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The Genius of the Silmarillion

When I told my wife what this week’s poetry blog would be about, she said it was “a shameless plug for The Silmarillion. I told her that she was absolutely right.

The Silmarillion is, I would argue, the most imaginative work of literature ever created. Whereas most mythologies are created by whole groups of people over the course of generations, Tolkien came along and created an incredible mythology on his own, in one lifetime. The beauty and truth interwoven throughout this book is staggering, and keeps me coming back to it again and again.

One of my favorite stories within The Silmarillion is called “The Lay of Leithian.” In it, a broken and despairing mortal man, Beren, stumbles across the most beautiful Elven woman who has ever lived–Luthien Tinuviel. The two fall in love, and must face the wrath of Luthien’s father–a powerful Elven king who will not hear of his daughter being wed to a mere Human. He sends Beren on an impossible quest in order to win his daughter, and Beren accepts the challenge despite the fact that it must mean his death.

He is joined on his journey by another Elven king, Felagund, who loves Beren like a brother. On their way they are discovered by Sauron, and a great battle ensues:

He [Sauron] chanted a song of wizardry,
Of piercing, opening, of treachery,
Revealing, uncovering, betraying.
Then sudden Felagund there swaying,
Sang in answer a song of staying,
Resisting, battling against power,
Of secrets kept, strength like a tower,
And trust unbroken, freedom, escape;
Of changing and of shifting shape,
Of snares eluded, broken traps,
The prison opening, the chain that snaps.
Backwards and forwards swayed their song.
Reeling and foundering, as ever more strong
The chanting swelled, Felagund fought,
And all the magic and might he brought
Of Elvenesse into his words.
Softly in the gloom they heard the birds
Singing afar in Nargothrond,
The sighing of the Sea beyond,
Beyond the western world, on sand,
On sand of pearls in Elvenland.
Then the gloom gathered; darkness growing
In Valinor, the red blood flowing
Beside the sea, where the Noldor slew
The Foamriders, and stealing drew
Their white ships with their white sails
From lamplit havens. The wind wails,
The wolf howls. The ravens flee.
The ice mutters in the mouths of the Sea.
The captives sad in Angband mourn.
Thunder rumbles, the fires burn–
And Finrod fell before the throne.

Sauron’s power is too great, and the two are thrown in a deep, dark prison. Beren is eventually rescued by Luthien herself (though Felagund gives up his life for Beren in the pit), and the two face continual challenges in their escape. Yet when they are finally free, Beren finds himself torn between staying with the one he loves and honoring the oath that he has taken to her father. He masters his will and sets out once again to face his doom. “Then being now alone and upon the threshold of the final peril he made the Song of Parting, in praise of Luthien and the lights of heaven; for he believed that he must now say farewell to both love and light. Of that song these words were part:

Farewell sweet earth and northern sky,
for ever blest, since here did lie
and here with lissom limbs did run
beneath the Moon, beneath the Sun,
Luthien Tinuviel
more fair than mortal tongue can tell.
Though all to ruin fell the world
and were dissolved and backward hurled
unmade into the old abyss,
yet were its making good, for this–
the dusk, the dawn, the earth, the sea–
that Luthien for a time should be.”

I’m sure I can’t begin to capture in a blog post what these poems mean in their original context–you have to read the whole book (maybe twice) in order to get that. But when you do, these words are enough to make you weep.

I’m not going to say what happens from there, because you need to just read it for yourself.

It’s funny, because when I was a child and I read Tolkien I invariably skimmed/skipped over the italicized bits (the poetry). I was too impatient for the poetry, I wanted to get back to having someone telling me the action. But now I find myself longing to have more of Tolkien’s poetry in his works, for they ignite the willing imagination in such a powerful way. Luckily, I found an incomplete draft of a poetic form of the Lay of Leithian. I can’t wait to read it.

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