Blind Read Through: J.R.R. Tolkien; The Book of Lost Tales, pt 1, The Flight of the Noldoli
“Now tells the tale that as the Solosimpi wept and the Gods scoured all the plain of Valinor or sat despondent neath the ruined Trees a great age passed and it was one of gloom, and during that time the Gnome-folk suffered the very greatest evils and all the unkindliness of the world beset them. For some marched endlessly along that shore until Eldamar was dim and forgotten far behind, and wilder grew the ways and more impassable as it trended to the North, but the fleet coasted beside them not far out to sea and the shore-farers might often see them dimly in the gloom, for they fared but slowly in those sluggish waves (pg 166).”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we delve into Tolkien’s storytelling process and understand why he wrote the book and where he wanted it to go.
We left off last week with the Darkening of Valinor and the betrayal of Melkor. As soon as we start this chapter, we find that Tolkien intended this chapter to be part of the events of The Darkening of Valinor. Christopher edited this into a separate chapter because he knew where the narrative would eventually lead.
“There is no break in Lindo’s narrative, which continues on in the same hastily-pencilled form (and near this point passes to another similar notebook, clearly with no break in composition), but I have thought it convenient to introduce a new chapter, or a new ‘Tale’, here, again taking the title from the cover of the book (pg 164).”
Christopher segregated this chapter because, as it’s written, it’s missing some of the weight that goes into the betrayal and exile of the Noldor Elves.
The Book of Lost Tales tells the story of Valinor and the Valar, but the story at the core of The Silmarillion is about the Elves. They were the ones who created humanity and life in the world. Where the Valar did the act of making the world with their song, the Eldar (and later on Humans) created culture and meaning, which gave Middle-earth purpose.
In his development of The Book of Lost Tales (only called this because that’s what Christopher called it), Tolkien wanted to understand what these Angels were like; what their personalities were, how they treated each other, and how they treated the “Children.”
I’m not convinced that these books (The Book of Lost Tales, Vol 1 and 2) were ever meant to see the light of day, especially since Christopher admits that the material comes from notebooks and scrap paper, but what is impressive about them is that we get to see the development of the world from the ground up.
Tolkien was a plotter and wanted his mythology (his fairy tale) to be as complete as possible. So he worked for years (first putting pen to paper during his time in the trenches of the Great War), making sure that this Magnum Opus was precisely how he wanted it.
When it comes to this chapter, Tolkien came to realize that the Noldor was not severe enough. The fact that Melkor stole some gems and then was made to return some of them was not enough. The fact that Melkor killed Fëanor’s father, the first death of an Eldar ever, was not enough. He needed the Eldar to have their arc unique from the Valar and much more interesting than the Valar because stories where gods are the centerpiece just aren’t as interesting. Tolkien himself knew this, and that’s why his two “novels” (The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) had simple people as the main protagonists. Life and art are just more enjoyable when you have to overcome obstacles.
So Tolkien took a look at his early flight of the Noldor and made a note:
“At the top of the manuscript page and fairly clearly referring to Fëanor’s words my father wrote: ‘Increase the element of the desire for the Silmarils’. Another note refers to the section of the narrative that begins here and says that it ‘wants a lot of revision: the [?thirst ?lust] for jewels – especially for the sacred Silmarils – wants emphasizing. And the all-important battle of Cópas Alqaluntë where the Gnomes slew the Solosimpi must be inserted (pg 169).'”
Cópas Alqaluntë is the core of why Christopher separated this chapter. The Noldor killing their kin to steal their boats to seek vengeance from Melkor doesn’t hit as hard if it is part of the story of the Darkening of Valinor.
Tolkien needed to create a new chapter and new motivations (which he did in The Silmarillion) to make their actions more impactful. This singular act creates a rift between the Eldar and the Valar, and Fëanor’s never-ending rage drives the narrative for the remainder of the Age.
His firey and charismatic personality gave the Noldori Elves something to rally behind, and the fact that he created the Silmarils himself (and that they held the light of the now-dead Trees of Valinor) raised the stakes much more.
Tolkien turned his thoughts bloody and created a visceral battle where the Noldor turned against their brethren in a brutal and bloody way, which was not present in this earlier version. This act is what damned the Noldor for the rest of time:
“Songs name that dwelling the Tents of Murmuring, for there arose much lamentation and regret, and many blamed Fëanor bitterly, as indeed was just, yet few deserted the host for they suspected that there was no welcome ever again for them back to Valinor – and this some few who sought to return indeed found, though this entereth not into this tale (pg 168).”
Join me next week as we delve into “The Tale of the Sun and the Moon.”
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