Thursday, November 16, 2006

Not the rock band

I've been listening over the past couple of days to a complete and unabridged reading of J.R.R.Tolkien's The Silmarillion. It's read by Martin Shaw, whom you wouldn't necessarily think of as the first choice to read an epic, but he reads it very well, even pronouncing the names correctly.

I've read The Silmarillion several times, though I often skip the bits I'm not keen on - Turin's story, for example, because I dislike the character. It's interesting to see just how much of a different style Tolkien used when writing this book, compared to The Lord of the Rings, or The Hobbit. His idea was to create an English myth that owed nothing to any other culture. I'm not sure that he succeeded in creating an English myth, but that he created something that has the power and resonance of true myth is indisputable. To hear it read aloud, one can truly appreciate the form and style, and the ancient form of story-telling which Tolkien was trying to re-create.

Although Tolkien never saw The Silmarillion published in a completed form during his lifetime, in it are many tales that are referred to in The Lord of the Rings, and more fully explained. His account of the creation of the world, and the people to dwell in it, brought into being by a great music, is one of the most beautiful and poetic creation myths I've ever read. In some ways, Tolkien's imagining of the beginning of evil is similar to that of the Judaeo-Christian myth of Satan rebelling against God's rule, but far more subtle and less clear-cut. Everyone acts from mixed motives, not all of which are entirely noble, nor entirely evil. The tragedy which unfolds is brought about both through malice and eagerness, mistrust, pride and courage.

The person I feel most curiosity and interest about, but because of the book's huge scope of time and geography there is little space devoted to him, is Maedhros, eldest son of Feanor. I'm not sure why he should be so appealing: maybe because he was loyal to his friends and to his family, was brave, suffered torture and recovered; and yet was corrupted by the oath into seeking the Silmarils, and killing those who kept any from him. It's because of those redeeming qualities that I find his fate so moving; yet when Turin kills himself, one can only feel that it's something of a relief to everyone else.

I find the book far more epic and heroic than Lord of the Rings, and in The Silmarillion he allows more space to wise and powerful, or even just proud and strong-willed, women than in the later tale. Of these, Luthien is the best-drawn: though she is beautiful and is her father's delight, she doesn't fear darkness, and is brave, loyal and powerful. No shrinking heroine to be protected by the hero, she: Beren and she are partners, complementary in skills and talents, equally willing to face danger and to protect the other.

It's tragedy on a grand scale, descending from a high point of bliss and light to ruin and darkness, but looks forward to eventual hope.


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