By Dawn Felagund
"[W]hen we take up a work of history, our first concern should not be with the facts it contains but with the historian who wrote it."
~E.H. Carr, University of Cambridge lecture series1
I like to say of Pengolodh that he is the most important character in The Silmarillion, and yet he is never named once. Identified at varying points as the "loremaster" and "sage of Gondolin," Pengolodh is the imagined historian whose in-universe efforts are responsible for bringing us much of The Silmarillion and several other important documents used by fan fiction writers in developing an understanding of Tolkien's world. Tolkien employed a number of in-universe narrators over the decades of his work on the legendarium,2 but Pengolodh is the most recurring, credited with several works and omnipresent in the Silmarillion material for at least two decades.
Prominent historian E.H. Carr, in the opening quote to this biography, attaches greater importance to the historian than to the facts of history themselves. Herein lies Pengolodh's importance to the Silmarillion material: As its author, his perspectives and biases color it, and its accuracy is limited by Pengolodh's access to firsthand or otherwise credible witnesses. While Tolkien never directly stated that he took the narrators' biases into account, he was quite forthright in his intention to create a pseudohistorical work,3 and there is evidence that he wrote with his narrators' biases in mind.4 There is no question that he wrote with the narrators' fallibility and limitations in mind, and at multiple points, one narrator (often Pengolodh) will comment upon or emend an account by another narrator believed to be inaccurate.5 Fan fiction writers depend upon viewing Middle-earth as a real place that adheres to the realities of the primary world unless stated otherwise--including the realities of historical accounts--and reading the texts with their narrators' limitations and biases in mind not only adds a note of reality to the narrative but expands and deepens Middle-earth and its denizens.
An Odd Choice for a Narrator
In the essay Quendi and Eldar, written sometime around 1959-1960, Tolkien devotes about a page to Pengolodh's background, explicating details that had only been hinted at in earlier texts attributed to Pengolodh. Pengolodh is here given mixed Sindarin and Noldorin heritage. He was born at Nevrast and traveled to Gondolin at its foundation, where he remained until its destruction. He is credited with the survival of what texts he could rescue:
He was one of the survivors of the destruction of Gondolin, from which he rescued a few ancient writings, and some of his own copies, compilations, and commentaries. It is due to this, and to his prodigious memory, that much of the knowledge of the Elder Days was preserved.
After the fall of Gondolin, Pengolodh went with the other survivors to the mouths of Sirion, where he met with other refugees. Here, he learned Sindarin and the hand-gesture systems used by the Grey-elves. He remained in Middle-earth deep into the Second Age, where he "for a while ... dwelt among the Dwarves of Casarrondo (Khazad-dûm)" before taking ship at last into the West, to dwell upon Tol Eressëa. This account emphasizes Pengolodh's virtuosity with languages, identifying him as a member of the Lambengolmor founded by Fëanor and "the most eminent member after the founder." He was the last member of the Lambengolmor to depart from Middle-earth.6
Much of this makes Pengolodh an odd choice as Tolkien's preeminent in-universe narrator and the loremaster responsible for the bulk of most of the foundational narratives found in The Silmarillion because he was sequestered in the hidden city of Gondolin for most of the First Age--and the most exciting part at that. Using the timelines found in the Grey Annals, the most recent for the history of early Beleriand, in the year 64 FA, "[Turgon] gathered therefore many of his most skilled folk together and led them secretly to Gondolin, and there they began the building of the strong city that Turgon had devised in his heart ..."7 Presumably, since the account of Pengolodh's personal history in Quendi and Eldar is clear that he "lived in Gondolin from its foundation," Pengolodh's parents were among those who went. While the date that Turgon settled in Nevrast is unclear, it is reasonable to assume that he was present at the council of the Noldor concerning Thingol (7 FA), the aftermath of which resulted in the Fëanorians settling their eastern realms; the next event in the Grey Annals is the Feast of Reuniting in 20 FA, so it seems a fair assumption that the Noldorin realms were settled by that time.9 Given the time of his birth, this means that there is a large swath of history containing essential events that he wrote about but wasn't even born to witness: the Noldorin exodus from Aman, the desertion of Fingolfin's host in Araman and the burning of the ships, the crossing of the Helcaraxë, the Battle-under-Stars and the death of Fëanor, the arrival of Fingolfin's host in Beleriand, the uneasy settlement at Mithrim opposite the Fëanorians, the rescue of Maedhros by Fingon, the early conflicts with Thingol (including the council of the Noldor where Angrod and Caranthir had their infamous spat), and the ascension of Fingolfin to the kingship. By the Feast of Reuniting, Pengolodh was at most still a toddler--or possibly not born at all yet--but too young in any case to make good use of this final opportunity to meet the people who would factor so heavily in his writings. Soon, his people would disappear for hundreds of years, and while in isolation, most of those people of whom he'd write with such authority would die.
One could certainly make the argument that it is typical for historians to write of events to which they have not born firsthand witness and of people whom they have not met.10 What matters is the quality of the sources used. It is highly unlikely, however, that Pengolodh had access to sources that were capable of speaking credibly on many of the events listed above. While he would have had access to eyewitnesses and credible sources for events that concerned Turgon closely--the crossing of the Helcaraxë, Fingolfin's assumption of the crown--even after migrating to Gondolin, given Turgon's enmity for the Fëanorians,11 it is highly unlikely that anyone affiliated with that House visited Nevrast (certainly never Gondolin) in a capacity to which a young Pengolodh would have been permitted audience. Pengolodh's swift and lengthy seclusion in Gondolin ensured that, during the most tumultuous years of the First Age, his only sources would have consisted of Turgon's followers, who had endured the same travails as their king and likely held many of the same views and biases.
Once in Gondolin, news of the world without "came to [the people of Gondolin] faint and far."12 Yet Pengolodh writes with authority of events and people from this time, based, presumably, at least in part on these faint rumors. By the time Pengolodh emerged from isolation, many of the people who participated in and witnessed those tumultuous years were dead.
We know from Quendi and Eldar that, following the fall of Gondolin, Pengolodh went next to the mouths of the Sirion, where we learn more about his sources and background that makes him an unusual--and troubling--chronicler for the bulk of what we know of the First Age. Here, "he collected much material among the survivors of the wars at Sirion's Mouth concerning languages and gesture-systems with which, owing to the isolation of Gondolin, he had not before had any direct acquaintance."13 Since this section of Quendi and Eldar concerns languages specifically, his contacts are not identified specifically as sources of historical information. It verges on impossible to believe, however, that the history of their realms would not have been something they discussed with him as he learned their languages or that Pengolodh--interested as he was in history as well as philology--would not have asked questions about it. These sources--many of whom likely came from Doriath--also account for the amount of attention given in The Silmarillion to Doriath. Thingol is the fifth most-mentioned character in the Quenta Silmarillion, one of the group of five characters "more popular than God," i.e., mentioned more times than Eru Ilúvatar.14 Multiple chapters are devoted to Doriath, despite its policy of deliberate isolationism that made it a nonfactor in most of the wars against Morgoth that are a chief concern of The Silmarillion.15 Access to sources from Doriath explain Penglodh's interest in Doriath. These sources, however, also come from an isolated realm and would have served as poor sources for much of what happened outside of Doriath, especially anything concerning the House of Fëanor, a group of characters who were never permitted entry to Doriath and came as invaders.
Also troubling in this passage is the revelation that Gondolin's isolation produced major gaps in Pengolodh's linguistic knowledge. Living as he did in a mixed Noldorin-Sindarin community, he presumably spoke both languages and lacked knowledge of other languages and dialects not his own. That Gondolin was so isolated as to prevent a scholar of languages access to those languages, one can safely presume that Pengolodh lacked access to historical information as well. This reinforces the idea that knowledge of the world beyond the Echoriath came "faint and far," even to the realm's historians and loremasters.
Pengolodh's Keyhole: Implications of an Unreliable Silmarillion
The above must lead one to conclude that Pengolodh's Silmarillion is a highly unreliable source. Pengolodh lacked access to both major players and firsthand witnesses to much of the history of the First Age. The people of Gondolin and the refugees at the mouths of Sirion lacked knowledge of large swaths of the chronology and geography important in the First Age, and both groups likely nurtured a strong anti-Fëanorian bias that can be seen in Pengolodh's writings, as well as a bias in favor of such morally dubious characters as Thingol and Túrin. Not surprisingly, Pengolodh avoids anything approaching critical evaluation of the choices and actions of Thingol and Túrin.
In fact, Pengolodh's account mimics many ancient and medieval historical sources in both its bias and unreliability. There is no definitive proof that Tolkien intended it, although given his familiarity with these unreliable primary world histories and his stated intention of generating a sense of history in his fiction, I believe it is harder to argue that Pengolodh's fallibility and bias as a narrator wasn't on his mind as he wrote The Silmarillion than to argue that he made narrative choices with historiographical concerns in mind. On this question, it is worth remembering too that Tolkien's profession as a philologist and his particular affinity for the Anglo-Saxons meant that he was constantly working with sources that raise the same sorts of doubts as does a Silmarillion written primarily by Pengolodh.
The history of England through the Norman Invasion--a time period intimately familiar to Tolkien as an Anglo-Saxonist--parallels the historiographical problems of The Silmarillion in several important way. Between the Roman departure from Britain in 410 and the Anglo-Saxon arrival in the mid-5th century, no written records remain. After the Anglo-Saxons arrived, historiography and oral tradition mingled to produce a handful of records that possess clear political and religious agendas. Until relatively late in the Anglo-Saxon period, England consisted of as many as a dozen independent kingdoms, similar to the political division of Beleriand. Much as Pengolodh's record preserves the histories of some of those kingdoms better than others--Gondolin, Doriath, and Nargothrond--the Anglo-Saxon historical records explicate the histories of some kingdoms in great detail, leaving others as blanks, including the reigns of great kings. Equivalent examples in The Silmarillion include how little we know of Himlad or Ossiriand, despite the fact that both were most likely important to the history of the First Age. This does not mean that written records for those realms--Anglo-Saxon and Beleriandic--did not exist; most likely, they did exist but did not survive. In 795, the Vikings sacked Lindisfarne, opening an epoch of history that often involved the targeting of monasteries: unprotected treasuries that also happened to house the libraries. Much as the destruction of Gondolin resulted in the loss of many written texts, countless books were lost in the Viking invasions, leaving our knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon period to rest on just a handful of literary sources. Similarly, the destruction of Gondolin--followed not long after by the destruction of Beleriand in its entirety--left Pengolodh and the few books he managed to grab as he fled the burning city as the chief source of information about the First Age. In both Anglo-Saxon England and First Age Beleriand, historical records offering a broad vista of a complex time period are effaced through the tumults of political violence until what remains to be seen is like watching events unfold in a vast hall through only a keyhole.
Good historians consider the limitations of their written sources. When they read of the ruthless, devilish barbarity of the Vikings from texts written by Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastics, they consider that those sources came from a harried people watching their sacred sites plundered by invaders still practicing a heathen religion and who left no written records of their own perspective. Historians understand that the Vikings may have told a very different tale. Pengolodh's fallibility and bias seems to invite similar skepticism among readers, particularly those who use Tolkien's texts as a source for transformative works. There are many episodes that Pengolodh could not have witnessed, and there is a further subset of those to which no one bore witness, such as the death of Fingolfin, where the tradition must be wholly invented. Within the subset of episodes that were witnessed by others, Pengolodh often lacked access to those people. For example, many of the events involving the Fëanorians that had eyewitnesses likely still reached Pengolodh through unreliable sources.
The matter of Pengolodh's bias is also salient. The subject from birth of a king who hated the Fëanorians, Pengolodh likely came to view them with distrust from a very early age, and it is doubtful that Turgon encouraged intellectual freedom to the extent of allowing magnanimity toward his sworn enemies. Thingol was not much fonder of the Fëanorians, so a similar cultural bias likely exists among Pengolodh's Doriathrim sources. Turgon's tendency to favor loyalty to the Valar16 --as much as one can expect from a Noldorin exile, at least--may have contributed to cultural values favoring characters who are obedient to the Valar while viewing rebels like Fëanor and Ar-Pharazôn as characters whose flaws explain why they resist accepting the Valarin judgment of what is best for them.
Nor--before we label the characters Pengolodh maligns as victims of persecution--are his biases wholly unjustified. One can understand why Aredhel, Eöl, and Maeglin earn his disapprobation: Their actions led to the destruction of his home. Given the brief account of his life in Quendi and Eldar, one of the few major events of the First Age to which he was likely an eyewitness was the attack on Sirion by the Fëanorians. His bias against this house--even ignoring the influence that Turgon and his sources from Doriath had on him--is perfectly understandable, much as the hatred of the Vikings by the English monks they displaced is wholly understandable. Such justification, however, does not mean that other perspectives are not also valid and the morality of characters more complex than Pengolodh would have us believe.
I have written before about how fan fiction writers weigh various considerations differently when forming the personal canon they use in their stories. Pengolodh's unreliability as a narrator doesn't obligate fan fiction writers to question or critically examine the events and characters in The Silmarillion as presented. 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. Just as historians do not simply take the word of chroniclers but consider the broader context in which they wrote, fan fiction writers who apply similar considerations to Tolkien's pseudohistory are likewise adhering to canon even as they imagine important people and events from the book differently from how they are presented in The Silmarillion.
Quoth Pengolodh: The History of the Historian
Pengolodh first appears in the texts as the sole author of The Earliest Annals of Valinor:
(These and the Annals of Beleriand were written by Pengolod the Wise of Gondolin, before its fall, and after at Sirion's Haven, and at Tavrobel in Tol Eressëa after his return unto the West, and there seen and translated by Eriol of Leithien, that is Ælfwine of the Angelcynn.)17
Christopher Tolkien dates this document between 1930 and 1937.18 As tends to be the case when doing any research in the History of Middle-earth series--and Pengolodh exists solely in this series--documents that can only be vaguely dated often hinder attempts to gain a clear understanding of how a particular element developed. Especially toward the end of Pengolodh's history, this complicates understanding Tolkien's likely intentions for Pengolodh's character.
What is notable about Pengolodh's debut in the 1930s, however, is how much of his background from Quendi and Eldar--a document that wouldn't be written for at least twenty years--is already in place even at this early stage. He is already a citizen of Gondolin whose escape took him to the mouths of the Sirion; he skips his excursus to Khazad-dûm but does eventually sail to Tol Eressëa. Pengolodh's perspective and potential biases, therefore, were in place from the outset of his history.
Pengolodh's introduction here credits him with authorship of both the Annals of Valinor and the Annals of Beleriand. Tolkien was to quickly change his mind on this. Tolkien wrote out part of the Annals of Valinor in Old English, retaining Pengolodh as the author through three versions of the preface. A fourth version, consisting of only a single page and written in Modern English, introduced an important change:
These [Annals of Valinor] were written first by Rúmil the Elfsage of Valinor, and after by Pengolod the Wise of Gondolin, who made also the Annals of Beleriand, and the Pennas that are set forth below. These also did Ælfwine of the Angelcynn turn into speech of his land.19 (italics in the original)
This is an important change and one that would carry through the remainder of Pengolodh's history. Rúmil would become the author of the Aman materials, the texts of which were apparently brought over by one of the exiles from Aman. Pengolodh would use this material--although, as we shall soon see, he would also amend it in places--to write the history of Aman. The history of Beleriand was attributed solely to him. It is impossible to know what brought about this change. It certainly suggests what I think are two key conjectures, the former less of a stretch than the latter: 1) Tolkien continued to think about the history of Pengolodh's character, which suggests that Pengolodh remained in the forefront of his mind as he wrote the early Silmarillion materials and 2) Pengolodh's biography may have continued to crystallize, and we may be observing the point at which Tolkien decided that his preeminent loremaster was not born in Aman but had the remarkably sheltered existence of one born in Nevrast and hurried into Gondolin before he had much a chance to see or experience anything at all. In support of the latter, more tenuous inference, it is worth noting that only when Rúmil enters the picture does Pengolodh's introduction no longer include that he "return[ed] unto the West," which, as Christopher Tolkien points out, suggests that he was born there.
The revision here also again highlights the deliberateness with which Tolkien employs his fictional loremasters. They are not embellishments merely to give the impression of historicity: Rather, he seems to have chosen among them based on who was the most sensible author to expect for a particular text. He also considered their personal backgrounds and used this information when making decisions over authoriship. This suggests that the more subtle pseudohistorical elements, such as bias, are intentional.
Finally, Pengolodh's introduction in The Earliest Annals of Valinor also cements a mode of transmission of the legendarium that Tolkien would continue to employ for at least another twenty years. Pengolodh (and Rúmil) serve as the sources of the material of the First and Second Ages. This material is then passed on to the Anglo-Saxon mariner Ælfwine, who visited Tol Eressëa at the time of the Viking invasions at the end of the 8th century.20 Ælfwine in his earliest form as Eriol was present from the first versions of the Silmarillion material found in The Book of Lost Tales. There, Eriol spoke with the loremaster Gilfanon, whom Christopher Tolkien proposes was an early version of Pengolodh: "I am much inclined to think that [Pengolodh's] literary origin is to be found in Gilfanon of the Lost Tales, who also lived at Tavrobel ..."21 Once the characters had settled into their identities as Pengolodh and Ælfwine, the former transmitted information to the latter via both conversation and through sharing written texts.
Ælfwine in this scenario becomes the physical and linguistic link between Aman and England, Elvish and English. His involvement accounts for the versions of the Annals written in Old English. With the texts in Old English and located in England, Tolkien was able to become the final link in the chain of transmission, translating them into Modern English.22
In the next stage of revision, The Later Annals of Valinor, Pengolodh's role expands yet again. Here, for the first time, we see him not only using the writings of Rúmil but adding information to them that Rúmil--having never gone to Middle-earth--would have had no way of knowing: the journey of the Nandor over the Blue Mountains and into Ossiriand, and the death of Denethor and the delving of Menegroth.23 "This have I, Pengolod, added here," reads the note on the V.T. 2000-2010 annal, "for it was not known unto Rúmil." Again, we see Tolkien's consideration of what his various loremasters would have known (and not known) and assigning attribution accordingly.
In the same time period 1930 to 1937, Pengolodh appeared in two other texts. In the Lhammas or "Account of Tongues," Pengolodh again uses the work of Rúmil to produce a text that is seen by Ælfwine during his stay in Tol Eressëa.24 As with the Annals of Valinor, Pengolodh adds to Rúmil's work, this time offering not just an addition but an emendation. Rúmil, writing of the languages of the Dwarves, claims that their origin is unknown, a claim that Pengolodh contests with a lengthy note about the Aulian origin of the Dwarves, their resultant nature, and their languages. "Thus saith Rúmil in his writings concerning the speeches of the earth of old," writes Pengolodh, "but I, Pengolod, have heard it said by some ..."25 Pengolodh's correction is gentle and almost deferential, but a correction it remains. Thus the fallibility of Tolkien's loremasters becomes plain: Without Pengolodh to correct Rúmil's lack of understanding, readers' understandings of the origins of the Dwarves would be incorrect; which of Pengolodh's claims might likewise receive correction from a more knowledgeable loremaster, one who had access to firsthand knowledge? Pengolodh's affiliation with Khazad-dûm has not yet appeared in the texts, but here, his knowledge of the Dwarves and lengthy parenthesis on them suggests that Tolkien may have been considering that his preeminent loremaster was personally familiar with Dwarvish history and language.
Pengolodh is also credited here with a shortened version of the Lhammas called the Lammasethen that compresses the work of Rúmil and focuses specifically on the Elvish language. Pengolodh is also credited with authoring the Quenta Silmarillion found in The Lost Road, using the work of Rúmil to write about the history of Aman and the languages but elaborating when his own knowledge eclipsed that of Rúmil.26 These five major texts--the Early and Later Annals of Valinor, The Early Annals of Beleriand,27 The Lhammas, and the Quenta Silmarillion--comprise the texts written between 1930 and 1937 that were assigned wholly or partly to Pengolodh.
The next phase of activity on the Silmarillion materials involving Pengolodh occurred between 1948 and 1952, shortly after Tolkien completed The Lord of the Rings. Pengolodh's most notable appearance here was in the role of the loremaster who told to Ælfwine the creation myth found in the Ainulindalë. Prior to this point, Rúmil was ascribed sole authorship of the Ainulindalë. During the same 1930 to 1937 window when Pengolodh made his debut, Tolkien penned the B-text of the Ainulindalë and assigned it to Rúmil. Somewhere between 1948 and 1951, Tolkien produced the C- and D-texts; in both, Pengolodh appears to recite the words of Rúmil to Ælfwine. As we have grown accustomed to seeing, he embellishes the received text with his own additions of material that Rúmil could not have known.28
The other text from this period in which Pengolodh appears is The Later Quenta Silmarillion 1. Pengolodh's role here is what we have come to expect: He authors the Beleriandic portions of the text and adds to Rúmil's work on the Aman portions when needed. This text is of primary importance because, by its next iteration, Pengolodh would have disappeared, his twenty-plus-year tenure as Tolkiens preeminent loremaster about to be undone by a scrap of paper.
The Mysterious Disappearing Pengolodh?
In December 2014, I was asked, anonymously, on Tumblr what I thought of Christopher Tolkien. As I write this biography almost a year later, I am, if anything, more emphatic about what I wrote then concerning the difficulty of Christopher Tolkien's task and the magnitude of his accomplishment in producing a publishable Silmarillion from the mess that was often his father's drafts and notes. For the better part of the last year, my scholarly work in the Tolkien fan community has been concerned with historical bias. This obligates Pengolodh and me to become cozy, and most of my research, as a result, has been conducted out of the History of Middle-earth books rather than The Silmarillion. As such, the disarray of the original materials has complicated my own research.
Research using the History of Middle-earth into the evolution of any long-lasting element of The Silmarillion is very often an exercise in frustration due to the imprecision or complete lack of dating. Showing how a plot point or character developed requires establishing a chronology of drafts and texts, which is often impossible to do. Christopher Tolkien attempts, in the History of Middle-earth series, to date the texts as precisely as possible. Texts were often folded inside of newspapers or written on the backs of dated bills, which provide a terminus for a date, or typed using a particular typewriter that other, dated documents using the same machine can establish a range of dates for. Sometimes Tolkien would mention his work on a particular text in a letter that may or may not have a date. That Christopher Tolkien is able to achieve the precision that he does in many instances is remarkable.
To this point, the order of the texts involving Pengolodh has been fairly straightforward or not of particular importance. However, around the year 1958--at this time, Pengolodh had been around for more than two decades--Tolkien wrote a series of texts that have implications for Pengolodh's very existence. The order in which these texts were written is unclear for the reasons enumerated above, and different chronologies lead to wildly variant conclusions. Pengolodh remains in some texts, fails to appear where we might expect him in others, and is removed from still other texts. Because of the uncertainty surrounding the order in which this tangle of texts was written, it is hard to judge whether we are observing the definitive removal of Pengolodh as a narrator or a brief flirtation with the idea of a different mode of transmission that was eventually abandoned and Pengolodh restored to his expected place.
The confusion on this point originates with a note clipped to the manuscript of the Annals of Aman, where Tolkien declares, "It is now clear to me that in any case the Mythology must actually be a 'Mannish' affair. ... What we have in the Silmarillion etc. are traditions ... handed on by Men in Númenor and later in Middle-earth (Arnor and Gondor)" (emphasis in the original). Christopher Tolkien dates this note to no earlier than 1958.29
This note is presented as part of the collection of late writings entitled Myths Transformed. These late writings propose radical revisions to the legendarium. Christopher Tolkien tends to emphasize the most dramatic of them: the reconception of the cosmogony of Arda. When the foundations of the universe itself are shaken, the proposed elimination of Pengolodh from the narrative tradition is easy to overlook or downplay in terms of significance. Christopher Tolkien is outspoken against the cosmogonical revisions proposed by his father and avoided carrying them out on the grounds that
... it seems at any rate arguable that while committed in mind to the abandonment of the old myth of the origin of the Sun and Moon my father left in abeyance the formulation and expression of the new. It may be, though I have no evidence on the question one way or the other, that he came to perceive from such experimental writing as this text that the old structure was too comprehensive, too interlocked in all its parts, indeed its roots too deep, to withstand such a devastating surgery.30
The excision of Pengolodh from the myth--an obvious result of changing the mode of transmission to a "Mannish affair" via Númenor--did not receive similar skepticism or resistance. Christopher Tolkien's work on The Silmarillion regards the views on the scrap of paper circa 1958 as final and unequivocal31 --hence Pengolodh's absence from the published Silmarillion. It is not clear, however, that the change in tradition was meant to be final; in fact, there is, I think, substantial evidence that it was not.
A number of other texts were produced around the same time as that fateful 1958 note where Tolkien expressed his intention to change the narrative tradition. In three texts, Dangweth Pengoloð (1951-1959), the Akallabêth (1958), and Quendi and Eldar33 and utilizing the work of Rúmil and adding his own observations where appropriate in the latter.34 The Grey Annals, also written around 1958, forgo Pengolodh and the Númenóreans both:
These are the Annals of Beleriand as they were made by the Sindar, the Grey Elves of Doriath and the Havens, and enlarged from the records and memories of the remnant of the Noldor of Nargothrond and Gondolin at the Mouths of Sirion, whence they were brought back into the West.35
This attribution aligns with what we know of Pengolodh's background from Quendi and Eldar--it simply fails to mention Pengolodh. It also alludes to the Tol Eressëan (versus Númenórean) tradition ("they were brought back into the West"). What is going on here isn't very clear. It may be that the level of attention to Doriath versus Gondolin suggested to Tolkien that the Grey Annals were unlikely the product of a loremaster of the Gondolindrim, and Pengolodh's role was relegated but not eliminated. This is a possibility with which Christopher Tolkien agrees: "Perhaps it should be supposed that both sets of Annals, as received, derive from the editorial work of Pengoloð in Tol Eressëa."36 It remains difficult to imagine, however, why Pengolodh--usually a highly conscientious character about attributing his additions to an edited work or identifying himself as the compiler on the title page of a text--apparently allowed himself to go so easily into obscurity. Is this evidence of Tolkien trying to push Pengolodh off-stage to open the tradition to the Númenóreans? Is it an attempt to diversify the loremasters contributing to the legendarium and introducing an explicitly Sindarin tradition?
In the next set of texts, authorship becomes more complicated. The Annals of Aman, written in 1958, presents conflicting evidence for Tolkien's intentions for Pengolodh's role at this point of the history of the texts. Two versions of the title page of The Annals of Aman exist. The first attributes three different loremasters, including Pengolodh:
These [Annals of Valinor] were written by Quennar i Onótimo who learned much, and borrowed much also, from Rúmil; but they were enlarged by Pengoloð.37
In the second version, Pengolodh and the new loremaster Quennar i Onótimo are both stricken and the simpler text reads: "Here begin the Annals of Aman, which Rúmil made ..."38 On the surface, it appears that Pengolodh has been removed from the Annals of Valinor tradition, perhaps in accordance with Tolkien's expressed intention to change to a Númenórean tradition. The actual text of The Annals of Aman, however, do not carry through this intention. Pengolodh's role continues here as it has in the Later Annals of Valinor: adding information to Rúmil's account that Rúmil could not have known.39 As we will see, the removal of Pengolodh from the surface layer of the text while leaving his deeper role in place will continue to confound these revisions as evidence of a change to a Númenórean tradition.
Another text, The Tale of Years, was subjected to a similar revision of Pengolodh's role. Tale of Years was, Christopher Tolkien believes, written around 1951 or 1952 and revised alongside the Annals of Aman, dating these revisions likewise to around 1958. In the first manuscript version, Pengolodh is assigned authorship after the crossing of the Helcaraxë: "Here follows the continuation which Pengoloð made in Eressëa." A second, highly ornamental form of the manuscript was made, and no author is identified here.40 Again, it is possible to interpret Pengolodh's removal as Tolkien carrying out his intentions to change the narrative tradition, at least on the surface.
One final text illustrates the complexity of Pengolodh's status at this time. The Later Quenta Silmarillion 1 (LQ1) was written around 1951 to 195241 and is typical of a text attributed to Pengolodh at that time: Rúmil handled the Aman material, Pengolodh made additions here when needed, and Pengolodh wrote the history of Beleriand. Around 1958,42 Tolkien revised this text, producing The Later Quenta Silmarillion 2 (LQ2). Pengolodh is wholly absent from this text.
Along with The Annals of Aman and The Tale of Years, the absence of Pengolodh from a text that once included him, again, seems to imply that Tolkien was undertaking the change in narrative tradition that he discussed in the Myths Transformed texts. But looking closer at LQ2 suggests that this inference actually isn't anywhere near so simple.
Altering the tradition from Eldarin to Númenórean is not merely cosmetic, a simple matter of changing a few loremasters' names in a few places in the text. Writing of the cosmogonical changes his father contemplated, Christopher Tolkien protested that this material was "too comprehensive" and "too interlocked" with the narrative as a whole to be changed without rewriting the entire story. Pengolodh as the narrator is much the same. The Silmarillion reflects Pengolodh's perspective through the characters and groups it focuses on and those it does not. 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."43 Yet The Silmarillion is unrelentingly Eldarin.44 A Númenórean tradition would require this to change. The Númenórean ancestors who receive but a name and a spot on a family tree would have to have their deeds expounded, probably at the expense of material that is solely Eldarin. The tendency to favor mortal characters whose histories intersect with those of Eldarin characters45 likely wouldn't be as blatant. Texts such as the Akallabêth and Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age would dominate and the extensive attention given to the establishment of Elven realms and strictly Eldarin history would likely recede.
LQ2 shows none of this. In fact, Tolkien made several additions to the text that would make little sense coming from a Númenórean tradition but fit perfectly with what we'd expect from Pengolodh. These additions emphasize the Eldarin perspective and ignore or even malign mortals in a way that is hard to fathom as written by a mortal narrator.
Two major texts--Laws and Customs among the Eldar46 and The Statute of Finwë and Míriel--originate with LQ2. What makes these two texts interesting is their eschatological emphasis: Both focus heavily upon death and the afterlife but only of Elves. Given the Númenórean obsession with death,47 if these texts were written as part of a Númenórean tradition, the Elven eschatology would very likely serve to contrast the difference--and possibly injustice--of the fates of mortals. Instead, neither of these texts mention the eschatology of mortals at all, a situation that is almost impossible to envision coming from a Númenórean writer.
The chapter "Of the Silmarils and the Unrest of the Noldor" in LQ2 also contains a passage that it is difficult to imagine arising from the pen of a Númenórean loremaster:
But Melkor spoke to [the Noldor] in secret of Mortal Men .... [N]ow the whisper went among the Elves that Manwë held them captive, so that Men might come and supplant them in the dominions of the Middle-earth. For the Valar saw that this weaker and short-lived race would be more easily swayed by them.48
This is not a flattering depiction of the Secondborn, and the easy association of longevity with strength and willpower seems an obviously Elven perspective. Even were a mortal narrator merely reporting what he or she had been told of the Elven perspective, it is difficult to believe that this would not be qualified or tempered somehow; instead, "weaker and short-lived" is presented as a factual description and stands unchallenged. This would be a passage that, were Tolkien undertaking a revision of the Later Quenta Silmarillion material with an eye toward replacing Pengolodh with a Númenórean narrator, would be relatively easy to revise to create the sense that the text was written by a mortal. Instead, this passage is copied almost verbatim from LQ1.49
I reviewed the entirety of LQ2 with the fictional narrator in mind. At no point did I encounter a passage reminiscent of a Númenórean perspective. Instead, LQ2 continues to represent the Eldarin perspective, and many passages remain in place that were formerly attributed to Pengolodh in earlier drafts. It is impossible to do more than speculate what is going on here. What I suspect happened--and it is worth emphasizing that we are firmly in the realm of pure speculation at this point--is that, around 1958, Tolkien reconceived the Silmarillion texts as coming from a Númenórean tradition, perhaps with a mind to make them fit better within the traditional framework to which The Lord of the Rings belonged and having abandoned the idea of tying the legendarium into the mythology of England via Ælfwine. Christopher Tolkien believed and I also believe that this was sincerely intended, and the removal of Pengolodh from texts dating from roughly around this time shows the beginnings of the enterprise to change narrative traditions. But much as the cosmogonical changes being considered at the same time were too deeply embedded to be easily extricated, Pengolodh-as-narrator displayed similar tenacity. The bulk of the Silmarillion material had been written with him in mind as the narrator. His perspective, his biases, and his unique history were threaded subtly throughout every tale contained within The Silmarillion, and far from a simple change of names sufficing to change the tradition, every word had to be reconsidered and possibly rewritten with a Númenórean narrator in mind.
Were the dates of the various texts from around 1958 able to be definitively established, I'd have more to offer in the way of proof for this. As it is, one can argue that Tolkien intended to strike Pengolodh from the texts if one dates the texts that include him earlier than those that do not. Reverse that order, however, and one can just as easily argue that Tolkien dallied with the notion of eliminating Pengolodh but ultimately decided the endeavor was more trouble than it was worth. I think the greatest proof lies in LQ2. Here we have a text from which Pengolodh has been eliminated--as near as we have to proof that it followed the note where Tolkien planned the change in tradition--and that is obviously written based on an earlier draft: a clear opportunity to introduce revisions that indicate a change in narrators. Instead, we have the introduction of texts that are frankly problematic if one assumes a Númenórean narrator (Laws and Customs and The Statute of Finwë and Míriel) and the near-verbatim copying of an earlier passage that is likewise difficult to imagine as the product of a Númenórean loremaster.
In any case, I arrive at the conclusion that a close examination of the texts makes it hard to argue for the elimination of Pengolodh. Christopher Tolkien certainly disagreed, at least at first: This is why Pengolodh is wholly absent from The Silmarillion. However, in his commentary on LQ2, Christopher Tolkien expresses regret over the approach he took in putting together The Silmarillion from the confusion of materials that were the early drafts:
A leading consideration in the preparation of the text was the achievement of coherence and consistency; and a fundamental problem was uncertainty as to the mode by which in my father's later thought the 'Lore of the Eldar' had been transmitted. But I now think that I attached too much importance to the aim of consistency, which may be present when not evident, and was too ready to deal with 'difficulties' simply by eliminating them.50
I do not envy Christopher Tolkien the task of making a decision concerning the loremasters. Even with the benefit of texts compiled and edited with commentary, sorting through the various drafts and attempting to make sense of Pengolodh's disappearances and resurfacings required many hours of study and much frustration. I hesitate to imply that the depth of Pengolodh's influence over the Silmarillion materials never occurred to Christopher Tolkien but rather suspect that this issue didn't receive the attention it might have otherwise because of the importance--and difficulty--of deciding what to do with the cosmogonical changes. When the origin of the solar system itself is contested, the relative importance historian who wrote about it tends to recede. To simply carry through Tolkien's obvious removal of direct attribution of Pengolodh as the narrator and remove overt allusions as well to the Pengolodh-Ælfwine tradition from the Silmarillion material does not seem an unreasonable approach, especially since it corroborates the privileging of consistency that also justifies Christopher Tolkien leaving the cosmogonical framework untouched. It does, however, obscure the text's purpose as a deliberately constructed pseudohistory, not a factual and unbiased narrative told from an omniscient viewpoint.
Pengolodh: The Most Important Character Never Mentioned
I opened this essay with a quotation from the renowned historian E.H. Carr, asserting that the writer of history rather than the facts of history should be the more important concern when attempting to understand that history. I hope I've established that, no matter J.R.R. Tolkien's stated intention to change from an Eldarin to a Númenórean tradition--thus eliminating Pengolodh's relevance to the main narrative--he either never proceeded beyond surface edits to realize this goal or decided against it. No matter what happened, most of the published Silmarillion was written with Pengolodh in mind as the narrator.
That makes Pengolodh an extremely important character, especially for the writer of fan fiction, whose role might be seen as similar to that of the historian in deciding which "facts"--some of them contradictory--provide the most accurate version of how the narrative unfolded. This is why I say that he is the most important character in The Silmarillion despite being never mentioned in The Silmarillion: His background informs and his bias colors the majority of the text. He is like the director who never walks onstage but nonetheless determines the thoughts and emotions the audience will take from a production. His interpretation of people and events becomes the authorized version of the story--the canon, as we would say in the fan fiction community.
One of the most unfortunate consequences, in my opinion, of the 1958 note that seems to herald Pengolodh's excision from the texts is the zealousness with which Christopher Tolkien applied this stated intention, even rewriting sections of the text otherwise not in need of editing to eliminate any hint of the Pengolodh-Ælfwine tradition.51 For the average reader, this perhaps has no greater consequence than limiting the sense of historicity in The Silmarillion. For the creator of Tolkien-based transformative works, it obscures the reality that the narrative is very often only one person's perspective--and that is frequently not a very reliable perspective--and therefore subject to be read with due skepticism. 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. It is impossible to say how even a few mentions of Pengolodh in the published Silmarillion might have changed the approach that many fan fiction writers take; perhaps it would not have changed at all. But it might also have given greater license to viewing the concept of "canon" as more fluid and inviting of a historiographical reading and the fan fiction writer's role as more critical and akin to the historian's in imagining the stories and perspectives that Pengolodh ignored or simply didn't know. Transformative works become almost a required outcome of a pseudohistorical narrative approach, especially when produced by the pen of a fictional narrator like Pengolodh.
In terms of transformative works, Pengolodh's perspective becomes not a keyhole--an inherent limitation on what we know of the legendarium--but a key that unlocks the potential for limitless stories to be created to fill in what Pengolodh doesn't show us. If Pengolodh was negatively biased against a character like Maeglin or Celegorm or Ar-Pharazôn, then what might a positively biased point of view show differently of those characters? Blanks in the history or on the map don't exist because they're not interesting but because Pengolodh either lacked access or personally found them less compelling, an assessment with which readers are not required to agree. People and whole cultures that appear only in the margins of the story can likewise become central. Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey once wrote that Tolkien was most attracted by "the blank spaces, much bigger than most people realise, on the literary and historical map ..."52 With the advent of Pengolodh, Tolkien widened those blank spaces in his own works. Many of his readers find them similarly inviting.
- E.H. Carr. What Is History? 2nd ed. Ed. R. W. Davies (London: Penguin, 1988), page 22.
- For detailed background on those he identifies as the "most prominent" among them, see Måns Björkman, The Chroniclers of Arda.
- See, for example, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, "129 From a letter to Sir Stanley Unwin 10 September 1950," 131 To Milton Waldman," "153 To Peter Hastings (draft)," and "183 Notes on W. H. Auden's review of The Return of the King."
- Dawn Walls-Thumma, The Loremasters of Fëanor: Historical Bias in the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien and Transformative Works. New York Tolkien Conference. Baruch College, New York, NY. 13 June 2015. Conference Presentation.
- See, for example The History of Middle-earth: The Lost Road and Other Writings, The Lhammas, section 9.
- The History of Middle-earth: The War of the Jewels, Quendi and Eldar, Appendix D.
- The History of Middle-earth: The War of the Jewels, The Grey Annals, §88.
- Ibid, §70-72.
- The History of Middle-earth: The Shaping of Middle-earth, The Earliest Annals of Valinor, commentary on IV.
- Although it's impossible to say whether among the Elves, an immortal people, a similar attitude was held, or if living through the events and meeting the people a loremaster wrote about granted him or her prestige.
- The History of Middle-earth: The Peoples of Middle-earth, The Shibboleth of Fëanor, "The names of Finwë's descendents."
- The Silmarillion, "Of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin."
- The History of Middle-earth: The War of the Jewels, Quendi and Eldar, Appendix D.
- Characters with more mentions than Thingol include Melkor (503), Fëanor (208 mentions or 161 if "son(s) of Fëanor" is not included), Túrin (202), and Sauron (188). Thingol is mentioned 178 times. Eru Ilúvatar is mentioned 176 times. Mentions in the "Index of Names" or Appendix materials are not included, and compound names (e.g., Elu Thingol) are counted as only one mention.
- "The Silmarillion is the history of the War of the Exiled Elves against the Enemy ..." The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, "131 To Milton Waldman."
- Turgon spoke against Fëanor at the rebellion of the Noldor (The Silmarillion, "Of the Flight of the Noldor"). That he also modeled Gondolin after the Valinorean home he'd left behind is also noteworthy (The Silmarillion, "Of the Noldor in Beleriand").
- The History of Middle-earth: The Shaping of Middle-earth, The Earliest Annals of Valinor.
- The History of Middle-earth: The Lost Road and Other Writings, The Texts and Their Relations.
- The History of Middle-earth: The Shaping of Middle-earth, The Earliest Annals of Valinor, Appendix, Version IV.
- The History of Middle-earth: The Book of Lost Tales 2, The History of Eriol or Ælfwine, note 24.
- The History of Middle-earth: The Shaping of Middle-earth, The Earliest Annals of Valinor, "Commentary on the Annals of Valinor."
- It is worth noting that both of Tolkien's (unfinished) stories set in the modern day--The Lost Road and The Notion Club Papers--include a Tolkienesque character who unveils the lost myths of Elvenesse in part through his philological prowess. Since this essay could be seen as opening a can of worms as far as justifying all manner of what are typically regarded "uncanonical" interpretations, we might as well add self-inserts to the list.
- The History of Middle-earth: The Lost Road and Other Writings, The Later Annals of Valinor, annals V.Y. 2000-2010 and V.Y. 2990.
- The History of Middle-earth: The Lost Road and Other Writings, The Lhammas, introductory notes.
- Ibid., section 9.
- See, for example, The History of Middle-earth: The Lost Road and Other Writings, Quenta Silmarillion, §49, §123, and §128. The last also includes an attribution to Ælfwine.
- The Later Annals of Beleriand (The History of Middle-earth: The Lost Road) do not identify an author (see the introductory remarks to The Later Annals of Valinor in the same volume). Unlike the early version of both sets of Annals, in which a title page identifies Pengolodh as an author for both (and the sole author of the Annals of Beleriand), the later Annals do not have a title page. In The Annals of Valinor, Pengolodh's additions to Rúmil's work are attributed to him, leaving no doubt that he is the author of that work. I think it highly likely that he is the author of The Later Annals of Beleriand as well. As the sole author, he would have had no reason to "sign" his corrections to his own text. However, since authorship is not explicitly identified and since authorship of the next text in the series, The Grey Annals, does eliminate Pengolodh, I did not include The Later Annals of Beleriand in the list of early works that Pengolodh definitely authored.
- The History of Middle-earth: Morgoth's Ring, Ainulindalë, Version C, "The Words of Pengolodh" (§29-40) and Version D, title page.
- The History of Middle-earth: Morgoth's Ring, Myths Transformed, section I.
- Ibid., commentary on section II.
- To be fair, this scrap of paper was not the only mention of changing the tradition. See, for example, The History of Middle-earth: Morgoth's Ring, Myths Transformed, section VII, iii.
- Quendi and Eldar is also the essay where Pengolodh's background is explicated.
- Pengolodh is never directly attributed in the Akallabêth, but the narrator directly addresses Ælfwine in the original text, and this leads Christopher Tolkien to conclude, "The Akallabêth was conceived as a tale told by Pengoloð the Wise (as it must be supposed, through he is not named) in Tol Eressëa to Ælfwine of England, as becomes very explicit (in the original) at the end ..." (The History of Middle-earth: The Peoples of Middle-earth, The History of the Akallabêth, §§1-2). Christopher Tolkien made the editorial decision to remove all mentions of Ælfwine (and therefore implications of Pengolodh) from the published Silmarillion, a choice that he justifies as "mostly in the quest (somewhat excessively pursued, as I now think) for coherence and consistency with other writings" (Ibid., introductory remarks). Christopher Tolkien says later of this decision that "with the removal of Pengoloð and Ælfwine from the published text, the Akallabêth lost its anchorage in expressly Eldarin lore" and characterized this editorial choice as "an excess of vigilance" (Ibid., §28).
- Two title pages for The Annals of Aman exist. On the first, it is stated that the Annals "were enlarged by Pengoloð." On the second, this was struck out; however, Pengoloð's additions remain in the text itself. See The History of Middle-earth: Morgoth's Ring, The Annals of Aman, "First section of the Annals of Aman."
- The History of Middle-earth: The War of the Jewels, The Grey Annals, §1. As discussed in note 27, The Later Annals of Beleriand did not identify an author, and Tolkien's assumption of Penglodh as the author or that he was already considering the possibility of Sindarin authorship both remain possibilities.
- Ibid., Commentary, §16.
- The History of Middle-earth: Morgoth's Ring, The Annals of Aman, "First section of the Annals of Aman."
- Ibid., subtitle.
- Ibid., §9, §84, and §127.
- The History of Middle-earth: The War of the Jewels, The Tale of Years, introductory remarks.
- The History of Middle-earth: Morgoth's Ring, The Later Quenta Silmarillion, (I) The First Phase, introductory remarks.
- The History of Middle-earth: Morgoth's Ring, Myths Transformed, section I.
- By my count, an even 100 of the 213 characters listed in the "Index of Names" in The Silmarillion are mortal humans. (I am not counting characters like Elrond and Elros who also have Elvish blood.) This is 47%--by far the largest proportion commanded by any single group of characters in the book. In contrast, only 56 of the characters (26%) are Eldar (again not counting those characters who also have mortal blood). Yet only 31 (31%) of these mortal characters are mentioned five or more times in the text. (Five is the median number of mentions in The Silmarillion for all characters.) Mortals are clearly numerous and Pengolodh seems to have felt obligated to at least name-drop the most important of their kind, but for the vast majority of them, he does little more than that, creating the sense that their deeds are less important than those of the Eldar: far less numerous but with 39 (70%) of them receiving five or more mentions in the text.
- The five most-mentioned mortals are Túrin, Beren, Húrin, Morwen, and Tuor, all of whom had extensive involvement with the Elves.
- Laws and Customs is attributed to Ælfwine, a tiny holdout of the Pengolodh-Ælfwine tradition. For a discussion of the narrative perspective of Laws and Customs, see The History of Middle-earth: Morgoth's Ring, The Later Quenta Silmarillion, (II) The Second Phase, Laws and Customs among the Eldar, introductory remarks.
- See, for example, The Silmarillion, Akallabêth: "But the fear of death grew ever darker upon them, and they delayed it by all means that they could; and they began to build great houses for their dead, and while their wise men laboured unceasingly to discover if they might the secret of recalling life, or at the least of the prolonging of Men's days."
- The History of Middle-earth: Morgoth's Ring, The Later Quenta Silmarillion, (II) The Second Phase, "Of the Silmarils and the Unrest of the Noldor."
- The History of Middle-earth: Morgoth's Ring, The Later Quenta Silmarillion, (I) The First Phase, "Of the Silmarils and the Darkening of Valinor."
- The History of Middle-earth: Morgoth's Ring, The Later Quenta Silmarillion, (II) The Second Phase, The Valaquenta, commentary.
- Tom Shippey. The Road to Middle-earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), 38.
About the Author
Dawn Felagund is the founder and owner of the Silmarillion Writers' Guild and has written about one hundred stories, poems, and essays about J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion, some of which have been translated and published in fan magazines around the world. Dawn is a graduate student in the humanities, and her academic work on Tolkien's cosmogony and the Tolkien fan community has appeared in Mythprint and Silver Leaves (in press) and has been presented at Mythmoot II, Mythmoot III, and the New York Tolkien Conference. Dawn can be emailed at DawnFelagund@gmail.com.
All References by Author
History of Middle-earth Summaries. The History of Middle-earth project is an ongoing attempt to summarize the entire book series and put together the many ideas, commentaries, and footnotes of the series into easy-to-follow summaries.
Silmarillion Chapter Summaries. Designed as a resource for leading readings of The Silmarillion, the chapter summaries are also a nice review for those returning to unfamiliar sections of the book or who would like guidance while reading it for the first time.
A Woman in Few Words: The Character of Nerdanel and Her Treatment in Canon and Fandom. A review of the canon facts available on Nerdanel and discussion of why she remains so popular with fans despite her scarce appearances in the texts.