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Arts and Letters

Mouthed by Mortals

The Silmarillion (Illustrated)

J.R.R. Tolkien 

William Morrow, pp. 432, $65.00


On June 5, 1826, an Anglo-Irish clergyman presented a box of twelve wooden soldiers to a boy, who shared them with his sisters. The toys became the rulers of the Glasstown Confederacy, a loose assemblage of fictional kingdoms dreamed up by the Brontë siblings. Some years later, while engaged in writing her biography of Charlotte, Mrs. Gaskell would receive a parcel full of miscellaneous writings—“tales, dramas, poems, romances”—dashed off in tiny childish script.

This record was all that has survived of Glasstown, and its successors Angria and Gondal. However strange these stories might have appeared to the author of Cranford, the creation of imaginary worlds on the scale implied by the surviving Gondal papers seems to have been common enough among clever children in the nineteenth century, including De Quincey and (perhaps more surprisingly) Nietzsche. In his rather moving and affectionate memoir of his older brother, Derwent Coleridge tells us that Hartley (the poet’s eldest son) spent his entire life expanding upon the history and geography of Ejuxria, the Land of Clouds, which the two had devised in boyhood.

Unlike Ejuxria or Gondal, J.R.R. Tolkien’s invented world is very much with us. Editing the thousands of pages that together comprise his “legendarium,” as it is rather grandly referred to by his admirers, became the life’s work of Tolkien’s son Christopher. His endless drafts, whose composition spanned from the First World War to the American withdrawal from Vietnam, have been catalogued in twelve enormous volumes. The bulk of these are concerned with a single work that, in its published form, is barely the length of a short novel.

And what a novel it is. To read The Silmarillion is to enter a world wholly unlike that of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Here there are no talking purses, no cockney villains, no commerce or villages, no innkeepers, fat or otherwise, and, of course, no hobbits; in their place are “horror and madness,” gods, werewolves, vampires, bat creatures, world-devouring spiders, pits, rape, incest, and only one talking animal.

Unlike that of The Lord of the Rings, the style of The Silmarillion is uniform, a kind of pastiche of the Authorized Edition of the Bible (“amid weeping there is joy and under the shadow of death light that endures”). There are virtually no jokes, and in very few places does he attempt to achieve anything like the sustained action sequences—most of them rather clumsy—that sit uncomfortably alongside passages like this one from The Two Towers:

There agelong she had dwelt, an evil thing in spider-form, even such as once of old had lived in the Land of the Elves in the West that is now under the Sea, such as Beren fought in the Mountains of Terror in Doriath, and so came to Luthien upon the green sward amid the hemlocks in the moonlight long ago. How Shelob came there, flying from ruin, no tale tells, for out of the Dark Years few tales have come. But still she was there, who was there before Sauron, and before the first stone of Barad-dur; and she served none but herself, drinking the blood of Elves and Men, bloated and grown fat with endless brooding on her feasts, weaving webs of shadow; for all living things were her food, and her vomit darkness. Far and wide her lesser broods, bastards of the miserable mates, her own offspring, that she slew, spread from glen to glen, from the Ephel Duath to the eastern hills, to Dol Guldur and the fastnesses of Mirkwood. But none could rival her, Shelob the Great, last child of Ungoliant to trouble the unhappy world.

This is very much the idiom of The Silmarillion. It would be absurd to suggest that this is the sort of effect for which we generally look to prose fiction; it would be even more absurd to suggest that it doesn’t “work.” Throughout there are passages—the fear of the newly awakened Elves in Cuiviénen (“they would often vanish, and never return; and the Quendi said that the Hunter had caught them”); the destruction of the Two Trees; the Miltonic crossing of the icy Helcaraxë; the nameless haunters of Dungortheb (“monsters wandered there that were born in the long dark before the Sun, hunting silently with many eyes”); the contest of wills between Sauron and Finrod Felagund; Lúthien’s descent into the fortresses of Morgoth (“Then Morgoth looking upon her beauty conceived in his thought an evil lust, and a design more dark than any that had yet come into his heart since he fled from Valinor”); the slaying of Glaurung the dragon—as haunting as anything in English.

Many subscribers to this periodical, under its present editorship anyway, must feel as if they were getting something of a raw deal on the Tolkien front. I stand by most of my arguments, especially my criticism of the tonal problems in The Lord of the Rings, with its multiple overlapping prose registers, and my impression that the Tolkien industry has been nothing short of a disaster for Catholic education. But I must unburden myself of a conclusion that I have come to only recently, namely, that The Silmarillion is a kind of masterpiece, at once cardboard pre-Raphaelite and supremely postmodern, as if Keats’s Endymion had been rewritten by H.P. Lovecraft and edited by John Shade. It may very well be the least humorous book ever written.

The novel’s textual history is a very complicated matter. It is beyond the scope of the present essay to inquire into the process of its composition. We will probably never know to what extent the published version is the work of Tolkien himself. If, as some have suggested, the text as we know it owes as much to Christopher Tolkien and Guy Kay as it does to the author of The Lord of the Rings, it would have been a matter of indifference to the latter, whose understanding of authorship was (despite his obvious Romantic sympathies) essentially medieval.

“Such music,” as Lytton Strachey once wrote of Blake, “is not to be lightly mouthed by mortals.” Tolkien’s creations can only be sojourners; they belong to the land of Gorlim and Eilinel and Talath Dirnen, of Doriath—the Hidden Kingdom—where Beren espies Lúthien “at a time of evening under moonrise, as she danced upon the unfading grass in the glades beside Esgalduin.” It is a place I have reluctantly learned to visit without embarrassment.

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