Saturday, January 5, 2013

Book Reviews-The Silmarillion, The Shining

The Silmarillion
by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Silmarillion is Tolkien's earlier work. It was published posthumously by his son Christopher. Unlike the Lord of The Rings (LOTR), which was fixed in Tolkien's cosmology by the author's trick of having the hobbits write down their adventures for posterity, The Silmarillion was a work in progress. In Tolkien's world The Silmarillion is simultaneously the Bible, the ur-text, the Word of God and legends handed down from ancestors of elves, men and dwarves through untold eons of time. Tolkien was constantly modifying and updating the work, changing stories, adding and subtracting characters and altering motivations. Like the Bible the initial published book is as much a product of interpreter editing as it is the unvarnished authorial word of God. There are many other Tolkien notes and stories published since The Silmarillion that contradict or further illuminate stories told in this book. In some cases Tolkien had written himself into a corner and hadn't figured a way out. In other cases he hadn't decided on competing theories for certain characters or world events. Even so, this is a very satisfying book. Tolkien certainly knew how to create a living breathing world, back story and animating mythos and that is what The Silmarillion is. Much of The Silmarillion's story happens many thousands of years before LOTR or even untold eons before that, when the universe itself was being created.

This is an intensely Christian work. Although Tolkien famously disliked allegory and said so repeatedly, this book would not have been possible without his deep and profound belief in Christianity, specifically Catholicism. Although over time this theme becomes apparent, especially if you look for it, he never beats you over the head with it. Tolkien also skillfully reworks Celtic, Norse, Finnish, Classical and even some Romantic myths to make an incredible story.

The Silmarillion starts with Eru (God) creating the Ainur (Angels). With them he creates Time and the Universe including Earth. But the Angels are very much sub-creators, they can influence but can't create anything on their own. One Angel named Melkor who is more powerful than all the others combined isn't too happy about this and tries in vain against Eru's will to make his own creations. Eru rebukes him and shows him that no matter what Melkor tries to do everything in the end just rebounds to Eru's glory.

This angers Melkor and he goes off to sulk. The other Angels are following directions and building the Earth when Melkor returns in a snit and tries to claim the Earth for his own, or failing that destroy it. He fails in both goals though he does succeed in drawing other rebellious Angels to his cause. This cycle continues for ages. Eru becomes less involved with direct running of the world. Many of the greater Angels (Valar) act as world stewards. They have a multitude of lesser angels or Maiar, to do their bidding. Once the Earth is somewhat stable Eru creates elves. The Valar have established a holy land, almost a heaven on earth, called Valinor. They invite the elves to come live with them. Many do. One elf prince, Feanor, has created three jewels, the Silmarils, that are magical in their beauty and contain the light of the Valar. Melkor has been released from Valinor's prison. Melkor kills Feanor's father, steals the Silmarils and flees back to Middle Earth where he names himself Lord of the World. Feanor is a prideful vengeful sort as are his sons and many of his relatives, including Galadriel. Feanor curses Melkor and claims that no matter what, he will have his jewels back and kill anyone who attempts to withhold them or hinder him in his quest.
And that starts the Fall of the Elves as well as Feanor's moral fall. Because vengeance, pride and possessiveness are not good things and can't be justified. Much misfortune that happens to the elves after that can be traced back to that oath. As one Valar tells Feanor, even if Eru had made him ten times greater than he is, his arms are too short to box with Melkor. Feanor can't win. Feanor is too stubborn and grief stricken to heed this warning. He wants vengeance and will do anything to get it, including murdering other elves. The resulting war between Melkor and the elves over the next few centuries and the coming of men and dwarves provides fantastic reading. This book doesn't have a lot of dialog. It's told like an old Norse saga or Biblical story. Heroes and heroines arise among men, dwarves and elves and fight against Melkor (now called Morgoth) but in some respects the fight is in vain. Morgoth has so perverted creation that evil is now an elemental part of the world. And there is no way short of divine intervention by Eru or the other Valar to defeat Morgoth. Sauron, the big bad of LOTR, is at this time a servant of Morgoth.

Tolkien's story of Beren and Luthien, a romance between a man and elf-woman that was stronger than death and hell, was inspired by his own fierce love for his wife. Tolkien is especially good when describing how the different gifts that God gives to Men and Elves are misinterpreted by the various kindreds under Morgoth's influence. Death is actually Eru's gift to men. But swayed by Morgoth's lies to them when they first come into existence (shades of the Garden of Eden story) ,men fear death and are jealous of the elves' immortality. Tolkien also works the Atlantis myth into his world, in a particularly spectacular and sobering story.

The Shining
by Stephen King
I would imagine that many people probably know this story from the Kubrick adaptation and the entry of Jack Nicholson's manic role into our cultural memory. I actually like that interpretation. I've read that Stephen King did not. Anyway, though you should read this book if you haven't already. It's one of King's earliest works. It feels very personal and is dedicated to his son.

Though it's full of stuff that goes bump in the night the actual true horror of the story is the family breakdown, especially a father that goes bad. King has written of some of the story being influenced by occasional feelings of anger and ambivalence towards his children. I think that's probably just human nature which most parents and children have from time to time. That's normal. What's not normal is when those feelings are acted upon or when the person who is likely the largest and strongest person in the family becomes a real threat to that family instead of actually being the provider and protector. That is just as scary if not more so than any supernatural threat in my opinion. A reprimand can easily turn into a sarcastic cutting remark. A spanking can slide into a beating. An argument with a wife can turn into a punch. This is all very ugly stuff and King gleefully writes it in this book. 

Jack Torrance is a teacher and would be writer. He has a wife Wendy and five year old son, Danny. Jack had a father who was extremely abusive to Jack's mother and the rest of the family. Jack is worried that he's inherited his father's propensity to violence and alcoholism. He's doing his best to stay on the wagon. When he drinks his demons come out. While disciplining Danny, Jack accidentally broke Danny's arm. Jack also beat the s*** out of a student who slashed his tires. This last event precipitated Jack's firing. He called in some chips from a more successful friend and got a new job as winter caretaker for a Colorado hotel named the Overlook. Both Wendy and Danny love Jack but Wendy is starting to wonder deep down inside if she might have to take Danny and leave.

The Overlook turns out to be the worst place for the family. Jack thought the solitude would help him write but in fact it just causes him and Wendy to get on each other's nerves. But the Overlook is not just an empty hotel. It's a place where very real supernatural evil has gotten a foothold on the world. It both attracts and is strengthened by evil deeds and evil people.There is a history of murders and other strange events within the hotel. This entity is limited to the hotel. But Danny has the power to see the future, read minds and communicate by thought alone. These powers are very attractive to the Overlook. It wants to possess Danny and take all these powers for itself. Failing that it will kill him and take the powers. If it can do that it might be able to leave the hotel or influence events beyond the hotel. But Danny's power prevents possession. So the Overlook acts through the family's most unstable member, one who's already hurt Danny, Jack. Dick Hallorann, a hotel cook, also has psychic powers, which he calls "the shining". He thinks that Danny's are the strongest he's ever seen. He warns Danny to stay out of certain hotel rooms and tells Danny to "call" him if there are any serious problems.

This is a good read and worth reading again and again. Like I said, forget about all the supernatural mumbo jumbo. This is really just about the evil that happens in families. Fortunately, King has created a sequel, Doctor Sleep, which should be released this year.
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