IT’S TIME FOR THE GREAT SILMARILLION READALONG, LET’S GOOOOOOO!
ICYMI, for the month of March, in honor of the Society’s celebration of Tolkien, I’m hosting a four-week readalong of The Silmarillion. The announcement post is here, and the schedule is here.
We’ve got a lot to cover, and these posts are already going to be obnoxiously long, so let’s get into it! I’m breaking these up by chapter, and we’re literally just going to dive straight in. Some of it will be review-style, but I’m also going to summarize bits & pieces when it gets really chaotic, plus I’m sure there’ll be lots of soap box moments, so buckle up!
These first two chapters are kind of prequels to the whole story itself, but they’ve got a ton of info in them. Some of it won’t really come into play a whole lot, and it’s mostly just Tolkien getting excited about his world, but a lot of it is going to be the foundation of what’s to come, given that pretty much all of The Silmarillion is just everyone vs Morgoth, so don’t skip or skim these!
Some people sit down to write a high fantasy, and they’re like, “Alright, I’ve got to figure out the world and how everything else fits into it.” Tolkien’s over here like, “Okay, here’s God, and now let’s talk about the construction of the world.” The Silmarillion starts at the very beginning. Ilúvatar, who pisses me off most of the time, decides that he not only wants children, but he wants an entire world, and then some more children to hang out in that world. And, as though that wasn’t enough, he wants to be nefarious about it, too.
Even if I didn’t wholeheartedly love Melkor (I’m going to stick with this name until he gets renamed, and then we’ll switch to Morgoth), the way Ilúvatar goes about creating Arda is just rude. I mean, the actual act of it is downright amazing, and Tolkien is a genius, but Ilúvatar does the whole “you have free will!” shortly followed by “just kidding, I own you” and I’m not here for it.
The Music of the Ainur is literally what it sounds like. Ilúvatar creates Arda, which becomes the Middle-earth we know and love later on, through song. It’s such a Tolkien thing to do, and I just adore it. However, while Ilúvatar is asking his children, the Valar, to create through the vehicle of song, he notices that one of them, Melkor, is starting to stray from the theme that Ilúvatar has set. Rather than checking in with Melkor or even just making sure everything is okay in general, Ilúvatar has a quiet smile to himself and lets it all unravel. When, at the end of the song, once Arda has been birthed and Ilúvatar is showing them all the beauty of what they’ve done, he makes sure to publicly humiliate Melkor by calling attention to the way he’s diverted from the song, even going as far as to say that he intended for that to happen.
‘And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite.’
Basically: nice try, bro, but you only breathe because I said you could.
HELL AND I FORGOT–this guy is such a dick. Ilúvatar, after ensuring that Melkor was going to be bitter no matter what, then decided to literally turn his brothers against him. He just drops snide remarks all over the place to Ulmo, reminding him that Melkor isn’t worth his time, and look at how much better Ulmo is, that he can stand about such pettiness. UGH.
Let’s break to talk about the Valar individually! Valaquenta gets more into specifics, but since the Ainulindalë talks about Manwë, Melkor, Aulë, and Ulmo, we’re going to start with the core six. At first, when Ilúvatar guides them into creating Arda, they exist outside of it, in the ether of space, so to speak, but the longer they look upon the world from afar, the more they want to be part of it. Eventually, they create Eä, which is basically heaven (all of this mirrors the Bible a lot in the beginning), and many of the Valar descend down into Eä so that they might be more formally part of Arda and its workings. They are, essentially, archangels.
Alright, in order, we’ve got, left to right:
Manwë: the Big Brother™ type, through and through. He’s got a complicated relationship with Melkor because he wants Melkor to be better so they can be friends, but alas. He’s also big into the element of air & eagles.
Varda: look at how good they look together, king and queen of the Valar. She is considered the most beautiful of the Valar, sometimes even too much to look upon, for she created the stars out of the very light that shone within her.
Aulë: eventually Sauron’s boss of a sorts, since, before he’s Sauron, he’s an angelic being that works in the forge. Aulë is represented by the earth element, and he’s responsible for any of the weapons that the Valar utilize.
Yavanna: a very Gaia-like goddess, wife to Aulë, and basically just Mother Earth. She’s literally responsible for everything that grows on the earth, so she’s the one to pay homage to, first and foremost.
Melkor: let the soapbox weeping begin. This description of Melkor is just so fitting: “but Melkor too was there from the first, and he meddled in all that was done, turning it if he might to his own desires and purposes; and he kindled great fires.” He is a menace, and all he wants is war, and I love him.
Ulmo: yes, he is pretty much Poseidon. He does a big ole “byyyyyyye” to everyone else and fucks off to the ocean, where he hangs out with the fish forever and has a grand old time. He resurfaces occasionally to scare the shit out of a choice man here or there, but that’s about it.
And that is about it for the creation of Arda! There’s a bit of strife at the end, when Manwë calls all his siblings to go to war with Melkor, but Tolkien doesn’t write about that war because the elves don’t know about it, and, basically, the moral of The Silmarillion is if the elves didn’t fuck it up themselves, they don’t really care.
Man, I should have done a Valar primer at some point. I have one written for elves, which I’m definitely going to be linking, and you should definitely read when we get around to it because it took me an entire week to put together, and I’m so proud of it. Now that we’ve covered the main six Valar, though, and I got to show off some gorgeous art, it’s time to talk about the other six.
Yes, you’re noticing correctly that Melkor is not depicted here, but never fear! The artist, Marine Vernhes, also did a separate sketch of him since Ilúvatar rudely decided he was not to be counted amongst the Valar anymore.
Alrighty, back at it, left to right:
Ulmo, Aulë, Yavanna, Manwë, Varda, Nessa, Tulkas
Nienna, Irmo, Estë, Oromë, Vána, Vairë, Námo
For the ones we haven’t talked about yet:
Nessa: sister of Tulkas & 100000% an adaptation of Diana; loves deer, running through the trees, and dancing
Tulkas: basically the most badass of all the Valar, and though he comes into the story last, he’s literally brought in to help defeat Melkor, so he’s That Guy
Nienna: I will cry over Nienna several times, who had Gandalf as her student; Nienna, coincidentally, is often depicted as constantly weeping, for she is the guardian of all sorrow
Irmo: resides in Lórien & is responsible for all dreams & visions; brother to Námo, so takes on the Hypnos mantle
Estë: wife of Irmo, healer, very much reminds me of Eowyn when she comes to the Houses of Healing
Oromë: many of these are just adaptations of other myths, but that’s how most lores are created, and I love Oromë here as Beowulf (fight me) because his whole purpose is fighting monsters and being angry
Vána: younger sister of Yavanna and an early representation of Persephone, when she was still Kore, goddess of spring; when a flower sees her, it panics and grows as fast as possible
Vairë: wife of Námo & weaver of all things pertaining to Time, she is responsible for basically keeping track of all history & making sure the threads of time weave together cohesively
Námo: keeper of the dead, a sort of cross between Hades & Thanatos, Námo maintains the underworld in Mandos
Look, I know we all think Tolkien was nuts, and he is, but name a single author that you don’t think a) would have benefited from spending a quick five pages breaking down their main characters, or b) would have absolutely loved to be able to spend the time doing that.
We’ve also got the Maiar talked about a bit in this part, though I’m only going to mention two here: Olórin & Mairon. Olórin is, eventually, Gandalf when he comes to Middle-earth, and Mairon is, eventually, Sauron when he eats Melkor’s cookies and goes to the dark side. The two of them even duke it out once! There are only a few other Maiar (angels) named, but Tolkien places them here most just as an explanation of the lore.
And, last, but never, ever least in my heart, Melkor gets an entire section to himself. Melkor, which means He who arises in Might, which DAMN SON, is definitely among my top five favorite LOTR characters, definitely top one in The Silmarillion overall, which is saying A Lot considering how much I love Fingolfin and Maedhros and Beleg and Lúthien and I could keep going for a while, so let’s move on. We’re now going to refer to him as Morgoth, Black Foe of the World, because the other Valar are assholes and decided they were going to tell their brother exactly what they thought of him by literally renaming him. I’m bitter, okay? Get used to it.
And that is it for the opening chapters that precede The Silmarillion! Are you ready?
Of the Beginning of Days
Here, we’ve got Tolkien creating his own sun & moon mythology. I love, love, love whenever there’s sun & moon mythology in books, especially when each are personified and given a story of how they became what they were. So often, though, those myths get pretty violent and full of assault pretty quick, though, so I appreciate that Tolkien, instead, was like
And not only does Tolkien randomly decide that the sun & moon are going to be represented by lamps (yes, literal lamps, I am not reading between the lines here) on the north & south poles, but then he decides that Morgoth should get pissed about the lamps. So pissed, in fact, that he builds his first fortress, Utumno, deep under the earth where the light of the lamps can’t reach, and when he’s sure that no one can reach him there, he hauls ass back to where the Valar are at a wedding (Grade A Drama Queen over here) and uses the wedding as a distraction to destroy the lamps.
WHAT A PUNK
In destroying the lamps, too, Morgoth literally burns spring away to the point where the Valar can no longer reside in their original home, so they’ve got to pack themselves up and find a new home. Need I explain more why this drama queen is my favorite? Anyway, this is how Valinor is created, which is the original home of the first elves, originally known as the Eldar, and is a fortress and a half of a place. This is where Manwë decides he’s going to build his throne on the highest mountain ever known–pfffffft, and people call Morgoth a drama queen, whatever–so that he can properly keep an eye on his unruly brother.
And then there were the trees because they haven’t quite figured out yet that they definitely cannot underestimate Morgoth. They’re literally always going to, too, so it’s not like they eventually learn, they just eventually sigh about it a lot rather than rage at him.
This section is literally just about a pair of lamps and then a pair of trees (that Morgoth hasn’t destroyed yet) and then Ilúvatar saying, “Kids are great, but you know what’s better? Grandkids.” And thus, elves and men were born.
Of Aulë and Yavanna
All told, there’s really not a lot of lore about dwarves in Tolkien’s legendarium. This chapter with Aulë is one of the only times we get any lore, and given that it’s about their literal birth as a race, that’s not even a lot in the grand scheme of things. However, I love this chapter because someone else is mad at Ilúvatar! I feel like I should put a disclaimer in here that I don’t actually dislike the character of Ilúvatar, I dislike Ilúvatar himself. Tolkien wrote an exceptional character, which is why I have so much anger toward him. If he was just a shit character, I wouldn’t really care about the fact that he literally puts Aulë’s children to sleep as punishment.
‘But when the times comes I will awaken them, and they shall be to thee as children; and often strife shall arise between thine and mine, the children of my adoption and the children of my choice.’
Ilúvatar is the worstttttttt, you heard it here first. Aulë is so upset with his father for creating elves & men without consulting any of them first, and without telling them anything about these new beings suddenly placed in the world with him, that he decides he wants his own children. And that’s just adorable, honestly, considering Aulë is usually depicted with a hammer and yelling. And it’s just perfect, that the children that Aulë creates are dwarves, because they’re just a mirror image of his own personality, and I hate Ilúvatar so much for stomping in like, “Uhhhh what? I gave you so many gifts, and you turn on me like this? That’s it, kill them all.” And Aulë just does! Lifts his hammers and says alright dad if you say so, and the only reason he doesn’t is because manipulating Ilúvatar tells him, right before he’s about to strike the blow, that it’s okay, he can keep his kids as long as he puts them to sleep for hundreds of years until Ilúvatar is ready for them to exist, and, even then, there’s gonna be hella pettiness between their individual children.
Here, have some dwarf art while I chill out.
It’s very fitting, too, that Aulë’s wife, Yavanna, should be the one to raise the Ents. I love that they’re called the Shepherd of the Trees, I always forget that, and it’s such a powerful and subdued name all at once. Shepherds are often wholesome, sweet people who want nothing more than to tend to the earth, but they also wield a hell of a lot of power and influence, and they can change how said earth works to their benefit. And that’s pretty much what the Ents are–kind and gentle, yes, but ready and willing to go to war for their home, if necessary.
Of the Coming of the Elves and the Captivity of Melkor
Oooooh, we’ve finally been introduced to Angband, this is where the good stuff happens! Also, can we just chat for a second about the fact that Morgoth is literally responsible for every dark creature on Middle-earth? Like, Ilúvatar bestowed Arda upon the universe, filled it with his Valar and his elves, and then called it a day. But everything that came after that–the orcs, the Balrogs, the corruption of men–all of that is birthed by Morgoth. Even the elves, before the Valar even realize they’ve been awakened on Arda, are touched by the dark shadow that is Morgoth and come to inherently fear the Valar. No wonder the dude was impossible to kill. But that’s a spoiler, so we won’t jump ahead.
Oh, I totally either skimmed through parts of this chapter or just don’t remember it at all, but I adore this bit where Varda is literally putting stars into the sky. She tells a whole story with the stars, too, much like we apply stories to our own, but my favorite is definitely that she puts a sickle into the night sky and call it a “sign of doom”. There’s so much that I love about the depth of Tolkien’s incredible lore, but it’s these little things, the stories behind the stars, that make it so much more than anything else in the world. The sheer amount of detail he puts into his universe is what makes it so good because it feels so thoroughly built that it almost becomes real.
My bad, we’re not totally at Angband yet. It seems Tolkien did a bit of a summary of events to come, but in a vague way, since this chapter is mostly about the destruction of Utumno, Morgoth’s first fortress. Or, at least, not Angband as we come to know and love it, when Morgoth & Sauron are ruling together in evil eternity. Also, I’m trying to remember if how Morgoth convinced Sauron to come to the dark side is in this quite as in-depth as I remember it, or if that’s mostly due to fanart and the Gateway.
Not going to lie, about half of this chapter, while very interesting, becomes null & void pretty quick. The only elves we’re actually going to talk about moving forward are the descendants of Finwë. There are two other types of elves, but they don’t ever really come into the story (except when one of Finwë’s descendants literally massacres a whole swath of them), so I’m not going to break them down.
Of Thingol and Melian
Oh, Thingol. He’s definitely up there in my top ten most disliked characters. Oh, that’s probably an interesting list. Ilúvatar has the top spot, obviously, but then there’s Thingol, Denethor–I know there’s more, but I’m struggling a bit. We’ll circle back.
Anyway, he’s a punk, but that’s also a spoiler! Basically, Thingol gets to have the second most beautiful woman in the entire universe (Varda is considered the most of all), and she’s way too good for him, particularly when he later tries to lock his daughter in a tower so she doesn’t get to chase after her love, which is what Thingol did, so mostly I’m just mad because he’s a hypocrite.
Literally anytime people fawn over elves and how majestic they are, I’m just baffled. Sure, I guess their majesty isn’t negated, but they’re also assholes, through and through.
Of Eldamar and the Princes of Eldalië
Don’t you love when, a single chapter prior, you’re like “I’m not going to talk about the Teleri because they’re not important except for when they die” and then Tolkien’s like “BITCH IMMA MAKE YOU REGRET THAT!”
FIRST OF ALL, I’ve found a new haven for Silmarillion art, which means I am done. I’ll be lost on here for hours now. I’ve got about three(?) artists that I come back to over and over again–Phobs, obviously, silmaspens, who has my favorite character sketches, and flurgburgler, who plays with cultural style in the coolest ways.
SECOND OF ALL, how could I forget about the Teleri’s inherent importance when Círdan the Shipwright comes from them? Like??? GIRL, WHATCHU DOIN’. Yes, Círdan is the person who sails people across the sea out of the Grey Havens. Yes, he is probably one of the oldest characters in LOTR because he’s there since the beginning of time, and he’s there at the end of ROTK. Anyway, Círdan is a badass, and so now I have to backtrack upon my previous statement.
Tolkien’s lore is pretty cool around the elves, too, because he just says, initially, here’s the Children of Ilúvatar. They’re a bunch of elves born of Ilúvatar’s want for more beautiful creatures to stamp his name on (I will never not be bitter), but, as happens in the real world, as soon as the Children come into existence, they start to wander off into their own subsections of race. At the beginning, the first “sundering”, they’re kind of split into a few different groups based on which lord they want to follow–the Eldar, which many of the elves we know & love in LOTR, follow Oromë, the Vanyar decided to follow Ingwë and are never really seen again because they hang out in Valinor, which is the new home of the Valar once they leave Ea and come to Arda properly, the Noldor, who we’re going to talk about the most, follow Finwë, and his descendant is Fëanor, who is the cause of all problems everywhere, and then the Teleri follow both Elwë & Olwë, brothers who split up the race because there are so many of them. There’s also three subsections of the Teleri–Calaquendi (Elves of the Light), Úmanyar & Avari (both referenced as the Moriquendi, Elves of Darkness)–but those distinctions are not hugely important. Really, we’re almost never going to talk about the Vanyar, the Eldar aren’t going to come into play for a bit, the Noldor are the most important (for this story), and the Teleri are pretty cool until Fëanor decides he hates them. Of course, even beyond the three subsections of Teleri, Tolkien breaks them down even more into the Falathrim (this is where Círdan comes in) and the Eglath (these are the Beleriand elves, where Thingol & Melian live), which really just separates them into elves that stayed by the sea and elves that went into the trees.
Okay, and because I know I’ve just rambled a lot with a heck ton of names and elvish lore, I’ve got to explain why this is so cool, and it all goes back to damn Lothlórien. Am I going to quote Letters a-freaking-gain? YOU BETCHA!
In a note to the text it is explained that Lórinand was the Nadorin name of this region (afterwards called Lórien and Lothlórien), and contained the Elvish word meaning “golden light”: “valley of gold.” The Quenya form would be Laurenandë, the Sindarin Glornan or Nan Laur. Both here and elsewhere the meaning of the name is explained by reference to the golden mallorn-trees of Lothlórien; but they were brought here by Galadriel, and in another, later, discussion the name Lórinand is said to have been itself a transformation, after the introduction of the mallorns, of a yet older name Lindórinand, “Vale of the Land of the Singers.” Since the Elves of this land were in origin Teleri, there is here no doubt present the name by which the Teleri call themselves, Lindar, “The Singers.” From many variance among themselves, it emerges that all the later names were probably due to Galadriel herself, combining different elements: laurë “gold,” nan(d) “valley,” ndor “land,” lin- “sing”; and in Laurelindórinan “Valley of Singing Gold” (which Treebeard told the Hobbits was the earlier name) deliberately echoing the name of the Golden Tree that grew in Valinor, “for which, as is plain, Galadriel’s longing increased year by year to, at last, an overwhelming regret.
And because I’m a bit lazy, here was my breakdown of this, too, from my Just How Deep Does the Lore Go? post from January’s Tolkien birthday celebration.
“Tolkien was really like, “Okay. It’s called Lothlórien right now, but that doesn’t make sense for the entire history of the city. At some point, it was definitely called something more difficult because it was just the Eldar creating it, and they were trying to be all fancy & pretty, so it started as Laurelindórinan due to a lot of highly specific reasons based on the elves naming it & all their history. But, history is a fickle thing, and, eventually, it’s going to change according to the different types of elves that are coming into place, so based on several different variables, it’ll go through an etymology of Lindórinand to eventually be shortened to Lórinand until we’re in a more modern time, when people like Men will want to shorten things because they’re rude, and the elves of this age will be a bit more hasty than the Eldar, so they’ll maybe want to be a bit more efficient, so I’m going to call it Lothlórien. This is easier to say, but also still beautiful and echoes the glory of forgotten times. And, even still, sometimes they’ll just straight up chop it in half to Lórien so that there’s eight million names for eight million different reasons.””
This is why the breakdown of the elves is so cool because it’s realistic. That is what happens to real races over time, how our communities come to exist because we separate into different subsections of a larger thing, and Tolkien was that thorough with his lore that he made sure we knew the whole history from Children of Ilúvatar all the way down to Thranduil and his woodland elves in Mirkwood.
Holy hell, are we still on this chapter? WOW. I think it’s almost time for me to link my elf primer, but not yet, because first I just have to hilariously point out that “the Noldor were beloved of Aulë” and it’s hilarious because SPOILERS, but Mairon is a student of Aulë, and Morgoth eventually sways him over to the dark side, and once Mairon becomes Sauron and is starting to think about the rings, he goes back to Aulë’s students, but now they’re the Noldor elves, and Sauron convinces them to help him make rings, and it’s just so fucking cyclical.
And it came to pass that the masons of the house of Finwë, quarrying in the hills after stone (for they delighted in the building of high towers), first discovered the earth-gems, and brought them forth in countless myriads; and they devised tools for the cutting and shaping of gems, and carved them in many forms. They hoarded them not, but gave them freely, and by their labour enriched all Valinor.
And so it begins.
The Noldor afterwards came back to Middle-earth, and this tale tells mostly of their deeds; therefor the names and kinship of their princes may here be told, in that form which these names later bore in the tongue of the Elves of Beleriand.
Okay, now it’s time for the elf primer. And look, you absolutely don’t have to read it (you don’t have to read any of this, really, you could just be reading The Silmarillion on your own merry time!), but given that I’ve already broken down:
- the entirety of Finwë’s descendants, which includes all of the Fëanorians
- plus Finarfin & Fingolfin’s descendants, who are Fëanor’s brothers
- all the other elves in Silmarillion who are non-Finwë descendants
- AND a few LOTR elves
Given all that, I’m not doing it here because that post took me weeks. But the rest of this chapter does break down quite a few of those elves, albeit very quickly, so I do recommend giving that post a look, maybe even keep it handy as a reference as we move forward into the meat of the story.
Did Tolkien really just prologue The Silmarillion with seven chapters? HA! I was originally going to tack on two more chapters with this week’s reading to even it off at around 75 pages, which is kind of how to average the whole book into four weeks, but this feels like a really natural end for the week. And though it ends on a really chill note, I’m hoping that you’ll stick around for the utter chaos that is Fëanor about to create the Silmarils, Morgoth stealing them, and Fëanor literally swearing an oath to defeat Morgoth or else.
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