David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Revisiting Middle Earth: “The Silmarillion”

After finishing up MultiReal (for the time being, at any rate), I felt that I needed to immerse myself in something familiar. Something classic. And so I decided to re-read J.R.R. Tolkien’s books on Middle Earth chronologically from start to finish, from The Silmarillion to Return of the King with a pitstop at the newly published Children of Húrin.

This will probably be my fourth round trip through the whole cycle, the first being sometime around 1978 and the last coming somewhere around 1996. So as I go back and revisit Middle Earth, I’m going to blog about my impressions here. I assume just about everybody in creation has either read the series or seen the Peter Jackson films by now, so I won’t worry about spoilers.

*****

Hardback cover of J.R.R. Tolkien's 'The Silmarillion'I’m always struck by people who claim to love The Lord of the Rings but find The Silmarillion impossible to read. In the same vein, I wonder exactly why LOTR readers from the ’60s and ’70s went so gaga over it.

To me, The Silmarillion is what the whole thing is about. The Silmarillion is the cake of Tolkien’s work, while The Lord of the Rings is largely the frosting. (Which might leave The Hobbit as that gooey ribbon of fudge that runs through the middle.) Now there’s nothing wrong with indulging in a nice big dollop of frosting — I’m a sucker for that salty-sweet stuff they put on cheap grocery store cakes — but it’s more satisfying when you’ve got something to anchor it.

So if you’ve read The Lord of the Rings and you haven’t read The Silmarillion — or at least spent long hours studying the appendices in Return of the King — then you’re missing the Big Picture. You don’t really know what Tolkien was up to. You’ve got a great adventure story with some fabulous characters and a peerless amount of detail around the edges, but that’s about it. For many people, that’s enough.

So what was Tolkien up to? Once you see the entire tapestry laid out, you realize that J.R.R. Tolkien was writing one of the world’s great parables about mankind’s Fall from Grace.

The main thread of The Silmarillion chronicles the rebellion of the Elf Fëanor against the Valar, the gods who are his shepherds, teachers, and protectors. Both are faced with the treachery of the evil Morgoth, who mars the world the Valar built and steals the Silmaril jewels Fëanor created. The Valar choose to fence themselves inside their land of Valinor and leave Morgoth to his own devices; Fëanor, on the other hand, refuses to accept compromise. He announces he’s going to leave Valinor and do whatever it takes to recover the Silmarils. And in doing so, of course, he overreaches and drags his whole people down with him over the next thousand years.

Call it blasphemy, but to me, Tolkien distilled the essence of the Fall from Grace much better than the actual Bible does. I find the Old Testament frequently hokey and morally confused, while Tolkien’s achievement in metaphor is a beautiful, transcendent, and clear as a bell. (Keep in mind, of course, that I’m an atheist.) The story of Adam and Eve’s exile from the Garden of Eden strikes me as ludicrous and almost laughable; but when I read about Fëanor’s exile from Valinor in The Silmarillion, I get it.

The Bible uses all kinds of metaphors for Heaven. It’s a pasture, it’s a garden, it’s a place in the clouds, it’s a kingdom full of light. All metaphors that must have been really impressive to the nomadic desert-bound Jews who first heard them. But for us, these images don’t have so much potency. Paradise is a garden? Dude, if I want to see a transcendently beautiful garden, I can drive to Delaware and see Longwood Gardens.

But Tolkien? Tolkien writes about the great lamps of Illuin and Ormal that the Valar built to light the world, which Morgoth overthrew — and then about the trees Telperion and Laurelin grown by the Valar to replace those lamps, and how Morgoth poisoned those — and about the second-rate tree Galathilion the Vala Yavanna made to remind the Elves of those original trees — and the seedling of that tree named Celeborn, which was planted on the Elvish island of Tol Eressëa — and then the seedling of that tree, Nimloth, that the Elves gave to the Men of Númenor — and then the fruit of that tree that Isildur managed to smuggle out of Númenor before its destruction — and then the sapling of that tree Isildur smuggled out of Minas Ithil when Sauron destroyed it — and then the sapling of that tree planted by the twenty-seventh king of Gondor, until it died — and finally the sapling of that tree which Aragorn finds in The Return of the King.

Now that’s a Fall from Grace. That’s a metaphor for the spark of God’s majesty continuing on despite adversity and debasement which I can understand.

UK book cover of J.R.R.Tolkien's 'The Silmarillion'But similarly, Tolkien puts this divine spark inside of us, too, the readers. We’re (theoretically) remote descendants of the people of Gondor, who were descended from the people of Númenor, who were descended from the Edain that helped out the Elves in their battles against Morgoth. And we’ve also got in our blood strains of the Elves (through the marriage of Beren and Lúthien) and strains of the gods (through the marriage of Thingol and Melian the Maia). It’s remote, it’s diluted, but it’s there in all of us.

This presumes, of course, that you are of white European descent. Which leads to one of the most controversial — and least understood — elements of Tolkien’s world. If you’re not a white European, according to Tolkien’s mythology, you’re descended from one of the wicked tribes of men who fell under the sway of the evil god Morgoth.

Racist? Sure. But it’s only right that Tolkien should put things that way, and I’m glad Peter Jackson didn’t try to appease these cries of racial insensitivity in his films by casting a bunch of polychromatic hobbits. Why? Not because I believe in that kind of white-is-right bullshit — but simply because Tolkien’s other major purpose in writing these stories was to create an alternate Anglo Saxon mythology.

These are the tales that the Anglo Saxon warriors told around the fire after everyone got sick of hearing Beowulf for the five hundredth time. And when you’re tired from a day in the field hacking away at people that don’t look like you, the last thing you want to hear is how these enemies are just misunderstood souls with their own culture, history, and moral compass. You want to be reminded that you’re a true defender of the faith, the one doing God’s duty, and they’re the heathen scum not fit to scrape the mud off your boots. Otherwise, why go back out there to fight the next day?

Tolkien wasn’t attempting to create a complete and self-contained universe. He was engaging in an exercise of nationalistic mythology. It’s an attempt to construct an entire folklore, history, and set of morals for a people from the ground up. And in that sense, it has to rank among the most ambitious undertakings in modern literature. Tolkien might not have been one of the world’s great prose stylists — boy, there are some clunky passages here — but as a worldbuilder he’s unparalleled.

Map of Tolkien's Middle EarthAnd make no mistake about it, the world Tolkien is building here is ours. It’s no accident that the map of Middle Earth looks a heck of a lot like Europe, and it’s no accident that the polite, happy, good-natured, British-seeming hobbits live not too far away from where Tolkien’s own England would fall on the map. (View a larger version of the map to the right on Wikipedia.) The dark-skinned Haradrim live where Africa would be, and the noble, civilized Gondorians are in a great position to found Greece and Rome in a few thousand years.

So The Silmarillion is full of tales of purposely one-sided nationalistic folklore. It’s got plenty of heroism and adventure and derring-do. It’s got love, rebellion, betrayal, comedy, tragedy, romance, redemption, and sacrifice.

But The Silmarillion also provides a crucial framework for The Lord of the Rings that’s somewhat elusive if you read the latter without reading the former. Without The Silmarillion, Galadriel’s just a queen afraid of losing her realm; with it, she’s the last remaining Noldor and participant in Fëanor’s rebellion, hesitant to give up all she’s built in Middle Earth and beg forgiveness from the Valar. Without The Silmarillion, Aragorn’s just the heir to an old kingdom who comes into his own and regains the crown; with it, he’s the last descendant of the Edain, the elf-friends who fought against Morgoth, and the Númenoreans, the once proud people who rebelled against the Valar and fell into ruin.

The thing that struck me the most reading The Silmarillion this time was how short the book was. Excluding the index, it’s only 300 pages. So what are you waiting for? Pull that sucker off the shelf and tell me your thoughts about the book.

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  1. christopher on May 7, 2007 at 2:52 pm  Chain link

    i’m one of those who have never read ‘the silmarillion’. i’ve read through the hobbit-return series twice (tho the last time was many years ago). but i think i tried to read the sil in my teenage years and found it too dense. but you’ve inspired me to pick it up again. thanks!

  2. Alma Alexander on May 7, 2007 at 5:03 pm  Chain link

    THANK YOU for this.

  3. Peter on May 7, 2007 at 7:48 pm  Chain link

    Thanks, David. As another atheist Jew I’m surprisingly inspired by this post to re-read all of Tolkein again now sometime, including the Silmarillion.
    Not sure I will, but just looking at that gorgeous picture on the first Silmarillion cover reminds me of the incredible romance I felt upon first reading The Hobbit and LOTR at age 7!

  4. David Louis Edelman on May 7, 2007 at 8:27 pm  Chain link

    Peter: That is a fabulous cover on the first U.S. edition, isn’t it? It’s one of Tolkien’s own drawings, recolored, actually of the Misty Mountains, which don’t really appear in The Silmarillion. I’m lucky enough to have a first U.S. edition hardcover with the big-ass fold-out map and all. But I know what you mean about that sense of wonder. To me it’s the ’70s white mass market paperback covers that do it, or the Rankin/Bass TV movie.

  5. Steve Thorn on May 7, 2007 at 9:27 pm  Chain link

    Nicely said, David. I was always fond of the whole Beren and Luthien story in Silmarillion, and then to find that J.R.R. had his and his wife’s tomstones subtitled with those names shows the depth of his writing even more.

    http://www.americantolkiensociety.org/photogallery2/tombstone.jpg

  6. […] Revisiting Middle Earth: The Silmarillion […]

  7. […] version of the tale of Túrin Turambar, the longest (and best) chapter from that book. Having just recently read The Silmarillion myself, honestly this tale doesn’t seem all that different from the previously published version; […]

  8. Mark Wisborg on August 22, 2007 at 3:13 am  Chain link

    David, I kind of agree with you in regards to “The Silmarillion’s” version of fall from grace to be more interesting than the Old Testament’s. It might be the wording, or detail-ridden writing of Tolkien, but nevertheless I agree with your point there. “The Silmarillion” does present an awe-inspiring account of our fall from grace. Mind you, I am a Christian, and I actually sometimes picture heaven to be like Valinor! Call it weird, but I do – I can just picture the most spell-binding landscapes with gargantuan luminous trees etc, and…anyways.

    I actually saw the FOTR and then read TTT and ROTK before the films came out. I proceeded to read FOTR afterwards, and enjoyed it. It was probably around the time when TTT came out in the theatres that I was given a paperback copy of “The Silmarillion” with the cover depicting Tolkien’s beautiful painting of the mountain, Taniquetil. However, I was probably 13 or 14 and honestly had very little or no interest at all. I’d never even heard of the book, but my parents bought it for me anyways. I actually did open the book though, tried to read it and almost immediately shut it!

    It wasn’t until I turned 16 that I conjured up the curiosity and will power to try and read it. David, I read it – and was dumbfounded! At the time I could say truthfully that it was by far the best fictional book I’d read yet! (and very probably still is)

    I can honestly say that while reading the Silmarillion, my imagination EXPLODED! I actually enjoy reading those first few chapters, “Ainulindale,” and “Valaquenta,” (before the actual Silmarillion proper), because they added a whole new dimension to the Tolkien mythology which I’d not been aware of before: Mankind’s, or rather, Elfinkind’s relationship with spiritual entities. And after these chapters it only got better and better.

    To any who are interested in J.R.R. Tolkien, I would HIGHLY recommend this book, as it provides (although in an extremely summarised version) the backdrop to LOTR, but also the voluminous History of Middle Earth. In the Silmarillion, I was delighted to meet a few characters in LOTR such as Galadriel and Sauron. In fact, I don’t know if anyone else agrees, but the fact that Galadriel and Sauron were in the Silmarillion added to the wonder of reading the book; the sheer fact that there were characters in LOTR that had been in existence for aeons – and it was written without sounding corny!

    There are, however SEVERAL more textual treats by J.R.R. Tolkien which I probably wouldn’t have read had I not read the Silmarillion. I would also highly recommend one read “The Unfinished Tales of Numenore and Middle Earth” which includes fascinating accounts from the First, Second, and Third Ages on Middle Earth. The title of the book, admittedly may not be appealing, as the thought of a Tale abruptly coming to an end can be a BIG letdown – but PLEASE hearken and just read it, as not all stories do abruptly end. But read the Silmarillion BEFORE you read this book.

    Last but not least comes “The History of Middle Earth” series, spanning 12 volumes edited by Christopher Tolkien. I recently started this series at the beginning of ’07, but have so far only read the first two, and into the third one – that is, I have read ‘The Book of Lost Tales,pt. I,’ ‘The Book of Lost Tales, pt. II,’ and am currently reading ‘The Lays of Beleriand’.

    Let me vouche for Christopher Tolkien. He is truly the steward of his father’s estate. The man has quite successfully put together “The Silmarillion,” “The Unfinished Tales of Numenore and Middle Earth,” “The Children of Hurin” (Also an Awesome book), and so far, I’m THOROUGHLY enjoying “The History of Middle Earth” series.

    Without J.R.R. Tolkien, and his son acting as the steward of his estate, the reaches of my imagination would not be very far at all. Upon reading the Silmarillion, a Big Bang went off in my brain. Now, it may not be for everybody, so I’ll stop getting everybody’s hopes at a par above the clouds. Yet I know I can say with confidence that “The Silmarillion” is truly an enjoyable read, and I think everyone (truly) interested in Tolkien should give it a go!

  9. David Louis Edelman on August 22, 2007 at 11:04 am  Chain link

    Thanks for that, Mark. Always nice to hear from other Silmarillion fanatics.

    I should point out that I also wrote “reviews” of Unfinished Tales and Children of Húrin on the blog. I’m too lazy to link them here, but you should be able to find them easily with the site search.

  10. Josh Steed on September 5, 2009 at 9:35 am  Chain link

    Just discovered The Silmarillion last week and I love it. I always found The Lord of The Rings rather dull, but then I’m the kind of guy who reads Blake and Boehme for fun.

    Heres an argument you can use on devout Christains as to why its not blasphemous to regard it as a superior retelling of the fall –

    “They say to the seers, “See no more visions!” and to the prophets, “Give us no more visions of what is right, tell us pleasant things, prophecy illusions.”
    Isaiah

    Now is the only period of History that that this could possibly refer to, with our diverse fantasy mythologies, our novels and our movies. All past cultures had shared namesets for the discussion of universal archetypal narratives, the separation of history and myth had not yet occured.

    Whether consciously or unconsciously Ailundale IS identical to William Blake’s metaphysical prophecies – yet that which Tolkien weaves upon the archetypal looms is vastly more accessible.

    While the Theosophists and Nietsczhe were very into the kind of racist theories that facilitated the rise of The Third Reich I do not think your racial interpretation of Tolkien has much weight. Yes, like Blake he is Anglocentric – but the letter in the introduction reveals that he regards the characteristics of the dark forces as a lust for power, dominating and bullodozing the world (the machine & magick). The dark forces are an analogue for consumerist capitalism, materialism, Empire and industrialisiation – predominantly vices Western in origin.

    I would be very interested in your response to this hypothesis as I am writing a book called ‘Beyond Truth and Fiction’.

    Josh x

  11. David Louis Edelman on September 8, 2009 at 9:05 am  Chain link

    Josh x: Not sure how much of a response I can give about the Blake part, seeing as I know very little about him.

    Not sure I agree with the thought that Tolkien’s dark forces represented consumerist capitalism, and your inference that Tolkien was criticizing “vices Western in origin.” He despised industrialism, yes, but that didn’t make him a Marxist. Don’t forget that J.R.R. was a devout Christian and that much of his books are Christian in tone and theme. I think what you’re mistaking as a disdain for the West is just a disdain for the material, as opposed to the spiritual.

  12. Josh Steed on September 14, 2009 at 7:06 pm  Chain link

    “I will not walk with your progressive apes,
    erect and sapient. Before them gapes
    the dark abyss to which their progress tends
    if by God’s mercy progress ever ends,
    and does not ceaselessly revolve the same
    unfruitful course with changing of a name.”
    Tolkien, Mythopoeia

    Tolkien might appear as an oxymoron – a devout Catholic expounding a highly evolved, albeit fictionalised, alternative cosmology. Yet ‘Mythopoeia’ and other works confirms he gave weight to the ideas expressed in his fantasy writing, for ‘Mythopoeia’ is not a fiction, it is meant as an earnest appeal to his close friend C.S.Lewis – an appeal for him to consider the manner in which the pen might actually be mightier than the sword.

    Tolkien was extremely critical of Lewis’ relatively clumsy, self-consciously constructed Christian allegories – ironically it seems likely that it was his advice which inspired Lewis to regard fantasy fiction as more than idle entertainment. Yet while Tolkien did not allow his faith to impede the progress of Poetic Genius, in the end he claimed to retrospectively see his ‘Legendarium’ as a perfected Catholic allegory.

    Tolkien’s cosmology presents itself as ultimately being a metaphor for that-which-is-beyond-words, and includes the ‘motifs’ added by every man into the symphony of being. All the fictions, lives and various expressions of man form into one – ‘the great Artefact’ -as Tolkien dubs it, again in the poem ‘Mythopoeia’. This is exactly what I mean by my repeated assertion that ‘everything is Art’ and that ‘I AM Art’. All stories are different illuminations of the same archetypal narrative, ‘The Life of Man’, the uber-meta-narrative, from whence all other meme-sets arise and return.

    ‘Behold your Music! This is your minstrelsy; and each of you shall find contained herein, amid the design that I set before you, all those things which it may seem that he himself devised or added. And thou, Melkor, wilt discover all the secret thoughts of thy mind, and wilt perceive that they are but a part of the whole and tributary to its glory’ Tolkien, The Silmarillion

    How does Tolkien reconcile his Catholicism with the profound ‘occult’ overtones in his work and – as Mythopoeia stands testament to – his personal cosmology? Is there a contradiction? Catholicism is deeply mystical, and what really is the mystical if it is not the occult?

    The following Bible quotation and commentary is from The Catholic Catechism:

    “I Am who I Am”
    Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you’, and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you’. . . this is my name for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.”10
    206 In revealing his mysterious name, YHWH (“I AM HE WHO IS”, “I AM WHO AM” or “I AM WHO I AM”), God says who he is and by what name he is to be called. This divine name is mysterious just as God is mystery. It is at once a name revealed and something like the refusal of a name, and hence it better expresses God as what he is – infinitely above everything that we can understand or say: he is the “hidden God”, his name is ineffable, and he is the God who makes himself close to men.11

    This is the first chapter from the Tao Te Ching:

    The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
    The name that can be named is not the eternal name
    The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth
    The named is the mother of myriad things
    Thus, constantly without desire, one observes its essence
    Constantly with desire, one observes its manifestations
    These two emerge together but differ in name
    The unity is said to be the mystery
    Mystery of mysteries, the door to all wonders

    “When you look forwards – you see where you are going.
    When you look behind you – you see where you have been.
    When you look out ‘The World’ you see is not an illusion – it is the caused.
    When you look within, that which you see is not an illusion – it is the cause.”
    Josh, ‘The Secret Poetry of The Cosmic Joke’, 2008

    “Great powers they slowly brought out of themselves,
    and looking backward they beheld the Elves
    that wrought on cunning forges in the mind,
    and light and dark on secret looms entwined”
    Tolkien, from ‘Mythopoeia’

    “What they’re doing is making objects with their voices, singing structures into existence.”
    Terence McKenna on “Self-transforming machine elves”

    “The question of morphogenesis – how things take their shape – remains one of the great mysteries of science.
    According to Sheldrake’s hypothesis of formative causation, suggests that .. each kind of system – from crystals to birds to societies – is shaped by a unique “morphic field” containing a collective or pooled memory.”
    Rupert Sheldrake’s Website

    “Never since have the Ainur made any music like to this music, though it has been said that a greater still shall be made before Ilúvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar after the end of days.”
    Tolkien, The Silmarillion

    “I AM The Looms of time, and men’s lives are the threads of the tapestry of HIS story, MY story – the story of all men. And as such – HIS story is MY story, and is the highest expression of that which I AM; just as I AM Mankind’s highest expression – for his Genius is mine, and mine his.”
    Jester, ‘Beyond Truth and Fiction, or The Book of Fictions’, 14/08/09

    “Imagine the archetypal uber-meta-story as an invisible loom which we illuminate with words – without the specific threads of words we weave we cannot see the looms at all, but our choice of colours and stitch are merely transient decorations, patterns that play upon the surface of that which I AM.” Jester, ‘The Secret Poetry of The Cosmic Joke’, 2008

    Note, also, the close parallels with this poem from February 2009:

    I AM The ONE who broke The Pure White Light’s Heart,
    Mirror-like, it shattered, love and will torn apart,
    Jester, February 2009

    Man, the sub-creator, the refracted light
    Through whom is splintered from a single White
    To many hues, and endlessly combined
    In living shapes that move from mind to mind
    Tolkien, from ‘Mythopoeia’

    That this perfect correlation of our independent conclusions is the result of ‘living shapes that move from mind to mind’ is doubtless. Whether these shapes (also called memes) move simply by your conventionally understood modes of communication, or also through something akin to what you call ‘telepathy’ – this is an academic point, for it makes very little difference to that which it is necessary to expound on archetypal stories and narratives.

    “… sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me.” Jesus, Luke 18:22

    ‘The rest of mankind that were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood – idols that cannot see or hear or walk. [Revelation 9:20] Nor did they repent of their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts. [Revelation 9:21] The nations were angry; and your wrath has come. The time has come.. for destroying those who destroy the earth. [Revelation 11:18] Woe! Woe, O great city, O Babylon, city of power! In one hour your doom has come! [Revelation 18:] The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn … because no one buys their cargoes any more. [Revelation 18:9] All your riches and splendour have vanished, never to be recovered. [Revelation 18:14] Your merchants were the world’s great men. By your magic spell all the nations were led astray. [Revelation 18:23]

  13. Josh Steed on September 14, 2009 at 7:40 pm  Chain link

    Apologies, I got so carried away with my symphony of resonant quotes that I forgot to conclude.

    Know this about William Blake: he was an esoteric Christian, yet he maintained ‘All Religions are One’.

    “Though we dared to build gods and their houses out of dark and light,
    And sow the seeds of dragons, ‘twas our right (used or misused). The right has not decayed,
    We make still by the law in which we’re made”
    Tolkien, ‘Mythopoeia’

  14. Mark Wisborg on December 14, 2009 at 9:29 pm  Chain link

    Well Josh,

    I’m sold. There’s a lot of material there for me to unpack. I’m going to have to make a thorough investigation of Tolkien’s Letters – which I already have – in order to piece this all together. I do remember Tolkien expressing disdain, however, at the idea that his work on LOTR was allegorical. Perhaps this wasn’t so when he wrote the Silmarillion.

    I don’t think I’ve read the Silmarillion since I last reviewed it more than two years ago, but I intend to do so sometime this winter. It’s exhilarating to find others deeply interested in Tolkien and his literature.

  15. Josh Steed on December 15, 2009 at 4:33 pm  Chain link

    I am glad to see my thoughts on this have provoked so much informed debate.

    Hi Mark, do keep in touch, it’s nice to see somebody interested in my research and conjecture on these themes. I call myself the Jester so that I can play the Devil’s Advocate and think the unthinkable. My conclusions about the nature of archetypal metanarratives might just be a big joke, but they correspond exactly with Tolkien’s notion of ‘Mythopoeia’ – suggesting that, after all, many a true word might actually be spoken in jest.

    Self-conscious allegory is almost by necessity clumsy and transparent – you know this, I know this and Tolkien knew this with knobs on. But in the very act of not imposing one’s own order on the narrative one is inviting ‘inspiration’, which Blake calls ‘Poetic Genius’.

    Do you see the analog I am suggesting here? – the character Melkor does the opposite, he seeks to impose his own order on history, with horrific results, he thinks his order is better than God’s – yet in the end what is Melkor’s story revealed to be? His story is revealed to be a perfected allegory.

    “And thou, Melkor, wilt discover all the secret thoughts of thy mind, and wilt perceive that they are but a part of the whole and tributary to its glory’ [The Silmarillion]

    History is revealed to be a perfected allegory. Tolkien refuses to write an allegory, yet he always “had the sense of recording what was already there, somewhere, not of ‘inventing’ ” [from Tolkien’s letter at the beginning of The Silmarillion]. William Blake is notably less coy in his intention –

    “to speak to future generations by a Sublime Allegory, which is now perfectly completed into a Grand Poem. I may praise it, since I dare not pretend to be anything other than the secretary; the authors are in eternity”

    Yet for all Blake’s brilliance these claims for his poem ‘Jerusalem’ seem to apply more to that which Tolkien weaved upon the looms of the universal archetypal uber-metanarrative. Blake is fiery and cryptic, his allegory is perfect, but sometimes it seems that maybe only I understand him, while conversely Tolkien’s legacy is perhaps capable of explaining the same elusive truth to almost everybody else, or at least play its own small part in guiding the collective dialectic towards a tipping point where the consensus view of reality is redefined.

    In Isaiah it speaks of a time when ‘they will say to the prophets tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions’. It is my ‘cosmic joke’ that this may be literally true, and that the time it is referring to could only be this era of fictional best-sellers and fantasy blockbusters. Who are the prophets? The Quakers believed they were returning to the original spirit of Christianity, their organisation held no hierarchy and they held silent ‘meetings of friends’ where anyone could speak if they felt touched, on the principle that they placed an individual’s inner communion with the divine over scripture, dogma and the idolisation of popes and kings. If they are right and we can all share in the same one love?

    Perhaps we can find the answer in Blake’s ‘All Religions Are One’, I have abridged it here to make it easier to read: “The Poetic Genius is the true Man and the outward form of Man is derived from the Poetic Genius. The forms of all things are derived from their Genius, which by the Ancients was call’d an Angel & Spirit & Demon. As all men are alike in outward form, so (and with the same infinite variety) all are alike in the Poetic Genius. All sects of Philosophy are from the Poetic Genius adapted to the weaknesses of every individual. The Religions of all Nations are derived from each Nations different reception of the Poetic Genius, which is every where call’d the Spirit of Prophecy. The Jewish & Christian Testaments are an original derivation from the Poetic Genius.. As all men are alike, tho’ infinitely various, so all Religions have one source. The true Man is the source, the Poetic Genius.”

    As regards Tolkien’s faith? Leonard Cohen is an observant Jew, but also a Zen Buddhist. I see no contradiction in this, he sees no contradiction in this. So it is with Tolkien. There are no ‘Muslims’, no ‘Christians’, no ‘Jews’ – there is only one G-d, to claim one name for that-which-defies-naming is better than another is the reason people kill in the name of a deity who everyone agrees said ‘thou shalt not kill’. There are no ‘Muslims’, no ‘Christians’, no ‘Jews’, there are only Holy men and those in need of healing. This is the Whole War, this is The Holy War – the war that is fought upon hate in ourselves and is won by Love.

    While I have seemingly diverged from the point at hand I think all of this is relevant when trying to reconcile Tolkien’s devout Catholicism with the close correspondence to the occult metaphysics of Blake and Boehme. In the end all these men are Christians, ‘the occult’ is a blanket label that the established churches use to debunk all mystical practise that occurs without their authority.

    Mark, I would be fascinated to read anything you come up with, or anyone else’s comments, my email address is josh.steed@gmail.com

    Josh

    jester.me.uk
    reverbnation.com/thecelebratedmrk
    whatbaffledme.blogspot.com

  16. Mark Wisborg on December 16, 2009 at 5:55 am  Chain link

    Josh,

    Thank you for your response. I posted my original thoughts on that discussion more than two years ago now, and because I failed to see much in the way of responses, I stopped checking – at least until recently. Just for fun I decided to type my name into google to see what came up, and the first link was Edelman’s site. I checked it only to discover the discussion had been shocked back to life.

    On allegory, I’d support your comment with a quote from Tolkien’s letter to Milton Waldman from 1951 (a gold mine), which I suspect you’ve also read. In sum, he says “I dislike allegory – the conscious and intentional allegory – yet any attempt to explain the purport of myth or fairytale must use allegorical language”.

    Earlier in the letter he wrote that the Arthurian world was “imperfectly naturalized, associated with the soil of Britain but not with English; and does not replace what I felt to be missing. For one thing its ‘faerie’ is too lavish, and fantastical, incoherent and repetitive. For another and more important thing: it is involved in, and explicitly contains the Christian religion. For reasons which I will not elaborate, that seems to me fatal. Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary ‘real’ world.”

    This seems to me an appropriate path to have taken, considering the raised-eyebrows that he may have received had he mixed an explicitly Christian cosmogony with the use of magic and the occult. In regards to Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘All Religions are One,” all I can really say is that I’m yet to read them, and that you’ve whetted my appetite to do so.

    I think key to talking about Tolkien’s use of the word ‘magic’ is his consistent conflation of the word with “the Machine,” and his comment that “The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognized.” He went on to say that while he had not partitioned the word into what we might interpret as good magic and dark magic, his idea was that:

    “the Elves are there (in my tales) to demonstrate the difference. Their ‘magic’ is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete (product, and vision in unflawed correspondence). And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation. The ‘Elves’ are ‘immortal’, at least as far as this world goes: and hence are concerned rather with griefs and burdens of deathlessness in time and change, than with death. The Enemy in successive forms is always ‘naturally’ concerned with sheer domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines; but the problem: that this fruitful evil can and does arise from an apparently good root, the desire to benefit the world and others – speedily according to the benefactor’s own plans – is a recurrent motive.”

    It seems that when he talks about magic in his work (as employed by Morgoth), it could certainly be analogous to our modern use of machines (he used the word himself), particularly of the weapons of war which removed the ‘romantic heroism’ from battle he knew too well: Howitzers, machine guns, mustard and chlorine gas. Less specifically, magic in our world might be the tools we employ to expedite the things we do in hopes of attaining utopia (if even subconsciously).

    This, I suspect, is related to your reminder of what Illuvatar said to Melkor – namely that all the secrets of his mind were “but a part of the whole, and tributary to its glory” – that while Melkor had plans of his own doing, he ultimately participated in a grand story (both literally and figuratively) of which he was but a part – a part which culminated in the provisional triumph of good over evil . It was no accident, I think, that in the end “he was bound with the chain Angainor which he had worn aforetime, and his iron crown they beat into a collar for his neck.” That is, the crown which held his most prized possessions became the instrument of his enslavement.

    You used an interesting verse from Isaiah 30. I thought that the first part of the first verse was related to our discussion too:

    “Woe to the obstinate children,”
    declares the LORD,
    “to those who carry out plans that are not mine…”

    Have I gone off topic? Speak freely, I beseech you.

    Mark

    mwisborg@hotmail.com
    wisborm@mcmaster.ca

  17. Nynke on December 19, 2009 at 7:55 am  Chain link

    “To me, The Silmarillion is what the whole thing is about.”
    Finally someone who shares my idea. Thank you! Very interesting read.

  18. Kathryn Kirby on April 11, 2010 at 9:11 pm  Chain link

    Finally! David, I thought that I was the only one alive that actually loves the Silmarillion. Strangely enough, I came across your site while I was researching things about… yep, you guessed it, Middle Earth. Something I do quite often. I first became aware of The Hobbit in1977. When I went to find it in the bookstore I also, of course, found the LOTR trilogy and The Silmarillion. I could not put them down and they have been my favorite books ever since. I love learning about the whole history of Arda because it makes everything come alive. It lends credence to the Professor’s stories. I don’t believe I have ever seen or heard of any other book that has been written in such a manner. I am someone who enjoys history (and I feel that most of it should be rewritten according to the truth, not just from the perspective of those victorious in wars). You summed it up in a nutshell when you said that if people haven’t read The Silmarillion they would have a hard time understanding the context of what The Hobbit and The LOTR trilogy are really all about.
    You might be interested in noting that, while I was researching I got a little bug one day and ended up looking at a piece of history about Scandinavia. You may already know about this but… there are two provinces, one each in Norway and Sweden, that border each other. In ancient times this region was under the rule of one king. The region is located between two rivers and was called Alfheim. The people of this region were, if I remember correctly, called Alfs (Elves). The name of their last known king?… Gandalf! Through battles and such these people merged with people of surrounding kingdoms, and wether there are any direct descendents of their line today is unknown. This is simply food for thought.
    Myself, personally, I am a Pagan of an odd sort. Namely, I go my own way. I have just finished rereading The Hobbit and have just begun rereading the trilogy. I always find myself looking forward to the journey. Not only do I love the story, I would love to live in their ‘world’. A world s beautiful as it’s people. Thank you for your article. Have a wonderful journey yourself.

  19. David Louis Edelman on April 11, 2010 at 9:34 pm  Chain link

    Kathryn: Thanks for the comments! I hadn’t heard that particular bit about Scandinavia, but it doesn’t surprise me. Tolkien definitely know his European history, and my understanding is that the Middle Earth books are full of these kinds of allusions.

  20. Kathryn Kirby on April 13, 2010 at 12:13 am  Chain link

    Hi David, glad you like that bit on Scandinavia. As I said, I love researching things.
    Especially stuff about Middle Earth. If I happen across any other information that you might be interested in, I will gladly post it here for everyone to read. I like writing also and someday maybe I’ll get a little busier in that area. Right now I am a full time college student and mom of a six year old. She loves books as much as I do so she’s off to a great start.

  21. Alex Stribley on November 21, 2010 at 6:40 pm  Chain link

    I agree this book is vital to the back drop of the story of middle earth. However, i do not agree that Feanors desertion was what you call “fall from grace”. For i think that the fall could be with elvs when some ran and were corrupted by Melkor (having not been named morgoth then) soon after they awoke so they became the first orcs. This shows that the Childern of Eru were Flawed, yet the elves were built to be perfect. You can also view the fall from grace as when the men of Numenor rebelled against the Vala and set foot apond valinor. The were tempted by Sauron. They were offered the forbidden fruit (immortality) and they took it. P.S i love this book more then the LOTR or the hobbit, much more effort in the storys

  22. Mark Wisborg on November 21, 2010 at 10:01 pm  Chain link

    Alex, perhaps the metaphor of “fall from grace” was meant to be used only loosely on my part. I’m on my third read of the book now. Still lovin’ it.

  23. Josh Steed on November 22, 2010 at 2:48 am  Chain link

    Alex – the uber-fall from grace is that expressed in the creation myth Ailundale, all subsequent falls are echoes & elaborations.

    As above, so below.

    * * *

    FALL

    Why is every Angel a fallen star?

    Without the Fall there would be no story,
    without the Fall there could be no Spring!

    * * *

    http://jesterspeaks.blogspot.com/

  24. Alex Stribley on November 22, 2010 at 1:16 pm  Chain link

    i can agree with you there. we are all intitaled to our own views. I must say the amount of detail Tolkin puts into his work is mind blowing. Did u know that Tolkin based the Lay of Luthian on his own experiences with his wife Edith. I find it most beautiful along with his other tales that he writes. kind of reminds you of the bible (btw im also an athist, however i respect relgions)

  25. Steven on June 27, 2014 at 10:13 pm  Chain link

    What a fantastic review of the Silmarillion this would be, if only you hadn’t taken the opportunity to spout the expected politically correct nonsense, whereby a mythology dealing with the world from a racial perspective is ok, as long as it isn’t from a European racial perspective.

  26. David Louis Edelman on July 1, 2014 at 9:17 am  Chain link

    Steven: Hmm, I thought I was explicitly saying that Tolkien’s creation of an Anglo-Saxon mythology was commendable, and we shouldn’t care about political correctness here. Actually, I’m not sure I put any kind of judgment on it in my post other than to say that we shouldn’t look at it through the modern lenses of political correctness.

  27. Steven on July 1, 2014 at 10:15 am  Chain link

    Apologies, David. I must have misunderstood and was too quick to comment. Perhaps it’s my growing PC fatigue – I must be seeing PC where none is intended. As per my email, thanks again for a great review.

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