The Silmarillion

A Book Review

by Arveleg-(TV)
March 10, 2007

Tolkien Site > Book Reviews > Silmarillion

    Many fictional authors are only appreciated for their plots and how interesting and complex they are. Plot for them takes precedence over theme. J.R.R. (John Ronald Ruel) Tolkien, unlike most fiction authors, is renowned not just for his complex plot, but also for how he explores critical themes. In his work, The Silmarillion (1977), Tolkien delves into philosophy, religious aspects, and essences of mortality, free will, creation and other qualities of man and reality intrinsic to his greatest literary work. Though published posthumously in 1977, parts of The Silmarillion go back to drafts he had written in 1917. The Silmarillion is Tolkien’s magnum opus, into which he poured all of his skills to create the evolution of Eä, “the world that is”, in which he wrote The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, all in which the most important theme is the significance of pride, for it wields the fate of all.
    The nature and effects of pride are significantly expressed in the plot of The Silmarillion. The Silmarillion begins with the creation of the Ainur, offspring of the thought of Iluvatar, who are inspired to sing the three themes of Iluvatar, which is the original design of the thought of Iluvatar woven throughout all of time. During the themes of Iluvatar, the greatest of the Ainur, Melkor, arises in pride deeming himself greater than Iluvatar, his creator, and he drags some lesser Ainur or Maiar down with himself. Iluvatar then makes the music come into existence in Eä and in it he destines to appear in due time the Elves and then Men, his children made by himself solely. Some Ainur called the Valar enter Eä, opposed by Melkor who mars many of their works. The Vala Aulë makes the Two Lamps to light Arda and the isle of Almaren in Middle-earth where the Valar dwell in bliss. Melkor, in envy, casts down the lamps and the Valar flee to Aman and make the holy city of Valinor and fortify its regions. Thereafter, Aulë makes in secret the Dwarves, being impatient of waiting for the children of Iluvatar to awake. Then he is caught by Iluvatar, who accepts the Dwarves as his adopted children on account of the humility of Aule. Soon after, Yavanna, the spouse of Aulë, makes the great work of the Two Trees of silver and gold which yield living light which fills Valinor. But after the destruction of the Trees, the stars are made so that the Elves in Middle-earth can still awake to light. Those who are willing are brought to Valinor to be protected from Melkor who had ensnared some of the Elves already. From those captured Elves, Melkor bred Orcs in mockery of the Children of Iluvatar. On account of this deed, the Valar smite Melkor and bring him back to Valinor in chains and imprison him for three ages.
    When his time is over, Melkor spreads lies throughout the Elves of Valinor, especially one named Feanor who had wrought the Silmarils, the greatest work of any child of Iluvatar, and to his kin, the Noldor. While there is a feast in Valinor, Melkor destroys the Two Trees with the help of Ungoliant, steals the three Silmarils, and flees to Middle-earth to his fortress of Angband. The Noldor then leave Valinor, influenced by the lies of Melkor whom Feanor re-named Morgoth. Feanor and his sons, who had sworn oaths to reclaim the Silmarils, lead the majority of the Noldor. A heavy curse is laid upon the Noldor who had slain other Elves for their ships.
    Thus to Middle-earth came the Noldor. On their account, six bloody wars are fought against Melkor with the aid of other Elves and later mortal Men to whom were given the gift of death. One Silmaril is cut from the crown of Morgoth by Beren while aided by Luthien, the half elf - half Maia, who is the most beautiful child of Iluvatar. A kin-strife among the Elves awakes on account of the dreadful oath of Feanor, which binds his sons to gain possession of a Silmaril at all costs.
    The Quenta Silmarillion continues with the sad tale of the doomed Turin who slays the vile dragon Glaurung the Golden, the father of dragons.
    Many of the Noldor begin to grow weary of Middle-earth and wish to return to Valinor, but the Valar would not yet permit the self-exiled Noldor to return. A century later, Earendil is born soon before Melkor would have victory over the Free Peoples. The Noldor are redeemed at last by Earendil the Mariner, a mortal Man who sails to Valinor, the immortal land of Aman, led by the immortal jewel of Feanor. There he pleads to the Valar for them to have pity on the Children of Iluvatar, both Elves and Men, who dwell in Middle-earth, beseeching them to send an army to eliminate Melkor for eternity. His prayer is granted, and thus the malice of the greatest of the Ainur is quenched by the steel of the Elves and Ainur of Valinor in the greatest army to ever walk on the face of the Arda. Melkor is locked in the Void of non-existence. Though he was defeated, the cruelty of his lies would endure from generation to generation until the Last Battle.
    The Valar raise the Isle of Nûmenor for the Men who had fought alongside the Host of Valinor. To them the Valar grant long life being unable to grant immortal life. The Nûmenoreans prosper, become prideful, and take Sauron the Deceiver captive. Sauron, the most wicked servant of Melkor, twists their minds to see their Gift of Death as a curse, convincing them to hate the Valar and the Elves and to worship Melkor, the Lord of Darkness lying saying, “Only the darkness is worshipful.” The Nûmenoreans believe his lies except for a few called the Faithful. Many of the Faithful the Nûmenoreans cruelly sacrifice in their temple to Melkor. Sauron corrupts them enough that they launch a tremendous assault on the Valar so that they call down Iluvatar himself. Iluvatar answers the prayer of Manwe and destroys Nûmenor and reshapes Arda, making it round. Elendil with others of the Faithful including his sons, Isildur and Anarion, alone escape.
    Elendil and his sons reach Middle-earth to learn of the creation of the rings of power, and how Sauron instructed Noldorin craftsmen in the making of the rings of power so that the one he had made in Mount Doom would rule them all. The One Ring gave Sauron power so tremendous that the Elves and the Men under Elendil are forced to forge the Last Alliance which results in a victory.
    The spirit of Sauron endures and centuries later returns in power. He is finally vanquished by the destruction of the Ring in the Fires of Mount Doom by a very humble hobbit named Frodo, under the instruction of a Maia named Olorin or Gandalf who had been sent to Middle-earth by the Valar. Throughout the evolution of this complex universe, the theme of pride plays the most important role.
    Elements in the setting also help Tolkien explore the theme of pride. Just as complex and rich as the plot of The Silmarillion is its setting which is best studied by being divided into six subdivisions: the moral beings, creation, conflict between good and evil, man’s mortality, doom and free will, and biblical connections. Pride is first explored in the subdivision of the moral beings who are the Children of Illuvatar. The Dwarves, “the children of Iluvatar’s adoption”, who “build and delve” are of the earth and are therefore implied to be material creatures. The Elves, “the Firstborn,” can see genuinely into the future: “I forebode that the One Ring will be found”. In addition to their ability of seeing into the future, being “the fairest of all earthly creatures”, more powerful and enduring and less prone to sickness and disease, the Elves are immortal: “they do not die.” Providence is outside of time and is therefore of spirit, spirit is immortal, and spirit is more powerful than matter. All of these qualities of spirit are also qualities of the Elves so that it is reasonable to say that Elves are of spirit: spiritual. Men are a combination of spirit and matter being exactly as man of the real world is. They have a body (matter) and a soul (spirit) and “die indeed and leave the world” as we in reality die in our due time and leave the world. Tolkien is thus critiquing mankind in his presentation of Elves, Men, and Dwarves.
    Second, pride is explored in the sub-division of creation. The theme of pride runs throughout this work. It is significantly present in the creation myth at the heart of The Silmarillion. Every being of great power sub-creates a work which cannot be duplicated, according to the nature of his being. Into that work he places his being, dependent upon the magnitude of his work so that with the destruction of the work the maker can perish. For example: “For the less even as for the greater there is some deed that he may accomplish but once only; and in that deed his heart shall rest. It may be that I can unlock my jewels, but never again shall I make their like; and if I must break them, I shall break my heart, and I shall be slain.” When average beings sub-create a work, they sub-create it communally: “These ships are to us (implying communal work) as are the gems of the Noldor: the work of our hearts, whose like we shall not make again.” Great beings of evil also sub-create such as when Sauron sub-created the One Ring: “Much of the strength and will of Sauron passed into that One Ring” so that when it perished, “he was utterly vanquished.” When marriage occurs between two beings of great power, the creation of one reflects not only himself but his spouse. For example Aule and Yavanna  sub-created the solid and the living aspects of Arda respectively. The term of sub-creation is a rightful way to refer to the making of any object set inside the creation of a supreme being, as all things made by beings of Ea have their utmost source in Iluvatar: “Thou shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its utmost source in Me (Iluvatar), nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.”
    Third, pride is explored in the subdivision of the conflict between good and evil. The theme of pride is seen not just in the various creation elements in the story, but also can be seen in the conflict between good and evil which permeates through the entire work. Pride and the battle between good and evil are like the flying buttresses of a gothic cathedral which holds up the wall. The conflict between good and evil holds together The Silmarillion. Good and evil are clarified via conflicts between virtue and vice and between pride and humility. Pride is the most evil of all sin because from pride flows forth all sin and evil. Pride was that which caused Melkor to fall. But to conquer pride is humility which leads to love which conquers all evil and sin. Melkor’s pride was that which caused him to fall as “he wished himself to have subjects and servants and to be called lord, and to be master over other wills.” This brought about his final punishment “on a ruinous path down to the Void.” When Aulë made the dwarves, in contrast, humility was exercised and good things and happiness came: “Iluvatar had compassion upon Aulë and his desire because of his humility.” Thus because of the infinite opposition of the two forces, there is a moral conflict that the nature of Ea and our world are dependent upon because of how much they are part of the world.
    This conflict is symbolized in the duel between Morgoth and Fingolfin, the High-King of the Noldor. “Fingolfin wounded Morgoth with seven wounds” symbolizing the seven deadly sins; while “thrice Fingolfin was crushed to his knees, and thrice he arose again” symbolizing the three cardinal virtues. The conflict of good and evil is also between light and darkness. Light brings life while darkness brings death. The light source in The Silmarillion of the Two Trees whose light was captured in the Silmarils gave those jewels their sacred and luminescent qualities. The Unlight of Ungoliant is the ultimate source of darkness, “a darkness beyond dark,” which consumed all light and holy things enshrouded by it. The dark Morgoth and the Unlight Ungoliant “lusted fiercely after the Silmarils” because of their luminescent qualities that they could not sustain because of their dark, twisted, and evil natures so that “they began to burn Morgoth.” “He began with the desire for light, but when he could not possess it for himself alone, he descended through fire and wrath in a great burning, down into Darkness.” A last division of conflict between good and evil is between truth and lies. Lies are one of the most terrible evils committable on account of the fact that lies “sowed in the hearts of Elves and men are a seed that does not die and cannot be destroyed; and ever and anon it sprouts anew, and will bear dark fruit even unto the latest days.” The lies of this brood were the lies that were sown by Morgoth among the Children of Iluvatar which wrought the Doom of the Noldor, the downfall of Gondolin, and the downfall of Sauron who would by similar lies cause the downfall of Nûmenor. Truth, the opposite of falsehood, brings not downfalls as lies do, but they uplift. Lies are only believed because they are thought to be truths. Every being searches for the truth and is prone to commit rash and wrong acts when blinded by lies.
    Fourth, pride is explored in the sub-division of man’s mortality. Of all the lies of Melkor and Sauron, those regarding Man’s mortality were most vile. Man’s mortality is sacred being “a gift from Iluvatar” “which as time wears on even the Powers shall envy.” “It is with this gift of freedom that the Children of Men dwell only a short space in the world alive, and are not bound to it, and depart soon” for “the sons of Men die indeed and leave the world.” In Nûmenor Sauron twisted the truth of the nature of Man’s mortality naming it a curse rather than a gift and falsely claiming that the land of Aman bestows immortality and that the Valar “fear lest the kings of Men should wrest from them the deathless realm and rule the world in their stead.” It is with us as humans so also with the Men of Arda: mortality is not a burden but a gift. Death is their fate as death is ours. Finally the most important thing is that we as humans have the opportunity to make it to heaven as the men of Arda do to the Timeless Halls of Iluvatar, but “of us is required a blind trust, and a hope without assurance, knowing not what lies before us in a little while.”
    Fifth, pride is explored in the sub-division of doom and free will. This theme of destiny and the role of pride versus humility play significant roles in reaching it. This is present throughout all the work. There are over four references to doom, fate, and destiny. In The Silmarillion, doom/fate can be broken up into three categories: doom wrought by free will, doom wrought by Providence, and inherited doom wrought on account of a curse made as punishment to an ancestor or family member.
     The first division of doom is easy to show because it is the most common type, being the consequence of an action made by one’s own choice. For example, the Doom of the Noldor came about by their choice to slay the Elves of the Haven of Alqualondë for their ships.
    The second division, Doom wrought by Providence, is the nature of things and, most importantly, occurrences that happen seemingly by chance. For example, the doom of Men to die was the result of no action made by free will: the fact that that particular person was a Man was an act of Providence or the will of Iluvatar. An example of “chance” was when Beren happened to see Luthien dancing in the forest. This occurrence would eventually lead to the taking of a Silmaril and a continuation of the Doom of the Noldor.
    This last division of doom is a curse, which is the equivalent of original sin. The curse is able to be broken, meaning the receiver of the curse will have at least one or more chances to undo it. The only example of this division of doom is Turin Turambar, whom I will explain in detail in the character study. The study of doom is linked to free will, another crucial part in the story because Iluvatar gave all of his Children a chance to choose him. To the children of Earendil and the children of Elrond, named the half-elven, was given by Iluvatar the choice to be made of free will of which kindred to be judged as (Elves or Men). In order for true happiness to occur, one must kill personal pride and submit by free will to Iluvatar.
    Sixth, pride is explored in the sub-division of Biblical connections. The Silmarillion, in its constant study of the themes of pride, humility, doom, and creation, has many parallels with the Bible. Though Catholic Tolkien claimed that connections with The Bible in his works were unintentional, The Silmarillion is full of instances and people corresponding to Sacred Scripture. One similarity is in the Creation story in which the two greatest of the Ainur are revealed: Manwë and Melkor. Melkor takes the role of the archangel Lucifer while Manwë corresponds to the archangel Michael. As Michael and Lucifer were brethren, “Manwë was the brother of Melkor in the mind of Iluvatar. Melkor’s downfall was pride for “he wished himself to have subjects and servants and to be called lord, and to be master over other wills.” This led him “on a ruinous path down into the Void.” Manwë “was free from evil” and is the true king of the Valar and Ainur as St. Michael is Prince of the Heavenly Host. A final similarity regarding Melkor and Lucifer are in the names themselves. Melkor means “He who arises in might” “but that name he forfeited… they name him Morgoth, the Dark Enemy of the World”. Lucifer means “light bringer” (light is mighty, mightier than darkness), but that name he forfeited and received the name Satan meaning “Enemy.” Another similarity between  the Bible and The Silmarillion is the terms regarding the Fall of Man: “It is said by the Eldar that Men came into the world in the time of the Shadow of Morgoth, and they fell swiftly under his dominion; for he sent his emissaries among them and they listened to his evil and his cunning words, and they worshipped the Darkness and yet feared it.” Another theme corresponding to Sacred Scripture is the concept of theophanies taking place on mountains. God reveals himself in power for example to Moses on Mt. Sinai or in the New Testament, the Transfiguration took place on Mt. Tabor. Similarly, in The Silmarillion Manwë “who knows best the will of Iluvatar” dwells on Taniquetil, the highest mountain in Arda, and thus when the Nûmenoreans attacked, “then Manwë upon the Mountain called upon Iluvatar… and Iluvatar showed forth his power.” A final similarity between The Silmarillion and Sacred Scripture is the correspondent between lembas bread and The Eucharist. If men are wounded or sick, “they are quickly healed” on account of lembas. Lembas also “strengthens them.” The Eucharist heals us of our spiritual ailments and strengths us just as lembas bread does except on the spiritual level instead of the physical level. All of the aspects of the setting of The Silmarillion support one another to unify the entire book and all aspects of the story are linked by a complex exploration of the essence of pride.
    One particular character who changes significantly as a result of his battle with pride is Turin Turambar. Turin Turambar is directly linked to the setting by his very name which means Turin “Master of Doom.” During the course of his life, Turin must learn to conquer his pride or die, for he is a man who is bound by the third division of doom which is a breakable curse made by no action of himself. Therefore it is just to say that Turin is bound by Original Sin which to us also is a curse laid upon a man that is brought about by no action of himself. We are freed from our original sin by baptism. Turin, likewise, needs to be baptized to be freed from his curse. He is given three chances of baptism to break his curse which are symbolically represented baptismal imagery. In baptism there is a death, a rebirth, and an ascent. Each significant descent of Turin is characterized by darkness, water, a deep descent, a revealing of the will of Iluvatar (especially in prophesy), Trinitarian symbolism, and in order for the “baptism” to fully take place and free him, there must be an alter ego to represent the change in person. The first chance for Turin’s baptism is in  the  “Caves of Menegroth” (caves are deep) under “the deep shadows of the great trees” (dark). Menegroth was “bound by the dark river Esgalduin” (water) and the “deep places of Menegroth” were where the smithies were. The will of Iluvatar is revealed to Turin when “Beleg told Turin of the King Thingol’s pardon; and he sought to persuade him by all means that he might return to Doriath (Menegroth) because “there was great need of his strength and valor on the north marches of the realm.”  The Trinitarian symbolism is in this case anti-Trinitarian symbolism represented by the three times he rejects returning to Menegroth. Thus there is no alter ego to change Turin’s person because he rejected the will of Iluvatar because of his pride. This would lead him to spend a majority of his life in exile.
    The second chance for Turin’s baptism is at Amon Rudh, “a cave” which once entered, one will have “passed swiftly down into the darkness of the cave” (darkness and deep descent), and “the Vale of the River Narog lies between” (water). The will of Iluvatar is revealed to Turin to return to Menegroth, “but Turin would still not return to Doriath” because of his pride. The anti-Trinitarian symbolism is represented by the “three dwarves” who betrayed Turin and “guided his enemies”, the allies of Morgoth to Turin so that they would capture him. This situation would later lead to the death of Beleg and could have been avoided if Turin would have harkened to the will of Iluvatar.
    The third and final chance for Turin’s baptism is at Nargothrond, built out of “the Caves of the River Narog” (water) which has “deep halls” (deep descent), and “dark gates” (dark). The will of Iluvatar is revealed in two prophesies. The first is to “shut the doors of the fortress and go not abroad. Cast the stones of your pride into the loud river (the bridge Turin had had built), that the creeping evil may not find the gate.” Turin would not hearken to this prophesy “for he had become proud and stern.” This led to the fall of Nargothrond and foiled the completion of the second part of the will of Iluvatar regarding Turin, that he would marry Finduilas in his last chance to break his curse: “But for thy prowess and thy pride, still I should have love and life, and Nargothrond should yet stand a while. Now if thou love me, leave me! Haste thee to Nargothrond, and save Finduilas. And this last I say to thee: she alone stands between thee and thy doom. If thou fail her, it shall not fail to find thee.” Thus, because of his pride, Turin missed his last chance for baptism as Finduilas “was pinned to a tree with a spear” and died. If he had married Finduilas, he would have avoided the sad doom of marrying his own sister also by ill-fate. Finalizing the tale of Turin Turambar, he would endure the final and most cruel anti-Trinitarian symbolism with the three unjust slayings by his Black Sword Mormegil after killing Glaurung; the first slaying was of his friend Beleg, the second of Brandir whom he killed in his madness, and the third himself: (sword talking)  “Yea, I will drink thy blood, Turin gladly, that I may forget the blood of Beleg my master, and the blood of Brandir slain unjustly. I will slay thee swiftly.” Thus, Turin Turambar became “A Turin Turambar turun ambartanen: master of doom by doom mastered” all on account of pride.
    As Turin learned in a sad process that pride is the most grievous sin because it blinds us from the will of God, so must we too quickly learn to turn away from our self-righteousness and turn to he who is lord of time, God. In the Bible it says that the humble shall be exalted and the prideful shall be humbled; therefore, we should take the advice of God himself and humble ourselves in everyday actions so that in the end in heaven, we will be exalted and fulfill our destiny to live with God forever.

    Catechism of the Catholic Church
    The Holy Bible
    The Silmarillion
    Tolkien: Man and Myth by Joseph Pearce