Men in “The Silmarillion”

Two chapters, 12 and 17, of J. R. R. Tolkien’s posthumously published creation epic about Middle Earth, The Silmarillion (1977), focus on humans.  “The first Sun arose in the West,” said Tolkien in Chapter 12, “and the opening eyes of Men were turned towards it, and their feet as they wandered the Earth for the most part strayed that way.”  While Tolkien’s hobbits are contented homebodies, his Men are rugged pioneers.  “West, North, and South,” continued Tolkien, “the children of Men spread and wandered, and their joy was the joy of the morning before the dew is dry, when every leaf is green.”  Soon they become aware of malevolence overshadowing their joy.

In The Silmarillion Tolkien also described Valar, spiritual powers perhaps analogous to angels; one of their number, named variously Melkor and Morgoth, rebelled against Ilúvatar, also called Eru Ilúvatar, the Creator, and brought evil into Middle Earth.  All the while, Men and the Valar loyal to Ilúvatar have an awkward relationship.  “Men have feared the Valar, rather than loved them,” Tolkien said, “and have not understood the purposes of the Powers, being at variance with them, and at strife with the world.”  In Middle Earth, merriment is always menaced.

In The Silmarillion’s Chapter 17, “Of the Coming of Men into the West,” Tolkien presented humans appearing in Middle Earth.  Although they possess a pioneering spirit, they are not loners on the frontier.  They migrate in families from the east, where their Fall has already taken place.  These Men are depicted as “hewers of trees and hunters of beasts,” and with the exception of the Lady Haleth, their leaders are male.

Once they cross the Blue Mountains and reach the valleys of their destination, these intrepid wanderers build campfires and sing, accompanied by the harp.  “They sang because they were glad,” Tolkien explained, “and believed that they had escaped from all perils and had come at last to a land without fear.”  One of the leaders of the migrating Men summed up their trek:  “We took long roads, desiring to escape the perils of Middle Earth and the dark things that dwell there; for we heard that there was Light in the West.”  In Tolkien’s world, all but the creatures that have chosen evil seek the Light, associated with the pure bliss of Creation’s first day.

Men in Tolkien’s The Silmarillion seek an eternal and elusive Light, without worshipping it.  Tolkien’s Men are patriarchal, violent, and poetic.  When not fighting and loving and dying, Tolkien’s Men are hunters who have acquired some of the characteristics of more settled and sophisticated entities; in Middle Earth, these beings are the various kinds of Elves.

Less advanced than Elves, Tolkien’s Men must rely on roads built by others, but they have learned how to build wooden structures and kindle campfires.  Around those fires they sing, but in time they learn the songs and legends of others.  Also, they worship a power outside themselves, whether the evil, fallen spirit, Morgoth, or the beneficent Creator spirit, Ilúvatar.

In their physical characteristics, the Men in Tolkien’s story resemble northern Europeans.  “Yellow-haired they were for the most part,” he wrote, “and blue-eyed,” although some “were dark or brown of hair, with grey eyes.”  These Men are “eager of mind, cunning-handed, swift in understanding, long in memory, and . . . moved sooner to pity than to laughter.”

Haleth’s folk are “of lesser stature, and less eager for lore;” they tend to delight “in solitude, wandering free in the greenwoods while the wonder of the lands of the Eldar was new upon them.”  Once again, Tolkien’s tales portray the fallen tempered with paradise, fear with a sense of joy, an age of innocence amidst a wandering warrior culture of hunting and shared open hearths.

At one point in Chapter 18 of The Silmarillion Tolkien referred to another variety, the Swarthy Men, also called here and in other of Tolkien’s posthumous works the Easterlings.  They, too, came into the West from eastern lands, for “the wandering feet of Men were ever set westward in those days.”  Unlike the other group of Men, the Swarthy Men are “short and broad, long and strong in the arm,” and “their skins were swart or sallow, and their hair was dark as was their eyes.”

These Swarthy Men built houses, and while the other Men gravitated towards the Elves, these Swarthy Men were inclined to be on friendly terms with “the Dwarves of the mountains.”  Setting aside the fanciful visions of elves and dwarfs, this vignette shows that from the first era of the world, there were divisions among humans, even along racial or tribal lines.

In a perfect world, the arrival of new Men would be for the established Men both welcome and joyful.  As it happens, Middle Earth is not the best of all possible worlds, and it is clear that the Swarthy Men are not in harmony with the other Men.  Throughout The Silmarillion Tolkien wove strains of elegy, longing for a noble past yet knowing that even in those days of the first Men of Middle Earth, peace remained elusive.

So it is in the world of actual human history.  Some men go one way, others another, and discord is not far off.  Within the panorama of the saga of Middle Earth, these scenes sketched by Tolkien hold vivid images to inform the imagination and the understanding of the student of history.  Although Tolkien does not fit the standard definition of an historian, he could be described as chronicling events, however imaginary, to convey ideas.

Those ideas include, first and foremost, recognition of the existence of good and evil, objective and universal, between which there can be no compromise.  To attempt such a compromise is to ask for tragedy.  Also included are virtues such as prudence, loyalty, and duty, as well as a sense of family, mission, sacrifice, and selflessness.

The Men of Tolkien’s imagined world predating recorded human history recall the worldwide anthropological nostalgia for a better time and place, long ago before people spoiled things.  Tolkien’s Men quest westward for the Light, for reunion with their Creator; they are fallen, fighting people, yet delight in beauty and song.  They are us.  Long after historical facts have faded or been re-interpreted, myth abides.  The truth of myth is its universal quality; it rings true in every human heart.

Daniel J. Heisey
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

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