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.