Monday, August 15, 2005

Paladin Thows Down the Guantlet


See, I knew it. Just as soon as I clicked the "Publish Post" button, I knew it. I knew that referring to any work by Tolkien as "boring" I was calling down the wrath of all Middle Earth. If I had written something like "I hate kittens and babies but love Nazis and Commies" I would have been less likely to provoke a backlash.

Paladin over at A Knight's Blog took some offense at my swipe at The Silmarillion, which was actually meant to be a post about how reading a particular author's prose can affect our own. As of this writing, I've also got Chris taking issue with me. You fellows can love The Silmarillion if you want -- I've got no problem with that. But before I find myself on the wrong end of a morgul blade, let me clarify a bit here.

I still find fault with The Simarillion because it would fail as a free-standing work. Presumably Paladin and Chris read The Silmarillion after reading The Lord of the Rings and therefore read it through the prism of LotR. Try imagining you had read The Sil first. Would you have read LotR? Or The Hobbit? Or any of the other collections of half-written works? I cannot see into your hearts, but I doubt it.

Let me put it to you another way -- you are in a burning library. The only two extant copies of The Sil and LotR are in the library, and you have time to save only one. Do you even have to think about which to save?

Of course, all that demonstrates is that LotR is superior to The Sil. Big Deal. LotR is superior to a lot of stuff. The question is, why is The Sil inferior to LotR?

Because The Silmarillion is not even really a myth; it's the formula for a myth. The mythology is what gets played out in the background of LotR. If you are unfamiliar with the work of Vladimir Propp, you'll know that the Russian formalist reduced all narrative down to a few dozen basic units. Take a look at his Morphology of the Folktale, and you'll find these units expressed as variables, with about 150 different elements (sorry for the vagueness of these numbers, but I'm at home, away from my copy of Propp). When Propp expresses a narrative myth, then, it looks rather like an equation, with variables taking the place of particular elements.

What Tolkien has done in The Silmarillion is simply express a basic Proppian mythological structure with specific names and places, without bothering with such things as character development. Sacred object is produced. Conflict over sacred object. Sacred object is lost. Hero endures trials to recover sacred object. Hero must sacrifice (usually a body part) for the object. Sacred object is recovered. Rinse. Repeat.

In other words, The Silmarillion is little more than a mythological scaffolding upon which to build a real mythology -- that of LotR. The blueprints might be lovely, but when it starts raining, it's time to get in the bricks-and-mortar house.


  1. I think you're quite correct, Richard, that The Silmarillion isn't much without LotR. I just think it's lovely in its lush archaism. Personally, I find the Gollum/Sam/Frodo parts of LotR excrutiatingly boring. It's all a matter of taste.

  2. Hah. Nice try, Doc, but the damage is already done. Just look out your office window at the hordes of Tolkien fans, all carrying signs decrying your heresy. And wearing LotR costumes.


    It was really nice to know you for a little while before you committed Tolkien harakiri with the Sil.

  3. Good Dr.: Well, yes, I did read LotR prior to the Silmarillion. Who didn't? But, I believe I would have enjoyed The Sil having never read the other. Perhaps -- no, almost certainly -- not as much, but nevertheless. However, I readily admit that I am in the extreme minority here. I certainly think I would have gone on to read LotR, though if I'd read the Hobbit first, I may not have made it to the trilogy.

    In response to your hypothetical: I sacrifice myself to throw both out the window. Well, okay, maybe not.

    The fact is, they are two different types of books, and so defy comparison -- certainly on a sheer narrative level. I refer to the Sil as a myth simply because it resembles Greek mythology, which is simply a bunch of tales set in a defined theological system. There really is very little continuity and character development in Greek mythology either, if you think about it. A little, but not much.

    In short, what I find so appealing about the Sil is the overarching themes, the beauty of the language (which was, after all, the point, right?), the poignancy of the tragic, the futility of the struggle, the melancholy blended with the beautiful. These are the same elements that attracted me to LotR.

    I agree with Frank: the Sam/Frodo/Gollum portions of LotR (books, uh, four and six? -- I'm away from my copy) are rather long and dreary (though important).

  4. Interesting take. I suppose I'll have to defer to your expertise in matters of evaluating literature. I still loved the Silmarillion.

  5. It may not seem like it at first, but my recent post on Roger Scruton and comic books touches tangentially on one of the key virtues of Tolkien's writing. I am speaking more of LotR than The Silmarillion here.

    One of the reasons we find it so compelling, and by proxy find Sil compelling as well, is the magnificence of the hero as portrayed in Tolkien. Take Aragorn, as Scruton mentions and I converted to comics, his heroic journey is to redeem the sins of his forfathers and Frodo's journey is to be the instrument of that redemption. But without Aragorn's faith, sacrifice, and protection Frodo would fail.

    This type of heroism is only hinted at in Sil, though it is there. Sil is more like Dunsany's Pegana cycle than it is like LotR.

    When I first saw that you had criticized Tolkien, I had feared you were making Michael Moorcock's criticism that Tolkien's work was too rural and longs too much for a past heroic ideal. Moorcock's argument, which I would criticize as would Scruton based on my brief excerpt, is for a more "urbanized" and real hero.