Monday, June 5, 2017

The Silmarillion

I first read The Silmarillion years ago and didn't care for it.  I found it hard to follow.

Now, however, I think I simply wasn't ready for it yet.  I've been reading it to my friend Eric on Skype, and it really gets me emotionally, not unlike how Dante's Divine Comedy did.  It's been awhile since a story has captivated me in that way, and I'm very grateful for the experience, and I would like to capture the same feel with my own mythos.

I think part of it is that J. R. R. Tolkien was NOT a novelist.  He would have considered The Lord of the Rings a romance, not a novel: a "novel" is a "novel romance" or "new romance", but Tolkien wrote in an older literary genre, the "old romance", before there even were such things as "new romances" or "novels".  ("Romance" here refers to epic tales of heroism, not necessarily to courtship.)

In addition, The Hobbit and all three volumes of The Lord of the Rings were the only novel-length anything that J. R. R. Tolkien ever published during his lifetime.  Everything else he published during his lifetime (barring three short prose stories) fell pretty much into two categories: academic scholarly works, and poetry.  So it really isn't doing him justice to skip over the verses in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  He even apparently wrote his stories more the way a poet would than the way a modern novelist, according to Professor Bruce G. Charlton on his blog  So aside from being an English professor, I think "poet" would be a better term for his literary output, even though we don't usually think of J. R. R. Tolkien when we think of poets and poetry.  (Dante was a poet as well.)

The point is, he had an appreciation for older traditions.  He didn't just love them because they were traditional or even because he found them beautiful: he knew why they were as they were, and he perceived the substance in them, hence why he was so able to reproduce that with his own legendarium.  That's why imitators, popular though they might be, don't manage that same thing.  And I think poetry might be more up my alley than novels as well.

C. S. Lewis was a novelist, writing seven books in The Chronicles of Narnia, and three in The Space Trilogy, for example.  Nor were these as mythological as what J. R. R. Tolkien attempted, as Tolkien would have been the first to say (he didn't care for Narnia, considering the worldbuilding to have too much inconsistency, put together too slapdash).  But J. R. R. Tolkien was not a novelist.

Talking of The Silmarillion, I'm coming to appreciate it better for another reason, which is one that honestly surprises me to admit: a purist would reject it.

The published version of The Silmarillion (1977) is effectively a posthumous collaboration between J. R. R. Tolkien (who died in 1973), his son Christopher Tolkien, and Guy Gavriel Kay (who would later go on to write fantasy novels himself).  In particular, Chapter 22, "Of the Ruin of Doriath", is nearly an original writing, as it was based on older and conflicting notes of the elder Tolkien--and Chapter 23, "Of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin", was reconstructed from two of the elder Tolkien's versions of the story (one outdated and one incomplete).

The same cannot be said for any other work by J. R. R. Tolkien that I can think of, barring The Road Goes Ever On (1967), most of whose tunes were composed by Donald Swann (and I haven't been able to find a copy of that easily anyway)--and even there, Donald Swann only composed tunes, not words, all of which were Tolkien's.

I used to think of myself as a purist, but now I think that's just the wrong attitude for mythological tales.  The key part of "folklore" is "folk"--plural.  They weren't composed by just one author, but belong to an entire ethnicity of people, an entire nation.  As long as the essence of the tales remain, I don't see that there is anything innately wrong with others contributing to it (note I said "innately": copyright laws are always to be followed).

And yet, the closest that I can think of to anything else consistent with J. R. R. Tolkien's final intent that was in any way a collaboration was the posthumous volume The Children of Hurin (2007).  Even there, for the most part, all Christopher Tolkien did was cobble together texts from different sources (mostly The Silmarillion and "Narn i Hin Hurin" from Unfinished Tales), edit them so that they were consistent throughout, and otherwise just add transitional sentences here and there where they were necessary, in a way that didn't intrude upon his father's words and intent.  So really, the closest thing to original content from Christopher Tolkien (besides putting his fathers words together in the right order and publishing them in one volume) are occasional transitional sentences, and cases where he made changes simply because certain words in the original text didn't make sense (e. g., geographically).  And that was minimal, and deliberately so.

Certainly Christopher Tolkien didn't make any kind of storybook of Beren and Luthien, which was just published on June 1, this past Thursday.  He indicates that his father had a final intent in terms of the narrative structure, but not the actual wording--and so in theory he or someone else could take that narrative structure and put it to words and publish Beren and Luthien in some form (if copyright law would allow this, if the Tolkien estate would permit it--I don't know that this would be the case).  It might be that one could only tell it orally without infringing on anything (and J. R. R. Tolkien might have appreciated that, as he did with his poem "Errantry").

But Christopher Tolkien did not do that.  The only complete version of the story (published in that new volume) is "The Tale of Tinuviel", the earliest version which is no longer consistent with his father's final intent--other than that, there is the shortened version (nearly a synopsis) that serves as Chapter 19 of the published 1977 version of The Silmarillion.

But there are no other complete versions.  The closest thing to one is the long poem "The Lay of Leithian", which is incomplete--stopping right at the climax (and possibly having some later verses after gaps, and certainly having revisions).  And the volume published as Beren and Luthien doesn't even have all of that: I think the entirety of what J. R. R. Tolkien wrote of that poem can still only be found in The Lays of Beleriand (1985), volume three of The History of Middle-earth.

So really, the closest thing to any complete, final intent versions of Middle-earth published after J. R. R. Tolkien died are The Silmarillion (published in 1977) and The Children of Hurin (published in 2007).  Even there, there is some inconsistency: Gil-galad's family in the published version of The Silmarillion has turned out to be inconsistent with J. R. R. Tolkien's final intent.  In the 1977 version of The Silmarillion, it says that Gil-galad is the son and only child of Fingon (older brother of Turgon of Gondolin); but later notes say that Gil-galad is the son of Orodreth (Fingon's first cousin once removed), who also had a daughter, Finduilas (who comes into the story of The Children of Hurin).

And yet, some inconsistency is to be expected in true myths anyway, as they change over time, just like languages.  We can't even understand the first language called "Englisc" anymore, so what's wrong with that?  You could say that these differences are like "dialects" of the same "language"--different and inconsistent, but similar enough to qualify as the same "language" anyway.

For that matter, apparently The Children of Hurin as published is inconsistent with the website, as the book lists Orodreth as Angrod's brother (and therefore Galadriel's brother), but the website lists Orodreth as Angrod's son (and therefore Galadriel's nephew).  But again, so what?  I can think of at least three family trees of King Arthur, none of which are consistent--so that there's no way of reconciling them.  But what does that matter?  Besides, none of these characters of J. R. R. Tolkien really ever existed anyway, so there is no "right" or "wrong" in that sense, only consistency (and even then, not necessarily 100% consistency).

But Christopher Tolkien seems to be mostly a purist.  (I say "mostly" because he hasn't "corrected" The Silmarillion nor pulled it out of print.)  He doesn't seem to desire to put the tale of Beren and Luthien to words even as he believes he knows his father's final intent for the narrative structure, and I suppose he doesn't desire anyone else to--and I suppose the same for other tales, such as "The Fall of Gondolin" (the third major First Age story besides Beren and Luthien and The Children of Hurin).

But as long as that remains the case, these tales will belong only to one man (barring The Silmarillion and, if you want to count it, The Children of Hurin)--and so they won't truly resemble myths in that regard.

Instead, the closest thing to their resembling myths will be the film adaptations of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as J. R. R. Tolkien sold the film rights to those while he was alive, and those adaptations are clearly different versions of the same stories.

There I do take some issue.  Even if you accept the fact that film is recorded, so that it is set in stone (notwithstanding the Star Wars movies), I don't think that all of the changes made to the Peter Jackson movies in particular (the most visible ones that have displaced previous versions in our culture) were within an acceptable margin of error.  That's as close to purism as I want to get with these tales.

There is certainly greatness to be found in his trilogy of The Lord of the Rings, but a lot of that has less to do with the script and story than with more superficial elements: the New Zealand scenery (and the constructed scenery), the performances, and the special effects (Gollum being a combination of both Andy Serkis's performance and WETA's special effects)--and of course, Howard Shore's musical score.  I don't even care that Howard Shore's score is inconsistent with the kind of music you'd expect to hear from Middle-earth, that's how excellent it is.

While I won't say those things are nonexistent in The Hobbit trilogy (and I've only seen the first of those anyway), I feel that the bad parts intrude upon the good parts to a greater extent, to the point to where I didn't want to see the other two movies on principle, having read Steven Greydanus's reviews of them (and being underwhelmed by the only film in this trilogy that I have actually seen).

Which is a shame, since it's unlikely that they will be remade anytime soon (If I'm not mistaken, The Saul Zaentz Company still owns the film production rights, and United Artists still owns the film distribution rights to The Hobbit).  And again, if the changes had been within an acceptable margin of error, I wouldn't be complaining.  In some cases I might even appreciate some of them.  But why not trust J. R. R. Tolkien to have known what he was doing, and why not try to find out just what he was attempting before making the movies?

But while I don't have to like them, those are the main film versions we have so far, and part of myth is that you have to give it up to others, whatever they do with it.  And there are people who have done worse to the Bible, God's actual holy Word--compared to that, what Peter Jackson and company did isn't so bad in the grand scheme of things and doesn't really deserve complaint.

At any rate, I'm coming to want to read more not only of J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth works, but also some of his inspirations (especially Grimm's Fairy Tales and The Kalevala), in hopes that this might help me to write my own mythos.

While I don't plan to give up the idea of publishing these tales in print, part of me would love to see them become a song cycle on an album, so that you could listen to them rather than just read them.  That would come closer to the old oral storytelling tradition.  We'll see what happens, though.

Thank you for sharing part of your day with me.  God bless you.

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