It is interesting to note that all the verses listed above
were written during World War I where Tolkien was involved in the fighting at
the Somme. It was here that he lost many friends and was deeply affected by the
experience. One could say that such an event stirred his imagination and
strengthened his desire to write fantasy.
Later in life Tolkien recollects this ambition
had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the
large and cosmogonic to the level of romantic
fairy-story—the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the
lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths—which
I could 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 . . . the fair elusive beauty that some call Celtic
(though it is rarely found in genuine ancient Celtic things) it should be 'high,' purged of the gross,
and fit for the more adult mind of a land long steeped in poetry. I would draw
some of the great tales in fullness and leave many . . . only sketched. The cycles should be linked to a
majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint
and music and drama.”
was capable of writing in many different styles and the high themes
found in the Silmarillion required a seemingly lofty, and perhaps a somewhat
archaic tone. This maybe the main reason why some find it so difficult to read.
If one can accept and appreciate this style then the history of the first and
second ages can be rendered more easily to the reader. Since this mythology is
to be “high and purged of the gross” one cannot look too closely to ancient
Celtic mythology or even the Kalevala which, although Tolkien
admired and enjoyed, found its heroes as “unhypocritical, low-brow, and
we can exclude Roman, Greek, Celtic and even Finnish mythologies as models we
still have the Norse mythologies to consider. Here, there are some similarities
in that both are collections of tales that are somewhat tied together, but the
Silmarillion is the more so - being more dramatic and carrying greater meaning.
as a devout Catholic could not but help to add those beliefs into this new
mythology. Tolkien does not seem to accept the physical rendering of creation
found in the Elder Edda-
sweat of Ymir's body became nodules, which developed into other frost giants.
According to The Elder Edda there was also a cow (Audhimla), which by licking
salty ice blocks uncovered a manlike being named Buri, whose son Bor sired the
first gods of the Norse pantheon, Odin, Vili, and Ve. These three then killed
Ymir in order to use portions of his body to build Midgard (Middle-earth). Out
of his blood they made rivers, lakes, and the sea encircling Midgard; from his
flesh, the earth; from his bones, the mountains. Man (Ask) and Woman (Embia)
were shaped by Odin and his brothers from two trees they found along the
seashore, bestowing on them spirit, understanding, speech, and all the senses
proper to humankind. And the three gods used the sparks and burning embers
blown out of Muspell to make stars, sun, and moon to light heaven and earth.
the Book of Genesis, Tolkien’s conception of the Void is as a pure Spirit
showing God the Father as Eru-Iluvatar
and the Ainur(angels) that he has brought forth. For the second children (Men),
Tolkien diverges from both Norse and Biblical renderings.
may be worth noting the similarities between Loki and the character of Melkor
before he becomes that baneful spirit which Fëanor denounces as Morgoth.
are spirits of malice, and both like to perpetrate their plots secretly through
others who shield them from all blame. Melkor's method of spreading vile and
harmful rumors so subtly that they cannot be traced back to him is well known
to readers of The Silmarillion. Similarly Loki, having learned that
Baldr the beloved is vulnerable only to arrows of mistletoe, does not shoot one
at Baldr himself but covertly persuades blind Hodur to do so, killing Baldr.
And when Hel, the ruler of the underworld, agrees to release Baldr if every
living creature on Midgard will weep for him, Loki assumes a disguise and alone
refuses to join in the universal weeping, feeling safe enough behind his change
of shape. Finally, at Ragnarok he turns against his fellow gods and guides the
fire giants from Muspell to the plain of Vigrid, where the Einherjar are all to
be defeated and slain again. So Loki is no mere mischief-maker, as he is
sometimes portrayed by some who have written about him, but a full-fledged
evildoer, a murderer.
Concerning Elves – here we see that they play a prominent part
in both Eddas even though there is no indication of any detailed physical
description The Light Elves live in a
region called Alfheim and are considered to be “fairer than the Sun to look
upon”. The Dark Elves live underground in a region called Svartalfheim and are “blacker than pitch”.
There seems to be a great kinship between the Elves and Asgard. Aegir, the God of the Sea, gives a feast
where he invites elves as well as gods and all sit and mingle at the same table. Frey desiring to possess Gerd,
laments “ no elf, no god will grant my prayer,” and when Skernir comes,
Gerd asks “Are you one of the elves, are you one of the gods?” Tolkien
seems to use the ideas from the Eddas to formulate what an Elf truly was and
their high station despite many ancient misrepresentations.
the Elves, the Dwarves have dwellings of their own on the outer edge of
Midgard, in regions appropriately called Darkdale and Everfrost since the
Dwarves prefer darkness and a far northern region where the sun is weak and cold.
the chief works forged by their skills are a sword which will never rust and
will easily cut through iron ("The Wakening of Angantyr"); a ship,
Skidbladnir, which will always have a favorable wind wherever it sails, can
hold all the gods, and when not in use can be folded together like a cloth and
be kept in a pocket ("The Deluding of Gylfi"); and a mead which makes
anyone who drinks it "a poet or a scholar" ("Poetic
Diction" in The Prose Edda)
Here we also see their love of
beauty which Tolkien shows not only in the Silmarillion but also in The
Lord of the Rings. In The Silmarillion the Dwarves who build Menegroth of the
Thousand Caves for Doriath take the pride of the artist in their work. In The
Lord of the Rings Gimli goes into rhapsodies as he examines the sculptures
in the caves of Aglarond in Helm's Deep. When realizing the labyrinth of
distortions in the history of literature regarding elves, Tolkien’s imagination
in creating the Firstborn is truly a remarkable achievement. Only less so are
the Dwarves, a race unique in many respects.
Norse mythology ordains a grim life and a death by
fire or by monsters for all the races and the gods of Midgard. In The
Silmarillion Tolkien, too, has chosen to narrate a series of mistakes and
mishaps which are almost uniformly dark, and in which the moments of happiness
are few. Not that these errors are predestined, as are those in the Eddas
and in other early Icelandic lays and sagas. There are no Norns in The
Silmarillion, only free choices made by free wills. Yet these choices are
used by Iluvatar to help bring about the designs of his Providence. Iluvatar
knows them all and fits them into his plans for the future, whatever these may
So dismal is the trend of
events in The Silmarillion "from the high and beautiful to darkness
and ruin" that Tolkien appends to its conclusion what is almost an
apology. The woes just related, he declares, were due to the marring of Arda by
Morgoth, that is, to the working of Evil in the hearts of Elves and Men, and
even in some of the Ainur.
With the Eddas and
the Kalevala we have a collection of stories that begin with the
Creation, presenting a number of tales in no particular order about the people
created. The stories vary on their scope and intricacy. It is the opinion of
this “Ringer” that Tolkien has created a mythology that is more centered
in all these respects with the exception that he gives a more organized
structure to his stories filled with biblical cadences represented by Iluvatar
and his angelic Ainur.