Archive for the ‘Novels’ Category

“The Silmarillion” by J.R.R. Tolkien reviewed

26 April 2009

The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien. Ballatine Books (1977). 369 pp.

One of the covers for the Ballatine edition

One of the covers for the Ballatine edition

The Silmarillion is not a novel, despite that word appearing on the spine of my paperback edition; it contains the mythology of J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy world, Middle Earth.  The stories are often only loosely connected and don’t form a unified whole; they were intended for eventual publication, but it fell to Tolkien’s son and literary executor, Christopher Tolkien, to put the material into final form.  As one might imagine, the results are mixed, but those completely in love with the world of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit may beg to differ.

For me, the high point of the work was the first of it’s five divisions: Ainulindalë (which translates to “The Music of the Ainur” in one of Tolkien’s many made up languages).  It is a creation myth which tells of how Ilúvatar, God, creates the world.  It is a work of stunning beauty and I cannot resist quoting it’s opening:

There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made.  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.

And it came to pass that Ilúvatar called together all the Ainur and declared to them a mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed; and the glory of its beginning and the splendour of its end amazed the Ainur, so that they bowed before Ilúvatar and were silent. (3)

The myth is clearly informed by Christian mythology, most notably in how one of the Ainur, Melkor, wishes for greater prominence and tries to gain control of creation, an obvious parallel to Satan.  Melkor, a.k.a. Morgoth, is the work’s villian; he spends the whole Simlarillion trying to screw things up for everyone else.  In the Ainulindalë when he tries to take control of the music of creation, Ilúvatar chides him “thou … shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite.  For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.” (6)  It is interesting to note that Tolkien, a Roman Catholic, conceived of Ilúvatar as a fictionalized portrayal of God as described in the Christian tradition.  This being so, the work can inform us of Tolkien’s theodicy, which seems close to that given in the Book of Job; he elsewhere declares that, ultimately, “evil [will] be good to have been.” (113)  While that’s not necessarily copied consciously from Job, other aspects of the story very probably are.  Ilúvatar destroys much of the world due to the wickedness of men echoes the Flood and, more subtlely Aulë’s creation of the dwarves due to his impatience is possibly a reference to Abram’s impatience for children.

The second division of the book, Valaquenta (“Account of the Valar”) continues where the creation account leaves off; some of the Ainur enter the world, at which point they are called Valar, which are basically gods with a small g.  Oh, and some other beings that are basically the same but less powerful also exist and they’re called Maiar, one of which becomes Sauron later on.

The bulk of The Silmarillion, about 276 of its 369 pages, is the Quenta Silmarillion (“The History of the Silmarils”).  This is a collection of somewhat connected myths dealing with the Silmarils, three crystals made by a craftsman that contained the light that used to be emitted from two giant trees before a giant spider killed them, necessitating the creation of the Sun and Moon.  There are 24 chapters that somewhat stand on their own but for the most part do clearly belong in a series, albeit loosely.  Here is where a problem arises: there are far too many names—almost all of them oddly spelled and/or hard to pronounce—for one to follow what is going on with any degree of ease.  Consider the following passage, which is fairly typical:

At that time Beren and Lúthien yet dwelt in Tol Galen, the Green Isle, in the River Adurant, southernmost of the streams that falling from Ered Lindon flowed down to join with Gelion; and their son Dior Eluchíl had to wife Nimloth, kinswoman of Celeborn, prince of Doriath, who was wedded to the Lady Gladriel.  The sons of Dior and Nimloth were Eluréd and Elurín; and a daughter was also born to them, and she was named Elwing, which is Star-spray, for she was born on a night of stars, whose light glittered in the spray of the waterfall of Lanthir Lamath beside her father’s house. (290)

According to my count, that passage contains 105 words, of which 36 are proper names.  And since most of these names are made up words, often with odd accent marks, and often differing by only a few characters—Eluchíl, Eluréd, Elurín—it becomes very difficult to keep track of who is who, a task made even more difficult by the fact that one also needs to keep track of whether the character is a god, an elf, a dwarf, a human, or something else. The book does contain an index of names to try to make this workable.  It is 53 pages long and contains 799 entries.  So, there are 799 proper names and terms in a book that is just 369 pages long—that’s over 2 new names and terms per page that you have to keep track of.  Good luck keeping track; Tolkien rarely introduces characters in a way that reminds you who they are.  Oh, and some of the characters, like the aforementioned Melkor/Morgoth, have multiple names, which the author switches between at will.  The worst offender in this regard is Túrin, a.k.a Neithan, a.k.a. Gorthol, a.k.a. Agarawen, a.k.a. Mormegil, a.k.a. Wildman of the Woods, a.k.a. Turambar.  Does he really need seven names?

I realize, of course, that this is precisely what attracts many readers to The Silmarillion, the sense of a richer and more interesting world that this implied history implies.  I have no problem with that and am glad that they enjoy the book.  However, I am not one of those people and this just alienates me from the text; I don’t like the storyline enough to make that massive investment needed to keep track of all this stuff.  So for me it’s just “That guy with the A name attacking the people from the N place.”  Who are these people?  I dunno.  I think the A guy is the good guy though.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien in 1972

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien in 1972

Anyway, enough criticizing; there were many things I liked about the book besides the creation myth.  Ungoliant, the aforementioned giant spider, an ancestor of Shelob from The Lord of the Rings, was interesting.  Melkor manipulated her into killing the two magic trees that lit up the world and then she turned on him when he wouldn’t let her eat the Silmarils.  Tolkien writes that some say “she descended from the darkness that lies about Arda”, (80) an archetypal reference to light and dark that will be pleasantly familiar to any reader of Tolkien’s magnum opus (or any one of a number of major works of world literature, including John’s Gospel).  She is so voracious that “she ended long ago, when in her uttermost famine she devoured herself at last.” (90)  Melkor was also an interesting, if  two-dimensional, character.  I kept wanting to see some sign that he would eventually be redeemed, but none ever came.  Of course, this is only a history of Middle Earth up to a certain point, and what comes after can be left up to the reader.  It was interesting that several times it is noted that the ultimate fate of men after their deaths is unknown, (327, et al), unlike the fates of other races, like the elves.

My favorite story from the Quenta Silmarillion was “Of Maeglin,” which had a manageable cast of characters, no massive battle scenes, and involved no supernatural intervention from the gods, which is almost always an ad hoc way to write yourself out of a problem. Of course, the logic of myths doesn’t follow the logic of history or of everyday life.  However, the Silmarillion is supposed to be both myth and history, and it doesn’t work as both.  For instance, when the two light-giving trees are killed, and when the Silmarils are stolen, one wonders why replacements can’t simply be made.  Answer: some things can only be done once.  Now, in a myth, that is a perfectly acceptable answer, but in considered in the light of real life there’s no apparent reason why that is so.

Or consider the Silmarils themselves.  They are so good and pure that they burn anyone evil who touches them.  So, of course, Morgoth, the most evil person ever, puts them in a crown and wears them on his head.  Then, at the end, two of the Silmarils end up in the hands of two evil guys and said hands are then burned.  So, notwithstanding that they have just about the greatest thing ever that everyone has been trying to get for ages, the guys just chuck the crystals into a deep chasm and the ocean, respectively and the Silmarils are history.  As a myth, that’s a beautiful story.  As history, it’s silly.  And that’s generally what happens when you take a myth and try to make it literal: you don’t make it more meaningful, you make it ridiculous, or even contemptible.  I do not, however, think that this issue will present itself to many of the work’s readers, and one can certainly read the book as pure mythology.

In summation, the writing style makes the book much less accessible than it could have been.  I would only recommend it to people who really loved The Lord of the Rings, especially the songs and implied history therein.  (But note that if, like me, you are curious to learn more about Ancalagon the Black, he is disposed of in a single sentence.)  Lots more maps (there are two in this edition) and a chronology would  have been extremely helpful and made the book more accessible.

“Pebble in the Sky” by Isaac Asimov reviewed

22 March 2009

Asimov, Isaac. Pebble in the Sky. Del Ray Books. 1950. 230 pp.

Cover of the 1983 Ballatine Books edition

Cover of the 1983 Ballatine Books edition

Pebble in the Sky is the first written of Isaac Asimov’s three “Empire novels,” though chronologically it takes place last, long after the events of The Stars, Like Dust and The Currents of Space, books which are only very loosely connected. I had originally read Pebble about nine years ago and was looking forward to experiencing it again. Unfortunatly, it doesn’t hold up well.

The basic plot is that a retired tailor from Chicago in 1949, Joseph Schwartz, is accidentally sent into a distant future (“hundred of thousands of years” are alluded to) when the Earth is a backwater planet in the Galactic Empire. And he helps to save the galaxy along with a native Earth scientist, his daughter, and a visiting archaeologist. Structural problems arise from the fact that Asimov can’t decide wether Schwartz or Arvardan is his main character and the book’s hero, so one or the other spends large portions of the book with nothing to do even when they are on the page to remind the reader of their existence. Pacing is further disrupted when two months is skipped over without any reason, relieving valuable tension.

There are several points in the story that require one or more characters to act contrary to reason. For instance, the farmers that find Schwartz—who, of course, can’t speak the language and has no idea where he is—decide to take him to Dr. Shekt, the aforementioned scientist, who they heard is experimenting with a device that can educate people instantly. The fact that it’d never been used on a person and that 90% of the rats that were so educated died doesn’t deter them from “volunteering” Schwartz to undergo treatment. (Things are actually not as they appear, but the farmers don’t know that, so their actions are still ridiculous—and immoral.) The good guys then rely several times on a deus ex machina to elude the bad guys: said brain experiments give Schwartz psychic powers, so he can conveniently read minds, kill people, and control people as needed. Asimov usually doesn’t usually rely on such clumsy, ad hoc story devices to solve his problems.

The characters are two dimensional, so they don’t rescue the book. Arvardan is “tall and craggily, calm and self-confident … like an ancient marble statue.” Arvardan’s love interest, Dr. Shekt’s 20ish daughter, Pola, is “devastatingly desireable” (more on her in a moment). Their relationship has no real basis and obviously exists only so that the hero—or one of them—can “get the girl.” It’s hardly a surprise that they’re married in the epilog.  It’s forgiveable if you recall who the audience was for most 1940s-era science fiction.  Eventually, Asimov figured out how to write sensibly about romantic relationships, but much later in his career—long after Pebble in the Sky.

Isaac Asimov in 1956, shortly after writing Pebble in the Sky

Isaac Asimov in 1956, a few years after writing Pebble in the Sky

Pola’s character is typical of females the early Asimov corpus—she’s pretty, so she has to be silly and frivolous. She breaks down in tears five times in novel’s 230 pages, sometimes for trivial reasons, and constantly needs rescuing. She is seen as “weak” and “hysterical” by the other characters, and she spends most of the book with a “look of fear and exhaustion on her face” and experiencing “deep and pathetic disappointment” or “horror and fright.” Obviously, Asimov was a product of his time, but all of the attractive women in his early works are like this.  The ones who are intelligent, self-assured, and take the initiative (consider Bayta in “The Mule” or Arcadia in “—And Now You Don’t”) are deliberately described as being plain looking. For me, these attitudes date the story far more than the idea that they’d be smoking tobacco or reading paper newspapers in 100,000 CE—we aren’t even reading our news on papers now!

One thing that I completely missed nine years ago but enjoyed on my second reading were the numerous allussions to Jewish history in the book. Asimov was a big fan of the Bible—witness his 1300-page Guide to the Bible (an excellent book, by the way)—and took inspiration for Pebble’s setting from Roman-occupied first century Palastine. The novel’s powerful Society of Ancients were like the Jewish religious elite and the Zealots; their High Minister corresponds to the chief priest; and “the customs” are equivalent to “the Law” (Torah). They proclaim “the Second Kingdom of Earth is at hand” (cf. “the Kingdom of God is at hand”), are described as “extreme nationalists” and dream of past and future glory—just like Jewish nationalists in the first century CE.

Of course, the Galactic Empire stands in for its inspiration, the Roman Empire, and Earth’s governor, Procurator Ennius, is inspired by Procurator Pontius Pilate—and he even quotes him, declaring “I find no fault in this man”! (A direct quote from Luke 23:4 in the King James translation.) It is no accident that Earth was said to have rebelled against the empire three times over 200 years; the Jews revolted against the Romans three times: in 66–73, 115–117, and 132–135, and Ennius, like Pilate, is concerned with not crossing the elites, who control the mob and could stir up a rebellion. That almost happened to a prior procurator, when the insane Emperor Stannell II tried to put the imperial insignia in Earth’s Council Chamber. If you recall either your Roman or Jewish history (and Asimov loved both—see his two volumes on the Romans), you know that he’s referring to Caligula’s attempt to put a statue of himself in the Jewish Temple in 40 CE. The book is full of such references.  Even Ennius’s conversation with his wife, Flora, reminds me of Pilate’s exchange with his wife (Matthew 27:19). I’ve spent too much space on this, but I found discovering the allusions to be quite pleasant, and most people probably don’t even know they’re there.

Anyway, I wouldn’t recommend Pebble in the Sky to anyone except an Asimov fan; it’s far from his best work. Some of the structural and plotting problems may be due to its history—the 70,000 word novel started as a 40,000 word novella which was later expanded at his publisher’s request—but they’re there nonetheless. Check out The Foundation Trilogy, The Gods Themselves, or The Caves of Steel instead.