Tolkien meticulously sets up his body of work as a secondary reality. He wants it to feel “real” and therefore pays careful attention to how his readers will perceive certain elements. The inclusion of documents ostensibly created by members of his different races also opens the door to questioning how things are perceived within Middle-Earth and to ways in which external and internal perception interact.
We have come across his use of perception before, primarily in language. Fliegar, in fact, devotes a whole chapter to the ways in which perception and identity intertwine. The elves’ perception of themselves is that they are creatures that speak, “they are Quendi, ‘those that speak with voices,’ and thus gives them their identity”(Splintered Light 74). But for the Valar, who also spoke, this name would have made little sense, and they name the elves Eldar, “people of the stars”, instead, identifying them by a difference in their primary light source. Who is speaking and whom they are speaking to are often just as important as content when it comes to interpretation. No matter how largely the Valar figure into its action The Silmarillion is primarily, to borrow a phrase from Clifford–Geertz, a story the elves tell themselves about themselves.
The framing device used to convey The Silmarillion’s elvishness of creation as well as content rests more lightly on the story than does the Red Book on The Lord of the Rings. The version of the Ainulindalë published in The Silmarillion has lost the header indicating that Rúmil of Tûn recorded it, although the Valaquenta is still subtitled “Account of the Valar and Maiar according to the lore of the Eldar”. Tolkien considered the idea of a more overt structure for The Sillmarillion, of presenting it “ ‘as a complex of of divergent texts interlinked by commentary’ (UT, p. 1), the texts themselves supposedly written by Men, of different periods, looking back to an across the ages to vast rumors of whose truth they knew only part” (The Road to Middle-Earth 230). Had this idea been kept the tales would have much more particular; to a given time, place, or people.
As I stands The Silmarillion, especially the Ainulindalë , has a definite feel of mythic generalization that makes it easy to forget who is telling the story. Even cognizant of the Elvish authorship of the story one does not really find and Elvish bias, although the line that “Elves believe that Men are often a grief to Manwë”(The Silmarillion 42), plays with the concept. The consequence of The Silmarillion being told from the Elves’ point of view is that “the Elves’ point of view [is] necessarily limited to their direct experience”(Spilintered Light 74). Of what happened before their awakening, or outside of their presence they have only what the Valar have told them to go on.
The nature of the Valar is, as we discovered in discussion, difficult to pin down. They are messangers, unable to give life, bur also enormously powerful sub-creators of things. Tolkien would probably count our difficulty in grappling with them a success. Although he incorporated elements of both Christian and Pagan mythology into his own he did not wish for it to be either Christian or pagan something new of its own. As such neither Angels nor a pantheon would have been appropriate. He was also exploring the origins of language, looking back to a time when words maintained a “primal unity of meaning”(Splintered Light 74). The Valar are literal metaphors for the elements they embody.
These are all however explanations of the secondary reality by the primary. What did the Elves think of the Valar? It is clear from the stories of The Simarillion that they understood their hierarchical relationship with Ilúvatar and that they also where aware of the Valar’s creative limitations when it came to life. But this information could only have been given to them by the Valar after their initial meeting. When the Elves first encountered Oromë they did so only with knowledge of themselves. I think that he and the other Valar, divine beings with power over their areas of concern, would have seemed suspiciously god-like. While this misconception was eventually dispelled it would have lingered in their language. To the Elves with no outside frame of reference the nature of the Valar would have resolved itself, they are less than Ilúvatar but greater than the Elves. However to the reader, who has pre-existing the categories of angels and gods, the conflict between what the Valar are described as being and how they are described as being creates conflict.
The relationship of the Valar and the Elves also contains an interesting reversal from the traditional Christian creation myth, which holds that “God created man in his own image” (Genesis 1:27). In Tolkien’s mythology the Valar “took shape after that manner which they had beheld [Elves and Men] in the vision of Ilúvatar”(The Silmarillion 21). The Elves have seen the Valar, so this is not a metaphor for visualizing the unknown, and there is no reason for them to have invented that the Valar took Elvish form, rather than the opposite, or for the Valar to have lied to them about it. It shows quite clearly that the relationship between the Valar and the Elves, although not one of equals pre se, is also not that of Creators to Created.
One further way in which Tolkien engages with perception is man’s inability to adequately comprehend or describe paradise. We live in a “fallen” world, and just as man can only speak of God through metaphor, so can he only convey paradise imperfectly and by comparison. In light of this Tolkien’s decision to set his mythology in a world where the initial fall, the rebellion of Melkor, occurs before creation can be seen as a way of maintaining the integrity of the secondary reality as well as of avoiding allegory. The absence of any true paradise, the blessed lands are called such because they are blessed by the Valar’s presence not because of intrinsic value, keeps the whole of the tale within the realm of the humanly perceivable.
I do not know how much of this Tolkien intended, but I do think that by placing so much emphasis on the primary and secondary realities and by setting up his major tales as documents which link the two his work invites contemplation on the ways in which perception affects how a story is told, experienced, and interpreted.