Saturday, October 6, 2018

The Biggest Shock from First Reading THE SILMARILLION in Sept 1977: evil elves.

 So, I've been thinking back on the initial reception of THE SILMARILLION, and remembering how negative the reviews were and how no one challenged their demonstrably false claim that people might be buying the book but no one was actually reading it: that's not the conclusion that twenty-one consecutive weeks as #1 book on the NEW YORK TIMES bestsellers list wd normally lead to, it being far more probable that word of mouth kept people trying out the book in a widening circle all that fall and winter. 

For my own part, having read the appendices of LotR(parts of it many times) I found the Silmquite readable with only one major flaw: too many names that started with 'F' or 'A': Finwe and Fingolfin and Finarfin and Fingon and Finrod and Feanor, not to mention Aegnor, Angrod, Amras, Amrod,* and Aredhed. Plus of course Celegorm and Curufin and Caranthir. It's like the French kings with too many Louises; more variety among the family names wd make it less difficult to keep track of the large cast of characters (e.g., the fifteen cousins, Finwe's grandchildren, who are the major characters of the Elves wars of Beleriand).  Perhaps the strangest thing about the book, looking back now, is that an author so supremely talented in fantasy nomenclature as Tolkien left us with so many similar sounding names.**

Even so, the solution was easy: I started the book over again as soon as I finished, with the page in the back with the family trees bookmarked for easy reference during that re-read. Though truth to tell it was really only with the third read that I really started to get the hang of it.

As for the story, The Silmarillion itself, I was struck by how many surprises it held even to the most diligent reader of Tolkien's earlier works already in print. 

For example, Feanor is mentioned several times in LotR, most notably in the palantir chapter when Gandalf wishes he cd have seen him at work in person. Here at Marquette I just finished reading the manuscript passage that brings in Feanor in a different context, as the one who made the Three Rings of Earth, Sea, and Sky: one text asserts that Feanor made the Three but it was The Great Enemy who brought them across the great sea to Middle-earth.

Absent from any of these references was any indication of the evil that Feanor did, the long stream of deliberate heinous acts that ultimately destroyed his family and followers and the greater part of his people. And while he was the most evil elf depicted by Tolkien, he was not alone: many of his followers committed horrific acts as well. And yet no hint of evil elves had found its way into THE LORD OF THE RINGS, where the elves have put all that behind them.

To use an analogy, who knew the Vulcans had once all been Romulans?

--John R.
--in Milwaukee, one week in

*whom we learned much later, via HME, never reached Middle-earth at all but died along the way; he essentially becomes his twin brother's imaginary companion, so far as they story is concerned -- which does explain why the two never appear separately or undertake independent action anywhere in the main tale.

**the intended effect, of course, wd have been to convey family kinship through nomenclature, as with Malory's names for the House of Orkney, the five brothers Gawain and Agravaine and Gaheris and Gareth and Mordred, where the first and last go back to much earlier stages of the legend and the others were added later by writers introducing spin-offs to fit a few more knights into an already crowded Round Table. 


grodog said...

Good stuff, John!

When I first read the The Silmarillion and The Book of Lost Tales, I was perplexed by the "dark elves" referred to---associating them back to AD&D's drow, which naturally didn't make any sense at all. It wasn't until a few re-reads of The Silmarillion that I connected the dots back to the Moriquendi, but even so, the evil of Feanor and his kin seems pretty well-painted (and deserved!).

Perhaps after the wrack of the Beleriand, and the Last Alliance, any remaining in-fighting among the Noldor was gone, through war/attrition, and the eventual migration of the elves to Valinor?


Pete-R-NY said...

I love this blog because I can totally identify with being shocked by evil elves, and confusticated by all the similar-sounding-and-looking elf names. But it wasn't until my *fifth* reading that the smoke began to clear.

Formendacil said...

I belong to a much younger generation, so I was only twelve reading The Silmarillion for the first time in 1999. I'd loved The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but I was not ready! As others have mentioned, the F-names were hard (especially because they are, more frequently than the others, main figures), but it was also a style I could then only compare to the Old Testament and a bit above even a precocious vocabulary. It was probably the first book, though, that I laboured at willingly *despite* it being hard. Twenty years later, it alternates with The Lord of the Rings for my favourite book--not unlike Tolkien's taste alternating between Quenya and Sindarin.

Garkbit said...

I got my Silmarillion on publication day, so I must have been 13 at the time. I don't really remember being shocked by anything, except perhaps the Turin/Nienor incest theme and the spooky talking sword. And of course the death of Glorfindel. Also, despite everything that happens before, the murder of Elured and Elurin is a bit of shock.