The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin; $10.05)
I know it seems like a pipsqueak confession to make in these days of Carlos and the FALN, but I once burgled a house. I opened a window and stepped inside and there I was, my heart in my mouth and my ears filled with the distant whine of dozens of stern Methodist ancestors spinning in their graves like turbines. The owner of the house had made a terrible mistake. He’d loaned me the first volume of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Then he’d locked his place up with the second volume inside and gone off for the weekend. I was a desperate man.
As a rule, knights in armor seldom fail to leave me utterly cold. Galahad has always impressed me asbeing a real twerp, and Launcelot and Guinevere have got to be the greatest one-problem couple of all time—a pair of otherwise insufferably perfect people with this little problem that they keep around like a pet cat. (I mean, you never hear of Launcelot taking cold showers, do you?) Arthur and especially Mordred. the Douglas Dumbrille of Camelot, are more to my taste, in that they at least resemble human beings who behave more or less the way you and 1 would if we were to find ourselves plumped down in the middle of the bunch of poseurs, bullies, and muscle-bound bumpkins who m^de up the fellowship of the Round Table. (Merlin is something else again. Wizards are neat.) I’m a pretty small-potatoes chap, myself, the sort of fellow who is easily foiled by the cap on a medicine bottle, and if anyone took it into his head to wave a sword in my direction, I’m reasonably certain I would have to sit down. Herein lies part of the peculiar fascination of Tolkien’s hobbits.
Tolkien’s hobbits were scared silly. Through no fault of their own. they found themselves saddled with the absolutely crazy job of destroying the Ring of Power in the Cracks of Doom in the heart of the Enemy’s stronghold, and they didn’t have the first idea of how to go about it. They did it anyway, and it hurt.
The trouble with your usual hero of song and story isn’t just that he’s usually a real pain in the neck, what with his sense of destiny and higher purpose. The trouble with your usual hero is that he’s horribly dangerous to have around. It has never ceased to amaze me that Odysseus’s crew didn’t rise as one man and hire a decent navigator, but they didn’t, and none of them ever came back. Odysseus did, though. Not only that, but he celebrated his return by murdering his wife’s houseguests. Sometimes I think the only reason heroes are supposed to be such hot stuff is because nobody ever bothered to take a poll of their employees and other victims. True, eventually they have to pay the price, but this invariably occurs upon a plain of slaughter where the hero goes to his death rejoicing, sanctifying the triumph with his blood, while elsewhere his faithful helots are getting bowled over like ninepins. Hobbit heroes, by contrast, are small and narrow-minded folk who enjoy birthday parties and genealogy and a well-tended countryside and a good meal under their belts, and they desire nothing so much in the world as to be left alone in the pursuit of these simple pleasures. They make mistakes, they have no special powers, and if they are not fed they become hungry. They are Tolkien’s tribute to the British common soldier, and by introducing them into a bedtime story told to his children, he inadvertently rediscovered one of the most potent elements of myth: that the heroism of someone who has everything to lose is the only heroism that matters, demonstrating Frank O’Connor’s dictum that you only have morals when you discover that you have something you will die for rather than surrender.
Consider, too, the wondrous but peculiarly coherent world Tolkien invented as the setting of his tale, with its tree shepherds, the Ents (their leader, Treebeard, modelled on his friend, C.S. Lewis); its wizards; its dwarves; its elf kindreds, mankind perfected and deathless; the city of Condor in the last days of its pride, holding the bridge at Osgiliath against an evil it can only begin to comprehend; the Rohirrim, horsemen who come from beyond the edge of hope in a black hour; and the resonant legends of a yet older time and a greater purpose than we can quite perceive. It is these legends, hinted .it but never fully disclosed, that give the Lord of the Rings much of its unique texture, just as the fascination with the power of the wizard Gandalf and the sorcery of the Enemy. Sauron. rests precisely in the fact that we never really know of what that power and sorcery consist. The fall of Numenor and the coming of the White Tree, the rise of Morgoth and the return of his lieutenant, Sauron, arethe tantalizing and enduring echoes of a history that exists as surely as the laws of physics and that makes the magic of the present quest not only commonplace but possible.
C.S. Lewis said that Tolkien had been “inside language,” and so he had, in a way remarkable to himself. Both as an orphaned boy and later as an eminent philologist and Merton Professor of English at Oxford, he had been intrigued by the sound of words—he once said that cellardoor, divorced from its meaning, was one of the most beautiful in the vocabulary-and had made a hobby of inventing languages, basing them first on Spanish, then on Welsh, and finally on Finnish But a language, even an invented one, is nothing without the culture of which it is the restless mirror, and Tolkien was led deeper into a thicket of his own devising; the Sitniarillwn and especially the Lord of the Rings were the final result, with the melodious Sindarin and Quenya of the elves, the secret tongue of the dwarves, and the Westron of men as much defining the kindreds who speak them as they arc defined by them.
It happened suddenly Before the First World War, the young Tolkien was no better than the average Oxonian poetic dabbler and quite a lot worse than many. It was not until he lay at Great Hay wood in 1917, recovering from the mad crucible of the Somme where he had seen an entire generation of Englishmen vanish into the mud, that the design sprang into his mind. He mtt-nded it to be “a body of more or less connected legend” that he would “dedicate simply: to England; to my country. It should possess the tone and quality that I desired, somewhat cool and clear, be redolent of our ‘air’ (the clime and soil of the North West, meaning Britain and the hither parts of Europe; not Italy or the Aegean, still less the East), and while possessing (if I could achieve it) the fair elusive beauty that some call Celtic (though it is rarely found in genuine Celtic things), it should be ‘high’, purged of the gross, and fit for the more adult mind of a land long steeped in poetry. “It would be more: it would be Tolkien’s definitive answer to the horrors wrought by the tenacious stupidity of General Sir Douglas Haig and his ilk. It would reaffirm that the earth, though sadly marred, was yet a place of singular beauty and grace, beloved by a God who makes all death meaningful. At first be titled it the Book of Lost Tales. Later be retitled it The Silmarillion. He worked on it for the rest of his long life. It bas now been published as edited by his son, Christopher, together with three related tales, theAinulindalc. Viiltnincnta. and Akallabeth, and the usual maps, genealogical tables, prtinunciatitm guide, and glossary of names.
It comes as an enormous letdown to discover that Tolkien spent all those decades laboring over something very much akin to the Book of Mormon. It begins with a Creation myth, in which God, variously called Eru and Iluvatar, calls forth a great music from his angels, some of whom are known as the Valar, and thus invents the universe. At the center of the scheme is the earth, or Arcii, where the Valar (who, like the sub-deities in C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra trilogy, resemble the Greco-Roman pantheon) take up residence in the role of guardians. Needless to say, Eru has big things planned for Arda. The fly in the ointment is a Vala named Melkor (later travelling under the name of Morgoth), who does his best to make a hash of things, gets in everybody’s way, and generally makes a first rate pest of himself. Melkor’s abiding vice is ambition; to put it in modern terms, he is a sort of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and the rest of the Valar are the trust-busters. I won’t go in to details —for count less eons Melkor and his enemies roll back and forth across Arda like Godzilla and the Japanese army, smashing mountains and raising a rumpus. Iluvator takes advantage of one of the rare lulls to create the elves; later be seizes on a similar break in the action and manufactures men. This proves to be a big mistake, Iluvatar thinks men and elves are the best idea he ever bad, but in actuality they are nothing but one headache after another. First the elves distill the light of the two great trees of Arda and encompass it within three jewels called the Silmarils. Then Melkor-Morgoth and a big spider kill the trees. Then the fives, in a snit, refuse to give the damn jewels back, but it doesn’t matter because Melkor has stt)len them anyway. Fctr reasons that make rather less sense than one would like, the renegade elves (but not the Valar) form a posse and pursue the thief to Middle Earth, thus earning themselves semi-permanent banishment from the sort of Mount Olympus where everybody bas been dwelling in suburban contentment. It is a couple of thousand years before everything gets straightened out; and, friends, it seems like it. A couple of thousand years, I mean. But wait. There’s more. No sooner bas everyone hung up his lance and buffet and begun to toast his feet before the fire, than men get it into their beads that mortality isn’t such a good idea after all, form aninvasion fleet, hit the beaches on the shore of the Deathless Land.
Is anybody following this? I’m not, and I’m writing it down. If the whole thing sounds like a cross between Joseph Smith and L. Ron Hubbard as conceived by S.J. Perleman, don’t blame me; when you try to play in the same league with Milton and the King James Version, you have to own a hardball or you don’t qualify. The book, moreover, is narrated in an elevated style that has the effect of making the action appear to take place at the bottom of an enormous teacup. There is no immediacy about it and still less mystery; all the characters are 37 feet tall and live for a million years and you can rest assured that if things really get out of band. Daddy in the form of Eru-Iluvatar will put down his pipe and lend an omnipotent band. 1 realize that the editor bas been forced to choose between many different versions, both in prose and poetry, and difficult compromises have doubtless been made. Nevertheless, the book is little more than a weak gloss on Tolkien’s infinitely more mature later work, and so it should be read, if at all; indeed, much of the material is included in the appendices of Lord of the Rings in condensed and more intriguing form. Its publication now, especially when accompanied by such unbridled enthusiasm on the part of the industry, is not only questionable but is bound to lead many of Tolkiens admirers to grave disappointment. Noble intentions do not necessarily produce a noble work. Perhaps the opposite is more often true than otherwise.
This article originally ran in the October 1, 1977 issue of the magazine.