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It is well established that Tolkien used his fiction as a means of filling gaps and solving riddles in the extant studies of mythology and linguistics.

Most of the time, he chose to do this by supplying a definitive answer to a problem. His work, as a whole, was supposed to represent the lost body of English myth. In a more specific example, he address the problem of elves in northern European myth: these beings are divided into light, dark and swart elves on the one hand and wood and water elves on another. No clear explanation is given of these divisions in surviving myth. Tolkien "solved" the problem with his stories of the various sunderings of the Elves in the Silmarillion.

That example is drawn from an essay on the Silmarillion by Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey. Right after, he makes a throwaway remark that the Silmarils themselves are a similar kind of "solution". He says:

The Silmarils themselves, in my opinion, are an attempt to solve the mysterious riddle of the Sampo, an undefined object often referred to in the Finnish Kalevala - Tolkien was fond of Finnish, modeled aspects of Quenya on it, and furthermore admired the Kalevala as a product of exactly the kind of literary rescue-project he would have liked to see in England.

Academics have apparently been arguing for years about what the Sampo is, and/or represents, and seem to have concluded that a definitive answer is impossible.

The context of this essay - and the bit at the end about the "rescue-project" - would seem to strongly imply that by "solve", here, Shippey means a solid, practical "solution" as per the question of Elvish identity, not an allegorical one.

Other writers have drawn parallels between the Sampo and the Silmarils. And after a cursory read around the subject, it's clear there are significant similarities.

  • Both are once-in-a-lifetime objects created by god-like craftsmen at the height of their powers.
  • Both are locked away and then stolen, and this action sets in motion a chain of tragic events.
  • Both end up being lost in the sea.

There are other examples, with these being the strongest.

However, while all this strongly suggests that Tolkien's story of the Silmarils was inspired by the Sampo, it does not seem clear how it "solves" the mythical problem of what the Sampo is and what it represents. So, what does Shippey mean by his remark that the Silmarils address this problem?

  • Can you point to the exact essay, or quote the text? It's a bit tricky to explain an author's intention without context. – Joshua Engel Apr 20 '17 at 16:55
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    @JoshuaEngel Done. That it the entirety of the quote: the Sampo is not mentioned again in the essay. It left me fascinated as to what the implied solution is. – Matt Thrower Apr 20 '17 at 17:40
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I believe Shippey meant that this may have been Tolkien's goal at the beginning, but like Tolkien's other "solutions" he seems to have abandoned it as the story grew in the telling.

Tolkien's conceit of the Silmarillion as a mythology for England was largely abandoned through the constant rewrites. In fact, Tolkien abandoned it even more thoroughly than the finished Silmarillion we see today. Tolkien realized during the 1950s and 60s that the project needed a ground-up rewrite. Most prominent among those is the "flat earth" problem. Tolkien's early beautiful myth of the sun and the moon assumed a flat earth (originally, shaped like a giant boat). Later, he added a story where the earth became "bent" (round), removing Valinor from the world.

But this reads like a mythical form being replaced by science, and that just didn't square with the man who devised not one but several different kinds of calendars calculated to four decimal places. So he set about replacing it with a purely round world, and that was his final thoughts on it.

When his son set about crafting The Silmarillion, he chose to use the earlier version, in part because that was more compatible with the published Lord of the Rings. Christopher also abandoned the frame story of Eriol/Aelfwine, which helped set the context for the myths as proto-English. These stories, too, had drifted over time, as did the location of Middle-earth and England.

These illustrate how Tolkien may have begun with an intention of "solving" things, but it was rarely where he ended up. Shippey is well aware of that, so I think that's the context he intended it in: Tolkien may have set out to solve the problem of the Sampo, either consciously or unconsciously (he never mentioned it, certainly), but that tale quickly grew in the telling and took on a life of its own.

Tolkien remained a problem-solver. He continued to take inconsistencies in his own stories and turn them into stories of their own. His own rewrite of the Gollum story for the current edition of The Hobbit, to take into account his later re-casting of Gollum as a murderer and the ring as the Ring, becomes a footnote in the introduction about how the first edition was Bilbo's self-deceptive lie. And so on.

  • This answer would benefit from some citations, which would allow the reader to verify the claims made here, as well as provide resources for interested readers to pursue if they want to conduct in depth research. "When his son set about crafting The Silmarillion, he chose to use the earlier version, in part because that was more compatible with the published Lord of the Rings. Christopher also abandoned the frame story of Eriol/Aelfwine, which helped set the context for the myths as proto-English." Is there a citation for this? – user111 Nov 9 '17 at 22:48
  • "When his son set about crafting The Silmarillion, he chose to use the earlier version, in part because that was more compatible with the published Lord of the Rings. Christopher also abandoned the frame story of Eriol/Aelfwine, which helped set the context for the myths as proto-English" This claim should also receive a citation. – user111 Nov 9 '17 at 22:48
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    Citations for the Aelfwine/Eriol matter can be found in the Book of Lost Tales (first and second volumes of the History of Middle Earth). – heather Mar 25 '18 at 21:20

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