The Silmarillion is a curious book, in various ways. While many (though not all) love The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, not so many of those who do have a great liking for Tolkien’s part mythology, part history of Middle Earth. It is a book that could only be published on the coattails of a massively successful fantasy series – The Wheel of Time and A Sonf of Ice and Fire, for instance – and would probably only be of interest to people who really liked the original story.
It’s also strange in its narrative focus. The early part of the volume is distinctly biblical in its style of writing and concerns the pantheon gods and lesser primordial beings – the Ainur – which gives it very classical Greek overtones. After that, though, the story gradually expands to become more novelistic in style – events are described in increasing detail and characters are given more dialogue.
Some of those who have read the book prefer the later parts for exactly this more character-centred stle. However, I first read it a long time ago and it was the earlier, mythopoetic part of the volume that always stuck in my imagination; it shaped my attitude towards fantasy cosmogony in my own creations. That said, the tale of Beren and Lúthien also got lodged in there, although less inspirationally so.
Reading The Silmarillion a second time – for the Tolkien discussion group I attend – I was struck by a few things. Firstly, my memory is not very good for lots of the details of the various sub-plots and characters that occupy various chapters of the Quenta Silmarillion – the long central part of the book that deals with much of the history of the Elves. This is largely due to the nature of the narrative being related.
It was the story of Fëanor, his jewels, his family and his people that especially interested me, but their story is dispersed throughout the Quenta. This arc story is interrupted by various notable episodes. There are a few chapters – that concerning Beren and Lúthien and the one about Túrin Turambar – where the narrative becomes rather more detailed than usual – and these are admittedly some of the best tales within the larger story. But, in some ways, they feel rather irrelevant, especially that of Túrin; Beren and Lúthien have a direct impact on the fate of the Silmarils, at least. It also occured to me that, if all three Hobbit films are successful, these individual tales from The Silmarillion might make excellent money-spinning successors.
Towards the end of the book, the attention shifts away from the Elves and towards Men. To me, this felt very anti-climactic. Men are lesser beings than Elves, having been given the crappiest gift imaginable – short lives and actual death – by Ilúvatar, the Creator. Even the villain of the latter piece, Sauron, is basically a cheap knock-off of his erstwhile boss, Morgoth. Much of what Sauron does has already been done by the disgraced god.
This relates to one of the overall themes of all the Middle Earth works – that of continual decline, a slow, inevitable fall from grace. The poignancy of this comes across extremely effectively in The Lord of the Rings, I think, but here, the sweep of history – and especially Man’s role in the latter parts of that history – render it a rather annoying kind of nostalgia.
My attitude towards the Ainur – the Valar, in particular – changed a lot over the course of reading the volume. At the start, they seem wonderfully noble and magical. By the end, however, they are distinctly haughty and uncaring – especially when it comes to Men. Their ban on anyone sailing west beyond sight of Númenor seems little more than divine racism and then tearing the world in two, punishing Elves and Men for the sins of Sauron is a fit of pique a two-year-old would be proud of.
Which observation segues into one of the more profound (and yet somehow irrelevant) critiques of Tolkien’s work: that it propounds a deeply reactionary message: some people are just better than others, some people’s ancestry gives them the right to rule their fellows. This is countered, of course by the fact that Frodo Baggins, a simple Hobbit from the Shire, saves the world in The Return of the King – but Frodo is also accompanied by his unquestioning servant, Sam; and, while Frodo sails off to retirement in the sky, Aragorn, descendant of the Kings of Númenor – a land that no longer exists – becomes king of Middle Earth (a large part of it, anyway).
All that being said, there is much that is good in The Silmarillion. The writing style, while antiquated – in different ways at different places – is carried off with an authority that makes you feel that you really are reading the collected myths and legends of a world. Many of the motivations of the human-scale characters are thoroughly believable and their often unpleasant ends have a sense of justice to them. And in terms of killing off characters, Tolkien definitely out-George R R Martined George R R Martin long before Westeros had been thought of.
I don’t think The Silmarillion is perfect, by any means, but anyone who’s enjoyed The Hobbit and TLotR should find their appreciation enriched by reading it. Or, given that the published form of the book was put together after Tolkien’s death by his son Christopher and Canadian fantasy writer Guy Gavriel Kay, they may just find it an example of barrel-scraping.