Thursday, January 1, 2015

A Précis of the J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth to the End of the First Age - Part #1: From the Earliest Times to the Crossing of the Noldor


In a conversation after we both watched Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies my brother asked me about the First Age of the world created by J.R.R. Tolkien for his High Fantasy epics centred around Middle-earth. Wanting both to oblige my brother and to do a quick review of The Silmarillion (1977), the posthumously published account of the earliest stories of of Tokien's world, I wrote him the below précis. Later I got the idea: as we approach what would be Tolkien's 121st birthday on January 3rd, it might be a neat idea for followers of this blog to read my little account of the First Age as well. That said, there are a few caveats: firstly, it's not intended to come anywhere close to the detail and beauty of The Silmarillion. If you want to know the real story, please pick up that magnificent book, as well as others such as the The Children of Húrin, Unfinished Tales and (if you're really ambitious) the 12-volume series The History of Middle-earth, all of which were edited by Christopher Tolkien. This measly blog post is not a substitute for reading the stories themselves and only hopes to pass as a helpful synopsis. Secondly, rude nerd rage will not be tolerated. I'm not a Tolkien scholar, and if I've missed anything you believe is important, please politely remind me in the comment section. I have also omitted some items and have not included dates or years so as to not clog the entry with numbers. Thirdly, the presentation will be made in parts and currently I have about 2.5 ready for posting. So while the first two should appear in short-order, I'm not entirely sure when I'll get the whole thing finished; sometime in January 2015 for sure. Oh, and have a very happy new year!
The Silmarillion (1977) by J.R.R. Tolkien and edited by Christopher Tolkien (Unwin Paperbacks). Most of the information taken from this blog post is from this book. It was the first posthumous work by Tolkien, who passed away in 1973. The cover is from the 1990 edition and features Alqualondë, the port city of the Teleri.

Map of Arda -- for as Tolkien himself once said: "I wisely started with a map." It was taken from the website and while it's off in some places, it's nevertheless gives a good "big picture" representation of the world as Tolkien created it.

Who are the Valar?

When Arda (Earth) was created, Ilúvatar (God) created the Valar, the greatest of the Ainur who were angelic beings that entered the world and helped shaped it. The world composed of three principle continents, Aman in the West, Middle-earth in the middle and a distant continent in the East. The most powerful of the Ainur was named Melkor, who after being created sought to compete with Ilúvatar during the creation and make themes of his own. But as all creation can only come from God, Melkor’s creations were actually distortions and flawed. However, because he was mighty, he was able to corrupt other Ainur spirits to his side, which included Balrogs and the greatest of his servants, Sauron. The Valar followed Melkor in this music of creation, and remained (mostly) loyal. The Valar were:

Manwë: King of the Valar and lord of air and skies. 

Varda: Queen of the Stars and spouse of Manwë. She rejected Melkor from the very beginning and was hated by him the most. The elves revere here especially. 

Ulmo: The Lord of Waters, he is unmarried and kept to the oceans rather than live in Valinor with the majority of the Valar. As water is his element, he is aware of what happens in Middle-earth and was active there.

Aulë: The Master of Smiths, he created the dwarves before Ilúvatar's first children, the elves, awoke. But the dwarves were not intended to come first, and were put back to sleep by Ilúvatar before this happened. The dwarves were to be destroyed, but because there was no malice in Aulë’s heart, they were allowed to live; but because of this, they are estranged from the elves. 

Yavanna: The spouse of Aulë, Yavanna is the Queen of the Earth and is most happy in nature. She created the Two Trees, which were the light of Valinor in the early days and she loves all beasts and plants. 

Oromë: He is the huntsman of the Valar and a great warrior and rider. He remained in Middle-earth when the Valar retreated to Valinor and discovered the Elves. He hates Melkor and is both quick to anger and fierce in battle. 

Vána: The Queen of Blossoming Flowers, she is the younger sister of Yavanna and the spouse of Oromë. She is perpetually young and beautiful and loves flowers and gardens. 

Mandos: The Judge of the Dead and the Master of Doom. He lives in the Halls of Mandos in the far west, where the souls of elves go when they pass from their bodies. He is an advisor of Manwë and never forgets. He spoke of the Noldor before they committed their crimes and advised that they never be allowed to return. He never speaks unless commanded by Manwë. 

Vairë: The wife of Mandos, she is the Weaver and weaves the stories of Arda in her tapestries, which decorate the Halls of Mandos. 

Nienna: Lady of Mercy, she was the tutor Olórin who would later travel to Middle-earth in the Third Age and become known as the wizard Gandalf. She weeps constantly, but her tears are full of pitty and endurance and will heal those affected by Melkor. 

Lórien: The Master of Visions and Dreams, he works closely with Mandos and has gardens in the land of the Valar, where those who visit them are given rest and refreshment. 

Estë: is the spouse of Lórien and is the healer of hurts and weariness. She lives with her husband in the Gardens of Lórien. 

Tulkas, the Strong is the Champion of the Valar. He is big, brave and the strongest of them all. He only fights with his hands and has laughed in the face of Melkor. He does not get angry, but once he is moved to fight, is almost unstoppable. 

Nessa: is the Dancer and is swift and agile. She is married to Tulkas and loves to dance and run.

Along with Melkor and the Valar, the Ainur also included the Maiar. These are lesser than the Valar, but alike in spirit and origin and still quite powerful. They generally work closely with the Valar in all things, and can alter their appearance to look like an elf, or in the famous example mentioned above, a wise old man. Other Maiar include the Balrogs, Sauron, Saruman, Radagast the Brown, Melian and possibly Tom Bambadil. Those who are not Maiar include: dragons, eagles, ents, elves or Shelob, the spider. It is also noteworthy that, while there is superficial resemblance between the Greco-Roman pantheon or other non-Abrahamic faiths, the Ainur (both Valar and Maiar) are more accurately discribed as angels or arch-angels rather than gods.      

The Awakening of the Elves and their Clans

The elves awoke in distant east and were Ilúvatar’s first born children. The first to awake of the elves were three named Ingwë, Finwë and Elwë and as they wondered under the stars in the East they invented language and music. The elves soon began to multiply and were met by the Vala, Oromë, who brought them tidings from the Valar in Aman. The elves were given the name Eldar meaning "People of the Stars" by Oromë.

Elves awake! This work was painted by Ted Nasmith.
The Valar summoned the elves to come and join them in the light of the Two Trees (more on them later) but not being sure, sent their leader-emissaries, Ingwë, Finwë and Elwë to investigate. When these great elves returned, they convinced the others to return with them. In this there was not unanimity however, and the first to travel were those who became known as the Vanyar with their leader, Ingwë. They were (are) considered the fairest of the elves and once they left Middle-earth to live with the Valar were rarely seen again.

The next clan became known as the Noldor. They were equally beautiful, but especially talented in the crafts of knowledge, warfare and especially in creating things. Much of the story of the elves in Middle-earth from the First to the Fourth Age involves their kin, including the problems, and both the Silmarils of the First Age and Rings of Power Second and Third Age have their literal and figurative fingerprints all over them. The leader of the Noldor was named Finwë.

Finwë’s first wife was named Míriel who gave birth to a son named Fëanor. However, after Fëanor was born his mother wanted to die because she gave all her strength to him. But because death was not permitted for elves (they cannot leave the bounds of Arda) her soul departed to the Halls of Mandos in a quasi-suicide which was unprecedented. Fëanor was ill-tempered, strong-willed but immensely talented, and would go on to create both the Silmarils and the Palantíri, the magical stones used to communicate that were featured in both Lord of the Rings and the Peter Jackson feature films. Fëanor married Nerdanel who gave birth to seven sons: Maedhros the Tall, Maglor the Singer, Celegorm the Fair, Caranthir the Dark, Curufin the Crafty and twins Amrod and Amras, both of whom were hunters. Curufin the Crafty’s son, Celebrimbor, would in the Second Age, settle in the Elvish region of Eregion near Moria and south of Rivendell, and would encounter Sauron who, disguised as Annatar, Lord of Gifts and claiming to have been sent by the Valar, duped him into forging the Rings of Power.

Finwë would remarry and have two more sons, Fingolfin and Finarfin, and two daughters, Findlis and Irime. The second wife of this High King of the Noldor was Indis, a Vanyar and these younger sons were of a much different temperament than their half-brother.  Fingolfin would marry Anaire and give birth to Fingon, Turgon, Aredhel the White Lady and Argon. Finarfin, the youngest of the sons of Finwë, was a pacifist and never returned to Middle-earth. He would marry Eärwen, the daughter of Olwë, the younger brother of Elwë of the Teleri and had four children: Finrod Felagund, Angrod, Aegnor and Galadriel, the latter whom features prominently in the Third Age.

The third and largest clan of the elves to travel to(wards) the Aman were named the Teleri. They were subdivided into many groups, with a large group of them staying in Middle-earth and becoming the Avari, those who refused to travel. The Avari were lesser than their Valar-encountering kin and had became fearful when they arrived at the Misty Mountains. However, when Elwë returned, he convinced many Teleri to join him in the West and many did. But they always moved slower, having lived in Middle-earth and having grown to love it. Many also arrived at the sea and became skilled as ship-building and eventually, Ulmo, the Lord of Waters, pushed an island back to Middle-earth called Tol Eressëa and many of the Teleri would travel on this island-ferry, which was eventually planted off the coast of the Undying Lands. The Teleri would build a city on the northern part of Aman called Alqualondë, and it would become a major ship-building haven.  

By this time, the eastern portion of Middle-earth become known as Beleriand and – when Elwë returned to gather more Teleri – he met Melian, a Maiar, and fell in love. He would eventually court and marry her and they would become King and Queen of a large realm of Beleriand called Doriath. He would eventually become known as Elu Thingol, with his younger brother taking up the kingship of the Teleri in the Undying lands in Alqualondë. The daughter of Thingol and Melian was named Lúthien Tinúviel and was said to be the most beautiful of all the children of Arda. Her name is on gravesite of Edith Mary Tolkien (née Bratt), the wife of the author.

The Creation of the Silmarils

After Arda was created, the Valar lived in Middle-earth and Aulë made two giant Lamps, on top of two giant pillar-like mountains which were named Helcar in the north and Ringill in the south. These Lamps of Arda illuminated the world and this period was known as the Spring of Arda. During this time birds, beasts and plants started to grow in the world, but Melkor seeing this light, hated it all and came back from the Walls of Night (outside Arda, in the void [space?]) and broke the lamps down, making Arda dark. The Valar and their host then moved west to the continent of Aman.

Then, at the behest of Aulë, Yavanna, made the Two Trees which were named Telperion, the silver tree and Laurelin, the golden tree. These were intended to replace the Pillars and illumined Aman, but left Middle-earth in darkness. The first ten ages of the Years of the Trees were known as the Years of Bliss and it was at this time eagles, ents and the dwarves awoke (and were subsequently put back to sleep until the elves awoke). When this age past, the Years of Bliss became the Noontide of the Blessed and it was then that Varda rekindled the stars and Middle-earth once more had light. Then the Elves awoke and this marked the beginning of the First Age, which could more accurately be rendered as the First Age of the Children of Ilúvatar. Interestingly, the Ages in Tolkien’s work are marked by the beginning of the lives of the Children of Ilúvatar and is not Lamp, Tree or the Sun. 

Back to the elves: when they awoke, Melkor wanted to rule them and approached and kidnapped many possibly turning them into Orcs, although this is still debated. Seeing this, the Valar sought to stop Melkor and made war against him, eventually capturing him and bringing him back to Aman to answer for his crimes. This was called the War of the Powers, and it was after this that the elves began their journey westward.

Soon Melkor appeared to be repentant, although there were some amongst the Valar who never trusted him. But he was eventually freed after a sentence of three ages (not those mentioned above) in the Halls of Mandos and immediately set about causing strife between the Noldor, especially the king’s sons, Fëanor, Fingolfin and Finarfin. At this time Fëanor created the Silmarils, three magnificent jewels that he used to capture the light of Two Trees. These jewels would become unique, and not even Aulë was able to create something that matched their power and beauty. They also could not be copied and even the Valar understood their superlative nature with Varda making them so: “no mortal flesh, nor hands unclean, nor anything of evil will might touch them, for they would be scorched and withered.”  

During this time Melkor had the Noldor in his sights. First he told Fëanor that his younger, half-brother was planning to take the throne from their father, Finwë. However, when it became clear that Melkor was never actually an ally, the Noldor started to forge weapons, while at the same time, Fëanor threatened his younger brother’s life. When the Valar heard of this, they summoned him to their home at the top of Mount Taniquetil to answer for his actions. With his father at his side, Fëanor did this, but soon started to believe that the Valar also coveted his Silmarils, which supported what Melkor had told him. When he returned to the Noldor, his half-brother Fingolfin had taken up the leadership of the Noldor, which also went along with Melkor’s lies. Shortly afterwards, the Valar exiled Fëanor to Formenos, a city in the north of Aman and this became Fëanor’s stronghold and treasury, and many of the Noldor (including his father, the king) went with him. 

Melkor and Ungoliant attack the Two Trees. Painting by John Howe. 
When the Valar finally understood what Melkor was doing, they sent Tulkas to capture him, but he had fled south to find an ally. While there, he enlisted the support of Ungoliant, a giant spider of unknown origin and profound evil. The two of them then attacked the Two Trees, and Ungoliant sucked the life and light out of them, gorging herself to the extent where even Melkor feared her. Thus, the light in the Silmarils were the only remaining source of the light of the Two Trees, although saplings where saved which would feature later in Tolkien’s stories. 

With the Two Trees destroyed, the Valar asked Fëanor for the jewels so they could use the bejewelled light to rekindle them. But Fëanor refused and the trees were not healed. As Fëanor was refusing the Valar, Melkor went north to Formenos and killed Finwë and stole the Silmarils, escaping to his fortress in far north of Middle-earth. When Fëanor realised what was done, he rallied his people against the Valar and sought to go after Melkor and recover the Silmarils. He also named Melkor "Morgoth" or "the Black Enemy" and swore, along with his sons, the Oath of Fëanor, which said they would pursue anyone – Valar, Maiar, Elf or Mortal – who stood between them and the jewels. This would bring a long-lasting doom on all of those who swore it, and would feature prominently in the latter stories of the First Age.   

The host of the Noldor soon left the north of Valinor and came upon the shores of Aman at the Teleri city of Alqualondë. There they asked for ships to go to Middle-earth and when the Teleri resisted (not wanting to displease the Valar), the Noldor attacked and the result was the First Kinslaying, where elf killed elf for the very first time. The Valar eventually causes the seas to swallow many of the stolen ships in punishment of the Noldor, and Finarfin (the youngest of the sons of Finwë) and a small group (although not all of his children) returned to Valinor where they were welcomed by the Valar and he ruled as High King of the Noldor in Valinor. Fëanor, however, and many of his close kin were able to make the long crossing to Middle-earth, and when they arrived they burnt the Teleri ships. Still wanting to remain with the main host of the Noldor, the host of Fingolfin who had not arrived in time to board the ships, had no choice but to go north and cross the grinding pack ice which was called the Helcaraxë (which had also been crossed by Morgoth and Ungoliant). There, many of the Noldor perished, including Elenwë, the wife of Turgon and daughter-in-law of Fingolfin.

Next in Part II: From the Noldor in Middle-earth to Awakening of the Mortals. 

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