The long-overdue serious attempt at The Silmarillion, part 3: that was awesome!

So once I finally started my long-overdue assault on The Silmarillion [,], I finished very quickly.  In fact, I absolutely hoovered it up.  I would have blogged about it again sooner, but as regular readers will know, I got distracted by gitBuffy (both the TV series and the dreadful movie), and selection sorting.  Oh, and I wanted to catch up on Doctor Who, which I haven’t actually done yet but at least I feel like it’s under control again now.

As usual, I am going to have a lot to say, but for those who want to cut to the chase I will summarise right up front: The Silmarillion is utterly brilliant.  Those of you who’ve avoided it up till now should fix that mistake ASAP.

“Ëarandil the Mariner fights Ancalagon the Black” by Simone G. Des Roches

I will admit that I once more found the initial section on the creation of the universe (Ainulindalë) rather heavy going, and that the account of the Valar (Valaquenta) was not much easier.  But these are both short sections — 12 and 14 pages respectively — and they are really only an extended prologue before the story proper.  As soon as the Quenta Silmarillion got going, I was hooked, and read obsessively — though very slowly, because I was constantly looking up names and places in the annotated index in the back of the book.  And I do mean constantly — probably half a dozen times per page on average.

But that’s not to say that the first two sections are without their moments of piercing beauty.  For example, I was greatly moved by Ilúvatar’s grace towards Aulë after his rebellious and ultimately failed attempt to create the Dwarves before the birth of Elves and Men; that not only did he not destroy the Dwarves or allow Aulë to do so, he gave them the very life and independence that Aulë had not been able to give them.

All of this is told in a very few words.  I don’t have my copy to hand at the moment (I’m in Copenhagen), but as I recall, it’s over and done in maybe a third of a page.  That’s not atypical — as I’ve said before the Silmarillion is an astonishingly dense book, and even the moments of greatest glory, deepest bathos and foulest betrayal are not lingered on for even a moment.  Each event is recounted with maximum economy, and then the narrative moves on.  This approach paradoxically makes the Silmarillion both rather dry and immensely rich; if the dryness doesn’t turn you away, the richness can overwhelm.

How to read the Silmarillion

Grasp the book firmly but gently in both hands, with the cover facing towards you and words oriented normally.  With your left hand, grip the front of the book and with your right, hold the back.  Bring your hands carefully apart, causing the book to open up.  Now focus your eyes on the top line on the left page, and read each word in turn, moving from left to right.  When you reach the end of the line, move down to the leftmost end of the next line and continue to read from left to right.

By the time you reach the end of the second line, you’ll need to look up a name in the index; or perhaps locate someone on one of the family trees, or look up the parts of a name in the partial list of word meanings at the back to figure out what the name might mean.

So … I found the family trees, index and word meanings within the book itself to be invaluable.  I also used two other resources extensively, and found them very helpful in getting the most out of the Silmarillion.  One is good ol’ Wikipedia, the best web site anywhere on the Internet, bar none.  (I wish Douglas Adams had lived long enough to see the ascendancy of this real Hitch Hiker’s Guide to everything.)  It’s truly amazing that it works as well as it does, and I must remember to write about it properly some time.

The other resource I used is Karen Wynn Fonstad’s obsessively complete Atlas of Middle Earth [,], which I highly recommend:

Apart from the very wide-area maps like this one, there are maps showing individual areas, details of cities, villages and caves, maps showing journeys, battles, migrations, and many more — all accompanied by text that explains what’s shown and quotes liberally from Tolkein to justify the depictions.

You may remember that back when I started to read The Silmarillion, it was largely on the recommendation of my co-blogger Matt Wedel, who had long ago written to me that “Actually, once the world is sung into existence it gets pretty good. Melkor brings some Balrogs and starts trashing the party. The resonances between the Silmarillion and LOTR start to become clear.”  It turns out that he has a guilty secret: he never actually finished reading it — never even got to Beren and Luthien, which I think is pretty poor.  But his excuse is an interesting one:

My best aid to reading the Silmarillion was the Atlas of Middle Earth, which, oddly enough, I have never really used to track the events in The Hobbit or LOTR. But for the Silmarillion it was clutch…loads of maps and capsule descriptions of what is going on at each step.

In fact, the AoME was so useful that it is probably at least half to blame for my not finishing. After a while I realized I could get the Biblical version from Tolkien or the Cliff Notes version from AoME, and the Cliff Notes version had pretty maps, so I switched over to just reading AoME and feeling like I’d gotten the gist of the Silmarillion. […] And at least half of the blame is mine.”

Gee, as much as half the blame?  That’s pretty magnanimous!

Anyway, my point here is not to diss Wedel (although that’s always fun) but to emphasise how useful and informative the Atlas is.  I unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone who’s wanted to make an assault on the Silmarillion but found it too intimidating.  (That said, the single, small map in the back of the Silmarillion itself is surprisingly useful, even though it only shows the northwestern parts of Middle Earth and none of Aman.)

The greatness of The Silmarillion

If I try to explain what makes the Silmarillion such a great book — and here I am not using “great” in the usual sense of “good” or even just “adequate” but in the literal sense — then I find myself struggling.  It’s like trying to explain what a truly stellar IPA tastes like: you can’t distill something so far beyond analysis into a capsule summary.  The best you can do is drop hints, cast shadows and make allusions.  Because the book’s power is in the accumulation of cameos and the, I was going to say construction but a better word would be accumulation, of a whole world.  Not merely a world in the sense of geography and history, but also of philosophy, character, and perhaps even spirituality.

It’s seen in a thousand little moments.  For example, I was moved by Finrod’s generous and spontaneous love for the Edain when he first met them, the first of of all the elves to do so.  On the negative side, I was shocked and even revolted by the single-mindedness of the sons of Fëanor as they pursued their oath to recover the silmarils above all other claims of kindred or even common decency.  I was infuriated by Thingol’s absurd demand that, in order to earn the hand of his daughter Luthien, Beren must obtain one of the silmarils from the iron crown of Morgoth, and resigned to the disastrous outcome that could hardly be avoided once the sons of Fëanor learned that Thingol had a silmaril.  Most of these moments come and go so quickly that you could miss them very easily — Finrod’s love towards the Edain, for example, is stated literally in a single sentence.  My guess is that most readers will not particularly pick up on that one, but will be touched by other moments instead.  (Other aspects, particularly the oath of Fëanor and its consequences, are much more central and return to prominence repeatedly.  I’m particularly haunted by the idea of Maglor, the only survivor of Fëanor’s seven sons, wandering the coasts alone in the forlorn hope of recovering the silmaril that he cast into the sea.)

“And Maglor took Pity on Them” by Catherine Karina Chmiel

Seeing The Lord of the Rings in a new light

Of course it’s a truism that the Silmarillion casts The Lord of the Rings into a new light, and I am sure I am not the first person, or even the ten-thousandth, whose first impulse on finishing the one is to immediately re-read the other.  So I was surprised to find that Tolkien was worried that publishing The Silmarillion might have the effect of diminishing the better-known work:

I am doubtful myself about the undertaking.  Part of the attraction of The L. R. is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist.  To go there is to destroy the magic, unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed.

Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, p. 333.  Edited by Humphrey Carpenter, published 1981 by Harper Collins.

Part of me is inclined simply to write this off as an error of judgement on Tolkien’s part: I can hardly imagine that my reading of, say, Bilbo’s song at Rivendell about Eärendil will not be enhanced by knowing the underlying story.  But perhaps the secret sauce here is the terse and economical style in which The Silmarillion was written.  Whether by design or by happy accident, the density of the prose protects it from being too explicit, so that it never does lose its air of viewing far off an unvisited island.  It’s more like sailing out to, and circumnavigating that island than it is like landing on it.  So the Silmarillion does indeed reveal new unattainable vistas, and in doing so avoids cheapening The Lord of the Rings.  I wonder how much Christopher Tolkien had to do with this?

In light of my new appreciation for Middle-Earth history, I’m going to close by offering a defence of one of Peter Jackson’s changes in the LotR movies: the arrival of elves at Helm’s Deep to help the Rohirrim defend their stronghold against Saruman’s Uruk Hai.  I was already far from hostile to this change, which seemed to me not opposed to the spirit of Tolkien’s book even if it contradicted the letter; but now having read some of the history of Elves and Men in Beleriand, of the ancient alliances, of the dreadful defeats and the ultimately fruitless victories, I see far more clearly the significance of renewing that alliance as the Third Age draws to an end.  That there is no great Elven history of friendship with those particular Men makes it all the more poignant.  So it’s not just a nice moment; it’s a truly beautiful one.  (Shame, then, that Jackson slightly muffs it by having Haldir, who we last saw in Lothlorien back in the Fellowship movie, announce “We are Elves of the house of Elrond”.  But you can’t have everything.)

I leave you with this painting of Ted Naismith’s, because it amuses me to see the role of Glaurung so obviously played by a Diplodocus.  Enjoy:

“Finduilas is Led Past Túrin at the Sack of Nargothrond” by Ted Nasmith

48 responses to “The long-overdue serious attempt at The Silmarillion, part 3: that was awesome!

  1. So, next onto the Kalevala, Volsunga Saga and the Mabinogion?

  2. I have to disagree with you here. If elves ride to the rescue at Helm’s Deep, the Last Alliance wasn’t the last alliance. In the big arc, we have reached the point by LoTR that elves are more observers than participants.

  3. The Silmarillion is indeed an enriching experience if you can cope with the denseness of information.
    If one were to do a survey, I think the vast majority of people would divide into to groups: Those who read it to the end and loved it, and those who never finished it. The reason is simply that if you’re not into its style, then it becomes almost unbearably hard to get through.

    Since you liked the Sil so much, you shouldn’t miss reading “Unfinished Tales”.
    The first three volumes of “The History of Middle Earth” are also highly recommendable. They are much less “dense” than the sil (Here you actually get Real Stories instead of just summaries), and you can choose to largely ignore the vast amounts of commentary and just enjoy the stories. The language used is extremely archaic though, which increases the difficulty of reading.
    The first two volumes are early versions of the stories in the Sil, which means the continuity with LOTR is messed up, but as compensation you get much more detail and much more engaging stories. The third volume consists of epic poems telling the stories of Túrin Turambar and Beren & Lúthien, respectively.

    Regarding Tolkien’s worries about revealing the mysteries behind LOTR, I think it actually does apply to many people (just not you and me). Many reviews of the Silmarillion actually contain exactly this criticism. It makes me think of the recent series finale of LOST, which kind of had the same dilemma. It ultimately chose to let most of the mythology remain an unexplained mystery. This caused me immense disappointment, but it seems that most “normal” (= not extremely nerdy) people approved of that decision.

    Finally, I have to strongly disagree with you regarding Helm’s Deep. One of the absolutely crucial points of LOTR is that the end of the third age marks the coming of the age of Men, and that the Elves are a fading people who are on the brink of leaving this world entirely. Several times throughout the book it is explicitly emphasized that the time for alliances such as the one which took place at the end of the second age, is irrevocably over.
    Sure it could have been a beautiful moment as you say (and I guess that’s why PJ chose to include it), but it is just so completely contrary to the author’s intentions that it in my opinion is unforgivable. Let’s say you made a movie of The Hobbit and decided that Aragorn should appear at the Battle of Five Armies. This would be much more acceptable, since it doesn’t go against the spirit of the story, only the letter. Elves at Helm’s Deep however is a different matter.

  4. Interesting that Daniel and Jason both disagree with me about the elves at Helm’s Deep. I’m sticking to my guns on this, though. That the Last Alliance is no longer “last” is neither here nor there — in our own world, The Great War was no longer great, and certainly no longer The War To End All Wars, once WWII had happened, but those names didn’t prevent WWII from happening.

    Jason rightly says that “In the big arc, we have reached the point by LoTR that elves are more observers than participants”. This of course is true — and that is just what makes it so poignant that the fading remnant of the elves choose to align themselves not only with Men but with men facing all but hopeless odds. When Haldir turns up with his 300 archers, that group is a very weak echo of the great elven armies of the past; but it’s an echo nonetheless. Great deeds that are not wholly in vain.

    Daniel says that “One of the absolutely crucial points of LOTR is that the end of the third age marks the coming of the age of Men, and that the Elves are a fading people who are on the brink of leaving this world entirely.” Again, yes; and again, this only makes it more poignant. Haldir and his crew could so easily slink off in their ships and leave the world of Men to its fate. Galadriel says (of herself and Celeborn, but the sentiment is applicable to all the elves in Middle Earth), “through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat”. Fought the long defeat, not just witnessed it. Movie Haldir is wholly representative of that attitude. (For that matter, so is Legolas, in both book and film.)

  5. You realise of course that you have now doomed me to re-read LOTR including appendices to collect references that document how misguided you are…

  6. Haha, come on Daniel, you love it :-) In all seriousness, as I read in your previous comment that “Several times throughout the book it is explicitly emphasized that the time for alliances such as the one which took place at the end of the second age, is irrevocably over”, I did find myself thinking that I don’t remember that at all from my most recent reading, which was less than a year ago. So if you do re-read, you might like to keep an eye out especially for those parts.

    Unrelated, but: JulesLT suggested I might now go on to read “the Kalevala, Volsunga Saga and the Mabinogion”. I don’t know about that; but I may well make a Long Overdue Serious Attempt at some ancient literature, perhaps Beowulf, if I can find a prose translation. (Archaic prose is fine so long as it’s comprehensible, but I just can’t read poetry. My eyes slide right off it.)

  7. Yes, and therein lies the problem.
    I clearly remember Tolkien stating explicitly more than once that he placed great importance on the fact that the Last Alliance (i.e. in the second age) was indeed the last, and that it was unthinkable for a similar alliance to take place during the War of the Ring. However, after writing my last comment and reading yours, I realised that I cannot be sure whether this was actually mentioned in LOTR, the appendices, the Silmarillion (probably not since you would definitely remember it in that case), Unfinished Tales, his collection of published letters, or any of the 12 volumes of “The History of Middle-Earth”.
    So I am afraid that finding those references might prove to be quite a daunting task (although you are perfectly correct in assuming that I would love it, if only I had the time).

    By the way, let me take this opportunity to thank you for a truly awesome blog. I skip the Dr. Who reviews, but love everything else including the sushi pictures. I have often wondered how many hours you have in a regular day, because it seems to be a lot more than 24 based on the sheer volume of stuff you read/watch/study not to mention write extensively about. I am impressed.

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  9. I did find myself thinking that I don’t remember that at all from my most recent reading, which was less than a year ago.

  10. Daniel, this is interesting. Of course if the elves at Helm’s Deep can be shown to be against Tolkien’s expressed wishes, in a letter or unpublished manuscript fragment or what have you, then that would be interesting. But very different indeed, I think, from if those elves turn out to contradict what was actually written. When he wrote The Hobbit, LotR and The Silmarillion, Tolkien was handing down the universe’s facts; when writing letters and suchlike, just expressing an opinion — an opinion that carries more weight than anyone else’s, of course, but not one that is different in kind.

    Anyway, many thanks for your kind words about this site. Greatly appreciated. The time it takes to write this blog, alas, is being stolen from what time I would otherwise be spending getting those various palaeontology manuscripts into shape — which I really, really must do RSN. I am actively trying to cut back to two posts a week on TRP (the Doctor Who review and one other), but I keep finding stuff that demands to be written about!

  11. I also remember constantly looking up names and places when reading the Silmarillion the first time. Even though this caused the reading speed to deteriorate, it really is necessary to fully appreciate everything.

    I’m one of those who have re-read Silmarillion several times, and the last couple of times I’ve highly enjoyed the audio book version, narrated by Martin Shaw. He is simply brilliant for the task. It’s for instance obvious that he has spent a lot of time learning the proper pronunciations of all names, which I’m sure Tolkien would have appreciated.

  12. It seems you may be right that the explicit statements about the impossibility of Elven involvement in human battles in the Third Age are not to be found within LOTR itself.

    Quickly skimming “Unfinished Tales”, all I could find was this (I assume that “The History of Middle Earth” contains something that better proves my point):

    Elendil and Gil-Galad were partners; but this was “the Last Alliance” of Elves and Men. In Sauron’s final overthrow, Elves were not effectively concerned at the point of action.

    This is from a note scribbled by Tolkien on the back of a manuscript.

    I concede your point about non-canonical comments being, well, non-canonical, even if they come from the author himself. However, I maintain that LOTR at least has an easily recognisable recurring theme about the Elves fading from the world and the Age of Men arising, and the War of the Ring being sort of a rite of passage for Men because they can no longer rely on the Elves to help them out. Also, in the books as well as the remainder of the movies, the Elves are shown to be consciously and deliberately staying out of conflicts that do not directly involve them. This perhaps makes them less heroic and noble than a Hollywood director would like, but it is nonetheless a point which I think it was important for the author to make, and which is kinda ruined by the whole EAHD thing.

    I found this paragraph taken from, which supports my opinion and makes the noteworthy point that the movies are contradicting not only the books but also themselves:

    I figured that TTT-the-movie would revolve naturally and brilliantly around the book’s theme of “the age of Men is coming,” already introduced in the first movie and sure to figure prominently in the third. […] [Elves at Helm’s Deep is] not only ludicrous by all the internal logic of the book, but it also directly contradicts most of the rest of the movie. […]The Elves’ passage from Middle-Earth does, after all, constitute a fairly major plot point for the entire trilogy.

    And this one from

    The Elves fighting in the battle of Helm’s Deep is an important and critical change from the story. A running theme is the Elves’ non-involvement with the war. This change in the movie […] broke a very fundamental element in the book.

    There is a very lengthy (10 pages) but also very interesting discussion of the topic here:

    Sorry to be taking over your blog with all of this, but you must have known what you were doing when you start raising issues that are controversial to Tolkien purists :-) In fact I’m quite surprised that there isn’t more of an all-out flame war going on at this point.

  13. I don’t have FotR in front of me, but I think the evidence Daniel seeks may be in the Council of Elrond chapter.

  14. I have the same problem as Jason in not having the books nearby. I found the an unabridged PDF of FOTR here:
    (No copyright infringement is intended).

    I shall now proceed to read the Council of Elrond chapter in its entirety, and hope that Jasons memory serves him correctly.

  15. Jason, you were indeed right. Elrond is quoted saying:

    “Never again shall there be any such league of Elves and Men; for Men multiply and the
    Firstborn decrease, and the two kindreds are estranged.”

    This highly canonical quote from someone who arguably know what he’s talking about, together with my previously mentioned quote from Unfinished Tales, is hopefully sufficient to redeem me after having rashly claimed the existense of multiple explicit contradictions of the feasibility of having Elves at Helm’s Deep :-)

    However, reading Mike’s opinions and the opinions of others of the same mind have actually succeeded in making me slightly less apalled by the idea than I used to be. (That’s not to say I’m not still appalled :-) )

  16. I took the elves at Helm’s Deep as a minor contingent, not a “great alliance”. Rather in the spirit of Elrond’s sons going to war with the Rangers (yes, I know they were half-elven, but considering it was Elrond who spoke of “never again”). No alliance doesn’t preclude an essentially small squadron from throwing in unofficially now and again. I saw Haldir’s arrival speech as more of a reflection of his respect for Aragorn (one captain to another) with Galadriel’s blessing, than an official change of position for the elves.

  17. The body might have been inspired by a dinosaur, the head is probably what makes Glaurung look like like an evil reptile he was described as.

    Silmarillion was a bit too ‘informative’ for me at times, too many names and places made it somewhat difficult to follow in some parts of the book. Some stories could have been a bit more detailed. LoTR suffered from this in some parts, too, making the story kind of boring there, because it happened a few times in places where there wasn’t anything really happening and mood just wasn’t right for it (for me). I feel that both LoTR and Silmarillion were more about the stories in them and less about mood for the stories than e. g. the Hobbit.
    The Hobbit is the story by Tolkien I have enjoyed the most. It was swift enough not to be boring when there was nothing exciting happening and detailed enough to satisfy most of my curiosity about what was going on in that part of the story.

    If you like the swiftness of the pace in Silmarillion, you might enjoy the Conan short stories by Robert E. Howard (the original author of Canon, Kull, Cormac MacArt, Bran Mak Morn and others). They often aren’t as epic as Tolkien’s stories, but their mood tends to be quite captivating. You can find some of the stories at the Australian Project Gutenberg site. Some of them are his earlier works and one can tell they are. I’d suggest The Hyborian Age and The Tower of the Elephant as the first stories to be read.

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  19. So, Shakespeare bastardized Monmouth’s King Lear and tacked on an unhappy ending. What of it? It made a great play.

  20. The difference being, of course, that Monmouth was no Tolkien, and Jackson is no Shakespeare.

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  22. I would recomend the mabinogion actually; it’s really easy! It’s derived by scholars from stories people would tell at feasts to welcome visiting nobles.

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  24. Great blog – especially relevant to me as I’ve just begun a re-attempt on the Silmarillion and finding it hard going. I shall now push on. Just a quick note, Haldir comments “I bring word from Elrond of Rivendell,” not “We are the elves of the house of Elrond.” I agree, however, with your defence of Jackson sending them there at all.

    Sorry to re-start an old thread, but google has only just thrown up this blog while I was searching for info on maps of middle earth – a happy fluke.

  25. Thanks for the correction, Jamie. No need to apologise for commenting on an old article: I get notifications when a comment is posted on any article on this site, and some of the most interesting discussions here have happened on articles over a year old! See for example the sequence beginning at

  26. Great blog, and fascinating to read all the submissions about the Sil.
    I read the Sil when it came out in 1977, all of it. In some respects I like it more than LOTR, because it is more remote and *very* ancient and “high”, and very largely tragic. It has a sort of icy beauty that is impossible to communicate. The “Song of Earendil” in LOTR has something of the same quality. Any one of the stories in the Sil might make an epic fantasy in itself, the Kinslaying, the Crossing of the Grinding Ice, the Akallabeth.

    My biggest regret about the film of LOTR was that Arwen was made to do things she does not do in the book – would it have been impossible to let Glorfindel rescue Frodo, as in fact he does in the story ? OTOH, some of the changes were models of tact, like the scene where Boromir sees the Ring in the snow. It works perfectly in the film.

  27. Yes, I think “icy beauty” is absolutely spot on. True that many, many passages in The Silmarillion could be their own high fantasy novels, and The Children of Hurin is of course one such. I found that Arwen’s appearing in the role of Glorfindel didn’t bother me at all — after all, her only real role in the book is embroidery. And her line about “let the grace that might have been mine pass to him” at the ford ends up making perfect sense in light of Frodo taking her place on the last ship to Valinor.

  28. Thanks for the reply :) That line of Arwen’s is good in its own right – but… If she is going to say that, I wish she had done so when she told Frodo she would not be taking ship, as she tells him in the book. That scene is absolutely heart-breaking: it means Elrond lost not only his brother and wife, but also all his children. I would gladly have sacrificed *some* of PJ’s additions for some of the scenes in the book, such as her speech to Frodo. It is played perfectly in the BBC Radio dramatisation.

    That said, the film’s visual image of Arwen is perfect.

  29. I’m certainly not arguing that all the film’s changes were for the better — not by a very, very long shot! I loathe what was done to Faramir and the trivialisation of Gimli into comic relief. It was an appalling misjudgement to obscure Galadriel’s “all shall love me and despair” speech in a haze of GCI and audio processing. But the changes around Arwen and Elrond I do like. Her line would be good anywhere, yes, but for me it’s almost more resonant coming so early, as a foreshadowing. And I love what they did with “an image of the splendors of the Kings of Men in glory undimmed before the breaking of the world” even though Arwen’s being alive and alone, rather than dying like a mortal, contradicts the letter of Tolkein. I think portraying her isolation rather than mere death was much more powerful.

    Of course, all this fine work makes the mis-steps, when they come, all the more inexplicable.

  30. I thought the mumaks were well-handled – those scenes went a long way to repairing the trivialisation of Gimli, &, to a lesser extent, of Legolas. I wish the death of Denethor – & his whole character – had been handled differently. He is not a trivial character, but a noble one, who has been broken by despair – & a very different proposition from Saruman. Apart from Elrond’s slightly exaggerated despair of Men, I thought he was presented very well. How anyone could think that Tolkien’s moral vision was over-simple is beyond me.

    Although it (perhaps) contradicted the text, & to some degree his character, I liked the sequence in which Saruman is shown as responsible for the snow on Caradhras. But IMO the moth (!) was a mistake – only Gwaihir will do.

    I think it’s important to the meaning of the story that Arwen dies as she does, & where she does – though the death of Aragorn was handled quite admirably. I just wish that he had been given a longer lifespan. I know there are reasons for his relatively short life, but all the same. Still, that’s not PJ’s fault :)

    If only there could be a film of the Sil… The reading by Martin Shaw is a triumph.

  31. I’m not sure I take your point on Denethor. I thought the films portrayed him pretty effectively as a noble man broken by despair, which is the essence of book-Denethor. How did you find him “trivial”?

    Regarding “How anyone could think that Tolkien’s moral vision was over-simple is beyond me” — my absolute favourite passage of Tolkien criticism is this, from Andrew Rilstone’s Two Towers movie review:

    In Tolkien’s story, Frodo’s mercy to Gollum brings the good, Smeagal side to the fore. At one moment, Smeagal is on the point of repenting and becoming a wholly regenerate character, but Sam accuses him of ‘sneaking’ and destroys the moment. According to Tolkien this is the most poignant moment in the whole epic. But it is only because Gollum remains evil and seizes the Ring that the world is saved; the evil Gollum does what the good Frodo cannot do. In the long run Sam’s cruelty rules the fate of many just as surely as Bilbo’s mercy. (This is, presumably, the kind of thing which Phillip Pullman has in mind when he calls the book morally simplistic.)

    (Unforgiveably, in the recent printed edition of his Tolkien-and-Lewis works, Rilstone changes this to “the kind of thing which some people have in mind”, showing that he can have as flat an ear for revising his own text as ever Tolkien himself had.)

  32. I thought Denethor was portrayed as a glutton – not a “noble” vice. His love for Boromir (now safely dead), in its form of lack of appreciation for Faramir, did not really get a look-in, IIRC; yet it is an important indication of character. He is clearly a strong character, with some fatal flaws, that if exploited will make him go to pieces.

    The problem was one of pacing, perhaps – in the film, we do not have the time to see him go to pieces gradually, as he does in the book. And we don’t see his hands “withering in flame” on the funeral pyre of Faramir; yet that image is so vivid, and so apt in its context,, so completely right, that one regrets the loss of it. I just wish he had been given a better death in the film; a more dignified one, as in the book. Denethor may be flawed, but his flaws are those of the magnanimous man; not of the petty man. His death is wrong, it is a dereliction of duty, it is despairing, it is a failure in his Stewardship – but it is not petty. That is what makes his self-immolation so right in the book: he preserves his dignity to the end, even though it is a morally flawed sort of dignity – unlike that of Aragorn or Faramir or Boromir.

    The trouble with Denethor is that after a life-time of guarding the City, his death is not worthy of his past life – whereas Boromir’s desire for the Ring is redeemed by the heroism and self-sacrifice of his death, which is is a complete denial of his brief lust for the Ring. Denethor has his own “precious” – not a ring, but the values he stands for; and he gets his priorities wrong. Which may be why Gandalf says “..for I too am a steward – did you not know ?”

    OTOH, film is perhaps not a good medium for rendering slow disintegration of character; not at least if the character is not a central one.

  33. Well, now you’ve made me want to read the book again!

    Mission accomplished, I guess :-)

    But the gluttony scene you allude to: come on, that was sensational in the film. The juxtaposition of the three images — Denethor eating, Pippin singing and Faramir’s doomed gesture of an assault on Osgiliath — was one of this high points of the whole triliogy.

  34. I want to be convinced that it was a high point – but the conviction’s not happening :) Comes of being a purist, I suppose. The gluttony scene was fine as a gluttony scene: but this not just any book – this is part of Tolkien’s story. It was not – IMHO – in character for someone like Denethor; though it might well be in character for Bombur. Just as it would not be in character for Feanor.

    I don’t want to make a huge thing of a single scene in a threesome of films that is far better than the sum of its flaws, & that will (one hopes) both introduce a lot of people to the book, & deepen the appreciation for the story of those who already love it. That would be very ungrateful.

    An advantage of the text, is that it is (more or less) settled. Which makes tracing patterns, contrasts, themes, etc., in the books, over the course of an immense story, much easier than if one tried this on the films. LOTR makes much better sense if one knows the Sil as well. If one knows that the Stewards are of high Numenorean race, and that the men of Numenor were (to put it mildly) more than a cut above other men, & for very good reasons, one has expectations of their likely behaviour. The Appendices are very informative – but one needs the Sil for the whole story.

  35. No, no — it would have been completely wrong for Bombur. The scene wasn’t about gluttony, it was about a callous desire to be obeyed above all else. It was about control, not food.

    “A threesome of films that is far better than the sum of its flaws” is as good a summary of the movie trilogy as I’ve seen.

    “If one knows that the Stewards are of high Numenorean race …” Well, they were. Now? Not so much. Gandalf explicitly says as much, IIRC — something about their blood being diluted by that of lesser men? You could argue that Denethor’s fall from grace symbolises that of the entire Numenorean race — that his love of command for its own sake is the shrivelled husk of the true grandeur and power of the ancient Numenoreans.

    While I agree that The Silmarillion adds new layers and depth to LotR, we should remember that it was never Tolkien’s intention that you should need the one to understand the other. I think it’s fair to say that the Sil never changes the meaning of anything that happens in LotR, only adds meaning.

  36. “While I agree that The Silmarillion adds new layers and depth to LotR, we should remember that it was never Tolkien’s intention that you should need the one to understand the other. I think it’s fair to say that the Sil never changes the meaning of anything that happens in LotR, only adds meaning.”

    ## I think we may be saying – or seeing – the same thing, from different angles. Maybe I should have explained by giving examples. A lot of people get plenty of sense out of the New Testament without looking at the Old. Fine. But, reading the NT with the OT in mind uncovers 100s of thematic & verbal echoes in the NT, that one might not suspect if one knew only the OT. Knowledge of the Old Testament adds depth and perspective to the appreciation of the NT, in a host of different ways (This is independent of the “religious” or “devotional” use of those bodies of texts; I mention them, because I know them reasonably well). At another level, one can appreciate a great deal about Genresis 1-11 without knowing a thing about the other Ancient Near Eastern texts they resemble; but when one sees the parallels, & the ways in which they function or are re-used in the OT text, that enriches appreciation of both.

    So with LOTR & the Sil. I find a reading of the fall of the Barad-dur is greatly enriched & “thickened”, when one knows that it strongly resembles the account of the destruction of Numenor. As a description, & because what Sauron did to the Dunedain, is being done to him. The White Tree of Gondor becomes more real and alive, when one knows that it is descended over 1000s of years and 1000s of miles from the White Tree of Tirion. The One Ring gains from being able to be compared with the Silmarils.

    Tolkien is himself like the Valar, and like Feanor, but *much* better: because his “vision”, which is *his* Silmaril, is available to anyone who can read. Unlike the One Ring, it enhances life; it shows mortal men worlds they could not otherwise see, but it increases joy & life; it is not a cheat or a snare, like the Nine. Gandalf cannot go back in time from the Third Age, & see Feanor at work – we can; we are able to go back before Arda or the Ainur were. The more one looks into that world, the more there is to find. And the Sil, in which all those ages begin, is the key to all that follows. Both books are a triumphant vindication of his essay “On Fairy Stories”.

    Thank you for the kind remarks :)

  37. Kerberos, I have nothing to offer in disagreement to that essay :-) Thanks for contributing. You make me want to go back a re-reread the Silmarillion now!

  38. Many thanks. Actually, your remarks are what got me thinking; so thank *you* :) If I could do even a little to show people just how wonderful the Sil really is, & how perfectly it goes with LOTR, I’d be very happy. (Thlose, that is, who are put off by the “high style”, the lack of “hobbitry”, & the “jaw-cracking” names. And by the other “usual criticisms”.
    Still, mustn’t go on, so, “see” you around on the other threads, perhaps.

  39. Yesterday, I was delighted to read your blog posts about “Whatever happened to programming?”. It is the first time that I saw someone express exactly how I’ve been feeling about what’s been happening to “being a programmer” in, say, the past ten years. I was afraid that I was the only one because none of my colleagues ever seemed to share my experience. Now I know at least that I’m not crazy or lazy or stupid because I find Java Enterprise Edition excruciatingly boring – and that I experience Software Frameworks as entities that steal the fun, creative part out of my job and give me horribly dreary administrative tasks in return.

    Today, I found out that you’ve written a huge load of funny, intelligent and interesting posts here – among which this one about the Silmarillion. Maybe the fact of having been given the name of one of the Silmarillion characters (even as second Christian name) has predisposed me to be eternally captivated by Tolkien’s Legendarium, but I did not find it difficult to read at all. It is as if the stream of events is drawing me in so strongly that I only have to let go and be carried along with it.

    I don’t know if you have heard about the audiobook version of the Silmarillion? It’s being read by Martin Shaw, who does a great job. It is my impression that listening to these stories does them even more justice than reading them; almost as if they were meant to be told like this (some fragments have been posted on Youtube).

    Tolkien also wrote a handful of short stories. I’ve recently come to appreciate especially “Smith of Wootton-Major” and (maybe even more so) “Leaf by Niggle”. Not everyone seems to sense what touches me so strongly about these stories: they seem to refer to (the mystery of) Tolkien’s own creative process. You used the term “dense” for Kerningham & Ritchie: now, this is admittedly a hugely different field; but I have never come across a work so short as “Leaf by Niggle” is, but with so much content.

    Anyhow, I am glad that you share your thoughts!

  40. Hi, Lúthien. Many thanks for your kind comments, and my apologies for having been so slow to moderate your comment through. (I was away at a conference.) Any future comments of yours will go straight through without needing to be moderated.

    I’m delighted that you appreciate the site, that is seems to hit the same set of things that interest and provoke you. I’ve not read any of the Tolkien short stories (though, perversely, I’ve read quite a bit about them). I’ll take your advice and track them down. “Not everyone seems to sense what touches me so strongly about these stories” is exactly my experience concerning a lot of things — Aule’s creation of the dwarves is one.

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  43. So now that Tolkien’s Beowulf is published, does that give you an excuse to read it? I found the prose slow going, since it was intentionally written to retain the alliterative flavour, and the sentence structure. But once I clicked into that mode, it became easier.

  44. Oh, I didn’t know that was out!

    I will probably give it a miss, though. It may be brilliant, but I’ve never been able to read poetry, or anything that resembles it. My eyeballs just slide right off it. I guess I am poetry-dyslexic. (I wonder if there is a proper word for that?)

  45. It is a *prose* translation… :-) If you want an expert opinion, see the video, which is a talk by a Beowulf scholar who was, for a time, working with the Tolkien estate to get this stuff published. His enthusiasm, even though tempered with a realistic evaluation of the style of the translation, is catching. It’s fun to see a scholar be so unabashedly excited about their topic.

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