Nobody Puts Tolkien in a Corner! (Silmarillion Slow Cooker, p39)

In today’s short reading of just two paragraphs, I want to take a look at two things. First, how Tolkien ties and doesn’t hold the Silmarillion to the standards of geological history, and, second, a fine example of what it means for the Valar to be “espoused”. There will be, of course, other bits along the way, so strap in.

Tales of Fire and Ice?
Let’s first look at Morgoth and what he was up to after the Lamps had been extinguished. Since the Two Trees only illuminated Valinor, Middle-earth was lit by the stars alone. Melkor, we’re told, “wielded cold and fire, from the tops of mountains to the deep furnaces that are beneath them…”

To me, this is an allusion to the prehistoric. Of course, Tolkien wasn’t even a little concerned with the idea of evolution or of an actual geological clock. Still, there were two things for which he needed to account – volcanoes and the Ice Age. Much of how the land around us is formed is due to both volcanoes and glaciers. This is true for the Pacific Northwest, where I live, and for Europe and England, for which Tolkien was originally creating a mythology. Both fire and ice, we learn, come from Melkor.

There’s no way to really link up Melkor’s hot and cold periods with Earth’s own geology. We can’t really say that the splitting of Middle-earth, Arda and the Lands of the Sun dates to the breaking up of Pangaea 100 million years ago. But maybe we could wrangle Melkor’s fire and ice period to something like the eruption of the super-volcano at Lake Toba, 75,000 years ago, which threw the entire world into a volcanic winter. But really, who knows. All of this was supposed to happen before any of the Children were awoken, and scientifically that just makes no sense at all. So repeat to yourself: it’s such a story – you should really just relax.

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
If Melkor was responsible for our geological prehistory, Aulë and Yavanna were responsible for our prehistoric culture. We learned our crafts from them. From woodworking, to metalworking, to farming, and even basket weaving – all came from Aulë with a huge assist from Yavanna in the farming category.

This shows well how Vala spouses were matched. These skills helped formed the Children’s civilization and culture. Aulë and Yavanna taught the Elves who taught the Men, who passed it along to the rest of us. Men probably didn’t know which skills came from the Valar and which came from the Elves, as the Elves (the Noldor specifically) added quite a bit of their own knowledge to the mix.

As with the Melkor geology, there’s no way to draw lines from this story to real life. In the real world, humans didn’t learn these skills all at once. We first worked with wood as Neanderthals. The first metalworking happened nearly 10,000 years ago. Farming happened first about 12,000 years ago – around the time we also started weaving baskets.

Here also, we catch a quick glimpse of the story to come. The Noldor, we’re told, figured out on their own how to make gems, including the Silmarilis, which were lost.

In the 1948 draft of the Ainulindalë, the bit about the Noldor claims: “and they were the wisest and most skilled among the Elves.” But three years later, when Tolkien revised it, he wrote instead: “and they are the most skilled of the Elves.” (MR p34) Huge burn for the Noldor! So who were the wisest of the Eldar?

Camera: Pentax K-1000 Film: ORWO NP 55

Camera: Pentax K-1000
Film: ORWO NP 55

Ages? What Ages?
“But as the ages drew on” is such a strange line. Its placement in this first chapter – after the destruction of the Lamps – leads you to believe that there were many “ages” between the Two Trees (when time was first counted) and the coming of the Elves. According to Tolkien, however, this might be a touch misleading.

When Christopher Tolkien was compiling the Silmarillion for publication, he picked bits from here and there in his father’s writings to place where he believed them to best fit. In editing this chapter, he plucked paragraphs from the Annals of Aman (1950), the ‘Later Quenta’ (1958-60), and the Ainulindalë (1951). It’s the latter that interests us today.

The 1951 draft of the Ainulindalë (the final Tolkien would write), as we’ve discussed a few times, was actually a lot longer. It had some sixteen additional paragraphs. Christopher Tolkien used a few of these in the beginning of the published Chapter One, and some at the end.

As originally conceived, this line (“But as the ages drew on”) was written as part of the Ainulindalë – a writing that was to stand on its own, giving a condensed version of the early history of the Earth. It was to have been compiled by Ælfwine, a 4th Century Englishman, who traveled to Eresseä, and heard much of it spoken by Pengoloð, an Elf who was passing it down from written documents made by Rúmil of Túna from the First Age.

This in-story authorship was much the same for the ‘Later Quenta’. Accordingly, Pengoloð consulted the Annals of Aman and Beleriand, paraphrased it to Ælfwine, who later recalled it from his memory and wrote it down. The Annals, which were to have been written by Rúmil and expanded by Pengoloð, were never actually seen by Ælfwine (though Tolkien wished for them to be published in the Silmarillion as a sort of Tale of Years). (MR p143; LR p203-4)

It is only in these Annals where we get dates for the events described in the Quenta. According to the Annals of Aman, there were not ages that passed between the Two Trees and the awakening of the Elves, but rather 1,050 years. So what gives? (MR p85.)

What we’re seeing here are two different works given from two different perspectives. The Ainulindalë portions came from a vague impression of time held by the Englishman, Ælfwine, which was given to him by Pengoloð, who understood that Ælfwine probably couldn’t grasp such vast time spans. The second, as recorded by Rúmil in the Annals of Aman, was done so in the First Age. Its information was not passed down to Ælfwine by Pengoloð, even though the latter knew the actual timeline.

This is a fine example of how Christopher Tolkien’s attempts to combine several points of view and sources compromised his father’s original intents. This isn’t really a criticism – his task was basically an impossible one. He had stated many times that he was rushed, made mistakes, and has many regrets. If he were to create a Silmarillion for publication today, it would no doubt be vastly different than what he created in the late 1970s.

And so in conclusion, we can see that nobody puts either of the Tolkiens in a corner. Geological history played almost no role whatsoever in Tolkien’s mythology, just as Tolkien’s wishes played almost no role in Christopher’s editing of this small segment. But that’s okay. Tolkien was creating a mythology that explained the “reason” why things are they way they are, and Christopher was creating a publication based on notes and manuscripts. While I love studying geologic/human history, Tolkien and the Silmarillion editing process, there really is no need at all to try to reconcile any of them to the other. Nobody should put us in a corner, either!


Some Notes:

  • As you can see, I’ve decided to redo how I cite references. While I adore proper footnotes, the coding and arranging took a loooong ass time. I pretty well despise the MLA format to which I’ve reverted, but it’s easier for me to do on the fly. If you have a question as to what things like MR and LR mean, just ask – though usually they’ll be from the History of Middle-earth series.
  • In this case, MR is Morgoth’s Ring, and LR is The Lost Road.
  • Tolkien did struggle with some broad geological features, such as the round vs. flat earth, but ultimately, he decided to simply stick with mythology. Good on him.

Pages & Text

  • Page 39
  • Chapter: Of the Beginning of Days, Paragraphs 15-16
  • Starting with:
    “But as the ages drew on…”
  • Ending with:
    “…and they are lost.”

11 thoughts on “Nobody Puts Tolkien in a Corner! (Silmarillion Slow Cooker, p39)

  1. You know you spent way too much time in academia when you have a firm opinion on these things but… I so much prefer APA citations to MLA. It just looks neater, it’s simpler… I know I shouldn’t care but dammit I do! I should repeat to myself it’s just a citation, I should really just relax…

    • I fully agree. MLA citations are just ugly and there’s something about them that makes the reader feel left out. Like we should know what (Walter 46) means, but probably don’t. They also don’t allow for any commentary within the citations. That’s boring.

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