Tolkien: Beyond Middle Earth

Ring of Power | Courtesy of Good Free Photos

J.R.R. Tolkien is considered to be one of the best authors in British literary history, but few people have read his works outside of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Many might consider that books written before The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are unimportant to the story and that it would not benefit them to read these stories. However, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings occur in the third age of Tolkien’s universe. His other books, like The Silmarillion, The Unfinished Tales, and Beren and Luthien, contain the creation story of his world, as well as stories about deities, spirits, and characters who influenced the shaping of culture and politics between races. Tolkien wrote in a letter that in his book The Hobbit, “hobbitry and the hobbit-situation are not explained, but taken for granted, and what little is told of their history is in the form of casual allusion as to something known.” The book is full of allusions to the history of Elrond, elves, and Gandalf, but it is also alluded to that the full version is recorded somewhere else.1 The Lord of the Rings holds many suggestions of a deeper past “of lands and cities that cannot be found on the map that accompanies the book: a past nonetheless that some of the persons in the story speak of as having known and seen with their own eyes.2 Christopher Tolkien writes, “The Silmarillion is indeed the central stock of that great imaginative enterprise from which The Lord of the Rings was derived.” The Silmarillion holds the aesthetic and philosophical convictions of the author. It is an essential part of the long story that ends at the last chapter of The Lord of the Rings.3 Fans of Tolkien’s well-known works should familiarize themselves with the deeper lore of his universe, because it explains the myths and legends of the universe and the backstory of many of the older characters, as well as those who are referenced in those works.

The mythology of Tolkien’s Universe is explained in his work The Silmarillion. Tolkien starts The Silmarillion with a creation story. As a devout Catholic, Tolkien was inspired by the Bible in writing this story; however, the inspiration he drew from it seems to be purely historical. Tolkien wrote The Silmarillion several times and in parts. He would write small stories from it both in prose and in verse, and then fit them together. He reworked it many times before his death, and the book was eventually published by his son.4 The god of Tolkien’s universe was called Iluvatar. Iluvatar created the Ainur, or Holy Ones, which were offspring of his thoughts. The Ainur were Manwe, Ulmo, Aule, Orome, Mandos, Lorien, Tulkas, Varda, Yavanna, Nienna, Este, Vaire, Vana, Nessa, and Melkor. Manwe was the King of the Ainur, and Varda was his wife. Varda was the Lady of the Stars, and the elves gave her the name Elbereth. Ulmo was the Lord of Waters. He lived alone, but provided constant friendship to elves and men. Aule had lordship over land and was a master of metalworking. His wife was Yavanna, who loved all things that grow from the earth. Mandos and Lorien are brothers. Mandos is the keeper of the Houses of the Dead, while Lorien is the master of visions and dreams. Vaire is the wife of Mandos and weaves time, and Este is the wife of Lorien and gives rest and healing. Nienna is the sister of Mandos and Lorien, and she mourns for the wounds brought by evil. Tulkas is strong and skilled in wrestling and loves fighting. Nessa is the wife of Tulkas, and she is fleetfooted and loves deer. Orome is the protector of Middle Earth and loves war. Vana is the wife of Orome and she tends to flowers and birdsong. Melkor was once the mightiest of the Ainur, but became corrupted by his own thoughts and desires. These Ainur created the world of Iluvatar’s thoughts through song. The world they created was named Arda.5 Tolkien used music as the tool of creation to emphasize that the creation was the work of one being, Iluvatar, but the Ainur from the different parts of his mind bring attention to the idea of harmony. The need for cooperation between multiple wills allowed Melkor to interweave his own theme into the creation of the world by his own pride, introducing evil.6

The Silmarillion is the story of all the peoples encountered by the Fellowship in their quest with the ring. Many times in the Lord of the Rings series, characters like Elrond, Aragorn, and Treebeard mention the history of Middle Earth and the importance of the races and events to what is happening in that book. The Silmarillion is mostly the history of Arda from the elvish perspective.7 The second part of Tolkien’s creation story deals with the creation of races and the physical form of the minor deities. In their physical form, the Ainur took on the name Valar. Iluvatar created elves and men, but put them asleep under the earth until the Valar were done creating the planet. When they awoke, the elves remained in Middle Earth, while men became nomads. Melkor created Balrogs and captured elves who strayed too close to his domain and corrupted them into orcs. Aule also created his own race of Dwarves, but, realizing his mistake and pride, surrendered them to Iluvatar. Iluvatar acknowledged Aule’s humility and repentance and accepted the dwarves, even giving them the same free will he gave the elves and men. When Melkor established his domain in Middle Earth, the Valar moved to an island they called Valinor. This became the undying lands.8 Some of the elves were summoned by the Valar to live with them on Valinor, but returned to Middle Earth to wage war on Melkor and his forces of evil.9

J.R.R. Tolkien in 1916 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Those familiar with The Lord of the Rings may remember Aragorn singing a song of Luthien Tinuviel. This was a personal story for J.R.R. Tolkien, as the story was based on his own pursuit of his wife, Edith. Tolkien fell in love with Edith when he was seventeen years old. Edith was twenty at the time and not Catholic, unlike Tolkien. The two of them wanted to get married, but Tolkien’s guardian, a Catholic priest, forbade the marriage. When Tolkien came of age, he married Edith. Tolkien left to fight in the war almost immediately after marrying Edith, but became ill with a fever and was sent home. His illness kept him in bed for the duration of the war, but during that time, he worked on his story of Beren and Luthien, which he had started as a teenager.10 In this story, Beren is a mortal man who became enchanted by the beauty and dancing of Luthien. Luthien was the fairest elf to have ever lived. She danced in the moonlight every night, and Beren watched from far off, sometimes trying to follow her. Luthien knew he was watching and following, but pretended that she didn’t. One evening, Beren boldly asked Luthien to teach him how to dance. She told him to follow her and dance, and she led him on a winding dance to the city of her people, right before her parents, the king and queen. Luthien begged them to let her teach him to dance as the elves. The king asked Beren what he wanted from the elves and, in a moment of courage, he said that he wanted to marry Luthien. Luthien’s father and brother laughed, and the king said that the day Beren brought him a silmaril from Melkor’s crown, he would wed Beren and Luthien. Only three silmarils existed. They were gems that contained the light from the undying lands and were perfect and unbreakable. All three of them were in Melkor’s crown, which he never removed from his head. All the elves knew that the elf king did not intend to let Beren marry Luthien, Beren, however, set off immediately for Melkor’s domain, Angband. Beren was, of course, captured by orcs and brought before Melkor. He was then set to work hunting for food for Melkor’s table. When Luthien learned that Beren had been captured and was a slave to Melkor, she wanted to go to help him, so her father locked her in a small house in a tree with no way to get down. Luthien, being an elf, was able to work magic, and caused her hair to grow extremely long one night. She wove a garment of darkness and a rope from her hair with magic, and escaped the next night. Luthien soon found Beren and set him free. The two then went to Melkor’s throne room. Luthien danced and sang for Melkor and sent him to sleep. Beren was then able to cut the silmaril from the crown of Melor. Melkor woke up as they were fleeing the throne room. As they were fleeing, the chief wolf of Melkor bit off the arm of Beren that was carrying the silmaril. He returned to Luthien’s father, claiming that he held the silmaril in his hand, but could not show him because he did not have his hand with him. The king was moved by Beren’s courage and bravery and was willing to wed Beren and Luthien. Beren, however, wanted to hold to his word. He died attempting to retrieve the silmaril from the wolf’s body.11 Edith Tolkien was so touched by this story that she told her children she wanted the name Luthien inscribed beneath her name on her gravestone.12 Shortly after The Lord of the Rings was published, Edith’s health started rapidly declining. The Tolkien family moved to gain peace from fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books and allow Edith to rest. She died three years later. When Tolkien died two years later, he was buried near Edith and had Beren inscribed under his name on his gravestone.13

Edith and J.R.R. Tolkien Grave | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Gandalf, Sauruman, and Radagast are characters that many readers will immediately recognize. These wizards are not talked about very much in The Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings books. Their past remains mysterious in those books; however, The Unfinished Tales tells about wizards and their past. Tolkien called his wizards “Istari.” They were Maiar, which are spirits created by the Valar to serve them on Valinor. Although they were bodyless spirits, they could take on a human or elvish form. Five Istari were sent to help the elves fight against Sauron, a Maiar of Melkor, when he began to grow and take a form of his own. The Istari sent were a white wizard, a gray wizard, a brown wizard, and two blue wizards. These wizards had different names depending on who they were with. The Valar called the white wizard Curumo; however, elves called him Curunir and men called him Saruman. The gray wizard was called Olorin by the Valar, Mithrandir by the elves, and Gandalf by men. The brown wizard was only given two names; Aiwendil by the Valar and Radagast by the elves. The two blue wizards were only ever given names by the Valar. Their names were Alatar and Pallando. These Istari came as messengers to unite elves and men against Sauron. They were forbidden from revealing their Maiar power and had all the limitations of men. The Istari were not sent to Middle Earth all at once, but some came before others. Saruman was sent first, then Gandalf and Radagast, then the two blue wizards. Shortly after Gandalf’s arrival, he was given a ring of power by an elvish leader. Saruman grew jealous of Gandalf’s having a ring of power and hated Radagast. He and the blue wizards traveled to the east. Saruman returned after a time, but the blue wizards were never seen again. Saruman’s hatred eventually drove him to work against Gandalf and Radagast. Gandalf spent his time in Middle Earth changing forms to blend in with the different races to befriend them and spread knowledge. Radagast took to the forests to tend to the animals and is the only Istari known to have survived. Gandalf was sent back after his death only until he completed his purpose, then sailed over the sea and was never seen again. Saruman was utterly humbled and died at the hands of an oppressed slave. His spirit went wherever it was doomed to go.14

Tolkien ‘The Ring of Galadriel’ 1976 | Courtesy of Hildebrandt Brothers

Galadriel is, perhaps one of the most well known and beloved characters in the Lord of the Rings. Galadriel’s story was developed slowly and was continually changed to fix inconsistencies. She was related to Feanor, the creator of the silmarils. Feanor created three silmarils, which were partly inspired by Galadriel’s hair. He begged her three times for a single tress of her hair, but she would not give him a single hair. This drove them apart forever. When Melkor stole the silmarils, however, and the rest of her kin set after him to retrieve them , she followed them, even knowing that it would result in her being exiled from Valinor. Galadriel was shocked at Feanors ruthless and violent slaughter of all who stood in his way, family or not. She and Celeborn broke away from the rest of her kin and did not participate in their battle for the silmarils. She married Celeborn, although it is unclear when that happened in the story. After the defeat of Melkor, Galadriel and Celeborn were rulers of elves in Lorien. They knew that Sauron was growing in power, so Galadriel befriended the dwarves of Moria, seeing them as excellent smiths and soldiers. Galadriel was young and longed for power. Her greatest dream at the time was to have the One Ring of Power and dominion over Middle Earth. Sauron approached her as the Lord of Gifts. He continually gave her gifts to placate her and keep her from stopping him in his growth of power with his rings. When Galadriel discovered his true purpose, she could not bring herself to order the destruction of the elven rings, so she ordered that they be hidden and never used. One of the rings was given to her by another elf, the other two were given to other elvish leaders. One of those two was eventually given to Gandalf. When Sauron discovered that the three rings had been hidden from him, he took back the nine he had given to men and tortured an elf into revealing the location of the seven that were given to dwarves. He could not get the location of the three rings, but he had some very accurate guesses. This lead to a war between Sauron and the elves and dwarves. When Frodo came with the ring, her rejection of the ring and aiding the fellowship in defeating Sauron led to her being allowed to return to Valinor. Galadriel’s giving Gimli three of her hairs at his request is a great honor, considering that she refused to give even one hair to her kinsman after he begged her three times. Galadriel’s history has changed many times, and she was not even a part of the story until one of the later drafts.15

Tolkien’s works have been read and loved by many. Tolkien used his storytelling to express his love for his wife, help his children sleep, and fill his time when sick from the war. Some skeptics may believe that it is possible to read the more well known books and enjoy them without diving into the deeper lore. While it is true that the books can be enjoyed, the history of the story cannot be fully appreciated, nor an the story be understood from the viewpoint of the characters without reading the background of the characters and events that shaped the world, cultures, and politics in the books.

  1. J.R.R. Tolkien, ”Letter 131 to Milton Waldman,” 1951, The Tolkien Estate (website), https://www.tolkienestate.com/en/writing/letters/letter-milton-waldman.html.
  2. Christopher Tolkien, ”The Silmarillion,” 1977, The Tolkien Estate (website), https://www.tolkienestate.com/en/writing/tales-of-middle-earth/the-silmarillion.html.
  3. Christopher Tolkien, ”The Silmarillion,” 1977, The Tolkien Estate (website), https://www.tolkienestate.com/en/writing/tales-of-middle-earth/the-silmarillion.html.
  4. Deborah Webster Rogers and Ivor A. Rogers, J.R.R. Tolkien (Boston: Gale, 2008), 79-84.
  5. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (New York: Ballantine Books, 1979), 18-23.
  6. Deborah Webster Rogers and Ivor A. Rogers, J.R.R. Tolkien (Boston: Gale, 2008), 84.
  7. Christopher Tolkien, “The Silmarillion,” The Tolkien Estate (website), https://www.tolkienestate.com/en/writing/tales-of-middle-earth/the-silmarillion.html.
  8. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (New York: Ballantine Books, 1979), 1-26.
  9. Christopher Tolkien, ”The Silmarillion,” The Tolkien Estate (website), https://www.tolkienestate.com/en/writing/tales-of-middle-earth/the-silmarillion.html.
  10. Deborah Webster Rogers and Ivor A. Rogers, J.R.R. Tolkien (Boston: Gale, 2008), 19-27.
  11. J.R.R. Tolkien, Beren and Luthien (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), 40-88.
  12. J.R.R. Tolkien, Beren and Luthien (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), 17.
  13. Deborah Webster Rogers and Ivor A. Rogers, J.R.R. Tolkien (Boston: Gale, 2008), 27.
  14. J.R.R. Tolkien, Unfinished Tales (New York: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1988), 405-420.
  15. J.R.R. Tolkien, Unfinished Tales (New York: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1988), 239-268.
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