Recent Reads: “The Silmarillion” by J.R.R. Tolkien

Silmarillion cover

The Silmarillion
J.R.R. Tolkien
Fantasy
442 pages

Synopsis:

The story of the creation of the world and of the First Age, this is the ancient drama to which the characters in The Lord of the Rings look back and in whose events some of them, such as Elrond and Galadriel, took part. The three Silmarils were jewels created by Fëanor, most gifted of the Elves. Within them was imprisoned the Light of the Two Trees of Valinor before the Trees themselves were destroyed by Morgoth, the first Dark Lord. Thereafter, the unsullied Light of Valinor lived on only in the Silmarils, but they were seized by Morgoth and set in his crown, which was guarded in the impenetrable fortress of Angband in the north of Middle-earth. The Silmarillion is the history of the rebellion of Fëanor and his kindred against the gods, their exile from Valinor and return to Middle-earth, and their war, hopeless despite all their heroism, against the great Enemy.

Rating:  3 / 5

How does one begin a review on a tome that Tolkienites call “the Bible of Middle-Earth”? The only way might be to nod in agreement. Even knowing how The Silmarillion was different from The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, and reading it slowly as a result, didn’t quite prepare me for the demands this book would place on me as a reader. However, J.R.R. Tolkien was the author who opened the gates of fantasy literature for me, and I intend to read anything he’s ever written about Middle-Earth. So I dutifully plowed through The Silmarillion and came away with wide-eyed bewilderment and a greater respect from Tolkien’s work.

For those of you who haven’t read The Silmarillion: This is not a novel. Rather, it’s a cross between a short story collection and an encyclopedia on a fictional world. The tales that comprise The Silmarillion recount the early days of Middle-Earth, from the birth of the Elves, to the rise of Morgoth and his loyal servant Sauron, to the coming of Men and Dwarves, and much more in between. One of the common threads is the Silmarils, a trio of jewels created by the Elf Fëanor and later stolen by Morgoth. This led to the first wars between the Dark Lord and the peoples of Middle-Earth, as well as conflicts within the Elvish race and between their Men and Dwarf neighbors. You’ll find betrayals and romance, slayings and torture, friendships and alliances, sibling rivalries and dysfunctional families – and a dragon or two for good measure. This might sound like a summary for any book from the Song Of Fire And Ice Saga. However, this is Tolkien and Middle-Earth, not George R.R. Martin and Westeros. Meaning that while Tolkien doesn’t shy away from those topics, he handles them carefully and in the unadorned writing style that trademarks his other works.

So much happens in The Silmarillion that it’s impossible to discuss actual plots, characters, and so forth without repeating the entire book. If I had to choose my favorite tales, I’d say “Ainulindalë” (“The Music of the Ainur”), “Valaquenta” (an explanation of who the Ainur were), and “Of Beren and Luthien.” All three contain some of the most exquisitely written passages I’ve ever read by Tolkien. “Ainulindalë” in particular is an origin story, relating the birth of the eternal spirits known as the Ainur and how they created music together before they were granted permission to enter and govern the world that eventually became Middle-Earth. It’s difficult to describe in more detail, but the idea behind it was beautifully executed. “Of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin” and “Of the Voyage of Eärendil and the War of Wrath” were also quite memorable, and two of The Silmarillion‘s more tragic tales.

It’s worth noting that “Of Túrin Turambar” is an abbreviated version of the the novel-length The Children of Húrin. I read that book a couple years ago, but wasn’t aware it would pop up in The Silmarillion until I checked the Table of Contents. Not that I minded; reading The Silmarillion‘s version refreshed my memory on the story of Túrin, his younger sister Nienor, and the curse Morgoth cast on them after capturing their father Húrin. Also, even though The Silmarillion (or the copy I have of it) is almost 450 pages long, the final tale ends on Page 366. The remaining pages are family trees, maps, pronunciation guides, and an index of all the character and location names that appear during The Silmarillion. These extras – especially the maps and the Index of Names – were quite helpful as I read the book.

I was advised to read The Silmarillion slowly, and in hindsight I’m grateful for that advice. This isn’t a massive book in terms of page count, but the number of characters, places, conflicts, and so on is staggering. Reading one tale per sit-down helped me digest everything gradually without getting overwhelmed. After a while, though, it became a real challenge to remember who everyone was and what they had done in the past. This is where the Index of Names came in handy.

One thing I always have to remember when reading Tolkien is his writing style. It tends to be simple and dry, emphasizing narrative over expressiveness or emotion (with some exceptions). That kind of writing was acceptable by publishing standards back in Tolkien’s days. I personally have a harder time enjoying that style, though it hasn’t prevented me from loving The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. But with The Silmarillion, I often felt like I was reading a history textbook. Which The Silmarillion sort of is, but it made my experience more of an obligation than a pleasurable ride. Struggling to keep characters’ names and roles in early Middle-Earth straight only compounded the problem further. I’m not sure how else to explain this, especially since I knew The Silmarillion had a different purpose from his more traditional stories… But I didn’t come away loving this book as other Tolkien enthusiasts have.

Maybe this is the best way to summarize my feelings about The Silmarillion: While Tolkien may not be my favorite writer in terms of his style of writing, I now have a deeper appreciation for his imagination and the depth of his world-building. He created for Middle-Earth a history as rich, layered, and turbulent as our own. That’s what makes it so believable, and such an accomplishment. That said, I’d only recommend The Silmarillion to die-hard Tolkien fans, or anyone who truly wants to know everything about Middle-Earth. This is a dense and demanding read that requires patience and the right mindset.

Have you read The Silmarillion? What did you think of it? If you haven’t read it yet, do you think you might check it out based on what you’ve read above? Let me know by commenting below or visiting the same review at Amazon or Goodreads.

20 thoughts on “Recent Reads: “The Silmarillion” by J.R.R. Tolkien

  1. First let me just say well done! You got through it, which is impressive, as I’ve heard this is not an easy read. I think I mentioned how my husband is a big fan of LOTR and even he said this one was a bit dry for him? Anyway, that’s a big feat, do you feel like an expert on Middle Earth? 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Mogsy. Gosh… this was not an easy read, but I’m glad I did it. And sort of glad it’s over now, especially with Game Of Thrones returning. I’m going to read A Dance With Dragons in tandem with watching Season 5. I don’t think I would have been able to handle all that AND The Silmarillion at once!

      Yes, I do remember you mentioning that your husband loves LOTR yet though The Silmarillion was a bit dry for him. I thought it was a dry read myself, but that’s partly because of the book’s function as a history of Middle-Earth, instead of being a typical novel.

      An expert on Middle-Earth? I think I’ll be lucky if I can recall half of what happens in The Silmarillion. *lol*

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  2. Quite a thoughtful review!

    The Silmarillion (at least in my experience) is the kind of book that grows on you. Coming back to it after a while, and after you had some time to process the events it contains and to familiarize with the huge number of characters, you will find the deep feelings that the apparently dry narration hides. IMHO it’s very intense and at times poetic but… I know I’m biased, so you should take that with a grain of salt… 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Maddalena. 🙂 I might go back and re-read parts of it, probably one at a time and with breaks in between. We’ll see, though. I still have so many other books to read! Including Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales, which I think I’ll save for next year.

      Ha ha, grain of salt taken. 😉 Thanks for stopping by, btw!

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  3. I remember when I first read The Sillmarillion – and I had to keep reminding myself that this was a mythology for a fantasy world that didn’t exist… It may come across as dry, but if you have read some of the translations of the Greek and Roman myths, it is written exactly in the same style. I grew up on those stories, so in many ways, still find The Sillmarillion more of a satisfying read than LOTR, which these days feels a bit dated… But I’m probably uttering a blasphemy in saying that!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Actually, based on other reviews I’ve read of The Silmarillion and other feedback I’ve gotten from people, it looks like I’m in the minority and you’re in the majority, Sarah. 😉

      I did read several Greek and Roman myths when I was younger. I want to say we had a book of them somewhere at home… but if I was a kid, then a) the book is most likely gone now, and b) the versions I read were probably rewritten for younger readers.

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  4. Excellent and thorough review! I once tried reading this back in college days, but gave up as it was confusing and I had other things going on at the time. But now I really want to give it another go, and I’ll take your advice and read it slowly. Maybe that will help me process it better. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, definitely give it another shot, Elizabeth. And read it one tale at a time. Any more than that (unless they’re two relatively short tales back to back) might be cramming too much information in at once. Let me know what you think when you get around to reading it. 🙂

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  5. Whew! Thank you for putting my feelings about Tolkien and many other classic writers into words. And so succinctly, too!

    Don’t get me wrong; I love Tolkien. LOTR and The Hobbit were great. I love Austen and Dickens, too, but sometimes reading novels from decades gone by feels a bit more like work than relaxation, even if the story itself is riveting.

    I haven’t yet finished the Silmarillion (taking it slooow!), but I really love Ainulindalë as well. That section is like a wonderful, blissful dream and I was completely swept away in its magic. Here’s to hoping I get to similar sections soon!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow. Thanks, Kristen. 🙂 This was actually a tough review to write. It felt like a balancing act; even though I adore Middle-Earth and will always be thankful for Tolkien introducing me to fantasy, reading his work after getting so used to today’s writing and publication standards is an adjustment. So I agree with you on the “work more than relaxation” bit.

      Yes, keep that slow pace for Silmarillion. That’s the way to go with it, since so much happens in each individual tale. Let me know what you think when you finish it!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I read The Silmarillion a couple of years ago, and found it quite a hard read, But I enjoyed it nonetheless. It was hard, as you said in the review, keeping characters straight in my head, but I was so amazed by his worldbuilding that nothing else seemed to matter. I wish I had the ability and dedication to go into such detail and depth for my worlds!

    I think your review is good. I agree that the book’s only really or dedicated Tolkien fans. But if you are a massive fan of LOTR/The Hobbit, is it so worth getting through.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is worth reading if you’re a Hobbit or LOTR fan, I agree. I just wanted to make sure that when a fan does read it, they don’t expect it to be told in typical “novel-like” fashion. I read a couple reviews where people didn’t like The Silmarillion yet admitted they read in only a couple sittings. That might be why they didn’t like the book or couldn’t finish it – it’s one that’s really meant to be absorbed, not devoured.

      “I wish I had the ability and dedication to go into such detail and depth for my worlds!” Same here! Tolkien really has set a high bar for world-building, hasn’t he?

      Liked by 1 person

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