Yesterday I found an old copy of The Silmarillion and skimmed a bit through it. I was mostly interested in the transition between Morgoth and Sauron and how it was handled. So here’s a little summary I use for myself.

The main Bad Guy in this mythology is Morgoth, the antagonist through almost the whole Silmarillion. But I was surprised to find out that Sauron didn’t simply took Morgoth’s legacy, but was actually there from the very beginning. He was the first that Morgoth seduced and corrupted. The difference between the two is that while Morgoth liked the great armies, great wars, the monsters and all that blunt, tangible stuff, Sauron instead was the sorcerer, the one more subtle, cleverer, who played with perceptions and tried to twist the will of the people. Yet, for as long Morgoth is around Sauron acts as something like a war General.

Then there’s this big war where Morgoth is finally taken and then tossed literally out of the page into some no-world. In that last battle I didn’t see Sauron’s name coming up even once, but then when his story is resumed it is explained that Sauron was found too but ended up oddly spared since he explained he was sorry for all he had done and had nothing left to believe in. No one wanted to handle him and it’s said that Sauron was even honest now that he lost pretty much everything. So he ends up vanishing again. He could take different forms and appear as a beautiful man who could speak wisely. While the Elves usually didn’t buy this disguise and his deceiving ways, the men instead completely fell for it. It wasn’t even complete bullshit because Sauron indeed had great powers and knowledge and so the merchandise he was offering was truly appealing. And that’s how he gets one of the most telling names: “Lord of Gifts”.

Alas, that’s the principle of troubles. Sauron’s knowledge leads to the creation of the rings. He offered power, and at the same time he made sure he kept the Master Ring for himself so that he’d properly control the gifts he generously distributed. But since he still couldn’t fool the Elves, Sauron grasped his power, which means seizing all rings but those that belonged to the Elves, and started a war. For all the bluster on display, at the time the Elves were still too strong and even managed to capture Sauron once again. They bring him into their home and yet again Sauron does his thing, which is creating discontent among people till another war sparks up that somewhat creates some kind of cataclysmic event. Wikipedia makes all this slightly more plausible:

Hundreds of years later, the Men of Númenor decide to capture Sauron to demonstrate their might, unaware of the One Ring and the power Sauron wielded when he wore it. As it is described in Akallabêth, Sauron is brought to Númenor as a hostage and appears to show remorse for his deeds. However, he has taken on a beautiful appearance and his seeming goodness and persuasive tongue soon corrupts most Númenóreans and he becomes the chief adviser to the King. Sauron encourages the Númenóreans to cast aside their traditional reverence for Eru Ilúvatar and to take up the worship of Melkor, or Morgoth, Sauron’s former master, and make human sacrifices to him.

The world is torn apart and even Sauron is caught in the apocalypse. His pretty disguise is lost too, but Sauron’s spirit lives on.

He flies over to lava-land Mordor and builds his fortress called Barad-dûr. Here he starts gathering new power and makes himself a new body that this time is not pretty and deceiving, and more like the dark, twisted thing that you can see at the beginning of the LOTR movies. At this point Sauron decides it’s a good idea to launch a counter-attack before the other side gets too strong again. At first it seems to work and he makes some progress, but then the Elves organize themselves and once again show Sauron that they are too strong for him. They arrive at Mordor and keep it under siege for some seven years, also taking some great losses themselves, since fighting amidst lava wasn’t a good idea after all. In the end Sauron gets bored with these guys drumming on his door and comes out for a last stand. Here’s the battle shown at the beginning of the movies. Isildur manages to cut Sauron’s fingers, get the One Ring for himself, and Sauron crumbles into ashes while his spirit flies off towards sunset once again.

Here starts the Third Age and long years seem to pass. Isildur loves the ring, but he’s eventually ambushed by orcs, and uses the ring to make himself invisible so that he can flee. He doesn’t make too far, though, because while he’s swimming away the ring “betrays” him, slipping from his hand, and so making him visible to the orcs, who proceed to pin arrows in him. Isildur dies and the ring is lost in the river. Not much of Sauron’s power is left and there’s a period of relative peace beside some minor wars started from Sauron’s leftovers (like the Nazgûl). In the meantime Sauron prepares a temporary base in Mirkwood. During these years pre World War 2 the USA in the west of Middle-Earth decide to send over some secret agents, two of which codenamed Gandalf and Saruman. Their task is to keep an eye on how things develop, since they suspected that Sauron would eventually reappear, and, anyway, men weren’t really able to handle themselves without some guide. So these agents starts to scour the land for sensible information, and eventually Gandalf takes notice that Mirkwood is murky, finds Sauron, and Sauron is scared by the white beardy man and flees away once again. More peace. In the meantime the secret agents discover about the magic rings and take bets about whether or not Sauron will retrieve his own.

This is where Saruman starts having a different plan from Gandalf. He figures out that as long Sauron is hidden and his power unrevealed, the ring won’t find its way to him. But were Sauron allowed to rise and manifest, the chances to retrieve that ring of power would grow. Eventually Sauron returns to Mordor and rebuilds his tower. And Gandalf finds out the story about Gollum, Bilbo and the ring. Sauron too, and sends his agents. Here starts LOTR proper.

The rest, I guess, is known.

The interesting part was to realize that Sauron has always been there with Morgoth and while Morgoth had more direct power and control over everything, eventually Sauron compensated that through his subtleties and deceiving ways. Exploiting implicit weaknesses more than simply starting wars. The main theme, I guess, is that power corrupts. Even the secret agents belonging to the higher race are susceptible to the same corruption of power (see Saruman). And the moral is the one anticipated by Gandalf, that help shall come from the hands of the “weak”. The Hobbit, who are not immune to the corruption of power either (see Bilbo). Eventually Frodo makes the right choice, that is renouncing that power and banishing it. Which means not falling to the temptation of using that power. So also a theme of selfishness and personal gain.

The other theme running in parallel is some kind of mythology coming in layers. Tolkien explains that his myth is not “anthropocentric” since it focuses on the Elves, and men only come after, this is the running theme. His mythology doesn’t end because the LOTR books end, but because when that era closes it’s also the end of Elves. They sail off toward a mythical west, and the mythical west is once again off the page (and off the map). It does not exist. In the Silmarillion it’s actually explicit that the decline of the Elves is unrelated to Sauron’s deeds. And whether or not Sauron returned with his ring, the destiny of the Elves would have been exactly the same.

Yet many voices were heard among the Elves foreboding that, if Sauron should come again, then either he would find the Ruling Ring that was lost, or at the best his enemies would discover it and destroy it; but in either chance the powers of the Three must then fail and all things maintained by them must fade, and so the Elves should pass into the twilight and the Dominion of Men begin.

So this is a story of legacy and transition, between Elves and men. Between immortality and life, between myth and reality. Giving the Elves this lingering nostalgic aura of something that is vanishing, and maybe that dream-like apparition that Frodo has of the Elves is meant to put emphasis on this idea of Elves as if blurring out of reality. In the beginning of the Silmarillion the mythical “west” isn’t just the place where Elves dwell, but where the city of the gods lies. Off the page, so outside of the world (consider also that the world is “flat”, like a page, and it only becomes round in modern times, so again when history exits myth, and so a “west” was an absolute location compared to the relative one we have nowadays). So Gandalf and Saruman, as emissaries from the west, mark the last direct intrusion and meddling by the gods into the real world. I say this comes in layers because the more you move toward the “origin” the more things are mythical and unexplained. Wars are cataclysmic events that reshape the world. Ships can be flung up in the air by the waves, reach above the clouds and then fall back. There are dragons and Balrogs. The more instead you move toward the recent years, and the more the mythology is detailed, the more it becomes realistic and somewhat plausible. These two points, the origin, more fluid and magical, and the modernity, fixed, known and rather materialistic. I guess this is a theme that carries over to Malazan own mythology. After all, there are points in common.

It should be noticed that Gandalf is a cheat. He actually kept one of the Elves rings (the ring of fire) for himself, even thought it’s never explicitly used and has probably only a metaphoric value:

For this is the Ring of Fire, and herewith, maybe, thou shalt rekindle hearts to the valour of old in a world that grows chill.

Anyway, he never told anyone he had that ring.

I’ve just discovered that in the new edition of the book there’s a long letter by Tolkien where he explains pretty much all his mythology, right from when he started. Including that particular flavor of consistent worldbuilding. In fact, it seems it all started with the languages themselves:

To those creatures which in English I call misleadingly Elves are assigned two related languages more nearly completed, whose history is written, and whose forms (representing two different sides of my own linguistic taste) are deduced scientifically from a common origin. Out of these languages are made nearly all the names that appear in my legends. This gives a certain character (a cohesion, a consistency of linguistic style, and an illusion of historicity) to the nomenclature, or so I believe, that is markedly lacking in other comparable things. Not all feel this as important as I do, since I’m cursed by acute sensibility in such matters.

As the high legends of the beginnings are supposed to look at things through Elvish minds, so the middle tale of the Hobbit takes virtually a human point of view – and the last tale blends them.

Anyway all this stuff is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine.

It seems you can read the whole letter through the Kindle preview. It’s very good.

I guess one could see the evolution of this mythology as the adding of dimensions:
– Starts from a monodimensional whole -> then moving through the two dimensional, flat world of the Silmarillion -> moving into the three dimensional, somewhat “real” (and mortal) world of The Lord of the Rings -> to the fourth dimensional world, the fourth wall, the distinction between the story and reality, and between myth and history.

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