Jan 7 2013, 5:22pm
Sorry about this - no sooner had I volunteered (and given others a chance to volunteer also) but I had a bit of unexpected free time. I began to make some notes, and well, one thing led to another. And you thought: "noWizardme is never late, nor is he early, he posts precisely when he means to." Darn, will my credibility ever recover?
Oops, I seem to have started....
So what seems to be happing is this. I've skimmed through the chapter and some questions and discussion topics spring out. So it seemed that I might as well put them up for discussion right away! I plan to go back and read with more close attention, and post any further thoughts that come to me (if they seem any good..).
So, here goes: Valaquenta
This, the second chapter, is stylistically an extreme contrast to its two neighbours. It is preceded by Ainulindale, (link to our recent discussion - never to late to post to it!) in which the ultimate god Eru (aka Iluvatar) creates a group of under-gods (the Ainur). Together they create the universe. Some of the Ainur decide to dwell in the world, and become known as the Valar. But there is already discord – Melkor, one of the Ainur has become rebellious. The Ainulindale ends with a struggle under way between the Valar, who are trying to execute Eru’s project for the world on the one hand, and on the other hand Melkor, who has his own ideas. Lots happens in that chapter - I imagine New Line wincing at the CGI budget. Valaquenta is followed by Quenta Silmarillion in which the struggle between the Valar and Melkor resumes. By contrast, Valaquenta has no action at all - it is basically a lists and descriptions of:
• the Valar (who mostly come in pairs – a male Valar and a female Valier. But the term for a mixed-gender bunch of them is “Valar”)
• the Maiar (servants and helpers of the Valar)
• their enemies – chiefly Melkor (who is like a Valar but not counted as one because he rebelled) but also his helpers/servants. Balrogs and Sauron (names familiar from Lord of the Rings) are among these.
Not much work for the special effects department here, then. Weta, you may take a day off, but you WILL be busy.
So, to possible discussion points:
How did you feel the first time you ever arrived at this chapter and discovered it was a long list? Personally my reaction was some dismay . I find the information fairly indigestible in this form, and worry that I’ll have to get it all straight in my head if I’m to understand the rest of the book. Perhaps my feelings about complex lists were influenced by a zoology course I once did, in which I was trying to learn the taxonomy of the mollusks. I did not find it interesting . I plodded on until I got to the page headed “boring bivalves” – this seemed like such an appropriate metatext right then that I started sniggering & felt it best to leave the library….
I see JRRT as being deliberately antique here – I can’t think of many modern books which would include a chapter like this, in this style, and in this place. But perhaps you disagree – please say, if so! More likely, this kind of information would now be relegated to an appendix, and perhaps we would have a scene in we are introduced to those characters we need to know right now – The Council of Elrond is a scene in Lord of the Rings that meets this kind of need. In that chapter, we meet Boromir, Gimli and Legolas for the first time; meet Elrond for the first time (unless we’ve already read The Hobbit) and get enough of a look at these characters to draw our preliminary conclusions about them. We also meet a couple of “extras” who take no further part in the tale. We don't get a list of the attendees (perhaps just as well in case it began to look like the minutes of a committee meeting "present; Lord Elrond Halfelven, Gandalf the Grey.... Apologies; Lady Galadriel" etc.)The only modern thing I can think of which is like Valaquenta, is the TV commentary as the teams in a sporting fixture run out onto the pitch. Perhaps that is not an unreasonable parallel, given that they’re about to contest the destiny and structure of the very world itself in Quenta Silmarillion. Recasting Valaquenta as dialogue between football commentators would either be amusing, or literary hooliganism (or both) – anyone want to try?
While inflicting long lists on your readers may not be a very modern thing to do, I think there are several examples in my (very limited) knowledge of old stories. I would be interested to get covering fire (or indeed receive bombardment) from people on this forum who know more ancient literature and agree, disagree or have other contributions to make to this idea. A few examples for now:
• my wife studied classics and found it difficult to love a chapter in Homer’s Illiad which is basically a list of the ships setting out to Troy.
• The Bible has lists of people who beget other people.
• I think I recall skimming a long account of which Knight of the Round Table unhorsed which other one at a tournament (I am probably thinking of John Steinbeck’s translation of Mallory which I enjoyed many years ago. But I no longer have a copy).
So, I think, ancient readers/listeners were not adverse to hearing/reading/studying/memorizing lists. I also have a theory about it. I imagine Homer being sung, recited or read to people who might trace their ancestry back to these semi-mythical heroes. So, telling the tale in Ithaca, say, you’d better include those ships (“A shout out to those brave boys from Ithaca!”). New Testament writers, I think, were eager to prove that Jesus is of the House of David (in order to demonstrate his eligibility to fulfill prophecies about the Messiah, I believe I read). So my idea, for what it is worth, is that lists are often provided for extra-literary agendas. Assuming you agree with me, does JRRT have an agenda here other than giving us information we as readers need to progress with the story? For example, does a full listing seem appropriate given that it is quite likely what his literary models of ancient texts would do.
I note that (at least in my edition) we get the lists as “flat” prose – paragraphs: no tables, nested bullet points, organization charts or other modern typographical/infographic devices to aid comprehension. Nor do we get an ancient “rhyme of lore” such as the one Treebeard updates so as to include Hobbits in the Ents’ taxonomy of living things, or the “seven stars and seven stones and one white tree” one which Gandalf mutters while transporting Pippin to Minas Tirith. Such rhymes seem a reasonable way for mostly-pre literate cultures to memorize Valaquenta-like information, so perhaps would be in keeping with the genre (unlike nested bullets). Or do the Elves not need to memorize lists of Valar in elvenschool, since their elders met the gods personally? (Athiesm, come to think of it would probably be pretty impractical for the Noldar….). Has anyone (including JRRT) tried to cast Valaquenta in this form? Would anyone like to try?? As an alternative suggestion for a game, anyone fancy a competition to come up with the best mnemonic for the names of the Valar?
How do you react to authors deploying so much invented terminology (Tolkien specifically, other authors for comparison)? Apart from all the names (and some characters have more than one name); at this point in the book the reader must already remember the concepts of Valar, Valier, Maiar, Arda… Is that risky (you might give up) or do you like it, or does it not bother you? In my view, the Lord of the Rings is given a lot of depth and solidity by the fact that JRRT had already worked a lot of this Silmarilion material out. So he could give offhand references to a great, hidden body of lore, to great literary effect. Here is that lore, then. Other authors, perhaps impressed by LOTR, have tried this too. My personal example of it getting out of hand is Frank Herbert’s Dune story. To my mind at least, he overdoes the unexplained made-up names for things and the “quotations” from “lore”which start his chapters become annoying. The whole thing looks too much like a literary device. Yes, Mr Herbert, I accuse YOU of making up the “lore” and names to try and give your world that Tolkien-like patina of deep time and constant use. I mean “Making up” in the sense that I struggled to believe it, and nearly missed out on a good story (it would be pretty ridiculous to object to making up the story in Dune in the usual sense – "what, no giant sand worms; I thought they lived in Norfolk?!"). Do you agree that this is a somewhat risky literary device? Any examples of it going well/badly for you as a reader? How close to the wind does Tolkien sail, do you think? Or, given that he may have had little expectation that we’d ever be reading Valaquenta, is this a moot point (or a criticism to aim at his editors, for not providing additional scaffolding?)
The Valar have gender, but we’re told in Ainulindale that they can alter their appearance like clothes and similar comments are made in Valaquenta. Do you reckon they are stuck being male/female, as humans are? Or is that just part of the appearance they choose to display to the Eldar - i.e. they are in reality beyond gender. If so (or not so) is that relevant? Gender is obviously massively significant to humans and various writers of science fiction and related literatures have fooled around with it as a way of exploring issues about gender equality or lack thereof (and writing a good story). Getting of subject a bit here, probably, but my favourite example would be Ursula LeGuin’s “Left Hand of Darkness”, about a world where people are neuter for most of the month, before entering a brief fertile period in which they become male or female. They cannot predict which it will be this month, and so it is common to experience maleness, femaleness, motherhood and fatherhood all in one lifetime.
The Valar come in pairs and are mostly married (a male Valar and a female Valier). Is that significant? No extra marital affairs (as far as I am aware) like those which propel many plots in a greco-roman myth. Also, they are not an incestuously intermarrying family group as in some myths – they were all created by Iluvatar, but they appear to be things he made or thought up, rather than his children in a biological sense. Is that significant – for example is JRRT removing sexual issues such as incest and affairs which he might have found unsettling or unpleasant in other myths and did not want to include in his own? Or, are the Valar setting up models of certain kinds of family groups for the Eldar to copy?
Melkor is not married, and is without female equivalent. Is this significant?
Potentially it is a serious point. At the risk of reducing this towards the level of Masters of the Universe, there’s no Mrs Melkor to steady him down; also no svelte femme fatale character for Peter Jackson one day to put in a skimpy costume as Melkorina, Goddess of Evil (for all Testosterone Tower devotees on this forum to love and despair).
OK - so missing from this so far are definitely:
Have at it!
- Any commentary on the content of the lists, rather than the idea of having a chapter of lists and some of its high-level structure
- Any discussion of the language
- And much more besides (that is where YOU come in!)