When we read The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, we are looking through a small keyhole into the wider created world which Tolkien began to work on during the First World War as a way of dealing with the horrors that he had witnessed there. We glimpse more of this world in The Silmarillion, the collection of Tolkien's earlier stories, edited and published posthumously by his son, Christopher Tolkien, in 1977. The Silmarillion is a major part of an incomplete narrative that describes the universe of Eä in which are found the lands of Valinor, Beleriand, Númenor, and Middle-earth. In The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, we see only the later happenings of a far western corner of this fictional world. Though The Lord of the Rings was published as a sequel to the successful child’s tale The Hobbit, then, the order of composition was the reverse. Throughout all of it, however, we see a thematic strand to do with the role of art itself.
The first part of The Silmarillion, as it appeared after much editorial work, is called the Ainulindalë, and tells of the creation of the ‘world that is’ or Eä. ‘The One’ or Eru, also called Ilúvatar (‘Father of All’), first creates the Ainur, a group of powerful spirits as ‘the offspring of his thought’ and shows them a theme, from which he commends them to make a great music. The strongest Ainur, Melkor breaks away from the music they make together to create his own. Some other Ainur join him, while the rest follow Ilúvatar, causing discord in the overall music three times. Each time, Ilúvatar overpowers the discord with a new theme, then afterwards shows the Ainur that they have created an independent, existing world with their music, called Arda. Ilúvatar then offers the Ainur a chance to enter into Arda and govern it, and many do, taking physical forms and becoming bound to that world. The greatest among them become known as the Valar, while the others are called the Maiar. They prepare the world for the coming of Elves and Men), but Melkor, who wants this new world for himself, consistently attacks and undermines their work. Eventually, however, the world takes shape.
Already we can see a pattern to do with the question of ‘making’, or, as Tolkien called it in his famous essay ‘On Fairy Stories’, ‘sub-creation’, a pattern which runs throughout the ‘tapestry’ of Tolkien’s work: it is to do with the struggle between creating something as a pure, good and independently ‘alive’ thing, and the apparent built-in liability of doing so. Whenever something is made in Tolkien’s work, it possesses an inherent flaw or weakness or shadow. This eventually can be seen to apply to Tolkien’s whole opus. As a Catholic, this may be a conscious attempt on Tolkien’s part to capture something of the essence of the real world as he saw it, an effort to explain the existence of evil and suffering; it may also not be a fully conscious authorial intention but an aesthetic revelation about the nature of art.
Eru creates the Ainur, but Melkor, the most powerful, has a dark streak; Ilúvatar begins the Music of the Ainur, but Melkor causes discord; the spirits enter into the world to prepare it but Melkor disrupts it. At no point is creation permitted to occur unhindered or without an ingrained element of destruction.
Valaquenta, the second part of The Silmarillion, simply describes the Valar and Maiar, but the next section, Quenta Silmarillion forms the bulk of the book. It chronicles the history of the events before and during the First Age, including the wars over the transcendent jewels, the Silmarils, that give the book its name. The theme of the inner conflict involved in creating is continued: Melkor destroys the two lamps that illuminate the world, forcing the Valar to move to Aman, a continent to the west of Middle-earth. Here they establish Valinor, illuminated by Two Trees, and leave the rest of Middle-earth to darkness and Melkor. Eventually, the Elves awake, and the Valar capture Melkor and invite the Elves to live in Aman for their own safety. Many of them travel to Aman, but others refuse, while another group never complete their journey, including those who become known as the Sindar, ruled by the Elf King Thingol and Melian, a Maia. A polarisation occurs amongst the Elves: the ‘tribes’ of Vanyar and Noldor fully make it to Valinor, along with many of the Teleri, with the Valar assuming that they will be safer there than exposed to the menace of Melkor - but they have not considered that the impulse to corrupt that which is made belongs not only to Melkor but pervades Tolkien’s creations.
Fëanor, a passionate a fiery Noldor, fashions the Silmarils in Valinor, mighty and beautiful jewels that capture the light of the Two Trees. Such is the beauty of these jewels that Melkor, pretending to repent, poisons the Two Trees and steals the Silmarils, fleeing to Middle-earth, where he attacks the Elvish kingdom of Doriath. Though he is defeated, barricading himself in his northern fortress, Fëanor and his sons swear a terrible oath of vengeance against him – and against anyone who denies them the Silmarils, even the Valar. Fëanor persuades most of the Noldor to pursue Melkor (whom Fëanor names Morgoth) into Middle-earth but along the way attacks and kills many other Elves, abandoning even the other Noldor, his own kin. Upon arriving in Middle-earth, Fëanor and his Noldor attack Melkor and defeat his host, though Fëanor himself is killed. Melkor is besieged but centuries later breaks out and drives the Noldor back. The tale of the Silmarils and all of this conflict directly stems from the impurity of creation: Fëanor created the jewels as a vehicle for the light of the Two Trees but refuses to acknowledge the fact that the light itself was created by the Valar. This is both the Catholic sin of Pride, and an implicit struggle about the act of creation itself - what does it mean to create a work of art when the material from which it must be drawn is always going to be another’s?
With the world plunged into darkness, the Valar create the moon and the sun. At the same time, the first Men awake. Tolkien hints that a ‘shadow’ lies on their origins, suggesting a Catholic-like Fall, but has some of the men become allies with the noble Elves who remain in Middle earth, bound by their awful oath to pursue Fëanor’s Simarils. One of the men, Beren, falls in love with the elf Lúthien, King Thingol’s daughter. The king tries to prevent the marriage by imposing an impossible quest upon Beren - the retrieval of a Silmaril from Morgoth’s Iron Crown. He sets out with Lúthien and they accomplish the quest but Beren is mortally wounded and Lúthien dies of grief. As an elf, however, her spirit is able to beg the powers in Valinor to restore them both to life for a short while, though she renounces her own immortality. This small oasis of joy and reversal of doom in an otherwise darkly tragic existence is a rare concession on Tolkien’s part but even this is overshadowed by death (he later had his own grave and that of his wife inscribed with the names ‘Beren’ and ‘Lúthien’).
The rest of the connected tales of The Silmarillion detail the ensuing wars between the Elves and Men on one side, and Melkor and his dark forces on the other. They can be taken at face value as epic stories of good versus evil, as well as read as a metaphor for the struggle implicit in aethetics.
Eventually, Eärendil the Half-elven, a descendant of Beren and Lúthien. uses the light of a Silmaril to travel across the sea to Aman to seek help from the Valar. The Valar attack and defeat Melkor, completely destroying his fortress, sink most of the continent upon which it stood, and expel Melkor from Arda. The remaining two Silmarils meet grisly fates, while the third effectively becomes the Morning Star, worn by Eärendil as he sails across the sky to act as a beacon of hope. The ratio indicated by the destiny of the jewels is a kind of measure of the way Tolkien’s work is leaning at this point: he has crafted a world full of wonder but laced with tragedy and implicitly doomed. Things only get grimmer as the narrative descends further into the chronicle of history - the tale of Turn Turambar in particular is packed with unfortunate coincidence and dark misfortune.
The fourth part of The Silmarillion as it was published is called the Akallabêth and relates the history of the Downfall of Númenor and its people. After the defeat of Melkor, the Valar give the island to those Men who had aided the Elves in the war against him, granting them wisdom and power and life more enduring than any other of mortal race. When they succumb to temptation, Ilúvatar creates a great wave which utterly destroys and submerges the isle of Númenor, killing almost everyone. At no point does the reader sense anything but an inevitable descent into tragedy, just as the island of Númenor itself collapses inexorably under the waves at the end.
The Númenorians are consumed by a similar pride to that of Fëanor and before him, Melkor: the refusal to acknowledge other-ownership or other-creation, and instead the burning desire to possess something for themselves exclusively. We see this in Gollum and in everyone that the One Ring tempts in The Lord of the Rings. But this impulse to possess, to own, to refuse and deny others, is fundamental to creating art, too. Whenever an act of creation takes place, there is an urge to claim greatness for it, to grant it power and in so doing to deny the greater Creation from which it is unavoidably drawn. In the themes that we see running throughout The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings (and even making an appearance in The Hobbit through Thorin’s illogical pursuit of the Arkenstone), Tolkien wrestles with the true place of a creative act. In the allegorical short story ‘Leaf by Niggle’ we see Tolkien envisaging some kind of reconciliation with Niggle’s vast painting of leaves, which becomes a tree and lands glimpsed behind it, being taken up into the vaster Creation and blessed.
Thus Tolkien hopes that his work can be similarly ‘saved’ and live on as part of a higher existence, and that the tragic viewpoint which must otherwise prevail, and which pervades the whole of Middle earth, will ultimately turn out to be false.