Archive for February, 2023

Blind Read Through: J.R.R. Tolkien; The Book of Lost Tales, Part 1, Chapter 2: The Music of the Ainur

The Garden of Paracelsus by Leonora Carrington

“Then slept Eriol, and through his dreams there came a music thinner and more pure than any he heard before, and it was full of longing. Indeed it was as if pipes of silver or flutes of shape most slender-delicate uttered crystal notes and threadlike harmonies beneath the upon upon the lawns; and Eriol longed in his sleep for he knew not what (pg 46).”

Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we head back to The Book of Lost Tales and tackle Chapter Two’s opening, “The Music of the Ainur.” Christopher added something new to this chapter from the notes of this father and the result sheds light on the meaning of the chapter. When he began writing Eriol’s story, Tolkien created a transitional piece between the beginning of the story of the Ainur and The Cottage of Lost Play. We’ll be covering that transitional piece this week because there is so much in it that warrants discussion before we move on!

Before we get too far into it, I want to delve a little deeper into the difference between Gnomes and Elves, which has been a strange adjustment because I wasn’t sure if Tolkien was calling all Elves (otherwise known as Eldar) Gnomes or if it was only Noldor (also known as Noldori) Elves. Part of the confusion comes in because of all the different names involved.

Tolkien wanted the world to be lush and complete, but because of who he was and his background, Worldbuilding to Tolkien didn’t mean delving into culture, landscape, or image. Instead, to Tolkien, what made people unique was how they communicated, meaning language. Thus, the language and the beings who utilized this language changed through his world’s creation.

For example, the Teleri later become the Vanyar, The Noldoli (Gnomes) later become the Noldor, and the Solosimpi later become the Teleri. Why did he make all of these changes? Because of language.

The perfect example of this is what we began with: Gnomes. The word Gnomes brings to mind that small bearded garden variety with red pointy hats. I’m sure at some point in the writing of this epic; an editor approached Tolkien who mentioned that that word did not elicit that “They were a race high and beautiful… They were tall, fair of skin and grey-eyed, though their locks were dark, save in the golden house of Finrod (pg 44).” (just to be clear we are explicitly talking about the Gnomes or Noldor Elves. Christopher goes out of his way to make sure that is clear: “Thus these words describing characters of face and hair were written of the Noldor only, and not of all the Eldar… (Pg 44)

So why did Tolkien call them Gnomes? Yep, you guessed it. Language! “I have sometimes used ‘Gnomes’ for Noldor and ‘Gnomish’ for Noldorin. This I did, for whatever Paracelsus may have thought (if indeed he invented the name) to some ‘Gnome’ will still suggest knowledge.”

In Greek, gnome meant thought or intelligence. Which then translated into words such as gnomic or gnostic. When Tolkien mentions Paracelsus, he refers to the 16th-century writer who used gnome as a synonym for pygmaeus, which means “earth-dweller.”

Tolkien was trying to establish that the Noldor were intelligent creatures who understood how the world worked. But he was also trying to create a distinction between the Noldor and the Valar. The two types of beings were almost interchangeable because they were both created by Ilúvatar.

At the beginning of this interlude, Eriol asks for clarification (Tolkien’s way of trying to clarify it himself): “Still there are many things that remain dark to me. Indeed I would fain to know who be these Valar; are they the Gods?” to which Lindo responds “So they be (pg 45).” And yet later, when describing gnomes, “nor might one say if he were fifty of ten thousand (pg 46).”

So he creates differences through the use of language. Both from the meaning of their names and the languages they speak. These themes also carry over into The Lord of the Rings because everyone has their distinct dialect, from Rohan to Gondor, from The High Elves of Rivendell to the woodland elves in Lothlórien. Here on Tol Eressëa, “there is that tongue to which the Noldoli cling yet – and aforetime the Teleri, the Solosimpi, and the Inwir had all their differences (pg 48).”

Language was a big theme in this introduction to make sure the reader understands what they are getting themselves into, but there are two other themes Tolkien stamps down, which carry over into all of his other writing; dreams and music.

All of these things are interconnected, and I chose the quote to open up this essay because it holds the essential themes Tolkien has brought into this tale.

If we remember from the first chapter (or go back and read it here), Eriol is a human of modern times. He travels and finds his way to Tol Eressëa, and he is a means to an end to tell the story of the beginning of time and the first age. What I find particularly interesting is that Tolkien intended there to be a “dream bridge” between Tol Eressëa and the rest of the world. So that outsiders could not find it while awake, and their knowledge of the isle would fade upon waking as dreams do; but dreams also leave us with subconscious memory, and feeling that stick with us, though we don’t remember details.

This intermittent chapter begins with Eriol heading to a room and falling asleep, and in that sleep, “came a music thinner and more pure than any he had heard before (pg 46).”

The Music of the Ainur, which we will get more into next week, is how the Valar (also known as Ainur) created the world. Their music brought into being plants, animals, and earth, as well as emotion and consciousness. This “pure music” is what Eriol hears in his mind as he sleeps. It is not the sound as it was when it created the world, but Tol Eressëa is so close to the center of everything that it echoes what came before. He hears the music of creation, and he doesn’t consciously recognize it, but he subconsciously melds into it.

I also find it interesting that he falls asleep and delves into dreams directly before being told the tale. Could it be that the entirety of The Book of Lost Tales is told through the Music of the Ainur while Eriol is sleeping?

Let’s see if we find out next week as we begin the Music of the Ainur!


Blind Read Through; The Fellowship of the Ring, revisited

“All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,

A light from the shadows shall spring;

Renewed shall be blade that was broken

The crownless again shall be king.”

Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we take a nostalgic step backward and revisit an old classic, “The Fellowship of the Ring!” Though this is not quite a Blind Read, but it has been years since I’ve read these books. Years ago I remember reading them in preparation for watching the movies as they came out in the theater, so “some things that should not be forgotten, were lost” as it were.

 I want to start this week by saying how much I missed when reading the books. They are jam-packed with history and I’m amazed at how well the novels were accepted at the time of publication because there is so much more you gain by reading the Silmarillion, which was published years after the original books were, and posthumously to boot. This time around the world seems so much more alive and complete than the first time because there is so much context present, just not explained. The world of Middle-earth is considerably more complex than the simple Hero’s Journey I had understood when I first read through it. But we’ll get into this in a minute.

In this essay, we’re only going to cover “The Fellowship of the Ring” as I’m going back through and re-reading the Lord of the Rings to gain a renewed experience after reading through the Silmarillion. Tolkien (according to his son and editor, Christopher) initially wanted to publish The Silmarillion in conjunction with The Lord of the Rings, and I can now understand why.

I remember reading the books some twenty years ago and being confused and turned off by the constant name-dropping and song, which didn’t make sense to me. I had no context to understand who Beren was, what Gondolin was, or why I should care about Eärendel. What I was missing was how full these details made the world of Middle-earth. There was a lush history beneath the surface, and I just hadn’t been privy to it to understand how that history created the world in which the characters lived. It truly makes all the difference.

The beginning of the novel has much the same charm as The Hobbit. It is evident that Tolkien had a much larger story in mind, but early on, the prose is more attuned to the “Children’s story” that was The Hobbit. It’s not until Tom Bombadil that that theme begins to change.

I remember hating Tom when I first read the books because, by his nature, he was always happy and highly overpowered. He and his wife dance around and make merry while some grave tidings are happening in the world, which is a significant call back to how Tolkien wrote The Hobbit. But the brilliance of this section of the book marks a change in the tone. Tom represents the last time in these books that the Hobbits needed rescuing when they don’t try to save themselves. In every other conflict in these books, after this point, the hobbits fight. Of course, they are outmatched at times as they need assistance, but against the Barrow Wight, they only wait for a savior instead of trying to do something about it.

Tom saves them and sends them on their way, and it’s at that point the merry-making and song end. Yes, there are many songs in the book beyond Tom’s section, but their tone is somber, and if you understand the history, they call back to the previous record and why the world has become what it has become. It even covers characters’ motivations, Like Aragorn, when he recites the Lay of Beren and Lúthien.

Later, when they get to the Council of Elrond, Tom Bombadil comes up again. They talk about potentially giving him the One Ring to protect it because he is so old and powerful. It seemed ridiculous when I originally read it, but after reading about the Valar and how they stayed out of the affairs of the Children (Men and Elves) it makes much more sense that they would try to get one of those powerful beings to protect it.

I was hoping to get more of a history of Bombadil in The Silmarillion, but how the Council spoke of him leads me to believe that he truly may be one of the Valar because of how he is described as too old and too powerful to care about the One Ring. If it was left in his care, he might forget about it or lose it. Gandalf, Saruman, and Sauron are all Maiar, so even beings of that power are indebted to, and scared of, the Ring’s strength. So Bombadil has to be one of the Valar who decided to stay on Middle-earth.

I look forward to reading his book (“The Adventures of Tom Bombadil”) when I get to it in the histories.

Bombadil doesn’t appear in the rest of the books, which leads me to believe that this was a transitional period in the novels. Tolkien wanted to keep his readership from the Hobbit, but he wanted to transition into something more meaningful and bold.

It isn’t until we reach Gandalf dying in Moria that the books finally feel much more realistic. The tone of the books shifts; the lays they recite are more lamentations than happy-go-lucky ditties that Tom Bombadil recites. The book shifts from a fun “children’s story” to a natural history of Middle-earth.

Elements of the Silmarillion are spread throughout the ending, but the stories they tell are direr and more immediate than what comes at the beginning. Tolkien does a masterful shift in the narrative from “Concerning Hobbits” to the “Breaking of the Fellowship,” We are left with desperation and an overwhelming desire to find out what happens to our friends in the next book.

As I mentioned above, when I read these books the first time I thought the whole point was to have a Hero’s journey, much like Joseph Cambell describes (though that is probably a whole series of essays to do at a later time). What we actually get is a wholly formed world. A World that is almost a character in and of itself. The characters are adding to that world and that history, but the book is not solely about them. It’s more about how their actions form the history of the world and not the other way around. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that has such a deep and realized history before, and I have to say I’m enjoying Tolkien like I never had previously.

Join me next week as we jump back into the Book of Lost Tales, part 1, and review “The Music of the Ainur.”

Blind Read Through: J.R.R. Tolkien; The Book of Lost Tales Part 1, The Cottage of Lost Play Commentary

I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of it’s own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish (which greatly affected me); but nothing English, save impoverished chap-book stuff (pg 22).

Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we delve into the commentary of Christopher and hear from Tolkien himself about the meaning behind the tale and why he told it.

Last week we touched on Tolkien’s feelings about the mythology of his native England. The quote above is from a letter he sent to his friend Milton Waldman, where he states he felt that there were no real fairy tales originating out of England. So “the primary intention of his work was to satisfy his desire for a specifically and recognizably English literature of ‘faerie’ (pg 22).”

The idea of an old world filled with creatures great and small that was a precursor to our modern world swirled in his mind. In the beginning, “The story of Eriol, the mariner, was central to my father’s (Tolkien) original conception of the mythology (pg 22).

The concept was to have Eriol find his way to a land of Faerie and learn some lost or archaic knowledge, which he would then report to the reader. This form is still in this “Book of Lost Tales.”

Tolkien started his (metaphoric) journey into Middle-earth with the basis in one of the oldest stories ever told – Beowulf.

This may seem strange because Beowulf has more history related to the Danes, but the first known translation of Beowulf is in Old English. Tolkien came to love the story because he was a linguist and one of his projects was to translate the tale from Old English. He took particular notice of the character Hengest, a sailor, traveler, and hero to the Thanes. Though Hengest only had a small appearance in Beowulf, Tolkien took notice. Again it was the language that garnered his interest, and we know this because Hengest and his brother Horsa’s names roughly translate to Stallion and Horse, respectively.

When Tolkien began to write his tales, not just translate those of others, he created Eriol; however, his original name was Ottor, and he used an old English name that meant wanderer. His father was Eoh which meant horse (of which he took from Hengest), and he had a very Cain and Abel relationship with his brother, Beorn. That name may sound familiar to those who read The Hobbit, as Beorn was the shapechanger.

Tolkien uses some Germanic, Finnish, Danish, and Ole English names to evolve his language, which eventually became Elvish (though at the time of writing these “Lost Tales,” he called it Gnomish). The evolution of the tale coincided with the development of the language.

Christopher spells it out in the commentary, and it makes perfect sense. “But in the earliest conception he was not an Englishman of England: England in the sense of the land of the English did not yet exist; for the cardinal fact of this conception is that the Elvish isle to which Eriol came was England – that is to say, Tol Eressëa would become England, the land of the English, at the end of the story. Koromas or Kortirion, the town in the centre of Tol Eressëa to which Eriol comes in The Cottage of Lost Play, would become in after days Warwick [and in elements Kor- and War- were etymologically connected] (pg 24-25).

So it could be possible that in Tolkien’s mind, Eriol was a Dane of the line of Hengest who went traveling for adventure and happened upon a strange land that would eventually be called England but was then called Tol Eressëa. He came upon it with surprise because it hadn’t been there previously, because Ulmo, the Valar who most loved Man (read that as humans), moved the island of Tol Eressëa from the bottom of the ocean. It’s possible Ulmo did this because of his love of Man, enabling Eriol to discover it so he could propagate the Lost Tales.

The difficulty with that is Tol Eressëa was an island just off the coast of Valinor, so how could Eriol travel to Tol Eressëa and not see or experience Valinor?

Because Tolkien created a unique device that has become a staple in most modern Fantasy, from Robert Jordan to Terry Goodkind. The Dream World.

Tolkien called it Olórë Mallë, otherwise known as the Path of Dreams. “After the description of the Hiding of Valinor, it is told that at the bidding of Manwë (who looked on the event in sorrow) the Valar Oromë and Lórien’s devising was Olórë Mallë, the Path of Dreams; by this road, when ‘Men were yet but new-wakened on the earth’, ‘the children of the fathers of the fathers of Men’ came to Valinor in their sleep (pg 27).”

Men could gain access to Valinor at the bidding of the Valar by dreaming, so why couldn’t Eriol get the stories from the Valar instead of The Cottage? I see two different reasons. One is the nature of dreams; when we dream, we tend to forget details when we wake, and the second is The Valar wanted to remain hidden. Also, if they could have everyone coming to Valinor through the dream journey, it would upset the balance of the Music of the Ainur.

It is the Children on Tol Eressëa who use Olórë Mallë the most often. When Eriol comes to the Cottage, they are all sleeping, and it takes a gong to wake them. I’d propose they are communing with the Valar and gaining power, morals, and purpose, which gets syamped into their being, though they forget about the communion upon waking.

Remember that Eriol’s father was one of these children at one point, so it would stand to reason why he felt called towards Tol Eressëa and the Cottage in the first place.

Though most of this is conjecture (much of which on my part), it makes sense, especially because “The ‘Eriol-story’ is among the knottiest and most obscure matters in the history of Middle-earth and Aman.

Christopher goes on to say, “Those ideas can indeed be discerned from his notes; but the notes were for the most part pencilled at furious speed, the writing now rubbed and faint and in places after long study scarcely decipherable…(pg 23).”

Join me next week as well take a step back and review “The Fellowship of the Rings” and unveil and few surprises!

Blind Read Through: J.R.R. Tolkien; The Book of Lost Tales, Part 1, The Cottage of Lost Play

“Then said Lindo: ‘Of what shall the tales be tonight? Shall they be of the Great Lands, and of the dwellings of Men; of the Valar and Valinor; of the West and its mysteries, of the East and its glory, of the South and its untrodden wilds, of the North and its power and strength; or of this island and its folk; or of the old days of Kôr where our folk once dwelt? For that this night we entertain a guest, a man of great and excellent travel, a son meseems of Eärendel, shall it be of voyaging, of beating about in a boat, of winds and the sea (pg 18).”

Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we begin The Book of Lost Tales, Part 1, with the first chapter, “The Cottage of Lost Play.”

This week we begin to see the history of Middle-earth through a story-telling lens. The book begins with a traveler, “a man of great curiosity, was by desire of strange lands and the ways and dwellings of unaccustomed folk brought in a ship as far west even as the Lonely Island, Tol Eressëa in the fairy speech, but in which the Gnomes call Dor Faidwen, the Land of Release, and a great tale hangs thereto (pg 13).

This “man of great curiosity” is a man from England named Eriol, and he is the basis for all that comes after in this precursor to The Silmarillion.

Tolkien intended for the history of Middle-earth to intersect with our age, and this first section seems to be proof of that. Beyond the fact that the way Tolkien describes Eriol, it does seem as though he is representing himself. After all, Eriol learns the history of Middle-earth, and it would stand to reason that if Middle-earth was our world, Tolkien was only passing on the oral history of what he had “learned.”

That may not make sense right off the bat, so let’s break things down a little.

This chapter is about Eriol traveling from England to Tol Eressëa, an island off the coast of Valinor where the Teleri Elves lived. When Eriol gets to the island, he finds a small cottage in a field owned by a couple named Lindo and Vairë.

Small is the dwelling, but smaller still are they that dwell here – for all who enter must be very small indeed, or of their own good wish to become as very little folk even as they stand upon the threshold (pg 14).

Knowing that Eriol is an Englishman (despite that he seems to be from the Middle Ages), we see that Middle-earth is connected with our world, and the histories held within are our histories.

Indeed Tolkien even calls Eriol “a son of Eärendel (pg 13).” If you remember your Silmarillion history, Eärendil was the son of Tuor, a man and cousin of Turin Turambar and Idril of the Noldor of Gondolin. He eventually wed Elwing, who gave birth to Elros, who chose to be a man and became the ancestor of the Númenoreans. She also gave birth to Elrond, who we all know.

Tolkien isn’t calling Eriol Eärendel’s direct son but a descendant of him, proving that both our world and the world of Middle-earth are the same.

Lindo and Vairë, however, seem to be descendants of the shire folk, with their kindness and manners. They also are descendants of the Valar, as “He was of Aulë’s kindred (pg 16).

They invite Eriol into their house, and soon there is a sound of a gong; “That is the voice of Tombo, the Gong of the Children (pg 15.).” The Gong calls the Children in from playing to come and listen to “the telling of tales (pg 15).”

Soon the tiny Cottage was regaled with the tales, and this is how we learn the history of Middle-earth – as it’s portrayed to Eriol.

But why did Eriol happen upon this Cottage? It was not a mistake:

It had long, said he, been a tradition in our kindred that one of our father’s fathers would speak of a fair house and magic gardens, of a wonderous town, and of a music full of all beauty and longing (pg 20).

The children who sat around at night would listen to these tales and eventually leave the island and the Cottage. These were the children of the Noldori and the Teleri (at this point, Tolkien was calling Gnomes. I’m not sure when he switched to Elves.), but they were descendants of Eärendel, which is who spawned the human race as we know it now.

Tolkien was a historian and linguist who was fascinated with how different cultures had similar roots. The origin of this Book of lost Tales was to explore these roots. The Lord of the Rings hadn’t blossomed in his mind (made apparent by his usage of Gnomes in this early iteration), and he wrote this chapter to explain this origin.

The Children who gathered around to hear these tales at Tol Eressëa became the people who started the different cultures which would eventually become our world. Tolkien even stamps that theory in the second to last paragraph, spoken by Eriol:

“Now these are tidings sad and yet good to hear, and I remember me or certain words that my father spake in my early boyhood. It had long, said he, been a tradition in our kindred that one of our father’s fathers would speak of a fair house and magic gardens, or a wonderous town, and of a music full of all beauty and longing – and these things he said he had seen and heard as a child, though how and where was not told (pg 20).

Eriol’s father had left the island of Tol Eressëa. He remembered the stories, customs, and language, but he could remember nothing of the island itself. The Valar had hidden the island, and all that left it were doomed to forget about it.

They created an oral tradition formed into the Germanic languages and tales of North Western Europe. This also explains how the majority of the Hobbit and the beginning of The Lord of the Rings had so many songs and poems. Tolkien was trying to show how real the world was by including an oral tradition in story.

Tolkien’s purpose for telling these tales, even The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, was to explain why these traditions existed. Not only the language, which everyone assumes is why he created the history, but of the practices and mythologies of the region.

Join me next week as we delve deeper into “The Cottage of Lost Play” with Christopher’s Commentary!