Booking a Room with a View

Join me as I shuttle and shoulder through the worlds of literature, cinema, and the awards seasons attending both.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Silmarillion

To begin: on one level, I admire and appreciate what Tolkien was doing with The Silmarillion. He began writing it at (or near) the height of Modernism, when novelists pushed fiction into uncharted waters, experimenting with form in ways that feel -- even a century later -- fresh and vibrant. So for a young writer to begin cobbling together interrelated stories that felt not only traditional, but aggressively antique in style and content was a bold move, a setting himself apart from the pack. Other writers of the time did this as well: Sigrid Undset wrote epic medieval fictions just post-WWI when others were dabbling in stream-of-consciousness and all manner of tricksiness, and she won the Nobel Prize in Literature for those fictions, trends be damned. Undset's work, however, was successful where The Silmarillion most assuredly is not because of many reasons, but one reason above all: she had readers in mind when writing her great epics, and she cared about whether they cared about her stories. Which leads me to say: I have never before encountered a work of fiction so utterly indifferent to, or dismissive of, the idea of readership as The Silmarillion. So, although I applaud Tolkien's resistance to, and likely suspicion of, Modernism, this book is a stain on his reputation as a storyteller, as a spinner of yarns.

Now, I'm the first to admit that one shouldn't go into reading this book expecting a novel, because it is not that (however its being broken into chapters suggests otherwise) and should not be judged as such. However, neither is it a collection of short stories. Nor is it even more than ostensibly a collection of myths of Middle-earth, or a cosmology of that universe, although it has been, and continues to be, classified as such by its most ardent admirers. It has been oversold along those lines, as it turns out. The Silmarillion is more a reference work than anything else, a compendium of names tied together with the merest sinew of narrative, description, context; it reads more like the Elvish yellow pages than like an origin narrative. And how can a reader actually love a book if unable to recount when asked -- in more than the broadest, most vague strokes -- the narrative arcs and names, roles and relationships of that narrative's minor (to say nothing of major) characters? From memory -- be honest-- who or what is Menegroth, or Drengist, or Finarfin, or Elwe, or the Teleri, or Amlach, or Nienna? Etc, etc. Having now finished the book (and being a closer reader and better retainer of texts than most people I've ever known), I can tell you, with some confidence of accuracy, about Iluvatar, Aule, Yavanna, Feanor, Luthien and Morgoth -- and that's pretty much it. (Pardon the missing umlauts and accents.) Everything else is this vast wash of white noise, or what amounts to a dictionary of names -- the trial that is reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (in which all principal characters seem to either share or have variations on three or four different names) taken to the hundredth power. It stands comparison with another classic in another way, too: The Silmarillion, like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, is a concept of genius impoverished in the prosaic execution. People say: it can only really be claimed and embraced by hardcore Tolkien fans -- which seems to me a way of excusing its inscrutability, of apologizing for its failure as prose in a way that feels less like acknowledgment of that failure than like pretentious cliquishness. The thing is: I am a reasonably hardcore Tolkien fan. I read The Lord of the Rings in my early 20s and felt so intimate a connection with it, I had plans to name my daughter (should I ever have had one) Lothlorien. The trilogy was not quite talismanic for me, but it blew me away and felt more like a comprehensive and necessary work of art than anything I'd read up to then. (The films, too, bowl me over: I cry my eyes out over at least half a dozen different scenes each time I watch them. Between the three films, I went to the cinema seven times to see LOTR.) But, above all, I'm one who demands that literature not be difficult for the sake of being difficult. The Silmarillion, though, is not just difficult, but almost wholly indecipherable -- an opaque work of literary masturbation, the clearest geek creation of any work of art perhaps ever made or written. And art ceases, on some level, to be art when it is made in a bubble, when its ignorance of its audience is willful almost to a point of hostility. Is there magnificence and loveliness in this book? Certainly. I love the Christian echoes (not just the obvious analogies of Iluvatar/God and Melkor/Lucifer, but also the subtler paralleling of Aule's creation of -- and willingness to smite, on Iluvatar's command -- the Dwarves with Abraham's willingness, on God's command, to sacrifice Isaac), and some of the scenes are enormously stirring (Aule's creation of the Dwarves, the death of Feanor with his body fallen to ash from the force of his fiery spirit and "borne away like smoke," Fingon -- in classically Greek mode -- cutting off the hand of Maedhros from the back of the eagle, Fingolfin challenging Morgoth to single combat), but these scenes are less remembered than dogeared to reference in this review, lost as they become in continued reading, in the powering through genealogy after genealogy in which characters have few or no distinguishing personalities or characteristics. Everything about the book feels engineered to frustrate, to confound rather than illuminate. Consider the following paragraph:

"The sons of Hador were Galdor and Gundor; and the sons of Galdor were Hurin and Huor; and the son of Hurin was Turin the Bane of Glaurung; and the son of Huor was Tuor, father of Earendil the Blessed. The son of Boromir was Bregor, whose sons were Bregolas and Barahir; and the sons of Bregolas were Baragund and Belegund. The daughter of Baragund was Morwen, the mother of Turin, and the daughter of Belegund was Rian, the mother of Tuor. But the son of Barahir was Beren One-hand, who won the love of Luthien Thingol's daughter, and returned from the Dead; from them came Elwing the wife Earendil, and all the Kings of Numenor after."

Now, I understand that some of these characters prove significant in the book. But my problem with this paragraph is that, given that these are introductions to these characters, how are we meant to remember them or their relationships to one another later in the book when each of them does become significant if Tolkien has given us nothing whatsoever to remember them by? The passage echoes the genealogy of Christ at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, but that genealogy works because it sets the stage for the narrative to come by giving us, in brief, what has come before, whereas Tolkien's does not because it sets the stage for the narrative to come by giving us the narrative to come in lineage shorthand, in microcosm that would benefit readers with detail but discourages them from reading further in the absence of detail. It's as though Tolkien looked to the Bible as a template for much of The Silmarillion but failed to understand why biblical narratives, architectures and tropes succeed as narratives, architectures and tropes -- which is bizarre, given his stature as an academic and his devout religiosity.

By the end, I was feeling snarkier than I would've liked: how convenient that the giant eagles would show up and save the day the very second it went from bad to irredeemably screwed (ornithology as deus ex machina -- and we see it in the LOTR films and likely the novels, too, with Gandalf's escape from Isengard, with Frodo and Sam stranded in the river of lava...), or interpreting the Dunedain's "numbers increas[ing] only slowly in the land" as commentary on Dunedainian sperm count (poor, poor Aragorn)...

Is there good stuff to be found in these pages? Certainly. I've touched on much of it above, and haven't even mentioned the ephemeral fairy tale soul of the tale of Beren and Luthien, or the degree to which Tolkien honors Sophocles with the fates of Turin and Nienor. But the achievement here is so overwhelmed by the strikes going against it -- e.g. the incessant multiplication of names (Turin has S - E - V - E - N different names), the eye-rollingly vague and self-important portentousness ("For they told how a blind Darkness came northward, and in the midst walked some power for which there was no name, and the Darkness issued from it" -- gimme a break), the off-putting navel-gazing zeal with which Tolkien rattles off his Middle-earth Xs and Os (how often does The Silmarillion feel like a sound loop of the possessed Louis Tully in Ghostbusters?) -- that finishing the book felt like cause for celebration.

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