I’ve read The Lord of the Rings [amazon.com, amazon.co.uk] several times — certainly three times, more likely four or five, maybe more. And The Hobbit [amazon.com, amazon.co.uk] a couple of times, although that never appealed to me so much, even when I was younger. But I’d never made more than a cursory and quickly-abandoned assault on what is arguably Tolkein’s masterpiece The Silmarillion [amazon.com, amazon.co.uk]. I did try it once many years ago, but gave up only a few pages in, while still mired in Ainulindalë, the opening section on the creation of the universe.
Not this time!
Ten days ago, I borrowed a paperback of the original Allen and Unwin edition (pictured above), and I’ve now started to read in earnest. In part I was inspired by the words of my good friend Matt Wedel, who told me nearly seven years ago that “Actually, once the world is sung into existence it gets pretty good. Melkor brings some Balrogs and starts trashing the party. The resonances between the Silmarillion and LOTR start to become clear. Further updates as events warrant.”
But mostly, I’m reading it because it seems lame that I have never done so. As though I’d never read, say, Kernighan and Ritchie. I feel like I don’t have the right to love LotR as much as I do without having done the spadework.
I’m guessing that some of you out there may feel the same way, so although as I write this I am only 53 pages in, it might just be helpful if I write a little about what I’ve found so far.
What The Silmarillion isn’t
What Tolkien’s publishers asked him for, and what many people reading The Silmarillion assume it is, is a sequel to The Lord of the Rings. It’s no such thing, and in fact when Tolkien sent those publishers an early draft of The Silmarillion, they quite rightly rejected it. Andrew Rilstone says that Tolkien “certainly wanted it to be published, arguing that The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion were an inseparable whole, and threatening to take the trilogy to Collins instead of Allen and Unwin because the former showed some interest in printing both books together.” It’s hard to understand quite what Tolkien can have been thinking, given that the two books are so completely different in content, style, tone, approach … everything, really. (But read on.)
The Lord of the Rings is, at bottom, a novel. It’s a highly unusual one, to be sure — epic and resonant and self-consistent to a degree that other authors desperately aspire to but don’t even approach; driven in places more by a desire to tell a history than a story; and having a huge cast, most of whom come with absolutely no back-story. It’s not like a novel, in the way we normally think of one, but nevertheless that’s what it is. It’s a strange, mutant, one-of-a-kind novel, but a novel it is.
The Silmarillion is not. It has no characters (but a cast even bigger than that of LotR). It has plot — plenty of it — but it’s sketched only in a cursory way. It has absolutely nothing by way of a character that the reader can identify with, as you might be able to to identify with Frodo, or perhaps with Merry or Pippin, or Faramir or Éowyn. It certainly doesn’t put its actors (I won’t call them characters) though an “arc”, in the sense of discovering something about themselves, learning and growing as people.
And these are not deficiencies in the book. Understand, I am not saying that The Silmarillion is a bad novel. I’m saying it’s not a novel at all. It just isn’t interested in that stuff.
What The Silmarillion actually is
I realised this rather suddenly, and found it helpful.
It’s not a prequel to The Lord of the Rings. It’s a prequel to the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings.
I admit, to my shame, that until a few months ago I’d never read those appendices. Like, I suspect, most people, I closed the book when I reached the end of Book VI, skipping lightly over Appendices A-F and indeed all four indexes (Songs and Verses; Persons, Beasts and Monsters; Places; Things. In case you were wondering). But at the end of this most recent rereading, I gritted my teeth and ploughed in, only to find that I was rather enjoying most of them. Admittedly Appendix D (Calendars) is rather a lot less riveting than Appendix A (Annals of the Kings and Rulers). But the value of the appendices is an emergent property — a sense of solidity, consistency, you might almost say reality — that grounds the novel more firmly and makes everything in it feel more resonant.
As usual, that redoubtable Tolkein critic Andrew Rilstone says it best, in his classic essay Is Tolkien actually any good?:
Are we happy to read the book and file Numenor under ‘old splendid place; fell a long time ago’ and Elbereth as ‘important person, something to do with stars, reverenced by elves’? In a way, this adds to the solidity of the book, to the sense that Middle-earth exists outside of the confines of one novel. But it also turns the book into a sort of puzzle, a complicated thread of back and forward reference which the dedicated enthusiast can attempt to solve. (The Silmarillion is the solution, but the Simarillion is so unbelievably dense that merely reading it can be treated as a puzzle in its own right.) Where a normal, sane novel expects you to interpret metaphors, follow the author as he delineates character and create a little day dream in your mind, Tolkien expects you to remember facts, check things on maps, and maybe even jot down data on the back of an envelope.
But the thing is: it does work. Part of me revolts at the idea of reading a book of made-up-in-the-same-century-I-was-born-in artificial myths. It does feel, well, a bit silly (although, now I come to think of it, not particularly sillier than reading any other fiction). But somehow Tolkien has enough about him to make it all feel significant. Not merely enough inventiveness, enough philological insight, enough time on his hands. Something more is involved. I hestitate to say this, but I almost think you might call it greatness of spirit. C. S. Lewis’s ultra-positive review of Lord of the Rings on its initial publication said “Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron.” That is extravagant praise, but also careful praise. It’s saying a specific and precise thing about the book, and of course it’s completely accurate. I don’t think any amount of carefully assembled history, geography, linguistics and mythology would in itself be enough to do that. I think the motor of Tolkien’s writing was something much deeper, and people who think that philology lay at its core quite mistake the matter.
So, what is The Silmarillion? It’s the mythical backdrop to Lord of the Rings; or, rather, it’s more of that backdrop, since much of it was in the appendices already. To attempt a rather pretentious analogy, it is not unlike the Old Testament against which LotR is the New; it’s not that you exactly need it to make sense of the more accessible book; but knowing the Old, and understanding it, casts a new light that makes the New shine more brightly, hold together more tightly, sing more clearly. It gives fresh and informative angles from which to view the much-loved and maybe over-familiar text.
In this light, Tolkein’s desire that both books be published together makes much more sense: it’s not (I assume) that he felt that they were in any way comparable as literature, but that the world-flavour laid down by the appendices was not sufficient, and needed The Silmarillion as a complement. In fact, the whole book might very well have been included as a sequence of further appendices to LotR, had it been ready in time and if page counts allowed it.
What The Silmarillion is like to read
Oh, my, but it’s dense.
It is really five separate works in one volume. Ainulindalë (12 pages) tells of Ilúvatar’s creation of the Ainur (something like angels or demi-gods) and the physical universe Eä, and of the rebellion of the Ainu Melkor. Valaquenta (14 pages) is an account of the Valar, the fourteen Ainur who descended into the physical universe to mould the earth, Arda, and defend it from Melkor. The great bulk of the book is taken up by the Quenta Silmarillion (270 pages), a set of tales of the First Age involving the Valar, their servants the Maiar, elves, men, and Melkor and his servants. Then follows Akallabêth (32 pages), the tale of the rise and fall of Numenor in the Second Age. And finally, Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age (27 pages) tells what events led to The Lord of the Rings, and then summarises, from a different perspective, the events therein.
And there is so much stuff in there. For example, Valaquenta tells you not just the names of the fourteen Valar (seven male, seven female), but their relationships (who’s married to who, who is whose brother), their special areas of responsibility, their superpowers, their armour class and hit points, and (of course, this being Tolkien) the other names they are known by — for example, Varda is Elbereth. And you are expected to remember all this — there will be a test. I’m trying to absorb it all, but as I push on into the Quenta Silmarillion, I find myself repeatedly having to refer back to Valaquenta to remind myself, say, which one Kementári is. (Another name for Yavanna, responsible for trees and suchlike, wife of Aulë who “has might little less than Ulmo”, and whose lordship is — of course! — “over all the substances of which Arda is made”, and who gets a bonus of +4 on saving rolls.)
The Valar are not unlike the pantheon of Greek gods (Zeus, Hades, Poseidon, Hermes and their buddies). The difference is that you can’t help but learn the Greek gods in passing as you go through life. I’ve had forty-something years to get used to the idea that Hades is responsible for the dead, Hermes is the messenger of the gods, Hera is the wife of Zeus and so on. But Tolkein expects you absorb a similar amount of information in 14 pages, and then go on to apply it.
In fact, of all the books I’ve ever read, The Silmarillion reminds me most of The C Programming Language. Both books are complex, terse, demanding, unforgiving of lazy or careless readers, very very dense, and extremely rewarding. And if you care about the subjects they treat, they are indispensible.
So … that’s what I got from the first 54 pages.
Further bulletins as events warrant.