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So it begins. Welcome to my Silmarillion read-through! I realized too late that yesterday was Tolkien's birthday and therefore a perfect day to start posting, but what can you do? The beauty of the world, as we will learn approximately one billion times in the course of this book, is marred; all love is mingled with grief, and grows perhaps the greater for it. So in a way, missing Tolkien's birthday is the best tribute I could pay to Tolkien's vision. In a way.

My background knowledge: I read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings a bunch of times as a child and as an adult; I've seen all the film adaptations (and read that partial description of John Boorman's film treatment, which I am still a little sad does not exist), I've read some parts of the Silmarillion, but most of my knowledge of it comes from having married one of the world's most earnest Tolkien fans. This is kind of a two-hearted river in terms of whether or not I know what to expect: I've heard a lot about at least some of these stories, but I haven't necessarily managed to keep it all straight, and what I've heard is also hopelessly mixed in with a bunch of other stuff from e.g. Lost Tales Vol. 81: 6000 Versions of What Happened To the Moon. I've also read The Children of Hurin, a novel-length tale set during one of the time periods covered in the Silmarillion. It's a depressing death-fest that also features a talking dragon.

What I'm looking forward to

* I really like Luthien! I'm looking forward to reading her story, which includes giant dogs both good and bad, disguising yourself as a bat, song battles, death, and a temporarily successful Orpheus venture

* I also love giant spiders who just want to eat everything on earth, and I am 100% sure this book is going to deliver.

* I'm hoping for some stories about or set in Angmar! The Witch-King of Angmar is one of my favorite characters about whom I know almost nothing, and I was ridiculously happy to get that tiny glimpse of the borders of the old kingdom in BOFA.

* Elves being terrible

* Humans being terrible

* at some point someone gets killed by a mountain falling on them?

* Dwarves, making things and being the best. Maybe some stories set in the Iron Hills or one of the other Dwarf strongholds?

* Lots and lots of dragons, cities being destroyed, kingdoms of the far north, maybe some Galadriel backstory, worldbuilding about which I have mixed feelings, Sauron as the leader of a successful religious cult, someone turns into a bird, Melkor misses the point forever and ever, Numenor is a mess and needs to step way the hell back, probably some depressing death-fests ahead.

* I think the wizards are not actually in this book (very much? at all?), because they turn up in the Third Age, but it would be great to see a little of Gandalf's youth in the West that is forgotten.

What am I missing? Please feel free to add to the anticipation pile, but please no major spoilers (if there are any).

My edition of The Silmarillion has two introductions, but I'm skipping both for now and jumping straight into the first chapter, the Ainulindale:

But when the Valar entered into Ea they were at first astounded and at a loss, for it was as if naught was yet made which they had seen in a vision, and all was but on point to begin and yet unshaped, and it was dark. For the Great Music had been but the growth and flowering of thought in the Timeless Halls, and the Vision only a foreshowing; but now they had entered at the beginning of Time, and the Valar percieved that the World had been but foreshadowed and foresung, and they must achieve it.

It's a creation myth, because why not begin at the beginning? I like creation myths. (The Dwarves have their own and it's my favorite, but I'm not sure if it actually appears in this book or elsewhere). This one combines a lot of elements I like with things I'm not as keen on. I don't like omniscient deities at all, but Eru's omniscience is mitigated a little bit by his hands-off approach, and in a way I feel like you could say he's living by the lesson Melkor fails to learn, which is that in order to create something real, you have to be willing to let it go. I'm not sure that's what Tolkien would say, but let's go with it for now.

The story so far: Eru, in Arda called Iluvatar, gives life and the power of making to the offspring of his thought, and teaches them to sing. They sing their own songs and then they sing together on the theme of world-making, and that's how the world got its shape.

Melkor is one of these singers. He wants to propound his own theme, and to force everyone to join in with him, and to make his own things and have power over them. I can sympathize with him on the first and third points but not the second and fourth. His stubborn refusal to improvise according to the rules of the jazz combo introduces discord into the world-song*, which is ultimately responsible for death and disease, but also for some cool things like snow and giant spiders. Tolkien's favorite theme of "It's sad, but sadness makes it even more beautiful than if it were happy," has its first outing here, both in the way the music develops in response to the discord, and in how discord shapes the world in unexpected ways.

Melkor has a lot of motives at once, which is part of what keeps this story interesting. He has his own thoughts, conceived in solitude and strange, which is an instant sympathy booster for me. I mean, of course he does! He's been trying to figure things out this whole time** and no one else understands his struggles. And he wants to propound his own damn theme, which is the exact reason I failed ballet as a kid. Who doesn't love a tone-deaf rebel (except everyone else in the class who is actually trying to learn something)?

He's also worried that Iluvatar/Eru "took no thought for the Void;" he's "impatient of its emptiness" and wants to fill it up with something cool NOW. Which is also an understandable motive and maybe an understandably mistaken one at the same time, since in this story creation seems to depend on the interactions of multiple actors responding individually to a common theme. Could Eru make a world on his own, without first thinking a bunch of sub-creators into existence? Maybe, but he doesn't do it that way, and Melkor wants to do it that way and messes everything up, and maybe that's important.

My first impression of the Ainulindale is that it's a very Elvish creation story reflecting how the Elves tend to understand the world: fundamentally hierarchical, irreparably marred, beautifully sad, and made of music. The style here is very High Tolkien -- I'm not sure if "epic" is the correct word, since it's a bit more cerebral and hymnlike than that word suggests. It's a style that is hard to pull off and that Tolkien is way better at than a lot of people, but it's not quite my favorite -- I'm definitely going to miss the hobbit perspective here, though I am already reconciled to the fact that no one is ever going to interrupt the poetry with perfectly sensible questions about breakfast. Elves are all right, and I'm looking forward to spending some time with them from another angle. Still, I think what I'd most like to read right now are some hobbit creation stories. I bet they'd be really fun.

*In my household, Melkor's music in the Ainulindale has been associated, probably unfairly, with the soundtrack to Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings: "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." I think the soundtrack to the Rankin-Bass Return of the King is ultimately a lot worse, though probably less suited to Melkor's tastes.

**Like Gollum, in a way? Melkor tears around through the Void hoping to find the Flame Imperishable, but the Flame Imperishable doesn't work that way, and all he finds in the Void is void and his own dissatisfaction; Gollum believes there must be tremendous secrets in the roots of the mountains, in the dark places under the earth, but there's nothing there worth finding out and how could he even use it for blackmail if there were? They both isolate themselves completely in order to hunt down something they've misunderstood the significance of and end up trapped in a misery feedback loop somewhere in the dark.

Well, my thoughts are predictably scattered, and I didn't say anything at all about the Children of Iluvatar, who are The Most Important Part (maybe). Let's just pretend that I'm likely to get better at this as I go along!

I may come back to the Ainulindale later on, but for now I'm just going to move on to Part 2: Valaquenta. It's about the same length as the Ainulindale, but depending on how dense it is, I might break it up into two posts.

In the meantime, tell me all your thoughts on Eru, or point out important things I missed, or tell me where I can find some Hobbit mythology.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 5th, 2015 12:27 am (UTC)
I'm afraid you aren't going to find any hobbit-sense in The Silmarillion, but I hope you enjoy it!

I am a sufficiently hard-core Tolkien fan that, after seeing what he did to Fellowship, I have refused ever to see the other Jackson films, which I regard as obscenely expensive fanfic.

I like your assessment of the soundtracks. ;)
Jan. 5th, 2015 12:56 am (UTC)
Heh. I don't think I'm that hard-core about anything -- plus, nerd-raging about the shortcomings of various Tolkien film projects is one of my love languages, so I enjoyed the Jackson films as much for their terrible decisions as for their beautiful costume design.

Have you seen Bakshi's valiant effort? It's. . . not that valiant, but I have a weird soft spot for it.
Jan. 5th, 2015 04:14 am (UTC)
*waves cane at kids on lawn* I was already a fan when the Bakshi film came out -- in fact, I'm still rather fond of Wizards, the work that gave him to street cred to make his attempt. Sigh. We were so enthusiastic and hopeful about it. It was valiant for its time, and contains many useful lessons for the attentive.

The Rankin-Bass Hobbit and ROTK -- the best thing about them is that they were so horrible that they killed Tolkien as movie source material for many, many years afterwards.

You know, I've been regarding the locations as the best part of the Jackson films, along with the cinematography and some of the casting, but you're absolutely right about the costume design! So at least the screencaps are pretty.

BTW: an observation on the omniscient deity. Tolkien was nominally Christian, and I think he felt obliged to put Just One Dude at the top of his otherwise pantheistic world -- but after Ainulindalë, Ilùvatar is out of the picture, except for one blink-and-miss-it moment, for the rest of the history of Middle-Earth. Instead, you have the Valar, who know some of what's going to happen (because they sang it) but not all (because none of the singers can ever hear all the music).

I just hit a passage in Tolkien's essay on fairy stories in which he talks about the importance of the storyteller as -- his term -- "sub-creator". I hadn't connected this with Ainulindalë, but yup, there it is!
Jan. 5th, 2015 07:03 am (UTC)
Oh! Did you go to the theater not knowing it ended with the Battle of Helm's Deep, or had you been forewarned? I've heard stories. . .

I've never seen Wizards, but like a lot of things about Bakshi's version -- I think about half the character designs are pretty good, though the animation gives me a headache -- too many tiny movements magnified. The background paintings are really cool and distinctive, and I like a lot of the weird altered-consciousness ringwraith stuff in general. It doesn't work very well for me, as either a film or an adaptation, but Bakshi was attempting something interesting, which is more than you can say for the Rankin Bass ROTK team.

I do have some love for the Rankin-Bass Hobbit, though. I understand why purists hate it, but it was the first Tolkien thing I ever encountered -- really the first non-Disney fantasy story -- and Thorin's death turned me inside-out, and the scene where Bilbo climbs to the top of the tree canopy and sees nothing but trees and black butterflies stretching out to the horizon changed me just as it changed Bilbo, even if Glen Yarborough was warbling ceaselessly over the whole thing (I didn't know yet that "The Greatest Adventure" was the bane of every Tolkien fan's existence).

I keep starting sentences about Tolkien and religion and omniscience and the sub-creator thing, but they're all a mess, so I'll save it for later.
Jan. 5th, 2015 07:19 pm (UTC)
Nobody knew, at first, that Bakshi had ended with (or, rather, stopped at) Helm's Deep -- the film had only just opened! (Pre-internet, rumours and spoilers were harder to find, and the mainstream press had no interest in stupid little fantasy cartoons, so no media coverage.) The assumption (IIRC) was that Bakshi intended to do a second film, but I think he never got financing for it. Eventually, Rankin-Bass produced their abortion in its place, and that was that.

I barely remember the Rankin-Bass Hobbit -- I do remember summing it up at the time as "The goblins looked like trolls, and the elves looked like goblins and talked like Nazis." I have no memory at all of "The Greatest Adventure", probably because the "Where There's a Whip" atrocity in ROTK was so traumatizing as to kill random brain cells in that section of my memory. (Although I did end up imagining that, at the end of every column of Orc soldiery anywhere in their world, there was a very small orc with a very large bass guitar totally rocking it, baby.)

I still enjoy Wizards, although it's certainly very dated now! It was an amazing cutting-edge work at the time, and was especially extraordinary because of being pretty much anti-Disney. I became violently allergic to Disnification at a quite young age.
Jan. 5th, 2015 02:31 am (UTC)
I have read the Silmarillion before, but I was really young and struggled a lot with it (I think I was 16 at the most, and maybe several years younger), so I'm looking forward to seeing what I think of it now. I just wish I had thought of this plan a few days ago, as I was at my parents' for Christmas and could have picked up my old copy! Ah, well.

I love your description of the problem as "His stubborn refusal to improvise according to the rules of the jazz combo", hee! And now I too am really curious about Hobbit creation myths! It had never occurred to me before to wonder what they're like.
Jan. 5th, 2015 07:06 am (UTC)
Friendly stars, giant mushrooms, lots of genealogy, plenty of bright creeks and the richest soil ever, maybe some dairy animals? I'm not sure what Hobbit creation myths would be like, honestly, but I think I'd probably like them.

I'm glad you're reading along! I look forward to hearing what you think.
Jan. 5th, 2015 09:41 pm (UTC)
Hee, that sounds pretty accurate to me!
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )


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