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.


6 thoughts on “Reading The Silmarillion: Up to Thingol and Melian (1)

  1. sarahcradit says:

    Very insightfully written…I would agree with most of your points as well.

    I think the main reason (as I always interpreted it) that the Valar did not interfere with the issues on Middle-earth is that the Children of Iluvatar were supposed to be beings of free will and governance. Although the Valar obviously have the power to fix most things that are troubling ME, to constantly step in and fix them would make them more puppet-makers than gods, and would in effect continue to emascule and disempower the peoples of ME. One of the reasons the Eldar left was that they did not want to feel as if they were “answering” to the Valar, and that they wanted to govern their own lands (which was, probably, more of an illusion of control). That said, I agree that most of them were dicks. I heard Manwe compared to Zeus once, and I thought, “yep, that sounds pretty accurate.”

    Ulmo seems to be the only one who really tries to throw in some mini “deus ex machina” moves from time to time, in little ways that aid the cause rather than leading it for them.

    On the subject of Melkor, I interpreted his ranking as meaning that if you were to take raw power and ability and put it on a literal scale, that his would rate the highest. However, as we can see, he is scared of some of his weaker foes (Luthien and Melian, for example). These foes are not physically or “magically” stronger than him, but strength and power is not everything in a fight. Sauron is supposed to be the most powerful creature in Middle Earth at one point, but Tolkien says in a letter that had Gandalf not been sworn from interfering directly, its quite possible he could have beaten Sauron 1:1. I think you did a better job explaining it in your post than I am doing here, though 😛

  2. Katie says:


    Manwe is kind of a dick! I find myself wondering sometimes whether or not Tolkien would have viewed it in that light.

    It’s fascinating how closely the Valar toe the line between being pagan gods and being angels. They’re rather bitchy and fallible along the lines of pagan deities, but there are aspects of them – particularly Sarah’s point about their refusal to meddle in affairs that would too greatly overstep free will – are very much like the Catholic concept of angels that Tolkien would have been familiar with. It’s such an intriguing pair of ideas to collapse together, since pagan gods and angels manage to be so alike and so different at the same time.

    I think your point about the varying facets of power is an interesting one as well. I’d agree that courage (or lack thereof) is an aspect of it, but I think it also has something to do with will. You touched on in a bit when you mentioned Tulkas, and his propensity to live in the present – he’s not the sort for long-term plans or machinations; he has no real desire to dominate. Melkor, even if his physical strength is lacking, derives his might from the fact that his will is strongly pointed in a single direction, and to a certain extent in the works of Tolkien, strong expressions of will seem to manifest themselves into physical realities of power or might. So Melkor is mighty in his long-term plans, because that’s where his will is bent. Tulkas is powerful in fights, because that’s where his is directed. In Lord of the Rings, Sam manages to get by the Watchers, who are presumably much more powerful than him, through what is essentially an act of will (albeit one that gets bolstered by the Phial of Galadriel). On the whole I don’t know if that idea holds up to close scrutiny, but it’s always seemed to me to be important in Tolkien.

  3. Hello indeed! Good to have you comment – sorry it’s taken me so long to notice and reply… (and even more sorry sarah!)

    Sarah, regarding free will: yes, I think that’s a fair point, although they do then go and bring all the elves west to worship them. And it’s also true that they didn’t want to mess the world up while they didn’t know where the Children were hiding, although this smacks a little of a lack of faith in Iluvatar. Interesting you single out Ulmo, though – yes, he does seem the most interfering on most issues, but he’s also the only one who doesn’t want to bring all the elves under Valar rule in Aman.

    Katie: yes, I think you’re right on both issues. The Valar are a god/angel hybrid – sort of, I think, a way to show how the pagan stories about gods could be ‘true’, if misinterpreted, in a world with angels. I think he’s quite succesful in that regard. The idea of the type of power reflecting a type of focus is a very interesting one – I’ll have to think about that more as I read on. And regarding the will: yes, Tolkien often followed the old fairy tale ‘he has the strength of ten because his heart is pure’ thing, and also the ‘supernatural adrenaline rush’ thing whereby enough determination can accomplish anything. I think this ties in to what I was saying about courage, in that it’s in moments of courage – moments where all thought for the future is set aside for the present – that these seemingly impossible feats are accomplished. More generally, however, I think the underlying theme or mechanism is that Tolkien sees the physical world as reflecting the inner spiritual world, rather than vice versa: combat is therefore primarily the clash of two opposing spirits, and although physical considerations are not entirely ignored, it often seems to come down to the greater or more concentrated spirit winning out in the end.

    It’s a curiously romantic sort of vision for a man who fought at the Somme (all but one of his friends from before the War died in the War) – then again, perhaps it’s an understandable reaction.

  4. Katie says:

    It’s funny, I was reading the Life of St. Cuthbert yesterday (an 8th century saint’s life written by Bede) and this same exact issue came up, almost exactly. Cuthbert was known pretty widely for his miracles, and it seems that they nearly always derived from his inner spiritual capacities getting externalized – he “quenched the interior fires of sin” and then is able to pray away a fire destroying a town, etc. It’s a very Christian way of looking at things, I think, that interior transformation eventually gets translated to the external world.

  5. fantasywind says:

    Interestingly enough Tolkien addressed that issue in both his letters and other texts about Middle-earth.

    “…in this ‘mythology’ all the ‘angelic’ powers concerned with this world were capable of many degrees of error and failing, between the absolute Satanic rebellion and evil of Morgoth and his satellite Sauron, and the fainéance of some of the other higher powers or ‘gods’.”

    “If we speak last of the “folly” of Manwe and the weakness and unwariness of the Valar, let us beware how we judge. In the histories, indeed, we may be amazed and grieved to read how (seemingly) Melkor deceived and cozened others, and how even Manwe appears at times almost a simpleton compared with him: as if a kind but unwise father were treating a wayward child who would assuredly in time perceive the error of his ways. Whereas we, looking on and knowing the outcome, see now that Melkor knew well the error of his ways, but was fixed in them by hate and pride beyond return. He could read the mind of Manwe, for the door was open; but his own mind was false and even if the door seemed open, there were doors of iron within closed for ever.

    How otherwise would you have it? Should Manwe and the Valar meet secrecy with subterfuge, treachery with falsehood, lies with more lies? If Melkor would usurp their rights, should they deny his? Can hate overcome hate? Nay, Manwe was wiser; or being ever open to Eru he did His will, which is more than wisdom. He was ever open because he had nothing to conceal, no thought that it was harmful for any to know, if they could comprehend it. Indeed Melkor knew his will without questioning it; and he knew that Manwe was bound by the commands and injunctions of Eru, and would do this or abstain from that in accordance with them, always, even knowing that Melkor would break them as it suited his purpose. Thus the merciless will ever count on mercy, and the liars make use of truth; for if mercy and truth are withheld from the cruel and the lying, they have ceased to be honoured.

    Manwe could not by duress attempt to compel Melkor to reveal his thought and purposes, or (if he used words) to speak the truth. If he spoke and said: this is true, he must be believed until proved false; if he said: this I will do, as you bid, he must be allowed the opportunity to fulfill his promise.”

    Fascinating isn’t it?

  6. fantasywind says:

    Additional fragment that is also nice to bring up, concerning the release of Melkor from prison after he was captured in Battle of the Powers:

    “The release was according to the promise of Manwe. If Manwe had broken this promise for his own purposes, even though still intending “good”, he would have taken a step upon the paths of Melkor. That is a perilous step. In that hour and act he would have ceased to be the vice-gerent of the One, becoming but a king who takes advantage over a rival whom he has conquered by force. Would we then have the sorrows that indeed befell; or would we have the Elder King lose his honour, and so pass, maybe, to a world rent between two proud lords striving for the throne? Of this we may be sure, we children of small strength: any one of the Valar might have taken the paths of Melkor and become like him: one was enough.”

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