Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Book Review: The Silmarillion by Tolkien

Can a collection of short stories read like poetry? When I read old epic poems, the poems feel like wonderful collections of short stories of trials, battles, contests and personalities. Epic poems feel like that to me, and Tolkien's Silmarillion its that bill. This is one long epic poem about his Middle Earth. It is a creation myth, a quasi-Norse mythology compendium, hero quest book all rolled into one. I loved the Hobbit, was bored to death by the Lord of the Rings trilogy of books, and spellbound by the Silmarillion. The Silmarillion really draws you into this wonderful universe Tolkien created. There is so much here that I could spend 10,000 words writing about all that is touched on, but I will just focus on some of my favorite portions or characters of the Silmarillion

Tolkien's creation myth has an interesting twist on creation myths where he has the creator god create the world out of music, with angel types or lesser god like figures playing the songs to create the world. Of course, there is the powerful and gifted yet evil figure who messes with the song, and through his excessive pride creates discord as he feels he should rule the created world. For some strange reason, the bad guy is allowed to mess with the good creations of the others, and is allowed to exist and pollute the earth despite people knowing he was a bad guy. Let's all remember that Tolkien is the guy who converted C.S. Lewis to Christianity. I enjoyed the imagery and big ideas in his creation myth. A world dark with only starlight, and then lit by two trees is pretty cool to see in the mind's eye. The birth of the trees as well as the description of their different light really sells why the light was so important, and how the sun and moon were leftover remnants of their light. Only the silmarils had their light after their destruction by the bad guy that the 'gods' stupidly let live and a giant spider.

Oh those precious silmarils. Light of the trees. Most precious stones ever crafted. They are the creation of Feanor, who is one hell of a tragic hero. They drive a branch of elves to endure quests, suffer hardship, enter new lands, fight amongst each other and other adventures. Feanor has that foolish dash found in some old mythological figures. It is constantly mentioned how hot he runs, how much the fire and spirit of the creators is in him, and that he is gifted above others. I loved the idea that when he died his body was filled with such fire that he burned to ashes on the spot. Feanor is almost too much of a hero to live for long in this world. I also liked how Feanor's sons were never quite up to his stature, and so many of them seemed to be a sliver of his personality as if there would never be an elf like him again.

While the elves and their challenges are the main focus of the Silmarillion, men do enter the tale and contribute mightily. An almost perfect mythical story is the tale of Luthien and Beren: the pairing of elf + man. Luthien is the most beautiful elf child who is also part god from her mother's side. Beren is just a noble man who glimpses the most beautiful elf chick ever. He falls for her immediately. She loves him back. He seeks her hand in marriage, but is rebuked by her father unless he completes an impossible task. He enlists the help of other elves to get a silmaril (the task) from Melkor/Morgoth, and is captured. Her love brings her to save him in a dungeon. Together, they recover a silmaril. He loses his hand and is killed by an evil beast as they escape. She tries to bring him back but can't. The gods intervene and strike a deal that brings him back if she gives up her immortality for him. She does. They go back and have a life together and a child. It is just classic 'hero quest'. You want evil beasts, hot chicks, love, fighting, evil lords who can't be beat, magic, skeptical father in laws, magic dogs that help, god interference? You got it all here. One touch that I did like, and I noticed this in the Tolkien Silmarillion stories was that women served a role in quests, fights, battle or war, but not really fighting. They had powers of their own whether it was prophecy, song, magic, etc. Luthien is not grabbing an axe to fight off hordes of orcs. Readers would see right through that PC crap. I completely bought the idea that Luthien could magically sing to lull evil lords to sleep. It's magic, and she is part elf, part god. I can suspend my disbelief for magic, but not that a dainty princess would wield axes to kill orcs or AK 47s to shoot drug lords like a guy. There is a lesson for authors or screenwriters there.

Before this gets excessively long, I'll wrap this up with the passage that got creepier the more I thought about it: Akallabeth. Akallabeth tells the tale of the downfall of the greatest kings of men who helped the elves in an early war. The gods carved out an island for them to rule. They paid homage to the gods, used the skills they learned from the elves, built the greatest kingdom of men, lived long lives, did not break 'the ban' placed on them by the gods, and accepted death proudly. This changes as they start to grumble about the ban on going 'west'. They start to rule over the men of middle earth rather than share and teach. They lose touch with the gods and become obsessed with stalling death. Sauron knows he cannot defeat them as they have grown so powerful, so he submits to them and becomes the kings' advisor. He seduces them to renounce the gods, pray to Melkor, sacrifice and berate the 'faithful' and eventually creates their ruin as they challenge the gods and are wiped out. Only a small remnant of their kind survives, the faithful, who liked the elves + paid heed to the gods to start life anew on middle earth.

Nice story, but something felt off the more I read it. I had seen it elsewhere that this could be a nice little allegory for the fate of Western Europe/America. The deeper I thought about it, the more the allegory for America fit. The late Victorian era Brits were most likely the peak of civilization, but coming out of the destruction of WW2, America was the top of the heap for a 'power'. That was our peak for military, economic and social dominance on earth. Our system was dominant, and even had a bad guy with another system to battle, claim moral superiority over and watch struggle (USSR made everyone look good). Like the Numenor of Akallabeth, we had learned from the Brits who we were siblings or 2nd children when compared (like the English preceding the US). The US has squandered much of the gifts given us by becoming the world's supercop as well as failing to face any domestic sacrifice or recognition of hard truths. We paper over truth with PC crap to make everyone feel 'good', and constantly butt in on every foreign affair. Eventually this betrayal of our roots and the truth will catch up with us. My hope is for the US to shake off this seduction by the commie influenced children of the '60s and save the nation before it is too late.

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