Researching and Speculating on Tolkien
As I have often remarked on this blog, one of the great things about Tolkien’s works is the large number of mysteries and questions he has left unanswered; mysteries that can be picked up by any reader and researched to their heart’s content: looking for clues and cross-referencing over the thousands of pages of Middle-earth material, trying to dig up further information.
You may have read The Silmarillion numerous times and yet, with every new read, you discover something new. I know this because it happens to me. It has happened to me right now as I’m beginning my 10th or 11th re-read of the book and came across the oft forgotten character of Salmar.
Unless you’ve got a pretty formidable memory, or you have recently looked up information on this character, you’ll find it hard to place him within the Tolkien’s mythology.
The truth of the matter is that, when it comes to the word “Salmar”, you’re literally stuck with a single sentence reference.
So, how do we find out more about this character? Well, here are some tips of how I usually conduct such a process …
1. Switch-off the Internet … Use the books!
There is no greater satisfaction than sifting through the pages of a physical book to reach the index at the back, and then sift back to the appropriate page. Immerse yourself in the trance-inducing scent of the pages and embark on a journey of discovery.
That, or just type your keyword on Google and click the first link that appears on screen … boring!
There’s a wealth of useful information online, but there’s no better way than personally diving into the original sources and uncovering details yourself.
So stop what you’re doing and head to your bookshelf with all your Tolkien books (then come back here to read step two).
2. Consult your book index
Tolkien, both father and son, have gifted us with an index for every one of their major Middle-earth books. This helps in locating the pages where a particular character, place or object has been mentioned.
So if we’re currently looking up the character of Salmar, let’s grab our copy of The Silmarillion and find the name in the index under the letter ’S’. Here we find the following description:
Hmmm … good start. So we’ve established that Salmar is a Maia under the service of the Vala Ulmo. We’re also given the page in which he’s mentioned, so let’s go back and outline the context within the story.
Our search to the original page, Chapter 1 ‘Of the Beginning of Days’, provides scarce additional details:
Is this all we can uncover?
3. Discover the Etymology
Anything that has to do with names or specific words in Tolkien’s world must, I repeat (with emphasis), MUST have an etymological root that will expand, no matter how slightly, a blurry background of information.
Any one of his readers will know that Tolkien wrote these stories on a solid foundation of two Elvish languages: Quenya and Sindarin. So you can be certain that what you’re looking for has been constructed using either of these two.
The Silmarillion provides a fairly comprehensive (if limited) vocabulary on the Quenya and Sindarin words used in the book. Let’s split up “Salmar” into two – “Sal” and “mar” – and have a look at what we’re able to find.
A quick search yields no results. Undaunted, we consider for a moment any other sources for the Elvish language.
Ah yes, the fifth volume in ‘The History of Middle-earth’, The Lost Road and Other Writings, contains a rather extensive list of words. Let’s have a look there.
Nothing. No matter, there’s an appendix of names in The Book of Lost Tales: Part I. Let’s head over to that book.
It would seem that our pursuit for this forgotten character is far from over.
4. Widen your search (look for other books)
I’ve said this many times. One of the joys of the Middle-earth mythology is the intricate detail Professor Tolkien went through in writing these stories. This allows you to find a particular character from one book, and trace them back to another work: expanding on their timelines, relatives, etc.
So if you find yourself looking up information on something specific, reach out for other Tolkien books nearby.
We’ve been looking at Salmar, a character associated with The Silmarillion. What other works are closely associated with it? We have the Unfinished Tales: expanding on some of the stories found in The Silmarillion, and the two-volume The Book of Lost Tales, with the earliest writings of the mythology.
Starting with the less promising of the two, we look for the index in the Unfinished Tales. As expected, no results.
We then proceed to the first volume of The Book of Lost Tales and look for “Salmar” in the index. Success!
Now, many of the writings found in ‘The History of Middle-earth’ books, especially The Book of Lost Tales, contain the earliest drafts and sketches of Tolkien’s mythology. Many of the ideas written down were ultimately revised and are significantly altered in their finished, published form. Therefore, any information relating to Salmar may not be truly part of the established canon. Nevertheless, we can gleam the author’s thoughts of the character, and if they match with what we have in the published version, we can establish some interesting details.
Let us now find some of the pages referenced in the index. These will helps us to expand on the character of Salmar. In the chapter ‘The Coming of the Valar’, we find a specific reference.
Finally, considering that the history of writing The Silmarillion takes place over two books in ‘The History of Middle-earth’ series, we need to take a look at Part 2 of The Book of Lost Tales. Here, sure enough, is a note made by Christopher Tolkien.
So we’ve pretty much exhausted our searches. There are other bits and fragments of information scattered here and there, but they are too obscure or offer similar text to the ones found in The Silmarillion.
This is were speculations begin.
5. Speculation is fun (but be cautious)!
The fact that “Salmar” made it to the published form of The Silmarillion, with its connection to “harp-playing” and “lyres”, it’s not too difficult to imagine the validity of the early sketches found in The Book of Lost Tales that describe the Maia (originally a Vala) playing his musical instruments in Valmar.
It’s great to speculate and make connections, thinking of ‘what ifs’ and ‘why nots’, but it is also important not to overdo it so much so that the line between what is canon and what isn’t is crossed.
In addition, don’t forget to back up any of your own hypothesis as much as possible. See what other people have written about the subject and your own research. Can you better it? In what way does it improve on the thoughts of other readers?
At this point, I might speculate that Salmar, unlike the Maia Ossë – who was also one of Ulmo’s companions, in charge of the Hither Lands’ coastal regions – may well have been in Valmar during the events of The Silmarillion.
Which makes me wonder … Are there any references in the chapters of The Silmarillion that specifically refer to harps in Valinor? And what about that “twin-brother” of his, does he exist in the published version of the mythology and, if so, who is he?
Let me go back and check …
And the search begins anew.
6. Have fun!
Undoubtedly, this is the most important tip.
No matter how crazy you think your theory is, go for it. Delve deep into your Tolkien library and look for every scrap of reference, page, phrase and genealogy tree you can find and keep at it. Cross-reference with other books and look for the etymological root. Keep searching further and further until you’ve unearthed all that is possible.