[After Allen &
Unwin, under pressure from Tolkien to make up their minds, had reluctantly
declined to publish The Lord of the Rings together with The Silmarillion,
Tolkien was confident that Milton Waldman of Collins would shortly issue both
books under his firm's imprint. In the spring of 1950, Waldman told Tolkien
that he hoped to begin typesetting the following autumn. But there were delays,
largely caused by Waldman's frequent absences in
You asked for a brief sketch of my stuff that is connected with my imaginary world. It is difficult to say anything without saying too much: the attempt to say a few words opens a floodgate of excitement, the egoist and artist at once desires to say how the stuff has grown, what it is like, and what (he thinks) he means or is trying to represent by it all. I shall inflict some of this on you; but I will append a mere resume of its contents: which is (may be) all that you want or will have use or time for.
In order of time, growth and composition, this stuff began with me - though I do not suppose that that is of much interest to anyone but myself. I mean, I do not remember a time when I was not building it. Many children make up, or begin to make up, imaginary languages. I have been at it since I could write. But I have never stopped, and of course, as a professional philologist (especially interested in linguistic aesthetics), I have changed in taste, improved in theory, and probably in craft. Behind my stories is now a nexus of languages (mostly only structurally sketched). But to those creatures which in English I call misleadingly Elves[*] are assigned two related languages more nearly completed, whose history is written, and whose forms (representing two different sides of my own linguistic taste) are deduced scientifically from a common origin. Out of these languages are made nearly all the names that appear in my legends. This gives a certain character (a cohesion, a consistency of linguistic style, and an illusion of historicity) to the nomenclature, or so I believe, that is markedly lacking in other comparable things. Not all will feel this as important as I do, since I am cursed by acute sensibility in such matters.
But an equally basic passion of mine ab initio was for myth
(not allegory!) and for fairy-story, and above all for heroic legend on the
brink of fairy-tale and history, of which there is far too little in the world
(accessible to me) for my appetite. I was an undergraduate before thought and
experience revealed to me that these were not divergent interests - opposite
poles of science and romance - but integrally related. I am not 'learned'[†]
in the matters of myth and fairy-story, however, for in such things (as far as
known to me) I have always been seeking material, things of a certain tone and
air, and not simple know- ledge. Also - and here I hope I shall not sound
absurd - I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved
country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not
of the quality that 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. Of course there was and is all the Arthurian world, but
powerful as it is, it is imperfectly naturalized, associated with the soil of
For reasons which I will not elaborate, that seems to me fatal. Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary 'real' world. (I am speaking, of course, of our present situation, not of ancient pagan, pre-Christian days. And I will not repeat what I tried to say in my essay, which you read.)
Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story - the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths - which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country. It should possess the tone and quality that I desired, somewhat cool and clear, be redolent of our 'air' (the clime and soil of the North West, meaning Britain and the hither parts of Europe: not Italy or the Aegean, still less the East), and, while possessing (if I could achieve it) the fair elusive beauty that some call Celtic (though it is rarely found in genuine ancient Celtic things), it should be 'high', purged of the gross, and fit for the more adult mind of a land long now steeped in poetry. I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd.
Of course, such an overweening purpose did not develop all at once. The mere stories were the thing. They arose in my mind as 'given' things, and as they came, separately, so too the links grew. An absorbing, though continually interrupted labour (especially since, even apart from the necessities of life, the mind would wing to the other pole and spend itself on the linguistics): yet always I had the sense of recording what was already 'there', somewhere: not of 'inventing'.
Of course, I made up and even wrote lots of other things (especially for my children). Some escaped from the grasp of this branching acquisitive theme, being ultimately and radically unrelated: Leaf by Niggle and Farmer Giles, for instance, the only two that have been printed. The Hobbit, which has much more essential life in it, was quite indepen- dently conceived: I did not know as I began it that it belonged. But it proved to be the discovery of the completion of the whole, its mode of descent to earth, and merging into ‘history’. As the high Legends of the beginning are supposed to look at things through Elvish minds, so the middle tale of the Hobbit takes a virtually human point of view-and the last tale blends them.
I dislike Allegory - the conscious and intentional allegory - yet any attempt to explain the purport of myth or fairytale must use allegorical language. (And, of course, the more 'life' a story has the more readily will it be susceptible of allegorical interpretations: while the better a deliberate allegory is made the more nearly will it be acceptable just as a story.) Anyway all this stuff[‡] is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine. With Fall inevitably, and that motive occurs in several modes. With Mortality, especially as it affects art and the creative (or as I should say, sub-creative) desire which seems to have no biological function, and to be apart from the satisfactions of plain ordinary biological life, with which, in our world, it is indeed usually at strife. This desire is at once wedded to a passionate love of the real primary world, and hence filled with the sense of mortality, and yet unsatisfied by it. It has various opportunities of 'Fall'. It may become possessive, clinging to the things made as 'its own', the sub-creator wishes to be the Lord and God of his private creation. He will rebel against the laws of the Creator - especially against mortality. Both of these (alone or together) will lead to the desire for Power, for making the will more quickly effective, - and so to the Machine (or Magic). By the last I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents - or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognised.
I have not used 'magic' consistently, and indeed the Elven-queen Galadriel is obliged to remonstrate with the Hobbits on their confused use of the word both for the devices and operations of the Enemy, and for those of the Elves. I have not, because there is not a word for the latter (since all human stories have suffered the same confusion). But the Elves are there (in my tales) to demonstrate the difference. Their 'magic' is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete (product, and vision in unflawed correspondence). And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation. The 'Elves' are 'immortal', at least as far as this world goes: and hence are concerned rather with the griefs and burdens of deathlessness in time and change, than with death. The Enemy in successive forms is always 'naturally' concerned with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines; but the problem: that this frightful evil can and does arise from an apparently good root, the desire to benefit the world and others[§] - speedily and according to the benefactor's own plans - is a recurrent motive.
The cycles begin with a cosmogonical myth: the Music of the Ainur. God and the Valar (or powers: Englished as gods) are revealed. These latter are as we should say angelic powers, whose function is to exercise delegated authority in their spheres (of rule and government, not creation, making or re-making). They are 'divine', that is, were originally ‘outside’ and existed 'before' the making of the world. Their power and wisdom is derived from their Knowledge of the cosmogonical drama, which they perceived first as a drama (that is as in a fashion we perceive a story composed by some-one else), and later as a 'reality'. On the side of mere narrative device, this is, of course, meant to provide beings of the same order of beauty, power, and majesty as the 'gods' of higher mythology, which can yet be accepted - well, shall we say baldly, by a mind that believes in the Blessed Trinity.
It moves then swiftly to the History of the Elves, or the Silmarillion proper; to the world as we perceive it, but of course transfigured in a still half-mythical mode: that is it deals with rational incarnate creatures of more or less comparable stature with our own. The Knowledge of the Creation Drama was incomplete: incomplete in each individual ‘god’, and incomplete if all the knowledge of the pantheon were pooled. For (partly to redress the evil of the rebel Melkor, partly for the completion of all in an ultimate finesse of detail) the Creator had not revealed all. The making, and nature, of the Children of God, were the two chief secrets. All that the gods knew was that they would come, at appointed times. The Children of God are thus primevally related and akin, and primevally different. Since also they are something wholly ‘other’ to the gods, in the making of which the gods played no part, they are the object of the special desire and love of the gods. These are the First-born, the Elves; and the Followers Men. The doom of the Elves is to be immortal, to love the beauty of the world, to bring it to full flower with their gifts of delicacy and perfection, to last while it lasts, never leaving it even when ‘slain’, but returning - and yet, when the Followers come, to teach them, and make way for them, to ‘fade’ as the Followers grow and absorb the life from which both proceed. ‘Me Doom (or the Gift) of Men is mortality, freedom from the circles of the world. Since the point of view of the whole cycle is the Elvish, mortality is not explained mythically: it is a mystery of God of which no more is known than that ‘what God has purposed for Men is hidden’: a grief and an envy to the immortal Elves.
As I say, the legendary Silmarillion is peculiar, and differs from all similar things that I know in not being anthropocentric. Its centre of view and interest is not Men but 'Elves'. Men came in inevitably: after all the author is a man, and if he has an audience they will be Men and Men must come in to our tales, as such, and not merely transfigured or partially represented as Elves, Dwarfs, Hobbits, etc. But they remain peripheral - late comers, and however growingly important, not principals.
In the cosmogony there is a fall: a fall of Angels we should say. Though quite different in form, of course, to that of Christian myth. These tales are ‘new’, they are not directly derived from other myths and legends, but they must inevitably contain a large measure of ancient wide-spread motives or elements. After all, I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth’, and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear. There cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall - all stories are ultimately about the fall - at least not for human minds as we know them and have them.
So, proceeding, the Elves have a fall, before their ‘history’ can become storial. (The first fall of Man, for reasons explained, nowhere appears - Men do not come on the stage until all that is long past, and there is only a rumour that for a while they fell under the domination of the Enemy and that some repented.) The main body of the tale, the Silmarillion proper, is about the fall of the most gifted kindred of the Elves, their exile from Valinor (a kind of Paradise, the home of the Gods) in the furthest West, their re-entry into Middle-earth, the land of their birth but long under the rule of the Enemy, and their strife with him, the power of Evil still visibly incarnate. It receives its name because the events are all threaded upon the fate and significance of the Silmarilli (‘radiance of pure light’) or Primeval Jewels. By the making of gems the sub-creative function of the Elves is chiefly symbolized, but the Silmarilli were more than just beautiful things as such. There was Light. There was the Light of Valinor made visible in the Two Trees of Silver and Gold.[**] These were slain by the Enemy out of malice, and Valinor was darkened, though from them, ere they died utterly, were derived the lights of Sun and Moon. (A marked difference here between these legends and most others is that the Sun is not a divine symbol, but a second-best thing, and the ‘light of the Sun’ (the world under the sun) become terms for a fallen world, and a dislocated imperfect vision).
But the chief artificer of the Elves (Feanor) had
imprisoned the Light of Valinor in the three supreme jewels, the Silmarilli,
before the Trees were sullied or slain. This Light thus lived thereafter only
in these gems. The fall of the Elves comes about through the possessive
attitude of Feanor and his seven sons to these gems. They are captured by the
Enemy, set in his Iron Crown, and guarded in his impenetrable strong- hold. The
sons of Feanor take a terrible and blasphemous oath of enmity and vengeance
against all or any, even of the gods, who dares to claim any part or right in
the Silmarilli. They pervert the greater part of their kindred, who rebel
against the gods, and depart from paradise, and go to make hopeless war upon
the Enemy. ‘Me first fruit of their fall is war in
As the stories become less mythical, and more like stories and romances, Men are interwoven. For the most part these are ‘good Men’ - families and their chiefs who rejecting the service of Evil, and hearing rumours of the Gods of the West and the High Elves, flee westward and come into contact with the Exiled Elves in the midst of their war. The Men who appear are mainly those of the Three Houses of the Fathers of them, whose chieftains become allies of the Elflords. ‘Me contact of Men and Elves already foreshadows the history of the later Ages, and a recurrent theme is the idea that in Men (as they now are) there is a strand of ‘blood’ and inheritance, derived from the Elves, and that the art and poetry of Men is largely dependent on it, or modified by it.[††] There are thus two marriages of mortal and elf - both later coalescing in the kindred of Earendil, represented by Elrond the Half-elven who appears in all the stories, even The Hobbit. The chief of the stories of the Silmarillion, and the one most fully treated is the Story of Beren and Luthien the Elfmaiden.[‡‡] Here we meet, among other things, the first example of the motive (to become dominant in Hobbits) that the great policies of world history, the wheels of the world', are often turned not by the Lords and Governors, even gods, but by the seemingly unknown and weak - owing to the secret life in creation, and the part unknowable to all wisdom but One, that resides in the intrusions of the Children of God into the Drama. It is Beren the outlawed mortal who succeeds (with the help of Luthien, a mere maiden even if an elf of royalty) where all the armies and warriors have failed: he penetrates the stronghold of the Enemy and wrests one of the Silmarilli from the Iron Crown. Thus he wins the hand of Uthien and the first marriage of mortal and immortal is achieved.
As such the story is (I think a beautiful and powerful) heroic-fairy- romance, receivable in itself with only a very general vague knowledge of the background. But it is also a fundamental link in the cycle, deprived of its full significance out of its place therein. For the capture of the Silmaril, a supreme victory, leads to disaster. 'Me oath of the sons of Ranor becomes operative, and lust for the Silmaril brings A the kingdoms of the Elves to ruin.
There are other stories almost equally full in treatment, and equally independent and yet linked to the general history. There is the Children of Huirin, the tragic tale of Turin Turambar and his sister Niniel - of which Turin is the hero: a figure that might be said (by people who like that sort of thing, though it is not very useful) to be derived from elements in Sigurd the Volsung, Oedipus, and the Finnish Kullervo. There is the Fall of Gondolin: the chief Elvish stronghold. And the tale, or tales, of Earendil the Wanderer.[§§] He is important as the person who brings the Silmarillion to its end, and as providing in his offspring the main links to and persons in the tales of later Ages. His function, as a representative of both Kindreds, Elves and Men, is to find a sea-passage back to the Land of the Gods, and as ambassador persuade them to take thought again for the Exiles, to pity them, and rescue them from the Enemy. His wife Elwing descends from Luthien and still possesses the Silmaril. But the curse still works, and Earendil's home is destroyed by the sons of Feanor. But this provides the solution: Elwing casting herself into the Sea to save the jewel comes to Earendil, and with the power of the great Gem they pass at last to Valinor, and accomplish their errand - at the cost of never being allowed to return or dwell again with Elves or Men. The gods then move again, and great power comes out of the West, and the Stronghold of the Enemy is destroyed; and he himself [is] thrust out of the World into the Void, never to reappear there in incarnate form again. The remaining two Silmarils are regained from the Iron Crown - only to be lost. The last two sons of Feanor, compelled by their oath, steal them, and are destroyed by them, casting themselves into the sea, and the pits of the earth. The ship of Earendil adorned with the last Silmaril is set in heaven as the brightest star. So ends The Silmarillion and the tales of the First Age.
[*] Intending the word to be understood in its ancient meanings, which continued as late as Spenser - a murrain on Will Shakespeare and his damned cobwebs.
[†]Though I have thought about them a good deal.
[‡]It is, I suppose, fundamentally concerned with the problem of the relation of Art (and Sub-creation) and Primary Reality.
[§] Not in the Beginner of Evil: his was a sub-creative Fall, and hence the Elves (the representatives of sub-creation par excellence) were peculiarly his enemies, and the special object of his desire and hate - and open to his deceits. Their Fall is into possessiveness and (to a less degree) into perversion of their art to power.
[**]As far as all this has symbolical or allegorical significance, Light is such a primeval symbol in the nature of the Universe, that it can hardly be analysed. The Light of Valinor (derived from light before any fall) is the light of art undivorced from reason, that sees things both scientifically (or philosophically) and imaginatively (or subcreatively) and ‘says that they are good’ - as beautiful. The Light of Sun (or Moon) is derived from the Trees only after they were sullied by Evil.
[††] Of course in reality this only means that my 'elves' are only a representation or an apprehension of a part of human nature, but that is not the legendary mode of talking.
[‡‡] It exists indeed as a poem of considerable length, of which the prose version in The Silmarillion is only a reduced version.1
[§§] His name is in actual origin Anglo-Saxon: earendel ‘ray’ of light' applied sometimes to the morning-star, a name of ramified mythological connections (now largely obscure). But that is a mere 'learned note'. In fact his name is Elvish signifying the Great Mariner or Sea-lover.