March into Middle-Earth: trolling the Silmarillion

March into Middle-Earth (text banner over background of Tolkien's map)

I have loved The Silmarillion for far too long to be able to write a candid review, so I’m not going to try. Reading it adds texture and delight to reading The Lord of the Rings. And while it can be both turgid and erratic, it still makes me cry. However, I couldn’t get through it this time without gritting my teeth in a few places. Today I’m going to indulge some of my pet peeves.

Fëanor is an asshat. He has no redeeming features. He’s arrogant and he’s possessive. As a teenager, he throws a tantrum over his father Finwë remarrying (because it’s not unreasonable to expect your Dad to spend his immortality in mourning). 300 years later, he’s still railing against his half-brothers and using emotional blackmail against his father.

Certainly, he’s a spectacular craftsman. But he’s also possessed of a single-minded self-absorption that pushes him to declare war on a god and murder his own cousins. It’s not much of a stretch to say he’s single-handedly responsible for the downfall of the Noldor.

Sure, Morgoth poured propaganda in his ears that any modern politician would be proud of: the Valar are jealous of you; the Valar plan to give Middle-Earth to Men; the Valar want your Silmarils. But he gets away with it because it’s what Fëanor wants to hear. Fëanor wants to believe the Valar hate and fear him, because they didn’t turn a blind eye when he behaved badly.

When Morgoth steals the Silmarils (and kills Finwë), it’s understandable that Fëanor should be griefstricken. He’s probably the only Elf in Valinor to have lost both his parents (and his father is certainly the first Elf to have been killed). 326 years old or not, it’s going to be a bit of a shock. I’ll grant him a little bit of latitude to react badly. But not enough that I didn’t notice that while he preaches revenge for both the murder and the theft, his unbreakable Oath is only to retrieve his Silmarils, not to avenge his father. Given his next act is to kill the Teleri to seize their ships – and then to abandon his half-brothers and their people (surprise!) – it’s clear family just don’t mean as much to him as his own pride. Sheesh, Fëanor. Priorities?

All this being the case, I find it hard not to cheer for the balrogs when they get him cornered. Also, I can’t honestly understand why the Noldor follow him into exile, least of all his half-brothers. Sure, hot blooded, sure, afraid of the Valar – but there’s an awful lot of wilful blind eyes turned to all the evidence that they would be able to redeem themselves.

At least Finarfin has some common sense.

Another peeve is just how racist the Elves are. They really go all out for the belittling of other peoples. Their names for the Dwarves and for Men are downright draw-your-sword insulting, and their treatment of them – for the most part – isn’t much better. Sure, the Elves are the Firstborn and the Silmarillion is their history, but it does absolutely nothing for winning my sympathies. Their attitude improves with exposure – for the most part – but it makes me wish there was a similar history of the Dwarves.

Which leaves us with the big one: the fate of women in the Silmarillion (warning: spoilers). Honestly, for the most part, the Silmarillion makes The Lord of the Rings look progressive. Even given the Silmarillion is a tragedy, dramatically reducing anyone’s chances of survival, your odds go down if you’re female.

Aredhel Ar-Feiniel refuses to stay in Gondolin, and is ensnared by Eöl in an enchanted wood. It’s unpleasantly fuzzy how willing she is – he ‘takes her to wife’ and ‘it is not said that Aredhel was wholly unwilling’ suggest less rather than more. Ultimately, he murders her.

Finduilas of Nargothrond loves the wrong Man from afar, which gets her pinned to a tree by a spear as part of an extended game of cat and mouse between Túrin and Glaurung. Túrin goes on to inadvertently commit incest, also dooming his sister/wife (she commits suicide). And the main reason all these women throw themselves at him? I’m not sure, but he’s very tall. And good with a sword. And brooding. In fact, he may be a prototypical Brooding YA Hero.

Lúthien rebels against her father’s command to sneak after Beren and help him complete the absurdly fatal quest for the Silmarils that her father set as her bride price. She’s by far the strongest woman of the Silmarillion, getting to ride on wolfback, pass as a vampire queen and – delightfully – beat Sauron single-handedly in her determination to keep her loved-at-first-sight mortal Man alive. While her father eventually gives his permission for them to marry, it’s because he’s begrudgingly impressed by their determination. Consequently, when it all goes horribly wrong, Lúthien still gets to die of grief, and is then given the choice of having her memory wiped and living out eternity in Valinor, or of being stripped of her immortality and sent back to Middle-Earth to die – along with her husband. Great.

Idril Celebrindal actually gains her father’s whole-hearted permission to marry a mere Man, Tuor (okay, not any mere Man, it has to be said), but their fate is rather fuzzy. Beren wins back a Silmaril, but the Valar can’t save him from death – as a Man, he must die. Tuor, on the other hand, gets ‘numberered among the Eldar’, even though he has no Elven blood whatsoever and his main achievement is not to die in the Fall of Gondolin (I’m being a little unfair here if you’ve read The Book of Lost Tales, but if we restrict ourselves to the Silmarillion he is rather overshadowed by Glorfindel). Well done Tuor, you’ve saved one of 3 named female survivors (only one of whom – Galadriel – is ever seen again in Middle-Earth).

If I’m being entirely fair, there’s not that many named male survivors either: Eärendil, Elrond, Elros, Celeborn, Círdan, and Ereinion Gilgalad. Also Celebrimbor, although he disappears from the narrative before the Fall of Nargothrond, and we only know he survives because he’s referenced in The Lord of the Rings. Possibly Daeron, although it’s unclear. Presumably Gildor from The Fellowship of the Ring (although he doesn’t actually feature in the Silmarillion), because there’s no earthly reason an Elf would claim to be of the House of Finrod if he hadn’t been in Nargothrond when Finrod was king (as he had no direct descendants). That’s a 3/1 ratio to the surviving women, but still a pitiful handful.

All this nitpicking aside, I do still love this book. It’s not an easy read – it’s pretty dry in places – but it has moments of heroism and glory that are off the charts bonkers, and enough pathos to drown a dragon in tears. It might not make me love the Valar (and I’m a modern reader, so I amused by the thought there’s mileage in an alternate history from Melkor’s perspective where it’s really not as one-sided as it sounds), but it doesn’t stop me declaring once and for all for Team Felagund. Still made of awesomesauce.