Review: The Silmarillion

The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien

Once upon a time, in late middle school or early high school, I decided to embark upon The Silmarillion. While I did make it to the bit about Arien and Tilion, the Sun and the Moon, I never made it farther. The mass market paperback edition available at my local Books-a-Million (which fits into my favorite US mass market paperbacks of Tolkien’s writings) lay forlorn on my shelf until August, when I decided to remove all the books I hadn’t read from my bookshelf and put them in a shelf in my closet. And then it started, well, winking at me, and I decided to pick it up and give it another go.

The Silmarillion is a collection of stories about the history of Middle-earth; while it’s not explicitly stated, it’s implied that this is what Bilbo was working on in Rivendell during the events of The Lord of the Rings, translating various Elven accounts and myths about the First and Second Ages. It contains the story of creation, but mostly focuses on the War of the Jewels—the Jewels being the Silmarils that contain a divine light found nowhere else, and that all of Elvendom desires. It also contains the story of Beren and Lúthien and other tales. Tolkien worked on this his entire life, up until his death; after that, his son, Christopher, enlisted the help of a one Guy Gavriel Kay to take his father’s writings and piece together The Silmarillion as his father wanted.

The Silmarillion is infamous for being just hard to get through. Even for fans of Tolkien who love and adore The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings—especially young fans like me at the time I first attempted it—it’s rather opaque. It’s written in a high, epic style that The Lord of the Rings barely achieves at the end, it’s serious, it’s tragic, and, of course, the names. Not only are the names encountered overwhelmingly Elven—Dwarves and Men tend to have names you can get your hands around—but persons and places often have several names attributed to them. This can make the geography a bit difficult to understand, but I do recommend slaking your curiosity with some maps online. (I can’t imagine what it must have been like to read this when it came out. Thank God for the Internet!)

But if you stick with it, something wonderful happens. I’m not sure if it’s just getting acclimated to the style (as well telling yourself to just relax when it comes to names) or the fact that things start to move in the Quenta Silmarillion, but around the one-third mark, I was sucked in. I couldn’t wait to pick it up and discover the latest tragedy in the history of Middle-earth or another piece of information that just deepens The Lord of the Rings profoundly. While it is tempting to look at The Silmarillion as backstory to The Lord of the Rings, you have to keep in mind that the novel is really just the tip of the iceberg; in fact, the events of the War of the Ring are covered briskly at the end. Despite the novel’s own epic scope, it grows smaller in the greater context of Tolkien’s creation, especially looking at it through the great persons and deeds of Elven myth. We meet Isildur, Galadriel, Gandalf (in passing), Gil-galad, and even Elrond, briefly, which just gives so much more weight to them later. It’s hard to fathom what it must be like to live forever for Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings; it’s even harder when you know she’s been around since just after the creation of the world.

These stories are sad, and overwhelmingly so—there’s a handful of suicides, plenty of destructive pride, and a lot of darkness. Even the Valar, the beings appointed by God Himself to tend to this world, abandon Middle-earth and its inhabitants for their hubris and greed (aided, of course, by Morgoth), and they require something astonishing before they come to their aid. Elves grow weary with the years and envy Men their gift of death, while the fear of death leads Men to their own fall. But even among all this darkness, there is great beauty. I could go on about the friendship between Fingon and Maedhros or the story of Beren and Lúthien, but the moment that struck me the most occurred during the story of Eärendil, Elrond’s father. He sails across the perilous sea to beg the help of the Valar; his wife, Elwing, who bears a Silmaril, throws herself—and the Jewel—into the sea to stop the conflict. But she is saved by Ulmo, the lone Vala who still helps Middle-earth, and turns her into a gull, in which form she flies to her husband so quickly she swoons on the deck of his ship. Eärendil tucks the bird under his arm to keep it warm for the night, and in the morning discovers his wife next to him. It’s a beautiful moment, and these stories—after the creation story and the Elves start shifting for themselves—are full of these moments, made all the brighter and better by the darkness they’re set in.

Bottom line: Yes, The Silmarillion is hard going at first, with its high style, its lack of humor, and all those names! But something wonderful happens if you stick with it; you get enthralled. The stories in this collection are tragedies, but the kind of tragedies that reveal the best in human—and Elven—nature. Required reading for Tolkien fans.

I bought this book from Books-a-Million.

11 thoughts on “Review: The Silmarillion

  1. I keep telling myself I ought to give this another try. I read the whole thing back in high school and liked bits of it, but mostly I found it hard to follow. I think I’d have a lot less trouble now and probably find a lot more pleasure in it.

  2. I never have finished reading the LOTR trilogy (read the first two, BLAH), and I read The Hobbit a few years ago with rolling eyes. (Quadruple blah for me). But before I attempted any of those I read THE SILMARILLION and loved it! So I’m totally the weird one. Loved the opaque bizarre one but not the stories everyone else loves (although I liked the movies okay enough. I’m just not patient with adventure stories so the books were way too LOOOOOOONG.)

    I think what I loved about THE SILMARILLION was the language: in the beginning it was so Biblical sounding (and I liked that). Like you say, by a certain point one becomes hooked. I also read it really slowly when I was on vacation, a little at a time, which helped me appreciate it. I referenced a map and the index a few times, but mostly just let the language and stories float over me. I loved it. I keep thinking maybe I’ll try to finish off the trilogy, but no, I think someday I’ll reread this one instead.

    • The Lord of the Rings is a single novel, not a trilogy of novels—it was published in three parts because of post-war paper shortages in England, and we continue to do so today because of that.

      I’m glad you liked The Silmarillion, and that there’s someone out there that loves it more than the other books!

  3. I am one of those LOTR nerds that re-reads all three books several times a year and never tires of them, same with The Hobbit. But…. no matter how many times I have started this I have never finished it. I find it so hard to follow and become so hopelessly confused I always stop before 1/3 of the way in.

    You have motivated me to try again, although maybe when my pregnant brain is letting me read more complex works than it is at the moment.

  4. (I’m getting quite annoyed by WordPress not letting me comment on this post! Grr.).

    So glad you enjoyed this, and I agree that reading it makes the correspondences in Tolkien’s other books more noticeable and resonant. It really helps you get a sense of the ancientness of the Elves – to point Elrond’s comment about his memory reaching back even to the Elder Days, and the fact that Galadriel is even older…

    The audiobook version is great for any reader having difficulty getting into the book – it’s written so much like oral history that it’s suited to an audio presentation.

  5. Read it in high school, only two years after the first publication. Had devoured Lord of the Rings in about two weeks, then immediately got bogged down in the SIlmarillion. Made a second attempt a few months later. Deliberately went slow, made sure I understood everyone’s name before continuing on, consulted the map frequently. . . and thoroughly loved it. Remains my favorite Tolkien work.

    A recommendation. . . look at the Finnish epic Kalevala. Tolkien borrowed a lot from it. . . the “songs of power” that the Valar sing, the eight syllables per line meter that Tolkien liked for his poems, etc. Even the story of Turins death is in the Kalevala.

  6. Pingback: The Sunday Salon: Genre Fiction and Feelings « The Literary Omnivore

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