The Nature of Morgoth

This week for the Grey Havens Group meeting we were reading ‘Of the Ruin of Beleriand.’ Little did I know I was uniquely primed for this chapter to more deeply contemplate the nature of Morgoth, the fallen Valar.

I recently completed and reviewed Stant Litore’s No Lasting Burial. I have also been indulging a guilty pleasure of mine, re-watching Xena: Warrior Princess from its start. Neither was on my mind while reading, but the ideas they espouse brought aspects of the tale of ‘The Fall of Fingolfin’ to the fore as never before.

On a lark, I posted to the GHG facebook page, asking “What does Xena have to do with Morgoth?” and later “the Gift of Men and the Gift of Elves, leprosy and zombies” in order to stir up some interest. It proved to be an entertaining experiment, though I will never get the image of Morgoth in Xena’s armor out of my head. Thanks, Stant Litore!

A couple of weeks ago, I watched the Xena episode ‘Death in Chains,’ which is a retelling of the Greek myth of Sisyphus. In usual Xena fashion, it is no simple mash-up, blending many myths across many cultures.  In the episode, Sisyphus chains Celesta or Death, thereby preventing not only his own passing, but all deaths. Interestingly, however, suffering remains. As in the earlier episode “Prometheus,” humanity loses its ability to heal. Death is not something to be feared, but may be a release, a comfort.

Curious, I did a little research to see how accurate this portrayal is to Greek mythology.

The story of the chaining of ‘death’ is central to the mythology of Sisyphus, being one of the primary reasons for his unique punishment. Celesta is an invented goddess, basically substituting for Thanatos, Hades or Hermes depending on the myth. The twin brothers, Thanatos and Hypnos (Death and Sleep), like the Norse Valkyries, bore the dead down to Hades. The episode also pulls in elements of the keres, death spirits and daughters of Nix, whose touch sends the fallen warrior’s soul to Hades, as described in Hesiod’s Shield of Heracles. Whether it is Hades or Thanatos, the god of death is tricked into the chains meant for Sisyphus. And in one version, where Hades is captured, no one can die, those ill from wound, age or sickness suffer with no relief.

I am no expert on Classical mythology, and do not intend to prove anything about Tolkien’s sources or influences. Instead, I want to establish my frame reference. When I read Tolkien, I attempt to interpret Tolkien from within Tolkien using Tolkien, though applicability always opens new vistas.

The tale of the “Fall of Fingolfin” is unique in all the tales of the Legendarium in that it marks the only time Morgoth answered the challenge of the Eldar. It is also an interesting commentary on the nature of Morgoth, particularly as he relates to his fellow Valar, the Eldar and Men. Much like Sauron’s relationship to the Ring, Morgoth’s works in Middle-earth diminish and “[disperse]” his power, making him “ever more bound to the earth” (S 101). This marks the paradoxical condition in which Morgoth is both “greatest of all things in this world” and “alone of the Valar [knowing] fear” (S 153). These two brief statements are radical in their implications.

From the beginning, Melkor is “mightiest among” the Valar; foremost in power, and cunning (S17). Yet in his quest for dominion, there is a major tectonic shift, which is only hinted at up to this moment. The Valar are made by Ilúvatar, they are creatures of the Void, from without. However, in their choice to descend to the world, their power is “contained and bounded in the World, to be within it forever…so they are its life and it is theirs” (S 20). Paradoxically, the Valar are both of the World, being confined in it, and outside of the World. In part, therefore, they are akin to the Eldar, who “cannot escape and are bound to this world, never to leave it so long as it lasts, for its life is theirs” (S 265). On the other hand, having their origins outside the world, they are also akin to Men, who die not as punishment, but are allowed to “escape, and leave the world, and are not bound to it, in hope or in weariness” (S 265). The Valar, though bound to Arda, are intimately aware of the Void without, though they may not return until the ultimate end.

Returning to the description of Morgoth, given as he comes to answer Fingolfin’s challenge, it is critical to pay minute attention to Tolkien’s choice of words. Notice he says “greatest of all things in this world,” seemingly indicating in power Morgoth may not be judged among the Valar. However, turning the initial quote on its head, he “alone of the Valar” knows fear. These simple word choices demonstrate a great shift; Morgoth is become of the world, in a manner which negates his nature outside the world, thereby taking on traits from the world.

During the battle between Morgoth and Fingolfin, Morgoth is wounded seven times and finally pierced an additional time in the foot before Fingolfin’s death. Coming to preserve Fingolfin’s body from defilement, Thorondor mars Morgoth’s face. These actions in themselves are amazing, but the truly astounding part follows. After the battle, Morgoth is maimed. Not only is he maimed but “the pain of his wounds [cannot] be healed” (S 154). This single phrase shatters everything I ever thought of Morgoth.

“[T]he pain of his wounds [cannot] be healed.”

Think about that. Here is Morgoth, once mightiest of the Valar, wounded, in pain, suffering, with no remedy.

Ever.

There is no mention of hurt or harm ever coming to the Valar or Maiar, or at least any which may not be undone. Melkor has fallen so far it may be argued he may no longer be counted among their number. He has taken on the cares of the world, its fears and pains, with neither the release of the Gift of Men or the death and rebirth in Mandos of the Gift of the Eldar. He is trapped in a state in between.

For him, and presumably all the Valar, there is no death. Yet having invested himself so much in the world as to make himself of the world, he takes on the suffering of death and sickness without the comfort of final release, whether through death or through healing.

In his unsurpassed hunger for works both sacred and beautiful, out of jealousy and a yearning for dominance and the abasement of others that entails, Morgoth may be easily compared to the undead, to zombies. His is an unreasoning and unquenchable hunger, a sharp pain, which though never assuaged is somehow satisfied in the torture and destruction of others. But the wounds, and the pain, remain.

I am reminded of the Biblical treatment of leprosy, in which any ailment of the skin or flesh is proclaimed unclean. Stant Litore takes that to the ultimate extreme, with the unclean dead, but reading No Lasting Burial and Yeshua’s treatment of the hungry dead did remind me of something.

In Biblical times, any ailment was seen as a mark of sin, whether originating in the afflicted or their ancestors. In almost every miraculous healing, Jesus does not just heal the body, he first and foremost heals the soul. This is most poignantly shown during the healing of the paralytic in Luke, where Jesus first forgives the sins of the afflicted man, then, hearing those arrayed against him, commands him to “rise, take up your bed and go home” (Luke 5:24). In this, we are meant to see the more important wound, not that of the flesh, but that of the spirit.

Morgoth’s marred state is curious, and sets him apart. Though one of the Valar, and still mighty among the creatures of the earth, he is wounded and incapable of release. This state makes his fall from grace physical. Nowhere else is there any indication of pain, suffering, deformity or woundedness among the Valar. It radically changes the frame of reference by which Morgoth is to be judged.

In Review: No Lasting Burial

No lasting burialStant Litore’s No Lasting Burial is an amazing book on many levels. I admit I approached it with trepidation solely based upon its premise. The story expands upon the rather brief description in the New Testament of Christ’s invitation to the disciples to join in his ministry.

Shimon and Koach bar Yonah are the primary protagonists. They live in the shattered remains of Kfar Nahum, fighting for survival in a world in fear of both the Romans and the hungry dead. The community has been decimated and tremendously scarred by both. Litore masterfully weaves this history into the Biblical tale, breathing life into characters we all know, perhaps too well. His choice of use of the Hebrew names function in the same way. In each case, this provides the necessary distance to view the characters anew.

The book reads like a run-away express train. It is a tremendously gripping tale, perfect for setting your teeth on edge and reading with manic energy far into the night. This quality makes for an excellent thriller of a book, but that is not what No Lasting Burial is. It reminds me of the quality Tolkien ascribed to Norse myth: its inherent ability to ensnare and enthrall the reader upon first exposure, yet be capable of sustaining profound study. It is not the action I remember, so much as the calm (though often dark and brooding) which both precedes and follows. There is a lot of philosophical, historical and spiritual meat to be devoured, which though not always in tune with my own thought, invites profound contemplation.

It takes tremendous courage to write a book of speculative fiction centering on Jesus Christ. Though I was troubled by some of Litore’s portrayal, I greatly admire him for the effort and the intelligence shown in his choice to not place Yeshua center-stage. We all are familiar with who Yeshua is, or think he is; by making the tale center on Shimon, primarily, and the town, secondly, the reader is confronted by the same shocking strangeness which must have struck those first witnesses of His ministry. We are placed in the same mindset, slowly shown (or led through) the journey from incredulity to belief.

I did not agree with all of Litore’s choices, but they challenge us to reevaluate our own belief. In the secondary world of his first century Kfar Nahum, however, the development of Yeshua’s ministry flows logically and seamlessly to its conclusion, with many powerful applications to be found in its implications. Events, teachings and sayings from the Bible are recast as they would reflect upon the world of the hungry dead. They are made new.

This book is a tremendous vehicle for recovery, espousing Tolkien’s own theories of eucatastrophe and evangelium. There is great enjoyment to be found in it, but there is also the clarion call of challenge in it. No Lasting Burial invites us to enter more deeply into the Gospel story, to see the Truth in it, to see the humanity, and especially to rediscover the wonder and strangeness of the God made flesh. Even in those scandalous moments of disagreement, the mind is set aflame with our own beliefs and the hunger for knowledge stirred. This is the mark of not some simple thriller to be enjoyed and set aside, but a potentially life-changing novel capable of reinvigorating faith and wonder.

This is why I found No Lasting Burial both intensely troubling and sharply beautiful. I highly anticipate the opportunity to reread it to better absorb and consider without the mindless, moaning craving for resolution. I cannot say if it will stand the test of time and the vagaries of study, but it certainly will have a lasting effect on my thought and for that Stant Litore deserves congratulations.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Third Impressions

Viewing The Desolation of Smaug for the third time, I found the film pulling itself further and further away from the text. This explains my own paradoxical reaction to it, a rather weak reflection of Tolkien, and yet a very solid and enjoyable action film. The movie exists on three planes: as a cinematic wonder, a continuation of a cinematic adaptation and as a retelling of Tolkien’s tales. With the original trilogy, the first and third planes were set in tension, but were well matched. With the subsequent Hobbit trilogy, it may be the additional plane of existence, tied to precedent, is overturning the scale.

This is okay. They are completely different media after all; to be experienced and enjoyed in largely opposing manners. However, there is a danger in this, which I have voiced before. The films, and other book adaptations, have often been lauded for their stimulation of increased reading. This is great. But with a movie, now so far removed from its source, false expectations arise. The Desolation of Smaug is a rollicking action adventure. Though The Hobbit is the record of an adventure, action-adventure it is not. It is not about the adventure, the action, the confrontations, so much as the interpersonal relationships and the study of character growth, finding oneself and the realization of what truly matters in life.

My fear is movie goers may find disappointment in the book, instead of wonder and revelation. The balance and tension between the book and films in the Lord of the Rings trilogy never fully ruptured to swing completely to one side or the other. The revelation of the text, therefore became in some sense an ‘Easter egg,’ which often still had some reflection, if sometimes badly marred in the film. That is also generally true of AUJ and DOS, but given the whole-sale change of tone doesn’t feel as possible.

Maybe I am a grumpy purist at heart after all, fear mongering. In the end, though, I find myself pleased and proud of Christopher Tolkien for refusing to release rights to more of his father’s work.

Now that that’s out of my system, let’s move on to my thoughts upon my third viewing.

Beorn has bothered me each time I have seen him. I thought that perhaps his characterization would grow on me, but it has not. I do not like or find plausible the created back story of his capture and enslavement by Azog. Also, his visual depiction is distracting, particularly the chapped, dirty look of his skin. The nature of his home, and the sequence of these scenes, however were very well done.

As has been stated by many reviews, there are incessant references to the original LotR film trilogy sprinkled throughout Desolation of Smaug. Some are obvious, and some pretty subtle (which probably means I’ve probably already forgotten most of them). Given Tolkien’s use of repetition as a narrative device, I think its use is justified so long as it tells a metanarrative.

Many moments of reflection stick with me, including: Bilbo tweaking the webs in Mirkwood, the company’s capture by the elves, and Bilbo’s knocking and calling ‘Hello?’ in Erebor. The first and last, both duplicate, both in spirit and the first in deed, Pippin’s act in Moria. In Mirkwood, at least, the effect is the same; to call the spiders to them. The capture by the elves mirrors the encounter in Lothlorien. There are slight differences, but even the manner in which it is filmed seems lifted from FotR. Later, in the barrel escape, Legolas also surfs an orc, rather than a shield, copying TTT. Another moment, is Balin’s statement, in the tunnel leading to Smaug’s lair, regarding the courage of hobbits, which has been lifted from Gandalf. Considering Balin has had no dealing with hobbits, particularly adventurous ones (who don’t appear to exist beyond Bullroarer, Bilbo, and the LotR four), this rang utterly hollow.

In my current reread, Tolkien appears to use repetition almost like experimentation, changing variables, but largely leaving the situation the same, to study the results. Very little of that play, and characterization through repeated trials exists in these cinematic repetitions. They often felt stale or arbitrary.

There were moments of fun to be had, however, in the subtle nods to deeper Tolkien lore and other fun, basically nerd ‘Easter eggs’. These were done so as not to distract, but give a little back to those keen of eye and ear.

  • Bilbo’s waistcoat was missing buttons, and full of loose threads.
  • Beorn keeping watch as they travel to Mirkwood, both to protect them and guard his ponies.
  • Elvish dialogue is not translated exactly, particularly at Legolas’ description of Orcrist. He states it is made by his kin, when you clearly hear ‘Gondolin’.
  • A brief exchange between Gloin and Legolas regarding Gimli.
  • If I heard correctly, apparently one of the elves in the cellar is named ‘Elros’.
  • A possible allusion to the pilot episode of Xena when Legolas fights while standing on dwarves’ heads.
  • Legolas keeps Orcrist, and may be seen fighting Bolg with it in Esgaroth, which explains how it may (or may not) get back to Thorin.
  • Bilbo lifts a cup, which starts the gold-slide which uncovers and presumably wakes Smaug.
  • The frequent use of chapter names in dialogue: ‘Thrice Welcome’ and ‘Not at Home’
  • Azog’s reference to the orc and warg army as ‘legion’ which alludes to Mark 5:9 and Luke 8:30. (Not sure if this was the intent, but very intriguing.)
  • A possible allusion to The Shining when Smaug breaks through to the forges (or is this just me?).

One of the side effects of taking The Hobbit and granting it the epic tone and scope of The Lord of the Rings, is that it takes itself more seriously. By this I don’t refer to humor, but to the plausibility of danger, the intelligence of characters and narrative consistency.

There is a problem with geographical distance which seems to be endemic in the film industry. Azog is apparently able to travel the length of Mirkwood in a single day, or less, to reach Dol Guldor. Gandalf jetsets between Mirkwood, the High Fells and Dol Guldor; though the timing of his travels are less sure. Geography is clay. Very little apparent time is spent in Mirkwood. From the Carrock, the Company could easily discern the Lonely Mountain beyond. Either it is HUGE or it is very near. Distances stretch and disappear at will throughout. It doesn’t necessarily detract from the film, but it is a pet peeve of mine.

Orcs fight in full sunlight. The creation of the great Uruks is yet sixty or so years in the future. Though the orcs could persist in sunlight, as seen in the flight across Rohan, they suffered greatly for it and were hardly able to fight until nightfall. The full-scale onslaught during the Barrels out of Bond sequence is therefore terribly inconsistent.

Another point of dissonance, which did not really bug me but made me think, is the way the elves speak. I can understand the use of English (Westron) when speaking to the dwarves or the orcs, but why when the elves speak exclusively among themselves? There has been a huge push to put more language into these films. It is rather odd that Legolas and Tauriel speak in and out of Elvish when speaking privately. It is stranger still that an isolationist such as Thranduil would not keep to his own tongue wherever possible. I know more subtitles would put off many, but the balance is already too heavy, they may as well have gone all the way and made their elvish/’alien’ culture shine.

It makes sense to insert some effort by the dwarves to ‘off’ Smaug in the film. With the new focus on the Arkenstone, a plan would not have been conceived necessary until the return with an army of unite dwarvish kingdoms. So a haphazard effort makes sense should the company end up in an confrontation with the dragon. However, given the supposedly unsurpassed cunning of Smaug, the film fails to take his strengths of mind and body seriously. Yes, all the dwarves must survive until the ultimate conclusion, but this furthers the incredibility and absurdity of the final moments. As much as this would further separate the film from the text, the notion that they all get out of that completely unscathed (besides psychologically) defeats the nature of Smaug.

It begs the question how Smaug ever was able to claim the mountain, when he shows such complete incompetence. As a crafty wyrm, Smaug would not be so easily distracted by shouts or splitting up. It screams of impossibility that he’d pass over the company in a very open space and fail to see them. He is also supposed to have a keen sense of smell, which though not explicitly demonstrated, should have come into play. The entire series of events brought to mind the madcap chase scenes in comedies, where everyone goes in and out of doors along a corridor, but never the same ones.

Such an absurdity would work in the lighter context of the textual Hobbit, but not in the rather grave and epic Jacksonian Hobbit. The most hurt out of all that conflict is Thorin’s burnt overcoat. If you’re going to have the dwarves fight the dragon, you have to show the dragon as an adversary worthy of such effort and fear. If such a small company may have practically complete command of the place, unharmed, Smaug becomes like a kitten, a rabid and angry kitten, but no true threat. It creates a jarring dissonance.

Similarly, it is unlikely the orcs in Esgaroth could enter unnoticed. How they reached the town isn’t shown, but since they do have wargs, it must have been via the causeway, which would presumably be guarded. Also, with a protracted, noisy and destructive fight throughout the town, lights should have sprung up, and the people sounding the alarm left and right. The town may sleep, but it is not abandoned.

Another factor I noticed today was the unified nature of evil in Jackson’s films, which is extremely pronounced in the Hobbit trilogy. Everything trails back to Sauron. Azog is no free agent, a leader of Moria, but a leader in Sauron’s army. The spiders emanate from Dol Guldor. Even Smaug, who is very much a free agent capable of choosing his own side, appears cognizant of Sauron’s rise and not wholly unaligned. Yes, both evil and good tend to fight as united fronts in the end in Tolkien’s work, but they also often exist as separate and independent entities, completely unrelated to one another and even at times opposed.

Unlike An Unexpected Journey, where subsequent viewings have increased my enjoyment of the film, Desolation of Smaug appears to be doing the opposite. Taken alone, as a film apart or even as the continuation of Jackson and Co’s work, it is amazing. On the other hand, as time goes by, with further thought and subsequent viewings, I’m finding it harder and harder to see Tolkien in it.

It is a paradox. I love the movie. And at the same time I don’t.