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The Valar, Gods of Wisdom and Wonder
Part One: The coming of the Powers and the building of the Blessed Realm
Continuing our journey through The History of Middle-Earth (THOME), chapter three brings us to the shaping and stewardship of the world by the angelic beings known as the Valar and the Maiar. The Valar are the “Powers,” on the astral level of gods and Maiar are lesser powers — demigods, angels and demons. In The Book of Lost Tales, the manuscript that supplied most of the material for The Silmarillion, and the text that J.R.R. Tolkien’s son Christopher presents and contextualizes in THOME’s first volume, both are rendered in greater anthropomorphic detail.
While their distinctive narrative lines are more rough in THOME versus in The Silmarillion, here we get a stronger sense of Tolkien senior immersing himself in a primordial world and feeling things out with his mind through the various senses. Titled “The Coming of the Valar and the Building of Valinor,” the third chapter, Tolkien’s son tells us, was not titled and is contiguous it seems as part of The Music of the Ainur, the cosmogonic origin story of his alternate universe.
Light and darkness are the critical sensory inputs that Tolkien uses to describe this primordial phase of his Creation myth, his poetic aesthesis moving on from the metaphorical language of music into that of visual perception. This gives “The Coming of the Valar” a somewhat eerie but evocative atmosphere: what would the planet Earth have been like without the sun and the moon?
First written after The Cottage of Lost Play and probably around the same time as The Music of the Ainur, anywhere between 1918 and 1920 — I don’t see any other dates provided in Christopher Tolkien’s extensive notes — this critical transition from the universal to the terrestrial marks Tolkien’s first true tale centered inside “Arda” — Eä, Earth, the World — with descriptions of the primeval Great Lands i.e. Middle-earth. It’s a fascinating read because Tolkien, more here than in The Silmarillion, uses the image and concept of light as an almost sentient element of this vast alluvial landscape. Indeed, he synthesizes light with water to create a phenomenon approximating a kind of liquid electricity or spiritual lava.
As we learned in The Music of the Ainur, water contains within its very nature the energy of Creation in that it makes sounds that echo closest to the original music and thought of Ilúvatar and his chorus of angels during the Creation of the world — Eä; Arda, the World that Is. As the godhead Creator of Tolkien’s myth-verse, Eru Ilúvatar, the One, has sent the Valar and the Maiar into Arda to sculpt, enhance, nurture, protect and govern the Earth.
For those who have not read The Silmarillion or THOME, it may suffice to say that it is with this emanation of the Music of the Ainur — where a cosmic music now becomes a cosmic matter — that The Coming of the Valar and the Building of Valinor represent’s Tolkien’s shift into a more pagan mode of mythology. Here appears matters and events that readers familiar with ancient Greek mythology, Roman gods, the Egyptian pantheon, and Norse tales of Asgard — embedded now in everything from Marvel’s Thor and Loki to Homer’s Iliad — approximates something much closer to a terra firma of history.
While geological in the main, Tolkien invigorates the Valar’s formation of land, sea and sky with a life force vivid in its imagery. This gusto is distinctive from all previous forms of creation myth because it came from the mind of one author versus in bits and pieces from ancient cultures primarily in the form of oral traditions captured in texts hundreds of years after their communal genesis.
And yet Tolkien was receiving all of that great wisdom and combining it with his own flights of imagination, mixing them with his daydreams, modern experience, and peculiar stylistic instincts, informed by his love of myths and fairy tales.
“Those were the days of Gloaming (Lomendánar), for light there was, silver and golden, but it was not gathered together but flowed and quivered in uneven streams about the airs, or at times fell gently to the earth in glittering rain and ran like water on the ground; and at that time Varda in her playing had set but a few stars within the sky.”
This is unusual and highly poetic imagery — psychedelic, I daresay — that in many ways fits more with the Romantic poetry of Keats and Lord Byron, than in King James Bible or Homer. Tolkien also does something else here that is not in The Silmarillion that exemplifies the level of detail he was engaging early on in terms of this Middle-earth tabla rasa.
As the great elven bard Rúmil educates the wayward human Eriol, who first arrives on the magical shores of Tol Eressëa in The Cottage of Lost Play, he continues on from the opening genesis story by describing the gods Manwë Súlimo and his wife Varda entering Arda through the “three airs”: Vaitya (outer space), Ilwë (Earth’s blue atmosphere) and Vilna (the lower atmosphere occupied by birds, clouds and wind). I think this is important for a couple reasons. For one, while Tolkien in The Music of the Ainur first introduces Melkor — essentially our Lucifer in this tale — and then Ulmo — Lord of Waters — before he introduces his version of a Zeus-like king of the gods, Manwë Súlimo (meaning “breather, one of wind” in Quenya, the Elvish Latin), by beginning in “The Coming of the Valar” with Manwë and Varda — Queen of the Stars — as the “twain” who enter Arda on “wings of power,” he gives primacy to air and light. Together they create the days of Gloaming. Again, this is not in The Silmarillion, but I think it is important to understand how Tolkien is moving from music and sound (“air and wind and the Word”), the Breath of Life — as in consciousness — to the Light of Creation — as in experience.
And yet water soon plays a critical role as part of a trio of geological transformation. While Aulë, the god of substances and earthen matter, is the master of stones and mountains and rocks and soils, of gold, silver, and minerals, Ulmo is still the next greatest Vala after Manwë, and Varda after Ulmo. The early passages of “The Coming of the Valar” makes this clear in a number of ways. For one, it is waters and floods that shape the world as much as Aulë’s own work, and it is the winds combined with light that inundate even the senses of the gods. I believe this is the second reason why the “three airs” are important. They encapsulate the world, and light needs the airs to travel. And next, the seas encircle the lands of Arda, and the rains and ice cover it.
So what we have is a more ethereal view of the universe and the hierarchy of Creation. That is, from music, from consciousness, it is then movement through space, light and water, that the life of the world delights, and also destroys. For Melkor (or “Melko” in The Book of Lost Tales), brings extremes to this dance: searing heats and fires, bitter colds and grinding ice, that gives the world its sharpest angles, greatest hurts, and ultimately, its highest beauties. As Eru Ilúvatar tells the Ainur in the previous chapter, all of Melko’s attempts to sabotage, control, deform, and undo Creation, only redounds to its glory.
Tolkien is doing something very clever here, something he found in a lot of world mythology, in terms of anthropomorphic forces of nature reflecting a deep-seated psychology, an emotional physics rooted in human history and biology. Whether consciously or not, he was making an argument for a sentient universe that could bridge polytheism with monotheism, with echoes of scientific enlightenment.
And so aesthetics — poetry — reconnects the reader with an earlier perception of reality, one that our ancestors lived by, and that by stepping back into it through the medium of fantasy fiction, Tolkien turned it inside out into a new philosophy of wonder, what he would famously cast as the reclaiming of “Faerie,” where the imagination meets the divine. As Ulmo learns from Eru Ilúvatar about the transformations of nature in the context of good and evil, Ulmo declares:
“Yea truly is water fairer now than was my best devising before. Snow is of a loveliness beyond my most secret thoughts, and if there is little music therein, yet rain is beautiful indeed and hath a music that filleth my heart, so glad am I that my ears have found it, though its sadness is among the saddest of all things. Lo! I will go seek Súlimo of the air and winds, that he and I play melodies for ever and ever to thy glory and rejoicing.”
For life is death, and out of death comes utterly new wonders: the music of Creation. In snow we sense life at a standstill. In rain, we hear the fall of gravity, and earthbound mortality. Melko may destroy, but all things come back around.
This Wheel of Fortune, a concept about the randomness of fate from ancient Greece and extended by the Roman and Christian philosopher Boethius, is in many ways at the heart of Arda. But perhaps in the spirit of Boethius, Tolkien gives it much greater purpose in the form of the Valar and their “lost tales.” It’s not given a great amount of space in THOME or The Silmarillion, but the story of the “Two Lamps” is the first in “Life and Reality” — as Eru Ilúvatar puts it — to bring this moral physics into a dramatic form in Middle-earth.
It takes place after the Valar and the Maiar have all first assembled in Arda and have begun their labors of shaping it and preparing it for the coming species that will populate it and set forth on their many roads to destiny. From the very start, their efforts are thwarted and defiled by Melko, who in fact first came into the world before Manwë and Varda and their great hosts. At every turn, he mars Creation with his heats and colds, his anger and his temper:
“Melko was there before them, having rushed headlong flaming through the airs in the impetuosity of his speed, and there was a tumult of the sea where he had dived and the mountains above him spouted flames and the earth gaped and rocked; but Manwë beholding this was wroth.”
He’s corrupting and tenacious in his wreckage, incurring the anger of angelic beings who are by nature placid and restrained, save for a few who can match Melko in might and violence, though they do so only in defense of what is right and true. So Tulkas, the Thor of Tolkien’s mythos in a sense, brings Melko to heel, who once before Manwë and his brethren, lies and deceives his way back into their good graces.
Still suspicious of his sincerity, nevertheless they call on their estranged brother to help them bring order to Arda. Living in the northern reaches of the Great Lands, he constructs his own redoubt, Utumna — renamed Utumno in The Silmarillion — but he heeds Aulë’s request to construct two great towers that will hold two great lamps aloft high in the sky, one in the North and one in the South. They are called Ringil and Helkar, one burning with a silver light and the other golden. In The Silmarillion, for those familiar, they are called Illuin and Ormal, respectively.
“These did Aulë himself fashion of gold and silver, and the pillars were raised by Melko and were very tall, and shone like pale blue crystal,” writes Tolkien. Aulë even smites them with his hand to test their constitution, and they ring like metal. “They sprang up through the lower air even to Ilwë and the stars, and Melko said they were of an imperishable substance of great strength that he had devised; and he lied, for he knew that they were of ice.”
But for a time, in the heartlands of Middle-earth, the Valar can finally see the land clearly, and set about searching for a suitable stronghold. Soon enough, however, the pillars of ice melt and the great lamps crash to the earth:
“So great was their thaw that whereas those seas were at first of no great size but clear and warm, now were they black and wide and vapors lay upon them and deep shades, for the great cold rivers that poured into them. Thus were the mighty lamps unseated from on high and the clangor of their fall shook the stars, and some of their light was spilled again into the air, but much flowed upon the earth and made fires and deserts for its great volume ere it gathered into lakes and pools.
So light falls and casts the world again in worldwide darkness. Remember, there is no sun. There is no moon. Only Varda’s earliest stars threaded in the vast sky. But out of this cataclysm emerges an even greater wonder. The Valar journey west to an area beyond Eruman (later to be called “Araman” in The Silmarillion) and begin a great work that takes Aulë “seven ages” alone to build the highest mountain in Arda, the monumental Taniquetil, where Manwë and Varda live atop its snowy peak, a bulwark against Melko’s evil and lookout from where Manwë can keep watch on the troubles of the world.
It is near Eruman, on the other side of a great wall of mountains, of which Taniquetil is supreme, that the Valar build their home on a great plain that is named Valinor, and in it a city called Valmar. Yet still the world is dark. So Varda calls for the gathering of light to renew their sacred mission. Manwë, however, is loathe to plunder starlight, so Varda turns to the light on Earth.
Ulmo is beckoned hence, and he goes to the “blazing lakes and the pools of brilliance,” and draws “rivers of light” into two vast vessels, one golden and one silver, called Kulullin and Silindrin. The viscous light is sequestered, and Ulmo and his followers place gold and pearls into the cauldrons, covering both vats with hallowed soil. Then great songs of enchantment are put upon them.
Palúrien (also known as Yavanna), goddess of the earth, along with the younger Vána, goddess of spring, bring two great trees into being from these basins. They pulse with the light of Creation, again, one golden — named Laurelin — and another silver — named Silpion. They are better known as the Two Trees of Valinor. Silpion was also later named “Telperion” in The Silmarillion.
What is extraordinary here, though, is how Tolkien’s descriptions of the trees have a more raw and otherworldly energy behind them. Of Laurelin, he describes how its boughs blossom with clusters of gold flowers shining like lamps of flame: the “light spilled from the tips of these and splashed upon the ground with a sweet noise.” Of Silpion, he writes:
“its blossoms did not hang in clusters but were like separate flowers growing each on fine stems that swung together, and were as silver and pearls and glittering stars and burnt with a white light; and it seemed as if the tree’s heart throbbed, and its radiance wavered thereto waxing and waning. Like liquid silver distilled from its bole and dripped to the earth, and it shed a very great illumination about the plain … and of the throb of its inner life it cast a continual flutter of shadows among the pools of its brightness”
Its “heart throbbed” with a holy light? That is quite different from the more refined and subdued description of Telperion in The Silmarillion, where both trees are given much briefer attention, and their blossoming far less detail than the ornate fever dream Tolkien wrote here in The Book of Lost Tales. Even their mingling in 12 hour phases — the interaction of gold and silver that later illuminates the three Silmaril gems — gives a greater sense of being there.
It’s rather far out, and I can see why it was changed later on. It takes on a hallucinatory quality versus the more authoritative historical tone found in The Silmarillion. It’s the kind of thing that is perhaps just too overwhelming for the masses. Maybe Tolkien and his son felt that kind of enlightenment was best kept more at a distance. But if you love it, step into it. There is plenty more detail about the Two Trees in THOME, so for any Tolkien fan fascinated by this key image in his mythology, I highly recommend it.
“Light is the sap of these trees and their sap is light!” says Palúrien to her mesmerized brethren. For through the tragedies of life emerges beyond their own premonitions a beauty that re-embodies universal consciousness through the interplay of light, wind, water and fire. From Tales, Light flows into Life.
Life, Reality and Illusion are great forces at play in Arda and in Tolkien’s metaphysical drama. There is much more about Valinor and the Valar here, in what later would become known as the Valaquenta. We’ll dig in more on this chapter next time as Middle-earth transitions from philosophy into fantasy.
Our History of Middle Earth Journal Index - The Book of Lost Tales, Part One:
The Cottage of Lost Play / Opening the Heart of Modern Myth
The Music of the Ainur / Tolkien’s Creation and the Creator
The Coming of the Valar / The Valar, Gods of Wisdom and Wonder, Part One
The Building of Valinor / The Valar, Gods of Wisdom and Wonder, Part Two
The Chaining of Melko / Who the Hell is Tinfang Warble?
The Chaining of Melko / The Convolution of Evil in Middle-earth
The Coming of the Elves / Tolkien’s Elves: Dark Seas, Bright Gems, Part One
The Making of Kôr / Tolkien’s Elves: Dark Seas, Bright Gems, Part Two