Monday, January 18, 2016

Silmarillion Shoebox Dioramas

A young J.R.R. Tolkien
Last semester, I taught a new course on "The Silmarillion: J.R.R. Tolkien's Mythology." Students read and discussed the collection of epic tales that make up the mythological background for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Classes moved through the history of Middle-earth, from the creation of the world to the War of the Ring, as we explored the complex web of legends that Tolkien drew upon, including those of Norse, Celtic, Finnish, Jewish, and Christian traditions.


Tolkien worked on the mythology and legends of Middle-earth from 1914 until his death in 1973. In 1977, his son Christopher published an edited version of the lore as The Silmarillion. The book features much mythic material that is merely alluded to or mentioned in passing in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

The Silmarillion includes tales of the Two Trees of Valinor; the coming of the Elves to Middle-earth; the creation of the Silmarils; the alliance of Men, Elves and Dwarves against the dark lord Morgoth; the fall of Gondolin and Númenor; the founding of Gondor; the forging of the Rings of Power; the capture of the One Ring by Isildur, and much more.

The book includes the origins of many characters familiar to fans of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, including Elrond, Galadriel, Sauron and the Dúnedain. Unforgettable characters take the stage, including the wondrous Elf-smith Fëanor, the great lovers Beren and Lúthien, and the doomed hero Túrin Turambar. The earliest tales focus on the Valar, the Powers that acts as gods for the denizens of Middle-earth. Terrible enemies fight the forces of light, including Orcs, Balrogs, the dragon Glaurung and the primeval spider Ungoliant.


Cover of the first edition of The Silmarillion
Over the nine weeks of the course, students read The Silmarillion in the context of Tolkien's fictional and scholarly work. Connections were drawn between the lore of the book and the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, with reference to other posthumous Tolkien publications such as Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth (1980) and The History of Middle-earth (1983-1996).

The class also learned about the many mythologies that influenced Tolkien's work. We traced their influences upon The Silmarillon, with recurrent reference to Tolkien's own statements about the creation and development of his mythology in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (1981). We also discussed how Tolkien reconciled his fervent Catholicism with his great love for the pagan mythologies of Northern Europe.


Students created their own genealogies of The Silmarillion's cast of characters, which helped them to navigate kindred relationships and feuds as complicated as any in the Icelandic Eddas and sagas. I asked the students to create their family trees from scratch, rather than referring to the diagrams published in the back of the book. Whenever a new character or group made its first appearance in the text, students added it to their charts. Relationships were diagrammed and updated as they were explained in the narrative.

The Haunted Mountain by Mollie Hunter
As an optional project, students were encouraged to share their original artistic interpretations of the work, if the spirit so moved them. Purely for the fun of it, I suggested that they create shoebox dioramas of their favorite scene in The Silmarillion. I remember the fun I had as a middle school student creating a shoebox diorama of the Lairig Ghru from Mollie Hunter's The Haunted Mountain: A Story of Suspense, a wonderful tale set in Scotland and that features the sidhe and other elements from Celtic mythology.

I thought it would be enjoyable for my current students to have a bit of a break from the responsibilities of adulthood and to take some time for fun and crafting. I think they all did a great job on their projects!


Jessica Rodriguez created this wonderful diorama of The Two Trees of Valinor. Here is how Tolkien describes the trees when they first appear in "Of the Beginning of Days," the first chapter of Quenta Silmarillion: The History of the Silmarils:
The one had leaves of dark green that beneath were as shining silver, and from each of his countless flowers a dew of silver light was ever falling, and the earth beneath was dappled with the shadows of his fluttering leaves. The other bore leaves of a young green like the new-opened beech; their edges were of glittering gold. Flowers swung upon her branches in clusters of yellow flame, formed each to a glowing horn that spilled a golden rain upon the ground; and from the blossom of that tree there came forth warmth and a great light. Telperion the one was called in Valinor, and Silpion, and Ninquelótë, and many other names; but Laurelin the other was, and Malinalda, and Culúrien, and many names in song beside.
The gold disks below the trees and the gold tiles behind them give Jessica's work the feel of a Gustav Klimt composition. Beautiful!

The Two Trees of Valinor by Jessica Rodriguez

Susie Jendro built this diorama of The Awakening of the Elves, based on a scene in "Of the Coming of the Elves and the Captivity of Melkor," the third chapter of Quenta Silmarillion:
It is told that even as Varda ended her labours, and they were long, when first Menelmacar strode up the sky and the blue fire of Helluin flickered in the mists above the borders of the world, in that hour the Children of the Earth awoke, the Firstborn of Ilúvatar. By the starlit mere of Cuiviénen, Water of Awakening, they rose from the sleep of Ilúvatar; and while they dwelt yet silent by Cuiviénen their eyes beheld first of all things the stars of heaven. Therefore they have ever loved the starlight, and have revered Varda Elentári above all the Valar.
Susie represented the stars in her diorama with electric lights. Her beautifully designed diorama really captures the magic of this powerful scene.

The Awakening of the Elves by Susie Jendro

Lauren Challinor's diorama portrays The Coming of Ungoliant, arguably the creepiest scene in the book. Here is part of Tolkien's description, from the eighth chapter of Quenta Silmarillion, "Of the Darkening of Valinor":
And in that very hour Melkor and Ungoliant came hastening over the fields of Valinor, as the shadow of a black cloud upon the wind fleets over the sunlit earth; and they came before the green mound Ezellohar. Then the Unlight of Ungoliant rose up even to the roots of the trees...
The light and pleasant hues of Lauren's piece are at odds with the darkness of the hulking spider in this perfect portrayal of the final moments of the Two Trees before all turns to darkness.

The Coming of Ungoliant by Lauren Challinor

Margaret Joyce chose to illustrate a scene from later in the book. Master of Doom shows one of the tragic scenes from "Of Túrin Turambar," the twenty-first chapter of Quenta Silmarillion. Tolkien describes Níniel's arrival at the scene of Túrin's slaying of the dragon Glaurung:
There she saw the dragon lying, but she heeded him not, for a man lay beside him; and she ran to Turambar, and called his name in vain. Then finding that his hand was burnt she washed it with tears and bound it about with a strip of her raiment, and she kissed him and cried on him again to awake. Thereat Glaurung stirred for the last time ere he died, and he spoke with his last breath...
Margaret shows Túrin unconscious upon his sword, Níniel (Nienor) weeping, and Glaurung glaring fiercely as he prepares to utter his dark final words. It's awesomely eerie.

Master of Doom by Margaret Joyce


Adam Smith decided to bake Middle-earth treats instead of designing a diorama. He made three types of Lembas, as described in "Of Túrin Turambar," when Melian presents "journey-bread" to Beleg Cúthalion:
And she gave him store of lembas, the waybread of the Elves, wrapped in leaves of silver, and the threads that bound it were sealed at the knots with the seal of the Queen, a wafer of white wax shaped as a single flower of Telperion; for according to the customs of the Eldalië the keeping and giving of lembas belonged to the Queen alone. In nothing did Melian show greater favour to Túrin than in this gift; for the Eldar had never before allowed Men to use this waybread, and seldom did so again.
Adam baked three varieties: honey shortbread, banana bread, and raisin bread. He wrapped each piece in a banana leaf and tied it with a ribbon. All three varieties were quite tasty!

Lembas by Adam Smith


This semester, I'll be teaching "The Hobbit: J.R.R. Tolkien's Mythic Sources." The course is open to the public, and no previous study is required. Registration is now open with discounts for students and seniors. Classes begin February 17. Click here for more information.

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