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Why the Silmarillion?

When I planned a paper around J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythology and told my professor that I wanted to use The Silmarillion as a source, his reaction was one of confusion. Why would I need to use The Silmarillion? Wasn’t The Lord of the Rings enough?

Note to any Tolkien lovers who are about to rise up in arms. This professor is no idiot (some professors are). He likes good literature. He also did not have a prejudice against fantasy as such; in fact, he was quite familiar with The Silmarillion. He just didn’t see the point.

He’s not alone. While Tolkien’s more devoted admirers consider anyone who does not appreciate The Silmarillion a “fake fan,” many of the accused would insist they aren’t fake fans. They are fair-weather fans. And fair weather is a good thing. The sun is nice. Also puffy white clouds, and birds that chirp happily.

So. Paper aside, is The Silmarillion really that important? A short Q&A for the uninitiated might help:

What is The Silmarillion about?

The Silmarillion is the history of Middle Earth up until the beginning of the Fourth Age. It starts out with a creation myth and ends up in heroic legend and, in places, history. It is from an Elvish perspective and mostly concerns events related to the Elves, with the exception of a few humans who became involved in Elvish affairs. Most of those humans are ancestors of Aragorn and Elrond. (Yes, Elrond is in here. So is his twin brother. So are Galadriel and her brother, Finrod.)

Did J.R.R. Tolkien think I should read it?

In a word: yes. Although The Silmarillion as we know it was not published until after his death, Tolkien hoped to publish an earlier version along with The Lord of the Rings. His publishers refused, but Tolkien’s letters reveal that he often had to dip into Silmarillion material in order to answer the questions of people who wrote him. To really understand some things in The Lord of the Rings, you have to know more about the Elves. And you can only find that in The Silmarillion.

Isn’t The Silmarillion boring?

No. But you have to understand how to approach it. A lot of people come to The Silmarillion expecting a second Lord of the Rings. So they end up disappointed. The Silmarillion simply cannot be read as an adventure story. It isn’t one. But if you start out realizing that you are reading a book of mythology, then your perspective changes. Understand what you are getting into and don’t try to rush your reading. Good mythology is meant to linger around in your head.

I feel like I understand The Lord of the Rings. Are there any other reasons to read The Silmarillion?

Yes. If you are into mythology, Tolkien’s mythology is a delight for its own sake. But it also shows the complexity of human (and Elven) nature even more than The Lord of the Rings. Not all Elves are good, and some of the Elves are only good sometimes. Young Elrond and his twin brother are raised by the man who attacked their settlement and kidnapped them. They even have a good relationship. And that’s only the beginning.

I still don’t like The Silmarillion….

Okay. Just so long as you understand why you don’t like it. Mythology isn’t for everyone, and not everyone likes every mythology. That’s fine. But understand—The Silmarillion is mythology. It’s not a second Lord of the Rings. And some of us prefer it that way.

Is there a more interesting book that includes some of the stories from The Silmarillion?

Well, for a general overview, there’s this video. But your best bet, for a real taste, is to try The Children of Húrin. While it’s more depressing than The Silmarillion considered as a whole, it reads more like The Lord of the Rings. It covers the story of Túrin Turambar, which appears more briefly (and with a few conflicting details) in The Silmarillion. If you like flawed heroes and evil dragons, it’s the place to go.

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Posted by on December 22, 2014 in Fantasy

 

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What’s with All the Stupid Fantasy?

I recently picked up a book about why manners are important. That may have been the title; I can’t remember now. It was sold in a shopping complex where about the only thing I could afford was a sandwich. Which was all I wanted, fortunately. But I did page through the book. It was exactly what it said, and I could appreciate most of it, even though etiquette was always my sister’s hobby, not mine. But one section gave me pause.

The author evidently loves novels of manners because she likes realistic characters who have to work through their flaws and mature. So far, so good. But she finds the current taste for fantasy disturbing. Imagine, she says, a fourteen-year-old girl who reads fantasy exclusively. Most of the time she reads stupid, caricatured descriptions of people who like to swing swords around. What little good fantasy she reads involves black and white moral dilemmas with characters so elevated that they are unrelatable and teach little about how to live in the real world. (I can only assume the author was thinking of Tolkien.)

I sympathize with some of the author’s complaints. Although I consider fantasy my favorite genre of literature, I actually do not read it very often. I don’t like the stupid characters, either. Especially the warrior elf queens who feel like they were invented to prove that women can be tough. And there are other problems with fantasy stories beyond those that might irritate a Jane Austen fan.

C.S. Lewis complained about people who wrote “science fiction” stories with perfectly ordinary plots—spy-stories, romances, and so forth—which have nothing to distinguish them as fantastic but the unusual setting. There are still a lot of stories like that. Whatever fantastic elements are there feel arbitrary. The wonder and sense of strangeness are missing. If you read fantasy for “otherness,” then the pickings are very slim.

I’m not going to comment on the author’s shallow interpretation of Tolkien except to say that if she thinks Boromir, Denathor, and Saruman fit neatly into black-and-white categories, she hasn’t been reading carefully. And The Silmarillion includes characters even more complex than those in The Lord of the Rings—if complex is what she really wants. (Sometimes I think that what people mean when they object to “black and white” characterization is that they don’t like reading about a world where a clear good and a clear evil exist, even if both are complex. But I would say, with Tolkien, that the real world is like that. Good and evil may be complex, but no one will be talking about shades of gray at the Last Judgment.) As for relatable, I think that in some ways Tolkien’s characters are more relatable than “realistic” ones. Frodo is an Everyman—as is Gollum. Archetypes are relatable precisely because they are archetypes. And archetypes can be complex.

The truth, I think, is less that fantasy characters are not relatable and more that the author could not relate well to fantasy characters. Well—that’s fine. Everyone has a favorite genre. I would rather relate to Frodo, or Faramir, than to Elizabeth Bennett. (In the past, I have even tried to deal with difficult people by trying to imagine them as Gollums, who, if evil, are also pathetic and in need of compassion.) It’s a personal preference. People who like good fantasy (scarce as that is) are not inferior to people who like good novels of manners (and I’m sure there are bad ones). It’s a difference in kind of taste, not necessarily quality.

But I recently re-read J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories,” and it brought another problem into view. Tolkien believed that fairy stories were the hardest form of literature in which to write. To produce something that attempts to show what reality is really like, while simultaneously rearranging that reality, is extremely difficult. Thus, someone attempting a novel of manners has an immediate advantage over someone attempting a fantasy. In Tolkien’s words:

Fantasy has also an essential drawback: it is difficult to achieve. Fantasy may be, as I think, not less but more sub-creative; but at any rate it is found in practice that “the inner consistency of reality” is more difficult to produce, the more unlike are the images and the rearrangements of primary material to the actual arrangements of the Primary World. It is easier to produce this kind of “reality” with more “sober” material. Fantasy thus, too often, remains undeveloped; it is and has been used frivolously, or only half-seriously, or merely for decoration: it remains merely “fanciful.” Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it. But that is not enough—though it may already be a more potent thing than many a “thumbnail sketch” or “transcript of life” that receives literary praise.

To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.

Another potential misunderstanding comes because, over the course of the last century, literature has grown more and more like drama. “Show, don’t tell” is the instruction I was given when I took a creative writing course in college. It works well—for realistic fiction. In fantasy, things don’t work quite the same way. My English professor warned our class, “Showing is not always superior to telling.” She was right. Of course, a fantasy can tell too much, but the point is this—realistic fiction and drama may be able to grow together, but drama and fantasy have no such luck. Even modern fantasy movies, with all their special effects, cannot exactly reproduce the feeling of “otherness” that a good fantasy story creates. I like The Lord of the Rings films, with a few reservations, but I don’t go to them for “otherness.” To fully appreciate the Elves, and Lothlorien in particular, you need the books.

Fantasy is hard to write. Flannery O’Connor once remarked that so many people had learned to write a “competent” short story, that the short story was in danger of dying of competence. Fantasy has no such problem. And your creative writing class may not help you—“show, don’t tell” injunctions only go so far.

If you love novels of manners, then go read them—by all means. Beyond reading a few fantasy classics, most works in the genre aren’t worth your time. But don’t blast the genre. Competent fantasy is harder to write than competent realistic fiction. Keep fourteen-year-olds away from the warrior elf queens, please. But introduce them to the good modern authors of imaginative fiction: Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engel, Ray Bradbury. And if they run out, try going back in time to Beowulf. Or The Kalevala. Or The Niebelungenlied.

Jane Austen would be okay, too.

 
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Posted by on August 12, 2014 in Fantasy

 

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The Hobbit Movie (and Other Psychological Disturbances)

The Hobbit Film: 13 Dwarves

DSM 5, the American Psychological Association’s new manual, is coming out in the near future, and a surprising last-minute change has been reported. Psychologists have added a new category, broadly labeled “literary disorders.” And apparently the first and largest subcategory has been titled “Severe Tolkien Inundation Syndrome (STIS).”

STIS is associated with the following symptoms:

  • Repeatedly reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, particularly The Lord of the Rings
  • Reading any of Tolkien’s works but The Lord of the Rings and/or The Hobbit
  • Memorizing Tolkien’s poetry
  • Repeatedly watching The Lord of the Rings movies
  • Attending the midnight showing of The Hobbit
  • Hating The Lord of the Rings and/or The Hobbit movies for being too “inaccurate”
  • Ranting about “what Peter Jackson did to Faramir”

In teenage females, STIS can be accompanied by temporary Orlando Bloom obsession, which may eventually be followed by permanent hatred of Orlando Bloom. STIS is also associated with depression, largely initiated by the departure of the Elves.

Well—that isn’t quite accurate. Psychologists haven’t actually labeled STIS as a disorder (yet), although I expect at least some of them find it disturbing. Personally, I love Tolkien. And I show some of the signs of STIS. But my ability to quote “The Fall of Gil-galad” from memory doesn’t quite match up to a real Tolkien obsession. Enter my teenage brothers.

The younger of the two has what amounts to a level 10 Tolkien obsession. As in, that’s what he wants to talk about at least 50% of the time. Unfortunately he has a very unique way of interpreting The Lord of the Rings. He says that the Balrog is his favorite character and wishes that Frodo had turned into a wraith so he could destroy Rivendell. He is also the one who managed to get the Twin Towers confused with The Two Towers. He’s reading The Silmarillion right now, and that seems to have cooled him down. But I’m taking him to see The Hobbit when it comes out, and my mom fears that she’ll hear about nothing but Tolkien until long after Christmas.

The older one doesn’t have quite the obsession with all things Tolkien that his younger brother does, but he remembers more from the movies and has a tendency to quote them at inopportune times. I can’t even safely threaten to kill him any more. His latest retort: “You would die before your stroke fell.” (For those who haven’t memorized the movie, that’s a quote from Legolas in The Two Towers.) He also makes regular use of Gandalf’s opening statements: “A sister is always late. She arrives precisely when she intends to…. A brother is never late. He arrives precisely when he intends to.”

That’s when I redirect my attention to the younger brother, who starts talking about how he likes the orcs from Moria best. I suppose I should feel some guilt for his situation, since I was the one who started it all by reading him The Hobbit. So far I don’t feel a lot of guilt, although sometimes I do feel like fleeing to another room and shutting the door.

And then, afterwards, putting a warning sign on his door. Something like “One does not simply walk into Mordor.”

 
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Posted by on December 13, 2012 in Fantasy, Humor

 

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Myths and Middle Earth

I have a habit–whether bad or good, I don’t know–of completely reading everything I decide to read completely. That might sound like an obvious thing to do, but sometimes doing it can be less than helpful. For example, I read C.S. Lewis’s Medieval and Renaissance Literature in its entirety–including the parts of which I could make little sense, as I am not an English professor and do not speak Italian. “Imagery in the Last Eleven Cantos of Dante’s ‘Comedy'” wasn’te very helpful, particularly since the Italian parts were not translated. But I had requested the book as a gift and wanted to say I’d read all of it, even if I did not understand what I read.

I did a similar thing after being given J.R.R. Tolkien’s most recently published book (courtesy of his son Christopher)–The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun. The focus of the book is Tolkien’s poetic retellings of the Norse legends about Sigurd, Brynhild, Gudrun, Gunnar, and others who interacted with them. But to thoroughly explain some of the unfamiliar details of the legends, the book includes extensive commentary sections (longer than the poems themselves). Needless to say, I read the commentaries. I doubt that I’ll read them again in their entirety, but they were certainly helpful–much more so than skimming Dante’s untranslated Italian.

Not only do the commentaries give mythological details, they also adddress how certain portions of the mythologies became part of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. And even without the commentary sections, it is difficult not to hear the echoes of Middle Earth. The portion about Sigmund, who lived as a smith in the woods, and his evil son Sinfjötli brings to mind Eöl the Dark Elf and his son Maeglin in The Silmarillion. And when Gunnar, Högni and the other Niflungs are trapped while fighting the Huns, it calls up thoughts of the Mines of Moria. Sigurd & Gudrun offers a brief look into the just what myths were refashioned into the stories about Middle Earth.

The first poem of the book starts at the very beginning of Norse mythology–the creation of the world.

The Great Gods then
began their toil,
the wondrous world
they well builded.
From South the Sun
from seas rising
gleamed down on grass
green at morning.

Poems then describe Sigurd’s birth, his slaying of Fafnir the dragon, and his meeting Brynhild the Valkyrie for the first time. But soon Sigurd’s life begins to go wrong. He marries Gudrun by accident, and Brynhild, wed to Gudrun’s brother because of an unwise oath, jealously orchestrates Sigurd’s death. Gudrun’s world collapses–she is married to Atli (modeled after Attila the Hun), and she kills him and their sons after he kills her brothers. Put like that, the story sounds like a bad soap opera, but Tolkien preserves the grim tone of the original Norse myths. Tolkien elicits some pity for Gudrun, but the main emotions are anger and a harsh laughter. The story is deadly serious, not melodramatic. This is a world where women do not cry. (They prefer killing their husbands.)

The resemblance between Tolkien’s Norse world and Middle Earth is fascinating. It usually is difficult to trace the development of a story in the writer’s mind. Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis, for example, wrote in Of Other Worlds that his fiction was based largely on pictures that had appeared in his head. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe began with a picture of a faun in a snowy forest, umbrella in hand, that he had first thought of when he was sixteen. Tracing the development of Tolkien’s personal mythology, while complicated, is at least possible, while tracing the development of pictures in Lewis’s head is not. People do not generally talk or write a great deal about the pictures in their heads. But people do talk and write about mythology, especially if it is closely tied to their career, as it was to Tolkien’s.

The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrun is yet another reason for me to appreciate Christopher Tolkien. Without him, these wonderful pieces would never have been published. Tolkien’s poems are fascinating in their own right, and the commentary sections, however long, are helpful. But anyone interested in Tolkien’s fantasy writings should, for their own sake, be familiar with this book. Reading Sigurd & Gudrun is a good introduction to the mythological part of Tolkien’s mind, without which there would have been no Middle Earth.

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2012 in Mythology

 

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