Jun 13 2007, 10:43pm
I'm fascinated by your parents' decision to read you The Silmarillion. Did it come after The Hobbit and LotR, and did you ask for more? I have a five-year-old daughter, and I can't imagine her sitting still for it.
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They read it to me, or told me the tales contain therein, literally as bedtime stories, since before I could speak. (My parents are slightly odd. They are well-educated atheists who do not trust religious texts but believe that people need mythology as well as fact to be fully human. For their children, they chose Tolkien's legendarium to be the mythology, albeit while always stressing the difference between "fact" and "story".) They used a combination of the actual Sil, with its high language, and their own retellings of the tales, as much more "immediate" and dramatic, to hold our interest; it worked out well in the end. I was able to happily reenact Fingon's rescue of Maedhros using two stuffed animals, a piece of string, and my father's desk by the time I was three. (Maedhros was my favorite stuffed lion, I think -- the lion also did double duty as Feanor -- and my wolf pup was Fingon.) Of course, UT and HoME weren't published when I was very young, but when they were, things got even more exciting.
I didn't even know the Hobbit and LotR existed until my father (who always read out loud to us in the evening, although as we grew older it ceased being the Sil and became a variety of books) decided to read the Hobbit to us when I was about seven. A couple of years later (after he had finished reading us Watership Down), he embarked on LotR. I remember being rather disappointed by the Hobbit, and it was, comparatively, undramatic, and I wasn't terribly interested in "boring" Hobbits. It also ended happily, something that confused me greatly. "But all things come to grief in Arda Marred!" I said with the self-confidence of a seven year old who thinks she knows everything about the world, and my parents looked slightly worried that they had instilled this belief in one so young. "Not all great deeds are in vain," they said, and I thought that boring. I found LotR slightly more interesting, as it had themes I was more familiar with, but I've never found Sauron to be quite so thrilling after having grown up on Melkor. I have come to a greater appreciation of LotR as I have grown older, but it still does not compare to the greatness and tragedy of the Elder Days. My older sister, actually, prefers LotR, but she has always liked happy endings. (Her favorite story was always Beren and Luthien; I preferred battles.)
I see the parallels between Turin and Boromir, but I think Tolkien meant for Turin to be far greater and more tragic than Boromir.
Oh, I agree! I was simply pointing out that LotR readers will find more similarities between Turin and Boromir than between Turin and virtually any other LotR character, and that they might not be interested in a "tale full of Boromirs" when they are used to Aragorn and Hobbits.
I was not trying to imply that I dislike Turin or the Narn, or that I do not see the value of the tale. It is certainly not my favorite part of the Quenta (that would be the long and interwoven relationship between Fingon and Maedhros, and secondarily, the tale of Tuor in Gondolin), but I value it quite highly for the message it tells. What I do think is that thematically, it is the most grim and least hopeful of all the Quenta, and therefore the farthest in thematic content from LotR. Consequently it is possibly the worst of the Great Tales to use as "bridge material" if you are trying to get readers of LotR to read the Sil. (Heck, I think even the Akallabeth is better bridge material than the Narn.)
But I'm not sure if it is as exceptional among the tales in The Sil as you make it sound. Instead I think Beren's story is the exception, the one success among many failures. Or perhaps one of two successes, with Earendil being the other. But as you yourself note, there is lots of failure, and there are many, many flawed characters in tales collected in The Sil.
I agree that Beren (and Earendil) are the exceptions in the Quenta -- in my original post, I stated that the Quenta is essentially a story of how all things come to grief in Arda Marred. In that sense, the Narn fits right in. But the Quenta is also about hope despite ruin, personal responsibility, and the necessity of valour in the face of annihilation. The Narn has very little of these (especially of personal responsibility, which Turin more-or-less completely lacks). The only one of the more subtle themes of the Quenta, I would argue, that the Narn fully embodies is that great deeds are no less great because they are in vain. Turin's slaying of Glaurung is no less great because it ultimately changes little (and I would love to devote the time to compare Turin's slaying of Glaurung and Huan's slaying of Carcharoth with concerns to their ultimate effect on Morgoth, but I don't think this is the place), but it also does not negate the effect he has on single-handedly causing the destruction of much of Beleriand.
As for Turin's story being about a man, and not elves, most of the tales in The Sil have men as their central characters, even though they are outnumbered by the elves.
This is certainly true of the later Quenta, but I would argue that the main story of the Quenta is the story of the consequences of the madness of Feanor; the Wars of the Jewels were fought by Elves for Elves, and Men were only caught up in them by accident. (Of course, the "accidental" involvement of Men in the Great Wars is something that the Narn embodies more fully than any other tale; Turin is buffeted about by the Curse of Morgoth because his ancestors had the misfortune to be sucked into the ongoing animosity between the Noldor and Morgoth.) Men become crucial to the fight, and it is obvious that Tolkien ended up with greater sympathy towards them than towards his Elves (just look at the Athrabeth), but that does not change that the overarching tale of the Elder Days is one that is shaped primarily by the choices of Elves.
I do not suggest that the best "bridge material" between LotR and the Sil is one that involves more Elves than Men -- in fact, I think choosing something from the early Quenta, such as the story of the Rebellion of the Noldor, would be an even worse choice as "bridge material" than the Narn -- but the Narn is the tale which contains the least background information of all the Great Tales, and as such I think it is a bad representation of the Quenta. If you read only the Narn, you have no knowledge of the reason behind the destruction that was sweeping over Beleriand at that time; you will see Morogth only as a "great evil" and not as the complex character he actually is, and that, I think, takes away a lot of the power and message behind the Quenta. It's rather, I suppose, like reading LotR without any background knowledge of the History of the Elder Days, which I think is slightly horrific. But then, I realize I am in the (very small) minority on that one.
And by the way, I see this is your first post. What a start! Welcome to TORn!
I was heavily involved with movie discussion over at TolkienOnline/TheOneRing.com (where we regarded you over here at TORN as raving fanboys), but I got rather burned out by fighting on the losing side of the great Purist/Revisionist Wars of 2000-2003, and retreated to my own small corner of fandom at LiveJournal. I was linked to this discussion by one of my friends there, with the comment of "look, there is intelligent discussion of Tolkien going on on the internet, after all!". Hopefully the insanity from the movie has died down a bit, and I will be able to tentatively work my way back into the larger fandom world without suddenly getting the desire to throw myself off the highest peak of Thangorodrim