Who is Tulkas in The Silmarillion? What is the symbolism behind this myth?
C.S. Lewis once defined a good myth like this:
The narrative is more of a net whereby we catch something else.
The story itself may be quite ordinary – a sculptor carved a lady out of a block of stone, and it became alive (Pygmalion and Galatea).
Persephone was kidnapped by Hades, and her mother Demeter prevented all plants from growing until Hades was commanded to let her go for some months out of the year.
There’s nothing extraordinary in the story itself. Yet, we feel there’s something behind it.
Elizabeth Browning put it like this:
Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes; the rest sit round and pluck blackberries.
It’s how we choose to look at the common bushes that determines whether we see them burning.
According to G.K. Chesterton, such is the function of our imagination:
The function of the imagination is not to make strange things settled, so much as to make settled things strange.
And such is the function of mythopoetry – a genre that allows us to look at ordinary things through the eyes of Faerie and discover a world of extraordinary meanings behind them.
The key to entering Faerie is inside each and every one.
In Owen Barfield’s philosophy, this change of lens happens when a person allows their state of consciousness to be shifted by a line of poetry. And then they follow the call ringing through “this verse that lifts the curse” and enters the perilous realm of Faerie.
The cosmogonic myths of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion are of the same nature – they are an invitation to enter through the door of the external story and into the invisible realm behind the story, which is the land of Meaning.
One such myth is the myth of Tulkas the Valiant.
How did Tulkas beat Melkor?
Greatest in strength and deeds of prowess is Tulkas, who is surnamed Astaldo, the Valiant. He came last to Arda, to aid the Valar in the first battles with Melkor. He delights in wrestling and in contests of strength… he is tireless. His hair and beard are golden, and his flesh ruddy.
Who is Tulkas? Why did he come to Arda last to aid the Valar in their battles with Melkor? And most importantly, why was Melkor so afraid of him?
So came Tulkas the Strong, whose anger passes like a mighty wind, scattering cloud and darkness before it; and Melkor fled before his wrath and his laughter, and forsook Arda, and there was peace for a long age.
Of all the Valar, Melkor hated Tulkas the most.
There’s a spiritual and mythical significance to this. Tulkas is hated with bitter hatred because he represents the laughter of Iluvatar in the Great Music.
His strength and valor in battle are derived from his name – a golden-haired one.
His ruddy appearance is beaming with the radiance of the Sun:
In [heaven] hath he set a tabernacle for the sun, which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race. His going forth is from the end of the heaven, and his circuit unto the ends of it: and there is nothing hid from the heat thereof. Psalm 19.
Of all the parts of Iluvatar’s mind, Melkor hates laughter the most. Malice is helpless before laughter. Laughter puts Melkor in chains.
…and he was bound with the chain Angainor that Aulë had wrought…
What is it about laughter, spiritually speaking, that renders Melkor powerless? Tolkien gives us a hint in his description of Tulkas.
He scatters cloud and darkness, and Melkor fled before his… laughter.
Tulkas’s laughter scatters the darkness. But what kind of darkness is it? Not darkness which is just the absence of physical light.
There is a different kind of darkness.
What did Ungoliant do?
There is Darkness that is Unlight. Darkness made in mockery of Light. Darkness spun by Ungoliant in mockery of the Two Trees of Valinor.
So the great darkness fell upon Valinor… The Light failed; but the Darkness that followed was more than loss of light. In that hour was made a Darkness that seemed not lack but a thing with being of its own: for it was indeed made by malice out of Light, and it had power to pierce the eye, and to enter heart and mind, and strangle the very will.
Tulkas was sent last of all the Valar from the chambers of heaven as champion to drive out the darkness of Unlight that enters heart and mind and strangles the very will.
Tulkas, representing the laughter of Eru, laughs the Darkness away. He chains it.
But why is the laughter of Eru so potent that it is able to dispel the Darkness of Unlight?
Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the Lord is your strength. Nehemiah 8:10.
In Divine Comedy, Dante, speaking of Beatrice, says that “she imparadised my mind.” There’s no such word in Italian. Dante must have invented it to show what Beatrice did for him. She placed his mind firmly in paradise – “imparadised” his mind.
Only with Paradise imprinted deep in one’s mind we are prepared to face our Inferno.
Now Dante could go into his “Mordor,” his hell, and come out unscathed.
Tulkas is sent to Arda last because his mind is still beaming with the light of Paradise. He is not yet tired.
And he can imparadise the minds of the Valar and the Eldar worn out by the long ages of battling with Darkness.
There is Darkness that enters the heart and mind and strangles the will.
What do Dementors do?
J.K. Rowling came up with a powerful metaphor for what happens to a soul when it is strangled by the Darkness of Unlight.
Dementors are entities that feed on human joy. There’s only one power that they cannot withstand – the power of one’s inner light. It is that inner light that drives the Unlight out of the soul.
Those in whom this inner light is strong repel Dementors – joylessness, hopelessness, despondency.
But where does this inner light come from? Remember Harry Potter learning the art of the Expecto Patronum charm from Professor Lupin?
He asked Harry to find a happy memory with the potential to transform his present moment into a celebration.
Harry tried it several times but all in vain – even with a Boggart (a lite version of a Dementor) he would still faint.
“As a matter of interest, what memory did you choose?” Lupin asked.
“The first time I rode a broom.”
“No, no. It’s not good enough.”
And then, all of a sudden, Harry thought of his mother and father talking to him.
His heart leaped with joy.
And then he tried the charm again. This time a powerful light flashed out of his wand as he thought of his mom and dad, and the Dementor was pushed back into the chest.
Tulkas is the powerful Expecto Patronum of Tolkien’s universe.
Who did Melkor fear?
Melkor fears Tulkas the most because he is helpless against his laughter.
So who is Tulkas and why does he instill so much fear in Melkor?
The Unlight is helpless against our inner joy.
The laughter of Tulkas is present in Arda in many shapes and forms.
His laughter rings in the silly songs of Tom Bombadil and drives out the shadows of the Old Forest.
He laughs in the unabated joy of the hobbits – something that Gandalf believed was a superpower of the “little folk.”
The hobbits had a gift for celebrating life in the here and now.
It is brought home to me it is no bad thing to celebrate a simple life. Bilbo Baggins
When Gandalf first met the hobbits, heard their merry songs, saw their tapping dances, he must have felt a dark cloud lift from his heart.
The shadow of the “nameless evil in the forest of the world” shook and dissipated – unable to withstand the light of Tulkas’s merry laughter.
If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. J.R.R. Tolkien
What does Gandalf fear?
Gandalf had his fears. There were powers in the world against which he had not yet been tested. But Gandalf made one important discovery while roaming Middle-earth.
Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay.
Gandalf must have felt the Expecto Patronum charm at work every time he was sharing a cup of tea with Bilbo, dancing a silly dance with Merry and Pippin, or watching Sam trimming his garden. His fear would go away.
He must have heard the laughter of Tulkas in the laughter of the hobbit kids when they cried: “Fireworks, Gandalf!”
And he felt the palpable Darkness of Ungoliant abate.
His intuitions served him well. Some 60 years later, Elrond said when treating Frodo’s wound:
The hobbit has shown extraordinary resilience to…evil.
Why does Galadriel not take the One Ring?
And, finally, it was Tulkas’s laughter that saved Galadriel from taking the One Ring from Frodo when the company came to Lothlorien.
In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen… She lifted up her hand and from the ring that she wore there issued a great light that illuminated her alone and left all else dark. She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken: a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.
How do you triumph over your darkest desire? A desire that, if fulfilled, would make you a King or a Queen over your realm?
It’s all you ever wanted, right?
Whether you deal with Satan or Sauron, when you are offered a Ring of Power to achieve your goals, you will always forfeit what you REALLY want by taking it.
The Ring always takes away what it promises to give.
Such are the gifts of Sauron called Annatar, “the gift giver.”
Galadriel was the Lady of light. She saw through the devices of Sauron right away. Unlike Celebrimbor, she wasn’t deceived by his fair looks for a minute.
The light of Laurelin was caught in her hair as in a mesh. The Song of Yavanna was in her heart.
She didn’t seek domination.
It is said that she yearned to see the wide unguarded lands of Middle-earth and to rule there a realm of her own.
But what does “rule” mean here?
Where do Elves get their “magic”?
Here’s what Tolkien himself said:
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, subcreation not domination and tyrannous reforming of Creation.
No, Galadriel didn’t seek domination. She wanted to have a realm of her own to co-create with Iluvatar. This is what rule means for the Elves.
She wanted to participate in the Music of Iluvatar and sing her unique part in it like the Ainur who, though they were “Lords,” didn’t lord it over those entrusted to them.
But even good people can be tempted and seduced by Power. That’s why even Gandalf refused to take the One Ring to do good for all the oppressed, knowing full well that an inordinate desire to do good, turned into an idol, would corrupt him.
Don’t tempt me Frodo! I dare not take it. Not even to keep it safe. Understand Frodo, I would use this Ring from a desire to do good. But through me, it would wield a power too great and terrible to imagine.
Galadriel WAS tempted by the One Ring. But being who she was, Lady of light, she also knew deep in her heart a different “magic.” The magic of Yavanna. The magic of growing. The magic that is the opposite of domination.
When the struggle in her heart was at its worse, Tulkas, the laughter of true humility, came to her aid, last of all. And he imparadised her soul.
Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken…
It is said that the mark of true spiritual awakening is the ability to laugh at yourself. Laugh at your diminished Ego.
Galadriel came to her senses by laughing – and she laughed Melkor in the face.
What does her laugh mean? Something Melkor hated with bitter hatred. Something he was so afraid of. Something he couldn’t face.
It means: “I will be okay remaining who I am. Even if I am diminished, I cannot be less than who I am. I am Lady of light. And that is enough. I have no need to bray with you and raise my voice above the voices of my brethren. I want to hear the Music and participate in it.”
This is triumphant laughter of ultimate humility in the face of ultimate temptation.
The laughter of celebrating a simple life, full of its comings and goings.
The laughter of celebrating good food, good tilled earth, and simple pleasures in the here and now.
The laughter of Tulkas who “has little heed for either the past or the future…”