I’m used to being the only one in a given conversation who has read the posthumously-published prequel to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings – and I’m also used to hearing about its flaws from people who loved either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, started The Silmarillion, and then gave up partway through because they couldn’t take it, it was too difficult, there were too many names that started with the letters “Fin,” and it just didn’t read like a novel.
I typically manage to ignore these complaints, because for me, The Silmarillion is only difficult in the way that King Lear or The Iliad is difficult. Yes, unless you have a pretty stellar vocabulary and solid reading skills, both Shakespeare and Homer are complicated. They’re still classics, and the fact that we have to work a little harder to appreciate them doesn’t detract from that. And the complaints were ones that I couldn’t really relate to – when I first read The Silmarillion, I was thirteen and on a quest to read everything that J.R.R. Tolkien ever wrote, and I devoured the book just as I devoured the History of Middle-Earth series, all of Tolkien’s academic essays on obscure philological topics, and his translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo.
But within the last few months, I’ve heard similar complaints about The Silmarillion from the most unlikely sources. Independently, two good friends – avid fantasy fans, voracious readers, well-used to enjoying complicated texts à la the Malazan series, one of them has a degree in English and history and is as much of a Lord of the Rings nut as I am – have expressed similar opinions. They couldn’t get through it. Or they did manage it once but it was boring. It was just so different from The Lord of the Rings.
So, because today is the 40th anniversary of Tolkien’s death, I’m going to attempt to explain why The Silmarillion matters – why it is the heart of Tolkien’s mythology, why it’s impossible to understand the rest of Tolkien’s work without it, and why I think it is one of the most moving and tragically beautiful stories ever written.
(And, yes, why if you set me on a desert island and told me I could only have one book, I’ve always said that I wouldn’t take The Lord of the Rings – I’d take The Silmarillion.)
I’d like to start by going back to the very beginning of Tolkien’s mythology. Although The Hobbit was published in 1937, Tolkien’s work on what would become The Silmarillion started much earlier. The four “Great Tales” – the stories of Beren and Lúthien, of Túrin Turambar, of the Fall of Gondolin, and of Eärendil – were first written in 1917, while Tolkien was recovering from trench fever. Together with some additional framing material composed around the same time, “it is not too much to say that the outline of The Silmarillion was visible by the end of 1917 – or would have been if it had found any readers” (Professor Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth, p. 224).
These stories grew out of Tolkien’s love of invented languages. Most fantasy authors today start with a story and some characters, and then realize that they’d like a cool language to go with it, so they cobble a few words of something together and call it a language. Tolkien’s stories, on the other hand, were created because he had already started by inventing the languages, and then wanted to write about the sort of peoples who might speak them.
Sixty years, (1917 – 1977) elapsed between the earliest versions of Tolkien’s mythology, and the version that we have today. The stories that make up The Silmarillion were, however, the closest to Tolkien’s heart, and certainly of all his fiction the closest relatives to his academic work. The fact that there was a sixty-year delay in publishing them was not for lack of effort.
(When publishers clamoured for a sequel to The Hobbit – which originally had very little relation to the earlier legends, but was drawn into them gradually – Tolkien sent them the poetic version of the romance of Beren and Lúthien, and the prose text of the Silmarillion. Through a complicated mix-up at the publishing house, only the former was ever actually read, and Tolkien was returned a polite letter asking him if he would, please, start work on a sequel to The Hobbit. When he finally finished The Lord of the Rings, he initially insisted that anyone wanting to publish it had to commit to publishing The Silmarillion as well, with it. Several stalling and/or skeptical publishers later, he eventually relented and let them publish The Lord of the Rings on its own.)
But to read The Lord of the Rings without The Silmarillion is to miss much of the depth and power and sheer complexity of The Lord of the Rings itself. There’s a great deal that happens in The Lord of the Rings that only fits together because of the legends behind it – the legends that make up The Silmarillion. In fact, although The Lord of the Rings is usually read as a stand-alone work, it is the one place where Tolkien brings together and resolves all the strands of narrative and story that have played out over the last seven thousand years of Middle-earth’s history.
Case in point: Galadriel.
Tolkien’s elves are not perfect, pristine, all-powerful, all-knowing creatures, no matter how they may seem on screen – in fact, they’re very flawed and very complicated. The angelic Galadriel of Peter Jackson’s films was actually a fiery warrior princess – given the name Nerwen, “man-maiden,” essentially because of her strength and her stubbornness – who wanted her own kingdom to rule, was a leader in the elven rebellion against the Valar, saw her uncle, five brothers, three cousins, and all their children slaughtered fighting a hopeless war, and proudly scorned the Valar’s offer of pardon to the exiled elves at the end of the First Age. Why is that scene in Lothlórien when Frodo offers her the Ring so crucial? Because she is tempted, because the Ring represents the power that she has always dreamed of, the power that she once would have taken for herself without hesitation: “…my heart has greatly desired to ask what you offer,” she says. “For many long years I had pondered what I might do, should the Great Ring come into my hands, and behold! it was brought within my grasp” (The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 410). When she rejects that power, the ban keeping her out of Valinor is finally lifted. That is why she can then say “I pass the test … I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel” (p. 411). But until that moment, she has quite literally been exiled from all of her remaining family for the previous seven THOUSAND years of the Second and Third Ages – and none of that can one possibly understand without the background of The Silmarillion.
The stories of Arwen and Aragorn, of Elrond, of Gandalf, of Glorfindel, of Éowyn and the Witch-King, of the Men of the West, of Sauron, of the Ents, of the hostility between Dwarves and the Elves, of the Balrog and even of the stars that Frodo and Sam see from Mordor – all of these are, similarly, inextricably bound up with the earlier legends.
But I’d like to stay with Galadriel for a moment, because both she and Celeborn know very well what it is to stare failure in the face and not bow to it: “… through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat” (p. 400). She is not just referring to the fading of the Elves at the end of the Third Age: she is referring to the entirety of Elven history, in which the Elves have faced evil that is not in their power to defeat, and have kept fighting regardless. And in that, The Silmarillion shares a very close kinship with the Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon legends that Tolkien was in part inspired by.
I’d like to quote part of Tolkien’s own commentary on the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, because it applies equally well to The Silmarillion. Speaking of the pre-Christian English mythology, he points out that both the gods and the heroes of Norse mythology are “within Time, doomed with their allies to death. Their battle is with the monsters and the outer darkness” (p. 25).
Throughout Beowulf, the reader is continually reminded that any victory is only temporary. Recall that on the Norse side of things, the world ends when the gods and heroes lose at Ragnarök. In Beowulf, every time the hero achieves a great victory, the poet turns around and notes that treachery and destruction will follow eventually. Of the great golden hall of Heorot, that Beowulf defends, the poet writes:
the hall towered,
its gables wide and high and awaiting
a barbarous burning. That doom abided,
but in time it would come: the killer instinct
unleashed among in-laws, the blood-lust rampant. (81-85, trans. Seamus Heaney)
Though the Shielding nation is described as “not yet familiar with feud and betrayal” (1018), such feuding is shown to be unavoidable, and the hall is doomed to fall.
Even events that should be (theoretically!) joyful occasions are marked by this omnipresent foreshadowing of doom: at one point in the poem, it is mentioned that the Danes and the Heathobards, two warring peoples, plan to mend their feud and make peace through the marriage of Freawaru (princess of one tribe) to Ingeld (son of the leader of the other tribe). Although they hope that this woman “will heal old wounds / and grievous feuds” (2028-2029), destruction cannot be avoided so easily. Beowulf’s prophecy concerns future events, but he speaks as though they have already happened, emphasizing the futility of fighting against fate: the mood of the spearman “will darken” (2043, emphasis mine) and he will begin to incite violence. This strife is clearly inevitable, which is why Beowulf can speak about these future events as certain and as though they had already happened. Internal strife, feuding between in-laws, is the fatal threat:
“Then on both sides the oath-bound lords
will break the peace, a passionate hate
will build up in Ingeld and love for his bride
will falter in him as the feud rankles.” (2063-2066)
When Beowulf slays the dragon at the end of the poem – and in doing so, saves his people from the immediate threat of a flying fire-breathing creature incinerating them and their homes – the poet ever so cheerfully reminds us that his victory really was pointless. Because Beowulf died in the process of slaying the dragon, he has left his people without a strong leader, and they shall promptly be attacked, raided, and slaughtered by neighbouring tribes.
Within Beowulf, then, death is inevitable. Defeat is inevitable. Victories are only temporary.
In his essay “The Monsters and the Critics,” Tolkien continues: “It is the strength of the northern mythological imagination that it faced this problem, put the monsters in the centre, gave them victory but no honour, and found a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage. ‘As a working theory absolutely impregnable.’ So potent is it, that while the older southern imagination has faded for ever into literary ornament, the northern has power, as it were, to revive its spirit even in our own times. It can work, even as it did work with the go∂lauss viking, without gods: marital heroism as its own end. But we may remember that the poet of Beowulf saw clearly: the wages of heroism is death.” (p. 25-26, emphasis mine).
That potent but terrible solution is the potent but terrible solution behind the entire action of the First Age of Middle-earth.
For those who may not have read The Silmarillion (or who may have given up before finishing the Ainulindalë and the Valaquenta and therefore never got to the Quenta Silmarillion proper!), I’ll summarize in brief:
The Elves originally awoke in Middle-earth, under the stars, but the Valar (akin to angels, the guardians of the world) talked them into travelling over the sea to Valinor, ostensibly for their own safety. The Dark Lord, Morgoth (Sauron’s former master), destroyed the two trees of light that provided light in Valinor, and stole the Silmarils, three jewels that were the greatest work of Fëanor, greatest craftsman of the Elves (and ancestor of Celebrimbor, who would later forge the Rings of Power!) Fëanor swears a terrible oath of vengeance and leads a great portion of the Elves out of Valinor, and back to their homeland in Middle-earth, to wage war on Morgoth directly, since the Valar don’t seem to be doing anything useful:
“.. turning to the herald he [Fëanor] cried: ‘Say this to Manwë Súlimo, High King of Arda [= head of the Valar]: if Fëanor cannot overthrow Morgoth, at least he delays not to assail him, and sits not idle in grief. […] Such hurt at the least will I do to the Foe of the Valar that even the mighty in the Ring of Doom shall wonder to hear it. Yea, in the end they shall follow me. Farewell!” (The Silmarillion, p. 91)
The Elves who leave Valinor do so knowing that if they do, they can never return. “[F]rom end to end of the hosts of the Noldor [=Elves] the voice was heard speaking the curse and prophecy which is called the Prophecy of the North and the Doom of the Noldor. Much it foretold in dark words, which the Noldor understood not until the woes indeed after befell them; but all heart the curse that was uttered upon those that would not stay nor seek the doom and pardon of the Valar.
‘Tears unnumbered ye shall shed; and the Valar will fence Valinor against you, and shut you out, so that not even the echo of your lamentation shall pass over the mountains. On the House of Fëanor the wrath of the Valar lieth from the West unto the uttermost East, and upon all that will follow them it shall be laid also. […] To evil end shall all things turn that they being well; and by treason of kin unto kin, and the fear of treason, shall this come to pass. The Dispossessed shall they be for ever.” (p.94-95)
The Elves then spend the entirety of the First Age of Middle-earth in exile waging war against Morgoth, who is a fallen Vala and therefore has godlike powers and cannot be killed.
They are fighting a hopeless war, a war in which the only possibility is that they will eventually die without having achieved any sort of lasting victory.
Recall what Galadriel said: “… through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat” (p. 400).
Within Time, the “monsters” will win. But the Elves refuse to bow to tyranny, refuse to cave in or surrender, refuse to back down. They find, in short, “a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage.”
It’s a solution that leads to Fingolfin, High King of the Noldor, challenging Morgoth to single combat before the gates of Angband, Morgoth’s fortress.* It’s a solution that leads to Beren and Lúthien sneaking into the very heart of Angband, because her father has decreed that he’ll only approve of the (mortal, human) Beren if the man shows up with a Silmaril from the iron crown of Morgoth himself. It’s a solution that leads to the last stand of Fingon at the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, and the last stand of Huor, and the twenty-eight-year imprisonment of Húrin while Morgoth tortures him by making him watch every single horrible thing that happens to his family in that time.
And in perhaps the saddest and yet most beautiful story of the entire legendarium, The Fall of Gondolin, the hidden city of Gondolin is betrayed to Morgoth by one of its own people. The story is told in much greater detail in the Book of Lost Tales, Part 2, but I’ll quote from the published Silmarillion here:
“…the red light mounted the hills in the north and not in the east; and there was no stay in the advance of the foe until they were beneath the very walls of Gondolin, and the city was beleaguered without hope. Of the deeds of desperate valour there done, by the chieftains of the noble houses and their warriors, and not least by Tuor, much is told in The Fall of Gondolin: of the battle of Ecthelion of the Fountain with Gothmog Lord of Balrogs in the very square of the King, where each slew the other, and of the defence of the tower of Turgon by the people of his household, until the tower was overthrown; and mighty was its fall and the fall of Turgon in its ruin.” (p. 291)
The city is sacked, the inhabitants are slaughtered, and the few who aren’t only make it out alive after terrible sacrifices. Glorfindel (yes, the same Glorfindel who – later reincarnated a couple ages later – prophesied that no man would defeat the Witch-King, and who met Aragorn and the hobbits on their way to Rivendell) duelled a Balrog to ensure that Idril and Tuor and Eärendil escaped.
And even then, with their cities in ruins, their lands destroyed, their children and friends and relatives dead – the elves simply don’t give up. Even in the face of complete and utter destruction, they fight on.
That is the tragedy, and the power, and the beauty, and – yes – the terror of The Silmarillion.
Yes, it’s bleak. Yes, it’s difficult. Yes, it’s complicated and most of the chieftains of the Noldor have similar sounding names – but so do the heroes of the Norse sagas, and if you’ve ever had to keep Thorkell, Thorlak, Thorleif, Thormar, Thormod, Thorod, Thorolf, and four different Thorsteins straight, Fingolfin and Finrod don’t look so bad by comparison.
Tolkien wasn’t trying to write a novel when he wrote The Silmarillion – so yes, The Silmarillion doesn’t pretend to follow novelistic conventions. What he was trying to write was a mythology. He knew quite well that readers didn’t always have a taste for that – in a 1956 letter, he noted that he did “not think it would have the appeal of the L.R. – no hobbits! Full of mythology, and elvishness, and all that ‘heigh style’ (as Chaucer might say), which has been so little to the taste of many reviewers” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 238).
The mediation provided by the hobbits – more relatable, perhaps, to the average reader than the heroic characters of the older legends – is entirely absent from The Silmarillion. As Christopher Tolkien writes in his introduction to the Book of Lost Tales, “in ‘The Silmarillion’ the draught is pure and unmixed; and the reader is worlds away from such ‘mediation’”.
Perhaps I’m biased in my love of myths and epics and heroic legends – I’ve always found them fascinating, and clearly fascinating enough to do a grad degree in them. But I think there is something about myths and legends that has fascinated millions of people for thousands of years – because they speak to our hearts and to our imaginations, because they move us, because they inspire us, because they reflect who we are or who we want to be.
And for me the very factors that people object to about The Silmarillion – the heightened style, the lack of mediation, the unmixed draught of mythology as it were, the sheer scope and horror of the tragedy and yet the determination that emerges from that tragedy – are what I love most about it.
So if you’re expecting a second Lord of the Rings – yes, you will be disappointed in The Silmarillion.
But if you’re looking for timeless myths?
Pick it up. Skip the endless list of names in the Valaquenta and start with the Quenta Silmarillion proper if you have to, and keep a finger in the back of the book to refer to the family tree of Fingolfin, Finrod, and the rest if you get confused. They really are distinct characters in their own rights, and if you stick with it, you should have no trouble telling them apart. Don’t expect it to be something it’s not, but appreciate it for everything that it is, and let the stories do the rest of the work.
(Wow, that ended up way longer than I intended. As always, comments / thoughts / arguments / other perspectives are welcome!)
*I won’t comment on this duel here because I’d just end up quoting the passage in its entirety – I can’t possibly do it justice. But together with the Fall of Gondolin, it is burned into my memory for all of time.