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Germanic fate and doom in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion.

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. Sometimes, there appears to be a force controlling men's destinies independent of a divinity, while not detracting from this divinity's power. This does not seem pose a problem in much of medieval Germanic literature, and it does not pose a problem in Tolkien's works either.

Before embarking on an in-depth examination of the role of fate and doom in The Silmarillion and Germanic mythology, it is necessary to get an idea of the semantic field of these words, for they do not avail themselves of a singular, all-encompassing definition. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, doom can denote statutes and decrees, legal or personal judgments, the act of judging, justice, fate and "irrevocable destiny," and death ("final fate"). Such legal denotations can be found in phrases such as the Old English cyninges dom 'king's doom, judgment, decision.' Green adds to this, pointing out that doom can also mean renown or praise in the older Germanic languages: Gothic doms 'renown,' Old English dom 'honor, praise,' Old Norse domr 'opinion,' and Old Saxon dom 'honor, praise' (44-45). This meaning is not unconnected with the legal notions of judging and decreeing, however, for honor and praise are bestowed on those who have been judged worthy of such renown. Fate is not totally unrelated to doom, even though the denotation of legal judgment is much weaker. The OED provides definitions such as the agency of predetermined events, "that which is destined or fated to happen," one's "appointed lot," one's "ultimate condition," and death. The cognate of fate does not appear in the oldest Germanic literature (the first OED attestation isn't until the fourteenth century); instead, we find two other lexical items filling fate's semantic function: metod and wyrd. Metod in Old English and Old Saxon can be glossed as fate' and found in several related compounds such as Old Saxon metodogiskapu decree of fate' and metodigiskaft 'fate' or Old English metodgesceaft 'fate, death' and metodwang 'battlefield' = death-field.' It is derived from the verb metan to measure out/apportion, to estimate, to judge,' and as Green explains, "[u]nderlying this word is therefore the idea of a power that measures, apportions, and judges [...]. That the judgments and decrees of a power of fate which disposes of men's lives could be seen negatively in terms of death is clear from two of the [Old English] compounds, but also from [Old Norse] mjotudr 'death'" (383-4). Old English wyrd (Old Saxon wurd, Old High German wurt) also means fate, but it often contains the additional connotation of the Norns, a group of female figures who--similar to the Roman fates or Greek moirae--predetermine all of men's fates at birth (Augustyn, Semiotics 40-41). Wyrd is derived from the Indo-European verb *uert 'to turn,' which became Germanic *werp 'to become,' and is cognate with modern German werden to become' and English weird. Indeed, the personification and endowment of fate with a proper name (the Norns) signify this concept's primacy in Germanic mythological consciousness (cf. Lotman & Upensky 214).

As can be seen above, one of the major concepts associated with doom (and sometimes fate) is judgment. That is, one's "doom" is tied in with what has been decreed by an authority. This notion is prominent in Germanic mythology. Consider the role of the Norse gods, as described in the Old Norse Poetic Edda:
   Pa gengo regin qll a rgkstola,
   ginnbeilog god,  ok um pat gettuz:
   nott ok nidiom  nqfn um gafo:
   morgin beto   ok midian dag,
   undorn ok aptan,  arom at teila. (Voluspa, Stanza 6)

'Then the powers all strode / to their thrones of fate sacrosanct gods, / and gave thought to this: to night and her offspring / allotted names, called them morning / and midday, afternoon and evening, / to count in years.'

(Poetic Edda 8, emphasis added)

Here the gods ascend their thrones of judgment to decide what names to assign "night and her offspring." The first two lines of this Stanza are repeated later in the Voluspa when the gods deal with the creation of the dwarves (Stanza 9), how to deal with HeiSr the sorceress (Stanza 23), and what to do about a forbidden marriage between a fellow goddess and a giant (Stanza 25). The prefix of this compound noun, rqk, is yet another lexical item that can denote fate or destiny, as can also be seen in ragnargk 'the fate/doom of the powers.' And there is an additional element of judging or decreeing in the Voluspa excerpt above. This notion of judgment is also present in the Old English Beowulf:

doer gelyfan sceal Dryhtnes dome se pe hine dead nimed. (11. 440-441)

'Whichever one death fells / must deem it a just judgment by God.'

(Beowulf 31, emphasis added)

Tolkien's The Silmarillion is, unsurprisingly, full of examples where doom has a denotation of judgment similar to that found in Old Norse and Old English. This is perhaps most apparent in the figure of Mandos, one of the Valar, who is "the keeper of the Houses of the Dead, and the summoner of the spirits of the slain" (The Silmarillion [Silm.] 19). He is called the "Doomsman of the Valar," and he "pronounces his dooms and his judgments only at the bidding of Manwe" (19). His wife is Vaire the Weaver, who "weaves all things that have ever been in Time into her storied webs, and the halls of Mandos that ever widen as the ages pass are clothed within them" (19). This association of fate and doom with weaving (or spinning) is also present in Classical and Germanic mythology (see Graves for Classical mythology; Dronke; and both Augustyn items in the bibliography for Germanic mythology). Regarding the coming of the elves (the Firstborn Children of Iluvatar), it is their "doom [...] [to] come in the darkness, and [they] shall look first upon the stars" (Silm. 44). That is, it has been decreed by Iluvatar that the creation of the elves shall occur before the creation of the sun and the moon. Similarly, that Iluvatar decreed men should be mortal is described as "the doom of Men" (315), and "death is their fate, the gift of Iluvatar, which as Time wears even the Powers shall envy" (36). And almost exactly like the Norse gods, the Valar proceed to their "Ring of Doom" when there are pressing issues concerning either Valinor or Middle-earth. Plus there is the "Doom of Mandos" (or the "Doom of the Noldor"), a curse upon a tribe of elves--the Noldor--for the kinslaying at Alqualonde (95-96). Indeed, the association of judgments and decrees with fate and doom found in Germanic mythology is ever present in The Silmarillion as well.

Closely tied in with the notion of judgment as one's fate or doom is the personification thereof, as is transparent, for example, in Mandos, "the Doomsman of the Valar" (19). In Germanic mythology, the personification of fate manifests itself most obviously in the Norns, three sisters who decree each person's destiny at their birth. According to the Poetic Edda:
   Paian koma meyiar  margs vitandi
   pridr, or peim se, er und polli stendr.
   Urd hetu eina,  adra Verdandi
   --skdro d skidi--  Skuld ena pridio.
   per log logdo   per lif kuro
   aldo bqrnom,   0rlgg seggia. (Voluspa, Stanza 20)

From there come maidens / deep in knowledge, / three, from the lake / that lies under the tree. / UrSr they called one ['had to be'],/ the second VerSandi [ coming to be']/--they incised the slip of wood--/ Skuld the third[ has to be']. / They laid down laws, / they chose out lives, / for mankind's children, / men's destinies.' (Poetic Edda 12)

And in Snorri Sturluson's prose Edda, we learn that there are many more Norns in addition to the primary Norns of the Past (Urdr), Present (Verdandi), and Future (Skuld):
   Per kqllum ver nornir. Enn eru fleiri nornir, per er koma til hvers
   manns er borinn er at skapa aldr, ok eru pessar goikunningar, en
   airar dlfa ettar, en inar pridju dverga ettar, sva sem her segir:

   Sundrbornar mjqk
   hygg ek at nornir se,
   eigut per ett saman.
   Sumar eru Askunnar,
   sumar eru dlfkunnar,
   sumar doetr Dvalins. (Sturluson, "Gylfaginning" 18)

We call them norns. There are also other norns who visit everyone when they are born to shape their lives, and these are of divine origin, though others are of the race of elves, and a third group are of the race of dwarfs, as it says here:

Of very diverse parentage I think the norns are, they do not have a common ancestry. Some are descended from AEsir, some are descended from elves, some are daughters of Dvalin.' (Sturluson, Edda 18)

So some Norns come from the elves, others from the gods (the /Esir), and yet others from the dwarves (the daughters of Dvalin). If we take Augustyn's lead that wyrd implicitly refers to the Norns in its denotation of fate (Semiotics 39), then the Norns are present in Beowulf as well. For example, when Grendel plans to attack the mead-hall Heorot yet again, little does he know what fate (the Norns) have in store for him:
      Ne wes pet wyrd pa gen,
   pet he ma moste manna cynnes
   dicgean ofer pa niht. (11. 734-736)

but his fate that night / was due to change, his days of ravening / had come to an end.' (Beowulf 49, emphasis added)

This time, Grendel is to be confronted and defeated by Beowulf, and this apparently had been decreed long before the actual event took place. Even in the Old Saxon Heliand, the Norns are present at the conception and birth of John the Baptist:
                          scolda im erbiward,
   suido godcund gumo     gibidig werden,
   barn an burgun.        Bed aftar thiu
   that wif wurdigiscapu  Skred the wintar ford,
   geng thes geres gital. Iohannes quam
   an liudeo lioht:       lik uuas im sconi,
   was im fel fagar,      fahs endi naglos,
   wangun warun im wlitige. (Ill, 194-201)

   He [Zachariah] would be given an heir, a very godlike man, [...] a
   baby within the battlements. [Elizabeth] waited for this, the woman
   waited for what Fate was creating. Winter skidded by, the year wore
   on swiftly [...], John came to the light of mankind: his body was
   beautiful, his skin was flawless as well as his hair and his nails,
   his cheeks shone. (qtd. in Murphy 36, emphasis added)

In The Silmarillion, there is no concrete persona of fate aside from Mandos, but on many occasions, fate and doom appear to be operating as agents independent of any other power. Or if they are not independent of a greater power, it is unclear who exactly has made a decree or "fated" certain events to come to pass (see also Flieger 168-170). For instance, when Beren enters the Kingdom of Doriath and is brought before King Thingol, he explains, "My fate, O King, led me hither, through perils such as few even of the Elves would dare" (Silm. 196). And after Beren and Luthien escape from Angband, Beren convinces Luthien to return home to Doriath. They return indeed, "[s]o their doom willed it" (216). They are, however, followed into Doriath by Carcharoth--Morgoth's hell-hound and the one who bit Beren's hand off and swallowed the Silmaril it was carrying. He also passes through the Girdle of Melian and enters into the forest without hindrance, "for fate drove him, and the power of the Silmaril that he bore to his torment" (217-18). There certainly appears to be a volitional force guiding the actions of Beren, Luthien, and Carcharoth, which ultimately result in the latter's defeat and the delivery of a Silmaril to King Thingol, a pivotal event during the First Age of Middle-earth. Flieger (168-170) adds that this scenario provides a paradox within Tolkien's legendarium because whereas fate is generally an expression of the ultimate will of Iluvatar (even if the decree is made by Mandos), it is unclear that these instances of fate are direct decrees from a higher power. But she does not go so far as to suggest that fate is operating as its own entity independent of anyone or anything else.

Turin Turambar, perhaps the singularly most hapless character in all of Tolkien's works, finds himself similarly guided by fate and doom (ironically, his title turambar means 'master of doom,' cf. Hostetter's discussion of Quenyan etymology). He accidentally slays his friend Beleg, but his actions appear to be more than mere accident:

Beleg drew his sword Anglachel, and with it he cut the fetters that bound Turin; but fate was that day more strong, for the blade slipped as he cut the shackles, and Turin's foot was pricked. Then he was aroused into a sudden wakefulness of rage and fear, and seeing one bending over him with naked blade he leapt up with a great cry, believing that Orcs were come again to torment him; and grappling with him in the darkness he seized Anglachel, and slew Beleg Cuthalion thinking him a foe. (Silm. 248)

In addition to the fact that Anglachel is the cursed sword of Eol, fate also appears to work against Turin during this tragic ordeal. The case is similar when later Turin accidentally slays Brandir as well, for "doom [had overtaken] him" (270). And when Maeglin son of Eol is captured by Orcs after wandering too far away from Gondolin, this too is described as an act of fate:
   But often Maeglin went with few of his folk beyond the leaguer of
   the hills, and the King knew not that his bidding was defied; and
   thus it came to pass, as fate willed, that Maeglin was taken
   prisoner by Orcs, and brought to Angband. (290)

This event proves most unfortunate, seeing that Maeglin betrays King Turgon and reveals Gondolin's secret location to Morgoth, which results in the subsequent sacking of the Hidden City. Yet fate "willed" that these events come to pass. Throughout The Silmarillion, fate and doom themselves appear to be volitional agents acting independently of any higher power's decree.

On the other hand, individuals (and even groups) sometimes appear to be the architects of their own fate or doom. That is, the actions they commit begin a chain of further events over which no control is to be had. A clear case of this comes from the gods of Norse mythology, who themselves are subject to fate because in their act of creating the world, they have subjected themselves to time. As Dronke points out,
   That the gods are themselves subject to the newly ordered course of
   time, the poet has indicated by his ambivalent, and unparalleled,
   term for their thrones: ^kstolar. Rgk can imply ' authority,' but
   it can also imply 'fate.' The rpk, the course of happenings that
   develop under the gods' control, becomes a destiny--ragnarqk ['the
   fate of the powers']--that carries them with it. (37)

So even though the gods pronounce their dooms from their thrones of authority (as we saw earlier), in doing so, they subject themselves to "the newly ordered course of time" they created, which will result ultimately in their demise at ragnargk. The gods of Tolkien's Silmarillion, the Valar, are subject to no such grim future by nature of their creating the world, even though they must remain within the will of Iluvatar their creator. But there are cases where the act of creation precipitates a number of following events that then lie outside of the creator's hands, most notably Aule's creation of the dwarves and Feanor's creation of the Silmarils (Dodds). The dwarves were not part of Iluvatar's original design, for he only wished to create elves and men (the Firstborn and the Followers, one immortal and one mortal). But when Aule, one of the Valar, grew impatient from waiting for the creation of the Children of Iluvatar, he designed his own sentient, conscious creation out of the rocks of the earth--the dwarves. Iluvatar was not pleased with this, but because of Aule's pleading, he spared their lives. Yet the relationship between dwarves on the one hand and elves and men on the other proved perilous, as can be seen in the sacking of Doriath, for example, and whose consequences are still found in the Third Age. In The Lord of the Rings, after all, tensions still exist between dwarves and elves; this tension, however, is partly resolved in the friendship that develops between Legolas and Gimli. Yet these thousands of years of strife were the consequence Aule's single act of disobedience. Feanor's creation of the Silmarils from the light of Telperion and Laurelin, the two sacred trees of Valinor, also results in much devastation and loss of life. Yet here too, it is mainly because of an act of disobedience: after Morgoth and Ungoliant destroy the two trees, the Valar ask Feanor for the Silmarils so they could restore life to Telperion and Laurelin, but Feanor refuses to hand over his creation. Morgoth subsequently steals the Silmarils, and Feanor's vow to recapture these jewels with his fellow Noldor result in much tumult, thus forming the crux of The Silmarillion's plot. So in a sense, Feanor fated (or doomed) his fellow Noldor and much of Middle-earth to the disasters resulting from his disobedience to the Valar. On a smaller scale, when Beren asks for the hand of Luthien, King Thingol of Doriath's daughter, the King consents on one condition: that Beren wrench a Silmaril out of the crown of Morgoth and bring it back to him. In doing so, he "wrought the doom of Doriath, and was ensnared within the curse of Mandos" (Silm. 197). Thingol's wife Melian adds, "you have doomed either your daughter, or yourself. And now is Doriath drawn within the fate of a mightier realm" (197). Beren's quest is successful, even though it costs the hero his life. Luthien then chooses a life of mortality in an attempt to be reunited with Beren:
   This doom she chose, forsaking the Blessed Realm, and putting aside
   all claim to kinship with those that dwell there; that thus
   whatever grief might lie in wait, the fates of Beren and Luthien
   might be joined, and their paths lead together beyond the confines
   of the world. (222)

Mandos grants Luthien her wish, and Beren and Luthien are reunited for a mortal life, and they live out their days on the Isle of Tol Galen on the River Adurant. Things do not go so well for Thingol, however, for when he asks the dwarves to encase the Silmaril in the dwarven necklace Nauglamir, the dwarves lust after the jewel and slay Thingol. They attempt to flee but most are killed, and the necklace is returned. Melian, in her grief, returns to Valinor and the protection of her Girdle is hence lifted from the forest kingdom. Beren and Luthien's son Dior rules briefly in Doriath, but he is killed and Doriath is sacked when the sons of Feanor attempt to recapture the Silmaril. The doom brought upon the Kingdom of Doriath by its king is thus full wrought. These cases show that not all instances of fate are directly or indirectly manifestations of a higher power's will (as has been argued by Helms, Bullock, and Deyo). Indeed, the actions of Aule and Feanor were in direct opposition to the wills of Iluvatar and the Valar, respectively.

Finally, often implicit in the notions of fate and doom is a sense of death. Regarding Germanic mythology, Clunies Ross explains, "to have a fate means that one is subject to death as the supreme misfortune" (242). As discussed above, the Norse gods subject themselves to fate when they create the world, and this leads to their demise at ragnargk, when Asgard is overrun by giants. Throughout the mythological texts, "the threat of death and mortality to the world of gods and humans is presented [...] in terms of the action of fate, whether that force is represented in personified form or in more abstract ways" (Clunies Ross 237). The final words spoken by Beowulf reinforce this Germanic belief in fate resulting ultimately in death:
                    ealle wyrd forspeon
   mine magas            to meodsceafte,
   eorlas on elne;       ic him efter sceal. (11. 2814-2816)

   'Fate swept us away, / sent my whole brave high-born clan / to their
    final doom. Now I must follow them.' (Beowulf 189, emphasis added)

There are several cases in The Silmarillion where fate and doom point to death as the "supreme misfortune." For example, a foreboding knowledge drives Feanor to craft the Silmarils: "For Feanor, being come to his full might, was filled with a new thought, or it may be that some shadow of foreknowledge came to him of the doom that drew near; and he pondered how the light of the Trees, the glory of the Blessed Realm, might be preserved imperishable" (Silm. 69). And no sooner does Feanor forge the Silmarils than Morgoth and Ungoliant assault and destroy Telperion and Laurelin. Of course, Feanor's creation of Silmarils and subsequent rebellion against the Valar causes a whole other chain of events to unfold (see above), but in creating these jewels, he was able to preserve some of the light of the sacred trees before their untimely demise. When Beren passes successfully through the Girdle of Melian into the realm of Doriath, we learn he was successful because "a great doom lay upon him" (193). It was his fate to die in a quest to capture a Silmaril for King Thingol. Indeed, right before Beren dies, he proclaims that "'Now is the Quest achieved [...] and my doom full-wrought'" (220). Similarly, when Huan--the Valinorian hound who accompanies Beren and Luthien on their quest--does battle with and defeats the hell-hound Carcharoth, he "in that hour slew Carcharoth; but there in the woven woods of Doriath his own doom long spoken was fulfilled, and he was wounded mortally, and the venom of Morgoth entered into him" (220). He was destined to die in battle with one of Morgoth's vilest servants. And after Nienor finds Turin Turambar unconscious after his battle with Glaurung the dragon and mistakes him for dead, she learns from the dying dragon that Turin was her brother and that she had committed incest with him (and was even carrying his child). She laments, "A Turin Turambar turun ambartanen: master of doom by doom mastered! O happy to be dead!" (268), and promptly commits suicide by throwing herself from the brink of Cabed-en-Aras into the River Teiglin. The place is later called Cabed Naeramarth, "the Leap of Dreadful Doom" (268). Finally, after ArPharazon breaks the Ban of the Valar and sets foot on the coasts of Aman--an act guaranteeing the destruction of the Isle of Numenor--we learn that Elendil and his sons Isildur and Anarion "fled before the black gale out of the twilight of doom into the darkness of the world" (336). They escape certain death by fleeing to the shores of Middle-earth. As in Germanic mythology, death is closely tied in with the concept of fate and doom in The Silmarillion as well.

Up to now, we have examined the broad semantic field covered by fate and doom in the older Germanic literatures and Tolkien's The Silmarillion. We now turn to an examination of how this central aspect of ancient Germanic culture becomes blended harmoniously with the concept of an omnipotent Christian God who cares for his creation. In the Heliand, for example, both Fate and God are present at the birth of John the Baptist:
   That ni scal an is liba gio liies anbitan wines an is weroldi: so
   habed im uurdgiscapu, metod gimarkod endi maht godes. (II, 127-129)

That never in his life will he drink cider or wine in this world: this is the way Fate made him, the Measurer marked him and the power of God [as well].' (qtd. in Murphy 34, emphasis added)

There is no conflict between the two powers here, for as Murphy explains, "the Heliand appears to give God all ultimate power concerning the bringing into existence of persons and creatures, but leaves the detailed characteristics of the essence and the temporal length of existence of these persons to Fate and time" (Murphy 36). Green goes a step further and argues that after the Christianization of the Germanic tribes, God became viewed as the ultimate judge and was more powerful than Fate (387). This certainly appears to be the attitude of Hrothgar in Beowulf, who although admittedly is not described to be a Christian, utters sentiments similar to those expressed by Green. When telling Beowulf of the plight he finds himself in at the hands of Grendel, he says:
            is min flet-werod,
   wig-heap gewanod;   bie wyrd forsweop
   on Grendles gryre.  God eape meg
   pone dol-sceadan    deda getwefan! (11. 476-479)

My household-guard / are on the wane, fate sweeps them away / into Grendel's clutches--but God can easily / halt these raids and harrowing attacks!' (Beowulf 33, emphasis added)

That is, although fate is delivering Hrothgar's thanes into Grendel's hands on a nightly basis, God has the power to bring fate's workings to an end. And that he does in sending Beowulf to assist Hrothgar:
      swa he hyra ma wolde,
   nefne him witig God wyrd forstode
   ond des mannes mod. (11. 1055-1057)

'as he would have killed more, had not mindful God / and one man's daring prevented that doom.' (Beowulf 71, emphasis added)

Similarly, when Beowulf later does battle with Grendel's vengeful mother, we are told that halig God / geweold wig-sigor 'holy God / decided the victory' (ll. 1553-1554, Beowulf 107). Beowulf is, of course, successful in this battle as well. In The Silmarillion, we know that the Doomsman of the Valar, Mandos, pronounces his dooms "only at the bidding of Manwe" (19). Manwe is the leader of the Valar, but he too must abide by the will of Iluvatar, and we learn very early on how Iluvatar operates. When Morgoth (Melkor) rebels during the creation of the world, Iluvatar explains:
   And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath
   not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my
   despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine
   instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he
   himself hath not imagined. (6)

So no matter what mischief Morgoth may bring to Valinor or Middle-earth, Iluvatar will cause all these things to work for good.

And this is exactly where the harmonious blend between fate and doom on the one hand and the notion of an omnipotent all-powerful God on the other hand occurs in Tolkien's world. This blend is closely tied in with Tolkien's distinction between dyscatastrophe and eucatastrophe, a distinction he makes in his seminal essay "On Fairy-Stories": whereas dyscatastrophe entails "sorrow and failure," eucatastrophe takes "the happy ending: or more correctly [...] the sudden joyous turn'" (153) in its scope. The reality of the dyscatastrophe is accepted and acknowledged, but only insofar as "the possibility of these [sorrow and failure] is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies [...] universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief" (153). Tolkien utters similar sentiments in his other landmark essay, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics." Here, he reconciles death and defeat (i.e. sorrow and failure) at the hands of the "monsters" with his Christian worldview:
   The tragedy of the great temporal defeat remains for a while
   poignant, but ceases to be finally important. It is no defeat, for
   the end of the world is part of the design of Metod, the Arbiter
   who is above the mortal world. Beyond there appears a possibility
   of eternal victory (or eternal defeat), and the real battle is
   between the soul and its adversaries (22).

Of course, we know through his notion of eucatastrophe that Tolkien believes good will ultimately triumph in the end. Even though Beowulf dies in battle, the great dragon is also defeated. Interestingly, Tolkien here appears to equate fate (metod) with God, "the Arbiter who is above the moral world." So it is with Iluvatar, the ultimate Doomsman who sees to it that even the most malicious of actions "shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful" (Silm. 6). Throughout the Silmarillion, it can be seen that even though there are a number of small-scale dyscatastrophies, the metaplot of the legendarium is headed towards eucatastrophe. Take the case of Beren and Luthien, for example, who although are successful in their quest to take one of the Silmarils from Morgoth, ultimately lose their lives (Beren through a mortal wound, Luthien in forgoing her immortal elvenhood to be with a mortal man). They are granted another mortal life on Middle-earth, but they do eventually die of old age. This was hardly in vain, though, for their capturing of a Silmaril began the long chain of events that ultimately allowed Earendil to sail to Valinor--with Silmaril in hand--to plead on behalf of the elves and men of Middle-earth for deliverance from Morgoth's reign of terror. The result: the War of Wrath, in which the Valar march on Middle Earth, overthrow Morgoth and cast him into the Void, thus bringing the First Age of Middle Earth to its conclusion. And it is Turin Turambar, the most ill-fated character in The Silmarillion and the victim of Morgoth's most malevolent scheme, who is to arise at Dagor Dagorath (the Last Battle) and deliver Morgoth his deathblow:

In that day Tulkas shall strive with Morgoth, and on his right hand shall be Feonwe, and on his left Turin Turambar, son of Hurin, coming from the Halls of Mandos; and the black sword of Turin shall deal unto Morgoth his death and final end; and so shall the children of Hurin and all Men be avenged. (2) (Lost Road 333)

What may initially appear as gloom and hopelessness in The Silmarillion always finds its way back to the music of Iluvatar, who has designed everything with ultimate good in mind. Unlike in Germanic mythology, fate and doom do not result in death as the "supreme misfortune" (Clunies Ross 242) in Tolkien's world; rather, they are part and parcel of Iluvatar's symphonic eucatastrophe.

Fate and doom are ever present forces in Tolkien's The Silmarillion, whether they be indicating a judgment of the Valar, the consequences of one's action, or death. These various denotations of doom are also to be found in much of Germanic mythology and lore, from which Tolkien no doubt drew much inspiration. Yet another thing heavily influential in Tolkien's shaping of his mythology was his Christian worldview, a mix not unknown in the older Germanic literatures as well. This combination of fate and doom on the one hand and a supposed omnipotent God on the other finds itself at home in both the Middle-earth of Tolkien and of medieval Germania. Fate and doom are key players throughout The Silmarillion, but as can be seen in Germanic texts such as the Heliand or Beowulf, they ultimately fall in accord with the will of Iluvatar.


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(1) The Heliand is a lesser known literary work of the Germanic world, and it was commissioned by Louis the Pious (778-840) in an attempt to convert the Saxons to Christianity. It contains 6,000 lines of alliterative verse (similar to Beowulf) telling the story of the Christian gospels in a Germanic linguistic and cultural framework understandable to the Saxons. An English prose translation by Murphy is available.

(2) Granted, the story of Dagor Dagorath is not included in The Silmarillion, but since it does form part of Tolkien's entire legendarium, I thought it relevant to the discussion at hand.

RICHARD J. WHITT earned a B.A. in English at Georgia State University before moving on to study Germanic Linguistics at the University of Georgia (M.A.) and the University of California at Berkeley (Ph.D.). He also spent two years studying linguistics in Germany: one at the University of Erlangen and one at the University of Hannover. He currently works as a research associate at the University of Manchester (UK) on the GerManC Project, which seeks to build a representative corpus of Early Modern German from 1650-1800.
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Date:Sep 22, 2010
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