Language & Myth: A Secret Vice

It has been many years since I first read Tolkien’s lecture “A Secret Vice,” and since I’ve been discussing the nature of myth and words I thought it would be a good idea to revisit it.

I find it interesting that the reclusiveness of the language creator (or conlanger using today’s parlance) remains largely the same as in Tolkien’s day.  The only difference now is that we benefit from the use of the Internet to reach out to others that play the “Game.”

Like many before me, I began creating my own languages shortly after reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time.  There was a certain wonder and magic in the act, which has the qualities of art without the need or use of the audience or critic.  As Tolkien describes, it is largely a personal, intimate art form, uniquely individual and ultimately secret.

Yet the advice, no the prediction, of Tolkien is a treasure for any conlanger, as well as being a revelation with regards to the nature of language and myth as Tolkien saw it.

As one suggestion, I might fling out the view that for perfect construction of an art-language it is found necessary to construct at least in outline a mythology concomitant.  Not solely because some pieces of verse will inevitably be part of the complete structure, but because the making of language and mythology are related functions; to give your language an individual flavor, it must have woven into it the threads of an individual mythology, individual while working within the scheme of natural human mythopoeia, as your word-form may be individual while working within the hackneyed limits of human, even European, phonetics.  The converse indeed is true, your language construction will breed a mythology. (The Monsters & the Critics, pp.210-11; my emphasis)

It is easily discovered when reading about Tolkien, that his mythology was born of the desire to tell the story of his languages.  It is also easy to see why, given his field (philology), Tolkien had both an affinity for language and myth and their origins.

If we pause to study Tolkien’s observation above, a truly awe-inspiring thought is revealed.  Granted it is an observation any student of language eventually contemplates, but Tolkien takes it a step further to show its true implications.

When you learn a new language and begin to reach a certain level of proficiency, such that you even begin to think using that tongue, something changes.  It is subtle, but it is crucial to an understanding of Tolkien’s conception of the link between language and myth.  When you begin to think in another language it forces you to structure your thoughts differently, and in some cases think in a manner completely unlike how you would for the same thought in your native tongue.

Language breeds myth and myth breeds language.

To use my oft used quote from Tolkien, stated in the previous post, it is possible to create myth solely through the act of naming.  We call a tree a tree, but what does that really mean?  In Spanish we’d call it an árbol, and in Italian albero, and much more besides around the world.  In a sense, in naming an object, we are telling a story, particularly when we study the origin of the word and its relationship with others.

If language predisposes the speaker (or writer) to think a certain way, it follows that it may only lead to the composition of a certain specific mythology.  Think of it this way: though we live in a world where everything is translated, does Macbeth really work in anything but English?  Or Don Quixote in anything but Spanish?  Or Dante’s Divine Comedy in anything besides Italian?  To my mind, something intrinsic to the piece is lost, once it is divested of its original language.  It is comparable in art with the sense of place and aura of a piece, which is often lost once it is removed from its original intended setting.  The case in point here would be religious art in museums, many of which were once altar pieces.  Part of the essence of the piece is forever lost by this separation, and the same is true of language.

You may ask then, how does myth breed language?

Well this is more in the hands of the “artist” than the speakers of the language.  History and storytelling lead to the eventual growth of legend, which through the craft of said storyteller or writer may cause a language to evolve (at least stylistically) over time.  A mode of expression, or a meter of speech or a style of prose are both defined by the language and stretched by the skill of the myth maker.  I cannot claim to be an expert on the subject, but the implications for the language creator are great.

In this mechanism of language lies the rubric for the creation of new languages, particularly for the insular languages of a conlanger.  To build a language you must build a myth.  To build a myth you must build a language.  The two go hand in hand, building one off the other.  And I can say from experience, it truly works.

For many years, I have sketched language after language, never really getting very far.  I’ve read many books, and tried many guides/courses, but none can truly create the feel or sound of an authentic language.  However, once I began tying the notion of language with myth and a world, and subcreating them all at once, everything clicked.

I’d like to share a piece with you all, and hopefully prove my point.  This is not necessarily to say my creation is any good, but to show proof of the generative power of myth and language built as one.

Torum•af•idomar•ejenur Edir•asil•ajorif•ejenuë, jor Enediru•fene•diëj Ilen•enediriä.

In a courtyard of the palace grows the holiest of trees, where the queen tends it each day.

Fiër•orevisor•edir•umator Tier•orevisuë. 

Water dances in fountains around it.

Olen•aroj Juren•ofaj•udun•ario, Oliv•ir•efil•aroj Foliët•ofaj•udun•ario.

Its blooms are white, its leaves of silver and green.

Eruvol•af•il•aruj Edir•aruë, Ruchol•af•arifet•asan•enared•ofaj•il•erejinis.

The tree is a gift from God, given as a token of His esteem for the kingdom.

Jat Edir•afamuë•nachur, Arexid•ejinis•ariev Led•udejarië.

If the tree should die, the king must be exiled.

Ju Il•ir•enared•oxef•ejinis•ononejië, ir Efuriëfech•udejarië.

He has betrayed both God and country, and must never return.


Names as Myth

A common practice in mythology tends to be the proliferation of names for any one person or object.  This tends to be the case for characters of particular importance or stature.  This tendency is also true of history and politics, usually the man (or woman) with the most titles or the longest one holds the most prestige.  But when you run across a long list of names, what is it you really see or sense?  What is the purpose of so many titles, that one alone cannot suffice?

Many fantasy authors use this multiplication of names for the simple reasons stated above.  However, if the topic of names is approach in a manner similar to history or the development of language another picture is revealed, and this is the argument I’m inclined to think Tolkien used himself.

I was struck in the Tale of the Sun and Moon by the many names given to each.

“…they called her Sári which is Sun, but the Elves Ûr which is fire; but many other names does she bear in legend and poesy.  The Lamp of Vána’s is she named among the Gods in memory of Vána’s tears and her sweet tresses that she gave; and the Gnomes call her Galmir the goldgleamer and Glorvent the ship of gold, and Bráglorin the blazing vessel, and many a name beside; and her names among Men no man has counted them.” (TBoLT I p.209)

“Thus was the Ship of the Moon, the crystal island of the Rose, and the Gods named it Rána, the Moon, but the fairies Sil, the Rose, and many a sweet name beside.  Ilsaluntë or the silver shallop has it been called, and thereto the Gnomes have called it Minethlos or the argent isle and Crithosceleg the disc of glass.” (TBoLT I p.215)

I know Tolkien repeats the same pattern with many characters, predominantly Turin, who goes by no less than eight names.  And there’s Aragorn, with a least five.  The difference here in the tales is that all the names are listed together.  Nowhere else in Tolkien’s writing (that I recall as of this writing) does he list such a proliferation of names.  So this presentation of the names of the Sun and Moon got me thinking about the purpose of names.

Names are little more than words, yet they are given paramount importance as they are meant to in some manner embody the nature and being of a person or thing.  When you think of a name, particularly of a loved one, do you think of the name itself or the emotions it evokes?  The nature of naming is a slippery slope.  How can anyone limit the expression of a person or object to just a few sounds?  This is the implied question stated by Tolkien in the introduction of multiple names.

To borrow, yet again, from my favorite quote:

“You call a tree a tree, and you think nothing more of the word. But it was not a ‘tree’ until someone gave it that name. You call a star a star, and say it is just a ball of matter moving on a mathematical course. But that is merely how you see it. By so naming things and describing them you are only inventing your own terms about them. And just as speech is invention about objects and ideas, so myth is invention about truth.” (Tolkien, Carpenter p. 151)

The process of naming is in many ways the process of myth-making.  In naming a character, we are intrinsically changing them; we are adding a layer or facet to their being.  Names are accrued through a process of history and relationship as well as legend.  When you see the names of the sun or moon, their multiple forms reveal hints of stories.  They demonstrate the history and culture of the namers and their hidden legends.

Names cannot be trifled with.  By not limiting himself to a single name, Tolkien is able to add layer upon layer to the history of Middle Earth.  No character or thing is one sided, and is seen differently both by the person themselves and those around them.  The nebulous nature of names lies in the challenge of naming the unnamable.  With each appellation, a sliver of the Truth is revealed.  The use of manifold titles is comparable to Tolkien’s insertion of Tom Bombadil and the Barrow Wights in The Lord of the Rings.  Tolkien’s one stated purpose for Tom Bombadil is to give a sense of other; to show that the quest for the destruction of the Ring and the evil of Sauron is not all there is to the world.  There is so much more which is beyond our reach or knowledge.  Using a multitude of names, Tolkien is able to evoke a sense of history and wonder.  Not only can names play a game through their meaning (as with Turin) but they are used to tell the story behind the story that we will never see.

The case of the Magic Sun

The Tale of the Sun and the Moon, in the Book of Lost Tales is remarkable for many reasons, not least for its length.  Tolkien notes this himself, writing that this tale is “in need of great revision, cutting down, and [?reshaping].” (TBoLT I p. 194)  As Christopher Tolkien states in the commentary, it is a mystery whether in rewriting the tale later in life, Tolkien shortened the Tale through compression or rethought and possibly rejected some of the ideas in this Tale.

One such mystery caught my eye: the case of the “Magic Sun.”

After the Darkening of Valinor, efforts are made by Vána and Lórien to heal the trees mainly by lavishing what little store of light they have remaining on their roots.  These efforts are in vain.  They are ultimately stopped by Manwë, who scolds them for this waste of precious light, which the Valar have no means of creating.  So they call on Yavanna to use her power to mend the Trees.  She refuses, saying,

“Many things shall be done and come to pass, and the Gods grow old, and the Elves come nigh to fading, ere ye shall see the rekindling of these Trees or the Magic Sun relit……Tis of fate and the Music of the Ainur.  Such marvels as those Trees of gold and silver may even the Gods make but once, and that in the youth of the world; nor may all my spells avail to do what ye now ask.”  (TBoLT I p. 200-1)

At the end of the tale of the Music of the Ainur, there is mention of the Second Music of the Ainur and the Great End.  This may lend some insight into the meaning of the Magic Sun, which I think may not be separated from the notion of the Great End.

“I will end the tale…concerning the building of the Sun and Moon with that great foreboding that was spoken among the Gods when first the Door of Night was opened.  For ‘tis said that ere the Great End come Melko shall in some wise contrive a quarrel between Moon and Sun, and Ilinsor shall seek to follow Urwendi through the Gates, and when they are gone the Gates of both East and West will be destroyed, and Urwendi and Ilinsor shall be lost.  So shall it be that Fionwë Úrion, son of Manwë, of love for Urwendi shall in the end be Melko’s bane, and shall destroy the world to destroy his foe, and so shall all things then be rolled away.”  (TBoLT I p. 247)

Now this quote is not terribly illuminating in and of itself, but taken in conjunction with an understanding of the nature of Arda’s creation, it can lead to some interesting conclusions.  Following the Music, Ilúvatar leads the Ainur out into the void, where he shows them the world they have sung into being through his power.  As I’ve previously stated, this is the theory of subcreation placed in the context of mythology.  However, where is Ilúvatar in the creation of Arda?  He states:

“’One thing only have I added, the fire that giveth Life and Reality’—and behold, the Secret Fire burnt at the heart of the world.” (TBoLT I p. 53)

Now the last piece to finish the puzzle is the application of faith.  The Secret Fire is essentially the Holy Spirit of Tolkien’s Catholic faith.  Tolkien’s goal in writing his mythology, largely stated with regards to LotR but applicable here as well, was to create a pre-Christian Christian myth.  With this in mind, I believe two possible meanings of the Magic Sun become quite clear.

The first is that the Magic Sun is in reality Jesus Christ, who through his death and resurrection redeemed the world, making all things new and ending the tyranny of sin.  The Valar are bound to Arda, and therefore bound by its rules.  Their power is finite, but the power of Ilúvatar is not.  It is unclear if the Great End is the end of the world, or just the end of an Age.  If it is the end of an Age, this application fits quite well and ties the mythology of Middle Earth firmly to our own.

And yet another meaning, which cannot be fully separated from the last, is that the Great End and the rekindling of the Magic Sun is a veiled reference to the Second Coming.  Often in the Christian faith, we refer to the Light of Christ or the fire of the Holy Spirit.  Given mythological dress, it is not difficult to see the connection; whether it is correct is another question.  But whether it is or not, the implications of such a tie, even only hinted at, are fascinating to ponder.

In Review: Rob Inglis reads The Hobbit

The Hobbit, audio book by Rob Inglis I have a slight prejudice against audio books because, like movies, they can be used as a replacement to the book.  It is in some ways unavoidable given the convenience of the audio book, both because it frees you up to do other things as well as allowing “shallow” listening.

And so, I approached The Hobbit audio book with some trepidation.  I did not want to replace the experience of reading the book, or encourage myself to be a passive listener.  Even with these misgivings, I decided to take the plunge.

And I must say, it was a great decision!

I whole-heartedly recommend listening to The Hobbit!  This was an experience I will never forget and look forward to repeating.  The reason why is simple.  The Hobbit began on the back of an examination booklet Tolkien was grading, we all know that.  But ultimately, the birth of the tale was oral in nature: bedtime stories Tolkein told his children.  This accounts for the childlike tone of the story…but also accounts, I believe, for the nature of the prose.

Listening to The Hobbit felt like experiencing the book as it is meant to be.  Reading the book, it is almost impossible to grasp the oral and conversational quality of the prose.  Being that The Hobbit is Bilbo’s own diary, this mode makes sense.  All the asides, all the conversational exposition fit like a glove, once told aloud.  It is almost like listening to Bilbo himself, and I could begin to see how he may color events and interpret things in different ways, not always actually true.

I think listening to The Hobbit allows you to approach it from a different angle, and see things you wouldn’t in words on paper.  However, after this experience, I look forward to reading the book again, in hopes that this time, primed with this knowledge, I will see Bilbo shine through.  I have never truly been able to approach The Hobbit as a diary, I know it is supposed to be, but it never quite clicked.  But presented orally, it is as if Bilbo has invited you over for tea for a long yarn.

Quenta “Silmarillion”? … Not Yet!

In the final published Silmarillion, the Silmarils are central to the events of the First Age, and one could argue, central to the unfolding history of Arda through every age.  In the Quenta, the Silmarils are not just gems or diamonds of the utmost craft and beauty,  they are holy relics, honored and admired by all.  They are made by Fëanor, “who, first of the Noldor, discovered how gems greater and brighter than those of the Earth might be made with skill.” (Silmarillion p.64)  He developed his craft, and filled with the desire to make gems to surpass all that came before:

 “…he pondered how the light of the Trees, the glory of the Blessed Realm, might be preserved imperishable.  Then he began a long and secret labor, and he summoned all his lore, and his power, and his subtle skill; and at the end of all he made the Silmarils.

All who dwelt in Aman were filled with wonder and delight at the work of Fëanor.  And Varda hallowed the Silmarils, so that thereafter no mortal flesh, nor hands unclean, nor anything of evil will might touch them, but it was scorched and withered; and Mandos foretold that the fates of Arda, earth, sea, and air, lay locked within them.” (Silmarillion 67)

Not only are the Silmarils of the Quenta depositories of the holy light of the Trees, they are made holy in their own right through the power and blessings of Varda, maker of stars.  Melkor’s lust for the Silmarils in the Quenta, and Fëanor’s protective ownership of them are the primary movers of subsequent events.

After Melkor and Ungoliant kill the Trees, the Valar and the Eldar gather to discuss the fate of the Trees, and find the one possible cure in the Silmarils; so says Yavanna:

“The Light of the Trees has passed away, and lives now only in the Silmarils of Fëanor…Even for those who are mightiest under Ilúvatar there is some work that they may accomplish once, and once only.  The Light of the Trees I brought into being, and within Eä I can do so never again.  Yet had I but a little of that light I could recall life to the Trees, ere their roots decay; and then our hurt should be healed and the malice of Melkor confounded.” (Silmarillion 78)

Fëanor responds:

“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…This thing I will not do of free will.  But if the Valar will constrain me, then shall I know indeed that Melkor is of their Kindred.” (Silmarillion 78-79)

Soon after, a messenger arrives from Formenos with news of the death of Fëanor’s father and the rape of the Silmarils.  This leads directly into Fëanor’s declaration of Melkor as Morgoth (Black Foe of the World) and subsequently his final push for the departure of the Noldor from Valinor and the taking of the Oath.  Each of these events are caused, in one way or another, by the existence of the Silmarils.

And yet this is not so in the Tale.  In the Tale, Fëanor

“…fared to the Solosimpi (Teleri) and begged a great pearl, and he got moreover an urn full of the most luminous phosphor-light gathered of foam in dark places, and with these he came home, and he took all the other gems and did gather their glint by the light of white lamps and silver candles, and he took the sheen of pearls and the faint half-colours of opals, and he [?bathed] them in phosphorescence and the radiant dew of Silpion, and but a tiny drop of the light of Laurelin did he let fall therein, and giving all those magic lights a body to dwell in of such perfect glass as he alone could make…he made a jewel—and it shone of its one…..radiance in the uttermost dark; and he set it therein and sat a very long while gazing at its beauty.  Then he made two more, and had no more stuffs; and he fetched others to behold his handiwork, and they were amazed, and those jewels he called Silmarilli…all held who ever saw them that the Silmarils of Fëanor were the most beautiful jewels that ever shone or [?glowed].” (BoLT I p139)

Though the light of the Tale’s Silmarils also comes in part of the Trees, the sense of their purity and sanctity, so emphasized in the Quenta , is largely absent.  Also of note is the fact that the practice of using light in the creation of gems is not unique to the Silmarils in the Tale, or to Fëanor.  It is a widely used practice at which the Noldoli excelled, using all things “fair and radiant” in the creation of great gems. (BolT I p137)

What is interesting at this juncture are the motives of Melko in the Tale.  Following his imprisonment in Mandos, Melko is “a servant in the house of Tulkas “…there did he nurse his hatred of the Gods (Valar), and his consuming jealousy of the Eldar, but it was his lust for the beauty of the gems for all his feigned indifference that in the end overbore his patience and caused him to design deep and evilly.” (BoLT I 154)  So here, in the Tale, Melko is driven to act out of greed, desiring the gems of the Noldoli.  The Noldoli made and gave many gems to the other Valar, but always when Melko begged “gifts of jewels” from them or knowledge of their making, he is refused.  And this refusal is what drives him to initiate the discord between the Gnomes (Noldoli) and the Valar.

Melko in his cunning, reveals the discontent and murmurings of the Noldoli to Manwë, who subsequently banished them all from Kôr (Tirion).  This is not done so much as a punishment, but in hopes that the Noldoli will calm and change their mind; and also to keep their vile accusations against the Valar from spreading to the others of the Eldar.  Unlike the Quenta, here the entirety of the Noldoli goes.  And due to this exile, it is easier to see the developing strife and understand why the Gnomes would leave enmasse for “The Great Lands” (Middle Earth/Beleriand).

Again, as in the Quenta, the Noldoli are permitted to return for a festival.  And while they are away, Melko kills Fëanor’s father and steals the Silmarils along with the treasury of the Gnomes.  He then flees the wrath of the Gods (Valar), first north, then south to avoid the servants of Mandos.

Learning of the theft and murder, the Noldoli cry out the Manwë for justice:

“There lies Bruithir sire of Fëanor dead and many of the Noldoli beside, and all our treasury of gems and fair things and the loving travail of our hands and hearts through many years is stolen away….[and Manwë answers them]…Behold O Children of the Noldoli…the poison of Melko has already changed you, and covetice has entered your hearts.  Lo! Had ye not thought your gems and fabrics of better worth than the festival of the folk or the ordinances of Manwë your lord, this had not been, and Bruithir go-Maidros and those other hapless ones still had lived, and your jewels been in no greater peril…depart now in penitence knowing full well that Melko has wrought this evil against you, and that your secret trafficking with him has brought you all this loss and sorrow.” (TBoLT I 161-2)

Here we find the sins of the Noldoli are more clearly expressed than in the Silmarillion.  They are not only rebelling against the Valar, they are also enslaved by materialism.  They are so enthralled by the work of their hands and the wealth they have built that it is their downfall.  This is clearly stated in the Quenta, though not for the whole of the Noldor but for Fëanor in his refusal to relinquish the Silmarils.

And yet here, the Trees still live.  There is no hint of the link between the Silmarils and the Trees at this point in the development of the narrative.  Indeed, when Melko flees south, he sends an embassy to the Valar demanding the a place of honor in Valinor, a palace and the Noldoli as his thralls.  His herald is killed by Tulkas, and the news brought to Melko by way of Sorontur king of the eagles.

Taking the news of the death of his herald and the refusal of his just (to him) requests as the ultimate insult, and believing himself the wronged party, Melko hatches the ultimate plan to destroy the bliss of Valinor.  The killing of the Tress is not, as in the Quenta, a means of persuading Ungoliant, or even as a diversion on the way to the Silmarils.  It is both a method of escape through the north of Valinor and ultimately to Beleriand, as well as pure revenge and spite.  Though these motives are also present in the final telling, here they are much more pronounced due to their separation from the ultimate goal of the Silmarils in the Quenta.

The division between the Valar and Noldoli is a much more convoluted process in the Tales.  It is first initiated by Melko; then exacerbated by Manwë’s decision to exile them, then further worsened by the theft of the Silmarils and the Valar’s apparent lack of response, and culminates in Manwë’s revelation of the coming of the Children of Men to the Eldar.  Manwë explains one aspect of the Valar’s reasoning in bringing the Elves to Valinor:

“…it is of the unalterable Music of the Ainur that the world come in the end for a great while under the sway of Men; yet whether it shall be for happiness or sorrow Ilúvatar has not revealed, and I would not have strife or fear or anger come ever between the different Children of Ilúvatar, and fain would I for many an age yet leave the world empty of beings who might strive against the new-come Men and do hurt to them ere their clans be grown to strength, while the nations and peoples of the Earth are yet infants.” (TBoLT I 166)

Obviously, in the current climate, the Noldoli take this as confirmation of all that Melko had told them and the reason for their removal from Middle Earth: the theft of their “inheritance” to a “race unborn.”  And in the midst of this strife, Melko and Ungoliont attack the Trees.  At this moment, when the Trees are dead, Fëanor rouses the Noldoli and convinces them to leave Valinor in search of their lost gems and new adventures, and to escape the thralldom of the Gods (Valar).

Looking at the Tale, though the Silmarils were greatly desired by Melko, they are but three of a vast hoard of gems which he desires.  They may be greatest, but they are not yet the primary focus of his lust.  Even still there are hints of the future form, as in Melko’s deal with Ungoliont he promises her all the gems, keeping only the Silmarils for himself.

But what is greatly interesting here is how the decreased stature of the Silmarils greatly changes the dynamic of the Tale.  For one, the role of Fëanor is greatly reduced.  Though still functioning as the leader of the Noldoli and the firebrand who will lead them out of Valinor; here the decisions, pride and arrogance are largely assigned to the whole Noldoli race, and there is less evidence of strenuous persuasion on the part of Fëanor.

Also of interest, are the actions of Manwë, which often do little more than make matters worse.  With both of these changes, they ultimately increase the apparent power and manipulation of Melko.  He primes the Noldoli and plants the seeds of doubt.  He also plays to Manwë’s concerns and best intentions, which lead to the banishment of the Noldoli.  In all actions, in the Tale, Melko’s influence is apparent, and therefore his strength and cunning are also seemingly greater.

By changing the nature of the Silmarils, Tolkien is able to tie the motivations of all into a cohesive story line.  When the Silmarils are no longer mundane, but sacred they become important to all.  As holy objects, and relics of the Trees’ light, the lust of Morgoth, the fury of Noldor and their passion in pursuit all fall into place neatly like the pieces in a puzzle.

The closest correlation I can think of in history is the Crusades.  Though the Crusades’ purpose was primarily to regain the Holy Land and protect the ways for pilgrims, its secondary and just as important purpose was the gathering of relics; and one could argue Jerusalem was the greatest relic of them all.  Seen as a holy crusade, the Flight of the Noldor, and their subsequent wars with Morgoth can be seen in a wholly different manner than the jealous and furious vendetta of the Tale.

In the Tale, the primary reasons for the flight of the Noldoli are their misguided belief that they are somehow enslaved by the Valar; held in thrall to allow for the glorification of Men.  The wish for vengeance against Melko for the death of Fëanor’s father and the theft of the Silmarils, though strong, is ultimately secondary.  While the first motivation is also present in the Quenta, the final straw is the theft of the Silmarils.  They are given pride of place as the last and greatest reason to leave.  There too, Fëanor is given pride of place as the bearer of the brunt of the “injustices” (so he thinks) of the Valar, as well as the primary architect of the Flight.

I realize I probably seem to be rambling quite a bit at this point, but there is something to be seen in comparing the first surviving tale and the final published.  Though the Tales all occur in Middle Earth as a semi-continuous narrative, they were each written separately and often nowhere near sequentially.  Though diffuse, almost all the final elements of the Quenta are present in the Tale.  In reviewing the two side by side, what I have found fascinating is how by the simple sanctification of the Silmarils, Tolkien was able to create a cohesive world and a cohesive history out of so many disparate tales.  This simple change is the glue, to my mind, that holds the final legendarium together.

Tale of The Music of the Ainur

I have always been struck by the beauty of the prose and symbolism of the Music of the Ainur.  To me, it is one of the best conceived and executed of all Tolkien’s tales that make up the mythology of The Silmarillion.  The truly awe-inspiring thing about this work, however, I have discovered in reading the Book of Lost Tales I.

There is very little that is different between the final published chapter in the Silmarillion and the earliest draft of the Tale; and those are not significant and largely do not change any of the meaning.  This tale contains some of Tolkien’s most gorgeous prose, as well as his most awesome (spiritually) storytelling.  It only impresses upon me the greatness of this piece and its significance for Tolkien himself that it remained so pure and authentic in its conception throughout his life.  Most other tales Tolkien wrote, though static in much of their overarching structure, were transformed and grew in the telling, but not the Music of the Ainur.

While there are few significant differences in the two texts, I give here a few of my favorite passages as seen in the Tale:

“Behold, Iluvátar dwelt alone.  Before all things he sang into being the Ainur first…teaching them all manner of things, and the greatest of these was music.” (TBoLTI p.49)

As I’ve stated in previous posts, the power of song and music, particularly in the form of praise, supplication and thanksgiving are a constant theme in Tolkien’s writing.  In reading the Tales, I have found this theme was actually once much more prominent in the mythology, and of all symbols I believe this is one of Tolkien’s most potent for prayer and faith.  Just as song can be uplifting and a pure expression of our emotions and desires and evoke a sense of sublime, so too does prayer.  This pairing is an ancient one, and lends great potency and beauty to Tolkien’s creation story.

Iluvátar presents a great theme to the Ainur, though only as an outline, trusting in their skills and ingenuity, given and nourished by him, to build on what he has created:

“It is my desire now that ye make a great and glorious music and a singing of this theme; and (seeing that I have taught you much and set brightly the Secret Fire within you) that ye exercise your minds and powers in adorning the theme to your own thoughts and devising.”  (TBoLTI p.50)

Here explicitly can be seen the creation so to speak of free will.  It is also in a sense a call to all to utilize their God given talents to the greater glory of God:  to nourish our talents and use them to the fullest of our ability, expending the utmost of our energies in the act of sub-creation.  Here and throughout the Ainulindalë I see the greatest explanation of the concept of sub-creation in Tolkien’s written work.  God has built the framework, we are called by Him to build off His creation and fill in the “adornments.”  And yet, as human beings we are prone to sin and vice, and so our creations may be contrary to God’s Theme.  Here the human experience follows the tale of Melkor; who wishing to create of himself for himself inserted his own theme into the Great Theme of Iluvátar:

“…straightaway harshness and discordancy rose about him, and many of those that played nigh him grew despondent and their music feeble, and their thoughts unfinished and unclear, while many others fell to attuning their music to his rather than to the great theme…” (TBoLTI p.51)

Twice Iluvátar introduces a new theme, the second of which is described below:

“Then Iluvátar raised his right hand, and he no longer smiled, but wept; and behold a third theme, and it was in no way like the others, grew amid the turmoil, till at the last it seemed there were two musics progressing at on time about the feet of Iluvátar, and these were utterly at variance.  One was very great and deep and beautiful, but it was mingled with an unquenchable sorrow, while the other was now grown to unity and system of its own, but was loud and vain and arrogant, braying triumphantly against the other as it thought to drown it, yet ever as it essayed to clash most fearsomely, finding itself but in some manner supplementing or harmonizing with its rival.“ (TBoLTI p.51)

I have always been struck by the tremendous beauty of this passage, which remains essentially unchanged in the Silmarillion.  As Tolkien said to CS Lewis when discussing the veracity of myth, “Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.” (p. 151 Carpenter).  No matter what we do, what we create we are always working towards the plan of God; and He utilizes everything we do, even our failings, for His greater glory.  Again, this is beautifully described in the passage below from the Tale:

“…no theme can be played save it come in the end of Iluvátar’s self, nor can any alter the music in Iluvátar’s despite.  He that attempts this finds himself in the end but aiding me in devising a thing of still greater grandeur and more complex wonder…” (TBoLTI p. 52)

Unlike The Silmarillion, in the Tale Iluvátar continues to describe the wonders that have been created through the discordant music of Melkor: the birth of hope and mercy and the sense of the greatness and worthiness of life sprang of the cruelty, terrors, wrath, and tortures of Melkor.  His “biting colds” and “undue heats” have been used by Iluvátar to increase the glory of creation, giving birth to ice and snow crystals and clouds and rain.  All has been molded to Iluvátar’s will.

So this post has been significantly longer than I intended, but I hope you too may come to enjoy this tale as much as I do.  For me, it is one of the most thought provoking stories Tolkien ever wrote and probably the most overt window into his own faith to be found in the legendarium.

In Review: The Book of Lost Tales, Part I

The Book of Lost Tales, Part I by J.R.R. Tolkien and edited by Christopher TolkienThe story and the world which developed over the course of Tolkien’s life is that of the Silmarillion.  I have always had a soft spot for this book, and history and mythology in general, and though I have had the full set of the History of Middle Earth on my “Tolkien Shelf”  for many years now, I have not read them; except in piecemeal sections.

I have made the attempt before, but always got thrown off by the difference in style, in framing (ie. Eriol and the Cottage of Lost Play).  I think now, however, I am suitably prepared having spent many years now reading both Tolkien criticism and analysis…as well as writing some myself.  So I figured this was the time to give it another go.

HoME is not for the faint of heart, and while it contains truly amazing insights into the development of Tolkien’s mythology it is not always easy going.

The book of Lost Tales Part I chronicles the history of Middle Earth during the first age, through to the Hiding of Valinor and the creation of the Sun and Moon. It is a fascinating book, particularly if you are already familiar with the Silmarillion.

The problem with this book is similar to that which plagues most readers of The Silmarillion. It can be hard to get into, difficult to follow and tough going at times. Personally,I love the Silmarillion and the Unfinished Tales, Tolkien criticism/analysis and I am fascinated by history in general all of which made the first two volumes of HoME easier for me. However, the first hurdle to start and keep going is probably the hardest. The tales begin with the story of the Cottage of Lost Play and Eriol’s arrival at Tol Eresea…this was my stumbling block and for years I never made it further. The framing devise and style take some getting used to. Keep going through to the actual tales and you’ll find the diamonds in the rough.

What is so amazing, is how much of the final form of the history is already formed or begun in these first tales Tolkien wrote. At the same time, some of Tolkien’s earliest thoughts concerning the Valar and the phases of the creation of Arda are startlingly different.

I was particularly drawn to the Music of the Ainur and the Creation of the Sun and Moon. The music has always been one of my favorite chapters in the Silmarillion, here it is greatly expanded, and though sometimes rough, the prose is exquisite. Also the religious-philosophical underpinnings of the tale are all present, and expressed in beautiful prose. Some ideas are expanded, some are different, and some new (old) ideas later discarded.

The Creation of the Sun and Moon is significantly longer in the Tales, and full of surprising detail. The first thoughts of Tolkien are at times very close to the published Silmarillion, and at other times so far afield as to be unrecognizable. Even so, many of the ideas here linger in later works, and it is fascinating to discover these kernels of insight.  It is both fascinating and striking, given slight familiarity with classical and particularly Norse/Icelandic mythology how much Tolkien borrowed and adapted.  Though with rewriting these elements are largely indistinguishable from Tolkien’s own world and invention, here you can see the initial germ of his later polished ideas.

One thing to be aware of reading HoME, whether for pleasure or scholarly reasons, is that it is largely approached by Christopher Tolkien in a scholarly, pseudo-archeological manner.  There are many notes regarding changes and tweaks along the way, as well as Christopher’s own commentary on the development of the current draft/tale in question.  Ultimately it is up to the reader how much of this to partake in.  I found most of the tales to be excellent, and the commentary particularly interesting, but mostly skimmed through the other notes.

What is truly amazing about reading HoME is the benefits of hindsight.  I am very familiar with the final published Silmarillion and Tolkien’s other writing; so it was fairly easy for me to spot differences, but even more stunningly the already firmly established bones of the final tale.  Though there are striking and at times shocking differences, most of these are fairly minor compared to the overarching mythology.  An interesting point which comes out of the commentary is that part of Tolkien’s struggles with the Silmarillion was due to how to frame the story.  Often the tales in this book are greatly expanded from what is published in the Silmarillion (ie. The creation of the Sun & Moon) and much of Tolkien’s later work was in the revision and condensing of the previous work.  Often (mostly true of The Children of Hurin & the Tale of Tinuviel & The Fall of Gondolin) the expanded form was never left behind or rejected, only shortened.  In this sense The Book of Lost Tales is invaluable, and should be experienced by all Tolkien fans.