Monday, 19 February 2018

Silmarilion - The Theology of Tolkien

While the Silmarillion isn't the most well known of Tolkien's works, it does have a reputation. Unfortunately that reputation usually involves the phrase 'I read the first ten pages and then gave up on it'. This is a bit of a shame because the Silmarillion is a remarkable piece of work. However, it is also quite dense, and certainly not in the vain of Tolkien's more famous stories. In a way The Hobbit could be considered a children's story, though it is pretty thick for your average Children's book (however Harry Potter also falls into that category, and they get pretty chunky by the end). The Lord of the Rings is probably more for adults, or at least older teenagers (the first time I read it it pretty much took me ten years, from when I was in the early years of high school to when I had turned Twenty-One - fortunately my second reading took me much less time, though that was because I would read them after I had seen the respective movie to compare the two).

Where as the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings deal with individual quests over a short space of time, the Silmarillion spans the entire history of Middle Earth from creation to the end of the War of the Ring. However, the detail is lacking as Tolkien is giving us an overview of the realms, though at times he does focus on some important stories, at least in the First Age (such as the story of Hurin and the story of the lovers Beren and Luthian). Yet the Silmarillion is unlike many of the other books that I have read because you really draw back and watch the history of Middle Earth unfold in all of its glory and magnificence, and also experience the immense detail that Tolkien put into the world.

The book itself wasn't published until after his death, and even then his son had to rework it into a form that was acceptable to the publishers. In a way what he had was a lifetime of notes, from when he first conceived of the idea in the trenches of World War One, during his time as a lecturer in Old English at Oxford University, and right through to his death. Tolkien did attempt to publish it at one stage, just after the Hobbit, but the publishers retty much rejected it. Then again the Lord of the Rings wasn't received all that well at first, and it wasn't until it was discovered by the hippie movement of the 1960s that it really came to fame. The production of the movies by Peter Jackson has certainly given in a new lease on life, and has opened it up to another generation.

Tolkien's World

Normally I would write a brief synopsis, but I'm not sure that the Silmarilion really opens up to such a concept. Sure, I could give you a brief overview, but there is so much in this book, and so many stories interweaving into each other that a synopsis really wouldn't do it justice. However, what I can say is that this is apparently the world as it was before the flood. In Tolkien's mind, we seem to be living in the sixth age, with the first four ages being the ages as they are outlined in the Silmarilion. The forth age ended with Noah's flood, and the fifth age ended with the death and resurrection of Christ. This current sixth age will end with Christ's return, and thus we will enter into a seventh, and eternal, age.

The story begins with the creation of the world, but Tolkien has an interesting concept of time. We are told that there is one god, Eru, or Iluvatar, as he is known by the elves. However he pretty much takes a back seat in most of the story, and the first part of the book we have the Valar. They are sort of a cross being angelic beings, and the gods of the ancient world. Each of them have dominion over a certain aspect of the world. We also have Manwe, who happens to be the king of the Valar. There is Ulmo, who is the lord of the seas, and another who is lord of all that is under the earth, and one who is the lord (or lady), of the forests. One of the sections gives us a rundown of each of these Valar. Then we have the Maia, who are lesser beings, but still quite powerful.

Belariand & Middle Earth

We also learn of the beginnings of each of the races, such as the elves, the dwarves, and the humans (though we are not told where the hobbits come from). The dwarves were actually a creation that was against the wishes of Illuvator, though this was quite innocent. The thing was that the first born were supposed to be the elves, but one of the Valar decided that he would create the dwarves as well. While this upset Illuvatar, he forgave him, and allowed the dwarves to live, namely because since they were living beings, they had a soul and thus deserved to live.

There is an interesting contrast between the Elves and the Men. Elves are immortal, while men are not. Thus this has raised the idea that men are actually fallen elves. The suggestion is that elves represent unfallen man, that is humanity before they ate of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. The catch is that this is never implied in the text, and they seem to come after the elves. The elves were the first-born, yet the men appeared from the east. The rest of the story is about the interaction between the elves and men, and their war against Morgoth (and later Sauron). 


The Silmarilion opens with the creation of the world, however it is interesting that Tolkien has Illuvatar sing the world into existence. We see this elsewhere as well because C.S. Lewis also has Narnia sung into existence. As such Tolkien places a huge emphasis on the role of music. In fact music is an interesting creation. We have it around everywhere these days, and in fact I am sitting in a pub in Surry Hills in Sydney, and there is music playing in the background. As such the suggestion is that music has been an essential part of creation since the beginning of time.

Yet the Bible doesn't have creation being sung into existence. Mind you, the story of creation, or at least Genesis 1, is written in the form of a song. However, the story has God speaking and things coming into existence. Yet we come to Tolkien, and we have the universe being sung into existence. In a sense music is a powerful force, and in fact people through the ages have placed a huge importance on music, and the song. It has a way of influencing people - music would be played as armies marched into war, and would be played both in victory and in defeat. The funeral dirge mourns the dead, and the victory anthem celebrates a great win. Countries even have songs that define their nation (though nobody in Australia knows the lyrics to Advance Australia Fair).

Songs were also important in passing down knowledge. Many of the ancient stories that we have, we have in the form of lyric poems. Stories such as the Iliad, the Odyssey, and even the Nibelungendlied, were originally songs that would be sung by traveling bards. It was only at a later stage that they where written down in the form that we have today. In a way that is not surprising because we seem to remember a song much, much better than we remember prose. Sure, there are people who know the Bible by heart, but when it comes to songs, all we need is the tune and suddenly all of the lyrics come flooding into our head. I even remember a scene in the movie 'Long Kiss Goodnight' where Samuel L Jackson's character makes mention that he uses tunes to remember to do certain things, such as take his keys before he goes out.

The thing is that some themes seem to intertwine in a lot of books, and while the rebellion of Morgoth probably deserves to be below in the section on sin and corruption, there is also an element that comes into play with music. The thing is that while Illuvatar is singing creation into existence, one of the Valar is singing a different song. This isn't the case of somebody singing out of tune, which is bad enough, but rather somebody singing a song that is in opposition to the song that is being sung. In a way this is a case of somebody being willfully disruptive. It would be like an orchestra playing Beethoven's fifth and suddenly one of the trombonists starts playing the Rolling Stones. It not only ruins the song, but it completely disrupts what is going on. In Tolkien's mind, this is reflective of Satan's rebellion against God.

The Great Tree

It would be an understatement to suggest that trees play an important role in this world. In fact trees play an important role in may of our myths and legends. This is not just the idea of the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of Good and evil (or even the tree upon which Jesus was hung), but also the ancient Norse myth of Ygdrissal, the world tree which holds the Earth together. Trees give us life, they turn carbon dioxide into breathable oxygen. In fact the Amazon rainforest is regularly referred to as the lungs of the world (and it is being destroyed at a remarkable rate).

Throughout the Silmarilion we have the image of the tree. The elves live in the forest of Doriath. Later we have a tree being planted in the heart of Numenor, and while this tree is destroyed, seeds are taken from it and planted elsewhere so that it continues to live. In fact this tree ends up in the city of Minas Tirith, which plays an important role in the defense of the Middle Earth against the forces of Sauron. The thing is that the tree comes from Valinor, the land to the west where the Valar dwell, and everybody has a yearning to travel to. In a way trees have their own form of immortality - take for instance the Californian redwoods that are said to live thousands of years.

Trees, or at least this one specific tree, becomes more and more important as the story progresses. Yet this in a sense is a reflection of the tree of life. Trees produce fruit which we use to sustain ourselves. Sure, these days we eat meat, however a whole subculture has arisen around the idea that we don't actually need to eat meat and all of our sustainance can come from plantlife. In a way trees give us life, not just through producing oxygen, but also through producing food. Note that the fruit of the tree of life had the effect of preventing us from dying, and also note that in the book of Revelation we are told that in the world to come the tree of life will produce twelve harvests a year.

Yet trees also have a destructive nature. This isn't so much the idea that branches can fall off and damage the roof of your car, of the roots can destroy the foundations of your house. No, we also have the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the fruit which resulted us being kicked out of the Garden of Eden and being denied access to the tree of life. Trees can produce fruit that are poisonous, especially if used incorrectly. The opium poppy has marvelous medicinal properties (as does marijuana), but they can also be incredibly destructive if abused. Also consider the Datura plant, the flower which can kill you if not used appropriately.

Lust and Greed

Tolkien's Middle Earth revolves around jewels, in particular the rings of power in the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit, and the Silmarils in the Silmarilion. The Silmarils were jewels of great beauty created by the elves (the Noldor to be precise), but were stolen by Morgoth after he was released from bondage by feigning repentance. The recovery of these jewels forms the basis of the bulk of the Silmarilion, though this never actually eventuates. The desire of the Noldor to retrieve the jewels results in their downfall as they desire to leave the lands of the Valar to get them back, and when they meet resistance they end up killing their own kind - which brings upon them a curse. They are forever known as the kinslayers, and the curse is that they will forever be hunting for the gems, but never actually retrieve them.

We see a similar thing with the rings of power, which form the basis of the Lord of the Rings. Sauron creates these rings, which have a very corrupting influence on those who possess them. In fact in Middle Earth, all jewelery is corrupting. We see the same thing with the palantirs, crystal balls that can be used to view far off lands; but because they were created by Sauron, using them results in the user coming under his influence. This is the main reason why Saurumon turns in the Lord of the Rings. However, the rings of power have a similar corrupting influence. The ringwraiths, otherwise known as the Nazgul, were originally humans, however they were given rings by Sauron, and turned into the monstrosities of which we know.

But let us go back to the Silmarils. These are things of beauty, but they are also items of power. While Morgoth is an entity of evil, he also desires power. In stealing the Silmarils he gains power over the elves because he knows that the Noldor will want them back, and will go to extreme lengths to get them. This they do because not only do they forsake paradise, but they also go to war with their own kin to retrieve them. In fact there is a legend that is included in the Silmarilion where an elf and a human fall in love, which is something that is frowned upon, and the human is given the task of retrieving a Silmaril to prove his worth. While he succeeds, he only succeeds in part because the doom of the Noldor expressly states that they will never get their hands on them.

In a way Morgoth uses the silmarils to taunt his enemies. He places them in his crown so that they are there to see. In a way they are within reach, but they are impossible to get. This is the doom of the Noldor - they see their goal but they simply are unable to reach it. This desire to gain the silmarils eventually leads to the destruction of Beleriand as wars are fought back and forth between the Noldor and Morgoth, and Morgoth eventually overuns the land. In the end they defeat Morgoth, and get their hands on the Silmarils, but they are unable to keep them because the power, and the nature of the doom, means that they are forever out of reach.

The West

Throughout the story the characters have this desire to travel to the west. The reason being is that this is where the lands of the Valar lie. In a sense Valinor is akin to heaven. The elves are welcome to dwell there, but humans aren't because their gift is to die. This is interesting because Tolkien created humanity as being mortal. It is unclear why this is the case, but it is suggest that because they are prone to be influence by Morgoth, then being immortal simply wears them down. From experience this is the case, because the older I get the more that I regret the actions of my past. I am fallible, and I have done a lot of bad things, and the longer I live, the more mistakes that I make and the heavier my burden becomes. Thus knowing that my life is limited is, in a way, a blessing.

Yet there is this desire to travel to the west. This in part seems to reflect the time in which Tolkien lived. To the east Middle Earth was barbarous and wild, something that is reflected in the Eurocrentric worldview. Europe is (or was) a Christian realm, and thus was attributed to being civilised. However the further one travels to the east, the less Christian the world becomes. In a way this could also be reflective, at the time, as the United States being the true Christian Nation, and the desire of those Christians in Europe to travel across the Atlantic to practice their belief without fear of persecution was strong.

Yet it is also reflective of what is termed as the 'now but not yet'. It focuses on our desire for a perfect world, a world without pain and suffering, and failure. The lands of Valaria were free from the influence of Morgoth, and thus one could dwell there in peace and harmony. This is the nature of the world in which we live - we live in a fallen world, but we desire a world that is perfect. We long to overturn and fight against the evils that surround us, and we constantly question why God does not intervene. In fact we are attempting to create a heaven on Earth through technology and science.

The scientific and industrial revolutions are reflective of these desires. We don't want to die, so medical research is actually attempting to find a cure to death. Consider the amount of money that is being funneled into cancer research, and the vaccinations that we receive when we are children. Yet the frustrations of this world reveals that for every disease that we defeat, more raise their ugly heads. AIDs was unknown before the 1980s, and superviruses, ones that are resistant to antibiotics, are slowly forming to destroy the weapons that we have created.

Sin and Corruption

I have mentioned that the lands of the first and second age were destroyed. If one looks at a map in the Silmarilion and then in Lord of the Rings, one discovers two completely different realms. I noted this and for a while wondered how the two lands actually came together. Well, thanks to the wonder that is the internet, I have actually found one. It turns out that Beleriand was to the west of the Middle Earth that we know but has sunk under the seas.

I posted this above, but have duplicated it for context.

The Silmarillion is a story of the corrupting influence of Morgoth, and Sauron, and the wars to defeat them. Yet these corrupting influences were subtle, very, very subtle. Tolkien was very clever in the way that he developed his villains because while we, the reader, know that they are the bad guys, the characters of the novels don't necessarily know that this is the case. The thing is that Illuvatar, and the Valar, withdrew to the west and are hidden from the realms that we know. Sure, the elves, who are immortal, are aware of the truth, but man, who isn't, is not. As such man is much more prone to being deceived.

In fact, throughout the story, we are regularly told of how men are deceived by Morgoth and Sauron. The difference between elves and men is their mortality. By living longer Elves are able to remember the past whereas men are only able to remember the past through a process of Chinese whispers. As such the longer we go from an event, the vaguer the event becomes. This is the discipline of history - attempting to determine what happened in the past with the limited evidence that we have available to us. Further, history is an interpretation, which means that we view history through our own rose coloured glasses, which is in turn viewed through the rose coloured glasses of those who recorded the events at the time.

The elves who have lived a long life remember the Valar and are confident of their existence, where as men are reliant upon the tales that are handed down to them. This is where the deception comes into play because while the Valar are hidden, Sauron (and Morgoth) are not. As such they are able to hold themselves out as the true divine entities, and that they are actually the ones who have the greater concerns from them. As such, the men are deceived into believing Morgoth and Sauron as opposed to trusting the stories that have been handed down to them.

This brings me to the Akaballeth, which is the story of the rise and fall of the empire of Numenor. In a way Numenor is Atlantis. It is an empire that is incredibly powerful, and technologically advanced. They are also blessed. However, while they begin as wise and godly, the further time passes, the more they become confident in their own ability. However, there is always this conflict between the powers that be, and the faithful ones. Yet, as time passes, the true faithful become less, and much more persecuted as the corrupted ones take charge.

In one sense this seems to call to mind the history of Israel as it comes out of the Old Testament, but it is also the history of Christianity. The longer one goes from the foundations, the more corrupt things become. We see this with the history of Israel as the kings become ever worse until the kingdom is overun by the Babylonians. However we also see this with Christianity as the further we go from the founding event, the more splintered we become. We now live in an age where we have hundreds of denominations all claiming to represent the truth. In fact, we have the denominations literally warring against each other, making the claim to hold the true teachings on Christ, and a spectrum form the outright antagonistic, to the much more subtle 'yes that are right, but we know better'.

In Conclusion

A lot could be written on the works of Tolkien, and in fact quite a lot has already been written. I personally don't claim to have touched every aspect of what I have got out of the book. Mind you, Tolkien hated analogy, so any analogy that we get out of his stories was not his intention. In a way it is probably more a very well written fantasy story as opposed to any actual intention. However, despite what people say, it is clear that he has created a masterpiece, and anything that we get out of it we get it because it is something that we have seen as opposed to something that he intended.

In a sense this is a story of faith, and a story of keeping the faith. We see the corrupting power of Sauron and Morgoth, and we see how possessions have the ability to dominate, and corrupt, us. Yet we also see the beauty of the world, and the importance that things like music and nature play. We can learn an awful lot from Tolkien, particularly how the normal person has the potential to change the world, in the way that Frodo, a hobbit, saved the world by carrying the burden of the ring to Mount Doom. We also see the importance of friendship, in the way that Samwise Gamgee stuck by Frodo through thick and thin.

Yet we also see the destructive nature of greed, not only in how the desire to possess the Silmarils brought about the destruction of Beleriand, but also how Thorin's desire to regain the treasure of his ancestors brought about destruction of his own friends. We also see how the desire to possess the ring of power turned Golum from a humble hobbit into a being that simply had to have more and more, and has become almost pitiable to behold. In fact Gollum is the optimy of the one corrupted by greed, who simply cannot let go, and that his desire, his addiction, brought about his own demise.

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Silmarilion - The Theology of Tolkien by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

The Libromancer has finished exploring Lord of the Rings Chapter by Chapter and is now making his way through the Silmarilion.

1 comment:

  1. My dad, who was a Tolkien (and Lewis) fan long before it was cool, read us The Hobbit when I was 9 or 10. I read the Rings books in Jr. High (for the first of a few times). I didn't get to the Silmarilion until 30ish, and, as you said, it is dense. A LOT of information, and told not through individual characters as in the novels, but as a history. So it wasn't as easy, to say the least. But it is impressive just how detailed of a world Tolkien created. (If I recall correctly, the *original* idea came about because he wanted to invent his own language - and the various languages in the books are *true* languages, with consistent grammar and syntax, not just a word for word translation of English...)

    Regarding the trees, as a native Californian, I can confirm the age of the Coast Redwoods. The oldest are around 2000 years old, and are the tallest trees in the world - ~350 feet. But these are only the THIRD oldest trees in the state. The related Giant Sequoias (the largest trees by volume) live 3500+ years. The Bristlecone Pines, which are small and extremely slow growing, are the oldest, at around 5000 years. Because they live in arid mountains, and the wood is resistant to decay, there are dead trees and trunks that can be dated to over 10,000 years ago.