10 Ways Reading The Silmarillion Makes The Lord of the Rings Better, Part 2
The second and final part of my exploration of The Silmarillion and the ways reading it will make The Lord of the Rings more interesting.
Before we dive back into the list, two brief notes. First, some of the things in this list are, of course, mentioned at various points within the LotR books themselves. But they’re like puzzle pieces scattered across the table. Reading The Silmarillion is like seeing the assembled puzzle.
Second, one of the things that always held me back from reading it in the first place was that I thought it would be a dry, boring list of names or elvish pronunciation guides, like the appendices for LotR. It is not like that at all — it’s a dramatic, epic tale with a fascinating narrative. To be sure, there are a lot of names to keep track of, especially the elves, since for like three generations they all seem to have names that start with ‘F,’ and they almost never die, so there are sons and grand-daughters and great-great grand-nieces all co-existing at the same time. I even wrote out a family tree to help myself keep track.
Anyway, back to the list.
6). Glorfindel is kind of a big deal
Early in their journey, the hobbits meet an elf named Glorfindel. He certainly comes across as quite a hero, helping them escape the Ringwraiths and putting Frodo on his horse to cross the river Bruinen (Arwen takes over this role in the film).
But Glorfindel isn’t just Good Guy Elf. He was, like many elves, alive during the First Age. Unlike most elves, he died in battle so heroically he was given a new body and allowed to return to Middle-Earth to continue being a bad-ass. How did he die? Well, the elves had built a city in Middle-Earth called Gondolin that was made to mirror their finest city in Valinor. They hid it carefully from Morgoth, but it was eventually found and attacked by hordes of orcs and balrogs. Yes, multiple balrogs. Glorfindel battled hundreds of orcs and a fire drake, then held more orcs off while some of the elves escaped the city through a hidden way. Finally he battled a balrog one on one, and they killed each other simultaneously.
Not only that, but after he came back, Glorfindel was a war hero in the Third Age, and he was actually the one who made the prophecy about the Witch-King of Angmar never falling “by the hand of man.” (It’s profoundly funny that confusion over whether he meant “the hand of Man” or “the hand of man” is a major plot point).
So if you ever run into Glorfindel near Fornost, buy him a beer. That guy’s got some good stories.
7). The One Ring is Sauron’s biggest mistake
When you think about all the horrible stuff Sauron does in the Third Age, and the awful corrupting power of the One Ring, you might think Middle-Earth would be better off if he’d never made it in the first place. But you’d be wrong. Making the One Ring was a huge blunder.
The people of Middle-Earth were learning to make amazingly powerful artifacts. The elves, for instance, made a ton of magic rings, but only three are left at the time of LotR. Sauron was sneaking around as a smooth-talking guy named Annatar, offering helpful suggestions on how to make the rings better. But he was really like a hacker installing back door passwords into security software so he could go back and hack into it later. He made the One Ring as a sort of master ring to control the others, and it worked pretty well against humans. The dwarves weren’t really corrupted into Sauron’s service, but they did become reclusive and covetous and less likely to help the other races of Middle-Earth partly due to the rings’ influence, and Sauron ended up recovering some of their rings from various dragon hoards and abandoned dwarven fortresses. Only the elves mistrusted Annatar, so their rings weren’t totally hacked.
Here’s the problem, from Sauron’s point of view: To make the One Ring work properly, he had to put an enormous amount of his personal power into its forging. Over the millenia, he’d been defeated many times, but was able to reform after some time had passed, losing a little of his power each time. But he was still monstrously powerful. By infusing so much of his power into a ring, he gave himself a vulnerability. Yes, he wielded the Ring to terrible effect, but during the Last Alliance of Elves and Men, Isildur defeated him by simply slicing off Sauron’s ring fingers. Losing the Ring meant Sauron was destroyed (still temporarily, since Isildur was seduced and refused to destroy the Ring).
When Sauron returns to Mordor at the end of Third Age, it is possible to utterly destroy him by destroying the Ring. He literally depends on its existence for his own survival. And we all know how that went. Had he not made the Ring, he’d have remained a massively powerful deific being. Maybe dwarves, elves and men wielding uncorrupted rings of power could have destroyed him anyway. Maybe not. But he definitely would not have been destroyed by a trio of halflings (one a mutant).
8). The seven Palantiri
The Palantiri play a major role in the LotR. They’re seeing stones that also subject users to the mental domination of other users, as Sauron corrupted Saruman and drove Denethor II mad. We know of three: one in Orthanc, one at Barad-dûr, and one at Minas Tirith. But originally there were seven, made by Fëanor and sent to Middle-Earth as a gift to the Dúnedain by the elves. The stone that Sauron used was originally placed at Minas Ithil, which became Minas Morgul when the Ringwraiths took it over and stole the Palantir. A stone kept in Osgiliath was lost when the city was abandoned. In the north, stones were placed in towers at Annúminas, Elostirion, and Amon Sûl. You might know Amon Sûl better as Weathertop, the place where Gandalf leaves a message for Aragorn and Frodo is wounded by a Ringwraith. It’s a nice look at the depth of Middle-Earth’s history to know that the moss-grown ruin you see was once a mighty watchtower that housed a legendary magic artifact. Only the Elostirion stone remained by the end of the Third Age, and it was taken to Aman.
Also interesting: the Valar and the elves in Aman may well have been keeping an eye on the War of the Ring, since an eighth Palantir, the Master Stone, was known to be housed at Tol Eressëa.
9). The kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor
This is a huge topic and central to the story of LotR. Here is what is obvious from reading or watching The Lord of the Rings: Aragorn’s return makes him king of Gondor after many years of stewardship after the line of kings was thought to have died out. It is slightly less obvious that he reunites Gondor and the northern realm of Arnor as the Reunited Kingdom. It’s less obvious because Arnor doesn’t exist as a kingdom at the time of the War of the Ring. It helps to picture the Reunited Kingdom as a giant ‘L’ shape. The vertical portion of the ‘L’ encompasses most of the lands west of the Misty Mountains, including the Shire and lands to the north. That’s Arnor. The horizontal portion of the ‘L’ includes Rohan and Gondor.
What is not obvious at all is the deep, deep history that pertains to why the kingdoms are the way they are. We have mentioned the fate of Númenor when the Númenoreans were seduced by Sauron, turned against the elves, and tried to invade Aman. The Valar got very angry, bent the world into a round shape, and obliterated Númenor, sinking it beneath the ocean completely. Just before this disaster, a few Númenoreans who rejected the teachings of Sauron quietly escaped Númenor and fled east, to Middle-Earth. Their leader was Elendil, and he founded the two kingdoms.
Elendil was killed during the Last Alliance of Elves and Men in personal combat with Sauron — it is Elendil’s broken sword, Narsil, that Aragorn reforges (and also the sword that Elendil’s son, Isildur, used to cut the Ring from Sauron’s hand). The men of these kingdoms are known as Dúnedain, which derives from Edain, the term for the original noble tribes of men who entered Middle-Earth from the east, combined with the elven word for “west.”
The two kingdoms were sundered by a variety of succession disputes. Gondor waned in power but still stood guard against Mordor throughout the Third Age under the stewards. Arnor collapsed into civil wars and battles against the Witch-King of Angmar. The capital was moved to Fornost at one point, which is remarkably near to the Shire if you look on a map of Eriador. But eventually Arnor ceased to exist, leaving only ruins and the wandering Rangers, who few knew were Dúnedain. Aragon would have been the 26th king of Arnor if Arnor still existed.
This relates to a few things in LotR. In the prologue, we learn that the Hobbits have been protected and grown ignorant of the world beyond their borders. They received their charter to found their own land from Argeleb II, 20th king of Arnor, but once Arnor collapsed the Shire grew ever more insular. The Silmarillion places the founding of the Shire and the protection of the Hobbit-folk within the context of the larger events wracking the northern kingdom (Hobbits, by the way, are actually human — they evolved along their own path of short stature and hairy feet at some point in the distant past).
The origin of the Barrow Downs and the wight that Frodo and company encounter is tied to this history as well. The barrows are the tombs of ancient kings, probably from Arnor itself, but possibly also from even earlier kingdoms, “Black Númenoreans” who had settled Middle-Earth in the Second Age (the color being a reference to their disloyalty to elves and the Valar). Their unquiet spirits were easily corrupted by the presence of Sauron and the Witch-King to the north. When he was in Númenor, Sauron began the practice of blood sacrifice to his dark lord Morgoth. The scene in which Frodo finds the other Hobbits clad in white with a sword across their necks is a terrible echo of this practice, being acted out by the deathless king in his tomb.
10). How do half-elves work?
Elves and humans can intermarry freely in Tolkien’s mythology — it happens a handful of times. Their offspring are half-elves. At first, this is of no real significance and it’s not clear what their fate would be. Are half-elves immortal like elves, will they die as Men do, or something in between? We never find out because of events surrounding Eärendil, one of the coolest characters in The Silmarillion. Both Eärendil and his wife, Elwing, are half-elven (technically Elwing is 3/4 elven). Eärendil barely escaped the fall of Gondolin, carried on the shoulders of a family servant named Hendor, which may carry a certain echo for Game of Thrones fans. He later marries Elwing and come into possession of one of the Silmarils. A host of tragedy befalls them thanks to the Oath of Fëanor. Ultimately they both sail to Aman with the help of the Silmaril.
At this point they aren’t really allowed there, but Eärendil had pledged to go and ask the Valar for help defeating Morgoth. So instead of executing Eärendil and Elwing, the Valar do two things. First they agree to come to Middle-Earth and battle Morgoth, an event known as the War of Wrath. Second, since Eärendil’s journey was on behalf of both elves and humans, they give him and Elwing the choice to take either the fate of elves (immortality in Valinor) or of Men (a short life leading to the unknown shores beyond death). Elwing chooses to be elven, and Eärendil does too just to stay with her, even though it’s not his first choice. After that, Eärendil rides around on a sailing vessel wearing the Silmaril on his forehead exploring outer space. Seriously.
Plus, he shows up in his magic spaceship for the War of Wrath, defeating Ancalagon the Black, the greatest dragon ever (Gandalf mentions Ancalagon in The Fellowship of the Ring, suggesting not even his fire could destroy the Ring). And I almost forgot to mention that the Phial of Galadriel that Frodo receives as a gift when leaving Lothlórien is filled with water infused with the light from Eärendil’s Silmaril, and thus indirectly contains light from the two cosmic trees which lit the world before the First Age.
The ability of half-elves to choose their fate, between elves or humans, turns out to be magically hereditary, so a long line of Eärendil’s ancestors are the same way. This is important because Elrond is part of this line, as is his daughter, Arwen. I never really grasped the meaning behind Arwen’s choice to stay with Aragorn — I thought she had to make the choice because of her love for Aragorn, and that it was simply a matter of choosing to stay in Middle-Earth or head into the west, but she was always going to have to choose. And it wasn’t merely a choice of where to spend her days, but a choice of immortality versus mortality. Elrond, wanting his daughter to come with him to Valinor, is obviously very ambivalent when Arwen falls in love with Aragorn, knowing that to be with him she would have to choose the Gift of Man (mortality).
Another significant link between The Silmarillion and LotR is the mirroring of the relationship between Arwen and Aragorn with that of Lúthien and Beren, the most prominent elf/human pairing in Middle-Earth’s history (and ancestors of Arwen).
Note: because of the insanely complicated genealogies that result when immortals and mortals intermarry, Arwen and Aragorn are actually very (very) distantly related, and Aragorn does have some trace of a half-elven line in him. Apparently not enough for him to get the choice of fates, however.
I apparently have a lot of thoughts about Tolkien. Thanks for reading! Stop by Twitter and let me know what your favorite part of The Silmarillion is!