Tolkien: The Quenta Silmarillion

ImageThe Tale of the Silmarils introduces readers to many of the themes found in the Lord of the Rings (LOTR): the lust for power, the struggle against an evil lord, the frailty of men (and elves), war, and ultimate redemption. It is altogether a grimmer tale than LOTR but one which enriches any reading of Tolkien’s main works.

The Quenta Silmarillion (QS) raises several questions which are interesting in the philosophy of religion. I say religion deliberately as the QS offers a rather useful view of the construction and development of myth, sacred or otherwise. Obviously Tolkienism is not a religion: His sub-creative sojourn in Faerie is consciously fictional but the creation itself is, I think, in some ways true. More basically, his is also simply the construction of a story, which is how most religions begin. More on this here.

Two philosophical problems present themselves in the QS: free will and theodicy. On free will, the term employed by Tolkien is “doom.” The elves who vow to regain the Silmarils, leave Valinor, and kill their kin at Alqualondë, find themselves under the Doom of Mandos:

Tears unnumbered ye shall shed; and the Valar will fence Valinor against you, and shut you out, so that not even the echo of your lamentation shall pass over the mountains. On the House of Fëanor the wrath of the Valar lieth from the West unto the uttermost East, and upon all that will follow them it shall be laid also. Their Oath shall drive them, and yet betray them, and ever snatch away the very treasures that they have sworn to pursue. To evil end shall all things turn that they begin well; and by treason of kin unto kin, and the fear of treason, shall this come to pass. The Dispossessed shall they be for ever.

This is akin to Original Sin. Not only does it ensure that the Noldor are banished from Eden [Aman] but that they are forever driven by an insatiable lust for the Silmarils. Depravity is inescapable. Now, in Christianity the Fall is often seen as flowing from free will, but the basic inability of human beings to ever freely be good has always been a problem for theology. This Doom of Adam [the natural man] constrains us in such a way as to make certain things inevitable. Once his Doom was spoken, was Maedhros able to do anything other than fling himself into the earth at the end of the War of Wrath? That is the question.

This Doom bleeds out beyond the Noldor to infect all of the Children of Middle Earth. The tale of Túrin Turambar, a man, is particularly miserable. It’s worth reading, particularly in the expanded Children of Húrin, so I won’t spoil it, only express horror at the power Melkor has to doom others. The curse placed on Húrin seems to be inescapable; that it is placed on an essentially good man affords Melkor more power than Christians typically give to Satan. The images of Húrin chained in Angband and the subsequent disasters that befall his children are horrible.

Which brings us to theodicy. The Valar have a lot to answer for (to say nothing of  Ilúvatar). The intensity of misery that Melkor causes — the creation of orcs from elves, the poisoning of the land, the death, the war — goes utterly unanswered by the Valar until the very end. Apologists might argue that all of this was the result of the elves’ own Doom, but that is not satisfying, especially given the depth and breadth of suffering. The only defense I can give is to rely on Leibniz’s le meilleur des mondes possibles: all things considered, this was the best of all possible worlds. Given the catastrophic result of the Valar’s final intervention — the utter destruction of Beleriand — this might just work. Might.

Two final things:

It is clear the fondness Tolkien had for the QS given the inscription on his and Edith’s headstones: Beren and Lúthien. This love story of man and elf has echoes in Aragon and Arwen’s romance. Aragorn sings their lay on Weathertop, an example of how a knowledge of the QS enriches the LOTR.

Which brings us last of all to the übergeek in me. Reading Tolkien can be an exercise in how source criticism works. The Silmarillion is the edited creation of his son Christopher from a myriad of sources. Paying some attention to this is fun, so I would recommend the following schedule for the QS:

Read The Silmarillion to chapter 23 but supplement with:

Imagine it’s the Bible, the sources are J, E, P, and D, and wonder: which version of the story of the children of Húrin is “true”?

Next: reforming Galadriel.

Comments

  1. This is so damn good Ronan. And I’m angry at the Valar, because their capacity for positive intervention is much greater than seems reasonable to expect of deity in our own world. Eru, assuming for the moment that he is not Bombadil, may have some excuse for staying aloof from and outside of the struggle, his place being what it is, but the Valar appear to have been given charge over things and have a history of intervention against Melkor. How then to account for their inaction? How can we not lay the suffering of Hurin, Turin and Nienor Niniel at their feet, to say nothing of Fingolfin?

  2. And when they do intervene, it’s all over in a flash. The Doom of Mandos — that they cannot even hear the cry of Middle Earth — make this crowd far removed from our conception of God.

    That said . . . Leibniz?

  3. lankiel says:

    One possible point of support for “le meilleur monde possible” comes from reading about what happened to Numenor. The Valar rewarded the ‘righteous’ Children of Men with a beautiful land, long life, increased wisdom and all sorts of other ‘good things’. Yes, Numenor had a blissful time for a while. But then, they fell. Hard. Ocean crashing Atlantis type hard. I think one lesson from this second story is that no matter how blissful of a life you have, as long as there is a possibility of evil, you can fall. Arguments could be made, looking at Melkor, Sauron, and Numenor, that the higher up you are, the harder you fall. Thus, perhaps the Valar felt that giving Middle Earth a world of bliss like in Aman would only lead to disappointment and grief for both the Children of Eru.

    But, I do agree with MCQ — the Valar appear to have chosen their life of inaction in the world of men, without a good explanation. There is nothing like Eve’s statement of it being better for us to know the bad that we may recognize the good. Thus, they don’t appear to have a reason for the inaction, and to my knowledge, Tolkien never gives one.

    Great post, and I’m going to figure out how to work this into a talk at church next time I’m asked!

  4. Dammit, I can’t follow any of this! Where are the missionaries?!

  5. I’ve always seen the Valar’s lack of direct action as an act of humility–that is, an implied recognition of their own lack of sufficient foresight to intervene in such a way that will not bring about even worse consequences that would be without their intervention. Maybe this is little more than a variation of the “best of all possible worlds” idea. I see the Valar as something like the Jeff Goldblum character in Jurassic Park. They know (or rather they learn) that direct intervention should be avoided and they use it only as a last resort.

    For example, contrast the destruction of Beleriand with the destruction of Numenor. Numenor is more a last resort, I think, than Beleriand because the Valar allowed the Numenoreans to really go to hell with the worship of Sauron before they did anything, and they only intervened when the Valar themselves were actually threatened (it is debatable whether even Numenor was ever a real threat, but the Numenoreans at least did invade Valinor). And contrast both the destruction of Beleriand and the drowning of Numenor with the way that they “intervene” in the Third Age by sending the Istari (the wizards) rather than directly intervene, they send emissaries who can become a part of Middle Earth and persuade Elves and men to do what must be done rather than simply doing it themselves. It’s as though they learned from their mistake and were looking for a better way. Of course, there are Old Testament parallels with all that.

    Ultimately, it is the Valar’s flaws that makes them so fascinating by providing a space for free will. With an omnipotent being who cannot sin, the stakes are rather low. But when a race of nearly omnipotent beings has nearly infinite capacity for good or for evil, there is a space for free will to act, and the drama it creates can play out. It might end in tragedy, but even tragedy is a more interesting story (and to me, a more satisfying story) than a salvation that was always assured and never in real jeopardy.

    Perhaps the reason Tolkien never gives a reason for the Valars’ inaction (at least not clearly) is that he does not want to justify the ways of the Valar to man because the race of imperfect deities just makes for a better story than the perfect deity (but his Catholic heart just couldn’t abide a subcreation without any perfect and omnipoent God, hence Eru). He was, after all, fascinated by the Gods of the Scandanavians myths who displayed the full range of human emotion and action. (Though one important difference with the Valar is that Tolkien was fascinated by the fact that the Scandanavian Gods would continue to fight with honor even in the face of assured defeat by the dragons and monsters. I suppose he gives that role to men and elves (and Hobbits and Drawrves and Ents) rather than to the Valar, though the eucatastrophe changes that.)

  6. Ronan, this is fantastic. I’m only three chapters in so am not far enough to weigh in. But I will. I love this!

  7. MCQ, I had forgotten that excuse. Thanks. But it isn’t that explanation/excuse (we don’t know where the elves will be born, so we don’t want to do something that might hurt them) consistent with the idea that the Valar’s own lack of omniscience as to the consequences of their intervention is what makes them averse to most direct intervention?

    One way to explain the Valar’s apparent indifference toward men in the war against Morgoth would be that the Valar (to their shame) just don’t think men are as important as Elves, at least at that early time, anyway.

    Another possibility, though, is that they did send such emmisaries, but we simply have no record of it. Remember, the Tale of the Silmarils comes to us from the records of the Elves and it is no wonder that it portrays the Valar in an Elf-centric way. (Much how it is not to be wondered at that the records of the Nephites make no mention of prophetic gifts or gospel knowledge among the Lamanites, and yet here comes Samuel, who is not only a prophet, but appears to have pretty solid scriptural knowledge, given his preaching; and even Samuel is mentioned only because Jesus himself rebuked Nephi specifically for not mentioning him.) And men did not even have written language at that time, so any history of such emissaries would have been preserved if at all only in oral tradition, which would be unlikely to faithfully preserve such history until the time that it would be written. Admittedly all speculation, but that’s what makes it fun.

    I totally agree with you on your point that Numenor’s fall does not prove that the weakness of the flesh overcomes free will, as Elendil’s line proves. And good point that in the end it wasn’t even the Valar that drowned Numenor, at least not directly.

    As for why the Valar didn’t send the Istari earlier, here are some speculative possibilities: Maybe they did send such emissaries, and that they were in fact why a faithful remnant was preserved, but the emmisaries blended in so well that they were never suspected to be anything other than wise counselors and loremasters, so nothing was said of them in the records. Or maybe they didn’t send emissaries because the lies of Sauron, while destructive, did not rise to the level that the Valar require before they act–maybe they judged that the good influence of Elendil and his sons would accomplish no more than their emissaries would accomplish. The first just avoids the question, though, and the second is only inducts the Valar’s judgment.

    Lurking behind all this, though, is another question: is theodicy even important with the Valar? I mean, theodicy is all about reconciling God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and perfect moral goodness with the existence of evil. But the Valar, while they stand in a god-like position in many ways, are neither omnipotent, omniscient, nor perfectly morally good. So do we even need to reconcile these? Isn’t the answer really that evil exists because the Valar, while generally good, are simply not powerful enough to eradicate it completely, not far-seeing enough to always prevent it, and not sufficiently compassionate to always counteract it? And that their reluctance to act comes, tragically, at least in part, from a recognition of their own lack of forsight, and a conviction, right or wrong, that intervention should usually be avoided?

  8. Sorry for such long comments.

  9. Or they’re just criminally lazy. I honestly don’t think there’s any excuse good enough. It’s hardly theodicy, as you say, because the Valar aren’t really that Godlike, but they have the power to do a lot of things, they just don’t do them, and that’s why I feel justified in holding them accountable: There’s no theological doctrine or constraint that we know of that is holding them back, so we are left to conclude that they are simply criminally negligent beings with insufficient empathy to act in a responsible way toward those they ought to take some action to aid and protect. They are like global policemen whose colossal indifference keeps them gossiping at the Eternal Coffee Shop instead of out in the world doing their job. The only exception? Ulmo. At least he does something, and thereby shows us both that the Valar can intervene if they want to and that they are singularly lousy at it.

  10. These stories were written and rewritten with the rest of the work of various inklings, every week in the back of a pub. This was theology at work, much like C.S. Lewis was working through his books in the same pub, with the same group.

  11. “Another possibility, though, is that they did send such emmisaries, but we simply have no record of it. Remember, the Tale of the Silmarils comes to us from the records of the Elves and it is no wonder that it portrays the Valar in an Elf-centric way. (Much how it is not to be wondered at that the records of the Nephites make no mention of prophetic gifts or gospel knowledge among the Lamanites, and yet here comes Samuel, who is not only a prophet, but appears to have pretty solid scriptural knowledge, given his preaching; and even Samuel is mentioned only because Jesus himself rebuked Nephi specifically for not mentioning him.) And men did not even have written language at that time, so any history of such emissaries would have been preserved if at all only in oral tradition, which would be unlikely to faithfully preserve such history until the time that it would be written.”

    This is a really good argument, BTW. But if the Valar did send emissaries, while it may let them off for complete inaction, it still makes them completely ineffectual. Sort of like the whole thing with Ulmo and Tuor. With all the power and majesty at the disposal of the Valar (or even just Ulmo), the best they can come up with to warn and aid Turgon at the time that Morgoth is plotting the impending fall of Gondolin is one guy in a suit of armor. Classic.

  12. I am happy to lay theodicy at the feet of Eru. We are told that the music will ultimately redound to his will, but that is scant consolation for the elves-,made-orcs, etc.

    I had two random new thoughts:

    1. There is no atonement. The Valar readmit the elves as a pure act of grace.
    2. Melkor’s curse on Hurin, and his power generally, ends at death. In some ways, the Halls of Mandos represent the Tolkien summum bonum. I have always considered that a cheat, but no wonder the elves in some ways covet men’s mortality.

  13. Doug Hudson says:

    Given that Tolkien doesn’t really explain or even hint at why the Valar withdraw from the world, the only explanation we are left with is God’s answer to Job (“were you there when I created the world?”). Which is the only possible answer when dealing with omnipotent, omniscient beings.

    Since Tolkien believed in the Catholic version of the God of Job, it’s not surprising that his mythical creations would give the same answer.

    Would a Mormon creating a similar mythos have their Valar act in the same way? Interesting thought.

  14. MCQ: But is being ineffectual really an indictment of the Valar’s moral goodness, or is it simply evidence of their lack of omniscience? In other words, perhaps (assuming such emissaries were sent, which is, granted, a significant assumption) such emissaries were ineffectual because the Valar simply do not have the power to compel men to do right, and all that they can do is to attempt to influence them by persuasion. Remember that the gift of men includes the idea that they are not bound by the music of the Ainur in the same way as the other races and are free to make their own fate.

    Now that I think of it, this could be one explanation for the Valar’s inaction toward men as contrasted with Elves: when Elves rebelled against the music, it was a greater evil than when men rebelled because Elves do not enjoy the gift of men, which includes free will, thus requiring intervention to prevent the elves from arrogating to the gift of men; while when men rebelled it was evil, but was a cause for mourning, not intervention because the choice is given to men. Similar to Tolkien’s comment in “On Fairy Stories” that it is our right to be sub-creators, even if we abuse that right and worship deformed idols of our own creation, and that abuses of the right do not negate the right. Men may abuse free will, but that is not a cause to take it away

    RJH: 1. There is no retributive atonement, true. But readmission by a pure act of grace is a form of atonement, is it not? Certainly in the etymological sense of the word, at-one-ment, the Valar’s act of grace brings together estranged parties to be at-one.

    2. This is a fascinating observation. But remember it is not just physical mortality that the Elves envy. The gift of men is also that the spirits of the younger children of Illuvater are “not bound to the circles of the world” and rather than be re-embodied after a stint in the Halls of Mandos, as the Elves would be, the spirits of men continue in a type of spiritual immortality to a fate unknown even to the Valar, except perhaps to Mandos himself and maybe Manwe.

  15. I have always considered that a cheat, but no wonder the elves in some ways covet men’s mortality.

    Ronan, excellent point! But isn’t the elves’ immortality tied to the continued existence/presence of Arda? Remind me if there is a speculative “theology” about their fate should the earth wither, crumble, and utterly be done away? (cf. the fate of Ceti Alpha VI)

  16. The “beyond the circles of the world” fate of Man has always interested me. The Blessing (Doom) of Man takes him out of the story into the unknown, but one presumes, to eventually return. And at least in one version, Turin gets his turn. I love Turin above all. His tragedy has got to lead to triumph, or there is no God. And I think the Hobbit’s placing of Turin among the mightiest of myths is a key. Roll on Ronan!

  17. Good catch on the Hobbits and Turin, Bill.

  18. I disagree that the elves do not have free will, or that they rebelled against the music of the Ainur. I think Eru’s point was that all things are contained within the music, even Melkor’s dischord. The Noldor rebelled against the will of the Valar, but that’s not the same thing, and it shows they do, in fact, have free will.

  19. agreed, MCQ

  20. To respond more fully, JKC, I agree that the Valar do not have the right (I think they do have the ability but not the mandate) to compel men or elves to do anything, but even if their goal is mere persuasion, it’s lacking some serious effort. Again, I’m thinking of Tuor here, and also the various times that the Valar have tried to persuade the elves to come to Valinor. Did they really not have the ability to lead the elves there without losing so many? Could they not have done a better job of finding them before Morgoth did? Same with the younger children, men. The Valar just didn’t do much at all to prevent bad things that could have been prevented.

  21. The elves covet men’s mortality, but not very much. Even Arwen, when faced with it at the end, finds it a bitter pill to swallow, and sympathizes with the Numenoreans. I think it’s the great unknown. Not even the Valar are in on what happens to men after death, and I like that. We are not told what happens to the dwarves either, but it seems obvious that their fate is bound up with the world, as they are made of the same stuff. The unknown fate of men after death connects the men of middle earth to us, and makes us heirs of Turin and Beren and Aragorn, alike wondering about the other side of the veil, and wanting to take our elf princesses with us.

  22. That would be Tuor, again, not Turin. Turin accidentally married his sister, but if all had gone as planned, he would have had his elf princess. Alas for Finduilas.

  23. I agree, MCQ, that restricting free will to men is not a very satisfying explanation. It seems demonstrably false, in fact, because we see elves choosing good and evil all over the place. So empirically, they do have free will. But isn’t there that statement somewhere that part of the gift of men is that they are not bound by the music in the same way that other races are, and are free to choose their own fate, or am I making that up? If so, what do you make of that? Is it nothing more than a reiteration of the “beyond the circles of the world” idea?

  24. “The unknown fate of men after death connects the men of middle earth to us, and makes us heirs of Turin and Beren and Aragorn, alike wondering about the other side of the veil, and wanting to take our elf princesses with us.”

    I like this very much. Thanks for that insight.

  25. I think the statement is that men are not bound by the music and have a separate fate after death, not during their lifetimes. This is in fact another, perhaps stronger, way of saying that their fate is beyond the circles of the world. Because of this, the doom of men is, despite initial appearances, actually an incredible gift, though one that is not easily measured. After all, even the Valar are bound within the circles of the world and cannot leave it while it lasts. Only men have that privilege.

  26. Can I say I LOVE this post and the ensuing comments. The Silmarillion? Yes!

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