Reading The Silmarillion: Up to Thingol and Melian (1)

Some thoughts that have come to me as I’ve read the early chapters of The Silmarillion.

 

Strength and Might – who would win, Melkor or a honey badger?

Tolkien’s world does not operate by straightforward, mathematical laws. He has no ‘magic system’. Many things seem to happen more by the demands of the narrative than out of some structured D&D calculation system. One of the first indications we get of this fluidity in The Silmarillion is in the question of the relative power of various supernatural beings. Who is stronger than whom? In most fantasy worlds, this is relatively easy to work out; not so in Arda. The key figure to consider here is the Vala, Tulkas. The Valaquenta describes him as the ‘greatest in strength and deeds of prowess’ of all the Valar. Three times early on his superiority to Melkor is established: in the beginning of days, Melkor is chased out of Arda entirely by Tulkas; when Melkor destroys the Lamps, he is chased away by Tulkas and forced to lie hidden in the ground so that Tulkas cannot find him; and then a third time, when the Valar break up Utumno, Tulkas wrestles with Melkor and casts him on his face – a humiliating, and seemingly quite simply accomplished, victory. There is no indication that Melkor can even hope to defeat Tulkas. And nor is Tulkas’ power limited to wrestling: we are told that it is largely Tulkas’ strength that literally constructs the world, guided by the craft of Aule.

And yet this cannot be right – Melkor, after all, is, we were told at the beginning, the strongest of all the Ainur. He ought to be stronger than Tulkas. In fact, so should a lot of other people be. The Valaquenta tells us that among the Valar there is an inner circle of the most powerful of all, the Aratar. The Aratar “surpass beyond compare” the other Valar, and Tulkas is not one of them; and in turn Melkor seems almost as powerful as all the Aratar put together. [Should we perhaps talk of three orders of Ainur – Aratar, Valar, Maiar – rather than just two?]. So why does he keep getting bullied by Tulkas?

One answer is that this happened just because the plot says it should – or, more charitably, because there are forces at play in this world that cannot be understood by its inhabitants, or by the reader. I think this is true to a degree. But a more systematic answer would be that rather than there being a single thing, ‘power’, there may be at least two different forms of power, which need not go together. On the one hand, there is ‘strength’; and on the other hand there is something we might call ‘might’. Strength is chiefly concerned with prowess in combat, and here Melkor is weaker than Tulkas (indeed, as we’ll see later on, he’s weaker than a lot of people). But there is something else as well, might, with a far greater scope. Tolkien’s continuing technique throughout The Silmarillion is to combine detailed descriptions of some things with a mysterious absence of description of other things; and what exactly ‘might’ or ‘power’ or ‘majesty’ entails is never specified. In what way is Melkor the most powerful of them all? One particular way is seen in the chapter regarding the coming of the elves, when Melkor creates the orcs – there is no suggestion that Tulkas could do anything like that. Even Aulë only creates seven dwarfs. Melkor seems to be able to whip up entire hordes of evil things. But I think a deeper answer is that real power may be spiritual and mental power: Melkor’s ultimate power appears to be charisma. Whether by playing on loyalties, or offering temptations, or employing fear, or misleading virtue, or just aweing into obedience, Melkor is extremely good at swaying people (willingly or unwillingly) to his service. And it’s not just Melkor: we see how Oromë is able to gain the trust of the elves almost instantly, despite their justified fears, “for the light of Aman was in his face, and all the noblest of the elves were drawn towards it”. Again, when Elwë sees and falls in love with Melian, it is because “he looked at her, and the light of Aman was in her face.”

What is the light of Aman? The literal interpretation is that it’s the light of the Two Trees; in the same way, a considerable distinction is made throughout the book between elves who have, and who have not, seen the Two Trees. And yet I wonder whether Tolkien is not just trying to get at something more fundamental: that the power, the angelic nature, of these beings, is visible at a glance. They are, literally, being from outside and from before the world, who have dwelt at the hand of God. Perhaps this is the true power of the Ainur? The Trees, then, could be seen as a vessel either for Yavanna’s power, or more likely for the power of Eru himself; their light lends power to, shares power with, mortal beings (and even with the Ainur, who are nothing in power before Eru).

The discussions of how Melkor cannot even create automatons of his own, but must always warp the works of others – specifically explained as a result of his bitterness and his envy of others – may be important here. Melkor’s evil has not just injured the world, but has even damaged his own abilities – his power has been stunted. It’s tempting to wonder whether he has become stunted in other ways too, aside from just his inability to make things. Perhaps his failure to win bouts of fisticuffs is also an expression of this? If so, the most obvious conclusion is that Melkor lacks courage – that perhaps he could defeat his enemies, but that fear cripples him. This doesn’t seem farfetched – after all, the first two conflicts end with him giving up and running away, and in the second case with him hiding like a worm in hole in the ground hoping nobody finds him. And on the other side, Tulkas’ character is described almost exactly as a being who is bursting with confidence, who does not doubt himself in the slightest, who does not stop to think long enough to despair. His surname is Astaldo, ‘the Valiant’; “he has little heed for either the past or the future”; he fights not out of necessity but because he delights in it. All he does is run, wrestle, feast, ‘betroth himself’ (nudge nudge) to pretty Valië, and sleep heavily. At first glance, these seem incidental character traits, a stereotype of a certain sort of happy warrior; but I think that in fact it is no mere coincidence that the Valar with these traits is the strongest in battle. I think Tolkien’s idea is that he is the strongest because he has these traits – because he does not care for the past or the future but delights in his own activity. He is strong because he is valiant; Melkor, meanwhile, is the complete opposite of valiant, and I think it is no surprise that he ends up getting beaten up by a procession of people who theoretically he ought to be able to crush like a bug.

That, of course, implies that the other Valar, who are also weaker than Tulkas, must themselves lack courage to some degree. But surely, that’s impossible – they’re gods! They wouldn’t be so flawed, would they?

Of course, I’m reaching here. No explanation is given in the text as to how we’re to interpret the anomalous power levels of these characters. It’s also worth remembering that in many pagan myths exactly this sort of thing can be seen time and again: gods are at one moment omnipotent, and at another moment bested by mortals. Nonetheless, I think the theory I’ve put forward remains fairly true to the spirit of Tolkien, and helps build a bridge between the pagan dressings of the book and the deep Christian sentiment that underlies it – a way to unite pagan tropes, like the happy warrior, with Christian theology… bringing us back again to the old idea that despair (a loss of faith in the goodness and power of God) is at the root of all evil.

 

These Gods May Be Angels, But They’re Still Dicks – the moral ambiguity of the Valar

God, in the Christian perspective, has no flaws of any kind. In our Christian/post-Christian society, we tend to think that’s just how godhood works. But the old pagan gods were very far from perfect; and over the early chapters of The Silmarillion we see some strong hints that the Valar, the gods/angels of Arda, aren’t perfect either.

The only unambiguous example of this in these chapters is the continuously-wrongheaded Aulë. After Melkor, the two biggest named evil demi-gods in the mythos are probably Sauron and Saruman – the Valaquenta tells us that Sauron was at first Aulë’s follower, and fans of the mythos will know that Saruman too begins as one of his people, and was actually selected by Aulë to fight Sauron. One lucifer among your most trusted lieutenants is perhaps unfortunate, but two seems like carelessness. Nonetheless, Aulë’s big sin in these chapters is not his poor oversight, but his decision to preëmpt the will of Eru by creating his own servant race. In this, we see quite clearly that the Valar are not all-wise, and hence are not entirely good*.

But that’s not the only example. The wisdom of the Valar is put to the test right from the beginning: first, they live a hedonistic life of partying in Almaren, completely forgetting about the threat of their big bad brother; then, when Big Brother does come to town, they more or less run away to their own gated community in the west and leave the rest of the world enslaved to Melkor.

It’s worth looking at how the different Valar seem to disagree here. First, there’s Manwë, the ruler. Manwë is the appointed lord of the realm of Arda; but he is also from the first “brethren in the thought of Ilúvatar” with Melkor (the same claim occurs in both the Valaquenta and the Ainulindalë, so it seems as though it’s meant to be significant). Now, on the one hand this just reinforces the idea that in some way Manwë is an analogue for Jesus (Jesus and Lucifer often being spoken of as brothers, or even twins, in mystical tradition); but it should also perhaps sound a note of caution. Is Melkor’s brother completely to be trusted? Tolkien doesn’t say that he isn’t – but it’s hard to read the events of the early chapters as a ringing endorsement of him.

Manwë’s policy is isolationist – run and hide and pull up the Pelori behind them. We are told not only that Manwë is dearest to Ilúvatar, but also that he understands most fully his father’s purposes; surely whatever Manwë decides is right? But is it? “Understands his purposes” does not necessarily mean “knows the wisest way to fulfill those purposes”. And while Manwë may know Ilúvatar’s purposes the best, we are also told (in the Ainulindalë) that it is Ulmo who has been most deeply instructed by Ilúvatar. Meanwhile, Ulmo and Manwë together have most faithfully served the purpose of Ilúvatar – but does ‘faithfully’ mean ‘successfully’, or merely what it says, ‘most full of faith’? Because Manwë and Ulmo often do not agree with each other.

If Manwë is, as it were, the Valar with the best spiritual judgement, the Valar whose heart is in the best place, Ulmo often seems like the wisest, as well as the kindest. It’s hard not to read a tone of reproach when Tolkien, contrasting Ulmo with the other Valar, says that Ulmo has kept all of Arda in his thought, and that he has never forsaken elves and men. Tolkien may not come out and criticise Manwë and the others for their isolationism, but he does seem to praise Ulmo for defying it. Ulmo does more than disagree with the isolationism – when the other Valar are giving their care and love solely to Valinor, Ulmo never even visits Valinor, unless he has to! But in that, there is another question: given that Melkor himself became corrupted having spent too long by himself in the outer darkness, is it entirely positive that Ulmo is repeatedly spoken of as being ‘alone’, that he seems to disdain the presence of his brethren, out in his long travels through the outer ocean? And yet we have to sympathise with Ulmo (undoubtedly the coolest of all the Valar), because he is the one singled out as caring about the tragedies that have befallen the world. Manwë seems to see evil as a case of bad governance, but it’s Ulmo who sings the deep sad songs down at the roots of the earth – it’s Ulmo, we are told, who maintained all life in Middle-Earth after the other Valar departed. And so it should ring alarm bells for us when we see that it’s Ulmo who dissents from the will of the Valar when it comes to the first elves – Ulmo wishes them to be able to live their own lives without interference, while the other Valar are eager to rule over them, to bring them into Valinor. Is that entirely to best serve the Children, or is it in part that, like Melkor, the Valar are eager for worshippers? Tolkien doesn’t say – he merely shows us the tension and lets us feel uneasy about it even if we are not sure what the problem is. There are few easier ways to hint at complexity than to have supposedly wise characters disagree with one another. And the Valar are constantly disagreeing.

Yavanna, too, disagrees to some extent with the abandonment of Middle-Earth, and returns there to help the growing things. But Yavanna’s aims are very different from Ulmo’s. Yavanna has little or no interest in the Children of Ilúvatar – she is obsessively focused on her own personal hobby, flora and fauna. She spends most of her time in paradise, but occasionally ventures out to take advantage of Ulmo’s work in Middle-Earth by having some plants grow. Indeed, she seems actively hostile toward the Children, seeing them as a threat to her own creations. Since Yavanna’s creations are essential to all life, it’s hard to dislike her too much, but she does come across as rather selfish and self-absorbed. She forgets that the world is intended as a ‘mansion’ for elves and men; so too does Aulë, when he regrets the war against Melkor for the damage it will do to ‘his’ earth.

Nor is Oromë – the third Valar who shows an interest in Middle-Earth – a paragon of virtue. He’s not in Middle-Earth looking for the Children, or even to seriously fight against Melkor… he’s just there for a spot of huntin’, shootin’, and fishin’, a little bit of fun in the immense game-reserve of Middle-Earth. Not easy to like a man who’s that keen on killing things, even when he’s killing evil things – a being we are told is “dreadful in anger”.

But none of all of this shows the Valar to be, as I originally said, ‘dicks’. It just shows that there is dissent among them, and that they are not immune to moral criticism. [In particular, since it’s later shown that they can indeed best Melkor in a fight, as they’ve already done before, their decision to abandon the world, and hence ultimately the elves, to Melkor is cowardly in the extreme.] No, the fact that they’re dicks must be seen through their conversations. Two spring to mind.

First, Manwë and Yavanna discuss how the creation of various things, including Manwë’s Eagles, who will help protect Yavanna’s creations from the Children. Yavanna is of course pleased with the co-operation between them, and in that spirit of co-operation hopes that “high shall climb the trees of [myself, speaking in the third person], that the eagles of [you, addressed very flatteringly as The King] may house therein!”.

What does Manwë say? Does he politely thank her for her understanding and help and for the flattery, or say that he hopes so too? No, he’s a patronising dick. He decides to massively show off his power and how much more important than her he is (“But Manwë rose also, and it seemed he stood to such a height that his voice came down to Yavanna as fom the paths of the winds”), and then says “nay… only the trees of [your husband] will be tall enough.” He doesn’t actually add ‘you foolish woman’ at the end there, but it certainly sounds implied! What a dick!

And as though that’s not enough patriarchal speaking-down for one day, Yavanna goes off to boast to her husband about how she’s gone behind his back to get his boss to help her against him, frankly sounding almost genocidal: “Now let their children beware! For there shall walk a power in the forests who wrath they will arouse at their peril.” Well that’s very nice, isn’t it. Threaten some children with death. That makes you sympathetic. But does her husband get angry about either the conniving or the threats of murder? Why bother, she’s only a woman, after all:

“’Nevertheless, they will [cut down all your trees anyway, you foolish woman]’ said Aule, and he went on with his smith-work.” It’s his wife’s greatest fear, and he can’t even be bothered to look up from his work while flatly crushing her hopes?

What a dick.

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The Colour of Magic, by Terry Pratchett.

Well, it seems I’m in a sort of projecty mood at the moment. I suppose that’s traditional, this time of year. Not content with my Silmarillion-reading project (which I haven’t forgotten about, I’m just busy at the moment), I’ve taken it upon myself to embark on another, slightly longer-term project: re-reading Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels.

[This isn’t an original idea. I first had the notion of doing this three years ago, back when Adam at www.thewertzone.blogspot.com was doing it (he got stuck at Soul Music). I was reminded of my earlier intention, and sparked into actually picking up a book, by seeing Nathan over at www.fantasyreviewbarn.blogspot.co.uk take up exactly the same project (at time of writing he’s made it to Pyramids). I know I don’t really need to attribute such radical ideas as ‘reading a famous series of books in order’, but I feel I should, since I always feel awkward about failing to be original. [[Tangent: a paranoia I often take a little too far, to the point of predictability]]. Anyway, I encourage you to look at their reviews too, since so far as I can make out they’re both pretty sane guys when it comes to literary tastes, and a second opinion is always good.]

Discworld. Obligatory nostalgia moment: The Colour of Magic was one of the first books I ever read. There was The Lord of the Rings, and The Hobbit, and a handful of children’s books that don’t entirely count (because I don’t remember them well, I don’t remember when I read them, and they’re all really short, and besides, they’re not proper adult books)… and come to think of it I guess there was a whole load of Enid Blyton at some point, but then one day, as I think I’ve described before, I went with my father down to the local bookshop (when such things existed – and this one barely existed, it probably had fewer books than my house), and looked for fantasy novels, and came home with three: Never Deal With a Dragon (what was that doing there?), Pawn of Prophecy (Eddings quickly became my main author), and The Colour of Magic. I promptly inhaled all the other Discworld books then published. I don’t know when that was exactly, but on Goodreads I’ve estimated it as around 1992. Which means that I was about seven, and it was about twenty years ago.

I’m not sure I’ve read it since.

For a long time now – not twenty years, but a long time – I’ve been telling everyone to, frankly, avoid this book. Early Pratchett, I said, isn’t exactly bad, but it’s nothing like later Pratchett, and nowhere near as good. After all, this is barely a book. It’s some short stories. And they’re not original, they’re just parodies. Anyone can write a short story parodying the Pern novels, that’s not big, and that’s not clever.

the-colour-of-magic-1

Oh boy. I wasn’t wrong about it being different from later Pratchett. I may or may not have been wrong about it not being as good as later Pratchett, we shall see. But I sure as hell was wrong about it not being worth reading.

Because coming back to it now, no longer a seven-year-old: it still isn’t big, but, actually, it seriously is clever.

To start with, we need to be honest about what this book is, and what it isn’t. It isn’t really a novel. What it makes me think of most of all in terms of structure are those old SF novels of the fifties and sixties, the ‘fix-up’ novels, where a clunk of novellas have been slightly rewritten to fit together into a single book. There are four different stories here, with the same main characters and in chronological order, but with little overarching plot – two of the stories have their own prologues, and there are even moments where it feels like Pratchett is recapping the earlier stories in the later ones, like authors do at the beginning of a new novel in a series, in case you’ve forgotten what happened before. It feels like these are four different novellas published in magazines some time apart from one another, although I don’t think that’s actually what happened.

And this isn’t a Discworld book, except in the most obvious sense of it being, you know, quite clearly a Discworld book I mean the whole thing begins the the canonical description of the Discworld so obviously it is a Discworld book. But apart from that, and sharing a lot of characters and setting and a fair amount of the sense of humour with the later books, it isn’t. To explain that, I’ll just point out something that surprised me: this book came out in 1983. That’s surprising not because it’s an aeon ago in terms of the fantasy genre (context: this book was published only six years after The Silmarillion. Rincewind is only six years younger than Melkor, at least in publication date), but because it’s a whole three years before The Light Fantastic. From that point on, Discworld novels flowed at two books a year for a decade. Put simply, The Colour of Magic wasn’t the first of a series of novels sharing the same setting; it was a standalone novel, that later became the basis for a series of novels sharing the same setting. That’s an important difference, I think. In many ways, The Colour of Magic feels more similar to Pratchett’s previous book, Strata, than to the novels that would follow. So there are a lot of things here that don’t add up with later novels – most strikingly the portrayal of Death (at least until the end) is totally out of keeping with later Discworld novels – but there is also a pervasive difference in tone, style, and the feel of the setting.

And this isn’t a wholly original story, either. The entire thing is a parody of the Sword and Sorcery genre, with a lot of more specific parodies along the way (the first section, in Ankh-Morpork, reportedly parodies Leiber’s Lankhmar stories, the second section parodies the work of HP Lovecraft (though still mostly S&S), and the third section parodies McCaffrey’s Pern. [Tangential confession: I always try to just say Pern rather than mentioning the author, purely because I still haven’t learnt how to spell her name without looking it up. Don’t know why, just doesn’t stick with me]. The little parodies are easy to swallow, but the big parodies do feel like a weight on the narrative, unnecessarily limiting the scope and creativity of the work.

The parodic nature of the novel is a particularly interesting thing, philosophically speaking, because in this case what is being parodied is… to put it politely, extinct. Sword and Sorcery is moribund, it’s been adventuring through the elysian fields of departed genres since more or less the time that The Colour of Magic came out. People sometimes say it’s coming back, that writers like Abercrombie and Lynch are infused with an S&S sensibility – I don’t know, I haven’t read them – but it sounds like that’s only true in the sense that ‘not completely avoiding all traces of’ is a comparative resurrection after a long period of complete absence.

On the one hand, that’s bad for the book. A lot of the time I felt I wasn’t getting the joke – either I wasn’t getting the reference, or I understood the reference but just didn’t care because it wasn’t meaningful to me. [For instance, I know enough about Conan the Barbarian from second-hand sources to understand invocations of it, but that’s a very different sort of understanding from the sort I’d have if I’d grown up reading the stuff myself]. A parody loses a lot of its purpose when the thing being parodied is more obscure than the parody.

On the other hand, this may well be what saved the book for me. Because there’s enough here not to need the crutch of parody (just as we can still enjoy Alice in Wonderland despite not spotting the dozen pop culture references a page that it’s made out of), and to be honest I think it works better without it. In fact, the death of Sword and Sorcery has turned this book into almost a two-for-one deal: on the one hand, we get to read a fun, exciting, and to the modern audience quite original genre; and on the other hand, we get to make fun of it at the same time. This isn’t just an intro to Pratchett, it’s also an intro to Sword and Sorcery, and I came away from it really quite eager to find some original Fritz Leiber to read…

So it doesn’t suffer too badly from being a parody; but it does suffer a little, from the sense of mild claustrophobia that a ‘bit’ brings – the author doesn’t feel free, he’s having to do these things because that’s what the thing he’s parodying demands.

It has other flaws too. Some of the humour is too broad (to be honest the entire ‘Japanese tourist’ premise is a bit… limp). The world he’s creating is clearly not quite worked out; the style is sometimes a little inconsistent. It feels quite experimental. Because it’s four stories stitched into one, the overall narrative arc is badly impaired. [Hang on, don’t tell me the ‘here are four published stories reprinted as a book’ format is itself a parody of the repackaging of the original S&S serials? Damnit, maybe it is…]. Thanks both to the brevity/disjointedness of the plot and to the unlikeableness of every single character, there isn’t a lot of emotional engagement. And most surprisingly, for a Discworld book… it’s not funny. It’s clearly written as comedy, but it isn’t really laugh-out-loud funny. It’s rarely even giggle-funny.

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But what it is is great-broad-grin-across-my-face-almost-every-page enjoyable.

There is something here that has been lost in later Pratchett – that was largely lost in Discworld even by the time of its golden age. It’s fun – but more than that, it’s a certain kind of mad, furiously unpredictable creative genius. This book sizzles. It romps. It’s bursting with energy. It’s filled to the seams with, look, here, a stunning plot twist, or, there, some inspired worldbuilding, or isn’t that a clever joke, or that, isn’t that just clever, I don’t know what it’s there for but I’m impressed by it anyway.

Because the worldbuilding is great. This may not be the mature Discworld, but all the foundation stones are put down here – and yes, the roots may be in parody, but they blossom into something that feels real (in a demented way) and wild and entirely original even when I know it isn’t. Even the outright thefts feel original (a good writer borrows, a great writer steals); and let’s not overlook the sheer erruption of worldbuilding that there is here – not content with just describing the world around the characters, we’re treated to repeated whistlestop guides to the fantastic and incredible (despite never being within a thousand miles of it, there’s more about the Great Nef here than in the rest of the series put together). And the plot! OK, it’s mad, it’s scattered, it doesn’t make much sense on the page, but it’s just so audacious. Leaving aside the actual deus ex machina moments, there’s a less literal deus ex machina in the middle of this that is… possibly the most audacious way to resolve a plot point that I’ve ever seen. Which shifts from ‘is he seriously trying to pull that off?’ to outright awesomeness when you realise that the plot twist is composed of a series of implicit, and godawful, puns.

You have to be on your toes to get that joke, but then you have to be on your toes all the time in this book, not just because of the riotous pace, but because Pratchett is exploding with his own smartness all the time. It would be easy for him to come across as pretentious, but he doesn’t. He is astonishingly erudite, but expresses it in a way so married to zaniness and the pun (and in such a machine-gun way) that it doesn’t feel he’s showing off his knowledge, he’s just… having fun. Despite it’s ‘let’s laugh at sword and sorcery books’ premise, it actually feels like a really personal book – not in the sense of being intimate and meaningful and honest, but just in the sense that it feels like it was written for the joy of writing it. I like books like that. The joy comes across in the ink. And there are a great many very serious, very respected, very literary authors who patronisingly expound their own brilliance in lengthy and erudite novels, who end up showing only a tenth of the knowledge and wit that Pratchett showers on us in this brief fantasy parody.

I’m sure I’ve probably only gotten a quarter of the jokes. Some of the ones I did get, I needed help – I knew I recognised that Hikayat-i-Naqshia reference and got the gist of the joke, but I had to look it up to get the details. A lot of people probably didn’t notice that there WAS a joke there – but it’s the sort of book where you don’t have to understand every reference, or even spot which things are references. Instead, it all works at face value… and when you catch a sly allusion, you grin. It’s not all showing off, either, as Pratchett uses his wit to poke a lot of fun at various parts of the real world as well as at the genre, and even now and then to make some serious points. There isn’t the sustained satire or depth of political/philosophical perspective as in some of the later books, but this is nonetheless clearly the work of a man fully intellectually engaged with the world and society around him.

In the end, I’m not only forced to re-evaluate my old opinion of the book, I’m actually left a little regretful that we haven’t seen more of this Pratchett – and more of this world. Pratchett’s writing has become more and more staid, more and more didactic and formulaic, more and more quotidian – and so has Discworld as a setting. As the Disc has moved into the Century of the Anchovy (or whatever it is…), it has become more modern, more orderly, more predictable, more conventional, less magical… and more boring. Perhaps there was a happy medium sometime in the golden age of the Discworld series, where the unpredictability and creativity found a balance with the realism and the depth. But even if there was, I’d still like to get a few more glimpses of this earlier, wilder Disc. Later Ankh-Morpork is just an attempt to ram together a lot of different time periods of imaginary London (with a few nods to other places), which is interesting in its own way… but I’d like to see more of this Ankh-Morpork, this chaotic and brutal pit of humanity. And I badly wish that Pratchett had seen fit to take us back to Krull, his magical empire at the edge of the world. Most generally of all, the big difference is that there is a lot more magic in The Colour of Magic – literally. This is a world that, as the next book puts it, has an embarrassingly strong magical field. In The Colour of Magic, nothing escapes the influence of magic – as witness the glorious descriptions of the slow light that piles up like snow against mountains and drips like honey dew at dawn. In the later books, magic is indeed an embarrassment, relegated to jokes and a few demonpunk technologies. I enjoy seeing Pratchett write about a genuinely fantasy world. I’m not going to say this is the greatest Discworld book, but it’s absolutely worthy of reading.

That’s the point, I suppose. No, this isn’t a great introduction to Discworld. But don’t read it like that. Read it as a book with a riotous pace and explosive creativity and rampant wit. And there’s another way you should forget about the other books: the ending. Try to remember that the other books hadn’t been written when he got to that ending. There was no guarantee of sequels then; indeed, after the failures of his last two books, the end of The Colour of Magic might well have been the end of Pratchett’s writing career. And it’s a fantastic ending – predictable in one sense, but bold and original in another. No cliffhanger, it’s a perfect ending to a standalone novel about a world we would never be coming back to.

I’m very, very glad that the other Discworld books were written… but The Colour of Magic would have been a better book if it hadn’t had sequels.

So there we are. I’m not going to go too overboard here: let’s be honest, The Colour of Magic is the literary equivalent of those sweets that pop and fizzle in your mouth. It’s not the rich, indulgent ice cream of a book like Hogfather, the sweet but challenging affogato of Men at Arms, the nutritious and intriguing salad of Small Gods, or the bloody steak of Night Watch… there’s virtually no depth to it all, and it’s not going to linger for long in your memory. But come to this looking for a fun and clever book – and not for a Discworld book like those others – and you might just find what you’re looking for here.

(And, by the way – this is a book that deserves its original cover. Those Kirby covers always looked weird on Discworld books to me… but on The Colour of Magic, the style fits perfectly. Although i do quite like this one too: )

the-colour-of-magic-2

Adrenaline: 4/5. Surprisingly effective. Despite not really caring much about the characters, I found the non-stop pace and well-written scenes pretty exciting.

Emotion: 2/5. I cared only very minimally.

Thought: 4/5. No sustained consideration of anything. But constant cleverness, both in ideas and in erudition, as well as clever plotting.

Beauty: 3/5. Some great descriptions, but overall not a lot of attention paid to beauty.

Craft: 3/5. Mixed. Some great lines, some great plotting… some holes, some badly-judged moments, some laziness. Hugely talented, but not entirely polished.

Endearingness: 4/5. I really liked it. Held back by the parodic structure and the lack of emotional engagement, but overally really enjoyable.

Originality: 3/5. Strangely mixed – at times overwhelmingly creative, but at others sadly derivative, over-reliant on parody and on cliché. Frustrating, because he’s clearly got the creativity to do without those crutches.

Overall: 5/7. Good. I’m surprised, I wasn’t expecting to like this so much. And I can see why people might not like it – it is slight, and it isn’t entirely Discworld as we know it. But I’m a sucker for a fast-paced and imaginative book, and this is certainly that. If I like the first book this much, I’m extremely optimistic – to the point of concern – about the later books in the series…

For comparison, Adam gave this three out of five, and so did Nathan. Which I guess actually lines up with my scale, since on Goodreads I truncate the bottom portion of it (i.e. my 5/7 becomes a 3/5). That said, both of them seem to have been a lot more subdued about it. Oh well.

EDIT SOME TIME LATER: I’m collecting my Discworld Re-Read reviews on this page over here.

Reading the Silmarillion: Ainulindalë (2) – The Nature of Evil

There’s no sense beating about the bush. If we want to understand Tolkien’s work, there’s no better place to begin than at the ultimate question: what is good? Or rather, what does Tolkien tell us that good is, within the context of this novel?

But that’s a boring question. Let’s ask a more interesting one, which is in the end the same: what is evil?
There is a popular image of Tolkien as a conservative – an arch-conservative. A Little Englander. A man who wants nothing to change, except sometimes for things to change back to the way they were. A religious man, who wants the Church – the original Church, the one and only – to guide our moral lives. Who wants society to be more or less as it was in the depths of the middle ages; who prizes and fetishises Authority, Hierarchy, Obedience. That’s the generous view. A more hostile view – or worse, a more friendly view from entirely the wrong quarters – paints Tolkien as a fascist, and his work, particularly The Lord of the Rings as a fascist heroic epic. A great many seem to believe that Tolkien was perhaps a racist; or, at best, a man who disliked difference, alienness, diversity. A man who believed that everywhere in the world should be full of like-minded middle-class folk from Oxfordshire. Several well-known writers have taken this line; their quotes are quite well-known also: “small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical status-quos”, “a kind of Wagnerish Hitlerism”, “don’t ask any questions”, “a conservative hymn to order and reason, to the status quo”, “a fearful, backward-yearning class for whom ‘good taste’ is synonymous with ‘restraint’… and ‘civilised’ behaviour means ‘conventional behaviour in all circumstances’”.
When we read the Ainulindalë, it’s not hard to find evidence for this view. Melkor, after all, turns to ‘evil’ by failing to carry out the desires of his father. What’s more, the stated motivation for this hardly seems to display an authorial dedication to liberalism. We read that at first the Ainur create a multitude of melodies interwoven in harmony… but that Melkor desires his part to be greater than it is. Thus, disharmony arises. Harmony, of course, was not the immediate state of things: at first, each only knew themselves, and their own part, and only gradually did they come to know each other, and find harmony between the parts. Harmony in music, then, goes hand in hand with fraternity among the musicians. Melkor, however, divides himself out from the others – he goes by himself in empty places, and ‘being alone he had begun to conceive thoughts of his own’.

That’s a tricky statement for those of us who don’t want to paint Tolkien as a reactionnary tyrant. What’s so wrong with having thoughts of your own? Well, maybe nothing at all. The point, after all, isn’t that Melkor has thoughts of his own, but that they are ‘unlike those of his brethren’. And yet is that much of an improvement? Evil is having thoughts unlike those of those around you? Of course not. Tolkien doesn’t mean to say that at all, as we will see in a moment. Tolkien is perfectly OK with people being different, and having different thoughts – creation begins, after all, with each of the Ainur concentrating on their own melodies, and Tolkien will go on to show how they have such different concerns and interests that some seem hardly to interact with certain others. From time to time, they will even come into conflict with one another. When Tolkien says that Melkor’s thoughts became ‘unalike’ from those of his brethren, he can’t just mean that they were different in the same way that they were all different – instead, they must be different in some more fundamental way. And music shows what is meant: the other melodies all harmonise with one another – they are different, and yet alike in their relation to a common music – but Melkor’s melody seeks to drown out that of the others, not harmonise with it.

That’s not a very interesting insight into evil, I’ll be honest. A little more interesting is the implicit reasoning: Melkor seeks power and glory because he has been alone with himself. Tolkien doesn’t spell out what that ‘because’ means, but to me it seems as though the suggestion is that the other Ainur are able to see each other as comrades in a common cause, musicians in the same ensemble; Melkor has been apart for so long that he seems to have lost that sense of fraternity. Melkor’s failure to ‘know his place’ comes from Melkor’s failure to have enough in common with those he is meant to be collaborating with.

If goodness requires a degree of commonality between people, and a willingness to know our place, and yet at the same time we must all be different, what exactly is it that we must keep in common? Tolkien, of course, doesn’t say. Yet there is nothing all that radically conservative in this viewpoint. Even liberals usually agree that a society cannot function without a shared, common framework of beliefs – the difference between liberals and conservatives instead revolves around the extent and specificity of this necessary framework. Tolkien offers no comment on this. Indeed, becoming fanciful for a moment, it’s tempting to read this passage as suggesting that the way in which Melkor’s thoughts become ‘unalike’ is simply that he no longer recognises that they are alike – perhaps his dissent from the community is simply that he does not believe himself to be in community?

Anyway, at first glance this may still not look very pleasant: goodness is being alike? Goodness is knowing your place? But these suggestions are stamped over by Tolkien’s later comments. First, he notes that the disharmony that arises is not simply because of Melkor’s pride. The problem begins with Melkor, but the only result is ‘dischord around him’. That sounds minor; that sounds controllable. What happens next, however, is that some of those around him grow ‘despondent’, and some of those then choose to follow Melkor’s music rather than ‘the thought which they had at first’. Only then do we hear of ‘turbulent sound’ and ‘dark waters’ and ‘a raging storm’ and ‘endless wrath that would not be assuaged’. Melkor is the seed of evil, but he is not the body of it – it is what he inspires in others that brings them to evil.

It’s a very Catholic explanation for the triumph of evil. Even Melkor, by far the greatest of all the Ainur, can do nothing but create a little local dischord; global evil comes not from Melkor’s pride, but from the despair of those around him. Despair – the greatest evil of all, the loss of faith, which is in a way to say the loss of the perfect love of god. And at the root of this is the Catholic doctrine of natural law: the belief that right and wrong can be known by reason alone; the belief that at the heart of everybody is a conscience that can discern each person’s proper actions, and that sin arises from the failure to heed that personal conscience. For humans, of course (as I understand it) this theoretical clarity is obfuscated by the weakness of our intellect and will, and our finite knowledge – for humans, the rational conscience is so likely to go wrong somewhere, to be lead astray by some confusion or temptation, that the best path is to listen closely to God’s more direct advice through Scripture, and Tradition, and the Church, to tell us how to interpret our conscience. But for the Ainur, these limitations are less significant – the Ainur, after all, are angelic beings in the direct presence of God. We can expect their conscience to be pure and their intellect to be acute. So we are not told that many of them were evil, or that many were turned to evil through seduction or temptation. Instead, those around Melkor have, as it were, gone over to the dark side because they have despaired – they have lost their faith in their own conscience, their faith that they must simply follow their own melody. Time and again in Tolkien’s work, it is despair that leads to evil – in The Lord of the Rings, for instance, we may think of Saruman and of Denethor, each of whom first despaired and then surrendered their own principles. That is what despair is: the surrender of one’s own melody.

So if Tolkien’s description of Melkor’s own fall may have seemed a little fascistic, his description of Melkor’s allies should assuage that fear in us: maintaining fraternity, each of us keeping to our own place, our own path in life, must not be confused with doing what we are told, with following the loudest and most glorious noise we hear. That is the route to evil.

And what, in the end, is evil? It isn’t dischord, or disharmony – those are merely the consequences of the fight between evil and good. Instead, we are told, evil “had now achieved a unity of its own; but it was loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated; and it had little harmony, but rather a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes”. Unison, and repetition – that’s Melkor’s world. When somebody tries to tell you that Tolkien is a conservative writer who just wanted everything to be an extension of middle-class England, and that he wanted nothing to ever change, or when people say that his work is chauvanist, or even fascistic, and most of all when fascists themselves appeal to his work… just remember that at the core, his concept of evil is the idea of ‘many trumpets braying upon a few notes’.

This, indeed, is an interesting contrast between Tolkien himself and many of those who have followed after him in the fantasy genre. Often we see it said explicitly or implicitly that the battle between good and evil is the same as, or subordinate to, the battle between order and chaos – with chaos lined up with evil, and order with good. [I’m minded of a striking mantra in the Dragonlance books, where, even though evil/good and chaos/order are theoretically explicitly perpendicular dimensions of character, we are nonetheless reassured that ‘evil turns upon itself’]. In Tolkien, by contrast, evil is if anything associated with an excess of order.

In the end, the fascistic interpretation of Tolkien – perhaps even the conservative interpretation – seem to fundamentally misunderstand Tolkien’s beliefs. Departing briefly from the text itself, we may want to bear in mind that Tolkien himself described his political thoughts as tending toward anarchism; he said that the most ‘improper’ job for any man was bossing another man – even if the boss happened to be a saint; he said (presumably exaggerating) that he would arrest and execute anyone found using the word “State”, so obnoxious was the concept. If he was undemocratic, it was because democracy only elected those who ran for office – who he considered the worst possible people to be allowed to obtain it. His favoured option, he said, would be an unconstitutional king… whose only interest was stamp-collecting. Even his much-discussed antipathy to ‘progress’ was rooted in this anarcho-monarchism: he feared that the end of the ‘inefficient’ old way of life would make his system impossible and require the creation of a strong, Statist, coercive system. His reactionary and antidemocratic urges should therefore be seen not as fascist, not as a desire for authority and hierarchy and obedience and order and reason, but as precisely the opposite: a strong opposition to anything (democracy, efficiency) which could stiffle the individual conscience and the individual voice. He preferred the older, less effective tyrannies, and saw them as protection against the newer and more terrible forms. But this confusion should hardly surprise us, as it is a common confusion regarding the nature of Toryism, perhaps because ‘Tory’ has become synonymous with their replacements, the Conservatives. But in the beginning, ‘Tory’ meant something very different. The name should give it away: it’s a reference to Tory Island, notorious Irish haunt of brigands and rebels. That is to say, Catholic ne’er-do-wells. The Tories became known as Tories because they were Catholics and allies of Catholics – the supporters of Charles II’s Catholic brother, James II… at a time when Catholicism was a despised, persecuted and oppressed minority. That genesis of Toryism seems to me to capture the sense in which Tolkien was a Tory: a persecuted Catholic minority who looked to a powerful monarch for protection against majoritarian, democratic institutions. Many people who might now be seen as rebels, outsiders, the disenfranchised, supported the Tories. Of course, so did a lot of fat rich landowners, and so did a lot of fanatical conservatives and reactionaries, and they went on to be very conservative about a whole lot of things – despite their origin, for instance, it was the Tories who generally opposed Catholic Emancipation in the nineteenth century (and drove electoral reform as a result, hoping, as the Whigs once had before them, that more democracy would help maintain the oppression of minorities). But though the idea of the Tory (particularly Catholic Tory) anarcho-monarchist has fallen out of political (and to a large extent social) relevence, it has a long tradition, and is a better way to approach Tolkien than as a simple conservative.

[An interesting comparison I’ve not seen made that often is between Tolkien’s views and libertarianism. It might be thought that the two could not be more different – and yet. Most libertarianism, classically, has shared Tolkien’s support for a protective central government, though like Tolkien they preferred this government to do very little, and shared his skepticism around democratic institutions and his fear of the tyranny of the majority. Tolkien could probably be seen as a libertarian in very old-fashioned clothing (and probably a bit more to the left, more a One Nation-er than a Neoliberal). Comparisons might also be made between Tolkien and Ayn Rand personally – both writers of very big and very distinctive novels who paint in bright whites and dark blacks and attempt a semi-religious moral importance; both writers, accordingly, who have developed fanatical apologists and vehement enemies. As someone who loves Tolkien and hates Rand, this isn’t a particularly comfortable comparison, but I think it’s there to be made.]

Anyway, enough tangent. I’m not going to pretend that reading the Ainulindalë will make everyone think of Tolkien as a democrat/Marxist revolutionary; I’m not even going to pretend that reading it will give anyone a really clear of what exactly Tolkien thought about anything – I’m not convinced Tolkien knew what he thought on most things, at least in any systematic way.  But the Ainulindalë is where The Silmarillion begins – where our experience of The Silmarillion begins – and I think it lays down important principles regarding how we should approach the stories that follow. Some of those principles I’d like to return to later, but for now, here’s just one of the most important: evil is what happens when powerful people are too proud and wish to dominate others, but it is also, and more devastatingly, what happens when many people lose faith in their own destinies and allow themselves to become voices turned to someone else’s song.

I don’t believe that Tolkien ever intended his books to convey a structure and coherent body of moral ‘theory’ – but I do believe that, reading The Silmarillion, we get a very strong feel of the author’s moral sentiment. If I appear to be ascribing too much to Tolkien’s text or suggesting too close an allegory, it is most likely because I am attempting to bring out this sentiment to greater visibility.

I’ve a feeling we’ll be encountering evil again later on in this book…

Reading The Silmarillion: Ainulindalë/Valaquenta (1)


And God said, let there be music. The Silmarillion begins in an a capella fashion – and immediately makes clear that this is not just any book.

Many people will no doubt have some problems with this opening section. It has no characters, they may say, it tells us almost nothing about the setting itself, it has little or no dramatic tension. It’s just a reading from the Bible.

That view isn’t necessarily wrong; but at the same time, thanks precisely due to its relatively unobtrusive narrative and characters, it’s actually one of the most intellectually interesting parts of the book: this is probably the place where Tolkien’s views, and his intentions regarding the world he created, are most nakedly exposed.

That makes it a tricky place to begin reading critically, because no sooner have I opened the book than there’s a big stonking invitation to waffly rumination just waiting for me there. So I’m going to put that to one side for a moment, and write a series of pieces looking at some thematic aspects of the Ainulindalë a little later on. Meanwhile, I’ll just make some general comments about this, and the Valaquenta, in stylistic terms.

And what can we say about these two ‘stories’? We can begin by wondering whether it was a good idea to begin a difficult book of stories with two stories that aren’t really stories. The Ainulindalë can just about get away with being called a story, but the Valaquenta is an essay, pure and simple. Less than an essay, even: some bullet points about the setting.

The Ainulindalë is, in my opinion, a fine piece of writing. I love Tolkien’s semi-religious style of prose, and it’s clearer and cleaner here than in some places – he’s closer to the Bible, and further from the epic sagas with their more ornate constructions. Of course, I’m hardly an unbiased reader: for me, on some formative level, Tolkien is prose. Tolkien was the first author I read; his style set the basis of what I instinctively think of as good prose. Me saying I like his writing is therefore almost a tautology – a circular argument, even. But as much as I strive for objectivity, I just can’t reach a point where I don’t love this writing. Yes, of course it’s slow. Isn’t that the point? It’s mellifluous, in an almost literal sense – it’s like the slow pouring of honey. Consider:

“For it seemed at first soft and sweet, a mere rippling of gentle sounds in delicate melodies; but it could not be quenched, and it took to itself power and profundity. And it seemed at last that there were two musics progressing at one time before the seat of Ilúvatar, and they were utterly at variance. The one was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came. The other had now achieved a unity of its own; but it was loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated; and it had little harmony, but rather a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes.”

How do people not like this? To me, the rhythms of this prose are so powerful, so beautiful. I think perhaps however that it is important to, as it were, imagine it being read out loud. Like Homer, or the beginnings of the Bible, these ancient myths, we might imagine, are designed for the voice, and not the eye. We see already one idiosyncracy of Tolkien’s style, which is a determination to begin sentences, even paragraphs, with conjunctions; at the same time, many of the sentences that do not begin with conjunctions feel as though perhaps they should, lacking as they do semantic independence from their predecessors – in the example above, the sentences beginning ‘the one’ and ‘the other’ could well have been joined together. The impression we get in consequence is of one single, determined speech, a long bardic recitation, in which such things as punctuation are almost an afterthought of an imaginary editor.

I’m not blind. I can see reason for complaint: the polysyndeton does sometimes become too much; chiefly, I think, because if everything is one long mellifluous sentence it’s difficult to manufacture the contours of tension and release that we expect from our prose. It’s like trying to read Mahler: every moment is a melody just inches away from realisation, yet subsumed again back into the tide of the great soft supple droning Voice, the ocean of ever-progressing, never-concluding harmony, almost before it has emerged into our hearing. I can see how the approach would sometimes feel like playing in a padded cells, only being given rubber cutlery – such is the fear of offering us any sentence with a sharp edge. But so far I have no complaint. So far, I think it’s all very beautiful.

It also makes sense, which is always nice. Again, I can’t read this for the first time afresh, but I don’t think the contents should be troubling to anybody. There are one or two words slipped in – Arda, Eldar, Eldalië – but context gives an idea, and a reader shouldn’t always have to understand everything completely. It’s not overdone – at this stage.

And it does begin the book at the beginning. It sets up a clear villain, Melkor, and names a few of his enemies (Manwë, Ulmo), but I don’t think it drowns us in names and relationships. It has no strong characters, but it does reassure us that Elves and Men will come along later, and that they’ll be important. It sets the high moral tone and the seriousness of the book. It’s not a bad prologue.

The Valaquenta, on the other hand… what was the man thinking? [I’m not sure which Tolkien I’m talking about here, but somebody somewhere has surely made a mistake] Eight pages of raw infodump? Does he really expect us to learn the names of twenty-two characters, not including God, in eight pages?

The secret, of course, is that we really don’t need to know most of these names. I’m not going to confidently promise that Vairë the Weaver will never again show up, but she certainly doesn’t play a major part in proceedings. Olórin really doesn’t show up again – not at least until the last five pages of the book, in which he is given a completely different name (and you have to have read more widely, or spotted with an eagle eye one quick and hidden mention in The Lord of the Rings, to recognise that it’s the same person – though in this case the confusion is probably intentional). We certainly don’t need to know three different names for Oromë, and the name of his horse and the name of his favourite hunting horn. Not all in the same paragraph, please.

In short, the Valaquenta is pointless. It has some nice moments describing these people, but if the author really liked them he could have found somewhere else to put them. Yes, it’s useful to have somewhere to look up the names of the gods in case you’ve forgotten them, but a simple list, or chart, would have been perfectly adequate – superior, even, since it could have been consulted more quickly. Everything good about the Valaquenta could have been folded into the body of the text. Instead, it’s like a roadblock at the mouth of the book. The Ainulindalë is a slow but enticing prologue… and then it’s eight pages of name-hurling exposition. It’s hard to think of a worse way to draw the audience in. If you really needed this in the book – and it’s not worthless, I admit – it should have been placed where it belongs: as an appendix. It would have made an interesting appendix. As the second chapter of a novel? Not so good.

[It also doesn’t show the prose off in the best light. Tolkien’s very oral style works well, in my opinion, when he’s telling a story, but put him to exposition and he sounds like he’s giving a lecture. Now, I enjoy lectures. I’m a very boring man, who enjoys a good lecture. But most of the audience, even of the audience who might enjoy The Silmarillion, is probably not looking for a lecture. So maybe don’t start off with one…]

Finally, it’s interesting that the Valaquenta is explicitly labelled as derived from the lore of the Eldar (explanatory note for the uninitiated: the Eldar are elves) – which on some level all of these stories are meant to be. It does, it’s true, help explain the peculiar sense of dissonance common to many fables about gods: that they are at once both beyond comparison and strikingly human (or in this case elven). We can perhaps wave some of this oddness away as an artifact of the elven loremaster. And yet this device is not really exploited as it could be: there is no particular feeling that Tolkien is trying to write in the voice of a loremaster (other than himself…) and there are few obvious reflections of the loremaster’s own personality or culture in his account. In consequence, I find it hard to avoid seeing this conceit as an easy excuse for any inconsistencies, rather than a mature literary device in its own right.

Reading The Silmarillion: The Foreword

The Foreword Notes on the Notes

It’s very difficult for me to read The Silmarillion with a fair and balanced mind. To be sure, it’s difficult to read any book with a fair and balanced mind; more precisely, it’s impossible. But with The Silmarillion, it’s even more impossible than usual. It’s so completely impossible, in fact, that it starts to become a difficulty – though hopefully not an insurmountable one.

The plain truth of the matter is, I can’t read The Silmarillion at all. For me, it’s like hearing my own voice, or seeing my own face (both now possible, of course, thanks to cameras and voice recorders and so on, but you can see the point I’m making – and there are no photographs of the mind). When I read a book, I open the pages, and I read the words, and I form some opinion of the sentences. I and the book must come to terms with one another. When I open up The Silmarillion, however, the words are part of the person turning the pages, the sentences are in the eyes that plod along the print, and a video camera is gazing at its own recording of its own recording of itself. In some small degree, when I try to read The Silmarillion, what happens is that I’m trying to read myself.

Let’s not exaggerate. I’m not a Silmarillion fanatic. I think I love the book, but not enough to read it frequently – it’s so long since I read it that, I don’t know, perhaps I don’t love it at all but only think that I remember that I do. I have a good memory (in some ways), so I remember many things about it, but I’m far from being some walking dictionary of the work. Large parts of the book have fallen from my memory entirely, leaving only the vaguest of placeholders to let me know that there was once something there, that I cannot remember anymore. I used to read The Lord of the Rings almost constantly – at least every year, sometimes every few months – but it was never so for The Silmarillion. And even for Tolkien in general, I couldn’t seriously claim to be a devoted follower – I haven’t read anything from start to finish in perhaps a decade. I’ve read The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, and Unfinished Tales, and a couple of companions and guides (including the excellent and essential atlas, by Karen Wynn Fonstad) – but I haven’t read any of the massive and indispensable (for the true fan) The History of Middle-Earth. [Although for some unknown reason I do have a copy of the fourth volume]

That said, of course, if I’m honest I don’t really know what I’ve read, because over time my memory of the appendices to The Lord of the Rings has so intercomingled with my memories of The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, and the scraps of information from this guide or that website or such-and-such a conversation and from this or that imagining or misconception or unattributable assumption of my own that I don’t really know what is and isn’t in The Silmarillion, and what I do or don’t know about Tolkien’s world, and from whence. I’m not even sure, come to think of it, that I’ve really read all of The Silmarillion from front to back – and if I did, I don’t know when, because unlike all those other Tolkien books I actually have no memory of originally reading it. But at root, that’s in a way the whole problem: not that I care about The Silmarillion too much, or that I know it too well, but that it has slipped out of sight behind and under knowledge, above and around care. For me, ‘The Silmarillion’ has become not really a text on paper but a region, a very occluded and ancestral and subterranean region, of my subconscious. I imagine this is how many prior generations thought of the Old Testament – after long childhood recitations, passages, names, quotations, events would ever afterward resonate in their brains, though their conscious mind could not necessarily pinpoint their origin or detail their precise relation. The Bible underlay and interwove their lives, their literature, their perception of almost all things – even for those who ignored it, or even rejected or condemned it. The Silmarillion I think is like that – almost like that – for me. It’s like the forgotten voice that our parents spoke with when we were young. Trying to read it is like trying to get to know my parents as other people know them. I cannot separate what there really is from what I only know there to be.

Now, apologies for that long and unnecessary bibliographical digression (note to self: is my habit of starting paragraphs with the superfluous use of ‘now’ some relic of long-ago reading of The Silmarillion?). I share it not only (but partly) as an apology for and explanation of the perspective I’ll be taking as I talk about The Silmarillion, and not only (but mainly) because I’m a man over-prone to rambling, vanity and tangential ruminations, needing only the flimsiest excuse – but also because it touches directly on the issues raised by Christopher Tolkien’s own short Foreword to his father’s work. To, I should say, his presentation of his father’s work.

Because that’s the first issue. Who did write this book… and what is part of this book? With my own knowledge of the situation – my own vague and ill-informed ‘knowledge’, I should say – I seem to see something a little distasteful about this Foreword – something dishonest. It’s a Foreword that seems to present the work that follows as the work of Tolkien pater – it suggests a light editorial hand, and no invention. In fact, it now appears that editorial decisions were often critical, and that substantial portions, particularly toward the end of the book, were the product of at best substantial interstitial composition and at worst wholesale manufacture, by Tolkien filius and his assistant, Guy (now better known as Guy Gavriel) Kay. I don’t mean to condemn their actions in editing the work – it’s clear (or seems clear to me, in my state of surprisingly opinionated ignorance) that the task that faced them was monumental, and I can entirely understand their (as I understand it) approach. My reservation regards instead only the Foreword, where I would have hoped for an honest and precise explanation of the extent of editorial alterations. I cannot say that the Foreword is untrue, but I certainly found it out of keeping with my ‘understanding’ of the situation, and so I think it may be misleading for new readers.

And yet that isn’t the problem. [Is the problem that I for some reason instinctively wrote ‘Tolkien pater’ and ‘Tolkien filius’, even though it clearly sounds ridiculously pretentious? Well no, but it’s something I should work on, sorry about that]. The problem really is not what Christopher Tolkien has added, but what the reader adds – to what extent is it fair for a reader to bring in their own knowledge of the mythos when reading these stories? Or, since that doesn’t make sense strictly speaking as written, how about: when trying the evaluate the book, to what extent should a reviewer stick to what is on the page, and to what extent should they take for granted their own wider knowledge of Tolkien’s world? And if we try to stick to the page, is that even possible? – I can hardly wipe it all out of my mind, after all, especially since I’m not sure where in my mind it’s all stored (or why). Of course, this is a problem with any book – but it is particularly a problem here, both because it is a book that, for me, is so embedded in my head that I cannot cut it out, and because it is a legendarily ‘dense’ book and unfriendly to first-time readers.

The second major issue that the Foreword raises is the matter of how best to approach the book – and the problem of charity. The son repeatedly urges us to be charitable toward the work of the father. On the one hand, we must understand that this is not a finished work compiled by the ‘author’, but only a compendium of fragments edited together by a dead man’s family. Be generous, is the implication – impute the flaws to the editor, award the virtues to the deceased. And on the other hand, we must also understand that, within the conceit of the author, these stories are not truly a story told by a man, but a relation of many stories told by many different (fictional) authors. Disagreements in style, and even in content, are only to be expected. Imagine, we might suggest, that there is another story missing here, a framing story in which a narrator explains that these stories are not truths but the remnants of myths (a ‘Book of Lost Tales’, as the original idea ran). If we have criticisms, take them out on the foolish elves who wrote these ridiculous narratives, not on the poor hassled author who tried to tease them out into coherence!

I’m not going to consider here what impact these two framing devices (the quentar as conflicting and incomplete myths collated and edited by Tolkien pater, and The Silmarillion as conflicting and incomplete narratives by Tolkien pater collated and edited by Tolkien filius*) have on either the quality of the book or our appreciation of it. That’s more a matter for during or after the read-through of the book itself. What’s interesting here is to what extent it’s fair to ask for this charity at all. Clearly, approaching a book from a certain perspective can change a lot about how we see it – but it’s not normally the done thing for an author, or an editor, to come right out at the beginning and tell us how to read it. Isn’t that meant to come across in the text itself? Or should authors in fact do this regularly – after all, while they can hardly hold our hand through the entire text, there are many books where the author might (to both our and their benefit) include a helpful signpost at the beginning of our journey. Perhaps the reluctance to do so is only a quaint old taboo… or perhaps the special pleading here does speak to some inadequacy of one of the Tolkiens, either as an author or as an editor. I don’t know the answer to that. And then to the extent that we grant this charity, and adopt a forgiving eye on the idiosyncrasies of the text – as certainly I myself can’t help but do – what reason do we have for this? Is it respect for the dead, and the infelicitously poor paperwork brought on by death – are we saying “I’ll do my best to imagine how it might have been had he lived to see it completed”? Or is it respect for Tolkien as an author, or as a person – “I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt because I respect the old man for the other things he’s done.” And then again, is the appeal for a generous reading really an appeal outside of the book? That accepts the son’s presentation of the work as truly a work by his father, and not by himself – should we instead see the Foreword as, in its own way, a part of the novel, a framing story that just happens to be true? If so, should we criticise it as a blunt, prosaic, inelegant framing story – or is such a framing story perfectly suited to the novel, a framing story that realistically portrays an editor compiling conflicting narratives into a single tale (a story that’s realistic because it happens to be true?). Or perhaps this framing story just stands in place of the ‘real’ framing story, the one that the father would have written, perhaps, if he’d lived long enough – and if I write a novel that would have been a lot better with a framing story that explains the idiosyncrasies of the text away in a satisfactory way, could you imagine please that that story exists, since I unfortunately haven’t yet lived long enough to issue a revised edition that includes it? I’d be going to write one one day, honestly, and it’d be really good, so just imagine the most effective framing story you can think of…

We are very used to seeing a book as the product of an author – but this book is the product of at least three authors. We are used to seeing books that are either fiction or non-fiction, either scholarly or artistic – but this book is both. I find that challenging, in terms of how I conceive of the book, and of the posture I adopt as I begin to read (and I do not think this is any less of a question for readers who are not aware of their own postures). More generally, the issue of how our own stance affects how we experience the book, and how that stance is influenced by factors peripheral to or external to the book itself (and there I go again, I keep thinking of this as a book by JRR Tolkien, and not, as it perhaps is, a book by Christopher Tolkien that mostly consists of quotations from his father’s unfinished works), raises the question of to what extent the qualities we ascribe to any book are really qualities of the book, rather than qualities we have brought with us to the book.

And yet, and yet… although these questions are fascinating, they are not very interesting. We  can’t get very far with anything if we go on about how we can’t take our eyes out of our vision. Of course we can’t. But if we’re intelligent readers, self-aware readers, we can in general get some sense of the world beyond the prism of our eyes. If we couldn’t, all life would be impossible. Perhaps we can’t say anything certain, anything completely precise or true… but for goodness sake, anyone who ever thought we could, about anything and let alone about a book, must have been too foolishly demented to be worth arguing with in the first place. So I’m not raising these questions in the pretence that they’re somehow fundamental and significant – they’re not. They’re so important, so foundational, so quintessential to all our experience, that they are really quite inconsequential and dull. Nothing’s less interesting than a genuine universal.

Instead, I’m raising these questions for three key reasons: firstly, because it does us good to look at our feet and the ground from time to time – it stops us running too fast over dangerous terrain and, hey, sometimes the ground is pretty pretty when you take the time to look at it; secondly, because while these questions are always present with any book (with any thing), I think they’re particularly present, and particularly concrete, with regard to this book in particular, which is, in its own odd way, rather on the edge of what we’re used to from fiction; and, thirdly and most honestly, because it all popped into my head and look, I’ve got a keyboard in front of me, and that’s usually, I find, a terrible mistake, and I’m damned if I’m going to pass up the opportunity for a semi-interesting meandering.

So there I am. I’m going to read the book, and I’m going to write about the book, and I’m going to review the book, and I’m going to do it all strictly on the basis of the words on the page, and nothing else. And you should know from the beginning that the preceding sentence is, due to characteristics both of the book and of myself, a well-meaning, honest, but barefaced lie. As the film puts it: you may not believe that, and I may not believe that, but by God it’s a useful hypocrisy…

 

*Yes, not only am I using ‘pater’ and ‘filius’ in cold blood, I also now seem to be using words in Quenya. Well, sue me (only, if you’re Christopher Tolkien, please don’t). For those who don’t know and who don’t care to look it up, ‘quentar’ is the plural of ‘quenta’, which we’ll encounter in the name of the largest section of the book, the Quenta Silmarillion, and so means ‘stories’ or ‘accounts’. It’s related to the word Quenya itself, meaning ‘speech’, the name of language of the Noldor elves in the book. Since it’s vaguely relevant, I’ll also mention that the Quenya word for what this book contains is a quentastaa historical account derived from collated records – rather than a real quentalë (the true history of a thing). No, I don’t speak Quenya, I just looked those last two up. But hey, everyone knows what a quenta is, right?

OK, no, normal people probably don’t know that. Actually, until a little while ago, I didn’t know I knew that. Turns out I did.

Reading The Silmarillion: A Project

Project Conception

I’ve always thought of The Silmarillion as one of my favourite books – although come to think of it, I don’t really remember it very well. I’m due a re-read.

But then I thought: how about, instead of waiting until the end and writing a review, I actually write up some thoughts as I go along? The Silmarillion should be uniquely well-suited to this sort of thing – I know the subject matter well enough that I don’t think I’ll mind pausing to write up my thoughts, and well enough that I may be able to have some insight, yet dustily enough that I might still be surprised along the way. And it’s conveniently divided into about thirty chapters – ideal for a month’s project!

Now, as some of the eagle-eyed will have noticed, it’s more than a quarter of the way through January and I’m only just starting. Part of this is the initial idea being too ambitious (a chapter a day, plus review? Unlikely), and part of it is real life getting in the way (the beginning of January is a bad time to start something…); part of it is also the shear interestingness of the Ainulindalë, about which so much could be written!

But I’m planning to go on with the project nonetheless, though I’m going to have to postpone some of what I want to say about the first chapter until later.

I’m hoping to try to be able to give my impressions of the writing, the story, and where appropriate also the themes and the ideas presented in the work (which is one reason the Ainulindalë is the worst place to start, because it’s very conceptual, and concepts take a lot of time to talk about).

I should say right from the beginning, however, that I have no idea what I’m talking about. I’m not a Tolkien expert. I’m not a literary expert, a historian, a student of mythology, a theologian, or anything like that. So please don’t get too annoyed if you think I’m talking nonsense – it probably wasn’t intentional.

LATER EDIT: unsurprisingly, project slippage has continued. I’ve been running into various distractions, both unavoidable and self-inflicted. I’m not sure how much I’m actually going to write about each chapter, or each block of chapters, and I’m not sure it’ll take me. But I’m going to carry on with it anyway. Hopefully something interesting will come out of it.