New from Sarah Welch-Larson on Substack: 14: Elves and Marginalia

It’s been humbling to pick up my paperback copy of The Silmarillion for the first time in about a decade. In the years since, I’d forgotten about my commitment to writing in the pages of the books I owned. I’m glad I’ve dropped the habit. I find it embarrassing to read the things I’d underlined and written when I was a teen—they’re a window into the things I thought were important insights, but are now obvious observations or opaque references. I keep asking myself, why that line? What about that particular sentence stood out to you? It’s like having a one-way conversation with teenage me. I know she’d be baffled by where I ended up in life, but honestly, I’m just as baffled by her, and I was her once. I don’t think I can ever lend my copy out to anyone else. The marginalia aren’t on every single page, but they’re frequent enough to be distracting. Those thoughts are trivial, and I still don’t want them to see the light of day.

Part of me wonders how Tolkien would feel about the way The Silmarillion is read today. It’s held up as one of the pinnacles of nerd culture, and while it isn’t inaccessible, it is consumed by place names and history; the geography sections are dry. I devoured it as a teen because I couldn’t get enough of Lord of the Rings. I wanted more lore; I wanted to be the most knowledgeable person about these books and movies that I loved so much. I wouldn’t have been able to tell you this at the time, but I treated Middle-Earth much like the puzzle-box style of storytelling that was coming into fashion. LOST was on the air at the time—the first TV show I really loved—and I devoured it the same way I devoured Lord of the Rings, and Dune, and all the other stories I came across. I had to know the most about them all. Tolkien’s intent wasn’t to get the most out onto the page; he was blessedly free from a media landscape consumed by easter eggs and clues. He didn’t write The Silmarillion as a puzzle box; he wrote it as a way to better understand the world of myths he’d created for himself—and to better understand how to build the languages he’d written for it. As someone who had to write a conlang for one of my linguistics classes in college, more power to the man.

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It’s a relief to read something that is elaborately crafted, but that isn’t intended to be a puzzle to solve. The book is an achievement, but it doesn’t need to be studied or pulled apart; Tolkien already did the pulling-apart and the putting-back-together work when he constructed his histories and his language. I don’t need the marginalia any more, because Tolkien tells me when a detail is important; he’ll reference past and future events as he tells his stories, almost as though his book is a living index of itself. There’s no need to reference the dictionary in the back (although it is rich, and helpful if you do want it). It’s enjoyable just to let the language wash over me as I read. Tolkien’s syntax is intentionally elaborate, constructed so it reads like German, or even an older mode of English. The pleasure comes not in trying to achieve mastery over the story, but to read the words of the man who already did it.


What I watched:

I had a couple of unexpectedly free evenings this week and took the opportunity to catch up with a couple of recent rom-coms: The Lost City and the Netflix version of Persuasion. I’ll have more to say about Persuasion when I get my end-of-month newsletter together, but reader: both movies are bad!

What I’m listening to:

I picked up What A Year podcast this week. Ethan Warren (one of my editors over at Bright Wall/Dark Room) and Ryan Pollie are assembling a time capsule of pop culture from the year 2007. Ethan’s a movies guy, Ryan’s a music guy, and I appreciate that they’re each approaching this exercise from both a position of expertise (about their preferred subject matter) and a spirit of curiosity (about the things they know less about). Their conversations about what fits into the time capsule and what they like and don’t like about each others’ picks are a balm for my ranked-list/competitive list-making allergy.

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