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.


3 thoughts on “Reading The Silmarillion: Ainulindalë/Valaquenta (1)

  1. jonafras says:

    Re the Valaquenta: I don’t know – but are there any parallels in writings on classical mythology with this kind of “divine catalogue”? Funny enough, this was probably the point where the Silmarillion really began to grip me – this sense of a properly defined pantheon, constants that would reoccur throughout the myth-cycle, descriptions of figures whose features reveal what’s really relevant to the (con-)culture in question. Even then, though, I was probably more interested in Tolkien’s world-building than necessarily any single one of his writings.

    Sorry for bumping up more old posts! Though I really like these reflections. I might be writing more about this soon.

  2. Well, you do get litanies of gods in texts, sure. But they’re within the text and in the style of the text. The Valaquenta though is half myth, half academic commentary. It would have been better as an appendix, I think.

    And of course nascent worldbuilders are probably a small minority of readers!

    Don’t worry about bumping old posts, though – since I post slowly, all posts are old posts.

    Incidentally, I may do another attempt at a Sil commentary at some point in the future.

  3. Sykirobme says:

    Please do more commentary on this book! I’ve only recently found this blog, and posts like this are like candy for me…that you write well and thoughtfully is a huge bonus!

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