In Which An Old Married Couple Squabble, Dwarves Are Stopped Short, and Ents Are Recollected.
In “Of Aulë and Yavanna,” two of the most industrious members of the Valar—who just happen to be married—get antsy over their work… with unexpected results. This chapter is a sort of in-world spoiler that Dwarves are going to show up later in the book, and so will Ents (to a lesser degree). Since both races are known well to readers of The Lord of the Rings, this chapter almost feels like fan service on Tolkien’s part. But of course it’s much more, since we’re also witnessing Ilúvatar’s policy, in real time, concerning what he does and does not allow in his creation. This is a short chapter but there’s still much to learn from it. In the case of Aulë, the master of all earthworks, Ilúvatar is both stern and obliging. In the case of Yavanna, it’s more of a nudge, nudge, wink, wink, ‘Hoom-hom!’
Dramatis personæ of note:
- Ilúvatar – founding father of all existence
- Aulë – Vala, smith
- Yavanna – Vala, treehugger
- Manwë – Vala, management
“Of Aulë and Yavanna”
Aulë and Yavanna are the Miracle Max and Valerie of The Silmarillion—the bickering but adorable older couple whose skills become instrumental to the central story—except, of course, for the fact that these two Valar are insanely powerful. They’re also the perfect example of godlike beings who are aligned with all that is good in the world yet reveal their imperfections in both words and deeds.
We start with Aulë, who like Melkor is a victim of his own impatience. He simply cannot wait any longer for the Children of Ilúvatar to arrive. He’s heard so much about them—read all the blogs, seen the concept art, maybe seen some blurry leaked photos—that he just can’t stand it. He’s already a fan. And sure, we as readers might know the Children are coming soon because we’ve seen The Silmarillion’s Table of Contents and know what the next chapter is titled, but to Aulë they could still be millennia away from showing up. When you’ve lived in the Timeless Halls, apparently “soon” doesn’t cut it.
So, like a fevered artist with a desperate itch, he gives in to his own creative impulses and… Aulë invents the Dwarves! That’s right, the bearded folk are actually the first to show up. Sort of.
Deep underground in Middle-earth he works on them, far from Valinor, and far from the judging eyes of the other Valar. And especially his own wife, Yavanna, who I’m guessing would have a thing or two to say about this. And he knows it. Aulë shapes the literal forefathers of the Dwarven race, rather Golem-like, from the very substances of the earth. They’re kinda sorta Elf- and Man-shaped, and they obviously come out a great deal hairier and a little bit shorter…because frankly, the final form that the Children will take is still “unclear in his mind.”
But close enough, right? And also, because Melkor is still very much at large on Middle-earth, Aulë makes sure the Dwarves are hard and durable. They’ll need to be tough to hold out against that bastard and his minions. And that durability is on all fronts:
Therefore they are stone-hard, stubborn, fast in friendship and in enmity, and they suffer toil and hunger and hurt of body more hardily than all other speaking peoples; and they live long, far beyond the span of Men, yet not for ever.
Now, the moment Aulë’s finished making the Dwarves, he starts to teach them “the speech that he had devised for them.” Which—
Wait a second. The Valar themselves have probably had no use for any spoken language thus far, since they were themselves creatures of thought from the get-go, yet Aulë goes and invents a language—likely Arda’s first!—for the people he himself made? Total nerd move. (Almost sounds like something the legendarium’s own maker would do.) I’m surprised Aulë doesn’t also design an RPG boxed set (Dwarf: The Delving?) and try to get his friends to play it with him.
But no, there’s no time for that. Within the same hour of the Dwarves’ completion, Ilúvatar himself makes one of his increasingly rare “appearances” and suddenly starts speaking with Aulë, confronting the smith right there in his secret underground laboratory. With his hands still in the cookie jar of creating living people, Aulë knows he’s in trouble.
Of course, he’d known he was wrong in doing this, in not waiting for the fulfillment of Ilúvatar’s designs and the arrival of the Children. Not only does he not have the right to create life in this way, he couldn’t have fully succeeded, anyway. As Ilúvatar points out, the Dwarves as Aulë had made them are simply automata and little else, incapable of independent action and free will. Those things can only come from Ilúvatar’s own hand.
Aulë humbles himself and submits to Ilúvatar’s judgement. This is something Melkor, by contrast, has never done. Aulë admits his wrongdoing, though he does offer up some reasonable counterpoint, not to excuse his action but to justify his desire. And in this one moment, the relationship between a Vala and his own maker is at last likened to that of a child to a father. Aulë makes an analogy:
Yet the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee; and the child of little understanding that makes a play of the deeds of his father may do so without thought of mockery, but because he is the son of his father.
First, “without…mockery.” Remember that word—we will see it again in the next chapter in a more devastating context. Second, Aulë is making the point that he is imitating his own maker in his desire to make living things. He doesn’t wish to anger Ilúvatar and wasn’t trying to subvert the plans for the coming of the Children. He’s simply had a lapse of patience, and was doing what Ilúvatar himself placed in him from the first.
Grieving, Aulë even shows that he is willing to sacrifice his work, to destroy the Dwarves he has made. He raises his hammer to do so, but Ilúvatar stops him, accepting Aulë’s humility and his intentions. He spares the Dwarves. The Dwarves will not be scrapped, then, but neither will Ilúvatar allowed them to wake in the world before the Firstborn, the Elves. So he places them in slumber to await a future time—and again, Aulë does not know how long the wait will be.
Though the Dwarves are not among Ilúvatar’s designed Children, they will become his adopted kids. Moreover, Ilúvatar allows Aulë’s work to stand, taking no steps to alter the Dwarves in their imperfect state. And because they were not made in accordance to the Ilúvatar’s own design, he observes that there will be some troubles between the Dwarves and Elves later. They were not devised in harmony with one another, so strife will often exist between them.
I’ve got two things to say about Ilúvatar’s response.
One: that he doesn’t unmake the Dwarves is another example of his policy of working through change. Nowhere in the legendarium does he—as the omnipotent god who could—ever just roll things back. Never does he simply reverse damages. That’s not Ilúvatar’s M.O. We saw it with the musical discord of Melkor, then the marring of Arda directly. When the Lamps of the Valar were destroyed, even they did not try to rebuild and improve them (maybe this time with a Melkor Detector built in and Balrog Repellent sprayed all around?). No, they know that’s not how things go. Instead the Valar learned from what happened and devised something new: the Trees of Valinor!
And so this pattern will continue. Ilúvatar lets things stand, whatever they are, for good or ill, and from them new things will come that are better. Recall his words to Melkor after the third theme in the Music of the Ainur:
…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.
Two: this whole “strife shall arise between thine and mine” thing isn’t spite on Ilúvatar’s part. It’s just matter-of-fact observation. It’s like Aulë designed a playable Dwarf race for the Arda MMO, but he did so during the beta phase and without properly accounting for the existing code. So now whenever a Dwarf meets an Elf, there just are going to be rendering problems and communication glitches that will put them at odds. It’s inescapable. And Ilúvatar isn’t offering a patch for this. Again, not his style.
Come to think of it, Aulë’s crafting of the Dwarves could also be seen as an attempt, like Melkor’s, to “alter the music,” and though there will be strife, there will also be things “more wonderful” that come of it. Like a certain familiar odd couple trading banter for friendship far in the future and even sailing together on a westward-bound ship.
In any case, humbled by his screw-up of Project Dwarf but still fairly pleased by its outcome, Aulë finally returns to his home in Valinor and confesses to his wife what he did, and how Ilúvatar reacted. We’re never told when the rest of the Valar find out, which they totally eventually will. Sadly, Tolkien sadly denies us that exchange.
Leaving us only to imagine.Yavanna is not exactly thrilled with her husband. She sees that Aulë is glad of the final result and points out how fortunate he is to be shown Ilúvatar’s mercy. She also points out that because he kept his project from her, his Dwarves will lack the proper respect for the things she cares for. Plants and trees, especially. Like Ilúvatar, Yavanna is not being spiteful. She is just pointing out the natural result of her husband not working in harmony with her. As with the forces of nature, and the shaping of Arda, and the Lamps, and the Trees, the Valar are always their best when they cooperate with one another.
“Many a tree shall feel the bite of their iron without pity,” Yavanna says, probably wanting him to feel bad about it.
But Aulë doesn’t leave it at that, nor does he apologize. He says that when the Children of Ilúvatar do come, they, too, will have power over her works. It’s not just the Dwarves—Men and Elves will chop wood and eat plants, as well. They’ll hunt and kill animals. And of course this strikes a nerve with Yavanna, making her defensive.
Understandably, perhaps. Without permission, Aulë had designed creatures with hands, strong arms, and opposable thumbs, creatures who can make and swing axes! They can take what they want, and defend what they have. How fair is that?
But it also shows how naïve Yavanna is—indeed, how naïve all the Valar can be at times—concerning the big picture. She is forgetting that all the works of the Ainur, the whole shaping of Arda, had been for the Children of Ilúvatar, after all. That’s why they’d signed up to come down, to prepare and make the world ready for the new beings. Arda itself is the habitation that Ilúvatar supplied for their coming. And Yavanna, at least in this moment, seems to have lost sight of this. But I think it’s worth noticing that she is not demanding, just anxious. Where her husband broke the rules and only apologized after the fact, Yavanna gives her ideas more forethought. She is not possessive over what she wants for her world of plants and animals. She seeks permission up front to improve the plan. She is not prideful.
I especially like how Shawn Marchese, one of the hosts of the outstanding Prancing Pony Podcast, puts it in their episode about this very chapter.
In a larger sense, I think pride would have been to throw a Melkor-like temper tantrum…to march into Ilúvatar’s office and demand an audience. But she doesn’t. She goes to Manwë, and she says, “Look, I’m not happy about this. I love the things that I’ve subcreated and I know that sometimes the Children of Ilúvatar are going to wield dominion with bad intent.”
Yavanna asks Manwë if her husband is right. “Shall nothing that I have devised be free from the dominion of others?” she asks, pointing out that at least animals can run or fight when threatened, but plants can’t even do that. Especially the trees! Why does no one ever think of the trees?! Is no one on their side? She adds:
Long in the growing, swift shall they be in the felling, and unless they pay toll with fruit upon bough little mourned in their passing….Would that the trees might speak on behalf of all things that have roots, and punish those that wrong them!
Intrigued, Manwë shows that while he may be knowledgable, he is not all-knowing. Despite perceiving the mind of Ilúvatar better than any other, some things from the vision even he had missed. Yavanna points out to him that even during in the Music, she had imagined the trees themselves singing to the sky, and she had woven that into her own song. Wasn’t that worth something?
So Manwë excuses himself, has a sort of Ilúvatar-induced reverie to think on it, then comes back to her. He tells her, essentially, that she needn’t have worried, that Ilúvatar has already accounted for her desire, and that when the Children of Ilúvatar appear so too will “the thought of Yavanna.” Which sounds rather vague, but Manwë explains that this will manifest as “spirits from afar,” and that said spirits will inhabit both animals and plants.
For example, from Manwë’s own part in the Music combined with Yavanna’s, there will thus come creatures “with wings like the wind.” More than mere beasts, these will be spirits in bird form and they will dwell in the mountains. That’s right, the Eagles we know and love (and unfairly expect too much of) will be coming!
But Manwë goes on, saying that in the forests “shall walk the Shepherds of the Trees.” BAM! Ents! Elated by this, Yavanna returns to her husband and snarkily points out that his Dwarves had better watch themselves, for “there shall walk a power in the forests whose wrath they will arouse at their peril.” And you just know she put a tone in that. Probably made a face, too. A you’ll-be-sorry look. Don’t mess with Yavanna.
Aulë is still kind of a grump about it, though. His rejoinder—the very last sentence in the chapter, which you really just need to go and read and enjoy—sounds a bit smug, and maybe he just wants to have the last word in their quarrel. But to me, Aulë and Yavanna simply sound like old souls who’ve been together, and in love, a very long time. These two helped shape and enrich the Earth itself; plants and minerals are essential to life and the food chain. Like Manwë and Varda, they clearly have made wonderful things together, and are each increased by the other’s presence.
Even so, this little spat of theirs, this moment of distrust on Aulë’s part and anxiety on Yavanna’s, certainly will have its echoes in later days. Perhaps a more familiar example comes also from The Lord of the Rings, when Legolas’s new Ent friend invites him to bring any Elf he wants to come see Fangorn forest at some future date.
‘The friend I speak of is not an Elf,’ said Legolas; ‘I mean Gimli, Glóin’s son here.’ Gimli bowed low, and the axe slipped from his belt and clattered on the ground.
‘Hoom, hm! Ah now,’ said Treebeard, looking dark-eyed at him ‘A dwarf and an axe-bearer! Hoom! I have good will to Elves; but you ask much.’
In the next installment, we’ll finally see the much-ballyhooed Children of Ilúvatar arrive, sleepy- and starry-eyed, in “Of the Coming of the Elves and the Captivity of Melkor.”
“Spoiler” Alert: Errr….Melkor is going to become a captive somehow? Damn you, chapter titles!
Top image: “Ents and Huorns” by Gonzalo Kenny
Jeff LaSala is ready for when his son someday asks him the awkward but inevitable question, “Dad, where do Dwarves come from?” He also wrote a Scribe Award–nominated D&D novel, some cyberpunk stories, and some RPG books. And now works for Tor Books.