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Jeff LaSala

Donato Giancola Is the Caravaggio of Middle-earth

When I visited Venice last year, I was overcome by the quality and quantity of the art filling the great halls of the famous Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace). The works of Italian Renaissance painters like Paolo Veronese and Tintoretto surround you and nearly overwhelm you in that place. Saints, kings, soldiers, philosophers, angels, and gods throng the walls, ceilings, and frescoes. But you know, if someone could sneak in an armload of paintings by artist Donato Giancola—paintings like “Gandalf at Rivendell,” “Boromir in the Court of the Fountain,” or “The Tower of Cirith Ungol”—and scatter them around the palace, I bet it would take a good long while for some snooty art historian to notice and complain.

Hell, I probably wouldn’t double-take, either, because those paintings would be perfectly at home there among the masters. I suppose if you put up enough of Donato’s masterpieces in the Louvre or the Met, maybe tourists would eventually wonder why Satan looks an awful lot like a Balrog or ask who all those stressed-out, grey-robed, pipe-smoking old men are, and hey, what’s that blonde lady doing with a sword and, whoa, is she facing off against a headless, mace-wielding black knight who’s just been unhorsed from some kind of pterosaur? What Greco-Roman myth is that even from?!

Personally, I was sold on Donato Giancola’s work the moment I first saw his illustrious and mesmerizingly expansive “Beren and Lúthien in the Court of Thingol and Melian.” I later contacted him to ask if I could include some of his art in The Silmarillion Primer. Not only was he cool with it, he turned out to be a surprisingly down-to-earth fellow, and it was only a matter of time before I roped him in for an interview. Good timing, because he’s got a great new book out, too.

[‘Dear me,’ he went on. ‘Not the Gandalf who was responsible for so many quiet lads and lasses going off into the Blue for mad adventures?’]

New Details About Amazon’s Middle-earth — Now Featuring Númenor!

Amazon has completed what I assume is just the first phase of its Middle-earth teasing, walking through the famous Ring verse on its The Lord of the Rings on Prime Facebook page. First they threw down an unlabeled map of Middle-earth (“Three Rings for the Elven-kings…”); then three days later we got a few basic region names thrown down (“Seven for the Dwarf-lords…”); then seven days later we got a few extra labels, like future Lothlórien (“Nine for Mortal Men…”); then nine days later we got a slew of Gondor- and Arnor-specific cities and towers and even Sauron’s fortress of Barad-dûr “(“One for the Dark Lord…”). All of these updates have really only suggested a focus on the Third Age in a much earlier time, well before Aragorn’s time.

Now, one day later, the new map they’ve posted pans waaaay back to reveal something big: more than just Middle-earth (the mainland continent) but a wider swath of Arda, the world itself.

[Of Númenor he spoke, its glory and its fall, and the return of the Kings of Men to Middle-earth.]

Where the Stars Are Strange: A First Look at Amazon’s Middle-earth

Details about Amazon’s upcoming Lord of the Rings-based show have been few and far between since it was first announced in November of 2017, but recently they’ve picked up the pace…a little bit. That includes establishing an official Facebook page and Twitter account—even though we’ll probably still have to wait until 2020 to see production get visibly underway. And now they’ve thrown down a map for us to pore over…

Dropping information in such dribs and drabs, it’s almost like the folks at Amazon know what they’re doing. In this cyber-age of information, every little crumb they let fall can be obsessed over and talked about endlessly by rabid fans (and critics), allowing anticipation (and apprehension) to grow apace. So we might as well humor them—we’re all nerds here, right?

[“I have crossed many mountains and many rivers…”]

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Life is Now a Movie: What Story is it Telling?

At last, it’s nigh: the biopic of J.R.R. Tolkien that’s been steadily looming, though it was little more than a rumor until recent times. We got a few casting choices dropped like breadcrumbs over the last year, then some still images, and now we’ve got our first official trailer. Something to look at, theorize and marvel over until May 10 (or at least the next trailer drops).

Will this movie be like Finding Neverland or Goodbye Christopher Robin or The Man Who Invented Christmas? These biographical dramas sure are the rage now. So what’s in Tolkien’s, then? Let’s talk about it!

[“Tell me a story…”]

Artist Kip Rasmussen on Tolkien, The Silmarillion, and Raising Young Tolkien Fans

When I first came across Kip Rasmussen’s work, I knew it was exceptional, and that I’d probably like everything he made. His paintings present all the best components of high fantasy: long hair flowing from beneath helms, brazen swords, gleaming spears, fire-breathing dragons, primordial godlike beings, imposing pinnacles of rock, and an insanely huge spider. Yup—these were scenes right out of J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium, instantly recognizable as features of Middle-earth. But curiously, only a few of them depict characters in The Lord of the Rings itself. Here was a Silmarillion-leaning artist. Oh, hell yeah.

When I contacted Kip to ask permission to use some of his work in my Silmarillion Primer, he just happened to be mulling over three ideas in his mental queue and he was quick to ask me to choose which subject he’d tackle next. I chose “Tulkas Chaining Morgoth,” so when he finished it later, it was right on time for the War of Wrath segment of the Primer. That made me very happy. And now, once again, I’m debuting a new painting in this article: Kip’s take on that legendary conflict between a certain lionhearted shield-maiden and a certain overconfident lord of carrion.

[‘Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace!’]

Ted Nasmith Is the Bob Ross of Middle-earth

If you’ve ever picked up an illustrated book written by J.R.R. Tolkien, or spent time clicking around on the internet in fantasy circles, or if you’d seen the posters on my dorm room wall years ago—or, heck, scrolled through any of the posts of The Silmarillion Primer—basically, if you’ve lived on Planet Earth over the last few decades, then you’ve surely chanced across the scenic, brilliant, and exceedingly prismatic illustrations of Ted Nasmith. I mean…if chance you call it.

Ted is a luminary, an artist and illustrator of…well, many things, but he’s best known for depicting Tolkien’s world more or less how we’re all imagining it. Or maybe you’re imagining it, in part, due to Ted’s work. From official Tolkien calendars to illustrated editions of the professor’s books to The Tolkien Society’s journal covers, he’s dipped his toe and his brushes into Tolkien’s mythology so many times there’s just no keeping track of it all. You know, I’m going to come right out and say it: Ted Nasmith is basically the Bob Ross of Middle-earth.

[‘My good Legolas, do you know that the caverns of Helm’s Deep are vast and beautiful?’]

The Misappropriation of the Rings (and the Third Age)

Wherein Isildur Pockets the One Ring, the Kingdoms of Men Fall Apart, Some Wizards Show Up, the Dark Lord Rises Again, and a Halfling Goes On a Big Journey

The second half of The Silmarillion’s final chapter isn’t the end of all things. It’s just the end of this one book, a wrap-up to one of the finest in fantasy literature. Even Tolkien’s most casual readers will find many parts of this section familiar, what with all the sly winks, cameos, and name-dropping. But it’s more than just a massive spoiler about what happens with Sauron’s favorite piece of jewelry: “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age” overtakes the events of the War of the Ring and brings the story of the Elves to a close. After all, the end of this age also means it’s time “for the dominion of Men and the decline of all other ‘speaking peoples’ in Middle-earth.”

More than ever, I’m going to tie in information from Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings, so as to arrange events in a clearer chronology than the chapter alone gives us. Likewise, The Silmarillion’s sidekick, Unfinished Tales, will chime in to fill in some gaps.

Buckle up, this is a big one. The Primer Installment to End Them All.

[‘Yet the One was lost, and while it still lies hid, we can master the Enemy, if we gather our strength and tarry not too long.’]

Series: The Silmarillion Primer

Twenty Rings, Seven Stones, and Middle-earth’s New Dark Lord

Wherein Sauron Hoodwinks the Elves, Forges His Trusty Ring, Unveils His New Tower, and Then, Having Had It Up to Here With All That Nonsense, Men and Elves Form the Last Alliance

The final section of The Silmarillion, “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age” is basically the bridge between the Quenta, the downfall of Númenor, and The Lord of the Rings, even summarizing the high-level events of the War of the Ring. I’m sure anyone reading this Primer will already be well acquainted with that last event. Given the overlap in exposition between this section and The Lord of the Rings itself, I’m going to tie things together with Appendix B: The Tale of Years from Tolkien’s most famous book…with a dash and a few dollops from Unfinished Tales.

Think of all this as proper stage setting for a reread of The Lord of the Rings. Now, this section is jam-packed with exposition, so I’m going to separate it into halves (one last time). But first, let’s recalibrate: We need to jump back to the start of the Second Age, long before the fall of Númenor.

[I perceive that you love this Middle-earth, as do I.]

Series: The Silmarillion Primer

A Farewell to Kings: The Fall of Númenor

Wherein the Last King of the Númenóreans Assumes Control, Puts Númenor First, Keeps His Enemy Close, and Defies Death In the Worst Way Possible

In the first half of the Akallabêth, we learned what made Aragorn’s ancestry so special. The Edain backed the right horse during the War of Wrath and so were rewarded with being damn near Elf-level good at just about everything, and then were given the wondrous island of Númenor to hang out on. They should have lived happily ever after. But see, these so-called enlightened Men on their high horses have been looking the Valinorean gift horse in the mouth. They’re at the top of their game, yet can’t stop themselves from daydreaming about the Undying Lands, a place where they’re sure they won’t get any older, and they won’t ever die—oh, and the one place they’re expressly forbidden to go.

In this half of the tale, we’ll see why Middle-earth still can’t have nice things, and why there aren’t a bunch of Númenóreans still walking around in the time of The Lord of the Rings. The unrest that’s taken root in their proud hearts has already divided them into two polarized political factions: the ever-growing King’s Men and the Faithful. It’s only going to get worse. So let’s get to it. I promise I’ll try to cool it with the horse-related expressions.

[‘The Doom of the World,’ they said. ‘One alone can change who made it.’]

Series: The Silmarillion Primer

Grace Under Pressure: The Rise of Númenor

Wherein the Dúnedain Are Made Better, Stronger, Faster, and Are Gifted With Huge Tracts o’ Land…and It Just Might Not Be Enough

In The Silmarillion, we don’t spend quite enough time in the Second Age to really get to know it—a chapter and a half, at best. And rather than walk through what does follow the First Age chronologically, Christopher Tolkien—who curated all of this for us after his father’s death—presents the next two ages of the history of Middle-earth in two basic pieces. Each overlaps the other but centers on its own events.

The first of these is the Akallabêth, a word that means “the Downfallen,” and specifically refers to the figurative and literal sinking of Númenor. You can always count on J.R.R. Tolkien to tell you something falls before he tells you it’s even a thing. Well, Númenor was a thing, and even casual readers of The Lord of the Rings will already know a thing or two about it. This is a phase of the book when Men finally take center stage, while Elves merely flit in from the wings once in a while.

While this is not a difficult story to follow, the gauntlet of both Elvish and Adûnaic (i.e. Númenórean) names can trip you up. Don’t let it! Sauron WANTS you to fall. Given the big ideas in this section, I’ll be tackling the Akallabêth (ah-CALL-la-beth) in two parts, which mostly amounts to the great rise and the watery fall of Númenor.

[“Why do the Lords of the West sit there in peace undending, while we must die and go not whither?]

Series: The Silmarillion Primer

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth (the Man, the Myth, the Coffee Table Book!)

Many fans of J.R.R. Tolkien already know that there is, right now, a free and rare exhibit of the professor’s many works at Oxford University’s Bodleian Libraries running through the rest of October. It’s a dragon’s hoard of hand-drawn maps, illustrations, and book drafts—many of which have never been presented publicly before—all on display, along with an assortment of wonderfully nerdy and decidedly hobbitish accoutrements like Tolkien’s writing desk, pencils, chair, and smoking pipes. And some of us are also giddily excited about that same exhibit coming to the Morgan Library & Museum in New York next year. It’s a veritable Elf-studded, high fantasy equivalent of the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage in the Bronx or the Mark Twain House in Connecticut.

The exhibit is called Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth and from what I’m hearing, it’s any Middle-earth geek’s delight. But it’s also finite. By mid-May next year, all those original works will be closed up one last time like the Doors of Durin, Watcher-style, then whisked back into the vaults of private collectors, the Tolkien Estate, Marquette University, and the Bodleian itself. But for those fans who can’t make it to these far-distant museums and still want to experience some of that awesomeness…well, there’s a book for that!

[“Hail fallow, well met!”]

Morgoth Is Rendered Null and Void In An All-Out War (of Wrath)

In Which Morgoth Gets His Ass Handed To Him, the Last Sons of Fëanor Find Time To Make One More Bad Decision, and Beleriand Starts Taking On Water

Well, we’re down to it at last. The final showdown of the First Age, which gets less page space than any of the Wars of Beleriand—and yet it’s the greatest conflict of them all. We’ve not seen this sort of mayhem since the Valar mopped the floor with Morgoth back when his library card still read “Melkor.” And that was arguably a more discreet event, since the Valar were then trying to shelter the newly awakened Elves!

The second half of Chapter 24 is a bit like the rushed ending of a really great novel—something even the best authors can be guilty of. But it’s not the ending of The Silmarillion, just the Quenta Silmarillion, the history of the First Age which centers around the Noldor and those pesky Silmarils. So let’s get right into it.

[So sudden and ruinous was the onset of that dreadful fleet…]

Series: The Silmarillion Primer

Eärendil the Mariner and the Last Crusade (Against Morgoth)

In Which Eärendil Boldly Goes Where No Man Has Gone Before, Ulmo Gives Him the Bird, the Sons of Fëanor Go Too Far, and the Valar Have a Group Huddle

The final chapter of the Quenta Silmarillion is upon us, whether we would wish it or not: “Of the Voyage of Eärendil and the War of Wrath” wraps up the First Age with far more drama, conflict, and beauty than the text itself can really contain. Still, after watching Morgoth push the peoples of Middle-earth around for so long, it’s gratifying to see the Valar take action as a team again. That said, although this chapter isn’t especially long, so much important stuff happens that I’ll be discussing it in two installments.

Now, we know from The Lord of the Rings that the son of Idril and Tuor—Eärendil the Blessed, Eärendil the Wanderer—is a mariner. We know because one day Bilbo will sing a song about him in Rivendell. He’s a legend among legends. Poetic and dreamlike in quality, Bilbo’s rhyme of this ancient mariner paints a lovely picture, but it’s not even half the full story—which The Silmarillion gives us, at least in cursory form.

[Hail Eärendil, of mariners most renowned, the looked for that cometh at unawares!]

Series: The Silmarillion Primer

When Tuor Met Ulmo, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let Gondolin Fall

In Which Tuor Takes a Littoral Walking Tour, Ulmo Tells All, Gondolin Is Given An Eviction Notice, and Turgon Loves Too Well the Work of His Hands

Chapter 23 of The Silmarillion, “Of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin,” introduces us to a young man every bit as heroic as fellow mortals Beren One-hand and Túrin Turambar, but he’s given far less page time. Yet Tuor’s role is vital; his descendants will include famous names like Elrond, lore-master of Rivendell, and Elrond’s brother, who also happens to be the founder of Númenor and the ancestor of Aragorn.

The story of the fall of Gondolin is the first of the three great tales that Tolkien dreamed up before the rest of Middle-earth—the other two being the Tale of Tinúviel (Beren and Lúthien) and the Tale of the Children of Húrin (Túrin Turambar, et al.). And geez, given that he was gunning for Gondolin’s downfall so early in his writing career, this secretive Elf-city never really had a chance, did it? More detailed, if not-as-internally-consistent accounts of Tuor’s story can be found in Unfinished Tales (“Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin”); The Book of Lost Tales, Part 2 (“The Fall of Gondolin”); and very soon, the stand-alone book that’s likely to contain all of the above, also called The Fall of Gondolin!

For Primer purposes, I’m sticking mostly with The Silmarillion’s more abridged account, sprinkled with a few bits from elsewhere in the aforementioned earlier accounts.

[Wilt thou take up my errand?]

Series: The Silmarillion Primer

The Tragical Misery Tour (of Húrin) and the Return of the Sons (and Jewel) of Fëanor

In Which Morgoth Plays His Last Húrin Card, A Silmaril Raises the Stakes, Dwarves Play Too Close to the Chest, Thingol Folds, Ents Are Wild, and Menegroth Collapses like a House of Cards

In Chapter 22, “Of the Ruin of Doriath,” it’s finally time to say goodbye to Beleriand’s first kingdom of the Eldar, one whose roots began in Chapter 4 when a Teleri Elf-lord named Elwë met a goddess in the woods, changed his name, and decided to tarry indefinitely in Middle-earth. But if there’s one lesson to be learned in Tolkien’s legendarium, it’s that nothing lasts forever…even the most beautiful and majestic of works—maybe especially those. Appreciate it while you can.

Sadly, it’s the aftermath of the Tale of the Children of Húrin (especially the short, if storied, life of Túrin Turambar) that triggers the end of Doriath, as Morgoth manipulates his most famous “guest” in order to further his designs. A lost treasure is recovered, gives King Thingol some crazy ideas, and garners the wrong sort of attention. But hey, we finally get to see Ents in action!…for, like, a second.

[Read on unless you seeth all things crooked.]

Series: The Silmarillion Primer

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