A Different Approach to Reading The Silmarillion

By Rob Bauer

If you’re enough of a Tolkien fan to read The Silmarillion and visit a blog about Tolkienology, there’s probably not much I can write you haven’t read before when it comes to The Silmarillion. The sweep of the book is epic, the storytelling, while sometimes incomplete because Tolkien died before he could finish certain parts, is otherwise superb, and the story has a unifying theme that is heroic but ultimately tragic.

But you know all of that, so this will be an attempt at a humorous review instead. Let me repeat. Do not take the following as a serious or critical review of the book. If, however, you can think of other examples equally humorous and unorthodox, please comment.

My first problem is that the book assumes monarchy as the basic unit of government. After all, when the Valar meet the Elves, they’ve already got kings, as if that was the natural choice for people just awakened from the slumber of creation and needing to organize a society. (True, Ingwë, Finwë, and Elwë aren’t technically kings until serving as ambassadors and going to Valinor, so perhaps this is where they adopt the idea of their superiority and power to rule, although that would indicate the Valar have no more creativity in forms of government than the Elves.) Never, in all their time in Beleriand, do the Elves even attempt an alternative form of government.

Furthermore, the elvish kings and leaders are always good at heart and followed by their people unless possessed of a tragic flaw related to greed or the Silmarils. There aren’t any elvish peasant uprisings against kings who tax too heavily, or who turn their subjects into serfs, or who won’t release surplus food to the common people in times of famine. There’s never any elvish equivalent of Marie Antoinette saying, “Let the people eat lembas.”

Second, the patriarchal nature of elvish society is an insult to anyone who believes in equality of the sexes. Women are mostly left out of the history. Even Melian, wife of Thingol, who is a Maia and thus presumably greater in power, prestige, and wisdom than any Elf, mostly gives her husband advice that he ignores while he makes all the important decisions in Doriath. It’s Melian’s power that keeps unwanted visitors out of Doriath, yet she must defer to her husband’s wishes, even after she predicts the future regarding the importance of the Silmarils and sons of Fëanor.

Likewise, with Galadriel. She’s powerful enough to possess one of the three rings of the Elves by the Second Age, but here, we barely even hear a peep from her. It’s true, Lúthien has her moments when she aids Beren in recovering a Silmaril, but Middle Earth is male world, make no mistake.

Most of Tolkien’s book is, furthermore, backward looking in a technological sense, making me wonder if he was a closet luddite. The Elves have great wisdom, but what do they ever use it for other than crafting jewels and iron weapons? Of course, they couldn’t successfully lay siege to Morgoth in Thangorodrim. They neglected important elements of siegecraft such as catapults, sappers, and battering rams. Still more, given their wisdom and knowledge of craft, couldn’t the great elven leaders have dreamed up some labor-saving devices for the common Elves of the realm? A ferry service at major rivers, or a windmill or waterwheel to provide power, perhaps?

Likewise, for all their experience and wisdom, the Elves are slow to learn tactics of warfare. They never appreciate the value of intelligence and knowing their enemy’s plans. Use a fifth column to infiltrate Morgoth’s service and learn his moves ahead of time? No one ever thought of that, it seems, for all their combined wisdom. No matter how many times Morgoth used lies, deceit, and cunning to infiltrate their counsels, it seems doing the reverse was too unseemly to defeat the world’s greatest enemy.

Finally, the eugenic tendencies of men are troublesome. I note that the men of Númenor decline over time, their lifespans growing shorter. Partly this is due to mixing with the weaker bloodlines still remaining in Middle Earth. This isn’t as much an issue for the Elves, of course, but the idea of superior breeding should trouble anyone who saw where this idea went in the twentieth century.

Even still, this eugenic theme pervades the lives of the Elves in some regards. The chapter on the coming of the Elves remarks how, after first awakening, they were stronger and greater than they have since become. This gives the entire narrative a declensionist trajectory. Everything seems a fall from an earlier state or time when things were better. Progress moves forward, yes, in the sense that the Elves create new things of beauty over time, but in the main, the story looks backward rather than forward. And, when the Elves first meet Oromë, only the noblest are able to recognize his true nature. This leads me to believe that while all men are created equal, all Elves are not. Hierarchy abounds in Middle Earth, and patriarchal hierarchy at that.

So, there’s my attempt at an offbeat critique of The Silmarillion. Switching back into serious mode, it’s a fun book and a great story, although rather heavy on names, that comes highly recommended to anyone who read The Lord of the Rings but was curious to know more of Middle Earth’s history. But since we read for fun, I thought I’d have a little fun with the book, too, and see what happens if I subject it to a modern intellectual critique. Of course, it’s silly to hold this book to modern standards knowing that Tolkien wrote parts of the story almost one hundred years ago. That’s why I hope everyone reads this blog in the spirit in which it’s intended—light-hearted and creative rather than petty criticism.

Besides blogging, Rob Bauer is also an author. You can see his work at robbauerbooks.com.


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