Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Guest post by Matt Sellwood: Three Silmarils To Rule Them All

At various times in his life Matt has been a work colleague and a parliamentary candidate for the Green Party. At all times he has been an excellent chap. He's currently freelancing prior to starting work as a barrister in the near future.

You can find him on Twitter as @Mattsellwood

Today, he's making a persuasive case for why The Silmarillion is the best Tolkien book. Take it away Matt, and many thanks for dropping in here at the blog.

“Love not too well the work of thy hands and the devices of thy heart; and remember that the true hope of the Noldor lieth in the West, and cometh from the Sea.”

The Silmarillion is a terrible novel. It features names that are impossible to remember or pronounce, patchy characterisation, frustrating allusions to major plot points which are never expanded upon, and themes which are as repetitive as the average soap opera.

All of the above is true. Fortunately, the Silmarillion isn't a novel – and it is the insistence on treating it as such which has led so many people to dismiss it as Tolkien's “other book”. You know, the one that only massive nerds read, and only then because they want the credibility of having said that they've done it.

Well, I am a massive nerd, but I believe the Silmarillion to be the Tolkien family's greatest work. One has to use the term family, of course, because Christopher Tolkien spent years pulling the text together from the unfinished fragments of his father's scattered papers. Begun in the trenches of the First World War and continued until the year of J.R.R's death, the raw material of the Silmarillion was a sprawling expanse of tenuously connected story-telling, and one which perhaps only the author's son could have forged into a coherent whole.

It's hardly surprising that people expect the Silmarillion to be a novel, and judge it on those terms. It is often described as a historical prequel to the Lord of the Rings, but it is in fact an attempt to create a collection of mythological and legendary stories akin to the Prose Eddas, the Arthurian Cycles, or even the Bible. When understood as such, many of the peculiarities of the book begin to come into focus. One doesn't read a collection of Greek myths, for example, and complain that the character of Ares is one-dimensional, or that Zeus' motivations aren't clear. Instead, one appreciates that the stories interweave and inter-relate to form a message about how one's life should be lived.

The Silmarillion is, in Tolkien's own style, an attempt to do just that. Rooted in his own idiosyncratic blend of Judeo-Christian and pagan ideology, it explores the morality and worldview espoused in the Lord of the Rings, but in much greater detail. From the creation of the world (actuated in the form of song and poetry, what else?) to the Last Alliance of Men and Elves, Tolkien uses his invented history to teach lessons about love, revenge, pride and pity.

One of the most irritating – because most wrong – criticisms of Tolkien's work is that everything is depicted in black and white. Nothing could be further from the world of the Silmarillion. Here, what seems to be good can be turned to evil through pride and selfishness, whilst the darkest times can be redeemed to such an extent that they become 'eucatastrophic' – Tolkien's own term for the unexpected and unlooked for saving of the protagonist from seemingly insurmountable odds.

I don't claim that the Silmarillion is an easy read. It suffers, in particular, from the fact that Tolkien's predilection for describing things in many languages for the simple joy of exploring words is given free reign at the beginning of the book. This ensures that, unfortunately, many readers don't make it to the story of Beren and Luthien, or the tragedy of Turin, or the final triumph of Earendil. In not reaching these stories, they are neither engaging with wonderfully written and compelling narrative, nor with the moral principles that Tolkien is attempting to communicate through them.

Ultimately, as with the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit, the message of the book is a simple one. Take pleasure in one's own creative power and in the beauty of the world, but avoid pride and hubris in the knowledge that one person must act in fellowship with others in order to succeed. For Tolkien, salvation comes not from blasting trumpets and charging knights, but from humility, love, simple faith and goodness. Myths based on those ideals are ones that I can get behind.

P.S. Also, if you read all the way through, you get 1000 nerd points and the extraordinarily useful real-world ability to speak two different kinds of Elvish. WIN.

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