proper, is only a part. It is, in short, the Elven Bible of Middle-Earth, written in five loose-knit parts as though cobbled together from different sources, but published as a whole at the express wish of Professor Tolkien. What makes it difficult for many readers, in addition to the sheer amount of names tossed about, is that it’s written similarly to the Old Testament, in elevated language befitting its subject matter and perspective. After some years of reading such linguistic styles from authentic Medieval and Renaissance sources myself… bring it on! I daresay I’ll have a far better appreciation of what’s going on here than I did the last time I attempted this, even if I am and always will be a blundering novice next to Tolkien. Of course, I won’t know for certain if I truly understand it until I write about it. Therein lies the trick, and thus the entire point of this undertaking.
The source material that inspired Tolkien are among the oldest and most venerable, including the Finnish Kalevala and the Hebrew Bible, as well as Celtic, Greek, and Norse mythologies. And as with the previous writings of Middle-Earth, World War I likewise informed him of a great many ideas and themes that found their way into his work through direct experience.
According to Christopher Tolkien, the earliest writings of The Silmarillion date back to perhaps pencil scribblings from the trenches of war, and formal drafts began as early as 1925. As such, the substance and style of these tales that inform the lore of Middle-Earth have changed and evolved as Professor Tolkien has, over the course of fifty years. And yet, to read Christopher’s account, these stories have changed very little; it is primarily the style of the telling that has changed, owing to a different time in his father’s life and the perspective of the different people within his tale telling these legends. To the Professor, these writings were his most important, the backbone of his linguistic thought experiment. The earlier the writing, the more important mythology and poetry play their parts, when the ideas were still loose and fast in Tolkien’s mind. It is to Christopher Tolkien that we owe much, having collected his father’s writings and published them posthumously. We could not know at the time of the release of The Silmarillion in 1977 that this would be the first of a veritable treasure trove of uncovered works. His process was to use as much of the later writings as possible. As a result of the massive 12-volume set The History of Middle-Earth, The Silmarillion has been debated due to the wealth of divergent ideas.
It is the intent of this undertaking not to debate anything at all, but rather to simply take it at face value as presented in the text and to present possibilities and perspectives of understanding.
The Silmarillion develops in its composition as Middle-Earth itself takes form. The earlier bits are more mythological and philosophical, presenting the themes and motifs that will come into play time and again, while the later writings more grounded, with developments of those themes appearing in many forms. With that in mind, enough preamble.
Time to begin.
The Ainulindalë is the first of the five parts of The Silmarillion, unnecessary to break it apart due to its brevity. For all intents, this is the Middle-Earth story of creation, literally translated as “Music of the Ainur.” When being introduced to any cultural mythology, it’s perhaps best to start with a dramatis personae.
At the top of is Eru Ilúvatar, known by either of those names (Ilúvatar means “All Father”… God by any other name). All around are spirits of lesser yet independent power, the Ainur, or “Holy Ones.” They provide the symphony of divine music that Ilúvatar conducts. Eager to expand his part beyond what is called for, Melkor breaks the harmony and introduces discord. Ilúvatar begins the music again. Manwë Súlimo, a brother of Melkor, sings the lead. Again, Melkor breaks the harmony.
Undeterred, still patient, but more firmly demonstrating is all-powerful control, Ilúvatar introduces a third theme which the Ainur cannot comprehend, as they are not the source of it. He shows his Ainur the ideas of what their music symbolized, which is the history of the entire world, known hence as the “Vision of Ilúvatar.” They are, of course, fascinated by the world and the Children of Ilúvatar that they see before them, and they request that Ilúvatar bring it all to Be. He does so with the command “Eä.” The universe comes into being, and is thus known by that name of Eä. Within Eä, four Ainur with the greatest power form a land within, which they call Arda, or Earth. Melkor, one of the four and the strongest in power, attempts to take it for his own, but he is thwarted by the others who have a claim. These Ainur who descend into Arda become known as Valar, the embodied powers of the world.
Being the lead vocalist of Ilúvatar (the Caruso or Pavarotti of the Ainur, if you will), Manwë is the Lord of the Breath of Arda, appointed its Ruler. Aulë is the Smith. Ulmo is Lord of the Sea. Melkor is the fire but assumes the mantle of Dark Lord, and takes form “like a flame that withers with heat and pierces with a deadly cold.” If you’ve never understood the literal meaning of the idea “cold as hell,” Melkor’s your gateway to new understanding. So if you’re keeping score, we have Air, Earth, Water, and Fire, respectively… the four primary elements known to many Western mythologies, with Ilúvatar serving as the fifth element, Spirit, or Ether.
The Elves, the first of the Children of Ilúvatar, have little knowledge of what occurred between this point and their awakening, but it’s understood that the three Valar created the realm of Arda with the music gifted to them, and Melkor tore down everything they built at every turn possible. Eventually, slowly, the land was readied for them, but there would be no lasting peace, and the Elves would understand themselves to be the hand of Ilúvatar, undirected, but nonetheless mandated to Be and to Do. But we’re getting ahead here.
It’s horribly ironic to me that the Music of the Ainur is never completed, and there is hope of another song that will someday complete the Great Work. Likewise, Tolkien passed before his Magnus Opus could be complete, and it is through Christopher Tolkien that we are give the more complete versions. The parallels are obvious, especially once they’re pointed out.
To my mind, the Ainulindalë is one of the most poetic things I’ve encountered in Tolkien’s work. It’s easy to see his inspirations, and it’s very difficult for me not to be inspired by the idea of the world being born of Music. It’s beautiful, far more elegant than the “mere” Word. But that’s just my lowly, mortal opinion. I’m rather infatuated by the power of music, so this grabs me instantly.
I don’t blog much about it, but I have mentioned from time to time that I have done a great deal of research over the decades into angelology and comparative mythologies. I know, that’s a great shock from a site called “Knight of Angels.” Please try to contain your surprise. At any rate, it should be noted that Tolkien intended the mythos of his world to be more in line with his own Christian beliefs, a way of ordering the disparate versions of other mythologies with his own zeitgeist. With that in mind, Ilúvatar serves a function closer to the Judeo-Christian, monotheistic God than merely being the chief deity such as the likes of Zeus or Odin. In fact, if you’ll forgive the spoiler for the next week, it is strongly suggested by Tolkien that Zeus, Odin, and any other “god” found in any other mythos are, in fact, the Ainur, known by many names, and all of them still lesser on the spiritual totem pole than Ilúvatar. There are no higher or older deities than Ilúvatar, no equivalents to Titans. Ilúvatar is the sole creator, more in line with the concept of Jehovah / YHWH… if we ignore the idea that YHWH is extrapolated from the lesser Mesopotamian river god Enki, and that there are either multiple Elohim who serve in the role of YHWH, or this character is suffering from multiple personality disorder as you move through the Old Testament. This is what happens when a non-religious person steps back from sacred writings and sees things that the uber-religious can’t or won’t. It’s that classic idea of understanding with your head vs. understanding with your heart, and when it comes to sacred texts, the heart can translate the elevated metaphoric poetry far better than the head can. That’s what poetry is for, after all. Doesn’t mean I’m wrong, and it doesn’t mean I’m anything close to right either. Perception defines reality. You can explore such things on your own if you’re so inclined. Back to Tolkien, because his perception is what we’re trying to work with…
The Ainur / Valar, then, rather than being fellow gods are more like angels (or Elohim, if you like) with Melkor being cast in the role of Lucifer, the strongest and greatest among them. This may not be completely as Tolkien would outline it as he always said he hated 1:1 correlation, but this is how my own research and understanding bears out, and thus such things color my perception. The High Ones of the Valar, or Aratar, are essentially archangels, being the parallel in the Abrahamic religions to the classical or pagan deities. If you know something about archangels, you’ll know that they don’t actually rank high at all on the pecking order, but as many of the popular ones also serve as heads of greater choirs, the public perception is the archangels are the powerhouses in charge. The idea of the hierarchy of angels is paralleled in my mind with the Valar, the Maiar who follow them, and the Istari who are drawn from the ranks of the Maiar to walk the Earth as wizards, i.e. guardian angels. Back on point… If you need archangel equivalents, Manwë is akin to Raphael (air), Aulë is akin to Uriel (earth), and Ulmo is akin to Gabriel (water). I’m sure that screws with people who already know Manwë as the Zeus / Odin leader type given that Michael is the perceived leader of the archangels, depending on what source you use. In most cases, that’s considered to be exactly the situation. Michael would be the archangel of fire, and as such he could not rise to that position until Lucifer (Melkor), the greatest and most powerful of them, rebelled and is cast down… which we’ll see that happen to Melkor. So you see, much as with any portion of Tolkien’s mythos, the Professor has drawn inspiration from these other sources, but it’s still not a 1:1 correlation as I’ve mentioned up front. Regarding Lucifer / Melkor, I’m really glad right now that I’ve come to appreciate Milton’s Paradise Lost. The concept of it being better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven is very much Melkor’s modus operandi. The thing is, he can’t turn Ilúvatar’s Vision into a Hell of his own making because Ilúvatar planned for him right from the beginning, so the only Hell he truly creates is the emptiness within the core of his being. It’s important that you can understand a fallen character and even appreciate his perspective, but at the same time… there’s no sympathy for the devil in Tolkien’s worldview. Melkor did this to himself, and he was given every possible opportunity to reconcile with the fold. Anyone who says otherwise is not seeing things as Tolkien does, and thus distorts his view as Melkor himself would attempt. See how that works?
The biggest difference between Paradise Lost and what we read here is that the Valar do have total freedom of will and can readily make their own choices, which is very important to the whole of The Silmarillion. Indeed, it’s important to the entire of Tolkien’s legacy. There’s quite a bit of debate if such things hold true in the angelic hierarchy, which is where the whole question of evil comes into play, whether or not Lucifer was truly free to fall, or if he was pushed, so to speak. It’s also important to point out that the story of Lucifer’s fall in Paradise Lost is based in Biblical themes, but it is still secular literature as Christianity was the largest part of the Western zeitgeist at the time it was written. Likewise so is Dante’s Divine Comedy. I point this out because the popularity of those works ensured that most people on both sides of the religious divide tend to see them as Bible stories or extensions of them on some level. This is what Tolkien is offering to us, a secular understanding of spiritual themes across a much broader canvas than even the Bible could offer, all in the name of a specifically English mythology. I ramble, but as you can see, it’s going to be impossible not to compare Tolkien to other religious ideas, either sacred or secular, from here on, so please bear with me and try to have fun with it.
The point of free will within this context is that Melkor is given just enough freedom to do as he will — which he does repeatedly in song, and then on Arda as he tries to usurp the status of Ilúvatar — and the whole time, there is Ilúvatar’s third theme, which sows the Children, the Elves and Men. To his Children are given great powers that will consistently undermine Melkor’s themes. Even the Ainur don’t know what the Children have been given, and they are fascinated by it. Melkor, meanwhile, is told he can repent at any time, and is given repeated opportunities to do so. For so long as he does not, the Children hold the key to unmaking all that he puts forth, for they are true sub-creators of Ilúvatar where the Ainur are not.
We covered in previous entries this concept of Eucatastrophe that’s so prevalent in Tolkien’s work. It comes down to deus ex machina, “the god in the machine.” This is a concept that, if you listen to critics and fans of virtually any story in any genre, undermines all credibility in storytelling. As soon as you see it in play, someone whines about it and declares it crap. Except that it’s a fair literary device that’s necessary in any spiritual context. One doesn’t need to be Christian to appreciate the beauty of the Bible. One merely needs the tolerance of Jesus to put up with the devout who think they fully understand it. The same holds true with Tolkien and his Legendarium. Scholars and would-be scholars like us always think we know, and we will forever be learning and coming to new insights. Tolkien stands as the shining example of how to use deus ex machina and make it work. Ilúvatar rarely takes a direct hand in anything after the Creation. But if you know where to look, there is always a divine force in the background that conspires to undo the darkness. When it reveals itself, things become undone, such as when the One Ring is dropped into Mount Doom. There is always a bit of luck or happenstance that turns things around, such as the Ring being found by a Hobbit in the first place, something the Ring certainly did not intend. Things come into being in each age that were not in previous ages, and were not expected by the Powers of Arda, such as… you guessed it, Hobbits. These themes and motifs are carried in such a way that, to the unwary, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings read as we expect them to, as simple adventure stories. They’re beautiful and a little complex, but still simple on the surface. Now keep in mind that the stories of The Silmarillion were written first. Tolkien had them in place. These themes were known and were important to him in his own world view. To unlock these themes, to see the breadcrumbs from the view of the Creator, is to see the whole of Middle-Earth in a whole new perspective. Instead of seeing one melodic line or one movement of a greater symphonic work, we now begin to explore the symphony as a whole. Or if we want to connect it through to multiple works from a single composer, the fight against fate in the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th can be related to his Pastoral symphony (No. 6), and ultimately everything culminates in the “Ode to Joy” motif in the grand finale of his 9th. Ilúvatar’s Vision is still yet greater.
There is another concept here that begins with Melkor, and you can see it seeded throughout the other tales, that of isolation. In addition to pride, isolation is anathema to Tolkien. As a medievalist, he understands the idea of community. He’s gone through a World War, and its sequel would cement those same lessons, that when a domineering type stands alone against the world, the world goes to hell in a hand basket until that singular force is checked. Mistakes are made when one operates without a community. To Tolkien, as illustrated here, the Music of Creation is a symphony, not a concerto, and certainly not a jazz ensemble where the players improvise a whole and struggle to take the spotlight without tearing things apart. It might even be more accurate to say it’s Medieval polyphony, where every voice has its role, in complete balance and harmony, and nothing overpowers the others at any point. But Tolkien understands how jazz works, I think, which is why Ilúvatar has compensated for even Melkor with Elves and Men. If you’ll forgive the clumsy analogies all over the place here, Ilúvatar sets forth the music that will later manifest for all of us as Bach or Mozart. Melkor wants so desperately to be Beethoven, to break all the rules and make it all his own. Ilúvatar has planned for an entire world of possible Beethovens to counter Melkor’s hubris, proving yet again that even Beethoven worked within the system he Ilúvatar devised. If he did not, there would be no “Ode to Joy.”
Free thinking beings are capable of great evil and folly, but they can still choose — especially in cooperation with one another — to do great things and stand up against the darkness. Anyone in Tolkien’s stories has the chance to redeem and rejoin the Music. Anyone who falls, Melkor included, made the choice not to, making themselves irredeemable. Think of Saruman, or Denethor, or Smaug, or Sauron. Most tragic of all, think of Gollum, who was on the verge of making the right choice but was ultimately unable (or unwilling?) to break free of the Ring’s influence. And yet, evil is also proven in the end to be an unwitting force of good, just as we see with Gollum’s greed enabling the Ring to be freed just long enough to be destroyed. You’ve heard the concept of what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That’s the role of evil. How can one appreciate the beauty of good and achieve its fullest understanding if one has nothing by which to contrast it? Boromir fell through his actions, but died in a state of redemption, seeing to the preservation of Merry and Pippin, who would have greater roles to play. Gandalf the Grey perished, likewise saving the Fellowship from the power of the Balrog, an ancient force the rest of the Fellowship could not hope to defeat. He was reborn to take Saruman’s place in destiny after that wizard’s fall from grace, declaring himself to be “Saruman of Many Colors.” Gandalf the White is “Saruman as he should have been,” put forth on the world through the unseen hand of Ilúvatar. If you’ll forgive some understanding from the perspective an art major, musical tones can be equated to colors. If you look at any true master’s work, darkness is depicted not with black, but with a non-descript dark that is a blend of many colors. You can break apart white light and see colors through a prism, but if you mix colors with paints, you get a murky dark that can’t even be identified as true black. And while that can cover up anything else in a painting (except for the truest black, which evil cannot achieve because it was shaped in the first place by Ilúvatar), even that darkness has its place when utilized by the hand of a true master. Because of the darkness that is there, we get chiaroscuro, and more importantly, we get the brilliance of light and color. Cast through the lenses of a pre-Christian worldview that Tolkien is painting for us (because Arda is our own world, represented in an earlier time and interwoven with other mythologies), it can be powerful stuff. It not only informs that particular mindset, but it opens up Middle-Earth to understanding from the points of view of a great many religious and spiritual doctrines. Then if you want to narrow the larger concepts down to Christianity as Tolkien might do, you could look at Jesus as one more unexpected manifestation of Ilúvatar that no one saw coming, but one that was planned for all along. The same understanding might be applied to Mohammed or the Buddha. Belief makes understanding easier in some cases and clouds the situation in other respects, so it really helps to break down your ideas in terms of both Christian and general, pre-Christian spiritualist to approach Tolkien’s themes. For example, “light” and “white” are nearly universal concepts of good and divine authority. Having just worked through The Lord of the Rings, for example, you can easily see all of the references to shafts of light, glints of light, the Phial of Galadriel, etc.
As with any religious or spiritual text, it’s not designed that one can get a full understanding on a single read, or even multiple reads. Ask anyone who has ever studied the Bible or the Quran or the Bhagavad Gita or whatever else, and they’ll tell you that there’s a read to familiarize yourself with the linguistic style, then another to understand a surface of the story, more reads to unlock further subtext and deeper meanings, and many years of re-reading and thinking and comparing before you get to anything resembling true understanding. Where Tolkien’s concerned, I’m certainly not there yet. That’s why this quest exists at all. I’m not a religious man, but my historical studies into the Middle Ages and my spiritual explorations into angelology, both of which require study of the Christianity for fuller effect, have given me such insights that I can parallel into this because I know that Tolkien is a medievalist, and he’s a spiritual man. Write what you know. It’s the first law of great literature. And because it is great literature, a great many resources out there exist to bust it all down, turn it inside out, and otherwise help to explain things that beginners are never supposed to understand on the first read. I have a bookshelf full of this stuff, and while I’m not afraid to use it, it’s as overwhelming as Tolkien himself. There are things I might have read years ago that will help me to inform what I write here. I won’t always be able to document it simply because it’s been years. I have no idea without more massive amounts of research where to find such specifics. But the general themes will be echoed across many sources. The secrets to unlocking Tolkien, or anything else of this magnitude, are simply baby steps and a willingness to see past your own expectations or limitations to other perspectives. And now you see why we take a week per chapter on this quest.