Watching season one of The Rings of Power brought my deep and abiding love of J.R.R. Tolkien’s stories of Middle-earth back to forefront of my interests, and when it ended I knew I wanted to reread The Silmarillion to continue living in pre-Lord of the Rings history. This is a startlingly beautiful book that is, nevertheless, very dense and intimidating. There are a plethora of deep dives and fact battles out there for the reader who wants to focus on timelines and details. But if you’re like me, you would much prefer a guided walk through the stories prioritizing emotions and relationships. Hence, All the (Silmarillion) Feels.
Some people consider The Silmarillion to be the bible of The Lord of the Rings, so it’s fitting that we begin in the same place: with the god(s), before the world was made, in a story that is more poem than prose.
Ainulindalë: aka The Creation Myth of Middle-earth
In just nine pages, Tolkien rolls out an awe-inspiring creation story based in music, conflict, and hope. I’ll be honest, it’s hard for me to read this bit without going deep into my religious feels, but I already wrote that essay in my personal blog in 2015: “Theodicy and The Silmarillion.” For our purposes here, I’ll stick to themes and values that go beyond any particular religion.
- Ilúvatar: God, basically
- Melkor (soon to be known as Morgoth): Satan, basically
- Ainur/Valar: gods in the vein of Zeus, Poseidon, etc.
Middle-Earth’s HR Policies
Middle-earth is created by music sung by the gods, which such a great emotional image. I can just imagine that a river is a song given physical form, you know? Ilúvatar is the manager of our dreams, laying out a clear picture of what he expects to see and then rewarding the tentative attempts of his workers until they are confident in their ability to sing beauty into existence. When one worker (Melkor) gets ideas of grandeur into his head and begins to sing his own song, Ilúvatar weaves the songs together into something greater than before. There’s even a bit that reads like a progressive discipline manual, with Ilúvatar reacting to Melkor’s initial shenanigans with a smile, then with sternness, and finally with a face “terrible to behold.” It’s a poetic glimpse of the story we’re going to read in The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings: beautiful, patient, melancholy, tragic, and ultimately: cathartic. The good and the bad feel worth it, and maybe even necessary.
Where Are the Ladies?
It’s worth noting here that Tolkien’s Catholicism shows in his fantasy religious hierarchy of male-defaulted deities. The three Valar that are named (plus Melkor) are all male, though the equivalent of goddesses will exist in future chapters. There’s also some old-fashioned gender essentialism in Tolkien’s description of the Valar taking on physical form. He does a lot of things really well, my favorite cis white fantasy author, but nuanced depictions of gender and sexuality are not among his talents.
Don’t Play D&D with Melkor
Easily the most emotional part of this introduction is the fact that over and over again, good is made out of evil. Exactly how that evil is portrayed (pride, impatience, envy) can be accepted or not, but the key thing here is that every time Melkor tries to wrest control of creation through violence, the end result is something beautiful. Creation is meant to be a group project, one in which personal flourishes are applauded but expected to work alongside everyone else’s flourishes. It’s like in D&D when you tell the players not to hog the spotlight but instead draw out those who are quieter or more timid. Melkor would be a disaster to play D&D with.
Luckily, Ilúvatar is a great GM. When the Valar complain about Melkor ruining their campaign, he basically says, “Yeah, I know it sucks that he made bitter frost and fire without restraint, and it’s ruining the setting you’re trying to create. But hey, I took his ideas of extreme temperature, and they’re actually going to cause mist, clouds, and rain. And those are really great.”
Beauty isn’t the only thing made out of discord; connection is too. The god of the air (Manwë) and the god of the sea (Ulmo) are the ones complaining about Melkor’s shitty behaviour, and his actions allow the two of them to work together more closely.
Today’s Emotion is: Trust
There’s a lot of lore and a lot of values packed into the Ainulindalë; we’re going to see them play out over and over again in the remaining 354 pages. As a truly talented storyteller, Tolkien is confident enough in his story that he gives away the ending right at the beginning: It’s going to be alright.
I love reading Tolkien’s work because it is religion, therapy, and entertainment wrapped up in one. “Things are going to be terrible,” I see him saying, “but that isn’t all there is. Find the beauty in the pain, and trust that in the end, it will all be okay.”
And you know what? I trust him.