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Comments For Character of the Month Biographies
Thank you Dawn for this fascinating, beautifully written, scholarly look not only at one of Tolkien’s fictional narrators, but the whole concept of fictional narrators in his work and how laced the Silmarillion is with the purposefully constructed bias of Tolkien’s invented historian. We all know that Tolkien, a careful historian, created scholars who wrote his history --the ideas are more easily seen in Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam’s chronicle of the War of the Ring in the Red book of Westmarch and Tolkien’s portrayal of himself as merely the discoverer and translator of these histories -- but your discussion makes me impressed anew at the depth of Tolkien’s creation that he imagined specific chroniclers of it, complete with the biases that any individual brings to recounting a tale. Of course, I knew Tolkien had created fictional loremasters: Rúmil, Pengolodh, and Aelfwine, but did not know that Christopher Tolkien had actually excised them from the narrative of the Silmarillion. Your comments about Pengolodh as likely being an unreliable narrator or certainly one who was not an eye-witness to much of the events he was chronicling is something that had not occurred to me, but it makes sense. I greatly appreciate your comment that “it does, however, show 'canon' to be a matter of greater complexity than simply assuming the books to be a compendium of facts that must be used in fanworks.” Yes indeed! If Pengolodh is the sole source of much of the Silmarillion, especially of events he did not personally witness, then he definitely becomes as you say, “the most important character never mentioned.”
As an aside, it interests me how so many people, Tolkien scholars and fans alike, write about Middle-earth as if it is a real place with real people. I read your link to Björkman’s "The Chroniclers of Arda," which, if one didn’t know better, one would think he is talking about actual historical characters.
Coincidentally, I dearly wish I’d had your essay a month ago as I happened to write a story for the Slashy Valentine swap which features Pengolodh rather prominently. It is a bit of a character assassination, I’m afraid, lol, but in fact my portrayal fits in quite well with your essay since my Pengolodh displays biases which may have come through in his later narrative. (Although apparently Glorfindel must have redeemed himself in Pengolodh’s eyes as he is quite a heroic figure in The Fall of Gondolin.) After writing my story, your essay is now giving me more plot bunnies, which I really must shake off as I have several major WIPs.
In any case, I greatly appreciate and admire your careful scholarship (including your detailed footnotes and links) and your thoughtful and thought-provoking conclusions. You've really added to my understanding of Tolkien's world.
Thank you for reading and comment, Elfscribe! I'm over the moon that you enjoyed the bio and took away so much from it. :)
I wrote this shortly after completing the draft of an article for a journal about historical bias in the Silm as a motive for creating Silmfic. I have been fascinated with Pengolodh for years: the most important character never named! I had collected bits and pieces over the years from the HoMe, but the journal article forced me to fully document how his character had evolved over the years and the reasons behind CT's removal of him from the published Silm. I was honestly surprised by how much I found that reinforced what I had been taking as part of my verse for fanfic but had stopped short of assuming Tolkien did deliberately: that he'd created narrators with biases and knowledge gaps in mind and written the texts with those lacunae. I wrote this bio while that information was fresh in my mind and while Oshun, Himring, Binka, Silver Trails and I were putting together the character bios that would be published while I was on thesis hiatus.
I saw your Pengolodh story! But I am writing my MA thesis and am denied fun till it's finished! :D But it's on my list. It has Pengolodh and it's by you!
I'm not particularly kind to Pengolodh in my stories either. He's a little too establishment to me; I love me my wild Feanorians. :) He has always come off to me as a little pompous in the few words he is given in the HoMe, so I don't feel it's entirely unjustified. But I also find the conflicts he would have faced in amassing the knowledge that became The Silmarillion to be fascinating to explore in a very different way than the Feanorians are fun to write.
The excision of Tolkien's narrators was first called to my attention in Douglas Charles Kane's "Arda Reconstructed," which I highly recommend if you have not read it. It is one of the major issues that he takes with how CT put together The Silmarillion. I had, of course, noticed the narrators in the HoMe but never thought much about why they weren't in the Silm too, or assumed that that was JRRT's decision at some point. I understand why CT decided as he did, but I don't agree and, like Kane, think the Silm loses something without that explicit grounding as fictional lore (kind of like LotR's explicit identification as a text written by the Hobbits).
Thank you again for not only reading this long essay but taking the time to leave me such a lovely, long comment! :D
Ok, so commenting here might work? Testing.
Yes, it seems so! I fixed the link in the newsletter and did another test comment, and it appears to be fixed now. My apologies again for the error that made you lose your original long comment. :(
'Interestingly, in the same note where he proposed changing the tradition from Eldarin to Númenórean, Tolkien wrote, "Men are really only interested in Men and in Men's ideas and visions." Yet The Silmarillion is unrelentingly Eldarin.'
I can see Númenóreans introducing large amounts of Elven history (and their ancestors' connection to it) to demonstrate their 'superiority' over other Men, but there is too *much* emphasis on the ultimate superiority of Elves. And I agree that there are things Men couldn't have known, and generally a lack of detail about the activities of Men. The history of Men during the First Age definitely sounds like it was written second- or third-hand.
But then, changing the cosmology and the history of Orcs was partly the point of changing the identity of the narrator, and I generally tend to just reject the revised cosmology, agreeing with Christopher that it's just too difficult to integrate. Moreover, it would alter some important watersheds in the history.
'This has created the sense that "canon" is an ossified concept derived from a compendium of facts laid out clearly in the books and the fan fiction writer's role to learn those facts, assemble them in interesting ways, and propose reasonable inferences and connections between them.'
Yes, I think this really speaks to the difference between the fandom 10-15 years ago and the current fandom. Younger fans are accustomed to looking at everything with a somewhat jaundiced eye - they're inundated with so much information that the real skill today is not to find information but to determine its reliability. Fans are much more willing to question the canon as given by Pengolodh. In some instances, I think it goes a bit far - ie, it's become almost canon to see Maeglin as the victim of a bitter narrator, and 'wrong' to take the story of Gondolin's fall at face value. I think there is room for both views - what Tolkien actually wrote is not 'wrong', nor is it 'wrong', especially given that Tolkien often questions his own narrators, to revise the history as we want to see it.
I agree re: the changes introduced in Myths Transformed. It would have been interesting to see what Tolkien would have done with it, or if he would have eventually reached a similar conclusion to CT that it "broke" too much of the mythology that was fundamental to the beauty of the story and abandoned it. As it is, though, it is a collection of half-baked proposals. I would love to read fanfic that takes MT as fact but stop short myself of declaring it a radical revision that must be treated as incontrovertible fact.
As a writer myself, I dread someone one day publishing my half-baked notes and people taking them as fact! :D
I am intrigued by your theory that the amount of information available to younger fans is part of what makes them more receptive to not taking the texts at face value. I hadn't thought of it this way before! I also credit the Internet but more for its tendency to allow people to speak who are typically silenced in traditional channels. People for whom the Internet has always been the primary way to get information are more accustomed, then, to seeing multiple sides of the story, even compared to someone like me (a millennial ... but barely) who remember where having a set of encyclopedias at home in order to have a wealth of highly digested, one-sided facts marked one as a serious student. (When it became clear that I was college-bound--the first of my family--a personal set of encyclopedias so that I didn't have to share the family set was the gift my grandparents gave me! :D We would get AOL a few years later ...) Both probably are influences, I think,
Re: Maeglin ... Gondolin is not my area of primary interest, but I've always felt like Tolkien/Pengolodh is actually rather just to Maeglin. I've always felt like Maeglin is a character where Pengolodh's PoV is appropriately nuanced, as one might expect from a historian writing about a person he knew, liked, and was ultimately betrayed by. He takes pains to emphasize Turgon's affection for his nephew and points out that Maeglin didn't give in to Melkor because of cowardice. He is far less just to many other characters: Eol, Celegorm, and Curufin, to name just a few.
Hippy-dippy, follow-your-happiness, peace-love-and-understanding person that I am, I absolutely feel there is room for both views. I don't think "the canon" necessitates a critical approach, although it certainly allows for it, amply. Part of the power of the canon, imo, is the leeway it grants to those who want to work with it.
Thanks so much for reading and commenting! :)
Well done, Dawn! Thanks for doing that. Some very nice points. I recall encountering the material when I was writing Finwe and/or Miriel.
Thank you, Oshun! It was interersting to reread that material with the purpose of seeing what it revealed about Vaire (as I'd also only ever viewed it as a resource on Finwe and Miriel or maybe the Valar in general). I find myself liking Vaire a lot more after this bio, which doesn't always happen when writing these things! :)
I enjoyed this essay very much and learned a lot about Vaire.
Thanks, Linda! So did I while writing it. :)
Very nicely done! I'll be re-reading this again to further absorb the detail and to think about it, before making any further commentary on the various parts of the biography, but I just had to say that I'm very glad you chose to come back to Namo and expand on your earlier offering.
BTW, there's a place where you used the word "descendents" where I think you meant "ancestors":
The "Of Beren and Lúthien" chapter stands apart from the rest of The Silmarillion due to its fantastical storyline and mythic tone in excess of what we see elsewhere in the published book. The encounter between Námo and Lúthien is an example of this and one that creators of Silmarillion-based transformative works often respond to scathingly. Some remark that Námo--who isn't exactly known for his tender-heartedness (the prime example being his recommendation of death for Eärendil for his crime of, among other things, having Noldorin descendants16)--seems out-of-character here.
Thanks again for sharing such an interesting essay with us!
Thanks, Rhyselle! I'm glad you found the bio useful; it was fun to write, as Namo is one of Tolkien's most intriguing characters to me. Thanks too for catching my oops--I will fix that as soon as I get home! :)
Rich in detail and very entertaining biography. Wow! You really wrote that one so quickly. Are you sure you did not have it tucked away and waiting? I learned a lot. So glad you chose this one. I think I like him--warlike and immature--right up my alley. Thank you so much for sharing this with us. Every one of these adds to the usefulness of the collection. Why I am so happy to keep working on them, even if I do fall down on the job occasionally.
Thanks, Oshun! This is high praise coming from the Master of Character Bios! :) When I have to do one at the last minute, I try to limit myself to two hours ... I ended up spending longer on this one. They're fun! I had zero interest in Tulkas; I chose him because I figured he'd be easy. Ha! Famous last words! He would have been, if I'd been able to force myself to stick to the stuff from The Silmarillion.
I really like him in the BoLT. The Valar were so much more complex then. I have an essay tickling the back of my mind for some time now about how Tolkien really start to simplify his stories morally as he grew older ... but I'm rambling! :) Thank you again for your kind words and for your work on the character bios every month! :)
LOL I love your cheeky tone in this essay. That made the atmosphere less forbidding. :D ;) I did not browse through all the list of references you used for this essay... but I had a nagging feeling that it could be expanded. *hands up* Well, not by me; I just wanted to say that I spied some other things about the Lord of Mandos from many discussions and some other references, from Tolkien's earlier writings like HoMe. I thought I might get some confirmation here... Not to mean to be ungrateful or rude, though. :- I hope this essay will be updated someday with some other sources from canon...
Rey, your observations are correct. :) I did not use any sources outside of the Silm for this piece; part of it, honestly, was time constraints, since this essay was one I did with less than a day's notice due to our scheduled writer having a family emergency. Part of it, too, is practicality: You correctly note that there is a lot in the supplementary sources about Namo. Oshun (our main biographer) and I discussed at the time that I did this that a follow-up essay about the evolution of Namo's character through Tolkien's writings would be an interesting topic, though it will probably go through the regular References section and not the newsletter. It is certainly one that I hope to pick up someday (grad school right now makes any non-fiction writing impossible--unless it's to be graded, lol! :); Namo is one of the most intriguing characters, in my opinion, and one who has seen a wealth of interesting interpretations in fanfic. Thank you for reading and taking the time to leave a comment! :)