Brandon Pearce's Reviews > The Silmarillion

The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien
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's review
May 18, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: inkling
Recommended for: Everyone over the age of 14

A must read for any Tolkien fan. This one lays out the foundations of Tolkien's amazing world. Here are a few thougths on Tolkien's theory and purposes.
When Owen Barfield read poetry, he would at times come across a passage which would impress him very strongly. It would cause what he called a “felt change of consciousness”. As he began to make an in depth inquiry into this phenomenon, it grew into an epistomology: a theory of knowledge, and meaning. Barfield was a member of the inklings and a friend of J.R.R. Tolkien. Barfield’s theories deeply influenced Tolkien’s theories of writing fantasy literature. While few people have read Barfield, his theories were brought to the world incognito through Tolkien’s great works, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.
The prevailing theories of language evolution was that language started as simple sounds to denote the physical objects that man encountered in nature, which with time, began to be used metaphorically to describe abstract concepts, and internal emotions. Barfield noticed “that the golden age of poetry is in the infancy of society." He theorized that the further back in time one goes the more metaphorical language was, to the point that, in the distant past, both the abstract and physical meanings of words were understood simultaneously by the minds of men. As language is a reflection of the inner workings of the mind, this indicated that man had a more unified understanding of the natural world around him, his relationship with it, and its meaning. In this stage of language development, speaking and poetics were indivisible, because each word contained so much meaning. This can be extrapolated backwards to a time when man saw himself as completely unified with nature; its phenomena and his internal emotions were comprehended in one meaningful existence. This was a state that Barfield called “original participation." As language progressed forward in time, words narrowed in meaning, and divided their meanings to become much more analytical. Accordingly, men’s consciousness has become more and more aware of the causes and effects of natural phenomena, but subsequently has lost its ability to comprehend its meaning. He believed that the greatest power in poetry was found in the metaphor because, when used correctly, it could recombine elements in the readers mind, and create new meaning. This apprehension of new meaning was the “felt expansion of consciousness” to which Barfield was referring; a step toward a re-unified state that he called “final participation.”
Tolkien spent most of his adult life writing and perfecting the stories found in Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, and spent more than a little time contemplating his craft, and the desired effect that it should have on an audience. In “On Fairy-Stories” he lays down the philosophy behind his writing. Tolkien, like Barfield, believed that story, language, and consciousness were inextricably linked. For Barfield the metaphor was the power tool of literature, but for Tolkien it was the adjective; the ability to separate out the describable elements which our senses perceive and then recombine them in ways that create new forms. He says, “We may…put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such ‘fantasy,’ as it is called, new form is made; Feary begins; Man becomes a sub-creator." The trick to making Fantasy work was to create a context, made of the facts and elements of the real world, in which the new forms could be believed, “Anyone … can say the green sun. But that is not enough…to make a Secondary World in which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labor and thought." Also like Barfield, Tolkien thought that it was the creation of this new form that produced the beneficial effects of his craft. One of these benefits is a renewed vision of the world, which may be what Barfield was talking about when he spoke of an expanded conscience. Tolkien writes, “Recovery…is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view…I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them.’" Tolkien did not just theorize upon this subject, but was the master of putting his theory into practice.
One example of Barfield shining through in the actual works of Tolkien is found in The Silmarillion when Oromë first encounters the Elves:
"And Oromë wondered and sat silent, and it seemed tohim that in the quiet of the land under the stars he heard far off many voices singing…And Oromë looking upon the Elves was filled with wonder, as though they were beings sudden and marvellous and unforeseen; for so it shall ever be with the Valar…to those who enter verily into Eä each in its time shall be met at unawares as something new and unforetold."
The Elves have just awakened, but they are not grunting at objects around them, they are singing. The original language of the Elves was poetry, just as Barfield theorized. To Tolkien, the Elves represented sub-creative art, and so the reaction of Oromë to the Elves is the reaction that Tolkien desires to create in each of his readers, as indicated by the last line of this passage. Each person who visits Tolkien’s universe should meet with something marvelous and new, so that when they leave, they see the real world anew.
Here are a couple of other thoughts that I thought about as I read The Silmarillion.
Why are the Valar paired as like couples instead of unlike couples as in most other mythical traditions?
Zeus is the god of the sky and weather, and he is coupled with Hera the goddess of birth and marriage. Woden is the chief god of the Germanic pantheon and is associated with war and the warrior spirit. He is paired with Fricka the Germanic god of fertility and love. Hades, the god of the dead is married to Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, and who is associated with the coming of the spring. Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead, is coupled with his sister, Isis, who is the goddess of motherhood. All of these important pairings place gods of differing attributes, if not out and out opposites, together. It seems that the ancient peoples of the world noted that opposites, paradoxically, attract. But in the Silmarillion, Tolkien takes a different approach to the pairing of his gods and goddesses. In the Valquenta he pairs Manwe, the sky god, with Varda, the goddess of the stars. (By god, Tolkein of course means power or spirit) He pairs Aule, the god of the land, with Yavanna, the giver of fruits. Namo, the god of judgment, is married to Vaire, the record keeper (so to speak). Irmo, god of dreams, and Este, healer of hurts and weariness are a couple. Tulkas and Nessa are a couple and are delight in contests of strength and dancing respectively. Orome rules over the forest while his wife Vana is over flowers. All of Tolkien’s pairings are natural and harmonious. Tolkien saw nature as being peaceful and harmonious. The strife comes from one god Melkor attempting to pervert, and undo what they have created. With the traditional pantheon there is considerable strife between the gods and goddesses themselves that cause problems for mankind. We can see that in Tolkien’s universe the couples are at peace with each other, as well as the other gods, and it is only through the perversion of their good that evil creeps in and contention is spread.
The story of Turin is one of the most dramatic and poignant in the Silmarillion. Many, including Steve Eggelston, have noted that the story of Kullervo and his fatefull encounter with his sister is the model upon which Tolkien bases this story. In the Kalevala, Rune XXXV, Kullervo unwittingly woos and sleeps with his sister. In the morning they tell each other of their families and come to realize what they have done. Kullervo’s sister immediately races to a river and drowns herself. In Rune XXXVI Kulervo kills himself in the exact same manner that Turin does. He even speaks the same soliloquy to his sword as Kullervo does:
Sillmarillion “…Wilt thou therefore take Turin Turambar, wilt thou slay me swiftly?”
And from the blade rang a cold voice in answer, “Yea, I will drink thy blood gladly, that so I may forget the blood of Beleg, my master, and blood of Brandir slain unjustly. I will slay thee swiftly.” (271)

Kalevala: “Tell me, O my blade of honor,
Dost thou wish to drink my life-blood,
Drink the blood of Kullerwoinen?"
Thus his trusty sword makes answer,
Well divining his intentions:
Why should I not drink thy life-blood,
Blood of guilty Kullerwoinen,
Since I feast upon the worthy,
Drink the life-blood of the righteous?"

Obviously Tolkein has taken from the Kulervo story to cerate the story of Turin Turambar, but I wonder if Tolkien had another story also in mind when he wrote it.
2 Sam tells the story of Amnon and Tamar, which is an incestuous relationship as well and has some stricking similarities, not the least of which is the fact the Tamar and Turambar are very similar names.

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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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Nicholas Martinez The way he uses the music theory of Boethius is awesome, to have such a cool way of creation is amazing.

Brandon Pearce I have to get a copy of Boethius' Music Theory! You should add your knowledge of Mary Douglas' Group/Grid theory to this review. If you want to.

Nicholas Martinez well if one were to apply Mary Douglas's Grid/group thoery it would sound like this.
Throughout the novel one could applie ut with the natural order of the mythos. With having the creator Ilúvatar being the king and creator, and thus showing his sovereignty by creating lesser beings that will sereve him, and he will serve them. This is an impostrant fact for the novel to be in Ascribed hierarchy is one of the main roles to be in with Tolkien. To venture out and to desided what you want to do is moving cross grip and down group to individualism and not always the best thing to do. A good example of this is Melkor who dismisses the idea of following Ilúvatar and decides to ignore the music set up by him and starts his own theme. there are plenty more of good examples in fact way to many to list. But you get the idea, if you want to know more about Mary Douglas reader her book In an Active Voice chapter 9 really tells you about grid/group theory.

James M. That was the kind of review that reveals fresh and unseen layers of Tolkien's genius. Thanks, a lot - it's made my day. Better still, it helps to cast light on Finnegans Wake, of all things.

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