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Nerdist Book Club: The Silmarillion, Part 1

Nerdist Book Club: The Silmarillion, Part 1

Who else spent their long weekend studiously examining The Silmarillion for our first discussion post for Nerdist Book Club? I don’t know about all of you, but this is the first time reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s history book has seemed less daunting. Having a Fellowship surrounding me and going through the same thing made it more fun to approach the book with a highlighter and notebook. I took my time and made notes as I read Ainulindalë and Valaquenta, and the process made it easier to understand. I hope you all had a similar experience.

A few housekeeping notes based on some questions that have come my way. You can join in our read-along at any point simply by obtaining a copy of The Silmarillion and coming here each Tuesday and participating in the discussion. Posts will go up at 10:30am PST. We’ll all chat in the comments on each discussion post, and we can continue the conversation on Twitter.


Ilúvatar by Ronald Foerster

What happened


The Silmarillion begins with a creation story of Eä. It is the Elven name for the Created World and includes Middle-earth. Eru a/k/a the One a/k/a Ilúvatar brought the universe into being with music, and the language here is appropriately lyrical and moving. I did immediately realize one of my troubles with reading Tolkien though: one character can be known by three or more names. I ended up bookmarking the index of names in the back of the book and reference it frequently.

Ilúvatar first made the Ainur, and they sang in harmony. Ilúvatar sings a theme to them and has each of them build upon his music using their own powers and tastes. It’s basically an epic jam session that brings the world into being. But even in the beginning, there was discord. Melkor was the most powerful Ainur, and he wasn’t content with following Ilúvatar’s lead and started leading the Ainur away from Ilúvatar’s theme.

To sort of show Melkor they were all working towards a common goal, Ilúvatar showed the Ainur what their music had made, and it was a World. Ilúvatar created Children – Elves and Men – and the Ainur became somewhat enamored of the World and inhabitants and bringing their visions into being. To this end, Ilúvatar created Eä, and the Ainur who went there were known as the Valar.

Melkor accompanied them and longed to rule and be called lord. He tried to undo everything the Valar did and in some ways, Eä was at war from the moment of its conception.

I was moved by the creation tale and intrigued by how good and evil forces were set up from the start. Though I knew the information in The Silmarillion was recorded by the Elves, it was interesting to see the Elves refer to their immortality as a curse and to see men’s mortality as a gift. I’m so used to the idea of seeing immortality as universally appealing that I enjoyed seeing this perspective. I have a hunch it will come up again.


Manwë by Gerwell


The next section goes into the who’s who of the Valar and the Maiar. The latter are Ainur of a lesser degree. I’m not even kidding. The text covers who has which powers, who’s married among the Valar, and provides what is essentially a power ranking. It’s a touch dry but provides useful information and context. We learn who might be powerful enough to take on Melkor – Manwë and possibly Varda since he hates her – and how much further he has fallen into evil and anger. By this point, he’s gone full Vader. When he could not possess all he wanted, he descended into darkness.

Relevance to The Hobbit and/or Lord of the Rings

Besides learning how the world in which Bilbo and Frodo Baggins reside was created, you may have spotted a few familiar names and creatures in Valaquenta. The Valar Varda became known to the Elves as Elbereth; she is beloved. Her name appears in songs, and when Frodo is attacked at Weathertop, he calls out to her.

Melkor created the Balrogs, one of which Gandalf would eventually face in Moria. And perhaps most importantly of all, we meet Melkor’s servant Sauron. He was once a Maiar (lesser Ainur) serving another of Melkor’s brothers (another Ainur), and Sauron had a part in all of Melkor’s deceit and cunning.

Favorite quotes

“And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad. But for a long while they sang only each alone, or but few together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly. Yet ever as they listened they came to deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony.”

“Eä. Let these things Be! And I will send forth into the Void the Flame Imperishable, and it shall be at the heart of the World.”

“The light of the eyes of Melkor was like a flame that withers with heat and pierces with a deadly cold.”

“The sound of mourning was woven into the themes of the World before it began.”

Discussion questions
– How effective do you think Ainulindalë is as a creation story?
– Do you see any parallels between Ainulindalë to myths in our world?
– Did Ilúvatar’s actions make Melkor worse, or do you think he could have done anything to make a difference?
– Melkor’s dissent seems to have happened from the beginning. Why do you think he couldn’t play nice with the rest of the Ainur?
– Which of the Valar do you like the most, and who do you think has contributed the most to Eä?
– The music of the Ainur created the world, and the Valar perceived that the World had been foresung, and they just needed to execute. What does this say about Ilúvatar and predestination?

You are of course not limited to only discussing these questions, and you don’t have to answer them in order to participate. Jump into the comments or post on social media and share your own questions and comments, your thoughts and feelings about Ainulindalë and Valaquenta, favorite nicknames for the Ainur, and whatever you’d like. I encourage you to interact with other readers right here in the comments and by searching the #NerdistBookClub hashtag on social media. I’ll be monitoring comments, but you can also hit me up over on Twitter.

Top image of Ulmo by John Howe

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  1. Brieeeeee says:

    “And yet their labour was not all in vain; and though nowhere and in no work was their will and purpose wholly fulfilled, and all things were in a hue and shape other than the Valor had at first intended, slowly nonetheless the Earth was fashioned and made firm.”
    I love this line. Even the Gods are have limitations. Even though they are revered for their power — they are incapable of molding the world to their will. Tolkien is giving the gods human (elf) characteristics. Forming them as more identifiable creatures within the world that they watch over.  In a more real world application, it reminds us that even though things many not become what we dream them up to be. that doesn’t mean they are any less beautiful or ripe with possibilities. 

  2. rereading the Silmarillion. The first book which focused on its version of creation mythology struck me as very logical way to describe it. That is one of Tolkien’s strengths. Even when writing about the creation of a imaginary world filled with elves and dwarves there is always an underlining logic that helps the reader follow along.

    P.S. I can’t wait for readers to start discussing Feanor and his sons.

  3. Morgodth says:

    I’m a little late on this, but:
    – Do you see any parallels between Ainulindalë to myths in our world?
    Yes!  Both Greek and Hindu mythology have musical creation myths.  Also, Tolkien said several times that he was trying to create a myth, and wanted it to be influenced by non-Levantine sources. 
    Also, related to some Hindu and Celtic myths, who the “many gods” are really all aspects of the one general creator is interesting.  They’re all “pieces” of Illuvitar.

    – Did Ilúvatar’s actions make Melkor worse, or do you think he could have done anything to make a difference?
    I think it was purposeful.  He created Melkor to be the rebel.  The universe created goes through a cycle, which is why there’s an “end song”.  The interesting thing, though, is that while Illuvatar was able to wave Melkor’s dissonance into the song, he later became annoyed and couldn’t really control Melkor.  Even the creator’s plan can go in unexpected directions…

  4. I definitely need to list some maps as reference in my next post so we can all see where everything is happening.

  5. Oh, that’s a terrific point that I didn’t think of. Totally explains why the Nazgul wouldn’t cross the river into Rivendell.

  6. zeroentropy says:

    I do remember an interview or letter where he said that the Dwarves did sound Semitic, and the hobbits were like rustic English folk.

  7. Trav says:

    It is interesting that each Ainur represents a part of Eru’s mind, and not only is Melkor more independent, egocentric and head strong, but he is also the most powerful. This makes a statement about Eru that maybe he isn’t just only an ever benevolent being but that he also embodies many characteristics that while not necessarily evil (in fact they can be real strengths) have the potential to be destructive when misused. Very interesting…