Germanic Fate and Doom in J.R.R. Tolkien's the Silmarillion

By Whitt, Richard J. | Mythlore, Fall-Winter 2010 | Go to article overview
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Germanic Fate and Doom in J.R.R. Tolkien's the Silmarillion


Whitt, Richard J., Mythlore


J.R.R. TOLKIEN'S THE SILMARILLION A COLLECTION OF STORIES concerning the creation and First Age of Middle-earth, provides the mythological background that undergirds the more famous The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Unlike these two works, however, The Silmarillion provides us with a rich account of Tolkien's development of his mythology of Middle-earth. It goes without saying that a number of other mythologies--Germanic, Celtic, Finnish, Classical, Biblical--inspired his creation to varying degrees. As a Germanic philologist, I cannot ignore the presence of Germanic influence in Tolkien's work, as can be seen, for example, in the culture of the Rohirrim in The Lord of the Rings. In this essay, I would like to examine a much more elusive motif whose Germanic influence may not be immediately visible, but is present nonetheless: fate and doom. These closely related, and sometimes interchangeable, notions play a prominent role in The Silmarillion, as the myriad characters in the stories find their "fates" tied in with the larger fate of their clan or of Middle-earth in general. Granted, ancient Germanic literature is hardly the only place where one finds the notion of fate a central theme (consider the role of the Roman fates or the Greek moirae in Classical mythology, for example), but it is also one of the only places where the conceptualization of fate becomes blended with the Christian idea of Divine Providence. And this harmonization can also be found in Tolkien's The Silmarillion.

A number of scholars have already addressed the role of fate within Tolkien's legendarium. Bullock and Deyo, for example, have separately touched on the interplay between fate and free will in Tolkien's works, particularly in The Lord of the Rings. They argue that fate is synonymous with the will of Iluvatar, the omnipotent creator God in Tolkien's mythology, and that the free will of his creation is ultimately subordinate to this. Helms (46) arrives at similar conclusion in his discussion of fate in The Silmarillion. Flieger has taken up this issue as well, going so far as to say the free will of men is just as significant as fate (Iluvatar's will as expressed in his great Music) in shaping the future of Middle-earth. Hostetter argues the opposite, insisting free will only operates when there is "a fully aware purpose" (185) and that fate occupies a more privileged position in Tolkien's mythology. Shippey also briefly touches on the presence of fate and doom in Tolkien's work, but he only makes a few general comments and an indepth analysis falls outside the scope of his discussion of Tolkien and his inspiration. But when one looks at the many cases where fate and doom are invoked in The Silmarillion, it is not always clear that the will of Iluvatar is in question, and I argue the semantic field expressed by these two words is much broader than has been asserted before. Iluvatar's will may ultimately triumph in the end, but it is not necessarily synonymous with all the workings of fate and doom in Tolkien's world.

What is also relevant to the discussion here is the harmonization between notions of Germanic fate and Christian Divine Providence one finds in Tolkien's The Silmarillion. Indeed, the medieval conversion of the Germanic tribes to Christianity resulted in the production of several literary works where both Germanic and Christian epistemologies play a central role, two of the most prominent being the Old English Beowulf and the Old Saxon Heliand. (1) The Germanic conception of fate is present in both these works, but so is the presence of the Christian God. Considering the historical context of these texts, when Christianity was exerting much influence over Germanic culture and religion, and vice versa (Russell; Green; Augustyn, Semiotics of Fate), it makes perfect sense that one should find such a blending of two worldviews in the literature of this period. And it is such a blend, a harmonious blend, that one finds in Tolkien's The Silmarillion as well.

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