A Christian Reader's Guide
to J.R.R. Tolkien's
The Silmarillion

Russell Bateman, May 2002

In the full essor of Impressionism, an artist paints the south of France with rich, stark colors that one might be tempted to say overstate the Riviera. And yet, one is obliged to accept that each and every one of them comes right out of nature from the dark blue of the midnight sky, the purple of freshly bloomed lavander, the baked brown of earth, the straw yellow of the summer-parched fields to the thick grey-blue of the midday sky and yellow of its sun. The brush can be thick emphasizing the heaviness of the summer's stiffling heat or it can be subtle, revealing the presence almost guessed at of a bird, a cat or some other detail. The non-artist's eye sees the individual colors that preoccupy the painter only after studying the masterpiece and then looking up.

Similarly, J. R. R. Tolkien paints Good and Evil for his own purposes be those a cultural setting for a handful of invented languages or a magnificent backdrop to a choice set of tales.

This document is a shameless attempt to cross-reference Tolkien and Christian metaphors for the unadvised reader. It is the work of an unabashed a geek for what artist, one capable of perceiving, embracing and genuinely expressing feelings, would resort to tables in WordPerfect or HTML to reveal himself? Therefore, permit me here to beat the life out of this work with all the imagination of the writer of a copy of Cliff's Notes. The utility of this effort might be that someone else could more easily discover the joy of reading Tolkien, particularly The Silmarillion, a work that has a reputation as harder to read than for the Hobbit Bilbo to cheat Smaug out of his treasure.

The Metaphor

A New Testament parable can appear incomplete or inexact in its application. A metaphor is only construed as far as it is useful by its author. If you are reading this document, you already know and understand this.

Have you ever really listened to a song by Paul Simon? Or Neil Young? Do you have a perfect idea of every detail that went through the songwriter's mind as he composed the lyrics? Obviously not. A metaphor, like a painting, is an imperfect device that communicates an idea. The joy—and frustration—of both are found in its imperfection by which both the communicator and the person being communicated with are free to understand it at any level that suits them. Because of this, a philosopher would point out that a work of art is at least as much the product of the consumer than of the artist claiming it.

So it is with Tolkien's metaphors...

We see the danger of this exercise: it is not particularly useful to attempt to find a parallel between everything Tolkien says and the real world. In fact, Tolkien is the real world just as our artist paints a real Côte d'Azur. My children are wont to ask after a movie, "Was that a true story?" Invariably I answer, "Of course it was" whether we just watched Michael Crichton's 13th Warrior, Spielberg's The Color Purple or the recent screen adaptation of George Orwell's Animal Farm (which, I explain patiently, has no animals anywhere in it except possibly for the human farmers). All art is a depiction of reality (ooh, I'm in trouble with someone there...) or that part of reality that holds the artist's attention momentarily. Attempting to map the symbolism or metaphors of an artist's work in a one-to-one relationship with something else one understands like the Bible is a bit disappointing. But, as already noted, there can be much benefit in the attempt for the uninitiated.

An Outline of the Silmarillion

This book furnishes the background material for all that goes on in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Woven throughout those more popular works are tales and histories that connect the characters and pose them in historical context. Decisions are taken based on a whole cultural backdrop that is provided by The Silmarillion. In Biblical terms, The Silmarillion is like the early bits of the Old Testament.

Almost all of Tokien's protagonists have at least two names. Sometimes these names exhibit the function or role of the character; sometimes they are given because the character is known differently between peoples and/or languages. This leads to confusion. A book, J.E.A. Tyler's The Tolkien Companion helps keep this straight if there is a question. Also, the end of all of Tolkien's books contain copious appendices and indexes to characters, place names and other relevant proper nouns.

The Creation (the Ainulindalë)

In the beginning, there is a principal deity named Ilúvatar who creates a set of minor deities called the Ainur or Holy Ones. These participate in the two-part creation of Middle Earth and other lands under the direction of Ilúvatar. The collective creation is called Arda. The first creation is accomplished by these powers through the making of music mostly composed and completely conducted by the power of Ilúvatar who weaves themes emitted by the Ainur together although each attempts to inject something of his or her own into the tapistry in an effort to please Ilúvatar. One of the Ainur, Melkor, is rebellious and attempts to fight Ilúvatar for control of creation, but his composition is woven into the rest anyway as if intended by Ilúvatar.

The second period of creation is revealed to the Ainur as after a while they are shown the creation of Middle Earth, the result of their music making. They are sent to enjoy and continue the creation according to the music composed, each discovering the implications and meanings behind his and other's themes. The Ainur are both male and female and become paired with a few exceptions. Melkor's activity in Middle Earth concentrates mostly on destroying all that the others create. There is often countering and even war between the Valar and Melkor. Valar is the name for the Ainur as they create corporeal identities for themselves. This name comes from the Elves. Most of the names used here are those chosen by the Elves who recorded these events based on their direct acquaintence with the Valar.

The Valar are not alone in the creative process because another group of even lesser deities, sort of younger, less powerful siblings than the Ainur accompany them to Middle Earth. These are the Maiar. There is some question as to whether Maiar are of the same substance and power as the Valar or less powerful. I do not concord with the opinion of the otherwise excellent Encyclopedia of Arda.

Chief of the Valar is Manwë. He of all the Valar (even Melkor) best knows and understands the music and mind of Ilúvatar. He was the chief instrument that the latter raised against the dissonant theme of Melkor. He does not permit Melkor to take possession of Arda.

The Preinhabitant Period (the Valaquenta)

Manwë has a consort, Varda, mother of much of Arda. They are assisted by other principal Valar and minor Maiar including deities devoted, just as in the Greek and Roman pantheons, to various aspects of the creation including earth, sky, sea, rivers, etc.

Melkor, meaning "he who arises in might," forfeits that name among the Elves who call him Morgoth or the Dark Enemy of the world. His attributes are perhaps better described than any other and include arrogance, contempt, wastefulness, lacking in pity, corruptor and embittered. A Maia named Sauron arises as his chief lieutenant, a most important fact since the latter is his heir and the supreme source of evil in Middle Earth as recounted in the trilogy of The Lord of the Rings.

The Beginning of Days (the Quenta Silmarillion)

The Valar build themselves a sort of island in the West—Arda is flat and won't become a sphere until the day when the Valar completely remove themselves and the Lands of Bliss from Men by bending their way West—and remove there leaving Melkor to his delusion that he rules Middle Earth. A sea separates Valinor from Middle Earth. Note: Melkor is accorded a great deal of respect that his conduct does not merit seemingly because he is a Valar and coequal with Manwë.

Manwë and the other Valar know well that soon, for the hour hasn't been revealed, the Firstborn of Ilúvatar will arise on in Middle Earth. These are the Elves, a principal theme in the music of creation. When they do awake, in the east of Middle Earth, the Valar realize that with Melkor present, the Elves or Quenti as they call themselves, will think that Melkor is the God of Middle Earth. Indeed, the Elves do awaken and Melkor does begin to fill them with lies. Valar and Maiar are sent to bring the Elves to Valinor.

Ultimately, Melkor has to be caught and chained by the other Valar for treason until a period of repentance has been passed. He is chained in the halls of Mandos, the rough equivalent of Greek Hades.

The Elves do not all come to Valinor, a land which has light (Middle Earth is more or less lighted by Varda's stars for the beginning of its creation which is the etiology for continued references to starlight among Elves even as late as the events recounted in The Lord of the Rings many thousands of years later). There is schism and some Elves remain in Middle Earth, the Avari. All who begin the migration are termed Eldar. Some begin the migration, but don't ever make it, the Teleri, or don't make it for some time and do not go all the way, but remain on a special island between Middle Earth and Aman (or Valinor). The Eldar are composed of the Vanya, who unite themselves to the Valar with no desire to return to Middle Earth, the Noldor and the Teleri. Of the Teleri, the Sindar remain in western Middle Earth, but do not cross the sea and the others whose migration failed completely before even that point.

The purpose of migration is to live in the light of two trees, Telperion and Laurelin, created in Aman whose beauty surpass all creation in Arda.

It is the Noldor that almost completely occupy the rest of the book. It is essential to note here that Elves belong to Arda (the earth), are of its dust, but they also do not die unless killed. Freed from prison for good behavior, Melkor subverts many Noldor who later rebel against the Valar and seek to leave the Western Isles. One of the points of rebellion is the manufacture of three Silmarils or jewels in which some of the light of the two trees is placed. Melkor poisons the mind of the Elf craftsman, Fëanor, son of the greatest of the Eldar, and he poisons the two trees and kills them. Melkor steals the jewels for himself and mount them in a crown. He removes back to the north of Middle Earth where he begins to reign again.

Example of elfkind in the trilogy

Legolas, son of Thranduil, is an example of elf strain that does not cross the sea although the privilege to do so is a permanent offer even to these. He is comparatively young as compared to other elves in the trilogy. Galadriel is Noldor; she migrated to Valinor, then turned away to return for several ages to Middle Earth regaining it finally at the end of the War of the Ring. Celeborn, husband to Galadriel, Cídan the Shipwright, who gave his ring of power over fire to Gandalf, and Elrond's elven ancestors (he half-elven: his father was a man) are other examples.

The rebel Elves follow Melkor back to Middle Earth and along the way, there is treachery, murder and clan strife. Melkor is redubbed Morgoth by the Elves. The history that follows in the rest of the book is that of great heroicism and base faithlessness as the heirs of Fëanor swear an oath to retake the Silmarils from Morgoth and spread war and destruction when they don't get it directly from Morgoth, throuhout the West of Middle Earth, called Beleriand.

Meanwhile, Varda has set light in the heavens to govern day and night for the whole of Arda. This is done in such a way as Melkor cannot undo the work.

It is during this time that Men, a slightly lesser, but more durable theme in the thought of Ilúvatar, arise in the East and migrate into the West. A few men prove themselves highly valiant and acquire the title of Elf-friend, but most are perfide and hated by the Elves who notice a peculiar thing about Men: they die without being killed.

Dwarves merit an explanation here. One of the Valar, Aulë, could not await patiently the coming of the Firstborn (Elves) and hastened to put forth his own theme in the best imitation he could muster. Ilúvatar speaks directly to Aulë and chides him for attempting something beyond his power noting that they cannot naturally think for themselves, but can only think the thoughts Aulë gives them. Nevertheless, Ilúvatar hallows them because in making them, Aulë is really imitating Ilúvatar. The later gives the Dwarves thought, though they will be mostly stubborn and self-serving.

There is no mention of Hobbits except by way of narration as those who will play a major role—unlooked for— in the destruction of the One Ring. There is mention of tree shepherds, the Ents, in this book, but very little. The origins of Tom Bombadil are not revealed; indeed, he is not mentioned. As to whether he is Maia or Valar, The Silmarillion does not say.

After the near destruction of Middle Earth's peoples, certainly the majority of the Quendi (Elves), Morgoth is permanently chained in the Halls of Mandos.

The Akallabêth

Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age

These are two more books appended to the end of The Silmarillion. The first treats the rise and desintegration of Númenoreans, or High Men, whose life spans were originally quite considerable and who accomplished many feats of valor and good before Sauron corrupted and turned them to pettiness and the worship of Melkor. It is from a branch of Númenor that remained uncorrupted and faithful that Aragorn the King descends.

The Second does not recount the events told in The Lord of the Rings, but it does provide background on the Istari or Wizrds of which only three—Saruman, Gandalf and Radagast are known—as well as on other aspects and ramifications of the War.

Comparison of Silmarillion and Christian Themes

(I still haven't begun to list them. Maybe someday.)

Tolkien Christian
Stuff... More stuff...
Second row stuff... Second row more stuff...