The Silmarillion

Author: J.R.R. Tolkien

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1977

I read it: October 2014


When my wife and I got matching Tolkien tattoos at the beginning of the year, I felt a bit guilty that I had never attempted to read The Silmarillion. The paperback has haunted the shelves of my childhood home for as long as I can remember; even after going through LotR numerous times and one of the Book of Lost Tales, this one sat dormant. So I finally did it.

There’s no denying what everyone suspects: this book is for Tolkien completists. There’s not really a lot to grab the reader’s attention, as the creation stories and other sagas are a bit too omniscient to make for ultimately compelling stories. The proper nouns are legion, sometimes to the detriment of mythological clarity. I gleaned that the Valar are important, and the Maiar, and that those somehow led to the Eldar, a certain race of elves. It gets fuzzy fast. A large part of the tales concern themselves with Melkor, or Morgoth, the fallen angel/Satan character of Tolkien’s world, and those sections are usually interesting. There are some other cool beasts, like huge spiders and werewolves, and plenty of grand war and romanticism. But given the distant writing style, it’s a struggle to latch onto the characters, as glorious or poetically doomed as they may be.

Things get a little more interesting toward the end, during a part called “Akallabêth” (how cool is that word?) as well as the slim final section, “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age.” Here we get to know more about Sauron’s early days when he could still take on a human form (I can see now a little better where Stephen King’s Randall Flagg came from). Of course he tricks the men into rebelling against the gods and Elves, to their demise. There’s also specific emphasis on Mithrandir (Gandalf) and it’s fun to identify the story threads that were used to flesh out plot points in the current Hobbit movies.

There’s a lot of Old Testament going on here, in story as well as form. Evil never seems to be something housed within men’s hearts, but placed there from malevolent sources. The most intriguing parts are when men rise up to argue about their mortality, and face their options about how to deal with “the ordering of their life, such as it might be in the lands of swift death and little bliss.” As is obvious to most modern readers, Tolkien’s story is largely about quests to understand the role of humans on a grand mystical, often religious, scale.

Regardless of the effort needed, Tolkien fans ought to still find pleasure here. It’s in the yellowed pages and that distinct typeface. It’s in the smell of the book and the magical yet fallible worlds. It’s in the sheer existence of the lengthy index and appendix where all those creative names are listed. It’s in the bulk and breadth. It brings me back.

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