TTRT: The Silmarillion

Reading stick figure man

Ainulindalë and Valaquenta

So begins the first post from the TTRT series (Tolkien Trio Reading Tradition).

As stated last week, we’ll be going through Tolkien’s works, chapter-by-chapter, starting with The Silmarillion.

(Naturally, stick-figure drawings will help me illustrate the point) 

Today we’ll be looking at both Ainulindalë and Valaquenta. Note, these are not chapters but rather two shorter works that make up the collection known as ‘The Silmarillion’.

Newcomers to this book, and veteran readers who haven’t yet done so, are strongly urged to read through the Foreword, Preface and (most importantly) Tolkien’s letter to Milton Waldman – available in any second edition copy of The Silmarillion.

Said letter is a fantastic piece of writing that offers its readers a fragment of the author’s thoughts and aspirations behind his entire fantasy world.

It’s an honest account that provides a clear framework to the narratives from The Silmarillion, right through The Lord of the Rings.

Suffice to say there are some minor story spoilers but skip this letter at your own risk.

Now, onto the complex stuff …

Ainulindalë (The Music of the Ainur)

In my opinion the most thrilling, imaginative, and fine piece of writing about the Creation of the world: topping, by a clear mile, any Book of Genesis or other. The Music of the Ainur

The Music of the Ainur

Eru Ilúvatar (the one true God) proclaims a theme to the Ainur (angelic spirits) upon which to orchestrate a grand piece of music and thereby fill the void that exists outside the heavenly abode.

As the Ainur lift their voices in a vast chorus of sheer beauty and perfection – shaping the history of the world – everything that will ever be is weaved in one grand tapestry.

The Ainur work in unison to craft the music to Ilúvatar’s satisfaction, but among them resides the most powerful Ainu, Melkor, who begins to weave his own themes into the whole composition. Melkor’s discord clashes with the rest of the theme: each time forcing the Music to falter and Ilúvatar to initiate another, more perfected theme. Melkor's Discord

Melkor’s Discord

Upon the third theme, Ilúvatar proclaims the words “Eä!” (“Let these things Be”), and the whole universe comes into being through the Music of the Ainur and Melkor’s discord (with all the good and the bad).

The void is filled with Eä (the universe) and within is situated Arda: the world upon which Middle-earth and the whole history of these books takes place.

The mightiest of the Ainur, the Valar, leave their heavenly dwelling to enter Arda and prepare the world for the awakening of the Children of Ilúvatar (the Elves, and later on Men).

Melkor, having now his own thoughts of ambition and supremacy, abandons the others and descends into Arda to set up his own realm. Melkor Trouble

Melkor causes mischief in Arda

The Ainulindalë concludes with the Valar’s struggles to order the world and repair the damages incurred by Melkor – the fallen Vala. Meanwhile, the time appointed for the awakening of the Elves approaches. Favourite quote: 

“And it is said by the Eldar that in water there lives yet the echo of the Music of the Ainur more than inany substance else that is in this Earth…”

What to ponder on:

  • How do you perceive the music in the Music of the Ainur? Is it a literal musical composition or something more abstract and incomprehensible?
  • How important is Melkor’s fall to the whole history of Arda?

***

Valaquenta (History of the Valar)

The second, shorter work in The Silmarillion gives us an account of the Valar and the different orders of the Ainur.

The Valar are the highest and mightiest of the Ainur: sent to the world to help shape and guard it.

Each Vala has a particular safeguarding and overseeing role.

There were 15 Valar originally, but Melkor was no longer regarded as one of them after his fall.

Upon descending into the world they took a visible form – based on the vision of the Elves who were yet to populate it.

Their names and roles are as follows:

The Lords of the Valar

  • Manwë – the King of Arda, in charge of the airs and winds of Arda
  • Aulë – the Smith /  Concerned with the substance of Arda
  • Ulmo– the Lord of Waters
  • Tulkas – the Valiant and the Champion of Valinor
  • Oromë – the Huntsman of the Valar
  • Námo (Mandos) – the Doomsman of the Valar and keeper of the Houses of the Dead
  • Irmo (Lórien) – the master of visions and dreams

The Queens of the Valar

  • Varda – the Lady of the Stars
  • Yavanna – the Fruit-Giver and the the lover of all things that grow in the earth
  • Nienna – the Weeper
  • Estë – the healer of hurts and of weariness
  • Vairë – the Weaver and spouse of Mandos
  • Vána – the Ever-young and spouse of Oromë
  • Nessa – the Dancer and spouse of Tulkas

The Maiar, other spirits who were also Ainur, were less ranked than the Valar, but nonetheless beings of great power and virtue.

With the making of the world, many left Ilúvatar’s dwelling and entered Arda to assist the Valar in their tasks.

However, not all the Maiar had the same intentions.

Melkor and Co

Melkor and Co.

Melkor corrupted many of these spirits into his service and they became his powerful followers: among whom we find Sauron (his mightiest servant) and the Balrogs.

Among those who remained true and loyal to Iluvatar’s cause was Olorin (known better as Gandalf), wisest of all the Maiar. Favourite quote:

“For of the Maiar many were drawn to his splendour in the days of his greatness, and remained in that allegiance down into his darkness;and others he corrupted afterwards to his service with lies and treacherous gifts…

 ***

Feel free to comment, discuss, analyse and share your thoughts (and answers) with us about any aspect of your reading experience.

Next Friday we’ll be looking at the first two chapters of the Quenta Silmarillion: Of the Beginning of Days and Of Aulë and Yavanna.

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24 thoughts on “TTRT: The Silmarillion

  1. This was a wonderful breakdown. I love that the world was created by music. I just imagine the song. I wish they’d make a movie adaptation of this–or better, a television show.

  2. I actually had to take a lot of notes while reading these “chapters”… Mostly the names. I really like Ulmo for some reason… and I totally picture Tulkas as Chris Hemsworth’s Thor Odinson (in Greek attite and minus Mjolnir). 😀

    • Ulmo and Tulkas are definitely favourites of mine. For some reason, I associate Tulkas with Volstagg (or Graham McTavish’s rendition of Dwalin – odd, I know) 🙂

  3. I’ve always found it interesting that Tolkien, a devout Catholic, chose to emphasize that the evil in the world (middle earth, not our world) began with Melkor, and he alone is responsible for it. In Genesis, mankind is responsible for blatantly disobeying God, and while Satan encouraged them to do it, he is not the focal point in the story. In Tolkien’s world, we see men and elves being corrupted to evil by the spirit of Melkor, but it always seems as if they aren’t responsible for it. I guess that is something I wish Professor Tolkien would have investigated deeper. The closest we get to a “fall” story is Feanor, but we never see a story like this for humans.

    I love seeing Tolkien’s worldview in his books. Dr. Brad Birzer wrote a wonderful book about this called “Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth.” Probably the best secondary academic material written about Tolkien and Middle Earth (I consider Christopher Tolkien’s books still primary).

    • In reality, Tolkien’s attribution of Melkor’s malice and pride marring the creation of Arda shows how firm a grasp of theology Tolkien really had. If you read the accounts not only of Genesis but also of Isaiah and Ezekiel about the fall of Lucifer, the Morning Star, the one we now call Satan, the “Accuser of the Brethren,” we see that mankind is not the originator of sin in this world.

      The idea of “Original Sin” is an ideal that man sinned first and thus lost paradise. But as C.S. Lewis writes in his book “Mere Christianity”, sin had already marred the perfection of creation. Lucifer, the angel of light committed the first sin in his pride and his desire to be like God. This pride caused him to fall and from there, the stain of sin has spread. It came next upon man in the garden of Eden, as Adam and Eve succumbed to temptation in a desire to also be like God and have knowledge of all good and evil. God did not create Satan as an evil being, that is counter to God’s nature. God only creates perfect and good. However, God has created man and angel alike with free will to choose good or evil. In this,

      Tolkien has pictured quite perfectly the fall of Melkor in the song of the Aiunur. Eru has not created Melkor to be evil, or his equal of good vs. evil. He is created though with a free will to either follow the cords of good and creation of the world through music, or to in pride desire his own music and creation. Melkor chooses the latter and becomes Morgoth, the dark lord who sets up his dominion on earth. By his corruption and anger against the creation of Eru, he deceives the children of Eru, the elves and men alike, to tempt them into darkness and a belief that power can come from the darkness.

      The Greek for “deceiver” is where we get the word Devil. Morgoth is the fallen Lucifer, choosing to be evil and turn men away from the light of God (Eru in this tale).

      The roots of Christianity that Lewis and Tolkien believed are brilliantly weaved into this origin story of the fantasy world of Arda. We see the true inspiration of God’s word in Tolkien’s writing and while he repeatedly denied that this was allegorical (which I believe is true) his world is a manifestation of the faith and belief in God that he held.

      • Thanks for the thoughtful response, Justin! Yes, Tolkien’s work is certainly drenched in his theology, which I absolutely love, even though I’m a Protestant, and professor Tolkien was a Catholic. I think the fundamental distinction between Lucifer’s fall and the fall of Adam and Eve is that Adam was specifically told by God to not eat the forbidden fruit, yet he did anyways. The Bible doesn’t specifically say that the angels were told not to rebel, although its obviously implied. Sin is disobeying God’s commands, and thus Adam and Eve committed the first sin after the temptation of Satan. For me, to deny that Adam and Eve committed original sin is to deny the rest of the story of redemption, for it is mankind that needs the redemptive power of God, not Satan.

        Sorry, James, for turning this into a theological discussion, but I think it is very much applicable and undeniable, especially in this section of The Silmarillion. I guess my overall point was that, in Tolkien’s mythos, it appears that original “sin” is created by Melkor, not by the elves or humans, and in the Biblical account, the story focuses on the sin of Adam and Eve. We never see original sin in humans in Middle Earth. All we are told is that they are weak and susceptible to the deceit of Melkor. I might be completely wrong on this, but it is certainly a worthwhile discussion.

    • I like your comparisons with the Christian religion, Bryan.

      I guess, as Tolkien stated, all stories – in some form of other – are about a Fall. In The Silmarillion, it is definitely Feanor and the Noldor’s attempt to remove themselves from Valinor. But ultimately, it all occurs due to Melkor’s intervention and his spreading of lies.

      Even Men go through a Fall; even those who did not succumb to Morgoth’s evil in the First Age, eventually turned out to become Numenoreans – and guess what happened to them? 😉

  4. I think my favourite bit is this:
    ‘The one was deep and 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. And it essayed to drown the other music by the violence of its voice, but it seemed that its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern.’
    I feel this passage beautifully expresses the majesty of the world Tolkien created, and is seen throughout his works. Near the end of the Lord Of The Rings, he expresses a similar sentiment as they listen to a minstrel’s song:
    ‘and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.’
    I can’t help feeling it’s something genuinely sacred when I pick up the Silmarillion 🙂

    • Beautiful passage there Ignatius 🙂

      Great catch regarding the minstrel’s song – it really completes a full circle that was set out at the utmost beginning.

      It truly is a magical moment opening up the pages to The Silmarillion. It’s so rich, and deep. Complex and alluring. It’s the foundation of a massive work of art and immeasurable imagination.

  5. This is precisely what I needed — someone to explain things I want to know (which of the Maia is Gandalf) and clarify who I should be paying attention to, listing out names in a real list instead of a cloud of detail and so on. Thank you!

    One question: in the preface letter, Tolkien says “The doom of the Elves is to be immortal…to last while it lasts, never leaving it even when ‘slain’, but returning…” I’m trying to reconcile that in my head with the battles where elves “die.” Does this just mean their “souls” or “essences” go to Valinor, basically? Are we going to get into that later?

    • Hi Hamlette, so glad you found the posts interesting!

      On to your question: Indeed Elves are immortal and although they may be slain in battle, their spirits go to the Halls of Mandos and are eventually reborn.

      A classic example is Glorfindel. The same Glorfindel who is a protagonist in the Fall of Gondolin is the same elf – reborn/reincarnated – who comes to the hobbits’ and Aragorn’s rescue from the Ringwraiths in The Fellowship of the Ring.

      Fascinating stuff! 🙂

  6. I love how Tolkien integrates the music still being able to be heard in the sea. Maybe that’s why it took us so long to take to ships; don’t cross the sea, don’t cross Ulmo?

    • Hmmm who knows, Harrison? But it’s true, that idea of the sound of the waves and the sea being a remnant of the Music of the Ainur is such a wonderful concept. No wonder those sounds are so appealing and relaxing – at least to most of us 🙂

  7. Can anyone interpret this line from Ainulindale for me:

    “And this habitation might seem a little thing to those who consider only the majesty of the Ainur, and not their terrible sharpness; as who should take the whole field of Arda for the foundation of a pillar and so raise it until the cone of its summit were more bitter than a needle; or who consider only the immeasurable vastness of the World, which still the Ainur are shaping, and not the minute precision to which they shape all things therein.”

    It’s about the habitation of the Children of Iluvatar, but I struggle to comprehend what Tolkien was getting at with the whole sharpness thing.

    Also, I didn’t know about the letter to Milton Waldman, so I’m trying to get through that before I move on to the next chapters. Already this task seems daunting…

    • Hang in there Mark! If this is your first time reading through The Silmarillion it will be tough. Ultimately, you don’t need to absorb all the information – save that for future re-reads, when you know the story and just want to focus on the details and the writing.

      As for Milton Waldman’s letter, it would seem note every copy/edition of The Silmarillion has it (though it should). If you’re interested, you can find the letter available online here: http://faculty.smu.edu/bwheeler/tolkien/online_reader/TolkienLetters131.pdf (this is the full version from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien).

      As for the paragraph you quoted, it is more of a symbolical/metaphorical way of representing the complexity and “grand plan” the Ainur are involved in. It is they who know all the intricacies of the world and are still weaving their plans even during the awakening and dwelling of the Children of Iluvatar.

      Hope that makes it a bit better to understand!

      • Thanks James, that is the version of the letter that I found. I did read the Silmarillion once about 15 years ago, and mainly got the general gist of the story. Hopefully I absorb a bit more of it this time though!

  8. Turns out, the theologian St. Bonaventure had a similar idea of creation: “Creation is a song, that God freely desires to sing into the vast spaces of the universe.” My guess is this was part of Tolkien’s inspiration

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