Sunday, March 25, 2012

Musings on Tolkien: The Golden Child and the Silver Child

After listening to hours and hours of lectures by the Tolkien Professor, reading plenty of Tolkien, and even auditing a couple classes on Tolkien, I have had Tolkien on the brain for over a year now. One result of that is that I have come to several observations concerning themes in his work that I have not seen discussed anywhere else. And now I get to foist them on you, my critical readers. This is the first in what will hopefully be a series (I make no promises as to how long or short the series will be) looking at the things I've been thinking about on Tolkien and his works. A couple procedural notes: I will be writing these assuming my readers have read or are at least familiar with The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. Therefore I won't explain who anyone is, nor will I post spoiler alerts. If you're looking for a bit of a refresher on anything I'm talking about, the Encyclopedia of Arda is a great resource.

The whole idea for the golden child and the silver child got its start several years ago when I was looking at this painting with the Platypus. The title of the painting is "Faramir at Osgiliath," and it was immediately clear to us that Faramir was the guy at the right of the painting decked out in silver. But my eye was also drawn to the guy in the center of the painting who is wearing a golden helmet and brandishing a spear. He is given a place of prominence in the picture. Could that be Boromir?* As I discussed this with the Platypus, he thought it was an interesting idea because Boromir was the golden child and Faramir was the silver child.

*The more I look at the picture, the more I'm convinced that he is not Boromir. For one, if it was Boromir, the painting would be titled "Boromir and Faramir at Osgiliath." For another, the more I look, the less prominent his position in the painting becomes.

One of the themes that the Tolkien Professor likes to talk about is that those who are the greatest almost always fall. Melkor was the greatest of the Ainur, but he turned to evil. Feanor was the greatest of the Elves, yet he fell too. But in all these cases I noticed that there was always a younger brother who was nearly as great who took the place of the golden child who fell and became great in his own right. This silver child did the things that the golden child should have done and earned the love of the people they commanded (and the reader as well). There were three examples of this that immediately came to mind plus two more that followed not far behind.

The first example, the one that pretty much provides the archetype for the golden child and the silver child, is Melkor and Manwe. Melkor is the greatest of the Ainur, yet he deems his will more highly than Iluvatar's and wishes to dominate the wills of others. Manwe is the second-greatest of the Ainur and is described as "the brother of Melkor in the mind of Iluvatar." But instead of pursuing his own agenda, Manwe chose to do Iluvatar's will, doing his part in creating a world that is good to live in. As the ruling Ainu, Manwe ends up the king of the world while Melkor is chained and thrown into the Void.

Next we get Feanor and Fingolfin. Feanor is the greatest of all the Elves. His work as a craftsman could not be rivaled. His crowning achievement is the creation of the silmarils, three gems that are the most beautiful things any Elf has made before or since. But he became too proud; too full of himself. As a result it was Feanor who instigated the first killing of Elf by Elf, and who swore (and made his sons swear as well) the Oath of Feanor, which caused all kinds of strife among the Elves, even long after his death. And when he died, Tolkien says, "Thus ended the mightiest of the Noldor, of whose deeds came both their greatest renown and their most grievous woe." On the other hand, Fingolfin, the younger half-brother of Feanor, was beloved by his people. When strife broke out between Feanor and Fingolfin, it was Fingolfin who was the better man and did what he could to make peace (even though Feanor was the instigator). It was Fingolfin who led his people across the Helcaraxe after Feanor had abandoned them. And when Fingolfin dies in single combat with Morgoth (a fight he might have been able to actually win had Morgoth not been ten times as large as Fingolfin) the Elves cannot even sing songs about it because their sorrow is too great. And the love of Fingolfin extends to the readers. There are debates as to who is the most awesomest of the Elves: Fingolfin or Finrod. No one even bothers mentioning Feanor in these debates.

Then there is the pair of Boromir and Faramir. Boromir is a mighty warrior. As the oldest son of the Steward of Gondor, Boromir is next in line to be the leader of the most powerful nation of Men in Middle Earth (provided the Heir of Isildur doesn't bother showing up). In fact it's not entirely inconceivable that Boromir would have himself crowned King of Gondor at his father's death. And then Boromir falls under the prey of the One Ring and tries to take it from Bilbo. Faramir, on the other hand, welcomes the Return of the King. He is a valiant warrior in his own right, but would much rather live in peace. And he says of the Ring, "Not if I found it on the highway would I take it." Boromir is able to find redemption by defending Merry and Pippin, but it is Faramir who gets to marry the princess and live happily ever after. And readers adore Faramir. If I did a poll of favorite characters from The Lord of the Rings, Faramir would come in no lower than second on the list. In fact, the biggest criticism I hear about Peter Jackson's version of The Two Towers is, "They ruined Faramir!"

After these first three pairings immediately jumped out at me, I went in search of other examples. The next one I found was Saruman and Gandalf. Saruman is the head of the White Council and the most learned of the wizards. But he desired too much power and set himself up as a second dark lord in a tower. Meanwhile, Gandalf spends his time travelling all over Middle Earth, doing what he can to empower people to fight the Enemy. And when Gandalf dies, he is sent back as Gandalf the White, taking on the mantle that Saruman rejected.

Then I started looking at Turin. He bears all the marks of a golden child gone sour. He is the most beautiful of all the Men, very charismatic, and a powerful warrior. But everything he does goes horribly wrong. Maybe it's because he's been cursed by Morgoth, or maybe it's due to his own pig-headedness and impulsive nature. But he accidentally kills Saeros and Beleg, unwittingly marries his sister, is directly responsible for the downfall of Nargothrond, and generally leaves chaos and destruction in his wake. But if Turin is the golden child, who is the silver child? Turin had no brothers and his sisters don't fit the bill of a silver child. But he did have a cousin: Tuor. Tuor does many of the things that Turin was supposed to do. While Turin was directly responsible for the destruction of Nargothrond, Tuor is instrumental in saving a remnant of people from the fall of Gondolin. While Turin failed to marry Finduilas, the daughter of the Elven king (and the text implies that things would have been better for all involved if he had), Tuor marries Idril, the daughter of a different Elven king. And through this union Earendil is born who is vitally instrumental in the final defeat of Morgoth.

So here are my five examples of the golden child and the silver child. Does anyone have any other examples?

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