The Children of
Hurin's Dotty Review
by Varda with responses, following into the topic of Mythology.
The text of the article in question is found
within this discussion here.
I did a little jump for joy (a rather
as I was walking The Silent Valley in the Mourne Mountains on Saturday
and fell down a slope. Luckily, I landed in a bog...he's led us into a
bog!) when I opened the Sunday Times the Culture magazine had a cover
story about JRR Tolkien.
My joy was short-lived, however. On closer examination I saw the cover
picture showed the eagles carrying Sam and Frodo high over Minas
Tirith. I can't remember that ever happening. Did it? Loremasters, out
with your books, please....
Anyway, it suggested that the article might be a bit, well, woolly.
But the writer of the piece, Bryan Appleyard, is a critic I admire
very much, so I set to reading the article, 'What Took Them So Long?'
with considerable anticipation.
It is about the publication of the Children of Hurin, but not a full
review of the book, which is a disappointment. Appleyard appears to
have only read the first paragraph. He does gush, however, that the
'great tale' of Hurin is 'about to become a global myth'. because of
the recent film trilogy's success, and because out of the 150 million
copies of The Lord of The Rings, 50 million have been sold since the
films were released.
It seems strange to say a book will sell not because of what is in it
but because of who wrote it. And some bolshie instinct in me is asking
'yes but DID Tolkien write it?'
Appleyard admits the book was not written, but 'retrieved' by
Christopher from his father's writings. Only grammatical changes being
made. I have my doubts about that; even the arrangement of text is
important in the writing of a book. But significantly for the cash
flow, Appleyard says; 'this will probably be the last finished Tolkien
Appleyard then goes on to say that Christopher Tolkien undertook
this project because he wanted to 'return Tolkien to the printed page'.
That the films had made the stories too literal, too defined. This book
attempts to put the Tolkien universe, nuanced, nebulous and mythical,
back to the forefront of Tolkien's visible works.
So within one article we are told that the films are responsible for
selling a third of all LOTR copies ever sold....but that The Children
of Hurin was published to 'reclaim' Tolkien from film.
This assumes that we are incapable of retaining the images that the
book inspired in us alongside the images the film gives us. Appleyard
should not belittle our imagination this way. Long before I saw the
film I formed my pictures of Frodo and Faramir, Gandalf and Saruman.
The film has given me other images, but those original pictures are
still intact. I don't need Tolkien's writings to be 'returned to the
page'. They have already successfully transferred to my imagination.
Appleyard goes on to recognise some problems with releasing
posthumous Tolkien. When the Silmarillon was released in 1977 it was
called the 'Sell-A-Million', and criticised for Christopher's intruded
sections. It was said that money was the object, and that 'Tolkien' was
becoming a 'brand' not a writer.
Appleyard then says; 'if Christopher
has, indeed, done no more than
string together a coherent story from his father's prose, I can't see
much of a problem. He has done only what his father intended.'
Quite the contrary! Writing is far, far more than 'stringing
together a coherent story'. If it were not, every pub bore would have
the Pulitzer. Writing is a craft. And if Tolkien intended to publish
The Children of Hurin, why didn't he? Or why did he not give express
directions to his estate to do so? He didn't, because the only thing a
writer can be said to have written is what he writes, re-writes and
edits himself, then sends, heart in mouth, to an alligator-fanged
publisher. I find it astonishing that a writer like Appleyard should so
diminish the craft of writing by saying anyone can 'strong together a
coherent story' from just notes, whoever wrote them.
Whatever happened to literary merit?
Well, the answer comes next in the article, when Appleyard lets out
that he doesn't think much of Tolkien as a writer.
'Years ago, I gave up on The Lord of
The Rings and the Hobbit
..because the prose seemed to be all surface, with none of the deeper
currents that make good or great writing'
So, basically, Christopher Tolkien can't ruin his father's writing
because it is not too good to begin with.
Appleyard does justify his criticism of Tolkien's writing by
quoting AN Wilson's comment that Tolkien was not a writer at all but
the creator of a world, through maps, etymologies, languages and
genealogies and that the books were sort of by-products of this larger
As such, Tolkien was interested not in modern ideas of psychology but
in absolutes, and 'last things', heroism, and magic, and he tries to
recreate the styles in which such things were written originally, in
Beowulf, The Green Knight and the Kalevala.
I agree that this is where Tolkien's style comes from. But to say that
the Lord of The Rings is a 'by-product' is the tail wagging the dog.
The story of the Fellowship and its quest, of Frodo and Sam and Aragorn
and Arwen, is not a footnote. It is the story that got everyone
interested in Middle Earth to begin with, even if it was not the first
thing Tolkien wrote.
Probably, it was the elements of The Lord of The Rings that Tolkien
liked least that 'sold' the book; the hobbits, with their humanity, and
Gollum, with his twisted, pitiable but somehow fascinatingly repellent
character. These are not 'last things', but something born out of a
deep truth about what people are, how they pursue an ideal with
heroism, self-doubt and mistakes, and how even the bad can do good.
Today, as in any age of history.
So what Appleyard does not mention is that what made The Lord of The
Rings a - dare I say the word? -classic, are the very things he leaves
out of The Silmarillon; a rattling good narrative, flawed but credible
characters, grubby but gold-hearted gardeners and Gollum.
But there are no hobbits in The Children of Hurin. I can't say
Appleyard darns it with faint praise, but the following is not good;
''I didn't give up on it..because an intense and very grown-up manner
saves it from the failings of his other works'
What other works? The Lord of The Rings and the Hobbit? I think if
Hurin is half as good as them it would be pretty good indeed. And what
the dickens is 'a grown up manner'? Do we mean s*x?
Appleyard then says;
'The popularity of his other works
may well have distracted (Tolkien)
from the seriousness and intensity of his vision of Middle Earth. He
was a devout Catholic and although Christianity is not explicitly
present, there is an unfolding drama of history and salvation
throughout the work. This is man who meant what he said'
This is a very muddled paragraph. Appleyard suggests that The Lord
of The Rings has no seriousness and intensity. That shows he certainly
did not read it all. The themes of loss, loyalty, sacrifice, and the
costs of accepting change, living your idealism and the shouldering of
duty are nothing but serious and intense. The theme of salvation, for
characters as different as Theoden and Gollum, runs right through The
Lord of The Rings. I have only read Hurin's tale in the unfinished
version, but it is a story of incest and suicide and violent, hopeless
death. Can anyone tell me what redemption lies in all that?
Appleyard then goes on to try to find similarities between Tolkien
and the authors, James Joyce and TS Eliot. Even though these were, of
course, 'much greater artists'
I don't think they are at all like Tolkien, and to compare him to
them is very unfair. To then say they are much greater is even more
Inadvertently, however, Appleyard delivers a hard blow to Tolkien.
He says that James Joyce and TS Eliot used myths of the past, but
Tolkien uses myths of his own created world, his invention. Appleyard
then says 'but that does not diminish its significance as a prime
symptom of the modern condition'
But it does, unfortunately. The modern condition is nothing like
the world of the Elves, or the semi-magic world of the first ages of
Middle Earth. This supernatural world with its absolutely good or bad
creatures is hardly a 'prime symptom of the modern condition', but
rather its very antithesis.
Appleyard then goes on to say;
'in view of the sales and the global
cultural impact of Tolkien's
tales of Middle-earth, it would be insane to attempt to diminish its
significance. These books have plainly struck a contemporary nerve.
There is a need for, not fantasy, exactly..but for stories that seem
better, grander and bigger and stranger than the drab narratives of the
Appleyard has a point, but it is the pointed wrong end of the stick.
Tolkien's tales of Middle Earth are not what has had a global
impact; it is The Lord of The Rings that has had the global impact, and
that long before the films came out. The reason why was that book has
what the Sil does not have; a powerful narrative. A story. And it is a
story that weaves the fates of characters we believe in, identify with
and care for; Frodo, Sam, Pippin, Merry, Gimli, Legolas, Aragorn and
Boromir, to mention only a few. These characters are nothing like Turin
or Hurin; they are like us. They are drawn sympathetically and
realistically. Like a novel, not a saga. They have psychologically
sound motivation and their story is unfurled with drama, tragedy,
comedy and suspense. They develop and change, and some even die. Sure,
it all takes place against the wonderful setting of Middle Earth with
its Elves and their beautiful world, and the mystery and awe of a long
and dark history. But these things are not in the foreground. They are
the background, the more powerful because, like real history here in
the world, they are only hinted at, like icebergs under water. These
characters had to be developed, their diction studied with care. It is
impossible to duplicate the deeply moving effect such craft has on the
reader by 'stringing together a coherent story' from a jumble of notes.
What about the fate of Frodo and Sam and Gollum on Mount Doom? the
suffering and heroism of the hobbits as they strive to achieve their
goal, the complexity and compassion of their friendship and their
doomed courage and above all their hope; this is what makes The Lord of
The Rings a great book. It is nice that ancient beings in the shape of
giant Eagles rescue them. But the heart of the story is there in those
two little people, not in the heart of Lothlorien, no matter how much
the golden wood enriches the story.
Bryan Appleyard desperately wants to say something good about The
Children Of Hurin. Not because he thinks it is a good book; he doesn't.
He calls it 'retro writing' with more 'gesture than depth'.
Nor does he think it is a good book because Tolkien wrote it; he is not
even sure Tolkien is a writer. No, Appleyard approves of The Children
of Hurin because reading it is a Good Thing. It will drag us away from
silly modern works to read something 'grander'.
I doubt that reading a cod-medieval epic with 'more gesture than depth'
will prove grander than reading a powerful modern novel like Alexander
Solshenitzyn's Cancer Ward.
In all this essay, the most accurate and important statement is that
Tolkien has become a 'mark', a brand name. He is now an empire, a
phenomenon, and new products, books and toys and films, are eagerly
desired to feed the Tolkien market. What matters is not how good these
things are, but that there is plenty of them, and that they are all
Astonishingly for a literary critic, Appleyard does not seem to think
it matters how good The Children of Hurin is; what matters is there is
more Tolkien available to feed demand, even if it is 'retrieved'
Well phenomena pass and empires fall, but a book that has genuine
literary merit will survive long after the marketing frenzy dies down.
If it hasn't, it won't, no matter how many nice illustrations by Alan
Lee grace its pages. But Appleyard can't bring himself to say this is a
It is not about myth; Tolkien hoped that his stories would be taken as
myths, but they are stories, no more or less fiction than something
written by Hemingway or Sartre. That they are fantasy is irrelevent;
As the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa said; 'Only failed
fictions reproduce reality; successful fictions abolish and transfigure
'The Children of Hurin, in its own
dotty but also awe-inspiring way, works'
Well The Lord of The Rings, a book actually written by JRR Tolkien,
works even better because it is not dotty at all but great literature.
That is why, as Vargas Llosa said, it transfigures reality to move and
inspire us and become part of our very existence.
Good analysis, Varda!
I disagree slightly about the effect of the movies...while some people,
you and myself included, can retain their original vision of the
series, many other people have not. I spend a lot of time in the
artwork and fanfiction sections of the Tolkien fandom, and it is most
clear there that the movie has greatly influenced fans, far more than
it should have (whatever you think of the quality, no movie should take
over its book). I, for one, am glad for new Tolkien books that have
nothing to do with the movies.
Another thing I disagreed with was that Tolkien is full of black
and white characters. Is there anyone who can actually enjoy something
that is black and white? And even things that are only mostly black and
white, like mythologies, are not popular reads for that reason (IMHO).
It is that Tolkien's characters are living and breathing (if heroically
exaggerated at times) that make his work so well-loved. There is not
one good character in LOTR who does not fail at some point, nor a bad
character who had no chance for good.
As for the Children of Hurin, you are right, there is no redemption in
it. I suppose the closest you could get to redemption is that, even
though cursed, Turin managed to kill one of Morgoth's greatest
servants. But though in the Silmarillion the tale is short and
compressed, it is much more fleshed out in other drafts that
Christopher Tolkien has published, and I am looking forward to this
longer and more coherent version. While the Silmarillion is not an easy
read, and certainly has no universal appeal, it is by no means ignored
by Tolkien fans, and many people find the characters fascinating and
will leap for joy at the idea of more literature on them.
Will this book spark interest for Tolkien's other works in fans who
have only seen the movie? Unlikely, though I have certainly seen great
Silmarillion fans who started by seeing PJ's movies. Is it something
that deserves to be published by itself and without reference to the
Tolkien "hype"? I say yes. I do not think that we can say that the
works Christopher Tolkien has edited and published are really Tolkien's
work, but I do think they are as close to Tolkien as one can get, and
that is something intensely valuable. Unfortunately, Tolkien published
very little in his lifetime, which leaves fans wanting for more, and
ready and willing to accept hints and pieces from Tolkien's original
drafts. Some of them will just read the Silmarillion and accept it as
Tolkien's work, others will go to look at the chonology and notes for
the drafts and come up with what they think was Tolkien's last words on
his plan for Middle-earth, and others will simply stick with the
published works. I have even seen some people accept some parts of
fanfiction as "canon" 0.o
Tolkien left an unfinished universe when he died, and he expected and
approved of people adding to it, because what he most wanted to create
was a mythology. For some people, LOTR will remain a great novel only,
but for many it is the door to another universe, complete with elven
gynecology, linguistic inside jokes, and mysteriously vague historical
notes that prompt endless discussions. So whether the Children of Hurin
is great taken as literature is, in the end, not most important. What
is important is that it is another piece to the ever-expanding
mythology of Middle-earth, and more valuable than most because it
originated in Tolkien's own thoughts.
~MerryK (who happens to adore the Silmarillion)
Erech the Undead to MerryK:
Yes, MerryK, many of us would do well to
explore "Elven gynecology"..!!..
It's surely something that should be probed more deeply; a little
spelunking...Helm's deep...the glittering caves and all that...
Thank you for your insight, as usual...
Response from Rohirrim Eored regarding Erech's response:
I think you meant geneology, MerryK. At
least, I sure hope you did. Erech, you are a bad boy!
Reply from MerryK
regarding the above:
Surprisingly, I didn't. (wink)
Tolkien wrote an essay on Elven fertility and childbirth, amazingly
enough. It is those sorts of things that make me shiver and wonder for
just a moment if this could all be real? Surely no one author could
have a world this detailed all in his head? But it only lasts a moment.
Erech the Undead:
Though I've often visualised such a possibility, I'm not nearly as
idealistic as you (MerryK), and I must ask you to consider as to how I
know for certain, that Tolkien indeed knew little about Elven
They're all gone!
There is hope, however. Valinor may yet be discovered by men,
albeit not necessarily in this plane of existence. Also, those Elves
who perhaps remained in ME may simply have wandered off; scattered to
the four winds, like the Entwives.
Not gone, merely missing, and gynecologically challenged, much like the
Entwives: no action for centuries, with the "swords" of male Elves
truly glowing blue whenever an Elf maiden wanders by...
There may indeed be an heir to the throne of Aragorn out there
wandering, as not all who wander are lost. An obscure, little known
regal descendant, the blood royale, if you will. Think DaVinci code, or
perhaps Elvinci code.
Perhaps through his voluminous reading Tolkien discovered just such a
clue to the existence of the descendants of a lost race of immortal
beings, scattered through Europe like vagabonds. Perhaps there are
clues to this in his writings, much like the letter-sequence codes in
the Dead Sea scrolls...Imagine...
Imagine they are out there, waiting to be discovered, and in
desperate need of feminine hygeine products...you could help them,
MerryK; you can help end their suffering, and bring them out of
It is with just such a commission in mind, that I ask you, MerryK, to
prepare yourself for just such an adventure; to step out your door not
knowing where the road may lead you; to leave this board, never to
return until your noble quest is fullfilled.
You can write about it, MerryK, at length, as you often do. Think of
what a grand tale it would surely be:
There and Still There Again, by MerryK.
Now there's a fantasy I can really get into...
Thankfully, I am not that obsessed, and if I ever go that
far, I do hope someone will step in and stop me.
But really late at night when everything seems possible and plausible
because of sleep-deprivation, it's easy to be enchanted by Tolkien's
attitude of "Oh, I found the Red Book and translated it", because he's
so darn talented.
But, I think I prefer Middle-earth as mythology in any case, because
then one can add to it without some long-lost descendant of Aragorn
tapping one's shoulder and saying, "Oh, actually my
great-eceteras-grandfather had only three children—and Balrogs had
But if any elf-maiden does knock on my door, I'll be sure to let you
all know. *pauses* Is that the doorbell ringing?
Response by Rogorn:
Cheers, V. This is the article in
"This is, as Tolkien’s grandson
Adam has put it, the “director’s cut”
of The Children of Hurin — though I am not sure if the director in
question is father or son.
Yet the very fact that this is how
the book has emerged points to one
of the most revealing oddities of Tolkien’s work. He was not,
primarily, a novelist, and, as AN Wilson has suggested, not really a
writer. The task he set himself was to create the world, Middle-earth,
that preceded ours. He did so through maps, etymologies, invented
species — primarily elves and orcs — and vast and often indecipher-ably
complex genealogies. From this mountain of curious invention, the books
emerged. But they were only ever fragments of the whole. Reading
Tolkien, one is perpetually aware of a vast back story that will
probably never be completely knowable, because, as a whole, it resided
only in Tolkien’s head. The novels, in other words, were byproducts of
a much larger project.
The Wilson charge that Tolkien was not really a writer will horrify
millions, but he had a point. Tolkien’s style — indeed, his entire
approach — was derived from English narrative poems such as Beowulf and
Gawain and the Green Knight, from the Norse sagas and, especially in
the case of this latest book, from Wagner. These were tales of heroism
and magic, of absolute values, of the last things. The obvious approach
for a contemporary writer who wishes to retrieve such forms is to
update their style and, perhaps, set them in a contemporary context.
This is emphatically not what Tolkien set out to do. He wanted to
recreate their world and their language, only marginally adjusted for
modern ears. A sentence from the first paragraph of The Children of
Hurin makes the point: “His daughter Gloredhel wedded Haldir, son of
Halmir, lord of the men of Brethil; and at the same feast, his son
Galdor the tall wedded Hareth, the daughter of Halmir.”
This is “retro” writing with a vengeance. The modern mind is clearly
being dragged by the scruff of its neck away from its literary comfort
zone. Wilson’s point was that, having made this gesture, Tolkien’s
interest in style ended. He compares him to Iris Murdoch: “Actually,
Murdoch and Tolkien had this in common, though they could hardly be
more different in other respects: like Murdoch, Tolkien did not worry
about ‘style’ at all, simply charging on, where The Lord of the Rings
was in question, with his sub-William Morris prose.”
This is exactly right. Years ago, I gave up on The Lord of the Rings
and The Hobbit precisely because the prose seemed to be all surface,
with none of the deeper currents that make good or great writing. My
childhood hunger for fantasy had been fed by the wit, elegance and
power of TH White’s wonderful novel sequence The Once and Future King.
After that, Tolkien seemed thin and frequently prissy, in a tweedy,
donnish kind of way. I was entirely in sympathy with the remark of one
Hugo Dyson, on listening to Tolkien reading from The Lord of the Rings:
“Not another f***ing elf.”
That said, The Children of Hurin is a different kettle of fish. I
didn’t give up on it, primarily because an intense and very grown-up
manner saves it from the failings of his other works. The prose is
still more gesture than depth, but there is a real feeling of high
seriousness. It is not a children’s story like The Hobbit, and it is
much darker than The Lord of the Rings. This is Tolkien in Wagnerian
mode. Indeed, it may be possible to say that it is echt Tolkien. The
popularity of his other works may well have distracted him from the
seriousness and intensity of his vision of Middle-earth. He was a
devout Catholic, and although Christianity is not explicitly present,
there is an unfolding drama of history and salvation throughout the
work. This was a man who meant what he said. But, why? What did it all
mean? The first and most obvious point to make is about context.
Middle-earth was born in the dark days of the first world war, and The
Lord of the Rings was written during and in the aftermath of the
second. It would be absurd to see the evil lords Morgoth and Sauron as
the Kaiser and Hitler; indeed, Tolkien always denied any allegorical
intention. Nevertheless, his dreams of ancient, epic struggles between
good and evil do feel like a way of making sense of the meaning-less,
globalised slaughter of the 20th century.
There is a further twist to this. Tolkien is conventionally seen as an
antimodernist figure. He disliked technology, and his pursuit of the
ancient seems to echo that of the preRaphaelites and the gothic
fantasist Augustus Pugin, designer of the Palace of Westminster.
This may be seen as escapism, a rejection of modernist engagement with
the present and the future, but I’m not sure this is quite fair.
Compare, for example, Tolkien’s project with two of the greatest works
of modernist literature. James Joyce’s Ulysses tells the story of the
ordinary life of a Dublin day as a recapitulation of the legend of the
wandering Greek hero. TS Eliot’s The Waste Land is a mythological
panorama, drawing on the tales of the past to cast devastating light on
the condition of the present, the whole thing haunted by the spectre of
In other words, though utterly different (and much greater artists),
these writers were doing something similar to Tolkien: trying to cast
light on the present by adapting the tales and mythologies of the past.
Tolkien’s project was, indeed, more like simple escapism — his past
was, after all, entirely his own invention — but that does not diminish
its significance as a prime symptom of the modern condition.
In fact, in view of the sales and the global cultural impact of
Tolkien’s tales of Middle-earth, it would be insane to attempt to
diminish its significance. These books have plainly struck a
contemporary nerve. There is a need for, not fantasy, exactly — both
Christopher and Lee agree that they do not want Tolkien to be cosily
confined to the fantasy genre — but for stories that seem better,
grander, bigger and stranger than the drab narratives of the mere
present. As The Lord of the Rings was in the midst of its rise up the
global bestseller lists, the board game Dungeons & Dragons, first
sold in 1974, was sweeping fetid undergraduate bedrooms. Today, it
would be similarly fantastic computer games such as World of Warcraft.
Magic, in an age of disbelief, endures in curious interstices of the
In addition, both the Star Wars films and the Harry Potter books
confirm the contemporary longing for the grand and magical narrative.
Glaurung the dragon sounds remarkably like Jabba the Hutt, and Turin’s
talking sword could belong to Harry. There seems to be a need, across
all modern cultures, for the story that transcends time and space,
that, by escaping the particulars and compromises of the present,
directly addresses the ultimate issues of life. If tweedy Tolkien
raises our eyes above the mundane with his headlong, gestural prose and
wild mythologies, then who am I to complain? Anyway, as a book, not
just a fragment of a project, The Children of Hurin, in its own dotty
but also awe-inspiring way, works.
Six thousand years before Bilbo Bag-ginsfound the ring of Sauron, Turin
and Nienor were born to Hurin, called the Steadfast, lord of
Dor-lo-min, husband of Morwen. Turin waged war against Morgoth and slew
Glaurung, the first of the dragons of Morgoth. But . ..
No, I’d better not go on. The plot of JRR Tolkien’s The Children of
Hurin is about to thrill and intrigue millions. It has an initial print
run of 500,000 worldwide, but that will be just the beginning.
Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has sold 150m copies — 50m of those
since Peter Jackson’s films were released. Another 50m copies of other
Tolkiens, primarily The Hobbit, have also been sold. It is safe to say
that the “great tale” of Turin is about to become a global myth.
The book has been retrieved by Tolkien’s son Christopher from his
father’s assorted writings. It was begun in 1918, but never formally
organised into a novel. Christopher has now done this, using, it is
said, only his father’s words, with few grammatical changes. In theory,
this raises the possibility of the retrieval of other great tales from
this period — The Fall of Gondolin, Beren and Luthien has been
suggested, and The Lay of Leithian — but, in practice, none of these
seems to be in the complete, though dispersed, state of The Children of
Hurin. This will probably be the last finished Tolkien tale.
The timing is significant. The films fundamentally changed the status
of the books. As Alan Lee, the illustrator of The Children of Hurin and
Oscar-winning art director of the three movies, tells me, there is
something literal about film. In designing for Jackson, he found
himself having to flesh out every nuance. Whereas Tolkien might sketch
in a page of prose, the modern cinema audience wants the whole thing on
screen. Furthermore, a generation of Lord of the Rings fans was created
— but not necessarily Tolkien readers. The emphasis had shifted from
This seems, at least in part, to explain the timing of The Children of
Hurin. Christopher first told David Brawn, publishing director of
HarperCollins, about the book two years ago, when the film fuss was
ready to die down. It was, Brawn believes, a clear attempt to return
his father’s work to the printed page. And, indeed, for Lee, it has
been a chance to escape the literalism of the movies and to get back to
his haunting, suggestive and very English fairy-tale style.
A new posthumous Tolkien is a risk, however. In 1977, the publication
of The Silmarillion was criticised because it included interpolations
by Christopher. The charge was that the estate was exploiting the
legacy. It was lampooned as “The Sell-a-Million”. The implication was
that Tolkien was becoming a brand rather than an author, a process
surely accelerated by the films. On the other hand, it is the job of
literary executors to find good unpublished material. If Christopher
has, indeed, done no more than string together a coherent story from
his father’s prose, I can’t see much of a problem. He has done only
what his father intended."
The Children of Hurin by JRR Tolkien is published on April 16
this is quite strange, as the article did not appear in that form in
the paper. It began halfway through, then went back to the start.
Obviously messing about with text goes with the Tolkien territory.
The thing you have to remember is that Middle Earth never existed. It
is a fiction no less than Tolstoy's Russia. What makes it real is
Tolkien's skill as a writer. So in the end we can't separate a
discussion of Middle Earth from a discussion of Tolkien as a writer, or
indeed writing as writing and nothing else.
But Appleyard tries to get us to look at just about everything BUT the
writing; the book's successes; its similarities to Star Wars (
) the need to have another go in print after the films. But when
Appleyard tries to say something meaningful about Tolkien the writer
(and he is a writer, of course, whatever AN Wilson said, with tongue in
cheek) the best he can do is belittle Tolkien in comparison to Joyce or
TS Eliot. Appleyard betrays himself. He wants to say this is a good
book, but he can't find a convincingly literary reason why, so he falls
back on describing Middle Earth and its effect on our world.
It became clearer to me when I read this review that Middle Earth works
best as background. When Tolkien puts the background into the
foreground, as he does in the Silmarillion, it instantly becomes very
obviously a created world, showing the hand of the creator. In
describing his creation myth, Tolkien borrows the language of the King
James bible. But the biblical style collapes when the monotheistic
universe suddenly becomes a polytheistic one, and gets away from its
creator. This is not hidden but overt style, and one notices that
style. When Middle Earth becomes the background, assumed and subtle, as
it does in The Lord of The Rings and even the Hobbit, it becomes
unassailable, haunting and powerfully evocative.
Tolkien's world contained many contradictions. The fate of the Elves
went through several evolutions in Tolkien's works, so that it is hard
to really define Elven eschatology. And the question of mortality of
heroes such as Beren similarly also gets shifted about, as if Tolkien
was looking for an ultimate reality. This is not, then, a fixedly
created world, but an idea in flux in the creator-writer's mind. But
when you see that world in a moment of time, as in The Lord of The
Rings, the contradictions and uncertainties not only don't matter but
they enrich it. But if you are drawing a world view ouside a point in
time, contradictions do matter, and they make it a confused and
There is also the question of diction. In The Lord of The Rings,
Tolkien's diction evolves, from being similar to that of the Hobbit at
the start to being much more detached and elegiac at the end. But the
diction of The Silmarillion varies far more wildly. We start off with
the King James Bible then go onto the Battle of Maldon, veering from a
moral cosmos in the making to a Saxon battle saga, with the far
narrower concepts of virtue that entails. Wisdom is supplanted by
courage, which is an evolving down. Not just Hurin, but many of
Tolkien's Silmarillion figures are, basically, stupid, so in drawing
them Tolkien has to emphasise the epic and heroic over the profound and
the meaningful. His diction also has to be modified from the elevated
beauty of his early description of the music of the universe of Eru to
trying to convince us that proud, brave but not very bright heroes like
Turin deserve our approval. We admire Cuchulainn for his courage, yet
despise him for his pride and arrogance, but Tolkien does not invite us
to despise Turin.
Tolkien never finds a convincing diction as a writer in this book,
but then, he never meant it to be published in this form and although
Christopher could string stuff together he - and his collaborators -
could not alter the tone of the writer.
That would not matter if this was a genuine history or geography, but
in the end, this is fiction, whether it is a myth, romance or a novel.
It might be closer to Homer than to HG Wells, but it is still fiction,
and should be discussed as fiction, with diction and style part of that
To do otherwise would be to say that Tolkien is too great to criticise
at all. That he is a genius above all examination. I think if we let
that idea in, and Appleyard does come close to saying 'what the heck
about the weak points, it's Tolkien isn't it, let's just worship at the
shrine!' we would do Tolkien a terrible disservice. If we say it is all
good, not evaluating and questioning it as we do other works, we will
not only not see faults, but we will not see genuine triumphs and marks
of true genius. We will also set Tolkien up for future generations to
find feet of clay attached to our statue of gold. They will accuse us
of doing a King's Clothes, and the ulitmate victim will be Tolkien. He
was a critic himself, he deserves the very best literary criticism, and
Appleyard gives us a slapdash 'isn't it all great!' instead.
Reponse by MerryK:
As far as my
personal opinion goes, I think that we should honor what Tolkien was
trying to do. He submitted the Hobbit as a literary work, but though
the Lord of the Rings should have followed from there, it got away from
him, and transformed into something else. It ended up being inexorably
more and more connected with the Silmarillion, with England's mythology
that had been in the works for nearly forty years. And in the end, as
one reads his letters, it is plain that he embraced the point of view
that Lord of the Rings (if not the Hobbit, perhaps) was now a piece of
his grand mythology.
Now, if someone writes a pastoral comedy, should one judge it by
its dramatic value? Of course not, we should judge it on how well it
works as a pastoral comedy. Whether it should have happened or not, to
hundreds of thousands if not millions of people, Middle-earth has
become a mythology to grasp on to. I believe that, since this was
Tolkien's intent, we should judge his world as a mythology. Of course
there are inconsistencies, errors, and contradictions, and one may
examine them to one's heart's content...but unlike in literature,
Tolkien's world can hold up through it all. There are fans out there
who slam their heads up against the wall at some of the errors of
Tolkien, and rant about them on forums for weeks, and yet they go back
to his work. What piece of literature could at once annoy and enchant
to such an extent? Tolkien's world has grown beyond literature, and if
the critics attempt to judge it by literary standards, they will have
missed what is most important.
And when Tolkien's works go out of copyright, and sequels to it are
being written and published, the criticism should not be, "Is it like
Tolkien?" The criticism should be, "Is it like Middle-earth?" Yes, this
is Tolkien's mythology, and his opinions and worldviews are through it
all. Thankfully, because of his attitude, that he was merely the first
modern historian of Middle-earth, others may carry on the legacy
without having to imitate his style. And if, years from now, there are
even more histories of Middle-earth than he ever dreamed of, I believe
he would be proud.
The Lord of the Rings and its related works are not merely an icon
in literature, but a grand and vital piece of our culture. Just as the
Greeks would say "like Odysseus" to inspire a long and hard journey, we
may say "like Frodo and the Ring".
Another review -
text supplied by Rogorn:
Away with the
THE CHILDREN OF HURIN by JRR
Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien
Mim’s house on Amon Rudh is given
the name Echad i Sedryn. The sword
Anglachel is forged anew in Nargothrond and called Gurthang. Turin (the
story’s irascible hero) is known in Middle-earth as Neithan, Gorthol,
Agarwaen, Adanedhel, Mormegil and Turambar. A taste for this kind of
stuff is as innocuous as collecting train numbers or cricket records,
but, although JRR Tolkien aficionados will be thrilled, others will
find The Children of Hurin barely readable. Fifty pages of explanatory
material, crammed with chronologies, genealogies and lists of battles,
topographical details and more-than-human powers, merely create a
miasma of allusion and demand a loyal acceptance of the myth.
The book is the “artificial”
reworking of Tolkien’s many abandoned
attempts to tell this tale, including 2,000 lines of lacklustre
alliterative verse, some of which is unwisely quoted here. Versions
have been published before; what is new is a continuous narrative
devised by the author’s son.
Nothing really happens, although
there is a tedious succession of
events. Turin leaves home and slaughters large numbers of baddies. Time
and again we read that “he struck down all before him” or “slew the
last of the Easterlings that remained”. He also wears the Helm that
“guarded any who wore it from wound or death”, kills a dragon and
marries his sister. These events can, of course, be matched in Wagner
or the Finnish epic of the Kalevala. In the Ring Cycle, however, every
bar contributes to a constantly shifting alteration of mood and
meaning, whereas here we are too often escorted through monotonous
passages of annalistic prose.
The characters are
straightforwardly conventional. The wise are wise;
the brave, brave; the noble, noble; and the wicked, wicked. A girl’s
“laughter was like the sound of the merry stream”. Turin’s face is
“more beautiful than any other among mortal men”, and a girl who loves
him is “golden-haired after the manner of the house of Finar-fin”.
When, after a long separation, he meets and falls in love with his
sister, she is “tall, and her eyes were blue, her hair fine gold” — now
there’s a surprise. Lineage is all and virtue is hereditary.
Turin is captivated by “the
Sindarin tongue”, “older, and . . . richer
in beautiful words”. Tolkien endorses this equation of archaism with
beauty, but doesn’t show why it is more desirable to write “dwelt” than
“lived”, to describe a sword that “would cleave all earth-dolven iron”
or to have people say, “Await me here until haply I return.” Phrases
such as “the dark lord upon a dark throne” or “their dark doom’s
shadow” recur with wearisome insistence. Sentences with a gnomic
brevity derived from the sagas are overwhelmed by pages of
self-indulgent feebleness. Fans will doubtless read on with passionate
piety, but for others it is an act of painful penitence.
Response by Varda:
Thanks for that, Rogorn.
This review is a painful but salutary reminder that we should be
accurate and fair in our own criticism of Tolkien, because heaven knows
those who are not his fans will be ruthless in pointing out his flaws
and we need a critical armoury to rebuff them.
It is not enough to say 'well I like it'. Sadly, liking something
doesn't make it good. This review, hostile as it is, makes telling
points because they are accurate points; Tolkien's poetry is not
amongst the greats; the characters in this tale are wooden; a sequence
of events is NOT a story; it is ridiculous to suggest virtue is
hereditary. Nice illustrations don't save an inferior book. And just
because a tale can echo Wagner or the Kalevala does not give it the
depth of meaning of those works, especially for this age.
I think The Lord of The Rings is a masterpiece, one of the greatest
works of literature ever written. I just don't think Tolkien's other
writings are in the same boat and would be best left in their present
form for those who wish to go and seek them out and study them. This
review is right to be critical of the way this material has been hauled
out and tarted up. I do not believe Tolkien would ever have published
We can cry 'but we want more!' But what if more exposes Tolkien to
criticism like this which picks out the weaker points of his writing?
Weak points that readers of The Lord of The Rings never notice. We ARE
past the place where it is enough for the brave to be brave and the
fair fair and nothing else, mate. Why do we have to admire this surly
and stupid hero anyway? Tolkien gives us two wonderful heroes in
Aragorn and Frodo, why do we look for others like that where they are
not to be found?
I have been in the Tolkien Society for thirty years and their
magazine Mallorn publishes new Tolkien criticism every four months, and
in all that time I have never failed to find new and fresh insights
into The Lord of The Rings. There are endless avenues and influences to
be explored in that book, let us discuss it till the stars come out,
not drag out unfinished fragments of Tolkien's writing to attract
criticism like this and damage Tolkien's reputation as a great writer.
It is not enough to say more is good. I had got to page 15 of the
Silmarillion when I said to myself 'this is a good way to spoiling my
memory of the magic of reading The Lord Of The Rings', and after that I
only read it passim.
This is the review that Appleyard did not write because he did not read
the whole book. And he was so intent on being positive about Tolkien
for reasons other than literary criticism.
I don't want to see Tolkien regarded as a writer whom only
'aficionados' can like. His best work - and the only works he presented
for publication - are great literature and as such have universal
appeal. In this incarnation, this book is neither.
Varda, very unhappy about the review because its arrows are well aimed.
Response by MerryK:
Varda wrote: There
are endless avenues and influences to be explored in that book, let us
discuss it till the stars come out, not drag out unfinished fragments
of Tolkien's writing to attract criticism like this and damage
Tolkien's reputation as a great writer.
curious about this statement, Varda.
It has always got on my nerves when people pretend that an author did
not write something because they consider it inferior, thinking that it
will somehow make the great writing any less great and well-loved, but
I never actually had a chance to discuss it with someone. I see it all
the time with Jane Austen as well, where Northanger Abbey is the "inferior" piece. As a minority
in boths fandoms, loving both Northanger Abbey and The Silmarillion,
it at first was only annoying, but now seems an odd reaction to me, as
if an author must do everything right or they are worth nothing. Cannot
an author be great even if you dislike a piece of his work?
Another idea that I am getting from
what you said, which may very
well be completely off the mark, is that you think that people will see
these reviews and then think that Tolkien cannot write. (huh?)
Considering that people have said this before about the LOTR, and yet
sales have not diminished, I cannot agree. If Tolkien's work is truly
great, a bad piece of writing or a nasty critic will not affect it.
Mark Twain wrote a scathing review of Jane Austen, and the faults he
found were not completely off the mark, but that did not make Austen
less respected. It is only truly inferior work that needs to have its
reputation "protected" from criticism; anything else can stand up to
As far as the review goes, I
certainly cannot deny that those points can be made...but I do not feel
a need to deny it. I read The Silmarillion
first when I was only about 12, having just come from LOTR and wanting
more of Tolkien, and from the first chapter was drawn quickly and
headlong into the story. There were characters I loved and characters I
hated, but it never crossed my mind that this might not be as "good" a
book as LOTR. It was very different, undeniably, but I adored it and
read it just as often as LOTR. It was only later that I read criticisms
on it, and discovered that it did not have universal appeal.
But those criticisms did not affect
me, as the reviews posted here did
not either; it did not matter to me that others did not like it,
because I did. For all the hereditary virtue, good looks belonging only
to the good, and repetitive language, I could not put the book down nor
dislike it. (That is what sets Tolkien alongside such authors as
Dickens, that one can find so much "wrong" and yet love it at the same
time. I have talked to many people who raved about some Dickens book,
and yet in the same conversation harshly bashed his too-perfect
heroines and sentimentality.) I feel no need to have an armory of
responses to the criticisms laid on The Silmarillion,
because while they go on about how flat and wooden it is, I only know
that it touched (and still touches) my soul. And that is something that
instance, never did, great literature though it may be. So, I say, live
and let be published; what is inferior to one is great to another.
As an aside, you say that it is not
enough to evoke the Kalevala, but I have never met someone who cried
over characters in the Kalevala, while I have met many who did so over
the "wooden" characters of The Silmarillion. Likewise, I believe that all of the
"faults" with The Silmarillion have been and can be found in LOTR; it
really ends up as a matter of preference.
You say, why do we have to admire
Turin? We don't. But what you
fail to address is that some of us do, and we do without "having" to.
It is a fair argument to say that most people will not like The Children of Hurin,
and it is even fair to say that Tolkien would not have published this
in this state, but it is not fair to say that because it has no
universal appeal it should be hidden away where only diehard fans can
find it. You say that we can discuss LOTR till the cows come home. Can
we not do so without tossing Tolkien's other work in the trash? If you
don't like The Silmarillion, or The Children of Hurin,
that is entirely up to you, and you will not be forced to discuss it.
But saying that you don't want something published because you'd rather
talk about something else seems close-minded to me.
It is not enough to say "well, I
like it", but neither is it enough to say "well, I think it's
Response by Rogorn:
Exactly. Some reviewers seem to forget that
some people love the Silmarillion (and all the other related stories,
like the Unfinished Tales), even when fully knowing that they weren't
in their final shape. Some even like those more than LOTR. This might
be a travesty to some, but, well, one can choose their own pleasures.
Besides, liking it more doesn't mean that one can't recognise which one
I think it is good that we can see this material published, even if
only to find the same interest in them as one could find from seeing
initial sketches of the work of great painters. For me they go beyond
that, but I don't think that they 'water down' Tolkien's quality or
that of LOTR. It's always nice and cool to be labelled as a publisher
of nothing like masterpieces (as is said of James Joyce), but I don't
think these other works by Tolkien are worthless. In fact, I find them
superb, and moreover, the fact that they look like that when unfinished
even gives them more appeal. While they have been a shock to many
(especially those whose started their walk into Arda through LOTR),
they have given pleasure to countless people.
Deveson's piece, however, is a good reminder of what many readers
are going to think about CoH, if not the whole Silmarillion by
extension. Fair enough. I hope they find it useful when deciding
whether to invest their time and maybe money into reading the book -
that's one of the things a literary review is useful for - but I can
live with those opinions and still enjoy what I like.
Response by Vik:
Oh dear - I need more time to read and re-read
all those interesting posts! When I first read LOTR oh those many years
ago I wanted all the Tolkien I could get and I remember that I was a
little disappointed because there weren't so many books available. At
that time I could only read the german books.
I had rather mixed feelings when COH was first announced. Just another
way to make more money. And it's not a new story - he "just" put the
pieces from the Sil and Unfinished tales together.
There's an introduction and a lengthy explanation at the end of
the story where he explains that he didn't make much changes to the
original text - merely some "logical" rearrangements. This part is
definitely for the scholars/fans!Someone certainly does expect some
discussions about this book! :-D
I've just read a german proof copy of COH and tomorrow I will have a
look at the finished book and enjoy the illustrations by Alan
Lee! For me that is most likely the main reason to get this
While reading COH I had this crazy idea..... I wonder how Varda would
write this story.. ;-)
Response by MerryK:
That would be interesting indeed! I wonder if that would make a good
challenge, for those members here might be interested, to write a
summary of how LOTR or the Sil would have turned out if you had written
it. I certainly would love to read the results!
Response by Varda:
Thanks for your replies to my post, friends,
and the links, especially that one to the critical article on
Remember what I am saying refers to Tolkien's critical reception. I am
not arguing with you guys who want to read more and more Tolkien, of
whatever style. My argument is about putting out an unfinished fragment
of uncertain quality with massive hype and fanfare as if it was equal
in any way to Tolkien's great work, which is undoubtedly The Lord of
As that article cited by Linaewen shows, Tolkien is by any standards a
great writer, but by merely critical standards he often does not even
qualify as one. The problem is therefore with the criticism, not the
writer. Modern criticism has justly been described as 'literature's
long suicide note' and I agree.
But I don't agree that Tolkien is in some way 'above' criticism. As a
critic himself, he would not have liked to think he was. Much Tolkien
fan writing tries to say Tolkien is the mediator between our world and
Middle Earth, not a writer but a historian, genealogist and linguist,
adapting it all for our ears.
Very quaint, but daft. Middle Earth is a literary creation. I do
believe as I said before that Tolkien is sui generis, a unique writer,
but he is still a writer and his work is literature. Just because we
have to adjust our critical spectacles does not mean we should be
Nor does it mean we should ignore the considerable body of Tolkien
criticism produced by critics like Shippey and by the Tolkien Society
over the years. Friends, if it is Tolkien criticism you seek, criticism
that treats the books as successful literature, it is all out there for
you to find.
But the fact remains that Tolkien wrote a great body of work and only
presented some of it for publication. the reason is simple; chronology.
The moment that matters in Middle Earth is the end moment we are given
in The Lord of The Rings, the final battle with Sauron. All the
backfill of the Silmarillion and even of the Hobbit, prepared and led
to this moment.
Sure we can go back and read the tales of those long past far off days,
but Tolkien intended these to be the background and mythology of a
world a bit like ours, where people worked out their lives against
traditions of song, story, belief, magic and history. The Children of
Hurin is part of that tapestry.
But I don't think Tolkien ever thought it should be hauled out and
presented on its own. Shorn of its context, it has flaws; Tolkien was
making myths for a fictional world. He drew heavily on Wagner's Ring,
and on the Kalevala, saying that Turin was modelled on that epic's
'hapless hero'. This is writing that is very derivative as it was only
cast as a story to be referred to, something out of the past. As the
hostile reviews are quick to point out, the characters have no depth,
the action no story and the dialague no dynamic.
Tolkien is trying out a study of a mythological type, not writing a
truly original work. The characters in this tale are nothing like
characters worked to a unique individuality like Frodo or Faramir, who
leap stright from the page into our hearts. Here are not
genius-inspired characters to move us, just unfinished ideas borrowed
from other tales.
Nor do I believe for a moment that Tolkien would ever have
published this in this form, whatever his relatives say. Tolkien worked
and re-worked his books, he was a writer who drafted and re-drafted his
work. If you look at the published drafts of The Lord of The Rings, you
will see two rough-hewn characters, Bungo and Trotter, wandering Middle
Earth speaking in comprehensible dialogue. Eventually, they were worked
and honed till they became Frodo Baggins and Strider wandering Middle
Earth speaking meaningful dialect in a brilliant and epic story.
Maybe, Turin's tale might have been quietly discarded for separate
publication by Tolkien as being too 8th century for our age. Or maybe
he might have worked and re-worked it into something just as
unrecognisable and brilliant as Frodo and Aragorn are unrecognisable
from their rough drafts Bungo and Trotter. But we don't know, and this
publication assumes this is what he would have wanted when all the
evidence of his methods points in the other direction.
But as I said, the whole reason for Turin's story is not Turin himself;
it is part of the sagas and history that forms the backdrop for
Tolkien's REAL masterpiece, The Lord of The Rings. If you distilled all
the pathos and tragedy in Turin's whole tale you would not come up with
one percent of the pathos and tragedy of the death of Boromir with
Aragorn at his side; one is real and great literature, the death of
Turin at the hands of a speaking sword is stylised and remote.
In The Lord of The Rings, we do indeed 'stand on a knife's edge' as
Galadriel says; Middle Earth has known a long history, (documented in
Tolkien's other writings), but it has come now to this point, the last
clash of good and evil destined from the very first days. Now, not only
Sauron and his evil magic but the Elves and their wise and good powers,
stand on the brink of destruction. This is the dawn of the age of man,
and all magic and things that belong to the Elder ages, like Ents, will
slowly disappear from the world.
In a way, Tolkien felt the same; he was born into a Europe still
recognisably the result of medieval tradtions; royal houses and empires
still flourished. When he was writing, at the time of the second world
war, all those empires and kingdoms had been swept away, and medieval
Europe had been swept away with it. Even the British Empire for which
he had fought had been swept away.
Tolkien always resisted any analogy with contemporary history. But in
The Lord of The Rings we see ancient dynasties such as that of Denethor
giving way to a new kind of kingship, that of Aragorn, relying on
justice and courage and generosity. Leading from the ranks, it is
called, or democracy if you are a Spartan (that is a joke) This is all
a long long long way from Turin; so it should be. This is
the culmination of Tolkien's great creation, the history of Middle
When Gandalf tells Aragorn that he must leave Middle Earth, Aragorn is
devastated; so are we, to think that all that is magic and wondrous
will go from the world, along with the Elves and the higher folk. But
so it is destined to be. Tolkien is saying the age of magic is over,
and here comes the age of Man. But Gandalf tells Aragorn that hope and
goodness will never die, and as proof he finds a sapling of the White
Tree. So even in a world where physical magic might die, still the
memory of the Two Trees of Valinor will be a hope and an inspiration to
the world. Sure the magic of Lothlorien will fade, but the evil magic
of Sauron will fade too, and that is the price we have paid to rid the
world of it.
So the Tale of Turin belongs not in the real present of Middle Earth,
but in the mystical magic past. Aragorn reforges a sword of mythical
importance to his people. But as Elrond tells him in the film, it is he
who must exert his strength to wield it. Turin's sword can act on its
own, to 'drink his blood'. This is not a real story but a fairy tale.
Yes, Middle Earth needs its fairy tales, its distant and magic past.
But the publishing hype of this book presents it on the same level and
in the same style as The Lord of The Rings, and that could damage the
greater work. This really is an appendix, and the hype surrounding the
publication might damage the hard-won critical acclaim that The Lord of
The Rings has gained, against great hostility, over the past few
The real reason everyone has trouble with Tom Bombadil, even while
liking him so much, is that he is in the wrong book. He belongs to the
world of many spirits that is the Silmarillion. Tolkien as he wrote The
Lord of The Rings realised that this was a realistic narrative, and
that magic in the end could neither defeat nor save his heroes; only
their own strengths and weaknesses could do that. But Turin is not such
a hero; he is defeated by magic and secrets and things beyond his
knowledge. His fate is not in his own hands. As a moral and physical
hero he is to Frodo what Cuchulainn is to Hamlet.
I don't want to spoil everyone's fun, not that I found Turin's
story much fun when I read it. It is nice that we have it all laid out
more clearly, even if it not what Tolkien wanted or not in the form he
wanted. It is nice that Alan Lee has done illustrations for it,
although it is deeply wrong to suggest that Lee has not always had
'first shot' at Tolkien illustrations; he certainly always did.
I am just worried that presenting this story with all this hype at
the same level as the much greater and properly finished work The Lord
of The Rings will cast back some criticism on that greater work. If
people read this first, will they ever to on to the trilogy? This is a
fragment Tolkien wrote to fill out his world. It is an experimental
re-working of other myths; it has problems of diction and style and
even metre; it is not complete, and it is not even in the form Tolkien
approved for final release. I think the literary reasons for publishing
this are nil. There are indeed other reasons, an insatiable fan
readership, profit etc. But the reasons for publishing should always be
literary excellence, and that is not the reason for publishing The
Children of Hurin, and so it is easy meat for the critics.
Varda, who knows she is a voice crying in the wilderness. ;-)
Response by MerryK:
Great post, Varda! I think I understand your point more clearly, and I
certainly agree that The Children of Hurin should not be considered on
the same level as LOTR literarily. I don't think it is quite as bad as
you seem to think it, and I still don't think that Tolkien should be
treated like other literature, but I agree with your main point.
But I don't agree that Tolkien is in
some way 'above' criticism. As a critic himself, he would not have
liked to think he was.
Perhaps he would not have wished to think that he was, but he certainly
behaved that way. He did it politely, but he certainly did not pay much
mind to the critics.
IMHO, Tolkien is above the critics, not because he is without flaw, but
because the critics judge him like other literature. And as you said,
Tolkien is one of a kind. Just like Star Wars is not just another
movie, Tolkien's world is more than just literature: it is an attempt
at world-building, probably the greatest attempt in all of history. I
believe it should be judged by world-building standards.
The characters in this tale are
nothing like characters worked to a unique individuality like Frodo or
Faramir, who leap stright from the page into our hearts.
Actually, I do think Turin has a unique personality, though perhaps he
is the only one in the tale who does. Perhaps it is derivative
personality, but it certainly shone for me. And, after all, you can
find hilarious parodies of him, and you cannot write parodies in good
fun about flat characters; you can write critical parodies, but not fun
ones. (For example, you cannot write a good parody about Orophin,
Haldir's brother, because he has no personality to poke fun at.)
Reply by Varda:
Thank you for your reply, MerryK.
About Tolkien not listening to criticism, I must correct you; he
certainly did listen to it, and some unknown critic may have been
responsible for Tolkien being a novelist and not a poet.
What happened was that Tolkien, as you will know if you have read this
tale in its original form, first wrote parts of it in verse. This was
quite early in his writing career. He was using the alliterative old
English verse form.
Tolkien then submitted his verse to a critic - whose name he never
divulged, but probably was one of his circle - who returned a verdict
of considerable harshness. It amounted to advising Tolkien not to write
his story in poetic form. Far from ignoring this critical analysis,
Tolkien took it so seriously that he did not write any more of the tale
in verse, but continued it in prose.
I doubt that Tolkien wrote in verse out of more than a desire to use an
Old English metre he particularly loved, but it has been suggested that
this unknown critic and his verdict made Tolkien a prose writer and not
a poet, and so we owe The Lord of The Rings to him.
But if you think about it, it does stand to reason that Tolkien would
listen to literary criticism; he met a circle of writer friends in the
Eagle and Child and they read each other's work and, well, criticised
it. That was literary criticism in its most lively and radical form - a
form that does not stunt but creates great literature, acting as a
forcing house of talent, urging good writers on to become better ones.
No craft comes easy, and as my archery coach keeps telling me,
listening to advice is the first step of every art. Criticism is a
vital tool of a professional writer.
I certainly agree with you that Tolkien had a high opinion of his own
talents. But he was still a professional critic, and if he had ignored
criticism it would have been like a doctor despising medicine.
As regards Tolkien not being literature, that does not exalt him, it
diminishes him. If he is not a writer, he is the creator of a fantasy
world that actually does not exist. I prefer writer. A unique writer,
but a writer nonetheless.
His skill is in the fact that you think his world exists. You don't see
the wires. His writing has disappeared and all you see is what he
describes. That is the ultimate great writing. Sadly, though, in The
Children of Hurin, you see too many wires; you see Tolkien fumbling to
develop a hero with shavings off the Kalevala and Wagner. You see him
struggling to evolve a diction in keeping with mythology but also
suitable for modern prose. You see him juggling with 'dark' elements
like suicide and forbidden s*x but only to let them in the end
overwhelm his hero in a hopeless and pointless denouement.
This is my problem with The Children of Hurin; it has flaws that
Tolkien's other writing doesn't have, so in a short space it dents his
reputation as a flawless writer. It should have been left where it was,
for those to read who want to read, not thrust in front of the public
as if it was equal to his greatest work. MerryK, the people are not
that stupid, they will see they have been sold an inferior work at an
inflated price, and this could be the beginning of the anti-Tolkien
I can only admire you for finding Turin unique. He is actually just
like his dad. And is replicated later on in Beren. His final
incarnation is Aragorn, by which time Tolkien had got it right. The
wanderer in the wilds, amply justifying Wormtongue's 'his cloth was
poor' remark, enjoying a permanent bad hair day but under it all
possessing royal lineage, this is almost an archetype in Tolkien's
work. Hurin is only unique in that he engages in forbidden s*x, a
subject usually taboo in Tolkien's writing, and he commits suicide,
which is usually restricted to Tolkien's evil characters or good ones
who have gone hopelessly astray, like Denethor.
In order to write a good parody you need to have a well defined
character to begin with; there is not enough written about Orophin to
show us what he is like, so a parody is impossible.
However, I am fascinated that you have managed to find 'hilarious
parodies' of Turin.
Please, MerryK, do share these with us....
Response by MerryK:
About Tolkien not listening to
criticism, I must correct you; he certainly did listen to it, and some
unknown critic may have been responsible for Tolkien being a novelist
and not a poet.
Oh, I am not saying that he did not listen to it at all, but there are
many comments in his letters relating to criticism, where he completely
brushed it off. I believe he was more open to the comments of his
friends in the Inklings, but he certainly didn't let the critics rule
him...otherwise we would have had a vastly different and IMHO inferior
As regards Tolkien not being
literature, that does not exalt him, it diminishes him. If he is not a
writer, he is the creator of a fantasy world that actually does not
So then, you think that it is of greater value to write a
self-contained work, rather than create an expansive world? huh I am
afraid I must disagree. If you read LOTR as a mere book, IMHO, you are
missing much. I do not wish to sound pretentious, but I believe you
have a more meaningful experience if you dig deeper. It is only when
you realize that the light in Frodo's phial came from Earendil, who in
turn received it from Elwing, descendant of Beren and Luthien, who took
it from Morgoth, who stole it from Feanor himself, greatest genius in
Middle-earth, that the true depth of LOTR is shone. It is only when you
realize that the ring on Aragorn's finger, the ring of Barahir, is not
only an heirloom but the physical memorial of when an High-Elven lord
sacrificed himself for his mortal friend, that the majesty and nobility
of Aragorn's claim becomes clearer. There is so much more to Frodo and
his quest than what is contained in LOTR, and despite the varying
quality of the rest, it is valuable and worthwhile material. You simply
cannot ignore that Middle-earth is a world; an unfinished, flawed,
contradictory world, but one that has been and will be of lasting
importance. It can only diminish it to deny this.
You don't see the wires. His writing
has disappeared and all you see is what he describes. That is the
ultimate great writing.
Then in that case Tolkien is a greater writer than Shakespeare, whose
wires pop out at every turn. wink grin
I can only admire you for finding
Turin unique. He is actually just like his dad. And is replicated later
on in Beren. His final incarnation is Aragorn, by which time Tolkien
had got it right.
Hmm, well, as I find subtle differences in those characters, but you do
not, and since I am not going to call you wrong, there is nothing more
to be said here. I think it is up to opinion, however, on whether
characters are successful.
In order to write a good parody you
need to have a well defined character to begin with;
That was exactly what I said...so if you can have a parody about Turin,
he's not a flat character. (I cannot find any parodies with him at the
moment mutter but I know I have read some.)
Thanks for replying!
Reply by Varda:
Thank you for your reply, MerryK
(Regarding this, you disagree with) my point that Tolkien is better
regarded as a writer who created a great work than a man who dreamed up
a world. But that world is conveyed to us in writing. Sure, Frodo is a real
character to us, but Frodo did not leap fully formed from Tolkien's
head like Athena from the head of Zeus. He went through many
evolutions; that is called writing.
Writing is not just hitting the keys, it is formulating characters,
even grand and timeless characters. Writing in short is art, the
creation of a higher reality that inspires our own. I once did quote to
you Shelley's dictum that writers are the unacknowledged legislators of
mankind. Tolkien proves the possibilities of writers to the greatest
degree, as Shippey said. Just because there is no-one near Tolkien in
the race does not mean he isn't on the course.
Among writers, Tolkien is as Shadowfax among horses. But he is still a
Here is the saving of the ring of Barahir, actually;
'But Arvedui did not take his
counsel. He thanked him (the chief of the Lossoth) and at parting gave
him his ring, saying ;'This is a thing of worth beyond your reckoning.
For its ancientry alone. It has no power, save the esteem in which
those hold it who love my house. It will not help you, but if every you
are in need, my kin will ransome it with great store of all that you
Arvedui is lost in a shipwreck; 'and
with him the palantiri (of Annuminas and Amon Sul) were buried in the
sea' but his grandson Arahel was fostered in Rivendell, and'there also
were kept the heirlooms of their house; the ring of Barahir, the shards
of Narsil, the star of Elendil and the sceptre of Annuminas'
(Return of the King; Appendix A, pps
392-3 Harper Collins 2992 Ed)
So you see I know the book too, I have even read the Silmarillion
and the Appendixes, I just don't think they are central to the meaning
of Tolkien's best work. (I encourage) the close reading and
appreciation of Tolkien.
Good criticism is the highest form of appreciation.
To conclude, I feel your replies are more retorts, slanted at me rather
than engaging with my arguments, and you reply just to have the last
word. This is disheartening, because an intelligent discussion of my
favourite writer is the main reason I came here.
Thank you, MerryK, and you can have the last word.
Varda, like Bono my fellow Dubliner still not having found what I am
(the above post was mildly edited to
Reponse by MerryK:
I am deeply sorry if any of my words offended you, Varda. Though I used
the pronoun "you", it was general and hypothetical usage, and nothing I
said was meant to be personal. I offer humble apologies.
I never said "Tolkien never listened to criticism." What I said was he
"did not pay much mind" to it, which is certainly true. I do not have
all my resources at hand at the moment, but there was one quote I
remember well enough to paraphrase: "[this critic] says my work is
poor; well, I do not mind, since I think the same of works he approves
On the parodies of Turin: I said I spend a lot of time around
fanfiction. That translates to about thirty such sites that I have
visited, not to mention all the online communities, many of which do
not archive their writings. I do not bookmark every story that I found
funny, therefore I simply would have to spend hours to find particular
examples. I did not brush you off, however; I have done my utmost, and
found this one at least:
You have been saying that it diminishes Tolkien to include his whole
world, and yet have offered no clear argument why that is the case,
when all other sources I have come across seem to point otherwise. I do
not see an argument to engage with here. I have always endeavored to be
reasonable and logical, though I certainly admit that I can fail, but I
saw nothing here to respond to.
I never, ever, meant to imply that you were ignorant, Varda. Ignorant
has a harsh connotation that had nothing to do with what I was saying.
Logically, if you do not know everything on a subject, you are missing
something. I am missing something, because I have not learnt Sindarin
yet. I am missing something from literature in general because I have
not read Anna Karenina. I was responding to your belief that we should
only focus on LOTR, and I do not see how it is unreasonable to say that
one is missing something if one does that.
Good criticism is the highest form of
I completely agree with that; I merely do not think critics are going
about it the right way.
(And what I was speaking of, in reference to the ring of Barahir, was
the story in the Silmarillion. Finrod, heir to the king of the Noldor,
gave his ring to Barahir when the latter saved his life in battle. When
Beren, Barahir's son, inherited it, he asked for Finrod's succor in his
quest for the Silmaril. During that quest, Finrod gave his life, and
was slain by a werewolf of Sauron, to save Beren. Aragorn is the
descendant of Beren, and so even a family heirloom mentioned in passing
in LOTR has depth, if one looks at his whole world.)
Response by Silmaryan:
Varda: I don't know if anyone answered
your question but the two Eagles are carrying Hurin and Huor to the
hidden city of Gondolin.
Reply from Varda:
Thanks, Silmaryan! I don't
know if that can be true, as the figures are too small and
homely to be anything other than hobbits, and the city pictured is
definitely Minas Tirith. I have lost the picture but I recall it was
white and it had numerous levels and a White Tower.
Maybe it was just a generic 'Eagles bearing Tolkien heroes' picture?
Response by Vison:
Good posts, everyone.
I ain't buyin' it, I can tell ya that.
Money grab, that's all it is.
LOTR is Tolkien's masterpiece. It stands alone.
IMHO, the rest is nearly "sound and fury, signifying nothing. . ."
Response by Silmaryan:
It's a wonderful story. It's sad but
beautifully written in Tolkien's style. It's not the LOTR, it's
different, but it's still his work and I think you 'll be missing a lot
if you don't read it. If you have read the Silmarillion, this will be a
piece of cake!
Response by Varda:
Silmaryan this is a tale of incest and
and suicide and I am baffled what you find wonderful in that. It has
not a shred of hope. The hero is morose, violent and worse still
utterly stupid. Has the world not been already damaged enough by
morose, stupid violent men but we need to make heroes of them ?
Sorry, but if you miss this you won't be missing much, Vison. It was
not 'written in Tolkien's style' but patched together from unedited
writings by his son. And if you have read the Silmarillion, you will
have read this same old piece of cheese. And if you found the
Silmarillion unreadable, it is not because there is something defective
in your critical faculties; it might just be because it is unreadable.
It is also overpriced and already available in print, cheaper.
Response by Silmaryan:
This is Tolkien's mythology similar to
Greek mythology, it's like a Greek tragedy where human beings struggle
with their weaknesses , and hopefully we can both identify with their
struggles and have great empathy for what they have experienced. It's
like watching the great tragedy in Dafur. If we turn our backs to that
and don't realize that this could happen to us, then nothing will ever
be done about it. We all have struggles in our lives, and that's part
of being human. I beleive that this is what Tolkien was addressing. As
far as the incest, we have two innocent people who fall in love and are
totally unaware of their relationship. They love each other deeply and
are blameless for what happens. In reading this book we realize that we
all are as vulnerable to the same mistakes Turin made and perhaps
because of this we can avoid them.
Response by Varda:
Thank you for your reply, Silmaryan.
I am aware that Turin's story is called a 'myth', but a myth is not
just a tale of bad things happening to good people. It has to have
enough merit in its creation to make its audience empathise with or at
least believe in the character involved. Turin has all the range of
expression, complexity of character and sympathetic qualities of a
traffic bollard. This is not a myth, it is a highly stylised and
derivative tale told within a cycle of tales that were meant to form
the background not the foreground
of a much greater tale, The Tale of the Ring.
Turin's story is nothing like the myths of ancient Greece, for they
were not written to be myths, but religion. The people who evolved them
believed the players in them existed and were gods. When King Xerxes
finally defeated the 300 Spartans and marched on Athens, the population
saved themselves by fleeing the city. But the priests and priestesses
of Athena could not flee their temple, and they were destroyed along
with it. That is not myth. Would you die for a myth?
Similarly the situation in Darfur (I presume you mean Darfur) is
not a tragedy but a catastrophe which could have been avoided if the
international community had taken steps to do so. Had these unfortunate
people possessed oil reserves and not some skinny goats, the situation
would have been resolved long ago. A tragedy has an inevitability about
it. This was neither a tragedy nor inevitable, just a disgusting tale
of the cynicism and irresponsibility of politicians.
You are quite right to say that the aim of myth, or tragedy, is to make
us think 'that could happen to me'. This is the essence of the Greek
'catharsis'. But in order for us to feel this we must emphasise with
the hero. Sadly Tolkien has not created a hero in Turin that we can
emphasise with, unless you go for proud, arrogant, violent men stuffed
with machismo who kill their friends and won't listen to anyone.
It is true that Turin did not know it was his sister he was marrying.
But he is a rash stupid man who acts on his first impulse and won't
think or listen, so sooner or later he was going to do something really
disastrous. Marrying his sister is in character, it was his accident
waiting to happen.
It was back in the The Bronze Age when characters like Turin were
admired by the people - heroes like Cuchulainn or Achilles - and that
time is over, Silmaryan, and we can't step into a time machine and
accept Turin as an hero. For us today, he just seems violent,
insensitive and quite thick. We are sorry for his trouble, but we don't
feel we are enough like him to think 'there go I'.
Tolkien wanted to create a myth for our age; it was one of his aims
in writing at all. Turin is modelled on the hero of the Kalevala,
according to Tolkien, who is 'hapless', sort of inspiredly unlucky. He
is also arrogant and strong-willed, and brings his disaster on his own
head. So Turin has the potential to be a tragic hero. But the character
as created in this story never rises above the wooden, and so we are
not prompted to feel much sympathy. Well you might, but I don't. I
require just an inkling of self-knowledge, such as even Oedipus has,
but which Turin never achieves.
Tolkien however succeeded in his aim of creating myth. The characters
of The Lord of The Rings have passed into myth; Frodo and Sam, Aragorn,
Gollum, Gimli and Legolas. In the archery club in which I shoot the
kids call each other Legolas when they shoot well. THAT is
the people's recognition and approval of a character that lifts it from
just a name in a story to the level of myth.
Response by Silmaryan:
Perhaps the function of good literature
make people think, and this can lead to differences of opinions. Thank
you for your input. Although I don't agree with everything you have
said, it cerainly gives me a different way to look at the story. I
still think the story is a great adventure and a deep study in human
nature and psyche.
Response from Varda:
I too think literature is there to make
think, and entertain us too. Someone once said that its function is to
make us more human, but maybe that is asking too much.
Response by Erech the Undead:
Judgeing by the calibre of men I've had
the displeasure of meeting in
my half century of living, I have to wonder if Turin isn't in fact a
perfect archetype for the millenial male, or a great many of them.
On one hand you have men who embrace their "better natures," i.e.
caring, giving, responsive men who try to do more good than harm.
Then, you have those who live as Turin among us: "Turin has all the
range of expression, complexity of character and sympathetic qualities
of a traffic bollard." "He is a rash stupid man who acts on his first
impulse and won't think or listen." And of course; "Proud, arrogant,
violent men stuffed with machismo who kill their friends and won't
listen to anyone"
Unfortunately this describes so very many men in the NY/NJ area,
that were I to rise pheonix-like from my wheelchair tomorrow, I would
not feel highly encouraged to go out and meet alot of new people.
Forgive my cynicism. I've seen and heard so much of humanity's failings
and nasty doings, I feel as though we're drowning in a sea of callous
self interest. I've never seen American culture quite this rife with
brutish narcisism, in which women take a willing hand as well.
Forget the bronze age. I think Turin is a modern day poster boy for the
way so many among us now choose to be: stupid and selfish.
I think Turin should be on billboards nationwide. That way people can
get a free glimpse of their own narcisistic lives while they're doing
70 in their SUV's... IMHO...
Response by Varda:
My dear Erech, I heartily agree with
just in America but here too in Europe the ignorant overweight dumbo
with the mobile phone glued to one ear and the 4x4 glued to the other,
lacking education or manners or any kind of sensitivity or compassion
seems to be not just the norm, but the admired norm. (Who is Norm,
As you say, there are still Faramirs amongst us, kind caring men who
listen and show understanding and sympathy. Was not this once called
'New Man'? But sadly now New Man is shown in the media as New Wimp, and
Where did this awful worship of the ignorant and the violent come from?
We have an age in which it was never so easy to be informed, never so
difficult to avoid seeing the plight of our fellow man (or animals)
never so easy to hear the voice of women. Is it some wilful
self-destructiveness heralding the end of mankind, or just the
temporary coolness of Latin machismo and gangsta culture?
This is one of the reasons I detest this awful Children of Hurin.
It is not a new tale, it is not an uplifting tale, it is not even a
well told tale. We basically don't need this stuff. I might also seem a
bit off side but I don't understand why incest has to be paid for with
one's suicide. Half the royal houses of Europe practised a mild form
for centuries and other than the First World War and a squint or two no
harm came of it.
When Oedipus committed incest he only blinded himself, for he knew
he had commited the crime of lacking perception, not of wilful wrong.
And wasn't there some unborn child that is destroyed by the suicides in
Turin's tale? That is the innocent paying for the guilty, and it
betrays a moral basis to the story that is deeply flawed; it tries to
sell us a prurient and unlucky accident as a tragedy and mistakes the
stubborn and stupid for the noble and constant.
If fiction can get it so wrong, is it any surprise that popular culture
can also get it wrong, and applaud stupid, egotistical heroes when this
is surely the last thing we want, in print or in life. Can we get back
to applauding the real heroes,
people like Frodo and Sam, Faramir and Theoden, Aragorn and Arwen.
Real heroes, who make real sacrifices for others, and ask for little
themselves, save if the Gods are good to just be able to say;
Not rich, not powerful, not wearing Armani and packing a gun, just
Modern life is applauding the orcs; let us return to applauding the
real heroes, like the ones Tolkien gave us in his masterpiece, The Lord
of The Rings.
many thanks, Erech, and sorry for the diatribe....
Response by Orangeblossom Took:
Oh, you put it very well, Erech and
narcissism (sp?) of modern life has been much on my mind lately.
Violence and machisimo do seem to be glorified. It reminds me -sort of-
of in Daughter of Time
when one character asks where in history/myth/literature you'd have to
go to find a mother who would make nice with the killer of her young
children and the other character answers, "the ancient Greeks." That
kind of applies to the whole bloody machisimo thing. It's why I NEVER
could stand Achilles. I just hope we can see the "quality" in the
Faramirs around us instead of glorifiying the Turins and Achilles'.
Response by Rogorn:
a tale of incest and murder and suicide and I am baffled what you find
wonderful in that. It has not a shred of hope. The hero is morose,
violent and worse still utterly stupid. Has the world not been already
damaged enough by morose, stupid violent men but we need to make heroes
I don't know if Túrin's is anybody's 'hero', if you understand
by that someone whose behaviour is admired and even imitated when
possible. It is one thing that many people find Túrin's story
haunting, impressive or that it leaves a mark in one's memory (for
reasons good or bad, that depends on each reader), and another that a
'hero', a model of conduct, is being made of him. That would be akin to
saying that if anyone likes reading reading about Achilles or Hamlet
one is worshipping them. It's just enjoying (if that is the word) a
different type of writing. In the preface to TCOH, Christopher Tolkien
remembers the much-quoted words of his father about having the idea of
writing different types of tales, some longer, some shorter, some of
one type and some of other. Just like every culture has produced in
their own language. It was terribly ambitious (and 'my crest has since
fallen', he says), and for some it doesn't work. For many it does,
This is not a myth, it is a highly
stylised and derivative tale told within a cycle of tales that were
meant to form the background not the foreground of a much greater tale,
'The Tale of the Ring'.
The tales before LOTR, although revisited many times later, even after
LOTR was published, weren't made as anything's background, and much
less LOTR, which wasn't even in Tolkien's mind then. Or of it was, it
was a very small seed, not the sweeping tale that finally came out.
Most of the tales, and this is one of them, were made to form part of a
whole 'Arda body', but to stand on their own.
Sadly Tolkien has not created a hero
in Turin that we can emphasise with, unless you go for proud, arrogant,
violent men stuffed with machismo who kill their friends and won't
listen to anyone. (...) It was back in the The Bronze Age when
characters like Turin were admired by the people - heroes like
Cuchulainn or Achilles - and that time is over, Silmaryan, and we can't
step into a time machine and accept Turin as an hero. (...) Tolkien
wanted to create a myth for our age; it was one of his aims in writing
at all. Turin is modelled on the hero of the Kalevala, according to
Tolkien, who is 'hapless', sort of inspiredly unlucky. He is also
arrogant and strong-willed, and brings his disaster on his own head. So
Turin has the potential to be a tragic hero. But (...) we are not
prompted to feel much sympathy.
This is very interesting. On the one hand Tolkien said he wanted his
'myth' to be 'purged of the gross', and there is a consensus that even
his darkest or bloodiest Silmarillion tales do not achieve the levels
of cruelty that can be found in many old proper legends and myths.
Taking this into account, it can be surprising that a 20th-century
writer had a need to revisit that type of tale. But I put that down to
his desire to imitate, or be inspired by, the thought of what an
imaginary English body of mythical tales might have looked like, and
all older cultures, at least in Western Europe, have those tales. I am
not sure whether ancient peoples (or 17-century theatre-goers, to bring
it closer in time) needed to empathyse with what they were seeing in
order for them to accept / like / enjoy / be moved by what they were
reading, hearing or seeing. But their story-tellers produced tales of
that type for them, and there must have been reasons why. If stories of
this type do not abound in today's literature, it may be because there
is not a public for them any more. But even so, many people still read
again and again the ones written in the past - even a near past like
the 20-odd years that the Silmarillion has been around.
Is it some wilful
self-destructiveness heralding the end of mankind, or just the
temporary coolness of Latin machismo and gangsta culture?
Erm... I know what you mean, but could we just leave it at plain
'machismo'. Even if the word has a Latin root, it's universal. ;-)
This is one of the reasons I detest
this awful Children of Hurin. It is not a new tale, it is not an
uplifting tale, it is not even a well told tale. We basically don't
need this stuff. If fiction can get it so wrong, is it any surprise
that popular culture can also get it wrong, and applaud stupid,
egotistical heroes when this is surely the last thing we want, in print
or in life. Can we get back to applauding the real heroes, people like
Frodo and Sam, Faramir and Theoden, Aragorn and Arwen.
I think we can do both. I'm all for applauding the LOTR heroes, but I
can also appreciate (not applaud) Túrin et al in the darker ages
of the world, when literature didn't do uplifting. And as for 'we don't
need this stuff', well, I know you don't mean 'we' as everybody.
Response by Varda:
Thank you for your reply, Rogorn.
Of course we are invited to see Turin as a hero. The pompous heroic
style of the story offers him to us as a hero and invites our
admiration. Does he not fight the forces of evil and slay a dragon? I
think that is what we are supposed to applaud, or St George was wasting
If Turin is not a hero, why read his story? Just for interest? Turin is
presented to us as much more than an interesting person, Rogorn. I just
think we should reject him as a hero, because the world needs something
better than a stupid, violent short-sighted man to regard as hero. In
the Bronze Age, maybe.
To read about Turin and Achilles is not like reading about Hamlet.
Hamlet does dreadful things, but in the middle of it all he turns to us
and says 'Who am I?' and by extension, who are we? This moment of
'fruitful doubt' sets him apart from Achilles and Turin and makes him
both modern and a real hero, for he faces the greatest challenge -
uncertainty about our basic human nature and our place in the universe.
The reason Tolkien tried to create this type of tale is as you say a
desire to imitate what he thought an ancient cycle of English myths
might be like. But Tolkien, no less than we today, could not psyche
back into that mindset, despite all his medieval scholarship. That is
why such an attempt is doomed to fail, or to be a curiosity; we can't
think like Beowulf's audience did, until we build that time machine.
And Tolkien too was a Christian, and myth is often amoral, so to write
convincing myth he would have had to set aside that Christian moral
order, and in the end it was part of his deepest character as a writer
and as a person, and his writing only convinces when as in the Lord of
The Rings he could utilise his ideas of sacrifice, redemption,
friendship and love. That is why The Lord of The Rings is a more
effective myth than anything in the Silmarillion, for us here today in
the real world. Even Tolkien's doomed and wifeless Ents foreshadow our
environmental catastrophe, which more than anything in the ancient
myths threatens to wipe us all off the earth.
I am glad that the tale of Turin works for some, Rogorn. But we are
being subjected to a tsunami of publiciity about TOLKIEN'S NEW TALE!
and the cash tills are ringing. I was quite happy to let the world
enjoy (as you say, if that is the word) Turin when it occupied its
proper place as a minor work of a great writer. But now it is being
touted as one of his great masterpieces and Rogorn that and that only
is the reason I am pointing out a few of its flaws. I do passionately
believe that if we say this is gold and the world sees it is dross
Tolkien, whose critical reputation, which has taken a long time to
become established, will once again be ridiculed as a writer for geeks.
Tolkien is a great writer for the all the world, not just for fantasy
No, Rogorn, I don't mean we as in everybody, just as in the few of us
who don't like hype and are concerned about Tolkien's critical
reputaion and his relevance for today, and tomorrow.
Response by Avondster:
I have leafed through 'The Children of
Húrin' the other day when I was
at the Fantasy Fair and, basically, that's all I need to do with it.
The Silmarillion has its merits - though it's hardly a 'curl up on the
couch' kind of reading', but I don't need more of stuff like that, and
from what I saw, TCOH is just that.
I loved the pictures, however! ;-)
I agree with Rogorn that Tolkien did not intend for his grand
mythology to be a background to anything, but to be fair, that's what
it's become anyway. After all, Unwin did not want to publish it at
first because he, as a reasonably objective reader at the time, saw
that it was not the kind of book anyone but the most religious of
Tolkien readers would get through. The idea of it is great; but like I
said it's not something you pick up and read for its entertainment
value. Like Unwin said to Tolkien: "where are the Hobbits?".
Because people then, just like now, needed heroes, and that's what the
Hobbits had on Túrin & co: they were true heroes.
When you look up the word 'heroes' in any given dictionary, there
will be different definitions, but the one that struck me as most true
is: 'a person who is willing to put others before himself, who is
willing to jeopardize himself for someone or something other than
himself, and who is regardless of the dangers or benefits to his own
Is this not Frodo, who was willing to give everything he was to save
the Shire? Is this not Sam, who declared himself willing to die for his
master? Is this not Merry, or Pippin, who told Frodo they were
"terribly afraid, but coming with you or following you like hounds"?
And even Bilbo, who was the first to offer to carry the Ring to Mordor,
ancient though he was?
The protagonists in TCOH may be proud and fearless and fair and
noble and all that, but I have the feeling that in the end, they fight
for their own honour and glory. Does that make them heroes?
Response by Rogorn:
I merely wanted to point out that many
readers find Tolkien's writings
before TH and LOTR (let's call them all 'The Silmarillion' to
abbreviate) very valuable, and find that they don't detract from
Tolkien's literary glory, but add to it. And I mean add significantly,
not just be a burden tagged onto LOTR. I can't help it if some dismiss
it as dross or for-geeks, especially if they are critics, but if they
feel strongly in that way, I and many others feel strongly in the
About the campaign for TCOH, I don't know what it has been in other
people's experience, but I don't feel it has been a tsunami of
publicity at all. Of course we in this forum have heard every last bit
from it, even from months ago, because one forum member or another
always brings a new tidbit to our attention, but the most I have seen
outside us is a big poster in a bookshop, and the book in the shop
window - at a reduced price. I haven't seen midnight openings,
tumultuous book-signings, tv interviews or anything like it. It hasn't
been HarryPotter-y at all, and I live very near where the man and his
sons used to live. It's got a fair amount of attention in the
appropriate sections of newspapers, but nothing above any other
especially-featured book of any other week, and that has been all. And
I think it deserves that at least.
As I think it deserves the focused attention. The Silmarillion
writings were a very significant part in Tolkien's literary life, and
demonstrate that there was more to him that what TH and LOTR show. Lots
of people are pleased to have seen the world that was behind it,
because it's full of different sensations and vistas, explained and
unexplained, even while being imperfect. It's a tremendous achievement
for one man to have done that - and in his spare time too, without
earning him a penny. I wouldn't call it minor, but while accepting that
many people are happy to keep it there, I'll happily do the opposite
and celebrate it. And yes, I'll finally say I'll 'enjoy' it.
Avondster - there must be a reason why the word 'hero' today has
almost become synonimous with 'protagonist' or 'main character' or
'lead role'. You only have to say you've read a script or a book for
someone who ask: 'nice, who's the hero?' Hero? Who says there has to be
one? Maybe modern storytelling, particularly in cinema, dwells so much
in the fact that there has to be a 'hero' with which the audience has
to empathyse that it has become almost the only way of telling a story,
and everything else is seen as negative.
But it doesn't have to be that way, and so I see Túrin as the
hero-main-character, not as the hero-admirable-model-of-conduct. Coming
back to Varda's point about Túrin being presented as a
George's style, well, that's the complexity of the tale and the
character (yes, I find some in him). You find yourself attracted to
some of his traits and repulsed by others, so one has to be very
careful what to admire and what to deplore in the same man. This does
happen with many real-life characters such as kings, leaders... and
Response by Varda:
That is a good point about the hero. They use the word 'protagonist',
but in the novel the hero has to have some affinity with us, however
bad or outrageous he is, and for that reason 'hero' is still a good
word to describe the protagonist of a novel. And The Lord of The Rings
is a novel, because they can't think of a better word, just yet. ;-)
Many thanks for your post, Rogorn.
I am aware that many people find The Silmarillion valuable and I am not
arguing with their right to read and enjoy it.
But I post a lot of admittedly feeble attempts at evaluation here, and
I try to discuss why The Lord of The Rings is a great book, critically
as well as because we enjoy it. Does the Silmarillion have any critical
value, other than that people like it? If so, what is that critical
value? Give me a reason to like The Silmarillion. :-P
The Lord of The Rings succeeds for the same reason Shakespeare
succeeds; they both go for the Big Issues; good and evil, love and
friendship, loyalty, loss and sacrifice. These things never fail to
catch our interest. Can someone delineate the themes of interest in The
Silmarillion, bearing in mind that they have to be carried through via
convincing characters and well wrought plots?
Where are the memorable quotes, the breathtaking moments, such as when
Sam rescues Frodo from Shelob, or Pippin finds Merry on the
battlefield? Where are the big issues, the epic contradictions that
make great literature, and the small details that make good reading?
A clue; if you can't call one to mind in ten seconds, it doesn't exist.
Don't bother to look them up, they should be engraved on your heart.
The Lord of The Rings has a hero who is in himself a literary miracle;
Frodo. For this creation Tolkien drew not just from the hero of the
Beowulf poem but from Hamlet, mining rich veins in English literature.
Both Everyman and a paragon, both homely friend and chosen hero, the
character of Frodo alone is proof that this book is great literature,
layered with meaning and reference.
Refresh my memory, please, as to what character in the Silmarillion
bears any comparison?
Perhaps depth of character is not what is required in a mock epic, but
if not, I would want to see excellence in some area, whether it is
diction, style, symbolism, dialogue, allegory, anything. If this book
is not dross, what makes it gold?
Rogorn you say; 'The Silmarillion writings were a very significant part
in Tolkien's literary life, and demonstrate that there was more to him
that what TH and LOTR show.'
Rogorn The Lord of The Rings, and the Hobbit, don't need to have
'more' to them because they are masterpieces and as with any
masterpiece, take something out or put more in and you might destroy
the delicate balance that makes them succeed. Publishing inferior work
to 'bulk them out' will not add to them but might detract from them.
The Silmarillion only has interest for people BECAUSE of The Lord
of The Rings. Considered in isolation it is not an integral whole and
very difficult to read or to put into context. And The Silmarillion and
this book - The Children of Hurin, were not edited or presented for
publication by Tolkien at all, but by his son, who admitted in the
preface that they were as much his work as his father's.
There is no way at all that books of such editorial doubtfulness should
be compared to The Lord of The Rings, which was finished, edited and
published all with the full intent and control of the author. They
should be made available, not sold as 'other works' but as, in your own
I am glad you have avoided the publishing hype. But even you have not
been able to avoid some of the adverse criticism, which you posted
yourself in the Sunday Times review.
This is my point; I did not come here to rubbish The Silmarillion. It
has interest, it even has poetry, but I don't think it is a good book.
That many people like it and enjoy it is nice, though.
But what I don't like is that an excerpt from Tolkien's early
fragments, bits he may never have wanted to publish, has been cobbled
together to form this book and despite its flaws (see the review) it
has been presented to the world on the same level as The Lord of The
Rings. A lot of unsuspecting people will be very disappointed, and
might even feel cheated. After seeing or reading The Lord of The Rings
and having got over their initial resistance to 'fantasy' they will
throw it aside and not bother to re-read or think about Tolkien again,
and believe their enjoyment of the books or films was just a delusion.
The Lord of The Rings is a great book and like many great books should
be re-read and re-evaluated many times. This dull mock heroic dirge
might derail people from doing that, and that is why I don't like it.
I am exaggerating? Well, like anyone, I am entitled to my opinion....
Response by MerryK:
Where are the memorable quotes, the
breathtaking moments, such as when Sam rescues Frodo from Shelob, or
Pippin finds Merry on the battlefield? Where are the big issues, the
epic contradictions that make great literature, and the small details
that make good reading?
A clue; if you can't call one to mind in ten seconds, it doesn't exist.
Don't bother to look them up, they should be engraved on your heart.
Well, you gave a challenge, how could I do anything but answer? wink
The very first thing that came to my mind when I read that, was this
quote. The setting is after the Two Trees, the only source of light for
Valinor, have been suddenly struck down by Morgoth, and the Valar beg
Feanor to give up his jewels so that they might break them open to see
if they can restore the trees to life. Feanor has been proud, he has
been arrogant, he has been paranoid, he has been possessive, but his
speech to them is heartfelt: these are his life's work, his magnum
opus, and he can no more sacrifice them than he would his own children.
Then the word comes; a messenger comes in saying that Morgoth has
attacked Feanor's house, and his father is slain, and the Silmarils are
stolen. And this is what it says about him: "Then Feanor ran from the
Ring of Doom, and fled into the night; for his father was dearer to him
than the Light of Valinor or the peerless works of his hands; and who
among sons, of Elves or of Men, have held their fathers of greater
worth?" My heart aches and my eyes well with tears every time I read
Another one that I need look up only for the exact wording, is at a
near-hopeless battle between Elves and the Dark Lord. The Elves at this
point are weary, they are in factions, they are fighting the long
defeat, and this is their last effort against a foe mightier than the
mightiest Elf: "The light of the drawing of the swords of the Noldor
was like a fire in a field of reeds; and so fell and swift was their
onset that almost the designs of Morgoth went astray." And it is here
that my heart swells.
And lastly, because I do not wish to ramble too long, comes from a
scene earlier in The Silmarillion. The Noldor have been banished from
paradise, from Valinor, and are on their own in Middle-earth where they
must fight against the Dark Vala, Morgoth. Fingolfin, brother of
Feanor, is feeling the hopelessness of their wars, and does something
rather rash: "Thus he came alone to Angband's gates, and he sounded his
horn, and smote once more upon the brazen doors, and challenged Morgoth
to come forth to single combat. And Morgoth came." And Morgoth, a
supernatural being whose form towers over even this tall Elven king, is
duly insulted and wounded seven times before bringing Fingolfin
down...no wonder the Elves praise Fingolfin's name!
Refresh my memory, please, as to what
character in the Silmarillion bears any comparison?
Feanor. Incredibly complex; I've loved him for years and still don't
understand quite how his mind works. As you said, it is an epic, and it
is impossible to provide incredible depth of character in that genre.
Considering the amount of character information you can draw from even
such minimalistic work, I would never say that Tolkien's lowest point
was his characters. The problem comes when people expect the character
depth that can only be obtained in a novel. I have yet to see someone
complain about The Silmarillion while offering a way that Tolkien could
have offered LOTR-level characters within a mythological/epic format.
How do you provide little moments of self-doubt or humor or irritation
when the style you have chosen words everything like "Then all memory
of his pain departed from him, and he fell into an enchantment"? The
style of The Silmarillion is a perfectly legitimate one, and begging
for character depth and subtlety in it is like asking for Rochester's
point of view in Jane Eyre.
If this book is not dross, what makes
Considering that The Silmarillion is an epic mythology, might one be
permitted to ask what makes the Greek or Norse myths gold? What makes
them something that no one would call dross? Characters? Diction? Plot?
In every area that you mentioned, save allegory (and there Tolkien
scholars all know why wink ), The Silmarillion tops most mythologies.
If nothing else, it makes me think, makes me examine my beliefs on
immortality, war, fate, true love, cause and effect...what more could
one expect from it?
Had Tolkien written The Silmarillion about any world but Middle-earth,
it would probably have few readers and fans, most likely incredibly
bookish people who are tickled pink by the idea of an English mythology
written in the twentieth century, and perhaps some incredibly fanatic
fantasy fans as well. But I cannot see anyone tossing the objections at
it that The Silmarillion must combat. Perhaps unfortunately, it is
connected irrevocably to the LOTR, and time and time again readers are
disappointed by the fact that it is not in the same style. As a novel,
it is horridly poor, but as a mythology—well, I have yet to see a
criticism of it as such. I deeply desire that some day people will come
right out and say that The Silmarillion is just not the sort of story
they like, and that they wish Tolkien had written more things like
LOTR, and stop 'criticizing' it as if it were something it is not.
Response by Rogorn:
In ten seconds I can recall about ten,
all of them jockeying for position to be out of the gate first. ;-)
Well, as far as epic goes, how about a new legend on how the universe
was created? As good as any religions have been founded on. The idea of
immortality as a curse not a blessing, which runs all the way through
Tolkien's writings to the end of LOTR, when Elves will one day envy Men
their gift. Túrin's own shocking descent into darkness and
demise. Aulë about to smite his creation, the Dwarves, and as
recoil from the hammer, Eru finds a place for them in creation. The
remaking of the world so that it's round and only Elves can leave it,
together with the creation of Númenor and the Men's trial by
Sauron forging the rings in Eregion elbow-by-elbow with the Elves.
Beren seeing Lúthien for the first time.
None of this is remotely similar to what happens in LOTR, I know.
Nor it needs to be. And of course, they don't evoke the same feelings.
Nor was it written for that. These are larger-than-life times, with
tremendous events happening to largely superhuman beings, so they were
not well-nuanced as in a 19-century novel because they are painted in
broad strokes. They're more Stonehenge than a delicately finished Greek
statue, but that's why its grandness is meant to provoke awe. One day
this lot will all be saved by those peculiar beings the hobbits, three
of whom were ringbearers. But in the meantime these are the old days,
the bad days, the all-or-nothing days. It's a big leap that some will
take reluctantly, or not at all and fail to get anywhere, but others
will reach the stars. Where Varda reigns supreme.
Response by MerryK:
Indeed! I simply
love how Dwarves, often low and despised in mythologies, are made
especially for resisting evil in ME, and are the beloved of one of the
highest of the Valar. A gorgeous scene, that; I'm glad you mentioned it.
Response by Varda:
MerryK, thank you for rising to the challenge, but your reply has
rather served to show what I have tried to say about The Silmarillion.
This sentence you quote;
'Thus he came alone to Angband's gates, and he sounded his horn,
and smote once more upon the brazen doors, and challenged Morgoth to
come forth to single combat.'
MerryK, what language is this? It is not English as we speak it.
We don't use that syntax or vocabulary. Nor is it English as was spoken
in the Middle Ages; if you check out Chaucer or Langland, you will see
that changing you to thou and thee and using old words does not make
Medieval English; it was a totally different language, with different
words, grammar, inflections and spelling.
And it is not just this sentence; the entire Silmarillion is like
this. People don't live, they dwell. They don't kill, they slay. etc
etc etc. This was a deliberate choice of words by Tolkien, who as a
professor of Medieval English knew better than anyone that it was a
fake; nobody ever spoke like this.
It may be that Tolkien was trying to 'elevate' his diction; these
were mighty matters, and one had to tell them in weighty, majesterial
prose. Unfortunately, the effect can be the opposite. It sounds stilted
rather than stylised; the archaisms are self-conscious and often
tedious. It sounds pompous. Tolkien's creation myth is pure fantasy;
Middle Earth after all is not the world, it is fiction. But Tolkien
uses the language of the Bible, and many people find this too great a
burden on their ability to suspend disbelief.
Tollkien at first wanted to tell this story in poetry, but it
proved too difficult, and got a hostile critical reception, so he
switched to prose. Perhaps he wanted to make the prose more poetical,
and this diction could be an attempt to write a prose poetry epic,
which is a creditable effort.
But if that is so, the Silmarillion is not a creation myth but
pure poetry, like the battle of the angels in Paradise Lost, or the
Arabian Nights, a total fantasy, the afternoon dream of a god. To be
deeply moved by any character in such a remote, fantastical environment
is very hard, so I salute you MerryK for managing to do it.
Thank you Rogorn for pointing out those interesting events in the
Silmarillion. However they do not amount to themes, or even motifs. The
Elves' reference to the curse of immortality is highly ambiguous. They
never bewail it as a doom in The Lord of The Rings, not even when Gimli
and Legolas discuss the different fates of the races. After all, they
are not immortal, only existing as long as the earth, which is their
But these situations do not alone
themes; they are not developed enough, nor has Turin generated enough
sympathy for us to find his end shocking. In fact it is not even
surprising, given the tone of the story. A 'bad end' was coming, the
only question was how. He is not easy to feel sorry for.
Nor are Tolkien's creation myths anything to rival that of the
Bible or of the ancient Greeks. A creation myth has to be validated by
the belief of a people. Generations have to find it relevant, and add
to it and embellish it. The same goes for myth. Tolkien however well he
writes and however vivid his imagination, can't create myth except for
his own created world, so that myth and creation legend can be subject
to examination like any made-up story. What Tolkien is writing here,
devoid of verisimilitude or valid human narrative, is pure fantasy and
depends for its merit on its writing alone.
But Tolkien was not happy with this style of writing. Having used
it, he discards it and moves on to the style he uses in The Lord of The
Rings. He realised that to communicate more effectively he must adopt a
style that won't place a barrier between him and his reader, as the
style of the Silmarillion did. In the end, it is a phoney diction, and
owes as much to Sir Walter Scott and the Victorian mock Gothick craze
as it does to genuine Old English. Discerning readers, like MerryK and
Rogorn, felt their hearts ache when they read this style of writing.
Undiscerning Dubliners like me who still use real medieval English
words in daily speech, just thought of M P and the Holy Grail.
I know, I am not worthy. ;-)
Tolkien then worked the miracle; from
earlier works, and material that he might have written for his own
pleasure only, he evolved a calm, detached style, the style of the Lord
of The Rings. He did not manage it without a struggle; if you read the
first chapters of the book, Tolkien is still using the joky familiar
style of the Hobbit. But by the Council of Elrond, Tolkien has assumed
a style of lucid, cool, unhurried modern English of great beauty;
spare, elegant and wonderfully adapted to the telling of this
Even when Tolkien describes events that really belong in the
Silmarillion, like Tom Bombadil, he sticks to this style, and the
results are remarkable. Not hiding behind fake medievalisms or elevated
diction, his story knocks you down. Even Tom keeps us guessing;
described with utter verisimilitude, we can't decide if he is a God or
a sprite or Tolkien himself, as literary joke.
Having tried to write action fiction, I know how hard it is; but
Tolkien makes it seem easy. Here is Sam beating Gollum off at Cirith
'With a squeal Gollum let go. Then Sam waded in; not waiting to
change the staff from left to right he dealt another savage blow. Quick
as a snake Gollum slithered aside, and the stroke aimed at his head
fell across his back. The staff cracked and broke. That was enough for
him. Grabbing from behind was an old game of his, and seldom had he
failed in it. But his time, misled by spite, he had made the mistake of
speaking, and gloating before he had both hands on his victim's neck.
Everything had gone wrong with his beautiful plan, since that horrible
light had so unexpectedly appeared in the darkness. And now he was face
to face with a furious enemy, little less than his own size. This fight
was not for him. Sam swept up his sword from the ground and raised it.
Gollum Squealed and springing aside on to all fours, he jumped away in
one big bound like a frog. Before Sam could reach him, he was off,
running with amazing speed back towards the tunnel. '
Notice the plain, monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon words and the tactile
onomatopeiac vocabulary; 'slithered' 'cracked' 'squealed'; notice how
Tolkien shortens and shortens the sentences to speed up the action and
convey the violence; notice how the language is not going too fast to
denote irony; 'his beautiful plan'. Notice the wonderful Beowulf-like
moral comment on Gollum; 'misled by spite, he had made the mistake of
speaking and gloating before he had both hands on his victim's neck''
Notice how a few deft strokes paint the picture of Sam; ' a furious
enemy, little less than his own size'
This really is great writing, in a different class from fake
heroic. The language is alive and responsive and the character is real
and warm and we are on the edge of our seats to see if he will live or
die. We know that Sam is doing all this in a white fury of revenge for
his beloved master, and we know that Shelob stands only feet away,
towering over him and that Sam will turn and face her next. This,
MerryK, is the kind of writing that makes ME cry.
On the matter of character, MerryK, I am surprised that you used
an Elf as your example. Elves don't have characters in the way that
human races do. They live as long as the earth, and are co-creators
with the Tolkienite Gods and Godesses. They are the first race on
earth, the first born. As Treebeard says to Merry and Pippin, they woke
the other creatures up to sensation, thought and speech. They can't be
compared to men nor can their characters be scanned as ours can, for
they are immutable. If they were to admit any change, then over their
thousands of years they would alter completely, and from those Elves we
see, Elrond or Galadriel, we can observe they keep their individual
traits all their lives, even if they learn or alter their behaviour.
Elrond was the herald of Gil-galad and warned Isildur; much later he is
still warning people, at the Council. Galadriel has a dangerous
independence that is the sign of the Noldor, masters of the intricate
artefact. She is still
dangerous when she speaks to Frodo. These great beings have not changed
But change is essential to human characters. Boromir changes,
Aragorn changes, Frodo changes; in those change is their character
Without mortality too Elves are distant to men and hard to ken.
They often refer to death as the gift of men, because in the passing of
long ages it is hard to fend off boredom, even if your team is top of
the first division. We can't delineate Elven characters, no more than
those of wizards, for they are not human. Even the Dwarves say 'go not
to the Elves for council for they will say yea and nay'
So it is to men that we have to look for depth of character as a
mark of literary excellence as it can be measured against other
literature. Maybe I have more sensitivity to the cosmos of The
Silmarillion than you give me credit for, Merryk Feanor is certainly interesting, but he is an elemental
rather than a person.
MerryK you say;
'I deeply desire that some day people will come right out and say that
The Silmarillion is just not the sort of story they like, and that they
wish Tolkien had written more things like LOTR, and stop 'criticizing'
it as if it were something it is not. '
On the contrary, I am criticising it for what it is, a mock
medieval creation myth with stilted diction. Parts of it work, and work
well, but Tolkien never meant it to be published in this form, so I
don't think it should be presented on a par with finished books he DID
present for publication.
I also believe that the Silmarillion marked a phase in his writing
that he passed through and left behind. That he found a better way to
convey his themes, and that as Christopher Tolkien admitted, he decided
those themes were not the fantasy cosmology that is the subject of The
Sil. The Elves, fascinating and beautiful as they were, proved
difficult to frame moral or philosophical themes around, on account of
their very longevity and immutability. If you aren't going to die for
another thousand years your moral focus is just not the same as that of
people. Tolkien came to appreciate the moral and aesthetic
possibilities of the ordinary - the hobbits, missing from the
Silmarillion. He found his moral hero not among the Elves, but in very
human beings, and small ones at that. The Silmarillion is Tolkien's
music before the play, and if you wish to be carried away on the music
of Elven names, and not think too deeply on meaning, the Silmarillion
is your man;
'It is told that even as Varda ended her labours, and they were
long, when first Menelmacar strode up the sky and the blue fire of
Helluin flickered in the mists above the borders of the world, in that
hour the Children of the Earth awoke, the Firstborn of Iluvatar. By the
starlit mere of Cuivienen, Water of Wakening, they rose from the sleep
of Iluvatar, and while they dwelt yet silent by Cuivienen their eyes
beheld first of all things the stars of heaven. Therefore they have
ever loved the starlight, and have revered Varda Elentari above all the
The Silmarillion; P56.
Varda, resting after her long labours
Response by MerryK:
But Tolkien was not happy with this
style of writing. Having used it, he discards it and moves on to the
style he uses in The Lord of The Rings.
You may certainly think that, but The Silmarillion was dear to Tolkien
until his dying day, as he ever sought to blend it even more with LOTR,
so I will always hold it as something very important. It was his
heart's joy, and I cannot find any evidence that he ever preferred
writing in the style of LOTR, so I am wondering why you think so.
As for the language, of all people, Tolkien would know how to make
medieval sound natural, and for many people he has accomplished just
that. Perhaps it is difficult, but the fact that many others are moved
by it proves your argument nothing but opinion. But the linguistics are
much deeper than forced archaisms. Consider this sentence from FOTR:
"Only to the North did these tidings come, and only to a few."
Compare this to a line from the Silmarillion:
"The doom lies in yourself, not in your name."
Elrond speaks the first, and Gwindor the second, yet they are similar.
Elrond was born in the end of the First Age, and his speech, even after
6000 years of language evolution, is full of what we would call
"archaic" words. But if he spoke otherwise, it would be a failure by
Tolkien, just as it would be failure if those in The Silmarillion spoke
in the language of the Men of Gondor in LOTR. Consider this line, a
quote from Isildur used in FOTR:
"This will I have as weregild for my father, and my brother."
It is no accident that this sounds very much like the dialogue from The
Silmarillion. Tolkien wished when writing LOTR to use 'thee' and 'thou'
as formal pronouns along with 'you' for familiar use, to show how
Pippin (who always used 'you') was taken as a Prince of the Halflings;
and also to show the development in feelings between Faramir and Eowyn
(all that needs be said is that Faramir almost immediately begins using
'you', but Eowyn uses the formal terms until near the end). Every work
of Tolkien was centered around language, and it makes sense that The
Silmarillion, ancient history in Middle-earth, should use language that
readers automatically find archaic sounding. At the time of LOTR, we
have Elrond, who is most archaic; Boromir, who still says things like
"Loth was my father to give me leave"; then Aragorn, who says things
like "one fat man"; and lastly the Hobbits, who are as modern as they
come in Middle-earth.
Whether one finds the dialogue in The Silmarillion moving or not, which
is merely a matter of opinion in the end, it serves an important role
in the history of Middle-earth, and cannot be discounted lightly.
A creation myth has to be validated
by the belief of a people.
You mean, like the Elves? wink That is just it; The Silmarillion is not
a mythology for us, as we know it is not true, but for the inhabitants
of Middle-earth. And there, it was validated, and expanded upon; Finrod
and Andreth have a long discourse on what happens to Elves and Men when
they die, and whether Illuvatar could enter his creation. Mythologies
are no longer for people to believe in, so it is no wonder that you
remain skeptical of the fantastical creation myth. But that does not
make it any less a mythology; I still read the Norse Myths because they
are interesting and relevant, even if fantastical. But already many
people have found even Tolkien's work relevant, though it has not been
around long enough for the generations you seem to require, so I fail
to see your point.
I am completely surprised at your brushing off of Elven characters; I
am sure that Legolas is giving you the evil eyebrow at this very
moment. wink The Elves certainly have character, proved by, if nothing
else, the many thousands who have fallen for them, and it is another
part of Tolkien's genius that we can relate to immortal beings at all.
Saying that an author can only write relevant characters if they are
human is putting a limit on imagination that is certain to be broken.
You say that characters must change for them to be relevant; is that
not the same argument that Phillipa and Fran used when justifying the
changes to Faramir in TTT? A character need not change to show their
character, though certainly that is the easiest way to do it; a great
author can portray characters in any situation and have them be felt
clearly by readers.
Response by Rogorn:
I know that nothing we could say is going to make anyone change
their mind. Each person is going to read the books and draw their own
conclusions. The scenes that we have presented were just some that came
to our minds, and if being etched in them as treasures is (at least the
beginnings of) good literature, well, with us and many others that was
About the kind of language used, I'm not a native speaker of English,
so that bothers me less. ‘The Silmarillion’ was an elaborate game in
which Tolkien played at being just the translator into English of some
papers that someone had found in other languages, mainly Elvish, so
they are supposed to have quirks and surprising turns of phrase which
do not exist in English. It’s the same effect as when one reads a
translation of 'The Illiad' which tries to be faithful to the original,
(rather than updated for a Cliff Notes), where every dawn is
'rosy-fingered' and all the Trojans are 'breakers of horses'. And just
by this effort, the language takes you somewhere else, like poetry
does, not so much by what it says, but how it is said. You have a very
good point about the deeply satisfying English used in LOTR, but it
wouldn’t work for many places of the Silmarillion. It can’t sound like
Frodo is the one telling us about the creation of the world or the
breaking of Thangorodrim. If Frodo ever attempted to write about it, it
would sound hobbitish, and I mean it in a good way: heartwarming,
heartfelt, no-nonsense, down-to-Earth-but-not-chained-by-it . But there
is another way of going about it, and The Ainulindalë shows this.
It has to go deeper, and the language attempts to go there.
So I don’t think Tolkien ‘discarded’ the language of The Silmarillion
to find a ‘better’ English for LOTR, as a phase he had to grow out of.
In fact, he went back to finish 'The Silmarillion' after LOTR. Only,
each endeavour had to have its own style. He succeded at one better
than at another? Most likely. But the other creation has also
brilliance to it. Of course, this is only an explanation, not an
excuse. If someone finds the result unreadable or unpleasant because of
the style, well, maybe the explanation helps.
Not that Tolkien wasn’t aware of the thing. Someone wrote to him
criticising the archaic narrative style of parts of ‘The Two Towers’,
especially the chapter 'The King of the Golden Hall' calling this style
'Ossianic' and agreeing with a critic's description of it as 'tushery'.
“Don't be disturbed: I have not noticed any impertinence (or
sycophancy) in your letters; and anyone so appreciative and so
perceptive is entitled to criticism. (…) The proper use of 'tushery' is
to apply it to the kind of bogus 'medieval' stuff which attempts
(without knowledge) to give a supposed temporal colour with expletives,
such as ‘tush’, ‘pish’, ‘zounds’, ‘marry’, and the like. But a real
archaic English is far more terse than modern; also many things could
not be said in our slack and often frivolous idiom. Of course, not
being specially well read in modern English, and far more familiar with
works in the ancient and 'middle' idioms, my own ear is to some extent
affected; so that though I could easily recollect how a modern would
put this or that, what comes easiest to mind or pen is not quite that.
(…) People (like Théoden) who think like that just do not talk a
modern idiom. (…) There would be an insincerity of thought, a disunion
of word and meaning. (...) Such 'heroic' scenes do not occur in a
modern setting to which a modern idiom belongs. Why deliberately
ignore, refuse to use the wealth of English which leaves us a choice of
styles – without any possibility of unintelligibility.
I can see no more reason for not using the much terser and more vivid
ancient style, than for changing the obsolete weapons, helms, shields,
hauberks into modern uniforms? (…) If modern English has lost the trick
of putting a word desired to emphasize (for pictorial, emotional or
logical reasons) into prominent first place, without addition of a lot
of little 'empty' words (as the Chinese say), so much the worse for it.
And so much the better for it the sooner it learns the trick again. And
someone must begin the teaching, by example. I am sorry to find you
affected by the extraordinary 20th-century delusion that its usages per
se and simply as 'contemporary' – irrespective of whether they are
terser, more vivid (or even nobler!) – have some peculiar validity,
above those of all other times, so that not to use them (even when
quite unsuitable in tone) is a solecism, a gaffe, a thing at which
one's friends shudder or feel hot in the collar. Shake yourself out of
this parochialism of time! Also (not to be too donnish) learn to
discriminate between the bogus and genuine antique – as you would if
you hoped not to be cheated by a dealer!”
Yes, the hobbits are the big difference. I'm all for them. But just
because the hobbits bring Tolkien’s world closer to today’s humans it
doesn’t mean that one can’t look beyond them and imagine a world where
all that commonplace can be left behind for a while. I'm not saying to
stay there, but to contemplate other possibilities, other worlds, other
stories, told in other ways. Tolkien made the hobbits capable of many
things: also reluctant to leave their own little world. The figure of
Frodo would probably be the ideal. But even he ended up in the
Silmarillionest place still left, the Undying Lands. wink
Discerning readers, like MerryK and
Rogorn, felt their hearts ache when they read this style of writing.
Undiscerning Dubliners like me who still use real medieval English
words in daily speech, just thought of M P and the Holy Grail.
I know, I am not worthy. ;-)
Oh dear… I hope this is just for effect, and that you don’t see us as
that, or that you think we’re trying to portray you as that. We’re not
in our ivory tower thinking that the undiscerning masses, Dubliner or
otherwise, are just too silly to understand this glorious and godlike
delight that only a chosen few can comprehend. If anything, we are the
‘Sillie’ ones, hehe.