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Nerdist Book Club: THE SILMARILLION, Part 9

Last week I made a comparison to Romeo and Juliet, and now I’m beginning to wonder if The Silmarillion is going to end like a Shakespearean tragedy. I have a hunch it’s headed that way since I don’t believe Beleriand survives, but I hope the remaining deaths aren’t as brutal as the ones we saw in this chapter. Yipes. On that note, onto the discussion!

What happened
Chapter 20: Of the Fifth Battle: Nirnaeth Arnoediad

Though this chapter was less than 15 pages, it managed to be full of enough deaths to make George R.R. Martin proud. The chapter begins with a bit of an epilogue to the story of Beren and Lúthien and how their deeds inspired Maedhros to step up to Morgoth. That’s impressive not just because it’s smart (finally, someone is taking the battle to Morgoth’s door) but also because it meant he overcame the oath of Fëanor to assemble a league and council.

Not all of Fëanor’s sons were so inclined, and Celegorm and Curufin were especially vicious. They threatened not just Thingol but all of his people because they wanted the Silmaril in Thingol’s possession. Melian, as wise as always, told Thingol to surrender it, but he, as always, didn’t listen to her and becomes consumed by the jewel. I fully expect him to start calling it “my precious” any second.

Maedhros did successfully gather forces including the Dwarves, Men, Fingon, and even Turgon all the way in Gondolin. Though if the city was hidden, I’m not sure how Turgon heard about it. He no doubt has ways to gather information about the rest of the world, maybe from the Eagles, but I’m surprised he would risk Gondolin by leaving it. The action made me revise my unfavorable opinion of him.


The Death of Fingon by Jian Guo

As valiantly as all parties fought, Morgoth was prepared and fought back with precision. It was sad to read, and I wanted to jump into the book and warn the Noldor of their mistake. The cruel murder of Gelmir seemed to mark a point where the deaths became graphic and more harsh. The Orcs seem especially violent, and I’m not recalling killings being described so thoroughly in previous chapters. That could be my failing memory or Tolkien showing we’re in a different time now where things are getting serious.

And the Battle of Nirnaeth Arnoediad or the Battle of Unnumbered Tears is definitely serious. Haldir dies, Azaghâl bites it, Huor is slain, Húrin is captured (after killing 70 Orcs), and Fingon is killed. Fingon’s death is described in such vivid detail that I had to put down the book for a moment. Also? Morgoth won because Men betrayed both the Elves and the Dwarves. Then there’s the part where the Orcs made a hill of dead bodies.

Evil is winning. It’s a miserable place to be and though I’ve poked fun at the Noldor for their arrogance and missteps, I feel bad for wanting them to face off against Morgoth. Part of the reason Beren and Lúthien accomplished what they did is because there were only two of them. They were able to surprise Morgoth. He’s too wound into the dark nooks and crannies of Beleriand to not know when armies move against him. I don’t feel optimistic for the survivors.

Relevance to The Hobbit and/or Lord of the Rings
This week’s connections to later Middle-earth stories were mostly about the themes. When Turgon and his legions arrived from Gondolin, I couldn’t help but think of a couple of points in the Lord of the Rings: when Gandalf arrived with the remaining Rohirrim at the Battle of the Hornburg in The Two Towers and when King Théoden and his army came to the Battle of the Pelennor Fields in The Return of the King. Both entrances helped turn the tides of the battles.

Also, the betrayal of Men at Nirnaeth Arnoediad means the Elves don’t trust them as much, and that seems to last into the Third Age. We get hints of it when Elrond talks about how he watched the strength of Men fail. Part of the discord in later stories is also fueled by the fact that Men were greedy when it came to the Rings of Power and all of that fed into Sauron taking dominion over Middle-earth.


Battle of Unnumbered Tears by Ivan

Favorite quotes
“Those that saw them were both glad and fearful; and Lúthien went to Menegroth and healed the winter of Thingol with the touch of her hand.”

“Last of all Húrin stood alone. Then he cast aside his shield, and wielded an axe two-handed; and it is sung that the axe smoked in the black blood of the troll-guard of Gothmog until it withered, and each time that he slew Húrin cried: ‘Aurë entuluva! Day shall come again!’ Seventy times he uttered that cry; but they took him at last alive, by the command of Morgoth, for the Orcs grappled him with their hands, which clung to him still though he hewed off their arms; and ever their numbers were renewed, until at last he fell buried beneath them.”

“Yet neither by wolf, nor by Balrog, nor by Dragon, would Morgoth have achieved his end, but for the treachery of Men.”

Discussion questions
– Why does Melian turn away from Lúthien? She sees her doom, but wouldn’t it be better to get as much time in with her daughter as possible before the end?
– Why did Turgon leave Gondolin to come and help fight in the battle?
– Do you think the prejudices of Elves against Men can be traced back to this battle and the betrayal of Men?
– Are the descriptions of this battle more graphic than others in the book? If so, why do you think that is?

Bonus material
Silmarillion inspired jewelry from Mint and Dots
Ask Middle-earth Tumblr

Head to the comments and let me know your feelings about the chapter, favorite quotes, answers to the discussion question, feedback – anything! I’ll be catching up on comments from this time and last week’s discussion in the next few days. You can also tweet me. Please be sure to use the #NerdistBookClub hashtag if you post any thoughts about The Silmarillion on social media.

Come back for Part 10 next Tuesday, September 9, at 10:30am PST. We’ll be going over Chapter 21.

Top image: Húrin’s Last Stand by Heraldo

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  1. Mitulinski says:

    A good couple of questions to end on…And I’d say that if this was not the birth of Elven prejudice against humans, it had certainly planted the seeds…If neither, then a definite turning point.

    Definitely felt the battles were more graphic and the deaths in particular…I’m sure it was Fingon’s death that actually made my eyes widen! It seems Tokien really wanted these events to be impactful…Especially after previous deaths have been but a sentence-worth. (Though; that may be a poor allusion as some of the Silmarillion sentences have gone on for at least four lines! XD)

    – AM

  2. Robert says:

    – Why does Melian turn away from Lúthien? She sees her doom, but wouldn’t it be better to get as much time in with her daughter as possible before the end?
       More than humans who can almost feel time slipping through their fingers into the future, elves live in the continual now. This is even more true of Melian the Maia. It is not just the Elven Rings that make Lorien and Rivendell timeless, it is also the abundance of immortal elves themselves. Because of that eternal now, anguish is more difficult for the elves to endure and and even more difficult to process as the pain is always present. While reading through the Silmarillion this time through the thought has occurred to me that Elven stubbornness is the product of a mindset that is bound by fate and the eternal present. Note also the effect of mortality on Lúthien, she came back to Beleriand to spend time with Beren and she got busy doing that. She doesn’t have time for Sindar politics or mixing it up with angry petulant Valar, she just wants to have a family and some peace in which to live out her life with Beren.
       Look around at the end of Return of the King everybody is laughing and having a great time. The King has come again! But not Elrond, he hasn’t cracked a smile. Is he not happy that the reunion of his house with the house of Isildur will usher in a peaceful beginning to the Fourth Age? Does he not want his daughter to marry the man she loves? Of course he does. But, just like his brother from long ago, he is destined to lose his daughter forever. Thus is the endless grief of Elrond Half-Elven and Melian the Maia. Even when they win, they lose.

    – Why did Turgon leave Gondolin to come and help fight in the battle?

       Turgon is no less brave, honorable, and daring than his dad. If you are going to throw down against the forces of Morgoth, the House of Fingolfin will answer the call.

    – Do you think the prejudices of Elves against Men can be traced back to this battle and the betrayal of Men?

       Elves can be deceived, but they have not been turned. Not even nasty old Eol would betray his kind to Morgoth (everyone might get an alabaster middle finger and a whack with a blacksmith’s hammer though). That men can be so easily turned to the enemy is seen as weakness in the hearts and minds of men. Stay Tuned. 

    – Are the descriptions of this battle more graphic than others in the book? If so, why do you think that is?
       The magic ninja skills of Beren and Luthien and the sheer audacity, anger, and desperation of Fingolfin might have given the reader a glimmer of hope by exposing the weaknesses of Morgoth. That hope is an illusion. Flawed though he may be, Morgoth is more than a match for anyone in Arda when his mind is set on destruction. The words of Manwe to Feanor are still true: “The lies of Melkor you shall unlearn in bitterness. Vala he is, thou saist. Then thou has sworn in vain, for none of the Valar canst thou overcome now or ever in the halls of Ea, not though Eru, whom thou namest had made the thrice greater than thou art.”
       Lest you forget this truth, take a look at that big pile of bodies and weapons of Craft rotting and rusting away in a hill among a flood of endless tears.
       Give it up one time for the brothers Hurin and Huor! I don’t know what Huor’s score was but we do know it was: Hurin 70 Trolls 0. Tolkien does not include the dead orc count but I’m guessing it was at least triple digits between the two of them.   

  3. XagzanOTM says:

    Sorry I’m late.
    I love that fanart by Ivan. I’m forgetting which faction those 3 riders are, but they were Edain, right? Their armor certainly looks Gondorian-influenced, although obviously the chronology would be reversed.

    This is where the Silmarillion finally takes its near permanent turn for the dark. It starts with this battle, with its hacking and dismembering and Morgoth’s shadow spreading in Middle Earth just like Sauron’s would in the 2nd Age. You’ll really see the effects of this in the next chapter, Turin’s tale, and beyond.

    Speaking of which, I think this battle would be a natural prologue to a Silmarillion movie about Turin, given its ending with Hurin and Morgoth’s curse, and that leading into his family’s lives.

    Well, other people have already answered the questions as I would have, so that’s all I got.

  4. Jamal says:

    Call me a sadist, but this is actually my favorite chapter in the book. It’s short but the emotional and physical build and climax completely suck me in. It reminds me of a battle of the 5 armies or peliennor fields gone horribly wrong.  
    Regarding some of the questions though, there’s no human answer for melian.  For all her time in middle earth shes still a divine being and has no concept of mortality beyond an idea up until this point.  Couldnt begin to imagine how an angel processes death or never going to see their child again until time ends, whenever that is.
    I think a part of the prejudice towards humans comes from here, but only with those elves who survived the battle and the rest of the book.  The elves in lotr aren’t all from the first age, so if they have any knowledge of this war, its a story or rumor from their kin.
    Also I think Maehdros finally comes to the conclusion that Fingolfin had a good idea way back when of joining forces proactively, and not just because of beren and luthien’s success.
    As far as the battle’s graphicness, it wasn’t that graphic, yet it was still full of its intensity, which is hard to portray. The real killer of the chapter is that up until now, we have been spoiler slammed with the noldor arent going to win, but this chapter says that they wouldve, if not for the betrayal of the eastern men.  That’s like the US-portugal world cup game where we thought we had it up until the last 20 seconds.

  5. I think Melian turns away from Lúthien because she grieves that her only child will not spend eternity with her. The short span of time that encompasses the lives of Men must seem to immortals like the blink of an eye from their perspective. Lúthien’s choice also shows her willingness to turn away from spending eternity with her family, but such was the depth of her love for Beren. After Lúthien’s initial return to Doriath, I do not think Lúthien wanted family around anyway since she and Beren wanted to start their own reclusive life for the time that they had remaining.

    While the location of Gondolin remained hidden, I can see how Turgon could not let his brother Fingon fight without his aid. After all, Fingon was the High King of the Noldor. Turgon’s intervention almost foiled Morgoth’s plans, as you mentioned in the summary, “but for the treachery of Men.” It is too bad Tolkien did not give us more in this text about the motivations of the principle leaders, but somehow I don’t think Turgon or others of Fingon’s kin could live with themselves locked away in Gondolin when the heart of the Noldor were fighting and dying against the might of Morgoth. After all, Morgoth knew Turgon and feared him from their time in Valinor, so even if he did not join the battle Morgoth was sure to seek after Turgon to destroy him. As such, Turgon’s inclusion in the Nírnaeth Arnoediad gave Men the chance to partially redeem themselves through the efforts of Húrin, Huor, and the men of Dor-lómin.

    With regard to the tensions between Elves and Men, as Tolkien writes, “From that day the hearts of the Elves were estranged from Men, save only those of the Three Houses of the Edain.” The sacrifices of valiant men who allowed Turgon to escape earn them standing amongst the Elves. However, no such standing exists for the rest of Men, which accounts for the skepticism and distain the Elves show to men in later times. We must remember also that not all Elves were interested in Men, Thingol himself showed his disdain for mortals many times with only a few earning his regard.

    The Nírnaeth Arnoediad does seem to have a new seriousness about violence that is expressed in the graphic nature of some of the battles. Unlike the rescue of Fingolfin’s body by Thorondor, Fingon’s body was beaten “into the dust” and his banner was “trod into the mire of his blood” by Gothmog and at least one other unnamed Balrog. One could speculate, although Tolkien himself often denied it, that he was influenced by his time in the British Army during WWI. Certainly, the imagery is suggestive of some of the war poets’ descriptions of trench warfare that was prevalent in WWI. You don’t have to look much further than Wilfred Owen to see some examples. As Melian foresaw, events are happening at an accelerated rate now that Men are present in the west and unfortunately, things have taken a grim turn.

    I also want to give a shout-out to Húrin’s epic capture scene, which is portrayed wonderfully as the header image. To be captured by being buried under the arms and body parts of your foes is about as epic as you can get. Morgoth’s torture for Húrin is particularly cruel, giving him a front row seat and forcing him to watch the despair that was spreading over the west.

    I wish there was more on the eastern battle, particularly that of the Naugrim. Were it not for the hardiness of the Dwarves and their full armor, even the sons of Fëanor would not have escaped, “but for them Glaurung and his brood would have withered all that was left of the Noldor.” Further, had Azaghâl not managed to wound Glaurung significantly, the dragons would have stayed in the battle.

  6. – Do you think the prejudices of Elves against Men can be traced back to this battle and the betrayal of Men?
    Definitely, it was because of Men, in part, that so many elves died.  And sense there were so many elves involved, this was obviously supposed to be the battle that was to bring an end to Morgoth. The elves suffered heavy losses and lost Fingon, their High King, so yeah, I think their prejudices can be traced back to this battle.  

    – Are the descriptions of this battle more graphic than others in the book? If so, why do you think that is?

    I think they are the most graphic yet.  I think Tolkien did this to impress upon the reader just how profound the devastation of the elves were and how intense the battle was.

  7. Rachel says:

    1) I think Melian turns away from Luthien for a number of reasons, the most obvious of which is that she’s heartbroken that her only child will die (and actually CHOSE to do so).  Also, Tolkien mentions at various times how the elves can’t really understand mortality (see #3) and I think a Maia would have even less understanding of it.  So even though Melian is very wise, putting herself in her daughter’s shoes is difficult for her.  2) Turgon IS a great elf and in part built Gondolin because he had an intuition (with the help of Ulmo I think) that the elves needed a hidden refuge to at least try and maintain their culture, so I don’t find as much fault in him as others do (admittedly, pride does get to him at some point).  So it didn’t surprise me that Turgon would positively respond to bringing the war to Morgoth’s door.3) Yes I believe that the betrayal of men during the battle influenced the growing distrust elves had of men, but I think the seeds were already there in many elves minds.  As wise as the immoral beings are, they can be very narrow minded and, as we know, prideful.  I never got the sense that they handle change very well or things that are beyond their understanding (with a few exceptions of course — like Finrod).  So when faced with men — beings who are “less” in every way (less wise, less beautiful, less physically able, etc) — they had no way of finding common ground with them.  They could barely get to know a man before he died.  Plus the elves didn’t understand where men went after death, and I don’t think they liked not knowing that.  So the betrayal just further showed the elves how little they knew/understood men (again there are a few exceptions on both sides – like Hurin or, as we’ll see, Turgon).4. This chapter may have been one that Tolkien was able to go back and revise a few times which could be why it’s more detailed re: the graphic violence.  I assume that, if he’d had the chance before he passed, he would have revisited all of the battle chapters and fleshed them out more with detail, etc.  I believe he always intended Morgoth and all his evil creatures to be pitiless and horrifyingly brutal, but maybe he just didn’t get the chance to add in those details/moments.

  8. Ender Wiggen says:

    I really want to focus on the third question.

    Go back with me in time to the awakening of the elves. The words for their awakening are both beautiful and tragic. One the valar don’t even know that they exist and two the elves are on the far side of the world from the valar and when the valar find out, they arguably couldn’t care less. Orome says “hey weren’t we supposed to help these creations?” and thus after essentially being ignored they are lead west. Then only some of them go to the west cause they like what “real” things they have in middle earth more then the potential beauty and glory of Valinor. Point i want to make here is that a huge portion of elves could care less about making/getting greater things or a better world/life. they just want to exist as they were/are forever, neither gaining in power and wisdom or decreasing in it. (reason the elves have to leave middle earth in LOTR; stagnation is never good) The elves that stayed behind, the Avari

    Now which elves are the ones who first meet/hear about men? The elves that didn’t want the beauty/grandeur/wonder of the west and rather want stagnation. (Sure some noldor are here too, but i think most of us agree that most noldor are selfish jerks who just want power.) So they see mankind and go, “eh they die after a time, we can ignore them, refuse to let them in our homes, and wait for them to die out. Then it will be back to normal, just a few millenia, no big deal” So the elves already are at BEST apathetic towards men. The noldor straight up just wanted to use and abuse men for their ends. Then comes Beren and luthien and we see just how deep the prejudice goes. Beren almost gets killed for entering the girdle of melian by the elves, and essentially the only reason he leaves is because a maia and luthien both want him to live. So when the race of man essentially back stabs the elves and dwarves. the Avari are more sure then ever that mankind should go away and the Noldor decide that they aren’t as great to use and abuse to maybe it is ok to ignore them.

    THEN we get to the Return of the King where the elves have once again lost a war because mankind was too weak willed to finish off a villain and they just at this point don’t care. They recognize that there are one or two good men that are worth knowing, but for the most part they ignore the plights of gondor, rohan, the shire and erebor. They only participate in the final war a little because galadriel (at this point one of if not the oldest elf left alive) says to help or else middle earth will fall and elrond agrees.

    TO conclude

    While i think that the treachery of men helped the elves distrust mankind. it would be a HUGE stretch to say that they ever really trusted them or liked them to begin with. The events of the battle further solidified the elves general distaste and mistrust of mankind and caused any hope of cross-species diplomacy to wither

  9. MeiMisakiKun says:

    Tolkien upped the shock value during the description of the battle, I’m glad he didn’t sugarcoat anything and just put it out there. He make it known how Cruel the Orcs were and how mercilessly they fought. It’s hard to imagine reading something as graphic as a decapitation coming from Tolkien. I was simply not used to Tolkien being so graphic all of a sudden. I liked it, it was a very bold move.

  10. Aleketh says:

    – Why does Melian turn away from Lúthien? She sees her doom, but wouldn’t it be better to get as much time in with her daughter as possible before the end? 
    I guess Melian likes to do things her own way? Or perhaps she just wishes to grieve when the battles lost and won so to speak. I don’t seem to be able to put myself in their train of thought. 
     – Why did Turgon leave Gondolin to come and help fight in the battle?
    I would like to think out of the goodness of his heart. Perhaps he wanted to contribute as well, since it was a battle for Men and Mer, even though they lost, horribly.
     – Do you think the prejudices of Elves against Men can be traced back to this battle and the betrayal of Men?
    Yes. I think in some cases those feelings can be mutual, Elves don’t like Men, Men don’t like Elves, thus something most go awry in one way or another.
     – Are the descriptions of this battle more graphic than others in the book? If so, why do you think that is?
    Yes, they are a lot more graphic. I think mostly because of shock value. You see that these Orcs mean business, they don’t toy around, they cut limbs off and heads, and they have a cruel nature, so it works fine for what it meant to do.  

  11. brian says:

    It’s been a while since I read the Silmarillion, but doesn’t Turgon carry the sword Glamdring? If so, you might want to add that to the interesting bits that tie into the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. 🙂