Turning Sorrow to Wisdom: Tolkien’s Birthday and the “Valaquenta”

Today, January 3rd 2017, is Tolkien’s 125th birthday. I wrote in Behold your Music: Harmonic Sorrow in Tolkien’s Ainulindale about the Creation myth of the Silmarillion; the Valaquenta is a companion piece from the perspective of the Eldar about the place of the Ainur in their cosmos. January 3rd, 1892 was a day in which the mightiest mythbuilder of the 20th century was born, who like his own Aule the Valar had “lordship…over all the substances of which Arda is made…He is a smith and a master of all crafts, and he delights in works of skill, however small, as much as in the mighty building of old” (27). The old labors of the Silmarillion, the culminating work of the Lord of the Rings, the craftsmanship of Tolkien’s shorter works, these too “are the gems that lie deep in the Earth and the gold that is fair in the hand, no less than the walls of the mountains and the basins of the sea” (27). In each of the Vala who had a hand in the making of Arda, we can see traces of Tolkien’s creative imagination. I do not say that these figures are but psychic manifestations of the author, but I do say that they are emblems of what resonated most deeply with his heartsong – Manwe who loves the winds, Ulmo who loves the waters, and the Feanturi who meditate upon death and dreams. As Tolkien says in “On Fairy Stories,” everything can be contained in the Perilous Realms of Faerie, when it is viewed under the lens of enchantment. Even Morgoth, whose true name we do not speak with cavalier attitude, whose imagination leads him and others down the “ruinous path down into the Void,” cannot escape the magician’s touch who turns all sorrow to beauty.

We learn here that Olorin (Gandalf) lived in Lorien, a place in Valinor committed to dreams, but also that he frequents “the house of Nienna,” who meditates upon death and sorrow in the Halls of Mandos. She looks beyond the circle of Arda, for the “windows of her house look outward from the walls of the world,” and as she listens to “all those who wait in Mandos cry to her,” she weeps for them. But her weeping is not mere grief; Nienna transforms the grief of those who have died into material suitable for the realms of Faerie, “for she brings strength to the spirit and turns sorrow to wisdom” (28). It is profound to reflect upon the fact that this is the place where the Maia who will for a time be known as Gandalf spent his early days in Arda; between death and dreams, sorrow and wisdom that stems from the font of the created order of the whole world.

I recall when I think on these passages Plato’s Phaedo, where Socrates, on the eve of his execution, gives his arguments for the persistence of the immortal soul after the death of the body. Phaedo relates that he “had a strange feeling, an unaccustomed mixture of pleasure and pain at the same time as I reflected that he was just about to die. All of us present were affected in much the same way, sometimes laughing, then weeping” (Phaedo 51). To be elated with the joyous grief that disturbs us with the frightening prospect of comprehending true beauty – that is the picture of meditating upon death when one believes in the immortality of the soul. So it is when we reflect upon Arda, the Earth as represented (and re-presented) to us by Tolkien through his bright vision of Faerie, though we in darkness have not always comprehended the light that shines through his pen. The world is made again for us, subcreated in the Valaquenta to give parameters to the act of imagination that orders the art of the Silmarillion’s history and reminds us that there are voices to listen to that can help us to awaken “from despair and put away the imaginations of darkness” (31).

Happy Birthday, dear Professor.

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