Moreover, my father came to conceive The Silmarillion as a compilation, a compendious narrative, made long afterwards from sources of great diversity (poems, and annals, and oral tales) that had survived in agelong tradition; and this conception has indeed its parallel in the actual history of the book, for a great deal of earlier prose and poetry does underlie it, and it is to some extent a compendium in fact and not only in theory. (Forward by Christopher Tolkien, xii)
I have long been a fan of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, ever since my dad read them to my brother and me when we were little. He didn’t actually like the books when he picked them up to read—he has a dislike for all things fantasy or mythology—but there were four books and he could be sure he wouldn’t need to make a choice on another book for quite some time. My brother and I fell in love with the tales of Middle-earth; our dad discovered he liked them after all.
I’ve read these more famous works of Tolkien several times since, most recently in late 2002 (Oh. That’s been 10 years. How time does fly…), but I had never managed to make it past the first part of The Silmarillion. It is a more difficult work compared to the other two, lacking a single linear narrative while being populated by dozens, perhaps over 100 characters, not few of whom have multiple names, and stylistically more reminiscent of the Bible than popular fiction.* But reading it now, with a greater understanding of the wider context of literature, I’m inclined to believe it is actually the strongest of the three works, both for its achievements and its language. It reminded me at times of the Bible and of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, and I am sure that had I familiarity with his Nordic sources, I would see those too. It is frustrating at times—when I say reminded me of the Bible, I include those chapters of Chronicles full of unrecognizable, near unpronounceable names (Christopher Tolkien helpfully includes both an index of name and a pronunciation guide)—but at others I couldn’t help but be transfixed by the text, nearly convinced that I was reading a narrative passed down through the ages, not one conceived of less than a mere 100 years ago.
When considering Tolkien’s achievement, I am stunned. Not only did he conceive of an invented mythology spanning thousands of years—I would consider The Silmarillion closer to mythology than fantasy—but he created several languages for this world, even to the point of working out how they would have evolved over time. All those “unpronounceable” names? Not just random strings of letters, but names with careful meaning and origin in his invented languages. An appendix at the back provides “elements” of the names, so that I can see that the alqua in Alqualondë is “swan” and derives from the root alak-. Not necessary for the casual reader, but all this background informs the larger works with a depth rarely encountered. As Tolkien actually began writing the stories that would make up The Silmarillion around 1917 (and continued working on it until his death in 1973), the languages and mythology are also present in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but to a lesser extant than in The Silmarillion.
It was interesting reading The Silmarillion in light of just recently reading “On Fairy-tales.” The Silmarillion is the most developed of Tolkien’s books and well-aligns with the ideas he developed there. Notably, eucatastrophe is on full display, but Tolkien is sure to allow enough heartache that we don’t always feel certain of the turn for better. As for his concern with “inner consistency of reality,” I find something very “real” about Tolkien’s stories; I always feel somehow that they are history, not legend.
The structure of The Silmarillion is divided into five parts, with the lengthy story surrounding the Silmarils (Quenta Silmarillion) framed by the creation history of Middle-earth (Ainulindalë and Valaquenta) and the histories which will more directly inform The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (Akallabêth and Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age).
Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void. Never since have the Ainur made any music like to this music, though it has been said that a greater still shall be made before Ilúvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar after the end of days. Then the themes of Ilúvatar shall be played aright, and take Being in the moment of their utterance, for all shall then understand fully his intent in their part, and each shall know the comprehension of each, and Ilúvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased. (3-4)
The creation myth of Middle-earth, Ainulindalë most directly reminded me of specific Biblical accounts, not just in the idea of creation by a Supreme Being (Eru or Ilúvatar here), but the fall of Melkor (Morgoth) through his own pride and desire for dominion echoes the fall of Satan (Lucifer) through his “I will” (as recounted in Is. 14:12-15). Tolkien discouraged the picking apart of his works for his sources, desiring that the reader might enjoy the story for itself, rather than feeling the need to divide it into its base elements; however, here I could not help but noticing similarities with stories I already knew. And this is without knowing any of his Nordic sources!
I actually read Ainulindalë twice, so enchanted was I by the beauty of the passage, not just by the poetic language, but the idea of creation through music. (This is also a concept shared in C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew. The two were close friends and discussed their work together—I don’t know if one influenced the other on this, or if they arrived at the idea separately.) The idea of the “music of the spheres” is ancient—here it turns song into form most beautifully, a chorus of voices creating image of all that will be. For a time, I thought this would be my favorite section of The Silmarillion.
Without a doubt, Valaquenta is the driest section of The Silmarillion. It is the listing of the Valar and Maiar—the intermediate beings between Ilúvatar (godlike figure) and “the Children of Ilúvatar” (elves and men)—and their responsibilities in Middle-earth. They are somewhat equivalent to the gods and goddesses of ancient mythologies, but in Tolkien’s world they are not deities, rather beings with powers greater than those of the primary inhabitants of the stories. (With one exception, they play no obvious role in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, but are important to The Silmarillion.)
Quenta Silmarillion: The History of the Silmarils
And as they watched, upon the mound there came forth two slender shoots; and silence was over all the world in that hour, nor was there any other sound save the chanting of Yavanna. Under her song the saplings grew and became fair and tall, and came to flower; and thus there awoke in the world the Two Trees of Valinor. Of all things which Yavanna made they have most renown, and about their fate all the tales of the Elder Days are woven.
The one had leaves of dark green that beneath were as shining silver, and from each of his countless flowers a dew of silver light was ever falling, and the earth beneath was dappled with the shadows of his fluttering leaves. The other bore leaves of a young green like the new-opened beech; their edges were of glittering gold. (Chapter 1, 33)
Far and away the bulk of The Silmarillion lies in the Quenta Silmarillion. Although it describes itself as the history of the Silmarils, three jewels containing the light of the Two Trees of Valinor, it encompasses much more, relating the history from the time of the first Elves and the second rebellion of Melkor to his final defeat, spanning hundreds of years. There are side stories and a constantly changing cast of characters, although the most important names reappear often. Motifs common to mythology and legend recur throughout: curses, Golden Ages, quests, noble deeds. Those familiar with The Lord of the Rings know that Tolkien places it in the “Third Age”; the Quenta Silmarillion is the story of the First Age.
The chapters in Quenta Silmarillion are varied, some focused on battles, others on kingdoms, even one just describing the lands in which Elves and Men have settled. My favorite section of The Silmarillion is here, Chapter 19 “Of Beren and Lúthien,” a tale of a man, Beren, who loves elf-maiden Lúthien, and his quest to win her father’s blessing and hers to save him. It is a lovely tale, reminiscent of the quest stories of fairy-tale, or of the paintings of the pre-Raphaelites. Tolkien wrote portions of the story in poetic form (published in the posthumous Lays of Beleriand), and I would love to read them at some point.
Akallabêth & Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age
These last two sections pertain most closely to The Lord of the Rings, providing background details only lightly touched upon in the other book, those of the history of Númenor and the rings of power. It is not essential reading for The Lord of the Rings (I’d made it until now without reading it!), but it deepens the experience—somewhat akin to recognizing references in a novel to another work. For those hesitant to read the entirety of The Silmarillion, but wanting to more background to The Lord of the Rings, these could be read on their own. I read through them quickly, eager to learn more. The first, Akallabêth is fascinating on its own, however, for it relates the history of a city that will sink beneath the waves, Tolkien’s Atlantis.
It shouldn’t have taken me as long as it did to finish The Silmarillion, but I let myself be interrupted by other books. Which is a shame, because this really is an excellent book, and I don’t know why it took me so long to discover that!
This is my second book completed for The Classics Club, third for the 2012 TBR Pile Challenge (whoops, better get moving!) and first for the Books I Started but Never Finished reading challenge.
*Tolkien contributed a translation of Jonah to the Jerusalem Bible.