Friday, January 2, 2015

Tolkien's Legendarium

I was recently drawn back to the Silmarillion when I saw an article about the beautiful illustrated handmade version of it. Aside from the beauty of the object, I was reminded I'd not read the blasted thing for a good number of years. As I was a very deep Tolkien/Middle Earth geek in my younger years, this was a sad state of affairs. So I ordered up a copy from the library post haste and set aside the excellent book I was reading to take it up.

It's almost as if I never set it down, to be honest. The names, the relationships (family trees!), the history of it. It's exactly in my sweet spot, the place where fantasy and history meet and dance together and maybe get busy later on in the evening. Most stuff is either history or fantasy, obviously; even when fantasy has a good dose of history it's still mostly fantasy. But the Silmarillion is really a history book, describing a fantasy world. While it has narrative portions (the tale of Aredhel and Eol, or the Darkening of Valinor and the Flight of the Noldor), most of it describes the rise and fall of kingdoms, the battles that occurred, the relations between the rulers, and the migrations of peoples. All good, solid history. Now, that's wrong: it's not actually good history, or solid history. It works because Tolkien wrote it all up and there's nothing to contradict a bit of it, but it's nonsensical. Cities abandoned and left completely empty (though fully workable), entire districts never inhabited because of no particular reason, all sorts of bizarre things. But I still read it, and still love it, very much.

At one point I thought about writing up something similar in nature, a history of an empire I conjured up when I was rather youngish, maybe 20 years ago. I have notes for it: a map, some genealogical charts, a few pages of this and that. And I think on it often, on the priest who became king, on the rivalries between dynastic branches, on the ways the wars shaped the great islands of the nation. If nothing else it would make a good game setting, so I could use it for that.

I'm only part way through the book just now; the Long Peace is ended, and the kingdoms of the Noldor and the Edain are scattered and broken, but there's still some strength in Men and Elves, and there's still hopeful moments to come. Fingolfin has just died, but died a hero. It's not all dark and doom and gloom yet, but soon enough. I know already all that's going to happen, and  yet this time I hope I'm wrong. I suppose that's what is best about Tolkien's history: even knowing the worst, you still dream it will be less bad this time around. But it never is. If his fiction was inherently hopeful and ended well, such is not the case with his legendarium. It always ends badly there.

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