Sunday, January 3, 2010

J. R. R. Tolkien: Jan. 3, 1892--Sept. 2, 1973

I have heard many readers express disappointment with Tolkien's The Silmarillion (TS). It isn't as good as The Lord of the Rings (LotR) or so many have said. Some claim it's boring. I think this reaction has two different causes. The first is that Tolkien died before he finished the work. His son Christopher Tolkien took on the task of completing it. Unfortunately Christopher Tolkien is not the writer his father was. However, I do not find the work to be poorly written; it may plod sometimes but the content is well worth the effort.

The second problem and the more serious one is that many readers misunderstand Tolkien's view of The Silmarillion. It was not, as far as I can see, to be a grand epic of a quest as was The Lord of the Rings, or even to a lesser extent, as was The Hobbit (TH). I think Tolkien had history in mind when he wrote The Silmarillion. It was to be a history of Middle Earth, prior to the events of the two novels. Tolkien was creating a universe. Consequently we don't have the same focus that we find in LotR or TH.

The one work I find that most closely approaches Tolkien's intentions is The Old Testament, the first book of which is Genesis, and it begins--

1. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

2. And the earth was without form, and void: and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

3. And God said: Let there be light: and there was light.

This is, of course, the Creation story, as recounted in the King James Version. It is the creation of the world--the very beginning of time, of history, of the relationship between God and its creatures.

Now, the first book of The Silmarillion is "Ainulindale: The Music of the Ainur," and it begins as follows:

"There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Iluvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad. But for a long while they sang only each alone, or but few together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Iluvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly. Yet ever as they listened they came to deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony."

This clearly is a Creation story, the very beginning of the world of Middle Earth. However, in Tolkien's universe, God works with his first creation, the Ainur, to create the universe. And, instead of light, Eru, in a sense, says "Let there be music." He gives the Ainur "a mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed."

He then gives them their task: "ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme..."

"Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Iluvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights . . . and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void."

And later--

"But when they were come into the Void, Iluvatar said to them: 'Behold your music!' And he showed to them a vision, giving to them sight where before was only hearing; and they saw a new World made visible before them, and it was globed amid the Void, and it was sustained therein, but was not of it."

And . . .

"And they saw with amazement the coming of the Children of Iluvatar, and the habitation that was prepared for them; and they perceived that they themselves in the labour of their music had been busy with preparation of this dwelling, and yet knew not that it had any purpose beyond its own beauty. For the Children of Iluvatar are conceived by him alone. . . Now the Children of Iluvatar are Elves and Men, the Firstborn and the Followers."

While "Genesis" and "Ainulindale" differ, they do parallel each other in many respects, and I think that we should not force The Silmarillion into being something that it is not meant to be. It is a unique work, separate in design and intent from The Lord of the Rings, and it should be read with this in mind.

Overall Rating: highly recommended for those interested in Tolkien's universe.

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