Enoch and the Silmarillion Part IV: The Elves’ Weeping Goddess.

Buckle up, because this one is going to get super nerdy.

This is the fourth in a series of posts about the visions of Enoch in Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible. Part I discusses the historical context of the New Translation and the narrative context of the visions of Enoch. Part II discusses the importance of the visions of Enoch to early Mormonism. Part III reviews the debate about God’s omnipotence that Enoch’s vision of the weeping god has inspired. In this part, we’re going to introduce Nienna, the weeping goddess of Tolkien’s Silmarillion, and in the next part, we’ll draw some comparisons between Nienna and Enoch’s weeping god.

At first glance, the Silmarillion and Joseph Smith’s revision to the Bible would seem to have very little to say about one another. One, written in 1830-33 on the edge of the American frontier, in backwater towns in New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, purports to be a literal revelation from God correcting a narrative that its revelator considered to be not a fictional account, and not a mere spiritual or symbolic account, but a historical account of events that actually took place in this world. The other, begun nearly a century later in the aftermath of the battle of the Somme, and re-written over and over through the following decades in the ancient academic cloister of Oxford, by an academic, a philologist, and devout Catholic who by all accounts had no interest in or significant exposure to Mormonism or to Joseph Smith’s biblical revision project, purports to be a fantasy, the invented mythology of an invented world of faerie.

But there are, nevertheless, echoes between Joseph Smith’s revelations and revisions on Genesis and Tolkien’s invented myths. Some are more interesting than others, and it’s fun to notice those echoes, but it isn’t my purpose to just name every potential parallel between them. Instead, I want to focus on one particular parallel: against the striking image from Enoch’s vision of the God who weeps, Tolkien’s spiritual epic portrays a weeping Goddess. She is Nienna, Lady of Pity and Mourning. But before attempting to search out what Tolkien’s weeping goddess has to say about what Enoch’s weeping God, a brief introduction, for the uninitiated, is warranted.

Overview of Nienna

Who is Nienna, and what does she have to do with Enoch’s weeping God? The short answer to the first question is that she is one of the great spirits that the Elves call the “Valar,” or the “Powers of Arda,” and that men call gods. The Silmarillion 25 (Christopher Tolkien ed., Houghton Mifflin 2d ed. 2001) (1977).  They are the “offspring of [the creator’s] thought,” id. at 15, and who rule “Arda” or the earth on the creator’s behalf. Tolkien’s creation tale is really a thing of its own kind, and comparing the Valar to angels or gods from other traditions only gives a hint at what they are. The only real answer to who the Valar are is to tell the tale, which explains the origin of the Valar, their relationship to the creator, and their role in the world.

The Aunilindale: The Creation.

The first book in the Silmarillion is the “Ainulindale,” the “Music of the Ainur.” Id. at 15. It opens with “Eru, the One,” the creator, who wills into being “the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought.” Id. Eru, who the text tells us, is called Iluvatar, then speaks to the Ainur and “propound[s] to them themes of music.” Id. Each of the Ainur sings the theme given to him or her by Iluvatar, and slowly they increase in unity and harmony until finally Iluvatar calls them all together and declares “a mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed.” Id. He then bids the Ainur to make from that theme a “Great music.” Id. In an image illustrating Tolkien’s take on interplay between divine sovereignty and free will, Iluvatar declares the theme, but does not dictate its details, rather, he says “ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will.” Id.

But as the Ainur sing the great music, a discord arises from “Melkor,” the mightiest of the Ainur who will later become a fallen angel and a devil figure, the source and incarnation of evil in the mortal world. Id. at 16. The discord grows until Iluvatar arises, smiles, and lifts up his left hand, whereupon a second theme emerges “like and yet unlike to the former theme,” which grows in power and beauty, but is nearly overcome by Melkor’s discord. Id.

At this point, Iluvatar rises again and “his countenance was stern.” Id. He lifts his right hand, and “a third theme grew amid the confusion.” Id. This third theme was “at first soft and sweet, a mere rippling of gentle sounds in delicate melodies; but it could not be quenched, and it took to itself power and profundity.” Id. This third theme is “wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beuty chiefly came.” Id. at 16-17. It strives against Melkor’s discord and it takes the notes of Melkor’s music and weaves them into its own pattern, thus frustrating Melkor’s attempt to drown it out and in fact only using Melkor’s efforts to overthrow it to further it. Id. at 17.

Iluvatar then arises a third time “and his face was terrible to behold.” Id. “Then he raised up both his hands, and in one chord, deeper than the abyss, higher than the Firmament, piercing as the light of the eye of Iluvatar, the Music ceased.” Id.

After the music has ended, Iluvatar takes the Ainur away from his halls and brings them out into “the void.” Id. He then says to them “Behold your Music!” whereupon a vision of the world opens to the Ainur , unfolding its future to them, including the coming of the “Children of Iluvatar”–elves and men. Id. They wish to go into the world to love and help the children of Iluvatar, but the vision ends. Id. at 17-20. But Iluvatar, perceiving their wish, speaks “Ea! Let these things Be!” and the world that they saw in vision springs into being. Id. at 20.

At that point, some of the most noble and great ones of the Ainur leave Iluvatar and go down into the world. They are called the “Valar,” the “Powers of the World.” Id. at 20.When they arrive in the World, they see that it is not yet as they saw in vision, but is “on point to begin and yet unshaped” and “dark.” Id. “And the Valar perceived that the World had been but foreshadowed and foresung, and they must achieve it. So begun their great labors in the wastes unmeasured and unexplored, and in ages uncounted and forgotten, until in the Deeps of Time and in the midst of the vast halls of Ea there came to be that hour and that place where was made the habitation of the Children of Iluvatar.” Id. at 20. The “Children of Iluvatar” are Elves and Humankind. See id. at 18.

As, through the labors of the Valar, the earth begins to take shape, Melkor begins to frustrate the labors of the Valar, pulling down mountains where they carve them, raising valleys where they delve them, spilling the seas that they fill. Id. at 20-22. Melkor and the Valar do battle, and through their labors and their battles, slowly, the earth takes shape. Id. at 20. “And thus was the habitation of the Children of Iluvatar established at the last in the Deeps of Time and amidst the innumerable stars.” Id.

Nienna is one of the Valar—the most noble of the spirits that were with Iluvatar and helped shape the earth. But there are also lesser spirits–the Maiar–that were among the Ainur, and that are subject to the Valar. Speaking very roughly, the Valar are gods, subordinate deities to a monotheistic God, and the Maiar are something like angels or spirits subject to the gods.

The Valaquenta: the Valar.

The next chapter in the Silmarillion, the Valaquenta, explains the Valar further. There are 14 of them, seven lords and seven queens. Their chief, Manwe, is Iluvatar’s lieutenant on the earth, and is essentially the supreme god of the world. Id. at 26. Each of the Valar has a particular province and a particular personality:

  • Manwe – the brother of Melkor and dearest to Iluvatar, ruler of Arda, Lord of the breath of Arda, lord of all swift birds.
  • Varda – spouse of Manwe, Lady of the Stars, beloved of the elves.
  • Ulmo – lord of waters, no spouse, solitary, lover of elves and men.
  • Aule – lord of smithcraft.
  • Yavanna – spouse of Aule, giver of fruit, associated with trees and growth.
  • The Feanturi – the “masters of spirits.” They are two brothers:
    • Mandos – his real name is Namo, but he is referred to as Mandos, the name of his dwelling place, he is the keeper of the houses of the dead, summoner of the spirits of the slain, and doomsman of the Valar.
    • Lorien – his real name is Irmo, but he is referred to as Lorien, the name of his dwelling place, he is master of visions and dreams.
  • Vaire the weaver – spouse of Mandos who weaves all Time into her storied webs.
  • Este, the gentle – healer of hurts and weariness, spouse of Lorien.
  • Nienna – sister of the Feanturi, known for weeping and mourning.
  • Tulkas – greatest in strength, delights in wrestling and in contests of strength, always laughs in sport or in war.
  • Nessa – spouse of Tulkas, sister of Orome, lithe and fleetfooted, delights in dancing.
  • Orome – the hunter, less strong than Tulkas, but more dreadful in anger.
  • Vana – the ever-young, spouse of Orome, younger sister of Yavanna, flowers spring as she passes and birds sing at her coming.

See id. at 26-29. Nienna is unique among the Valar in that she, along with Ulmo, is one of only two of the Valar that is not married. She is described as the sister of the Feanturi, or “masters of spirits,” Mandos and Lorien, suggesting a special spiritual connection between the dead, doom, or fate, visions and dreams, and weeping. Id. at 28.

In the Index to the Silmarillion, Nienna is given the epithet, “Lady of pity and of mourning.” Id. at 343. Like the messiah in Isaiah, Nienna is described in the Silmarillion as “acquainted with grief.” Id. at 28. She “mourns for every wound Arda has suffered.” Id. In fact, her sorrow goes back before even the creation: “So great was her sorrow that as the Music unfolded, her song turned to lamentation long before it ended, and the sound of mourning was woven into the themes of world before it began.” Id. Significantly, she “does not weep for herself.” Id. Moreover, she “dwells alone,” she “lives West of West, on the borders of the World, and her windows look outward from the walls of the world;” she “comes seldom to the city of Valimar, [where the rest of the Valar live] where all is glad, rather she “goes to the Halls of Mandos.” Id. The spirits of the dead, who are in the halls of Mandos “cry to her” because “she brings strength to the spirit and turns sorrow to wisdom.” Id. Moreover, “those who hearken to her learn pity, and endurance in hope.” Id.

These descriptions are rich with meaning, but the role that Nienna plays later in the narrative further illuminates the importance and the meaning of her weeping in Tolkien’s legendarium.

  1. Nienna’s Training of Olorin

“Olorin” is one of the “Maiar,” spirits that were among the Ainur, but are lesser to and subject to the Valar. Id. at 30. He is the same as the character that is called Gandalf, Mithrandir, or the Grey Pilgrim in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Later in the Silmarillion, we learn that Mithrandir is chosen as one of the Istari, or wizards, who are sent to the earth to aid the children of Iluvatar in their struggle against evil. See id. at 300-04.

The Silmarillion tells us that Olorin was “wisest of the Maiar” Id. at 30. and that he “dwelt in Lorien,” but that he often visited the house of Nienna and “of her he learned pity and patience.” Id. at 30-31. Olorin’s knowledge of “pity and patience,” learned from Nienna, becomes a major theme in the Lord of the Rings where Gandalf repeatedly discourses on the importance pity, and in particular, the importance of Bilbo’s pity for Gollum, which, in the end, turns out to be crucial for the success of Frodo’s quest, which is the major plot point of the entire epic, and within the context of the story, is the salvation of all the world.

  1. Nienna’s Role in the Creation of the Trees

One of the major overarching themes of the Silmarillion is the ephemerality of light—the coming of divine light into the world and the struggle to protect and preserve that light from being snuffed out by darkness and evil. Tolkien’s early creation epic differs from the Genesis story in many ways, but one of the biggest differences is that in Tolkien’s creation, there is initially no sun or moon. Rather, the world is lit by two giant lamps built by the Valar and set at either end of the world. See The Silmarillion at 35. Melkor throws down the lamps and the world is left lit only by starlight. Id. at 36-37. The Valar then leave middle earth (the lands in the middle of the world) and go to the land of Aman, west of middle earth, where they build their city. Id. at 37-38. Outside the gate of their city, there is a green mound called Ezellohar. Id. at 38. Yavanna sat down on Ezellohar and “hallowed it, and sang a song of power.” Id. Meanwhile, Nienna “thought in silence and watered the mould with her tears.” Id. With Nienna’s tears watering the soil, two shoots spring up, which grow into two great trees, one silver, named Telperion and one gold, named Laurelin, which glow and give light to Aman. Id. at 38-39.

  1. Nienna’s Aid of Melkor’s Repentance

Because of his offenses against the earth and against the Valar, the Valar go to war against Melkor, and when they prevail, they banish Melkor and imprison him in Mandos. Id. at 51-52. But when his sentence of three ages is served, he comes to Valinor and humbles himself before his brother Manwe and sues for pardon. Id. at 65. At this point, the narrative says that Nienna “aids his prayer.” Id. Manwe pardons him, but it appears that his repentance is false, though Manwe cannot comprehend that his repentance is false because evil has no place in his heart and he does not understand evil. Id.

  1. Nienna’s Role in the Creation of the Sun and Moon.

Shortly after his repentance, Melkor betrays the Valar and comes with Ungoliant, an evil spirit of darkness (Tolkien uses the wonderful coinage “Unlight,” id. at 74) and insatiable hunger in the form of a giant spider, and mounts Ezellohar, where he stabs the trees with an iron lance, allows Ungoliant to suck their sap. Id. at 76. In doing so, she poisons them, and belches forth clouds of darkness and filth that shroud Ezellohar. Id. The trees soon wither and die, and at that point, their light survives only in the Silmarils, Id. at 78–jewels within which the light of the trees had been preserved by Feanor, chief craftsman and most talented of the elves. See id. at 67-72. (At that point in the narrative, the elves had awakened in middle earth, but had been summoned by the Valar to come and live with them in Aman. Men had not yet appeared in middle earth.) The Valar ask Feanor to give up the silmarils, that the light of the trees preserved in them may again light Aman, but Feanor loves the works of his own hands too much to give them up to the Valar and he refuses, leading his people to rebel against the summons of the Valar, flee Aman and go back to middle earth to live in freedom, out from under the yoke of the Valar. See id. at 78-88. The majority of the rest of the Silmarillion deals with the aftermath of Feanor’s rebellion and of the oath he and his sons take to declare eternal war on any who would keep the silmarils from them.

At that point, Nienna goes to Ezellohar and “with her tears washed away the defilements of Ungoliant; and she sang in mourning for the bitterness of the world and the marring of Arda.” Id. at 79. Manwe then asks Nienna and Yavanna to “put forth all their powers of growth and healing,” to see if the trees can be revived and their light saved. Id. at 98. Nienna’s tears, however, are not sufficient to heal the wounds of the trees. Id. Yavanna sings long in the shadows until, when hope is gone, Telperion bears a single silver flower and Laurelin a single golden fruit. Id. 98-99. The flower and fruit of the trees are then set into vessels to travel the sky, and they become the sun and the moon. id.

Next time: What can Nienna teach us about Enoch’s vision of the weeping God?

Comments

  1. it's a series of tubes says:

    Reading this made my day. 10/10, would read again

  2. Love this. Another dimension of Nienna’s role in the formation of Arda could potentially be seen in this participation in creating sun and moon. You glossed over the fall of the Elves in the narrative of Feanor refusing continued fealty to the Valar and leading his people out of Aman. This coincides roughly with the creation of the sun and moon. I don’t have the book to hand at the moment and should review before putting this out there, but it seems one could argue this was the moment that Arda (the earth) “fell” into its regular and permanent planetary orbit for the first time. One could even argue the earth was flat before this moment (and perhaps the Silmarillion makes this point specifically — just can’t remember, I’m getting a little rusty). In other words, the creation was still ongoing (indeed, men — the other children of Iluvatar — had not yet been created at this point).

  3. Jason K. says:

    This is gloriously nerdy, JKC. Looking forward to the next installment.

  4. John: you are right that Feanor’s rebellion really is the fall of the Elves, and there are a bunch of echoes of Genesis in that story. It starts with Melkor stirring up pride and anger among the Noldor, and reaches its first climax when Feanor draws a sword on Fingolfin and is therefore banished from Valmar. And murder follows not long after with the Kinslaying, and the doom of Mandos (“tears unnumbered shall ye shed”) roughly compares to the curse of Adam. I was focused in the above on Nienna, so I tried to gloss over everything else, but maybe I glossed too much. Thanks for highlighting that point.

    The Silmarillion does, I think, describe a flat earth becoming round, but it becomes round later, when Numenor falls. There is a debate, over whether Arda was flat or round in the beginning. The “habitation” that Iluvatar creates is described as “globed” in the void, but the rest of the Silmarillion appears to describe a flat earth until the fall of Numenor, when the seas become “bent” and the straight road to the undying lands is lost to all but a few, like Cirdan, who know how to find the straight way. Karen Wynn Fonstad in the Atlas of Middle Earth (a fun reference, by the way) says that these are best reconciled as a flat earth with a “globed” dome of heavens over it, and perhaps the “globed” foundations of the earth under it. The “globe” in other words, is like a snow globe, not a planetary globe. I think she’s right. (But I also think that the “habitation” might not necessarily be Arda itself, but something like a solar system or even a universe that Arda sits in.)

    The idea that Arda became round when the Sun and Moon were created is an interesting thought. My initial reaction was that it’s wrong because the earth is still flat until the Akallabeth, but maybe not. There could be other creative ways to read the bending of the seas as not necessarily requiring a flat earth.

    tubes and Jason: Thanks!

  5. Never made the connection between Nienna and the mercy of Bilbo / Frodo, great point.

    The idea expressed in the Music, that the most beautiful theme draws much of its power from sorrow, is a theme that underlies virtually all of Tolkien’s work, and in my opinion, it is this underlying sorrow that, fittingly, gives his work much of its power. It’s a rare work that exemplifies its own theme so perfectly.

    One thing that has always puzzled me about the Silmarillion is how little regard the Valar show to humanity, compared to the elves. Tolkien says several times that the Valar don’t understand mortality, which may explain the Valar’s disinterest, but still–leaving humanity to Morgoth’s whims seems rather harsh.

  6. Well, keep in mind that The Silmarillion is a record of myth and history written and kept by the elves. I think it’s not a stretch that the elves, like most people, create their gods in their own image. The elves love some men, like Turin, but they are also confused by them and they don’t understand them. It’s not surprising that their gods would have something of the same attitude.

    I think there’s enough in The Silmarillion to call into question elvish motives and biases to consider The Silmarillion itself the work of narrators that are at least a little bit unreliable. Like, reading the Book of Mormon on the surface only, God appears to be mostly as unconcerned with the Lamanites as the Lamanites are, supposedly, unconcerned with God. But there are these cracks in the Nephite façade, where the light of Lamanite faith sometimes shines through, like Jacob remonstrating the Nephites for their “reviling” the Lamanites, like Zeniff finding “that which was good” among the Lamanites to the point that he was willing to start a small civil war to oppose their genocide, and Samuel the Lamanite showing up with what is a pretty impressive command of scriptural concepts that supposedly were absent in Lamanite society.

    So yes, The Silmarillion portrays the Valar as almost totally aloof from men in Arda, but I’m not sure we are supposed to accept The Silmarillion, even in-universe, at face value as totally accurate and comprehensive.

  7. Hmm, I’m not sure that the Silmarillion represents the elven point of view. It is clearly elf-focused, but it is also largely an account of elves making horrendous mistakes; the Noldor, at any rate, were far too proud to be quite so brutally honest [it takes Galadriel what, ten thousand years to admit she made a mistake?] Maybe a sindar account, but they don’t exactly come out well either.

    In fact, with the notable exception of Turin, it is the humans (and half-elves) who come out the best–Beren, Huor, Hurin, Tuor, and of course Earendil. Which makes me suspect it is a human (specifically, Dunadain) account, based on elvish legends.

    Not to say your larger point is wrong–the book is clearly about the elves, not humans, so its reasonable that it might not be complete, or correct, when it comes to the latter. The Lamanite example is a good one–even a seemingly straightforward re-counting of events will inevitably reflect the biases and interests of the author. Useful reminder for both the Silmarillion and the BoM (and the Bible, for that matter)!

  8. I think Tolkien says in the letter Milt Waldman that’s reprinted as part of Christopher Tolien’s Preface to the Second Edition that the Silmarillion is written from the Elvish point of view. You make a good point that the men come out looking good, but remember that these are considered exceptional men, elf-friends. The Silmarillion doesn’t have anything positive to say about men that aren’t part of the three houses of the Edain. I can buy the hypothesis that the Silmarillion is a Dunedain account of Elvish accounts. (I mean, it’s in English, which usually represents Westron, so assuming that English represents Westron here as well, that means that the Silmarillion was translated from Quenya (I assume, or maybe Sindar) into Westron. The Dunedain would be the likely ones to do that. The Dunedain, though, were pretty enamored with the Eldar, so I’m not entirely sure that being a Dunedain version of older Elvish accounts changes much in terms of its overall biases.

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