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.