[What in the world is going on with this blog?? Well, my new life has hijacked my progress in my research somewhat. Okay, a lot. This year has essentially been my first year teaching all over again in terms of planning. And I’ve been making up for years of neglect on the SWG from while I was in grad school. I’ve had trouble prioritizing my research and writing. I know I need to do better. Anyway, I’m actually doing Back to Middle-earth Month this year and writing nonfiction for it. So I’ll likely cross-post a lot of what I do for that here, to remind myself that I am a Tolkien blogger as well as site owner, teacher, fiction writer … all the other hats I wear.]
“In Valinor, all the days are beautiful.”
This was the very first line I wrote in my very first serious Silmarillion fan fiction, Another Man’s Cage. But I don’t believe it. (Which is okay–those were Celegorm’s words, not mine.) In fact, the twelve years of writing Silmarillion-based fiction could be seen as an exercise in proving Celegorm’s sentiment here wrong.
What I think is most difficult about stories that are primarily concerned with Elves and Elves in Aman at that, is how to keep their inherent elvishness alive and present throughout the story, a feeling that this is not a story about another kind of men, but about a different kind of beings, however closely related they might be. (emphasis mine)
The challenge of writing not-wholly-human beings is hardly new to the fantasy genre. Ursula LeGuin’s essay From Elfland to Poughkeepsie addresses it. “But the point about Elfland,” she writes, “is that you are not at home there. It’s not Poughkeepsie. It’s different” (145). Most of LeGuin’s essay focuses on style and the precarious process of achieving a style that sounds otherworldly without being distancing. But she takes jabs as well at fantasists who veer to close to the human and the our-worldly in their work:
The Lords of Elfland are true lords, the only true lords, the kind that do not exist on this earth: their lordship is the outward sign or symbol of real inward greatness. And greatness of soul shows when a man speaks. At least, it does in books. In life we expect lapses. In naturalistic fiction, too, we expect lapses, and laugh at an “overheroic” hero. But in fantasy, which, instead of imitating the perceived confusion and complexity of existence, tries to hint at an order and clarity underlying existence–in fantasy, we need not compromise. (148, emphasis mine)
So while LeGuin’s essay is ostensibly about style, she also argues for characters of a “kind that do not exist on this earth,” which is a profoundly different thing. This gets back to the early criticism of AMC: readers’ unease with elements of the story that felt too “human” or “not Aman enough,” like weapons and predators and Elves who pee. I think this unease is far less common now than it was ten years ago; I like to think that my generation of Silmfic writers had something to do with that, as did the shift away from Tolkien fan fiction as largely a practice by fans already deeply committed to the books (and the orthodoxy of mainstream Tolkien fandom) and toward participation by fans who came to the fandom through one of the film trilogies (as indeed I did). These fans bring practices common to Fanworks as a Whole but not necessarily the Tolkien fanworks community as it existed in its original online form, practices which seem to allow for an easier break with fanon and orthodox interpretive approaches to the texts. But the issue still remains: How does one worldbuild a place like Aman?
Juno’s comment on AMC hints at this: The Elves of Aman are different and more difficult to write than Elves in general (who also pose their difficulties). Or: Aman is more of the rarefied, not-of-this-earth Elfland that LeGuin places at the heart of a successful fantasy story. I don’t want to say that this is wrong–I admire both women as writers and thoughtful critics of fiction–but I also see this view as posing difficulties that LeGuin does not acknowledge in her essay. (Juno does, in her discussion with me back when.)
Successful fiction, for most people, requires a connection to something real, something they can relate to. (I know some people would disagree with this. But for most of us, reading a story that carries no connection to anything recognizable to us is not a pleasurable experience.) Tolkien recognized this. In his essay On Fairy-stories, he spoke of the necessity of an “inner consistency of reality” and noted, “The keener and clearer the reason, the better fantasy will it make,” i.e., one must understand the rules of the world before remaking them (section “Fantasy”). The best of authors are, in many ways, the builders of bridges: They take recognizable human experiences or components of our familiar world and use them to bear us unwittingly across the chasm to an unfamiliar world or existence. Suddenly, sometimes without knowing how we arrived there, we look up to find ourselves existing (fictionally) as a person we detest or inhabiting an experience we knew nothing about–or living in a world not our own: an alien planet, an underworld, an Elfland.
The risk comes when that bridge is so tenuous, so frail that the crossing becomes difficult or even impossible, and we stand on the other side, looking into a world or existence as a character that we cannot really connect to. It isn’t quite believable or real. Some might argue that is part of the point–LeGuin makes the case for escapism in her essay, which was a major component of Tolkien’s theory of fantasy as well1–but escapism is far from the sole reason for reading or writing fantasy. In fact one could–and I would–make the claim that fantasy functions just as easily as a test environment for ideas that would perhaps stretch the bounds of belief if grounded in our world. Fantasy as a genre, after all, is defined primarily by the author’s ability to bend the rules “just because.” That allows for the stereotypical sorcery and dragons, of course, but it also allows authors to add gender equality or benevolent monarchs or immortality, or to explore the darker elements of what it means to be human–genocide, colonialism, and slavery are all present in The Silmarillion, for example–without exploiting or misrepresenting the experiences of actual victims of those things in our real world. Adding such elements provokes interesting questions about what it means to be human in our world without becoming so entangled in the complexities of real-world history and modern society and the emotions these things incite.
Which brings me back to the question of Aman and how best to write stories set in this otherworldly place. A good deal of it depends on your purpose for writing about Aman: Is it an escape? Or are you situating a recognizable human experience inside an otherworldly setting to see what comes of it?
For me, it is the latter, and not just because I find this the most meaningful type of fiction to write but because the material Tolkien gave me to work with suggests this approach. Earlier, I emphasized LeGuin’s quote that “[t]he Lords of Elfland are true lords, the only true lords, the kind that do not exist on this earth: their lordship is the outward sign or symbol of real inward greatness” (148). If the magic of Elfland comes from language and style, then LeGuin is correct to hold up Tolkien as a master of “the genuine Elfland accent,” but what she says here is a whole ‘nuther animal, and had LeGuin had access to The Silmarillion–she wrote “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” in 1973–then she might have been less confident in this assertion about the “true lords” of Elfland (148).
As a nascent Tolkien fan, I fell in love first with The Lord of the Rings and, when I reread it now, love it anew for reasons I need articulate to no fan of Tolkien. But what seized my heart and transported me fully to Middle-earth was The Silmarillion. I’ve spent thirteen years now writing stories about The Silmarillion, motivated largely by a desire to understand the flawed world and characters it presents. Most of my stories are set in Aman. This possibly seems contradictory: If I love flaws, then why would I set most of my work in “Elfland,” in a place described as “blessed, for the Deathless dwelt there, and there naught faded nor withered, neither was there any stain upon flower or leaf in that land, nor any corruption or sickness in anything that lived; for the very stones and waters were hallowed” (Silmarillion, “Of the Beginning of Days”)?
One doesn’t have to look far to realize that this description is idealized. There is first of all Míriel Serindë, who not only sickened but died, right there in Valinor, in the most exalted of acts: giving birth to her child. Ungoliant dwelled “there in Avathar, secret and unknown,” where “beneath the sheer walls of the mountains and the cold dark sea, the shadows were deepest and thickest in the world,” in sight of Valmar and the Two Trees (Silmarillion, “Of the Darkening of Valinor”). Of course, Melkor lived there for many ages; the Silmarils, also described as “hallowed” (“Of the Silmarils”), burned his hand when he touched them, but he could abide the also (supposedly) “hallowed” Aman?
Aman isn’t a flawless realm but a realm that carries a convincing veneer of flawlessness. This has been essential in my worldbuilding within the bounds of Aman. Over the years, I have given Aman universities, hunger, seaside resorts, a redlight district, and most recently, democracy. One of my favorite Tolkien resources of all time is Darth Fingon’s Twenty-Two Words You Never Thought Tolkien Would Provide because it gives us a look beneath the veneer of Aman.
I believe this veneer takes strength to maintain that is not possible to sustain over the long term, even for the Ainur. We see this again and again in Tolkien’s world–Doriath, Gondolin, Nargothrond, Númenor, Imladris, Lothlórien, all isolated and protected places that eventually fall or wither with time–but Aman is rarely included as such a place. We assume Aman had genuine sublimity–not least of all because many of the realms on the list above imitate Aman; not least of all because it is the creation of the divine and eternal Ainur–but I’m not sure that the land that harbored Ungoliant can be labeled as ideal. The illusion is tattered, and reality is bound to enter in.
In my stories, the effort to keep up the veneer of perfection means that the further one is from Valinor proper–from the part of the realm most carefully constructed and maintained by the Valar–the more ordinary the realm appears. This is based in the fact that Ungoliant’s unnoticed occupancy of Avathar–which including weaving vast, black, light-sucking webs among the mountains there–seems at least partially predicated on the fact that it is “far south of great Taniquetil” where the “Valar were not vigilant” (Silmarillion, “Of the Darkening of Valinor”). However, in the same passage, both Melkor and Ungoliant are described as able to descry the Light of the Trees and other features of Valinor; they don’t seem to be that far away. The power of the Valar may be more limited than the idealist description of Valinor in the text would suppose and doesn’t seem to extend across the extent of Aman. I have used this same idea in my stories about Aman: As one journeys further from the epicenter, the veneer of perfection thins and then disappears altogether. Formenos in the north, in my stories, is set in a part of the land with seasons, including winter, and predators that residents warn their children against. These elements of my depiction of Aman were among those questioned by early readers of my work.
Likewise, some of the residents of Aman were born in Middle-earth and their personalities shaped in the crucible of the early conflicts with Melkor. Aman, therefore, could hardly guarantee an edenic existence for the Eldar, innocent of the knowledge of grief, violence, and death; rather, the Elves who came to Aman doubtlessly brought with them both survival skills and trauma from their tenure in darkened Middle-earth. This is an idea that is frequently explored by Silmarillion writers (including me) in the context of sexuality: Before the laws of the Valar were imposed upon them, the Elves would have had a more naturalistic and lenient view of sex. Without delving beyond its title, Laws and Customs among the Eldar is just that: among the Eldar, and this choice of wording from the semantically fastidious Tolkien feels deliberate and laden with potential meaning. But the presence of Elves from Middle-earth–including all of the leaders of the Eldar in Aman–presents significance beyond sex. Weapons are an issue I wrote about as early as AMC–proposing, somewhat in defiance of canon, that Elves in Aman possessed swords as historical artifacts and also for athletic pursuits–that drew criticism then, at least in part because what use have the people of Aman for weapons? I say that allowing swords to certain groups of Eldar in Aman is “somewhat” in defiance of canon because Tolkien himself waffled on this issue, seeing the question of weapons as a potential plot hole.2 He concluded that it was unreasonable to expect that they didn’t possess weapons on the Great Journey. Consider this implications of this. Into the so-called Deathless Realm came Elves experienced in making and using weapons, whose minds most likely devised of instruments of death and violence on their own, possibly among their first creative acts. How is such a culture shaped by the of reality life in Middle-earth, illuminated only by the stars and under duress of an enemy too strong and cunning even for the Valar? How is that effect amplified when those who endured such an experience do not die, leaving their descendents to progress into a more pacific existence without them, but retain that formative mindset, those skills and those traumas, into the ages?
But trauma does not end with those born outside of Aman. Events within Aman wreak havoc upon those likewise born within its borders: In fact, that they occur in Aman seems an inescapable component of the trauma.
Perhaps the most salient example of this is Fëanor. Fëanor lost his mother and watched the Valar bend the rules to allow his father to remarry, ensuring in the process that Míriel could never be reborn. These events alone would have been potentially traumatic. But consider how their occurrence in Aman of all places compounds that trauma, adding a sort of insult to injury, as Fëanor doubtlessly progressed through his life hearing how fortunate the Elves were to live in the safety of the “deathless realm.” His own experience would have been very different, and it must have been painful or galling to hear Aman celebrated while understanding that ideal was only a veneer–a concept doubtlessly controversial, if not impossible, to articulate.
Likewise, the conflict in the House of Finwë is worsened by its happening in Aman. When Fëanor draws his sword on Fingolfin, he is accused primarily of having “broken the peace of Valinor and drawn his sword upon his kinsman”; almost as an afterthought, Námo Mandos adds that the “deed was unlawful, whether in Aman or not in Aman,” but it is hard to imagine Fëanor would have received a penalty so severe anywhere else (Silmarillion, “Of the Silmarils”). The primary transgression seems to be manifesting an emotion–expressed through the powerful symbolism of the drawn sword–that belies the illusion of a land without corruption. The cauldron of circumstances that produced this rash act are not examined in any meaningful way; instead, the rash actor is hidden away in the name of restoring peace–or at least the illusion of it.
Taken together, I believe that worldbuilding Aman as an “Elfland” as LeGuin understands it is a fundamental flaw. The lords of Aman are the very ones we see on earth: They are idealistic to the point of naïveté (the Valar); they want what they don’t have (Finwë); they are jealous, vulnerable, angry, in pain (Fëanor). One can extrapolate outward from these supposedly greatest of the residents of Aman to assume that the land is not as impeccable as the rhapsodizing of the narrator of The Silmarillion would have us believe. To look no further than the dust of diamonds upon one’s shoes in walking there, to never glimpse the faces of those who dwell there and what hides behind their eyes, is to be so dazzled by a beautiful illusion as to miss what matters.
1. On escapism as a motive for fantasy see Tolkien’s essay On Fairy-stories, in the section “Recovery, Escape, Consolation”:
I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used … Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?
2. On the question of weapons in Aman, see The History of Middle-earth, Vol. X: Morgoth’s Ring, The Annals of Aman, note on §97 (page 106 in the hardcover edition). Tolkien originally stated that “Melkor spoke to the Eldar concerning weapons, which they had not before possessed or known,” then emphatically argued with himself in a marginal note: “No! They must have had weapons on the Great Journey,” concluding that they had “weapons of the chase, spears and bows and arrows.” Swords may be a step too far for some people–although Tolkien’s own inconclusiveness on this issue leaves me feeling it is far from carved in stone–but weapons in Aman certainly were not.