SPOILER ALERT: I will be eventually talking about the plot of The Silmarillion in a general way.
First, a bit of personal Tolkien history. Around early 1964, when I was 13, my grade school librarian, Mrs. Grady, lent me her copy of The Hobbit by Tolkien. We both liked fantasy, and she thought I would enjoy it. I loved it, and it’s still my favorite book written for young readers. I bought my own hardcover copy a few years later. Mrs. Grady told me there was a much longer book about Middle Earth by Tolkien aimed at adults, which she hadn’t yet read. At the time it was only out in hardcover.
I was an avid reader, and took any chance to browse the few local bookstores in the area where I grew up in central New Jersey. On one such day I discovered this paperback from Ace of the first book of The Lord of the Rings trilogy (really one long book) with a fine Jack Gaughan cover. For a mere 75 cents I was drawn back into Tolkien’s world and my life was forever changed by it. I remember the book was so engrossing I brought it with me on a family outing, and couldn’t put it down when everyone else was enjoying the real world. I was heartbroken by the fate of Gandalf, my favorite character in this book, and desperately wanted to read the rest of the trilogy, but I had learned from Mrs. Grady or someone that these Ace paperbacks were unauthorized pirate copies that Tolkien disliked, and that Ballantine Books would soon be publishing an authorized paperback set. I decided not to buy the other Ace volumes (actually I’m not sure if I ever saw them), and to wait, but one local bookstore did have copies of the hardcovers, I think the final printing of the first American edition.
I looked at them, and I saw the beautiful maps in the back of each one, and wanted them badly, but at $5.95 each, they were beyond what I had to spend. My mom was with me, and she said she would get me the second book, The Two Towers, for Christmas if I could wait until then. (This was around August.) I agreed to that, and on Christmas day, 1964, was finally able to find out What Happened Next. On the front endpaper she wrote, “To Todd, May you get as many pleasures and rewards from life as you do from books. With love, Mother and Dad.” With The Hobbit as prelude, The Lord of the Rings remains my favorite book of all time.
I was also fascinated by Tolkien’s calligraphy in the examples of the writing of Middle Earth in the books, and it inspired me to do some of my own like the example above from about 1966. I see a lot of things there I’d do differently now, but it’s not bad for a teenager.
With the release of the Ballantine paperback editions of LOTR, Tolkien’s epic exploded in popularity, and became one of the best selling books of all time. I read everything else I could find by him, which wasn’t much. Ballantine published The Tolkien Reader, which included the humorous short medieval adventure Farmer Giles of Ham, some essays and other stories, and The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, poems about Middle Earth. Then there was Tolkien poems set to music by Donald Swann, The Road Goes Ever On, which included some interesting notes and more calligraphy, another short book, Smith of Wootton Major, and The Father Christmas Letters, sent by Tolkien to his children with his own illustrations. For years the publication of a LOTR prequel, The Silmarillion, was promised, but it didn’t happen until after the author’s death, when his son Christopher assembled the book from the many versions left by Tolkien. It came out in 1977, when I was 26. Of course I immediately bought it, even though the cover was disappointing, using an image from The Hobbit rather than something new.
Think how much more interesting the cover could have been with this 1928 watercolor by Tolkien depicting the mountain peak in Valinor holding the Halls of Manwe, but perhaps even Christopher Tolkien didn’t know about this at the time, you got a sense from his introduction that his father’s papers were massive and in disarray. This painting was used on a later edition.
I found the book fascinating but ultimately disappointing. It’s divided into several sections, with by far the longest focusing on The First Age, when the godlike Valar live in the west, separated from Middle Earth by a wide sea and potent spells. The first section, Ainulindale, is about the beginning of everything, and is similar to the Biblical creation story, with Eru or Ilúvatar the creator singing new beings, The Valar, to life, and they join him in that creation song. (Echoes of C.S. Lewis’s creation story of Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew are probably not a coincidence, as the authors were friends and shared their works in progress with each other.) The Valar might be considered the equivalent of Angels, and as in The Bible, the greatest of them, Melkor, turns evil, and works against all the other Valar in Middle Earth, gaining the dark name Morgoth, as told in the second short section, The Valaquenta.
The third section, Quenta Silmarillion, is by far the longest. It tells many stories of the First Age, beginning with Morgoth’s evil rise in Middle Earth, and the war between him and the rest of The Valar. In time, The Elves emerge in the darkness, and some travel west to the lands of The Valar, while others remain in Middle Earth. Morgoth works against all of them. The tales of this long section are epic, full of heroic battles, magic, curses, tragic fates, a little romance, but otherwise mostly sad, and with little charm and no humor. Here and there are brief respites for a few, but always their darker impulses and their doom finds them, and nearly everyone is eventually destroyed by Morgoth and his evil creations. There are few characters one can easily relate to among the Valar and Elves, and when Men emerge, they too are often hard to like, even when being heroic. Perhaps the best of these stories is that of the man Beren and the elf woman Lúthien, a star-crossed romance full of seemingly impossible heroics by Beren and faithful love by Lúthien that eventually does have a sort of happy ending. (Tolkien and his wife Edith have the names Beren and Lúthien on their tombstone.) Morgoth outwits The Valar, elves and men again and again, dwarves too when they turn up, and nearly all the stories are tragic and gloomy. At least Morgoth is finally defeated, but many of his creations remain to trouble Middle Earth, including his right hand man, Sauron. Some elves return to the West, but some remain to watch over Middle Earth, including Galadriel and Elrond.
Then there’s a short section about The Second Age, Akallabeth, where we learn of the rise of men and the founding of a new island stronghold for them, Númenor. For a while they grow in grace and knowledge with help from the Elves, but eventually they become tyrants in Middle Earth, and their downfall is certain when they take in Sauron and heed his advice.
Final sections tell more about the creation of the Rings of Power, and a few things that happened after the end of The Lord of the Rings. These later parts are relevant to the recent new TV series “Rings of Power” on Amazon Prime. Technically, the creators of that series did not have rights to The Silmarillion, but much of the same material is outlined in the appendices at the end of The Return of the King, the third book of LOTR. I’ve also reread those. The Amazon Prime series got me thinking about this book again, and I see now how the creators of that series made it much more appealing to me by the inclusion of humor and more down-to-earth characters and stories alongside the high drama from Tolkien’s book, as the author himself did in LOTR. Really, it’s what I was hoping for in The Silmarillion and didn’t get. I’ve already started rewatching “Rings of Power,” and I’m getting pleasure from understanding and recognizing more of the book characters than I did before, while also enjoying the entire cast and story. Yes, there are changes from the writings of Tolkien, but ones I find acceptable and at times even preferable.
To sum up, this book is important to the understanding of Tolkien’s work, but much of it is not a fun read, sadly. Still, recommended, and helpful for a richer knowledge of the history behind both LOTR and “Rings of Power.”
Thanks for your great article! I had a hell of a time making it through the Silmarillion! I actually started 10 times and gave up before I made it through !
I’m sure others will say this, but I’m pretty sure the real issue is that Tolkien wanted to create another trilogy but didn’t live long enough to produce more than what this book contains. That whole first section of about 140 pages, seems to just be a historical outline of what would have eventually become fleshed out stories. And then the great stories that come after those pages, would have been incorporated into much larger parts of the books.
Well, you could be right, but much of the work on this book was begun well before LOTR, and longer versions of some parts have come out since. I agree that Tolkien’s aim was high, but perhaps got bogged down in the details and rewrites.
I must say that I completely disagree! 🙂
I loved the Silmarillion. It reads like LOTH bardic tales written down after listening to Norse skalds. I absolutely was enthralled and it enriched my love and understanding of the LOTR.
Great piece. I enjoyed reading your views.
Good article. I tried reading LOTR as a teenager and was not able to follow Tolkien’s sequencing style and gave up. I was also frustrated after the first animated LOTR movie with wait and then the poorly animated cartoon that followed. As an adult I had more patience and read the whole tome in about a month and was well rewarded when the Ring movies came out. Now in my late 50’s I am diving into the Silmarillion a section at time and digesting the whole Tolkien universe, and I am finding it equally rewarding and I, too, will rewatch ROP again after to enjoy that as well. I will eventually get to all of his works in good time. I guess we are all on a similar journey to take it all in. 🙂
Silmarillion is hands down my favorite of Tolkien’s works. Re-read it and the others every few years.