The Years of the Trees
Quenta Silmarillion: Of the Beginning of Days – Of the Sun and Moon and the Hiding of Valinor
*So, clearly, this post we’ll be looking at the first eleven chapters of the Quenta Silmarillion, which is, obviously, found in The Silmarillion. The Quenta is the longest section of The Silmarillion and follows directly after the first two prologues which we’ve already talked about.
*Okay, the years of the trees. They're called that because the Valar plant two trees in Valinor, the section of Arda where they live that give light to the whole world. In the waxing and waning of their lights in rhythm with each other, they produce a cycle of light, but never a total night. This, along with another conflict with Melkor happens in chapter one, Of the Beginning of Days.
*Astonishing Prose Alert, as Iluvatar muses on the gifts he will give to his children. To the Elves, he will give eternal life, but to the Men, something else, a greater gift even than eternal life.
*"Therefore he willed that the
hearts of Men should seek beyond the world and find no rest therein; but they
should have a virtue to shape their life, amid the powers and chances of the
world, beyond the Music of Ainur, which is as fate to all things else . . .
*It is one with this gift of freedom that the children of Men dwell only a short space in the world alive, and are not bound to it, and depart soon whither the Elves know not. For the Elves die not till the world dies, unless they are slain or waste in grief . . . But the sons of Men die indeed and leave the world; wherefore they are called the Guests, or the Strangers. Death is their fate, the gift of Iluvatar, which as Time wears on, even the Powers shall envy."
*Thus three powerful things are granted to men, all wonderfully expressed by Tolkien.
*First, that man will have a restless heart, a pilgrim soul, an outlook that stretches ever beyond this world and searches for something more. Our spirituality and our yearning, indeed a gift.
*Second, that man will be self-determining and that even Iluvatar himself will not override our wills. Our freedom of choice, our free will, indeed a gift.
*Third, that we will not always endure in these bodies on this earth but that we will pass away, to a place that the Elves cannot understand or comprehend. We will one day end, and while this may not seem a blessing, certainly it is. A rest, after all, is promised to the children of Men.
*I'm reminded of I Am That, a powerful, confounding and life changing book compiled from interviews given by Sri Maharaj (whose middle name I have skipped for fear of mangling it beyond all cultural tolerance), a shopkeeper/guru in the late seventies. It's a book I'd recommend all read, even if it eventually delves too far into a sort of Buddhist ideal of utter removal from life even in life. There's a wealth of incredible truth there.
*One section that I remember comes when he is talking about needs. The body, he says, has needs and the soul shares somewhat in those needs. The need to eat, to drink, to sleep, to eliminate waste, to die. The questioner asks, "To die is a need?" Maharaj replies, "When one has lived, to die is a need."
*So, yes, for all the grief and sorrow that flows from death in this world, still what a beautiful majesty is found in it. It is the cycle of our life, we are born, we go through seasons, we die, sometimes seemingly too soon or too late, but always we die. What a gift.
*I've made my peace with God. I don't fear death. I know it's not the end of the soul, I feel it with every fiber of my being some days. I'd encourage everyone to do the same who hasn't. When my time comes, will I perhaps struggle to live? Sure; I don't dislike life . . . I quite enjoy it. But ultimately, there's no fear there. Death isn't the end of life, just the next part of it.
*Next up, Aule, Valar of the earth itself decides that really if the Elves and Men aren't going to just hurry up and show up, he's going to create some beings himself to entertain himself. He thus molds out of the earth the Dwarves. Iluvatar is kind of piqued at this, but Aule begs Iluvatar to spare his creations. Iluvatar does so and grants them life; prior to Iluvatar giving them actual life, they were essentially just like toy robots that only moved or acted when Aule told them too.
*Yavanna gets all snippy because these dwarves are going to play havoc with all her nice trees, she just knows it. Iluvatar grants that the forests will have a protector in the person of the Ents. And yet, Aule says, they will need wood. Thus the eternal conflict between Dwarves and trees is set in motion.
*The dwarves, however, can't partake of the first fruits of Arda. They will be put in a deep slumber and not awake until the Elves arrive. So, Aule kind of doesn't get what he wanted anyway. But Iluvatar promises that he'll use the dwarves for his ends anyway.
*It should be noted that one of the Seven Fathers, the first seven dwarves to be created by Aule, is Durin who will, once he awakens be setting up shop in a little place called Khazad-Dum. Love what you've done with the place. Just love it.
*This is very reminiscent of the story of Abraham and his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, in the Old Testament. Abraham had been promised a son by God, but when the promise was long in coming, he contrived to sleep with his wife's servant (with his wife’s consent), though God had said the child would be born of his wife. The result of Abraham's attempt to speed things along was Ishmael. When Isaac was finally born of Sarah, Abraham's wife, years later, there was obvious tension and finally Ishmael was sent away and the blessings of the firstborn fell on Isaac. Out of Ishmael, however, God promised to raise up his own people, though he could not be a part of Abraham's people. The parallels are so obvious as to not really need comment.
*Eventually, the Elves arrive, all awakening on the shores of a great lake. The Valar, partying down in Valinor, don't notice until one of them goes hunting and accidentally sees them.
*Melkor, it should be noted, was aware of them immediately and he has been slowly winnowing them out by snatching any Elves that wandered off by themselves and taking them back to be tortured and corrupted.
*Leave it to the villain to have the good intel.
*These kidnapped and corrupted Elves? They become Orcs. Gotcha.
*So, the Valar decide the time is right to finally get Melkor under control now that the Elves have arrived. They have a great war with Melkor, capture him and sentence him to three ages in prison. In a great bit of simple prose, Tolkien reminds us that all is still not well: "Sauron they did not find."
*Melkor is 'bound with a chain,' in a deliberate echoing of the judgment of Satan in Revelation where he too is bound with a chain by an angel and then tossed into the Bottomless Pit for 1000 years.
*So, then the Valar get with the Elves and try to lead them all back to Valinor to live. There follow about fifty million 'sunderings' of the Elves as various groups break off and stay in various locations for various reasons. I suppose all of this is significant, if I'd only been paying attention in LotR.
*So, there's the Vanyar, the Noldor, the Sindar, the Teleri, the Quindi, the Polka, the Playas, the Homies and the Dopeys. I hope I got all those right.
*"The sons of Finwe were Feanor, and Fingolfon and Finarfin." Oh, good, I'll be able to tell those guys apart.
*Oh, look, Galadriel, the daughter of Fingolfin! That is the Galadriel, right? By the way, since Elves don't die, how do they not run out of names?
*Well, I guess by resorting to names like Finarfin, which is probably no one’s first choice. It's a cruel world for the undying Elves.
*So, Finwe's first wife, Miriel, bears Feanor and then falls sick. She goes to Lorien and essentially spends the next billion years in a coma. But there's this great line from her as she leaves.
*Finwe says that it is very sad that Feanor will have to grow up without his mother. Miriel says, "It is indeed unhappy and I would weep, if I were not so weary." God, all the weary sorrow in the world is in that sentence.
*So, Finwe eventually marries Indis and she bears two more sons, Fingolfin and Finarfin. And the Elves, just like men, are totally into all things sibling rivalry.
*There's a great passage where Tolkien says that many felt that if Finwe hadn't remarried and had those other two children, all the horrible things Feanor eventually did wouldn't have happened. But, Tolkien says, refusing to play God or genetics, those other two sons also brought a lot of good.
*And then Melkor is released after the three ages, however long that was, and put on probation. He pretends to be reformed, but isn't really.
*Meanwhile, Feanor has created the Silmarils, three great jewels that, in some way, actually contain some of the fire of the two trees. Melkor wants them and thus begins his whisper campaign.
*Melkor manages to spread unrest among the Elves by spreading rumors about Men, that other race that is one day to come, and how the Valar are going to throw the Elves over and abandon them once the Men arrive. He also, of course, manages to set Feanor and his two half brothers against each other. Ultimately, Feanor draws his sword against his brother and is banished from Valinor. He takes his Silmarils and goes home.
*Sadly, when Feanor draws his sword, he doesn't like have a sword fight with both of his brothers at once while sliding down some stairs on a shield or anything. I mean, this is a great book, but like if he slid somewhere on a shield while sword fighting or did a backflip or the splits or something, that would make it really perfect. I wonder why Tolkien didn't think of that. Obviously, he's not such a genius after all.
*Melkor makes a pact with Ungoliant, a spirit that comes none of the Elves knows from where and takes the shape of a giant spider.
*Oh, good, because after Shelob in the movie, I immediately thought, "Well, I hope at some point there's another giant spider to give me nightmares." Like the answer to my prayer, comes Ungoliant.
*Astonishing and Nightmare Inducing Prose Alert:
*"In a ravine, she lived, and took shape as a spider of monstrous form, weaving her black webs in a cleft of the mountains. There she sucked up all light that she could find, and spun it forth again in dark nets of strangling gloom, until no light more could come to her abode; and she was famished."
*It's that "and she was famished" line that really knocks me out there. Wow!
*So, the Valar, deciding once again to be proactive about the slow 'sundering' of the Elves in Valinor, throw another big party.
*Feanor also attends the party as the Valar sort of halfway try to make peace with him.
*While everyone parties, Melkor and Ungoliant, clad in a massive cloud of Unlight, journey to Valinor, kill the two lightgiving trees and, as a slow darkness begins to spread over all of Arda, they return to Feanor's mountain fastness, slaughter Finwe, Feanor's father, and make off with the Silmarils. This whole section is incredibly well done; chilling, in fact.
*Astonishing Prose Alert Again:
*"The Light failed; but the Darkness that followed was more than loss of light. In that hour was made a Darkness that seemed not lack but a thing with being of its own: for it was indeed made by malice out of Light, and it had power to pierce the eye, and to enter heart and mind, and strangle the very will."
*I guess that whole 'not inventing electricity' thing ain't looking too sharp right about now, is it?
*This passage about the Darkness is very much a riff on the plague of Darkness in the book of Exodus. In that book, the darkness that fell over Egypt for three days and nights was called a 'darkness that could be felt.' This is a wonderful expansion on that idea by Tolkien.
*The Valar ask Feanor, before they know that the Silmarils have been stolen, if he will bring them back and allow them to use them to bring the trees back to life. Feanor thinks on it and then, still rather angry at the Valar, refuses. Then the news comes that Melkor has stolen them.
*Ungoliant tries to get the Silmarils out of Melkor, since Melkor had promised her anything she wanted to satisfy her ever growing hunger. Ultimately, Melkor refuses since the Silmarils are what he wants. There's an epic fight; Melkor nearly loses but he calls out the Balrogs and they drive Ungoliant away to another great ravine where she sets up her little creepy shop and eventually Shelob will come from her lineage.
*But a great bit where Melkor has the Silmarils clasped in one of his hands and he refuses to open it so that Ungoliant can take what is therein.
*This reminds me of a great George MacDonald book called Lilith. MacDonald was one of the great influences on C.S. Lewis (along, of course, with Tolkien himself) and I'm betting that Tolkien was familiar with MacDonald's work as well. Lilith is a great alternate universe myth with plenty of horror and poetry, much like LotR, if not nearly so long.
*Lilith also is entirely about Sorrow and its role in our lives, so it has that going for it too. It's a great, trippy, crazy book. I recommend it. MacDonald wrote a few other fantasy novels, like At the Back of the North Wind, but mainly he wrote books about Scotland, particularly the highlands. He was a minister and also authored several books of sermons.
*Both his fantasy novels and his sermons were great influences on C.S. Lewis with his novels and his non-fiction. Lewis, maybe my favorite Christian author, once said, "I have not written a single book that did not have MacDonald in it."
*But anyway, in Lilith, the villainous character of the title also has a clenched hand, a hand frozen into a fist that she cannot open, so tightly has she clung to her hatred and her bitterness. Ultimately, the only way she can be redeemed is for her hand to be severed; only then will it open and only then can she release the hatred and anger she has clung too.
*It's a tiny reference, but I just bet Tolkien was thinking of Lilith when he wrote that scene. If you ever read Lilith, the thing with the hand won't ever leave you. You'll remember it the rest of your life I think, so evocative and archetypal is it.
*Astonishing prose about Melkor: "His hands were burned black by the touch of those hallowed jewels, and black they remained ever after; nor was he ever free from the pain of the burning, and the anger of the pain. That crown he never took from his head, though its weight become a deadly weariness."
*Again, that sounds very much like Lilith in the MacDonald book, clinging with utter desperation and madness to her agony and anger.
*So Feanor leads some of the Elves in pursuit of Melkor to reclaim the Silmarils, though the Valar warn them not to go. The Elves 'sunder' yet again as some choose to stay with the Valar. Galadriel, it is mentioned, is anxious to be off in pursuit of Melkor.
*The Noldor, the Elves following Feanor, end up smashing up against the Teleri, the Elves that stayed by the water. The Teleri refuse to give up their boats to the Noldor, so there's a great, tragic battle where many on both sides are slain and ultimately the Teleri are mostly slain, I guess. The sea rises in anger and many of the Noldor die in the boats they have stolen.
*After this great betrayal, the Noldor are labelled the Dispossessed, forbidden to ever return to Valinor. Some of them 'sunder' again and go straight back and are allowed back in.
*Did anyone else read that Le Guin novel that won all those awards, The Dispossessed? God, didn't that suck? The Left Hand of Darkness was awesome (and also probably a reference to the Lilith novel) and A Wizard of Earthsea was pretty good too, but The Dispossessed was just awful.
*So, they don't have enough boats, so Feanor sails across the water back to Middle Earth with half of his force. Then, he decides to be a complete jackass and lose all my sympathy by burning the boats and leaving the other half of his company stranded on the other side.
*That company, now unable to return to Valinor for fear of the Valar and unable to cross the water, sets out across the mountains to try to reach Middle Earth the long way. Hundreds of them die, but among those that survive is our girl, Galadriel.
*This is just brutal. Fingolfin, though he and Feanor had plenty of problems before, had actually followed him when he left Valinor, stuck with him through the Kinslaying of the Teleri and didn't go back with Finarfin to beg for mercy at the announcement of their dispossession. And now, when Fingolfin has stuck with him through all that, Feanor decides to remember their previous bad blood and leave him stranded. What a complete ass. I hope he dies.
*All this time, the Sindar, a group of Elves that stayed in Middle Earth when the others went to Valinor because their leader, Thingol, fell in love with Melian, a Maia, has been happily trading with the Dwarves and having basically peace all over. Think like the best hippie commune in the world. Trees and leaves and sex and long hair and music and just sort of a real chill kind of deal.
*Then came the Orcs, after Melkor's theft of the Silmarils. The Sindar are basically cut off, after a great war in which many of them die, but also a huge number of Orcs die. Melian is able to put up a hedge of protection kind of deal, but they're essentially all alone with no real idea of what's been going on. Also, it's gotten real dark for some reason and they don't know why.
*Back in Valinor the Valar are able to coax out of the dead trees, one last fruit and one last leaf. These become, respectively, the sun and the moon. They are sent into the sky and day and night in their seasons begin.
*The Valar, taking their roles as protectors of the Children of Iluvatar seriously, decide to basically wall themselves up in Valinor so no one can ever get back in and they won’t have to ever deal with any Elves or Men ever again. Great; isolationism. That always works.
*And now, sun and moon in the sky, the Valar retreated behind their walls, the Noldor returned to Middle Earth in two groups, one under Feanor searching for the Silmarils, the other under Fingolfin seeking for survival and the Sindar living in retreat and isolation behind their magic fence, the Years of the Trees are over.
*I love happy endings.
*Seriously? This was great. Feanor's fall was well done, Melkor and Ungoliant were great, creepy, horrifying villains and the moment when you realize that Melkor has the Silmarils is a great bit. The tragedy of the Kinslaying feels very painful and tragic. And I was literally outraged at Feanor when he burned the boats.
*This story could have been expanded but really, I don't think it needed to be. It is, indeed, a great story all by itself. I really can't wait to see what happens next. I love me a good downbeat ending and this is pretty well it; the fall of the Elves. It's a great little sixty page novella all by itself.
*And now the Years of the Sun; now begins The First Age of Middle Earth. Next time, we'll start moving into that age by talking about chapters 12 and 13 of the Quenta Silmarillion and get a quick glimpse of the first three hundred years of the First Age or so.