Silmarillion Title Image
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The Silmarillion: Sources used by Tolkien to create“A Mythology for England”
As a scholar for medieval literature, Tolkien noted that much, if not all of the early mythology in Anglo-Saxon literature had been lost. All that remained were Beowulf, the legend of Cynewulf, some war poems and reflections (i.e. Deor’s Lament). Tolkien decided to fill this void by creating what came to be The Silmarillion. His first attempt in 1914 was Eärendil’s voyage, which was inspired by Cynewulf’s Crist[1], Gondolin’s demise and the story of Hurin’s children, which can be traced to the tragic story of Kullervo (especially Turin) in the Kalevala[2]. Both stories were written in 1917. Perhaps the greatest tale written in the Silmarillion on the travails of Beren and Luthien , one of the four unions between Man and Elf. Here we could see many similarities with the Welsh tale - The Mabinogion. Here are some to note:

The Mabinogion The Silmarillion
Culwich is put under an enchantment by his wicked stepmother

Beren falls into an enchantment from the Love of Luthien.

Olwen, the unreachable daughter of the giant Luthien is unattainable as the child of the mighty Elf king Elu Thingol
The impossible quest – A doom awaits
Ysbaddladden requires many unattainable treasures – the cup of Llwr son of Llwyrion, the hamper of Gwyddnew Longshank and so on Thingol relegates his impossible treasure to a single Silmaril from the crown of Morgoth
Great Kings enlisted
Culwich obtains Arthur’s aid Beren has the aid of Finrod Felagund
An Identifying Ring
Culwich's ring is recognized by Custennin's wife(guardian of Ysbaddaden's castle Beren carries his father's ring (The Ring of Barahir) which Finrod recognizes
A Great Hound aids the hero
Cafall, Arthur's own hound, helps in the killing of Ysgithrywyn - Chief Boar Huan, one of Oromë’s great hounds, aids Beren greatly in his quest, including the killing of Carcharoth, the great werewolf of Morgoth
A Magic blade for the quest's success
Only the sword of the giant Wrnach can slay him, and it must be brought by the giant to Ysbaddaden, who will never give it up The knife Angrist, which can cut through iron, must be taken from Curufin in order for Beren to cut the Silmaril out from Morgoth's iron crown

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

“I 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.”[2a]

 

Tolkien 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 scandalous.”[2b]

 

Since 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.

 

Tolkien, 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-

 

The 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.[3]

 

Like the Book of Genesis, Tolkien’s conception of the Void is as a pure Spirit showing God the Father as Eru-Iluvatar[4] and the Ainur(angels) that he has brought forth. For the second children (Men), Tolkien diverges from both Norse and Biblical renderings.

 

It may be worth noting the similarities between Loki and the character of Melkor before he becomes that baneful spirit which Fëanor denounces as Morgoth.

 

Both 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.

 

Like 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.

 

Among 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)[5] .

 

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 be.

 

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[6].

How to appreciate the Silmarillion - a "Ringer's" opinion
This is an attempt to show how one may read this "History" based on the following:
  1. A character or what a person is like is known as soon as they enter a story - "Feanor was tall, and fair of face, and masterful, his eyes piercingly bright and his hair raven-dark; in the pursuit of all his purposes eager and steadfast. Few ever changed his courses by counsel, none by force;"
  2. People are their heredity - Tolkien supplies diagrams and family-trees. One could say that the Noldor's tragedy is one between full brothers, half-brothers and cousins, those of mixed blood. A conflict of kinship.
  3. See through the archaic threads such as 'luck' for 'fate' or 'doom' [7]
  4. Tolkien is stating with the Silmarillion virtues to which many of us no longer aspire: stoicism, nonchalance, piety, fidelity. Feelings of anxiety or doubt are often accidently triggered (ie - "the leap of Beren").The idea of "Dont tell us but show us" comes to mind. The scale is not as impressive as the effort. Perhaps by understanding the ancient modes of literary style one can better understand the Silmarillion.



Footnotes and Information sources

[1] Humphrey Carpenter “Tolkien” – pg 71, 92, 96.

[2] See “The Kalevala” by Elias Lönnrot translated and introduced by Keith Bosley. Also, “The Key to The Kalevala’ by Pekka Ervast

[2a] See Humphrey Carpenter “Tolkien” – pg 89 - 90.

[2b] See Humphrey Carpenter “Tolkien” – pg 49.

[3] The Elder Edda, especially "The Song of the Sybil" and "The Lay of Vafthrudnir," for Ymir and his function in the creation of Midgard. In The Prose Edda (trans. Jean I. Young), "The Deluding of Gylfi" (pp.34-37) gives an account of the creation of the first man and woman, and also a myth of the making of stars, moon, and sun by Odin

 

[4] See The Silmarillion,Appendix (p. 360), where Iluvatar is said by Tolkien to mean "the whole, the all," and atar (p. 356) to mean "father." In their combination Iluvatar, therefore, signifies "the father of all" or "All-Father," a title often used to describe Odin in Norse mythology. Thus the very name of God in The Silmarillion harks back to the Norse, although Iluvatar, of course, is quite unlike Odin and resembles instead the Almighty Father of Christianity.

 

[5]Supportive evidence appears also in William Morris' translation ofVolsunga Saga, which Tolkien almost certainly read (see Carpenter, pp. 46, 169). For example, when Sigurd questions the dying dragon Fafnirabout the races to which the nine Norns belong he is told that "some are of the kin of Aesir, and some are of Elfin kin, and some ... are daughters of Dvalin [Dwarves]" (p. 143). Again, when Brynhild tells Sigurd about the lore of "runes" she says that of these runes "Some abide with the Elves, Some abide with the Aesir . . . some with the sons of mankind" (p. 153). This is distinguished company for the Elves to be keeping, and it vouches for their high station.

 

[6] Sources – “A Reader’s Guide to The Silmarillion “ by Paul H. Kocher  Houghton Mifflin, 1980.

Tolkien and the Silmarils” by Randel Helms Houghton Mifflin, 1981.

The Road to Middle-Earth” by Thomas Shippey. Houghton Mifflin, 2003

The Mabinogion” by Jeffrey Gantz, Penguin Classics, 1976

[7] See “The Road to Middle-Earth” by Thomas Shippey pg 253.