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the silmarillion

Bilingual Silmarillion Reread

Bilingual Silmarillion Reread, Part 2

For those of you just joining in, I’m geeking out yet again about The Silmarillion. We’re reading it in the weekly book club I go to, and since I’ve already read it multiple times, the group agreed I’d read it in French while everybody else reads it in English.

But since I need to doublecheck the English while I’m reading the French, this is a bilingual reread! Here I’ll talk about the Ainulindalë and the Valaquenta, as promised in my last post. Both of these strike me as good straightforward translations, as with the front matter of the book.

There aren’t any changes to the names of the Valar, or to the structure of the overall story of Arda’s creation. Nothing in these two sections stood out for me going through the French edition. I’ll have more linguistic comments to come for the Quenta Silmarillion, though!

Ainulindalë

As is the case every single time I read The Silmarillion, I’m amused about how much shit goes down in the world just because Melkor got initially pissy about not having a solo.

In our reading group, though, we got a bit more into Melkor’s characterization. Mind you, this whole story operates at such a big-picture level that none of the Valar really get much characterization. Just a lot of “this Vala really likes water” and “that Valië really likes trees”.

With Melkor, though, you glimpse a bit more than that. Particularly here:

Then Ilúvatar spoke, and he said: ‘Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.’

Then the Ainur were afraid, and they did not yet comprehend the words that were said to them; and Melkor was filled with shame, of which came secret anger.

There’s a heaping helping of “sit the fuck DOWN, son” from Ilúvatar here. And a re-interpretation of this story could easily work this smackdown into a more sympathetic portrayal of Melkor.

Valaquenta

We noted repetition between the Ainulindalë and the Valaquenta, regarding identifying the Valar and their various domains. This, we felt, was certainly appropriate for the kind of Bible-like, mythic flavor Tolkien was going for. But on the other hand, as modern readers, the others found it repetitive to read. Stylistically appropriate, perhaps, but still repetitive.

This time through, I noticed how the Valar are very gender-essentialist. I proposed the amusing thought exercise of which ones would be good to gender-flip or make completely non-binary in a fan remix of this tale.

Opinions we discussed:

  • Definitely flip Melkor to female.
  • Do the Valar really need gender at all?
  • Non-binary Valar genders would be things like “my gender is I Really Like Water”.
  • Although Ulmo would be pretty nifty non-binary, it’d also be amusing to see Ulmo be female, with lithe mermen attendants.

I’d be tempted to gender-flip Manwë and Varda, while keeping them a couple. And since Tolkien’s legendarium involves so much depth of language detail, I imagine their names shifting too. Manwa and Vardë, maybe.

It’d also be interesting to gender-flip Yavanna, just because she is a traditionally feminine archetype. Dara brought up that Redlance in Elfquest is an example of a character you could get by such a gender-flip.

One more thing I can say: I’m torn about Nienna. I like that she gets to be solitary. Yet particularly in this era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, I cannot help but notice that she is essentially the goddess of emotional labor. To wit: feh.

On the other hand, I also like what this says about Gandalf–who did after all begin his existence as Olórin, a Maia of Nienna. It makes him a Maia of emotional labor, and that’s actually kind of in keeping with what we always see Gandalf doing in The Lord of the Rings! It even gets called out right in the Valaquenta:

But of Olórin that tale does not speak; for though he loved the Elves, he walked among them unseen, or in form as one of them, and they did not know whence came the fair visions or the promptings of wisdom that he put into their hearts. In later days he was the friend of all the Children of Ilúvatar, and took pity on their sorrows; and those who listened to him awoke from despair and put away the imaginations of darkness.

Both sections

Since I can’t read this book as a new reader, I asked for the group’s thoughts on whether these sections worked for them. This is because when I hear people talking about how hard a read The Silmarillion is, these are the bits they’re generally meaning.

The overall census was that the huge infodump of “here’s the creation of the world, and here’s all the Valar and what they do” is problematic. Plus, there’s a lot of tell vs. show: i.e., “Yavanna sure did like trees and animals, so she made those”, vs. actually showing Yavanna making those trees and animals.

Group member Alexis (hi Alexis!) noted that the infodump would have worked much better for her as an appendix to the main story. And that, if a story hooks her on characters and action, she’ll happily go read acres of infodump about them later. But not at the start of the story.

Next post: however many chapters of the Quenta Silmarillion will give me enough notes for a good post!

Bilingual Silmarillion Reread

Bilingual Silmarillion Reread, Part 1

Back in the summer of 2017, just before I went to Quebec for Camp Violon Trad, I put up a couple of posts about rereading The Silmarillion: this initial post, and then this one.

Y’all may notice I never finished those posts. You may further notice that I’d said at the time that I wasn’t going to do a full series of reread posts about the book, but that I would reserve the right to change my mind.

That change of mind has now come! And it’s brought about by how the little book club Dara and I are in with a few friends of ours has decided to actually read The Silmarillion.

And, since I’m the only real Tolkien nerd in the group, and have of course read the thing multiple times already, we agreed I’d read it in French while everybody else read it in English.

So here’s an initial post about that. I’m not going to get into as much detail as I have on the posts I’ve done for Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings*, but I will talk some about interesting quirks of the French edition as I find them. And I’ll talk about things I notice this time through in general, as well. But mostly I’ll be keeping it pretty high-level. Since I’m doing this for book club as opposed to just doing it on my own time, I need to move through this pretty quickly! But I’m taking notes as I go, and those notes will form the bones of the posts I’ll put here.

About my editions

Le Silmarillion, the Pocket edition published in 2002, is the French edition I’m using for this. And it is, in fact, a copy I bought on that 2017 trip to Quebec! Fun story about that: I bought it at an Archambault in downtown Montreal. Told the guy at the counter that I liked to practice my French, so I was working on rereading a lot of Tolkien. He gave the book a look and said, “That’s a hard book to practice on!” I told him I knew it was hard in English, never mind French.

For comparison, this is the ebook edition I have, and this edition is my original paperback copy. Which would have been the one I snarfed once I read through the Lord of the Rings, and then got all big-eyed and WAIT THERE’S MORE?

For purposes of this reread, though, I’ll be dealing with the ebook version in English. My paperback is one of the few I have that I have specific sentimental attachment to! So I don’t get it out often.

The front matter

A few other notes about the French edition, meanwhile. It’s notable to me that unlike my English copies, the French edition has only Christopher Tolkien’s original Foreword. It doesn’t have the Preface that appears in the English editions, or the full quote of the letter J.R.R. Tolkien sent to his publisher to describe his intentions for the work.

I’m a little sad that the French edition doesn’t have that letter, in no small part because it does have one of my favorite Tolkien quotes.

I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama.

I swear, it’s like he was hoping for fanfic. 😉 (And at any rate, that quote right there is part of why I’m a lot more patient with Jackson’s Hobbit movies, as I’ve said before.)

Plus, it’s just nice to see Tolkien’s own thoughts included in the English edition. So, yeah, a bit sad those thoughts aren’t in the French. I must presume that the French translation was done off the first English edition and that they didn’t bother to swing back and translate the additional front matter, for whatever reason.

There’s not much more than that I can say about the front matter here. It’s maybe valuable to read through once for Christopher Tolkien’s commentary. But when I’m trying to work my way through the French, it’s less interesting.

So let’s proceed on into the Ainulindalë, shall we? I’ll talk about that and the Valaquenta in the next post.

—–
*And in case any of you are going, “hey Anna, what about your Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter rereads? We notice you haven’t finished those, either!”, stand by on that. I haven’t forgotten them. And one silver lining in the whole cloud of being between jobs is that at the moment, I’ve got more time to blog! I will be re-awakening those rereads, too.

Other People's Books

Re-reading the Silmarillion, Part 2

I finished my re-read of The Silmarillion over the long weekend, so here are some more thoughts about what I noticed this time through!

Tolkien Re-Used Names, Like, A LOT

Here is a short list of names I totally recognized from The Lord of the Rings, and which still to this day cause me a little cognitive dissonance when I see them outside that story:

  • Minas Tirith
  • Echthelion
  • Denethor
  • Glorfindel

And hell, even within this specific book, the name Míriel shows up twice: once as the mother of Fëanor, and once as the last ruling Queen of Númenor.

The First Age Was Surprisingly Short

A big chunk of the book is devoted to the Quenta Silmarillion proper, which is the part of it easily conflated with the overall title. It’s in this part that the big highlights of the book happen–notably, the tale of Beren and Lúthien, and the tale of Turin. And, of course, the First Age is all about the Silmarils, as well as the smackdown eventually finally delivered to Morgoth.

But given this, if you look at the overall timeline of the world of Arda (which is what the world Middle-Earth is on is actually called), the First Age is surprisingly short compared to the other ages of the world. It’s only about 590 years long, compared to the multiple thousands of years that lead up to the First Age, and how the Second and Third Ages are both over three thousand years in length.

Yep, Still Love Me Some Beren and Lúthien

This really goes without saying, but I’ll say it again anyway. 😀 Here are the things about which Lúthien has zero fucks to give:

  • Her father trying to lock her up to keep her away from her man
  • The sons of Fëanor trying to lock her up to keep her away from her man
  • Morgoth himself trying to keep her away from her man
  • Her man trying to leave her behind on the mistaken assumption that he can handle going on a Silmaril-hunting quest all by himself
  • Death itself trying to keep her away from her man

And she is delightful from start to finish. It was a joy to be reminded as well about how friggin’ powerful she is–she uses her “arts” to grow her own hair Rapunzel-style to break out the high tree-house her father locked her up in, and then for good measure takes that hair, slaps a sleep-spell on it, and makes herself a cloak that she uses a bunch later to take down anybody in her way.

And she pretty much sings Morgoth’s crown right off his head, since she knocks him out with her power. Fuck yeah, daughter of Mélian!

Speaking of Mélian

I noticed and appreciated her more throughout this re-read. She’s on record as being the only one of the Maiar to fall in love with one of the Children of Iluvatar, enough that she bothered to physically incarnate herself so that she could be with Thingol. She is also on record as being the major power in Middle-Earth that Morgoth actually fears. Which is impressive, given that he’s a Vala on the order of Manwë himself, and she’s a Maia, and in theory of “lesser” degree.

Shoutout to the Women of the Silmarillion in General

This time through I noticed way more women having active things to do than I really remembered. Mélian and Lúthien are obvious, as is Nienor/Niniel in the tale of Turin and Elwing in the tale of Eärendil. But there are other women of note scattered all throughout the story, and who, even if they’re only passingly mentioned, clearly have an impact on the events that unfold:

  • Nerdanel, wife of Fëanor
  • Haleth, leader of the Haladin, who rules her people as a chieftain and who never marries
  • Morwen Eledhwen, wife of Húrin, mother of Túrin
  • Aredhel, wife of Eöl, mother of Maeglin
  • Emeldir the Manhearted, mother of Beren, who brings her people to safety at the urging of her spouse Barahir
  • Galadriel!
  • Míriel Ar-Zimraphel of Númenor, whose rightful place as Queen is usurped by her husband, and who tragically drowns in the sinking of Númenor by Iluvatar

And Emeldir as well as Galadriel are examples of Tolkien’s making his bolder females get nicknamed in ways that invoke masculinity–Galadriel’s mother names her Nerwen, “man-maiden”, in reference to her height and strength. Part of me is irritated at this conflation of strength and masculinity, I must admit, and yet!

Let it also be noted that before it finally fell, some of Númenor’s rightful rulers were in fact women.

Tuor and Idril Don’t Get Nearly Enough Camera Time

After the awesomeness of the tale of Beren and Lúthien, the second recorded joining of an Elf and a Man, Tuor and Idril, seems regretfully anticlimactic. Tuor basically shows up in Gondolin, hangs out for a few years, and gets permission to wed Idril, Turgon’s daughter. But there’s very little there to show why these two characters loved each other to begin with, and Idril’s marrying Tuor is mostly contrasted to how she doesn’t want to marry Maeglin.

Plus, at least for me as a reader, their story is eclipsed by the fall of Gondolin in general. Maeglin’s part of this I get, just because it’s his being captured by Morgoth’s forces that leads to Gondolin’s location being revealed. Maeglin’s motivations aren’t exactly complicated, but in contrast to him, Tuor and Idril are even less well sketched out. And that does a disservice, I feel, to the second recorded joining of Elf and Man EVER, not to mention the parents of Eärendil.

I do at least like that Idril had some agency in encouraging Tuor to make a secret way out, in case disaster befell. (Which it did.) And I also like that Tuor and Idril apparently eventually went into the West and were allowed to stay, despite Tuor being mortal, which I had forgotten. Tuor managed to get himself counted among the Firstborn, which, well done there.

Elwing: Also Pretty Awesome

Eärendil gets a lot of the press in his tale, as well as repeated mentions over in The Lord of the Rings–but re-reading his tale this time through, I had renewed appreciation for his wife Elwing. This woman, rather than give up the Silmaril she possesses to Fëanor’s remaining sons, tosses herself into the sea to escape. At which point she is transformed into a great white bird, which lets her fly to Valinor and eventually catch up with her husband.

Thus she gets to carry on the tradition of women being awesome in the family tree of Beren and Lúthien, as seems entirely befitting for the mother of Elrond.

More to Come

All of these thoughts are for events in the First Age–but I’ve got more to come regarding events in the Second Age. So I’ll put that into another post!

Other People's Books

Re-reading the Silmarillion!

So since I have this lovely new Beren and Luthien book to go through, it seemed to me that before I dive into it, it would behoove me to remind myself of the version of the tale I’m most familiar with: i.e., the one that appears in The Silmarillion. Which, of course, means that it’s TOTALLY time for a re-read of same!

(By which I mean, I’m just going to read it again–not actually do a Reread series of posts–at least for now. I may change my mind later! Persons who want to argue in favor of me doing a formal Silmarillion Reread, you are welcome to do so. I may hold on this though until I can score a French edition!)

I’ve just barely started but here are a few things I have been reminded of, or never really noticed before, now that I’m going through the book again:

  1. My ebook edition has additional intro sections that do not appear in my paperback: “Preface to the Second Edition”, and “From a Letter by J.R.R. Tolkien to Milton Waldman, 1951”. The Preface, which is dated 1999, is Christopher Tolkien discussing why he felt it appropriate to include the letter. And the letter itself is the one which, it turns out, includes this wonderful quote: “I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama.” This is the very quote Dara and I have noted before as an argument in favor of Tolkien totally intending his world to be a mythos to which other people could eventually contribute. It’s delightful to see it here.
  2. There is a female equivalent of “Vala” (singular) and “Valar” (plural): “Valië” and “Valier”. I see “Valier” getting used exactly once in the initial chapters, so this is very easy to overlook. My amusement here though is that after several consecutive years of studying French, I totally want to pronounce “Valier” like a French verb.
  3. There isn’t much in the way of character development for any of the Valar, but hey, that’s okay, we’re operating at a mythic and epic level in the opening chapters, so it’s difficult to zoom in on specific characters. I am nonetheless amused at Aulë and Yavanna arguing about his creation of the Dwarves.
  4. For that matter, I’m amused once again at Aulë jumping the gun and making the Dwarves before he had any actual authority to do so. He’s all “Hey Eru I made these guys because I love you and want to be like you and also I wanted some friends OH SHIT Eru is mad should I smash them?” And Eru realizes Aulë’s not actually trying to be malicious, so he lets him keep the Dwarves, only with the caveat that they don’t get to really wake up and exist until after Elves and Men have shown up.
  5. So really, the TL;DR version of the entire Middle-Earth mythos boils down to “Eru and all his angels had a giant jam session, only Melkor got pissy because he wanted a solo”.
  6. There are more named female characters actually doing things even in the opening stretches of this thing than I remembered. Yavanna and Varda both have on-camera action, Yavanna creating the Two Trees and Varda lighting all the stars. Mélian meets up with Thingol. And we even get a passing mention of Nerdanel, the spouse of Fëanor, who at least at first was the only person capable of restraining his more asshole-ish impulses.
  7. Nonetheless, Fëanor? Any way you slice it, total asshole. I mean, dude, c’mon. We get that you’re proud of your Shiny Holy Jewels and your artistic accomplishment, but Yavanna is asking you to your face if she can use them to resurrect the Two Trees. Which are the original source of the light you put into your Shiny Holy Jewels to begin with. And that’s only Fëanor just getting started on being an asshole.
  8. Galadriel! Ten chapters in and she’s not getting much in the way of on camera action, but she is totally there, and called out by name alongside her brothers. Note is made that her branch of the Noldor hang back from the Kinslaying, but Galadriel totes wants to go back to Middle-Earth and have her very own little realm to rule.
  9. I learned a new word: coëval. Which apparently means “contemporary to/the same age as”, and it’s used in describing Melkor in relation to Manwë. Because even after all this time I can still notice new words when reading Tolkien. <3

The ebook’s got some formatting issues for chapter titles, which is a bit irritating; I may have to crack into the ebook and fix those titles, just for my personal reading satisfaction.

Also, given that I’m about to go to Quebec next month, I may have to see if I can hunt down a French translation! Because I have French translations now of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, so clearly I need one of The Silmarillion for my collection. 😀