Tulkas and the “Untold Stories”

There are better examples of the phenomenon, but the way the Valar Tulkas is introduced in the chapter “Of the Beginning Days” illustrates something of Tolkien’s remarkable technique of the “untold stories.” In the Valar’s First War on Earth with the diabolus Melkor, it is said that Melkor had the “upper hand” until “in the midst of the war a spirit of great strength and hardihood came to the aid of the Valar, hearing in the far heaven that there was battle in the Little Kingdom.” What was Tulkas doing out in the “far heaven”? We don’t know, and we’re never told (though we may guess that it involved fighting baddies). Of all the physical universe of Eä, Arda (Earth), of course, is the focus of the Tolkien’s narrative and, in a very real sense, is the focus of existing reality itself. It is where the Children of Ilúvatar, after all, will have their home, and it is some mark of its importance that it is also the place that Melkor specifically “names unto himself.” Yet for all its significance, not only narrativally but also cosmically, Tolkien is careful to balance this “Arda-centrism” with the revelation that there are other Valar besides Arda’s, and hence other stories besides those of Arda. By the very nature of the case we are not made privy to those stories, and the ones, such as Tulkas’s, which do momentarily intersect or combine with Arda’s serve to remind us of the many others that do not. Tulkas allows his own story to become largely assimilated to the narrative being told here by the Elves, but we are given hints of other stories for which this is not the case. We know, for example, that there are other Ainur who choose not to enter into Eä, remaining in the Timeless Halls of Ilúvatar. Of those Ainur who do enter Eä, as the example of Tulkas indicates, not all of these immediately, if ever, concern themselves with Arda. Of those, moreover, who do come to inhabit Arda, not all, as the Valaquenta suggests, become involved in the affairs of Middle-earth. (This is true even of some of the Elves, especially the Vanyar, who once they arrive in Aman, do not seem to give their original home of Middle-earth a second thought, and so do not afterward come into the history told in The Silmarillion.) Finally, even among those spirits who make their home in Middle-earth, while some allow themselves to become enmeshed in her great power struggles, such as Melian who marries the Elflord Thingol, in Tom Bombadil, by contrast, we witness a Maiar-spirit whose own story and interests are entirely tangential and therefore seemingly peripheral to what might otherwise be deemed to be the central and therefore the most important thread in the history of Middle-earth at that time (namely the war with Sauron and the quest to destroy his Ring). These peripheral characters, however, with their “untold stories,” nevertheless serve a very crucial and necessary function, which is that they lend to Tolkien’s fictional history the kind of real-world density and complexity that must inevitably rebuff the kind of historical reductionism that would seek to place the manifold meanings of the events of history on the Procrustean bed of any one story or conflict. This danger is perhaps best illustrated in the character of Denethor, whom Gandalf warns not to “think, as is your wont, of Gondor only… Yet there are other men and other lives, and time still to be.” For Denethor, the war between Gondor and Sauron simply is the war between good and evil, but this historical and political reductionism, ironically, is after a fashion just another version of the tyranny and domination being perpetrated by Sauron. For Tolkien, then, the delicate task of his characters, and hence of his readers, is to be faithful within one’s own story and within one’s own conflicts, all the while recognizing that there are always other stories and other purposes that are tangential if not entirely asymptotic and even transcendent to one’s own. It’s this level of depth and narrative subtlety that Tolkien helps achieve through characters such as Tulkas.

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