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The Silmarillion: Tolkien's rough literary gems
The Silmarillion - J.R.R.Tolkien
Member Name: cheffrey
The Silmarillion - J.R.R.Tolkien
Advantages: Awesome and staggering in breadth, with some great stories
Disadvantages: Bluntly written, lacking in detail and not really a 'story' as such.
Simply put, 'The Silmarillion' is to 'Lord of the Rings' what 'Lord of the Rings' is to 'The Hobbit'. No doubt such a comparison will have readers either running for the exits, or thrilled at the prospect of more information about the ever-appealing realms of Middle-Earth and beyond.
'The Silmarillion' is the collision of numerous ambitions of Tolkien, which some say is too grand a goal to achieve. Inspired by the creation myths of numerous cultures, as well as the epic tales from Greek and Nordic poems and sagas, Tolkien attempts to fuse together all of these aspects and more. As an avid philologist, Tolkien was obsessed with languages, and the beauty and power they convey and the identities they form of the people that spoke them. Having already constructed several types of Elvish, he needed some people to speak them. Being fictional, they needed a fictional place to live, which needed a creation story, and songs and legends of these people flourished. So 'The Silmarillion' is the platform for the languages of these fictional people, and is creation myth, history and legendarium of Middle-Earth, all rolled into one.
Originating as far back as 1915, when a young Tolkien was serving in the trenches of World War One, it started life as 'The Lost Tales'. Although Tolkien's main inspiration to write about Middle Earth was always a linguistic one, he also wished to give England some folk-tales and myths of its own. This flourished into something much larger in scale and more detached over time.
The book comprises several parts, the first being the 'Ainulindale', or 'The Music of the Ainur'. Here it is described how the world (or 'Arda') came into being, when Eru and the Ainur, an equivalent of God and the Archangels, sung the world into being. It is an obtuse yet mesmerising piece of writing, and shows certain parallels not only to the creation story of Genesis, but also to his colleague C.S. Lewis' works. Aficionados of the Chronicles of Narnia will note how Aslan roared the world into existence. Perhaps creation myths were a talking point in the Eagle and Child in Oxford. Chaos and disorder are present, as one of the Ainur, Melkor, attempts to disrupt this music as the world is created, being jealous of Eru's powers. Melkor is thus drawn as the equivalent of Satan, falling from a state of peace and grace and the source of all strife in the new world of Arda.
This is recounted further in the 'Valaquenta', which describes the stories of the Valar and the Maiar, the immortal beings that take up residence in the newly created world. Both of these parts of the book are brief, but are sweeping and majestic in their scope, if obscure in their description. This trait follows all the way through the book, as Tolkien breaks that golden rule of modern writers: 'Show, don't tell'. Tolkien is definitely shy to show us anything in detail here, and its blunt style is reminiscent of histories and chronicles rather than the detailed storytelling of 'The Hobbit' or 'Lord of the Rings''.
The main body of the book is the 'Quenta Silmarillion', being the history of the Silmarils. Herein lies most of the background of Middle Earth, a history spanning thousands of years. Comprising twenty-four parts, it is an overwhelming read. Much like epic Greek poetry, the stories bombard the reader with a catalogue of place names and people, most of which are in some form of Elvish (Sindarin or Quenya). Thankfully, it includes a glossary of these names, as well as their meanings and notes on pronunciation. I would give a word of caution though, as this could be a slippery slope into books of vocabulary and grammar on Elvish and a desire to switch off the subtitles to the Elvish bits of dialogue in the 'Lord of the Rings' movie. Geekdom beckons.
'The Silmarillion' is as frustrating a read as it is spellbinding. I think it is fair to say that Tolkien possessed the rare ability to write to any audience, whether they be children ('The Hobbit', 'Farmer Giles of Ham'), fans of epic storytelling ('Lord of the Rings') or academics (see his work on 'Sir Gawain' or 'Sigurd the Dragonslayer'). But here it feels as though he is primarily writing for himself, and spends little time elaborating on detail or fleshing out events. Dialogue is sparse and terse, and deeds define the characters much more readily than their speech. The style is reminscent of those old sagas from which Tolkien drew heavily; it is blunt, and to the point. This is where the frustration lies, as some of the stories within these chapters are so strong that they leave the reader thinking 'if only...'.
Of these, the ones that stand out are 'Of Beren and Luthien', which chronicles the lengths to which lovers will go for each other, and the daring quest to cut a Silmaril from Morgoth's crown. It is also a welcome respite from the catalogue of disasters that plague the different Elvish peoples, as Morgoth weaves his webs of malice and deceit to bring about their downfall. Standing starkly against this ray of hope is the utterly tragic tale of Turin Turambar, which features in 'The Unfinished Tales' and was recently expanded into a more detailed story by Christopher Tolkien in 'The Children of Hurin'.
We are also treated to a lot more information on the events preceding those in 'Lord of the Rings' under 'The War of the Ring', and the line of kings from which Aragorn was descended. The fate of that people is described in 'The Downfall of Numenor', which also gives a glimpse into Sauron's rise to power and a facet of his character too. It is also the most revealing part of the book, as the events of the whole of 'Lord of the Rings' are summed up in one paragraph. Middle Earth is a very, very big place indeed.
Like his colleague Lewis, Tolkien was no stranger to littering his work with Christian allusions, although given his vocal opposition to allegory it is doubtful that there is some kind of evangelical message here. It is more likely that they are sources of inspiration, rather than a pulse from the pulpit of Tolkien's Catholicism.
In all, 'The Silmarillion' is not for those expecting an adventure story comparable to 'Lord of the Rings' or 'The Hobbit'. It is a linguistic exercise, a snapshot of his mythology and creation myth, a detailed history and a collection of saga-like stories all rolled into one. It also underlines Tolkien's achievement and imagination, which I once read described as something like 'imagine if Homer, when coming to write The Iliad, had had to invent the whole Greek pantheon, and the histories and languages and dialects of the Trojans, and the Achaeans, and the Myrmidons, and all the characters and their lineages first.' The Silmarillion demonstrates just that; Tolkien did in one lifetime what it takes most cultures several hundred years to achieve.
While impressive, it's also ultimately unsatisfying. When I'd finished it, I just wanted more stories from Middle Earth and Valinor. It's a shame Tolkien didn't turn more of his myth into great stories like 'Lord of the Rings'.
This is available from Amazon for a few pounds for the paperback or Kindle editions, and the hardback from one penny (used, of course). I'd recommend this for anyone who has read Tolkien's main works and wants more, but would urge casual fans to stay away.
Summary: Will intrigue Tolkien fans, but will alienate casual readers.