Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Silmarillion

J.R.R. Tolkien

Finished Reading: 08.2009

Being the tale of the entire history of Middle Earth, this narration is painted with broad and lofty strokes. Great expeditions across many leagues of map are described, but how the journeyers camped out or what they ate in the evenings is not within the scope of writing. The places where dwelt many men and elves are often described only as places with singular emotion, such as "The people seemed happy there." Little if anything is said of the architecture of these places outside a few off-hand mentions of great towers, great halls or terrible pits within which you would not want to find yourself. Many a battle is fought on mighty hills and lasted for many long weary days but might be described only as such:

"And there was a great battle and many elves and dwarves were slain."

However, a few times we trip over a node on the Timeline of Middle Earth, and stumble into an interesting situation involving the people and places we find in that age. The glue that holds many disparate stories together is the story of the Silmarils. The Silmarils are three very rare and precious jewels mysteriously created by the Noldorian Elf Feanor, within which is contained the radiance of pure light - the original light of the Two Trees and older are they than even the sun. So sought after are these, that they cause many wars to be fought between good and evil and even wars between good and good (kin-strife or worse). The dark lord Morgoth is ever seeking them and often possesses all three, having their beauty for a time set in his iron crown. Kings are murdered, loves are lost, and greed conquers all. The radiance of the past is increasingly diminished by progressing shadows as evil besets all who desire the infinitely worthy and irreplaceable Silmarils.

A most fascinating aspect of the Silmarillion is that it tells us more of the early origins of the beloved characters from The Lord of the Rings. Did you know that Galadrial is Elrond's mother-in-law? She is also his great great aunt on his father's side. Elrond's great great grandmother was a divine Maia from the original creation of the world, and his great grandfather was a mortal man with only one hand named Beren. Crazy Elrond.

A particularly exciting story tells of when Beren stole a Silmaril from the crown of Morgoth and as his hand was clenched around the sacred jewel, that hand and the jewel were bitten off by a fell beast. Later, the beast was hunted down and destroyed and upon slicing open its belly, there was found within the still clenched hand of Beren and within his grasp the Silmaril, which was regained.

Another important tale is the condensed version of the journeys of Turin son of Hurin, as appears in full in The Children of Hurin. Turin accidentally marries his sister and she becomes pregnant. Neither knows the other is kin, but after slaying a mighty dragon Turin has to deal with his family issues. Upon learning of her fate from the mouth of that very dragon, the sister-wife hurls herself off a mighty cliff and falls to her perilous end. Turin takes his sword and falls upon it, and evil prevails in the land.

An additional interesting story is the Creation of the World, which began by thoughts and singing. The music becomes reality and is then lived out by the creatures of the earth.

Also told is the tale of how Sauron went from run-of-the-mill bad guy to all powerful flaming eyeball in his tall tower. He was a sort of grand vizier to a king of men, and then established his own kingdom before losing his physical body in the drowning deluge of the entire western half of Middle Earth. I'm not surprised he resorted to the safety of a tall tower from which he could keep unblinking watch for further bad weather, rising seas, and newly drawn maps of Middle Earth.

In the end, the whole of The Lord of the Rings, told elsewhere in three volumes and about 1200 pages, is summarized in the last two pages of this book. A lot happens in between those two pages, but that is another story.