Wrath and Laughter in The Silmarillion’s Beginning of Days

The first chapter of Middle-Earth’s history begins with the war between the gods for the fate of the world, and ends with a meditation on the unique calling of Men to be Free and to Die. Like the Trees that will light the World until the making of the Sun and the Moon, the foundation of Arda is watered with tears. How are Men to meet such a world, how are they to use the power, the “virtue to shape their life, amid the powers and chances of the world” (41)? Iluvatar knew from the start that they “being set amid the turmoils of the powers of the world,  would stray often, and would not use their gifts in harmony” (42). The calling of Men is to one day shape the harmony of the world from outside of it, but in the meantime unlike Elves seem most vulnerable to evil, and indeed even resemble it more than any other part of creation, “for it seems to the Elves that Men resemble Melkor most of all the Ainur” (42). We don’t fit into the way of things the way we should.

It is often commented how surprising life is, and how surprising it is even that life should be surprising: for how could the only thing we ever experience be a surprise at all? There is plenty of record from past lives to know what to expect, and yet we all discover emotions as if we were the first to encounter them – just listen to any teenager angry at his or her parents for confirmation of this. Anger is a product of surprise, unknown encountered with fear, as both Elves and Melkor fear Men: “…the Elves believe that Men are often a grief to Manwe…. [Melkor] has ever feared and hated them, even those that serve him” (42). But according to the Elves, the evil of Melkor and the waywardness of Men are a mirror of each other.

This is, of course, because Melkor does not follow the natural relation between himself and weaker beings: “For Elves and Men are the Children of Iluvatar; and since they understood not fully that theme by which the Children entered into the Music, none of the Ainur dared to add anything to their fashion. For which reason the Valar are to these kindreds rather their elders and their chieftans than their masters” (410). Melkor fears “even those that serve him,” and one might extrapolate that perhaps it is those that serve him whom Melkor fears most, for he is usurping Iluvatar’s authority over beings that he does not understand. Even the Ainur sometimes overstep their bounds “in their dealings with Elves and Men” when “the Ainur have endeavored to force them when they would not be guided,” and “seldom has this turned to good, however good the intent” (41). More kindred in nature to the Elves, the Ainur interact the most frequently with them rather than Men, but Melkor cannot be satisfied with partial tyranny.

It is a striking theme of mythology that the source of evil is so singular in spite of its apparent multiplicity, in spite of the fact that we seem to live “in a world where to think is to be full of sorrow” as Keats wrote in “Ode to a Nightingale.” Through one man sin entered into the world; through one fallen angel lies were fathered, and through one Ainu the best laid plans of Gods, Men, and Elves are “filled with shadows and deceit” (41). And there are of course the unnamed allies of Melkor, the lesser Ainur and the people of Middle Earth who succumb to his ill conceived counsel. But even in their commitment to goodness and justice, the Valar and their peoples are not always up to the task of facing Melkor’s evil. They build a walled off paradise away from Middle-Earth, away from their responsibilities as stewards of the world, and succeed in making Valinor beautiful at the expense of the other lands of Arda. In their own ways, the Valar each contribute something to the peace of the wider world. Manwe continues to watch from his high seat; Ulmo brings life through the secret waterways of the earth; Orome hunts monsters and chases away shadows with the sound of his horn; Yavanna secretly ministers to the flora and fauna and even advocates war against Melkor on their behalf.

But the most effective figure against Melkor is not Manwe, the closest to him in majesty; it is Tulkas, who came from outside of the circle of Arda when he saw the havoc Melkor wrought in the primeval war of the gods. Melkor could not face him in battle; before destroying the Lamps that were the original mode of lighting the world attempted by the Valar, Melkor awaited the opportune time when Tulkas was tired from battling, from rebuilding the world alongside his fellow gods, and from the following celebration of their labors and his marriage to Nessa. “Then Tulkas slept, being weary and content, and Melkor deemed that his hour had come” (36), and this divine nap leads to the destruction of Almaren, the first home of the gods on Arda and the destroyed hope that angels and men could dwell together when the Children of Iluvatar awoke. The disaster of the overturned Lamps distracted the Ainur as Melkor fled as “the earth trembled beneath the feet of Tulkas” (37).

What makes Tulkas special is not his strength alone, but the energy and presence of will that he brings which Melkor dares not try to match directly. We are told that “in the midst of the war” (the first war with Melkor), “a spirit of great strength and hardihood came to the aid of the Valar, hearing in the far heaven that there was battle in the Little Kingdom; and Arda was filled with the sound of his laughter” (35). Battle cries are common enough, but battle laughter has greater power still, and it is the combination which defines the presence of Tulkas: “So came Tulkas the Strong, whose anger passes like a mighty wind, scattering clouds and darkness before it; and Melkor fled before his wrath and his laughter”…. “and his hate was given to Tulkas for ever after” (35). He fears and hates Tulkas, who came from outside the circle of Arda; he fears and hates the race of Men, whose destiny lies outside that circle as well. Elijah too used laughter as a weapon against the spiritual darkness of Baal: “And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (1 Kings 18:27), but it was Tulkas, not Melkor, who was sleeping. And indeed after the second battle in which the first attempt at Arda’s paradise is destroyed, Tulkas is never reported as laughing again.

Yet it is that laughter mixed with wrath, as it is the mixing of the two lights of the Lamps or the two lights of the trees, and the mixing of the sorrow with beauty in the first song of the Ainur, that marks Tulkas as the foe whom Melkor is afraid to meet in battle, and whom resembles in the account most the Men whom Melkor wishes to subdue. This is not a likeness acknowledged by the Elves; it is something we as readers must discover. Melkor understands wrath, but wrath is its goal; the laughter of Tulkas gives his wrath limits and purpose. He brings his joy in the natural order and in the harmony of his people into battle with a demonic belief that laughter should be silent before power. As he does not understand Men, we can say that Melkor “has not discovered” why Tulkas laughs, and so his only strategy is to flee from joy and strike at it when asleep and silent. A disantly warlike quality of vigilence in our joy is needed to resist despair, for when our Almaren is cast down and like Keats we “cannot see what flowers are at our feet,” we do not ask, “Do I wake or sleep?” Carried instead on “the viewless wings of Poesy,” where the Queen Moon is clustered with her starry fays, we can hold on to the light that becomes laughter when faced with darkness.