The Silmarillion - J.R.R. Tolkien,  Christopher Tolkien I’m somewhat dubious of my ability to review this work, but I’m going to do my best. _The Silmarillion_ is the work of Tolkien’s most often viewed with apprehension by readers and, I think, the one most unjustly maligned. It has the reputation of being the most difficult of his published works and I guess this is not without reason, though I think it is often a position based more on preconceptions than due to the inherent value of the work itself.

I’ve read _The Silmarillion_ many times prior to this most recent re-read and I don’t remember what my first experience of the book was like, but I don’t recall being particularly put-off by it or finding it ‘difficult’ in a way that made me dislike it (though of course I am a devoted Tolkien-phile which may have contributed to this). My only real complaint is that I wish there was more and I think this ties in with what is the most common ‘problem’ that readers have with _The Silmarillion_. I imagine that nearly everyone who comes to this work does so after having read _The Hobbit_ and _The Lord of the Rings_ and thus they already have some preconceptions of what they are in for that are going to get crushed (or at least modified greatly) once they start reading the Sil. From the expectation, or hope, of having a novelistic narrative with a clearly identified group of main characters following a linear story arc they are instead presented with a pared down history of the Elves and Men of the first ages of Middle-Earth where many characters weave in and out of the story, each playing greater or lesser roles in what are really epics or sagas, each of which are connected to the others, but with their own concerns and tales to tell. They do follow an overall arc that tells us the travails of the Eldar (Elves) as they come in contact with the Valar (the 'gods' of Middle Earth that rule it under the auspices of Illuvatar, “the One”) and ultimately engage in their great war with the Enemy, Morgoth (the original Dark Lord of whom Sauron is merely a pale imitation). I love this group of tales and wish Tolkien had had the time to treat all of them in the full length, novelistic format that he gave to the LotR, but even having what amounts to précis of each of them is still better than not having had them at all, so my kudos go out to Christopher Tolkien (whatever his subsequent apprehensions) for compiling and publishing these tales after his father’s death.


These stories were the heart of Tolkien’s mythology of Middle Earth and are what allowed the LotR to gain its great depth and mythic context. Worked on for the duration of his life from the time of WWI until his death, the tales of _The Silmarillion_ were the ones Tolkien most wanted to see the light of day, and also the ones he felt never would. He worked on the various tales in many versions and drafts, many only partial narratives, others in the form of annals or chronicles and the sheer volume of work can be seen in the subsequently produced “History of Middle Earth” volumes which collected the complete works of Tolkien in annotated form. _The Silmarillion_ was an early foray by Tolkien’s son Christopher into trying to give some coherence to these tales in a publishable form (hence, I think, the root of most people’s problem with the work). We start with a creation myth, told in very biblical style (probably the first, and biggest, stumbling block for new readers) which delineates the names and characters of the major players amongst the angelic beings known as the Valar and Maiar and see their early travails in Arda (the Earth) wherein are created the major realms of Middle Earth and Valinor (the realms of mortality and the gods respectively) and their own wars with the rebellious Melkor, soon to be named Morgoth (the enemy) by Elves. We then go on to more historical/saga/epic style tales as we learn of the awakening of the Elves and their invitation to come to Valinor and live with the Valar in bliss. Of course there is a temptation and a fall, a rebellion and a return to the mortal lands as the Elves pursue Morgoth in an attempt to regain from him the stolen Silmarils, three gems created by the greatest and most powerful of the craftsmen of the Elves, Fëanor, and which contain the last vestige of the great light of the Trees of Valinor, a final reminder of the early bliss of the world. It is the story of these gems, and the attempts at their recovery, that creates the major story arc of the many tales of _The Silmarillion_ and is indeed from where the volume gets its name.

Amongst these tales are the three ‘great’ or central ones of Middle Earth: The tale of the children of Hurin which delineates the tragic fate of the conflicted Turin Turambar, a man driven equally by fate and his own pride and personal failings to suffer loss, murder, incest and death; the tale of Beren and Luthien, the greatest love story of the early days, wherein the races of Elves and Men are united and against all odds the strength of Morgoth is proven to not be unassailable; finally there is the tale of Tuor and the fall of Gondolin, a tale which perhaps combines something of the other two in that it details the tragedy of the fall of the last and greatest of the Elven kingdoms and yet also tells of the uniting of Elves and Men in the bonds of love and the subsequent hope this provides for future generations. There are many other tales in the volume and we move from the First Age into the Second wherein we see Sauron take over from his master Morgoth as the reigning Dark Lord and the rise in power of the men of the blessed isle of Numenor is told, as is their equally great fall; and finally a précis of the events of the Third Age (the time of the LotR) and the creation of the rings of power.

I love this book. It really does deliver on epic sweep and is a roller coaster of high emotions. It is a tale of tragedy that is interspersed with hope and I think puts the lie to the accusations that Tolkien wrote simplistic stories about white hats vs. black hats (which I think is a bad reading of LotR as it is, but is definitely untrue of Tolkien’s earlier myths). Here the Elves are not purely good superbeings, but very flawed (and in many cases borderline evil) people who screw up for bad reasons as often as anyone else. We also see in the tale of Beren & Luthien what I have seen described as “a girl and her dog go off on a quest to save her boyfriend and beat the dark lord” and while that oversimplifies things and perhaps downplays Beren’s part a wee bit it shows that Tolkien was in no way a misogynist who couldn’t bring himself to write strong female characters who were central to his tales. I encourage anyone who loves tales of high romance (in the original sense) and epic tragedy to give _The Silmarillion_ a chance…just don’t expect a modern novel and be prepared for something much more akin to the epics and romances of the Middle Ages. I envy you your first journey into the First Age of Middle Earth. You won’t regret the trip.