Sir Francis Bacon

Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtle; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend.

--Of Studies--

Tolkien's Proving Ground

~ 1100 words

phalanstery-noun - (Fourierism) the building occupied by a phalanx, the community itself, or otherwise a small self sufficient socialist society.

provendor- noun - food or provisions, especially for livestock.

seminarian- noun - a student of theology.

I've been reading The Brothers Karamazov for some months now (fantastic book, highly recommended, several posts to follow), but I took a break between parts 3 and 4 to read something else because you can't eat expensive cheese every day. The Silmarillion had been sitting on my shelf for some time (I vaguely recall having mentioned it in this very blog), and I decided that enough was enough. So I read the darned thing.

I can understand why some people wouldn't like it. In the first place the thing is a turbulent gyre of invented nouns that Tolkien does indeed expect you to remember, though his son was kind enough to include fifty blinking bloody pages of index at the back. The book has enormous mythic passages where there is no plot, and mind-grinding tradegy where there is plot.

If found the style reminiscent of the first book in the Earthsea trilogy by Ursula LeGuin, which is to say, hyper-condensed. Both are the sort of book you have to pay attention to. This is more common in the opening chapters of the "Quenta Silmarillion" (the silmarillion proper, as it were), and I will here give a passage to illustrate:

"As the ages passed the Vanyar grew to love the land of the Valar and the full light of the Trees, and they forsook the city of Tirion upon Túna, and dwelt thereafter upon the mountain of Manwë, or about the plains and woods of Valinor and became sundered from the Noldor. "

The theological structure he sets up is sort of curious as well, a sort of polythesism within monotheism. In essence you have Illuvatar, the supreme being and creator of everything, and then you have the Valar, who represent different areas of his mind. He then creates middle earth with them and sits back to let them run things. It is from these that you get Melkor or Morgoth or the First Dark Lord or Sauron's big brother who, being the most powerful of all the Valar, decided that everything should belong to him, hatred, rage, hell metaphors et cetera. The thing has Paradise Lost (by Milton) strewn about in large semi-digestible chunks throughout the entire novel. I say this having only a cursory knowledge of Paradise Lost, but perhaps I may be permitted to say that thematically this is the case, what with the whole fallen angel thing, and the "we will make our great enterprise, to conquer the world God has made for mankind (elfkind, dwarfkind, hobbitkind, entkind and eaglekind), and in the process corrupt as many as we can from the path of righteousness.

Speaking of righteousness, Tolkien uses a large number of very obvious metaphors for the nobility/righteousness of various characters all through the book. If people are tall that means they are of noble bearing, so consider the implications for hobbits and that lone ranger named "strider." People who live for a long time are wise, though this only really applies to humans, because they were gifted with death for mysterious reasons by Illuvatar himself. It's the same sort of "my ways are not your ways" argument invoked frequently by Christians when accosted by the problem of the existence of evil. If someone is wearing black armour it's not because they like the colour, children are bound to the nature of their parents, and paradise is destroyed by allowing evil to enter into it and corrupt the hearts of it's occupants with lies that appeal to pride and vanity.

So elves then. According to Tolkien they are the physical manifestation of art, and (here's the kicker) therefore necessarily of science. Similarily Tolkien classifies machines and magic as arising from essentially the same source and both almost uniformly the devices of the Enemy. So where does this leave Gandalf? If you notice, Gandalf does not actually use magic all that often, his purpose as a character is more that of the advisor, wise-man, rallying the troops, warning people of various disasters, and the occasional duel with Darth Vader...

While we're on the subject, the rings given to the elves... Galadriel obviously has one, as it's mentioned in the extended cut of the first movie. Elrond is too important not to have one. Number three? Originally belonged to the shipbuilder who builds the ships that take elves to Valinor, but he gave the ring of fire to none other than Gandalf himself, who is, by the way, of the divine race of the Maia, who are below the Valar but above the Elves and do not leave Valinor except in very special circumstances (and that is why all the elves love him).

Anyways, I wanted to say something about the children of hurin, which is summarized somewhere in the middle. It seems to me as if Tolkien was attempting to create the most tragic tragedy in existence. He's right when he says there is great beauty in tragedy, but there is also such a thing as pushing your luck. I don't even really want to summarize, just suffice to say that the manor of the dragon slaying is almost precisely the way Sigurd the Volsung slays the dragon Fafnir in Norse Mythology (which was an extremely popular saga at the time, carvings of this slaying are widespread through northern europe). That is, you hide in a hole or trench, wait for the dragon to pass over you, and then stab your sword into the dragon's soft exposed underbelly. Take that chivalry, sneaky tactics are permited if your opponent is an enormous insidious reptile. It is worth mentioning, I think, that Sigurd dug his own hole to hide in, whereas the son of Hurin had to rely on a very conveniently placed trench/small canyon.

Ultimately, my impression from the Silmarillion was that Tolkien was human after all, and not some sort of demi-god, a rank to which he is frequently lifted in modern popular and unpopular culture. His influence is undeniable, and I would almost say that he set the standard for "good" fantasy novels unbearably high, where authors are now measured by how tolkien-like they are. I'm not even sure I approve of the word "world-building", let alone the concept.

Many thanks to ~Azremodehar of deviantart for his enchanting redition of Feanor's handiwork, the only artist brave enough to put the light of Valinor into a Silmaril for us. Thank you for your noble efforts good sir.


  1. Congrats on making it through The Silmarillion. You're one of the few and the proud. I still haven't made it all the way through but I get further with each attempt.

  2. What it comes down to is bull-headed obstinance. If you haven't already, I would recommend skipping ahead and reading the last two books. They're short, plotty, have the most relevance to the lord of the rings, are fairly interesting and fairly reflective of the tone of the whole.

  3. Prior to reading the Children of Hurin, I had emersed myself in the Third Age of Middle-Earth. Yes, I had read the Silmarillion. But to me, Middle-Earth was the Lord of the Rings. The Children of Hurin changed my perspective. This wonderful edition, with beautiful illustrations by Alan Lee, belongs in the collection of any Tolkien aficionado.

  4. This is not the first time I have had the Children of Hurin recommended. Certainly it is deserving of it's place alongside the Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion.

    The magnitude of Tolkien's genius is quite profound, but it's unfortunate that so great a swathe of fantasy novel authors place themselves so squarely in his debt.

  5. Although, I guess that's a bit like saying "oh man, I wish people would stop using words Shakespeare made up."