Week 2, Book 2: The Silmarillion
The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, is the edition I read. It was my father’s book, which he purchased in 2000 along with the matching editions of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Unfinished Tales. As those editions of The Hobbit and LotR were the ones I had first read, before purchasing my own, I decided I wanted to read that edition of The Silm as well.
Just yesterday I went and bought my own copy of The Silm which is this beautiful edition. It is illustrated by Ted Nasmith, with 4 sets of colour plates through the book. It’s the same printing, I think, as the previous edition, just slightly larger in measurements and with the artwork. Alongside my 50th anniversary trade paperback copy of The Hobbit and a very slightly mismatched set of Lord of the Rings in three volumes (all the same editions/cover art, but RotK was printed larger), it looks comfortably unique. I had hoped to buy a used copy of Silm, but this was too beautiful to pass up.
I had previously attempted to read The Silmarillion some years ago, after reading Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. But I was only about 8 or 9 years old at the time, and so it is no wonder that I never got very far in, despite being a fairly precocious reader. (I did also attempt The Unfinished Tales which I had more success with, but I’m not sure if I did read all that.) I am a great lover of LotR and Tolkien, and consider both the books and the movies done by Peter Jackson & Co. highly influential as stories that shaped me as a person, a reader, and a (hopefully some day published) writer. This is quite relevant, as The Silm is most definitely a book that will only appeal to specific audiences. For avid Tolkien fans who wish to know, understand, and appreciate the great man’s work as much as possible, it is a must-read. I imagine anyone who is a fan of classic mythology a la the Iliad or Beowulf or such things would also appreciate it.
The book, for those not familiar with it, does not just contain the Quenta Silmarillion, the title epic, but also holds the Ainulindalë, the Valaquenta, the Akallabêth, and Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age, along with some genealogical tables and appendices. The edition I read (and the one I own) also includes an excerpt from a letter written by Tolkien to Milton Waldman in 1951 which forms a “brilliant exposition of his conception of the earlier Ages” (the letter ends with a summary of the events of LotR and that part is not included). The letter alone is brilliant and provides great insight into Tolkien’s purposes and intentions in creating his world of Middle-earth. I will treat each section separately, as they are all different stories, and due to the format of the book, even the Quenta Silmarillion is rather more like a compilation of tales of varying historicity and from various sources than a single cohesive tale. Which is something I find rather wonderful, but won’t dwell on overmuch – Christopher Tolkien’s forward covers it quite well though.
Some spoilers for the chapter Of Beren and Luthien, but other than that, spoiler free. Also a bit on the long side.
Before I go any further, I just want to comment on Christopher Tolkien, son of J.R.R. and editor of his works. I am not sure who I am in more in awe of – Tolkien himself for writing and creating what he did, or Christopher, for devoting so much time and energy to his father’s works. Compiling the texts for The Silm and other works does not sound like it would have been a very easy task.
Anyway. The Silmarillion. It opens with the creation myth of Middle-earth, the Ainulindalë (in English, the Music of the Ainur). It is short, beautiful, deeply poetic, and all in all quite marvelous. It is most definitely not written in either the tone of The Hobbit or LotR and it would be a mistake to go into The Silm expecting either of those things. It is also probably the easiest section of the book to read.
The second tale is the Valaquenta or the Account of the Valar and Maiar according to the lore of the Eldar. It too is fairly self-evident. It lays out the “gods” (Valar) and their helper-spirits (Maiar) (for lack of a better term – think something akin to angels, in a way), and is the first bit that could be considered tedious as it continues in a very high mythical sort of tone and introduces 14 Valar and assorted Maiar. It ends with a telling of Melkor, the Great Enemy (one of the Valar, originally), which sets the stage for the Quenta Silmarillion.
The Quenta Silmarillion (hereafter abbreviated Q.S.) is where the true effort involved in reading this book really comes in. It is long, the cast of characters who are named is large, it is mostly written in a very mythic or poetic sort of style (though it is not poetry and features very, very few poems), and the divisions of the Elves – when that comes about – gets confusing. But it is, in my opinion, more than worth it. It is beautiful, at times deeply moving, at other times deeply fascinating (and different people will be intrigued by different parts, I expect), and despite the style and tone of it – which is so very removed from how character-driven fantasy fiction is written today – I grew to care for and be interested in the characters. This whole book shows a very different, more complex side of the Elves than we saw in LotR. They are far from perfect and the story (which is really a history, in a way) is spotted through with violence, war, betrayal, and murder.
One particularly surprising part, for me, was Chapter 19, Of Beren and Luthien. I knew of this story – which is referenced multiple times in LotR – by reputation and was expecting some kind of romance a la Aragorn and Arwen. I should have known better. Luthien herself was a great surprise to me – she is a brilliant, awesome character. Beren gets captured by Sauron, the great evil of LotR but in this time of Morgoth but a lieutenant of the Great Evil, and Luthien rescues him, with the aid of Huan, a great hound of the Valar, by forcing Sauron to flee and taking control of the tower where he had held power and headquarters for many years.
So not exactly what I was expecting then. But much, much better.
Some of the stories told in the Q.S. are elaborated further elsewhere – the stories of the Children of Hurin have their own book with more detail than is given in the Q.S. and I believe that the Unfinished Tales covers the Fall of Gondolin (Chapter 23) in more depth as well. At least, I remember reading much more about it than I read here and that is the only other place I can think I would have read it. Chapter 16, Of Maeglin, and Chapter 17, Of the Coming of Men into the West are also particular favourites of mine. The character and story of Maeglin is one of the closest studies of an individual character you get and I found it particularly fascinating and am rather inclined in sympathy towards Maeglin. Chapter 17 features another surprisingly awesome woman (they are sadly rare in Tolkien’s writing) in the form of Haleth of the Haladin. It would be complicated to explain, but she basically became the leader of her people and led them very well through hardship for a very long time.
I could go on, but this is already getting quite long. It takes some getting used to, the style of the writing in this book, I found, but once I did and once I was mentally ready to engage in the text by reading deeper, as it were, and being able to see through the tone of the writing to the content of the story. I began it Christmas Eve, read a goodly bit, and then took a break which was a mistake. I was out of the habit of reading it and found it took considerable effort on my part to get back into it. (And as I like to point out, I not only read LotR at 8 years old but also enjoyed it very much. This was before the movies were released, too.)
The last two individual tales after the Q.S., the Akallabêth and ‘Of the Rings of Power’ were intriguing. I didn’t enjoy the Akallabêth as much as the other stories. It is on the Downfall of Numenor and though interesting in the sense of understanding Numenor and what happened, I find that I don’t particularly like the Numenorians themselves. It would, I think, be a very interesting story to see in more detail than could be provided within the constraints of the epic myth style of The Silmarillion as a whole. I found myself wanting more, much more… which perhaps speaks to just how intriguing the story was (for it was that, certainly). I think that a reason for this is the fact that the Akallabêth follows the Q.S., which by the end had become far more of a story with characters you cared about than Akallabêth is. Probably taking a break between reading Q.S. and the Downfall of Numenor would have been a good idea.
‘Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age’ is, I think, one story that all fans of Lord of the Rings should read. It provides the historical background for the events that lead up to those of LotR and provides explanation of the rings of power, including the One Ring, and so forth.
But don’t think that just because these are different stories you can read them in any order you like. In my opinion, if you want to properly understand what you are reading, it is best to start at the beginning with the Music of the Ainur and go through to the end. But the whole book is so elaborate and filled with detail and names and relations that one reading will never be able to do it justice. I fully intend to re-read it, probably again and again. Within the Quenta Silmarillion there are a couple of chapters which could be read on their own, for those who aren’t sure if they really desire to read The Silm – Chapter 19, Of Beren and Luthien, and Chapter 21, Of Turin Turambar are probably the best for those, being the most complete tales in and of themselves and most able to stand on their own.
All in all, I gave this book in its entirety a 4 out 5 on Goodreads which means ‘really liked it’. Because I did. It isn’t precisely a book you – or I, at least – can fall head over heels in love with or read it and be absolutely blown away and in love (my criteria for a 5 out of 5 on Goodreads). But it is truly beautiful, in the best sense of the word, and the effort required to read it is quite worth it, in my opinion. As I said at the beginning, it’s also definitely a reread and maybe some day I will consider it a 5 out of 5… and considering this isn’t even the publishable form, but rather the form that Christopher Tolkien cobbled together from his father’s writing…! If only Tolkien could have had the time to give the Q.S. – or at least parts of it – more full treatment.