Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Mingling of the Lights

In March of this year, I read The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien for the fourth time.  One of the few books I had ever reread before the start of this ten-year plan, The Silmarillion was Tolkien's great, central, yet unfinished tale, nothing less than the history of the first two ages of Middle Earth, beginning with creation.  The project began with his invention of two languages, Quenya and Sindarin.  But since Sindarin was supposed to have derived from Quenya, he needed a history to go with the languages.

Tolkien worked on this history for decades, expanding and revising at various times, and eventually interrupting his work to try his hand at a commercially viable tale about one year-long adventure in his imaginative world.  He called the tale The Hobbit, and publisher Stanley Unwin put it out because his ten-year-old son read the draft and approved it; thank goodness Master Unwin liked fantasy!  When The Hobbit proved commercially viable indeed, Tolkien followed up with The Lord of the Rings, complete with tantalizing timelines, glimpses of ancient battles and heroes, and poems in constructed languages.  Totally unaware of the author's plans for a greater history, readers wondered what it all meant and longed for more detail.  A few years after Professor Tolkien died, his son, Christopher, studied the notes, filled in some gaps, and at last published the history that fans had been waiting for.

The stories in this masterpiece make up one of the most realistic fantasies I know of.  They may tell of Valar, elves, and dwarves, but the beautiful pain and the devastating glory they relate are the ones we are all too familiar with.  Because it is a realistic book, Tolkien begins with God: "There was Eru, the One."  Just as Genesis tells the creation story in a couple of ways, so too The Silmarillion.  The second part begins, "In the beginning Eru, the One, who in the Elvish tongue is named Ilúvatar, made the Ainur of his thought; and they made a great Music before him."

Many of the images of the book are familiar and unique all at the same time.  My favorite occurs early in the book.  The world created through the great Music is dark at first, but then Yavanna, one of the Ainur, the Giver of Fruits, thinks a new thought and asks Aulë, the great smith, to realize her idea.  Together, they build two great pillars, one at the extreme south of Middle Earth, the other at the extreme north.  (Later, when these towers tumble through the treachery of Melkor, the Enemy, we learn that their fall stirred the oceans to a frenzy and changed the shape of the land forever; these were tall towers indeed!)  On top of the each pillar, Yavanna places a great light, and the whole world begins to bud forth: grasses and moss at first, and then immense trees with their feet planted firmly in the ground and their heads soaring above the clouds.  Their growth is greatest in the center of the world, where the lights mingle.

Now for these two lights to mingle and yet illuminate the whole land, the world must be flat.  Suddenly the image coalesces in my mind.  A giant land mass lies before me; like our world yet flat like a map, I see it all in one comprehensive glance.  It is as big as Eurasia, yet every detail of every blade of grass seems clear.  Lights atop two pillars perhaps thousands of miles high shine through atmosphere clearer than any post-Industrial Revolution human has ever breathed.  I have never seen such a sight, and yet I know the exact shades of green, I feel the warmth of the great lights, I smell the soil, and I see the magical twilight that hovers beneath the leafy canopy.

The world is made brokenly beautiful by the catastrophe of the pillars, beautiful but unbearable to the Ainur.  So they retire to the realm of Valinor, where Yavanna again makes two great lights.  Only this time, rather than trees coming from the light, the light comes from two trees: Telperion with its dark green leaves shedding silver light and Laurelin with its spring-green leaves and golden light.  The luminescence of each tree slowly pulses, and the darkness of one coincides with the full brightness of the other; the greatest glory comes every six hours when, again, the lights mingle.  Before Melkor spoils this wonder, the elf Fëanor crafts silmarils: exquisite jewels that capture the light of of the trees.

In the years since the first publication of The Silmarillion, Christopher Tolkien has published many of his father's working notes, earlier versions of the history, and unfinished tales.  Recently though, he published a polished, book-length version of the story of one of the chapters (The Tale of the Children of Hurin) and announced that it was one of three stories from The Silmarillion that his father deemed great enough to flesh out.  Another Tolkien trilogy?  If MGM can recover from bankruptcy, they will put out Peter Jackson's version of The Hobbit in the next couple of years, his second monumental attempt to bring Tolkien to film.  But since Jackson's screenwriters have announced that they believe Professor Tolkien made mistakes in his stories that they need to correct, I pray that this announcement of a trilogy of Silmarillion chronicles doesn't lead to yet another series of Peter Jackson films.  If he and his friends didn't understand Aragorn and Faramir, how could they begin to comprehend the profound wisdom and beauty of The Silmarillion?

Whatever Peter Jackson does or doesn't do with Tolkien's history of Middle Earth, I will always have the books.  Like Fëanor, Tolkien captured some of the light of Ilúvatar and crafted it into his literary gems.  The light of Ilúvatar shines in our world, as well.  And the beauty is greater when the lights mingle.

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