Blind Read Through: J.R.R. Tolkien; The Book of Lost Tales, Part 1, Religion of Valinor
“So fair were these abodes and so great the brilliance of the trees of Valinor that Vefántur and Fui his wife of tears might not endure to stay there long, but fared away for to the northward of those regions, where beneath the roots of the most cold and northerly of the Mountains of Valinor, that rise here again almost to their height nigh Arvalin, they begged Aulë to delve them a hall. Wherefore, that all the Gods might be housed to thier liking, he did so, and they and all their shadowy folk aided him. Very vast were those caravans that they made stretching even down under the Shadowy Seas, and they are full of gloom and filled with echoes, and all that deep abode is known to Gods and Elves as Mandos.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we conclude the chapter “The Coming of the Valar and the Building of Valinor” with a philosophical conclusion.
I’ve been trying not to spend too much time reviewing the events of the chapter as I go through because that would make these essays neverending and redundant, so the point is to show a much deeper and more analytic approach to Tolkien’s work.
That being said, what I love about this chapter, more so than anything in The Valaquenta (The Second Chapter of the Silmarillion covering these events) is that Tolkien was leaning into his religion. Because these stories are supposed to be a founding mythology for our world, Tolkien created a semi-Christian theology in these early chapters.
The first clue was that he calls the Valar gods (small g) throughout this book; however, he conspicuously dropped that moniker in the Silmarillion, choosing to have them be “beings of great power.”
The adjustment of the Valar might seem like a slight change, but it shows how Tolkien wanted to shape the world’s religions, just like he shaped the landscape and the language.
The Valar take a step down from being gods and become something more akin to Angels. They know what is happening in Middle-earth, and in fact, they foretell it through their music, but rarely do they interject with their power, preferring the people of Middle-earth to deal with their troubles on their own. Ulmo was the only Valar who interposed himself, and that’s because he was the Vala of water, so he was always in some way amongst the residents of that land.
There is also Melkor, who plays a much more sinister role in The Book of Lost Tales. Melkor in The Silmarillion (the later version of history) begins as an almost sympathetic character. He is one of the Valar who feels slighted by what he was given, as opposed to what the other Vala were given. Then when Ilùvatar’s children come around (Eldar and Men), he becomes jealous, which leads to his downfall. Yes, there are times early in the book when Melkor does mischievous deeds, but that’s just what they are. It isn’t until much later, once he joins forces with Ungoliant, the giant spider queen (and mother of Shelob), kills the Trees of Valinor, and steals the Silmarils, that he genuinely becomes evil.
But why does he become evil? Because he stays in his fortress in Angband and stews on his perceived (or real) slights against him. Those years upon years of hate compounding on each other until he can see the truth.
Melkor is Lucifer, which is why Tolkien wanted to change the Valar completely from gods to Angels. He tried to adjust his Christian theological worldview and overlay it with Middle-earth. That is not to say the goal was to make Middle-earth Christian, far from it, but his impetus for writing this Legendarium was that (in his opinion) no fantastic fairy tales came from England. On the other hand, England was a Christian country at the time of his writing, so it made sense that if he wanted to transition Middle-earth into our earth at a later age, he would have some similarities with the prevailing theology of the land at the time.
The concept of religion is even more profound when you read the quote which starts this essay.
Tolkien is trying to establish an afterlife here, but how does he do that with eternal gods and Elves which don’t die? By creating the halls of Mandos where two Valar live, Vefántur and Fui. These two were the rulers of the afterlife.
Vefántur created an underground world for the Eldar, “Thither in after days fared Elves of all clans who were by illhap slain with weapons or did die of grief for those who were slain (pg 76).” This place was “lit only with a single vessel placed in the centre, wherein there lay some gleaming drops of the pale dew of Silpion (pg 76).”
It is immediately apparent to me that Tolkien chose to use the tree of Valinor, which represents the silver light, or the moon, indicating that this was the twilight for the Elves that had passed. This place was an afterlife for brave and true Elves who fought for the right causes. Because Elves can only die when slain, Vê became a literal heaven for these Elves.
But if we have a heaven, then we must have a Hell:
“Thither cam sons of Men to hear their doom, and thither are they brought by all the multitude of ills that Melko’s evil music set within the world. Slaughters and fires, hungers and mishaps, diseases and blows dealt in the dark, cruelty and bitter cold anguish and thier own folly bring them here; and Fui reads their hearts. Some then she keeps in Mandos beneath the mountains and some she drives forth beyon dthe hills and Melko seizes them and bears them to Angamandi, or the Hells of Iron, where they have evil days (pg 77).”
Fui created purgatory for those who had done wrong, but she could read their hearts and see if they were genuinely horrible or just made bad choices. Those who were truly bad, with malevolent spirits, were sent to spend eternity in Angband with Melkor. At this early stage, Angband had not become what it later was (Morgoth’s fortress). Here, in this early iteration, Melkor has become the devil again and keeps the souls of the maleficent banded in the Hells of Iron.
Join me next week as we review The Return of the King!
Leave a Reply