Silmarillion Book Club

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Silmarillion Book Club

Postby jalapeno_dude » Thu Jul 21, 2016 12:20 am

Given its recent prevalence in Glowfic recently (Elves (ノ◕ヮ◕)ノ*:・゚✧ !!!), I thought it might be fun to do a group read and discussion of the Silmarillion, the original source of most of lintamande's elf-y goodness. I am far from an expert on Tolkien's legendarium (lintamande is much more of one), but I'm rereading the Silmarillion and really want to babble excitedly/talk about it with other people. My intended audience here is at least vaguely familiar with Lord of the Rings (at the level of having read the books or watched the movies) and knows enough about the Silmarillion/is willing enough to read wiki (I recommend Tolkien Gateway) that they'll know who I mean if I talk about, say, Feanor or Galadriel or Earendil. My personal experience: I read the books as a kid, saw the movies, and have played the MMO The Lord of the Rings Online for many years (I highly recommend it even if, like me, you're allergic to interactions with other people--you can play through all of the story content solo without any problems). In the last few months I've reread The Hobbit, LOTR, and the Silmarillion in preparation for Unfinished Tales and ultimately The History of Middle-Earth.

I am aware that canon as presented in the Silmarillion is not always the same as how it ended up in the final version of the legendarium, but I think we can deal with that as it comes up and the Silmarillion is the most accessible place to start (and is what I'm rereading now).

So, my proposal is that we talk this pretty slowly and take our time to digest and discuss things as they come up. I'm imagining something like a chapter/section every few days.

Without further ado, here are my thoughts on the first chunk of the text. The intent, if it isn't clear, is to start a discussion: you're supposed to bring up other things you found interesting in the reading as well as respond to what I'm saying. I'm trying to be fairly comprehensive in this first post to suggest as many topics for discussion as possible, but obviously you can/should bring up one thing at a time if you want.



Week One: Front Matter, Part One

I'm using the ebook I bought off Amazon, which corresponds to the second edition (with a Preface by Christopher Tolkien from 1999). In particular, this edition has a section titled "From a Letter by J.R.R. Tolkien to Milton Waldman, 1951" which starts "My dear Milton". As I'll explain in a moment, I think for our purposes it's important to start with this instead of just jumping into the Ainulindale. If we want to spend roughly a week on each chapter of the Quenta Silmarillion, the front matter is way too long and we should spend a while on it. Luckily, the letter is divided into several parts so this should work fine. So, I suggest you read the Foreward, Preface to the Second Edition, and "From a Letter by J.R.R. Tolkien to Milton Waldman, 1951", until you get to the first break (stopping before the paragraph starting "The cycles begin with a cosmogonical myth..."). This is around 3000 words so should be manageable.

(In case it wasn't obvious, you're supposed to go read this, think about it for a few minutes, then come back here.)

So, what are we looking at? First off, the Foreword--not written by JRR Tolkien himself but by his son Christopher. Quick timeline recap: The Hobbit was published in 1937, Lord of the Rings in 1954-5. Tolkien died in 1973, and this was published in 1977. So it was published posthumously, but more than that it was assembled from many different versions and different parts of it were more or less incomplete. This means, I think, that we should, or at least can, think about the structure of the Silmarillion in addition to just its content. Not only will it transpire that the different parts of the Silmarillion were written in-universe at different times and for different authors, they were also written in reality (Primary Reality, to use JRR Tolkien's term) at different times and in different modes of writing, and then they were assembled by Christopher Tolkien (for the gory details, see the 10-volume History of Middle-earth, which I intend to get around to one of these days).

As a relative outsider to the Tolkien fandom, it seems to me like these different levels (a whole fictional history with multiple fictional authors with differing motives and levels of knowledge, written over many years by Tolkien even as his conceptions of Middle-earth kept changing) are a big part of why people can get so into the whole thing. (Plus how seriously everyone involved takes themselves is just really endearing. How can you not love someone who can write a sentence like this with a straight face: "Moreover the old legends (‘old’ now not only in their derivation from the remote First Age, but also in terms of my father’s life) became the vehicle and depository of his profoundest reflections.")

Besides this, there are a few things that jump out at me in terms of how we should treat the text to follow:
In his later writing mythology and poetry sank down behind his theological and philosophical preoccupations: from which arose incompatibilities of tone.

Christopher is making a value judgement here, which we're free to ignore or not. But this is already telling us that Tolkien meant for us to take the text seriously: it has theological and philosophical content. Obviously we can do close readings of whatever we want, but we should expect them to yield results here.
A complete consistency (either within the compass of The Silmarillion itself or between The Silmarillion and other published writings of my father’s) is not to be looked for, and could only be achieved, if at all, at heavy and needless cost.
[...]
In the case of the Valaquenta, for instance, we have to assume that while it contains much that must go back to the earliest days of the Eldar in Valinor, it was remodelled in later times; and thus explain its continual shifting of tense and viewpoint, so that the divine powers seem now present and active in the world, now remote, a vanished order known only to memory.

Do you see the move Christopher is making here? He just conflated inconsistencies resulting from JRR's writing different versions at different times with inconsistencies in the text themselves, which seems fine, but then he attributed those latter inconsistencies to in-universe sources. I guess could read this really skeptically as Christopher just making excuses for his sloppy job in reconciling his source material. But I think this whole concept is really cool, so I'm inclined to give him a pass. Christopher is encouraging us to be proactively Watsonian!



Next up is the Preface to the Second Edition. I don't have much to say about this, except that, as an academic myself, this sort of faux-academic seriousness is total catnip for me. I mean, seriously: "Chief among these are those that concern the numbering in sequence of certain of the rulers of Númenor (for these errors and an explanation of how they arose see Unfinished Tales (1980), p.226, note 11, and The Peoples of Middle-earth (1996), p.154, §31)." This is not the sort of thing someone would say about a Stephen King novel!



Finally, the letter. The first time I read the Silmarillion I found this really boring. But now I think it's fascinating and incredibly important. Why? A couple of reasons. First off, the foreword has problematized the rest of the text: we're supposed to treat it as written by a number of different authors with varying motives, and so we need to take it all with a grain of salt. But in the letter Tolkien is giving a recap as an omniscient narrator/author (he'd use the term Sub-Creator, I guess). Second, and more importantly, he repeatedly sets up theoretical frameworks through which we can read the text. In this section alone there I identified at least three: myth vs allegory vs fairy-story vs heroic legend, and "Fall, Mortality, and the Machine", and Art/subcreation vs. Power/domination.

Let me briefly note a few things before I quote the last two paragraphs of the section in full and talk about them in detail:
-The language thing. Tolkien was a professional linguist. If you were paying attention during the foreword (or read the appendices to the Lord of the Rings) you saw some hints of this: not many books have a "list of some of the chief elements found in" their names.
-The discussion of legends. Aside from the sick burn on the Matter of Britain, note the mention of Finnish mythology, which I know literally nothing about except that it's supposed to have influenced Tolkien.
-Christianity:
For another and more important thing: it is involved in, and explicitly contains the Christian religion.

For reasons which I will not elaborate, that seems to me fatal. Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary ‘real’ world. (I am speaking, of course, of our present situation, not of ancient pagan, pre-Christian days. And I will not repeat what I tried to say in my essay, which you read.)

Remember this for the next part. The essay Tolkien is talking about is, I think, "On Fairy-Stories", which I haven't yet read but is supposed to be informative about how Tolkien approached worldbuilding.
-Tolkien on fandom:
The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd.
(Speaking of music, here's an entire metal album on the Silmarillion.)
-Keep in mind for later: "the high Legends of the beginnings are supposed to look at things through Elvish minds."

Okay, now for those last two paragraphs:
I dislike Allegory – the conscious and intentional allegory – yet any attempt to explain the purport of myth or fairytale must use allegorical language. (And, of course, the more ‘life’ a story has the more readily will it be susceptible of allegorical interpretations: while the better a deliberate allegory is made the more nearly will it be acceptable just as a story.) Anyway all this stuff[2] is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine. With Fall inevitably, and that motive occurs in several modes. With Mortality, especially as it affects art and the creative (or as I should say, sub-creative) desire which seems to have no biological function, and to be apart from the satisfactions of plain ordinary biological life, with which, in our world, it is indeed usually at strife. This desire is at once wedded to a passionate love of the real primary world, and hence filled with the sense of mortality, and yet unsatisfied by it. It has various opportunities of ‘Fall’. It may become possessive, clinging to the things made as its own, the sub-creator wishes to be the Lord and God of his private creation. He will rebel against the laws of the Creator – especially against mortality. Both of these (alone or together) will lead to the desire for Power, for making the will more quickly effective, – and so to the Machine (or Magic). By the last I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of developments of the inherent inner powers or talents – or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognised.

I have not used ‘magic’ consistently, and indeed the Elven-queen Galadriel is obliged to remonstrate with the Hobbits on their confused use of the word both for the devices and operations of the Enemy, and for those of the Elves. I have not, because there is not a word for the latter (since all human stories have suffered the same confusion). But the Elves are there (in my tales) to demonstrate the difference. Their ‘magic’ is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete (product, and vision in unflawed correspondence). And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous reforming of Creation. The ‘Elves’ are ‘immortal’, at least as far as this world goes: and hence are concerned rather with the griefs and burdens of deathlessness in time and change, than with death. The Enemy in successive forms is always ‘naturally’ concerned with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines; but the problem: that this frightful evil can and does arise from an apparently good root, the desire to benefit the world and others[3] – speedily and according to the benefactors own plans – is a recurrent motive.

[2] It is, I suppose, fundamentally concerned with the problem of the relation of Art (and Sub-creation) and Primary Reality.
[3] Not in the Beginner of Evil: his was a sub-creative Fall, and hence the Elves (the representatives of sub-creation par excellence) were peculiarly his enemies, and the special object of his desire and hate – and open to his deceits. Their Fall is into possessiveness and (to a less degree) into perversion of their art to power.


(Stop and read these paragraphs before proceeding, they're really important!)

There's a huge amount going on here! I don't think I'm really equipped to do a full reading of it; hopefully you guys can help me. Here are some things I noticed:
-That footnote 2: "the relation of Art (and Sub-creation) and Primary Reality." Sub-creation is, I think, one of the super-important concepts to take from this letter into the actual text. Note that already it's being applied both to what Tolkien himself is doing (in writing a story using allegorical language) and to the elves and to Melkor.
-Fall. To spoil the next section of the letter a little bit, Tolkien is going to drop a doozy of a statement there: "all stories are ultimately about the fall." This says more about Tolkien then stories, but consider what it says about Tolkien's legendarium. (Also consider what it means to write glowfic in Tolkien's legendarium given this statement.) In that later quote it's "the fall," as in the biblical one, but here Tolkien is, I think, talking about the same thing (at least allegorically).
-(Sub-) creative Desire. We have something Star-Wars-esque being set up here: Desire leads to love of the Primary World. Love of the Primary World leads to a lack of satisfaction with Mortality. Subcreation leads to possessiveness. Possessiveness and lack of satisfaction with Mortality lead to rebellion. Rebellion leads to the desire for Power. Desire for Power leads to the Machine (or Magic).
-Look at that definition of the Machine: "all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of developments of the inherent inner powers or talents – or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating." The implication here is very strong: for Tolkien, Machine (or Magic) is always and everywhere a bad thing.

(Exercise: how does this definition apply to:
-Melkor
-Sauron
-Saruman
-Feanor
-Bilbo
-Frodo
-Gandalf (and his use of a Ring)
-Galadriel?
Discuss.)

While I expect most of us will disagree with this, I think it's very important to keep in mind when reading Tolkien, because it tells us how he intended us to read things. (C.f. the dwarves in glowfic...)

-Magic vs. 'magic'. If you have access to Lord of the Rings, the relevant passage is at the end of Chapter Seven, "The Mirror of Galadriel." (Also interesting in its own right. Think of how much Artanis went through to get from her portrayal in the Silmarillion (or see, e.g., this) to "‘I pass the test,’ she said. ‘I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.’")
-We're also told something about the mindset of Elves: they "are concerned rather with the griefs and burdens of deathlessness in time and change, than with death." More on this in the next section.
-The notion that Morgoth's fall was "sub-creative". This is Word of God. Do you believe it? Is it compatible with what we know about Valar or what will be said when we get to that part of the text?
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Re: Silmarillion Book Club

Postby Kappa » Thu Jul 21, 2016 5:02 am

ooooooooooooooo.

i don't have a copy of the silmarillion, let alone that particular one; this seems like... an obstacle to participation. but ooooooooooooooo.

edit: and now I have a copy of the silmarillion! with this letter in it, even!

...

oh my GOD tolkien is ADORABLE when he talks about how he keeps getting distracted from his myth-making by his conlangs.
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Re: Silmarillion Book Club

Postby Nemo » Thu Jul 21, 2016 8:19 pm

How much are you defining as a chunk? I'll try to join in when the text starts.
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Re: Silmarillion Book Club

Postby jalapeno_dude » Thu Jul 21, 2016 9:40 pm

Nemo wrote:How much are you defining as a chunk? I'll try to join in when the text starts.
Roughly equivalent to 1 chapter of the Silm proper-seems to be about 3 or 4000 words. Would live to hear your thoughts on what I posted; I think those 2 paragraphs I quoted stand pretty well on their own.
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Re: Silmarillion Book Club

Postby jalapeno_dude » Fri Jul 22, 2016 5:21 pm

I'm planning to post my thoughts on and questions about the next part of the letter (Tolkien's summary up through the end of the First Age, from "The cycles begin..." through "So ends The Silmarillion and the tales of the First Age.") tomorrow night. Feel free to read and start discussing!
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Re: Silmarillion Book Club

Postby jalapeno_dude » Sun Jul 24, 2016 2:02 am

Okay, Part 2! This is (mostly) Tolkien's summary of the legendarium (here he calls it "the cycles", and there's probably a discussion to be had about the extent to which his legendarium is cyclical...) up to roughly the end of the First Age. Again, there are a couple reasons why I think this is worth reading instead of just going directly to the Aulindale, etc:
-We can take what Tolkien says here about specific plot events at face value (except to the extent he retconned things after he wrote the letter (between the writing of LOTR and its publication)), which we can't necessarily do for in-universe sources. So when they differ between the summary here and the actual text we should at least consider the hypothesis that the text is supposed to be misleading (or at least has omitted things)
-Tolkien's value judgements about particular individuals/events in the cycles are interesting both in-universe (where presumably they agree with Eru/the Valar) and out-of-universe (where they tell us what Tolkien meant to achieve).

Here are my thoughts/questions on the things I highlighted in this part of the letter:
-Tolkien refers to the Valar as "powers" and later "angelic powers." Tolkien has just mentioned power and 'Power' repeatedly in the last few paragraphs (which I quoted before). In particular he defined the desire for Power as the desire "for making the will more quickly effective". So Power is the ability to actually accomplish your will/impose it on reality. And Power is pretty unambiguously negative for Tolkien - he directly sets it in opposition to Art and sub-creation.
-This means we might expect powers to have a pretty negative impact if they just act in accordance with their names! But Tolkien qualifies this. Powers have a specific "function": "to exercise delegated authority in their spheres (of rule and government, not creation, making or re-making)". So they exercise Power in accordance with "the laws of the Creator," not in rebellion against it. And their Power, Tolkien says here, is only to exercise authority in "rule and government," not creation (which is the thing that gets you in trouble if you do it for the purposes of Power rather than Art). We should remember this qualification whenever we read about actions the Valar take and see if their uses of Power are restricted to the domains discussed here.

-Two more facts about the Valar. First, "Their power and wisdom is derived from their Knowledge of the cosmogonical drama". Go back again to that definition of Power. Does knowing what's going to happen in the future actually allow you to exercise power as defined in this way? (Recently Lintamande has had some interesting statements about how the Valar are literally the set of things they're capable of doing, and I think this is very much related. Also everything Thuringwethil says that isn't hitting on a Bell.)
-Second, I just want to note in passing the statement that the Valar are beings which can be "accepted – well, shall we say baldly, by a mind that believes in the Blessed Trinity." Christianity is probably something to have in mind when reading the text (more on that below).

-Eru's keeping hidden the nature of Men and Elves is described as "an ultimate finesse of detail". I.e. he's doing it to show off to the Valar how complicated and intricate his awesome story is.

-'Doom.' Tolkien uses this word a lot, and to mean different things. Sometimes it's just synonymous with 'fate': being doomed to something just means you're going to do it. Sometimes it's the standard, exclusively negative meaning. Here we get two dooms: the doom of the Elves and the Doom of Men (only the second is capitalized, and only the second is also referred to as a Gift).

-Tolkien says something very interesting about the fading of the Elves here: they fade "as the Followers [i.e., Men] grow and absorb the life from which both proceed". It sounds to me like we're supposed to take this as causal: elves fade because Men absorb life! This is not a plot element I remember being discussed, and I'll have to keep an eye out for it being brought up again.

-Mortality is "freedom from the circles of the world". Circles again; c.f. elven immortality as reincarnation. Also notice the nice irony with Eru's intervention to make the world round in the Fall of Numenor; after that it's only elves who can take the straight way out of the world while for Men the world is "a circle inescapable – save by death."

-I'll quote this paragraph in full:
In the cosmogony there is a fall: a fall of Angels we should say. Though quite different in form, of course, to that of Christian myth. These tales are ‘new’, they are not directly derived from other myths and legends, but they must inevitably contain a large measure of ancient wide-spread motives or elements. After all, I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth’, and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear. There cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall – all stories are ultimately about the fall – at least not for human minds as we know them and have them.

I quoted part of that last sentence earlier, but here's some more context for it. In particular, this is one of the "certain truths and modes" Tolkien is talking about. As Tolkien mentioned earlier, he isn't going to shy from borrowing themes from other epic cycles, and I'd argue that many parts of the Bible fall in this epic tradition as well. (More flippantly: Eru reads TV Tropes.)

-But "The first fall of Man, for reasons explained, nowhere appears." My understanding is that it's mentioned in the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth (yes, that Andreth), in Morgoth's Ring, but I haven't read that yet.)

-The Light of Valinor:
The Light of Valinor (derived from light before any fall) is the light of art undivorced from reason, that sees things both scientifically (or philosophically) and imaginatively (or sub-creatively) and says that they are good – as beautiful.

Note the dichotomy Tolkien is setting up here: art vs reason, science vs. imagination/sub-creation. This is slightly different from Art vs. Power, but it's pretty easy, Tolkien is saying to "fall" from science to the Machine and then you're screwed.

-When Feanor made the Silmarilli, he "imprisoned the Light of Valinor." The use of the word 'imprisoned' here is interesting: there are a lot of other words Tolkien could have used instead that don't make the same value judgement that 'imprisoned' does. In the paragraphs I quoted in the last section sub-creation was contrasted with "domination and tyrannous reforming of Creation", and 'imprisoned' is definitely setting up a domination/tyranny vibe. In making the Silmarilli, Tolkien is saying, Feanor imprisoned something which is supposed to be set free. Even if he isn't explicitly saying that making the Silmarilli was an evil act, Tolkien definitely isn't saying the opposite. Someone should call me on this if I'm wrong, but it looks to me like in this letter Tolkien never has anything good to say about the Silmarilli (which we should contrast with how they're described in the Silmarillion itself, when we get there).
-Again, in those paragraphs I quoted Tolkien described one "opportunity of Fall" of the "sub-creative desire as follows:
It may become possessive, clinging to the things made as its own, the sub-creator wishes to be the Lord and God of his private creation. He will rebel against the laws of the Creator[...]

This is a precise description of the Fall of the Elves. Quoting:
But the chief artificer of the Elves (Fëanor) had imprisoned the Light of Valinor in the three supreme jewels, the Silmarilli, before the Trees were sullied or slain. This Light thus lived thereafter only in these gems. The fall of the Elves comes about through the possessive attitude of Fëanor and his seven sons to these gems. They are captured by the Enemy, set in his Iron Crown, and guarded in his impenetrable stronghold. The sons of Fëanor take a terrible and blasphemous oath of enmity and vengeance against all or any, even of the gods, who dares to claim any part or right in the Silmarilli. They pervert the greater part of their kindred, who rebel against the gods, and depart from paradise, and go to make hopeless war upon the Enemy.

Feanor imprisons the Light. Then he gets possessive of his creations. Then he rebels against the laws of the creator ("a terrible and blasphemous oath", "pervert", rebellion against the Powers Eru has appointed).

-In Tolkien's description, "This legendarium ends with a vision of the end of the world." But, spoiler alert, neither the Silmarillion as a whole nor the Quenta Silmarillion end with this. In-universe, this says something interesting about the people who wrote these texts. (But Tolkien Gateway says that Tolkien just abandoned the idea in his later writings and that's why it was left out of the Silmarillion.)

-More Eru reads TV Tropes evidence:
the great policies of world history, ‘the wheels of the world’, are often turned not by the Lords and Governors, even gods, but by the seemingly unknown and weak – owing to the secret life in creation, and the part unknowable to all wisdom but One, that resides in the intrusions of the Children of God into the Drama

Note the word 'seemingly', which lets Tolkien hedge his bets enough to include Luthien in this category. Though he then calls Luthien "a mere maiden" despite the whole half-Valar thing, so maybe he just actually believes it.

-And speaking of Beren and Luthien, the tendency in glowfic has tended to be to dismiss it. That's fine, but we should remember that Tolkien himself thought it was a "beautiful and powerful" story. This is the sort of thing we're supposed to take as an example of Eru's 'finesse' in arranging Creation.

-The Children of Hurin is obviously influenced by Oedipus, but Tolkien also mentions Sigurd (from Norse mythology and also Wagner) and Kullervo.

-Maglor confirmed dead: he "casts [himself] into the sea." This is a good example of information that isn't in the in-universe sources but we get from Tolkien directly.
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Re: Silmarillion Book Club

Postby Kappa » Sun Jul 24, 2016 5:48 am

I find the word "sub-creation" fascinating. To me it seems to suggest that "creation" as a concept is wholly reserved for a single ultimate divine force, and you need this other word to describe what anyone else does that might otherwise be called "creation". Does anyone know if that's an accurate reading? Is there other context I'm missing?
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Re: Silmarillion Book Club

Postby jalapeno_dude » Mon Aug 01, 2016 3:13 pm

Kappa wrote:I find the word "sub-creation" fascinating. To me it seems to suggest that "creation" as a concept is wholly reserved for a single ultimate divine force, and you need this other word to describe what anyone else does that might otherwise be called "creation". Does anyone know if that's an accurate reading? Is there other context I'm missing?

Kappa: Yes, that seems like a reasonable reading to me; it seems to be explicitly bound up in Tolkien's Christianity. See here and here. It looks like ultimately the thing to consult is On Fairy-Stories itself--see e.g. here.

BTW, my radio silence in this thread is because I've been travelling. After I get back on 8/8 I'm committed to posting thoughts on the last part of the letter, but given the lack of response so far I'm not really enthusiastic about continuing this project. I guess I should probably post at least once more to see if talking about the actual text rather than front matter gets a better response.
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Re: Silmarillion Book Club

Postby Kappa » Mon Aug 01, 2016 3:44 pm

I think it's a really neat idea and I find your posts on the subject absolutely fascinating but I usually can't muster more than one or two thoughts at a time because brain.
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Re: Silmarillion Book Club

Postby Bethesda » Thu Aug 04, 2016 3:35 am

If the continuation of this is conditional on expressing interest, I express interest. I'm planning on rereading the Hobbit and reading for the first time LotR. Does this seem necessary to take part, or could I do LotR after Silm?
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