The 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:
- For Beren and Lúthien: The Lay of Leithian (in vol. 3 of The History of Middle Earth) then watch Aragorn sing the LOTR version of it in The Fellowship of the Ring, or better yet, listen to the Tolkien Ensemble track above;
- For Túrin Turambar: The versions in both Unfinished Tales (Narn i Chîn Húrin) and The Children of Húrin.
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.