A Tolkien Virgin: Ainulindale/Valaquenta - The Journey Continues
"If the Ainulindale is the most primal story of ""the beginning,"" the Valaquenta is a quaint recap and cast of characters. The Valaquenta touches on the important events of the Ainulindale, with further discription of the four primary characters--Melkor, Manwe, Ulmo, and Aule--followed by the expanded cast of characters in Tolkien's cosmology. And I'll be honest, at first, I found these ""Powers"", the Valar--those of the Ainor who entered into Ea--flat, uninteresting, stereotypical rip-offs. I mean, really. Melkor is your typical evil deity. He loves fire and tries to undo anything good that the others create. Sadly, he's not even as complex as Hades in Greek mythology. Manwe is the god of the air, the ruler of the other gods--or Zeus. Ulmo is Poseidon, and Aule is Hephaestus, the smithy/earth god. Right? Well, I soon came to realize that the similarities between the Greek gods and Tolkien's equivalent Valar are little more than skin deep--ultimately because the Valar have very little beneath their skin. They lack personality almost altogether and remain largely boring and two-dimensional. Therefore the Valar are totally unlike the Olympians who, although they were constantly naughty (Zeus especially), were far from boring.
But where Greek mythology's very beginnings are murky and twisted--only arriving at the Olympians generations after Chaos, Gaea, and Tartarus--Tolkien takes a decidedly Christian approach to ""the beginning""...or does he? Of course it's not too big of a surprise that his story starts with one god, Illuvatar, who exists before and outside his creation: Tokien was staunchly Catholic. With that in mind, I was expecting further similarities between Illuvatar and the God of the Bible. You can imagine my surprise when Illuvatar has little to do with the rest of the story--at least up to the point in the Silmarillion that I'm currently at. Illuvatar is an impersonal creator, who more closely ressembles the Deist watchmaker-god than Yahweh of Christianity (who comes to earth himself as Jesus Christ to fix his childrens' problem). Illuvatar interacts only with his angels--the god-like Ainor, and never directly with his creation. Illuvatar is a god at-a-distant who has created the world and it's entire history from beginning to end and then hits play, sits back, and watches everything unfold as planned/foreseen.
In the end, Tolkien's Cosmology/Theogony is unique (if that's possible). We can't even call it a blending of Greek mythology with Christian sentimentalities. Tolkien clearly took elements of both traditions when he decided how his universe would be, but his version still stands apart. And perhaps I shouldn't complain that the Valar aren't very interesting. Since the story is soon to shift focus to Elves and Men (the Ainulindale and Valaquenta are Elven lore, are they not?) perhaps Tolkien was right not to develop the Valar more than he did. It was important for him to tell us about the cosmology in it's grandest terms, but we're not to get bogged down by it and forget who the stars of the show really are. The Ainulindale and Valaquenta together, in my version, are scarcely 23 pages. The history of the Silmarills is almost 350. You do the math.
Oh and you might want to write down all the Valar, Maiar, and Enemies, while you're here. Many of the Valar have two or more names and it can be confusing keeping track of them all in your mind. You don't want to have to be looking the names up in your Tolkien encyclopedia every time they're mentioned, now do you? Besides, the encyclopedia is bound to give too much away.
Keep thinking. Till next time,