Completed 3/15/2015, Reviewed 3/23/2015
I first attempted “The Silmarillion” when it was first published in 1977. I read the first chapter and didn’t get it. I wanted another “Lord of the Rings” or “Hobbit”, so I put it down and it collected dust ever since. This year, I made myself a challenge to read twelve of Tolkien’s works, including the posthumously published ones edited by his son. So it necessitated finally making a new attempt. I was pretty nervous. Then a member of worldswithoutend.com told me about tolkienprofessor.com, a site by an English prof at a small liberal arts college in Maryland who posts lectures on Tolkien’s work. I also found a Tolkien atlas at the library. With these tools, I decided I could finally give it a try.
I was amazed. Sure, it reads like the bible, but I found I could read it, rather easily, despite the myriad of name and places. Once I got into the rhythm of the writing, or perhaps more accurately, the editing, I simply gobbled it up. And yeah, listening to the lectures and following along with maps enhanced the experience.
I think the most important thing to remember is that the book is not one epic narrative, it is a collection of stories of significant events from the beginning of time to the events of the LOTR. (I got this next part from the lectures) The idea is that these are based on Bilbo’s translations of Elvish works from his later years in Rivendell. They are told from the perspective of the Elves, and as such, it is as incomplete a history as one gets from any one group trying to tell the history of the whole world. It’s a history through Elvish filters, like the Bible, the Old Norse Edda, or the Epic of Gilgamesh are filtered through the context of their authors. Like the Bible, it describes the creation myth, important events in history, and the stories of the significant players in that history.
This time around, I was completely enrapt beginning with the creation myth. Eru, the One, also called Iluvatar, uses music to tell the story of everything. Joined by his first creations, the other gods, they sing a chorus that creates everything that will come to pass, including the evil that befalls the world from the discordant singing of the Melkor, the “fallen” one, later known as Morgoth. Then when the singing is done, creation and time begin.
I have to admit, the main body of the book, the Quenta Sillmarillion, is daunting. It covers the entirety of the First Age, beginning with the creation of the Silmarils by the Elf Feanor, jewels which captured the profound light from the two trees that lit Valinor, the land of the gods. Morgoth destroys the trees and steals the jewels. The rest of the section tells the tales of the development of the Elves and Humans, also called the children of Iluvatar, and the age-long quest of the sons of Feanor to get the Silmarils back. There are TONS of names. And readers of my blog already know that I don’t absorb well when I’m reading battles (there’s five plus one full on war in the First Age). The way I survived, appreciated, and fell in love with it was by returning to the idea that I was reading the Bible. The stories are more or less connected and linear. The dialogue is grandiose at times, as you would expect in an epic. Many figures are tragic and the bad guys are really bad. At times there is too much detail, at other times, not enough. But it comes down to this: This is not the coherent narrative fiction I’m used to reading. I’m experiencing Mythopeia, a fictional mythology, in its rawest form, and I loved it.
My favorite chapter from this section is Of Beren and Luthien. It’s the tragic story of the first love affair between a human and an elf. However, Luthien’s father King Thingol, tries to stop the affair by requiring Beren to steal back one of the Silmarils from Morgoth before he can marry her. Their plight is a foreshadowing of the relationship between Aragorn and Arwin in LOTR. (And reflecting on the two tales, I can’t help to wonder if Jackson, Boyens, and Walsh stole some parts of the Beren/Luthien tale to fatten out the Aragorn/Arwin plotline for the LOTR film. It’s not identical, but has stronger detail overtones than Tolkien gives in his LOTR appendix.) Even though this story is only about twenty pages long, it is beautiful, epic, and tragic. They are perhaps the closest you get to seeing developed characters. Out of all the major characters, Beren and Luthien feel the most real.
The last two sections of the book, the Akallabeth and Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age were simply wondrous. The first is an account of the rise and fall of Numenor. It tells explains the history of the line of kings of men from which Aragorn is the heir in LOTR. I was concerned about it being a horrendous list of names, but it was very engrossing. It is another mythic wonder, as it also explains the rise of Sauron and what happens to the men who remained in Middle Earth with so no kings and so few elves to guide them.
Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age is a sort of a fill in the backstory of LOTR. It goes into more detail of the Rings, the Last Alliance that nearly destroyed Sauron, his return to power, and the larger role Gandalf played in the whole tale.
In conclusion, I have to say that this initial prospect of fear became a labor of love. I rejoiced when I was done, not that it was over, but that the payoff was profound. I felt as I did finishing LOTR. Though I didn’t cry at the end, I felt that I experienced the profound spiritual fulfillment that comes with great literature. Sure, the study aids helped. But I think the greatest bit of help I got was from within my own heart: being open to a new experience of the universe created by one of the greatest writers ever. Five stars out of five.