So once I finally started my long-overdue assault on The Silmarillion [amazon.com, amazon.co.uk], I finished very quickly. In fact, I absolutely hoovered it up. I would have blogged about it again sooner, but as regular readers will know, I got distracted by git, Buffy (both the TV series and the dreadful movie), and selection sorting. Oh, and I wanted to catch up on Doctor Who, which I haven’t actually done yet but at least I feel like it’s under control again now.
As usual, I am going to have a lot to say, but for those who want to cut to the chase I will summarise right up front: The Silmarillion is utterly brilliant. Those of you who’ve avoided it up till now should fix that mistake ASAP.
I will admit that I once more found the initial section on the creation of the universe (Ainulindalë) rather heavy going, and that the account of the Valar (Valaquenta) was not much easier. But these are both short sections — 12 and 14 pages respectively — and they are really only an extended prologue before the story proper. As soon as the Quenta Silmarillion got going, I was hooked, and read obsessively — though very slowly, because I was constantly looking up names and places in the annotated index in the back of the book. And I do mean constantly — probably half a dozen times per page on average.
But that’s not to say that the first two sections are without their moments of piercing beauty. For example, I was greatly moved by Ilúvatar’s grace towards Aulë after his rebellious and ultimately failed attempt to create the Dwarves before the birth of Elves and Men; that not only did he not destroy the Dwarves or allow Aulë to do so, he gave them the very life and independence that Aulë had not been able to give them.
All of this is told in a very few words. I don’t have my copy to hand at the moment (I’m in Copenhagen), but as I recall, it’s over and done in maybe a third of a page. That’s not atypical — as I’ve said before the Silmarillion is an astonishingly dense book, and even the moments of greatest glory, deepest bathos and foulest betrayal are not lingered on for even a moment. Each event is recounted with maximum economy, and then the narrative moves on. This approach paradoxically makes the Silmarillion both rather dry and immensely rich; if the dryness doesn’t turn you away, the richness can overwhelm.
How to read the Silmarillion
Grasp the book firmly but gently in both hands, with the cover facing towards you and words oriented normally. With your left hand, grip the front of the book and with your right, hold the back. Bring your hands carefully apart, causing the book to open up. Now focus your eyes on the top line on the left page, and read each word in turn, moving from left to right. When you reach the end of the line, move down to the leftmost end of the next line and continue to read from left to right.
By the time you reach the end of the second line, you’ll need to look up a name in the index; or perhaps locate someone on one of the family trees, or look up the parts of a name in the partial list of word meanings at the back to figure out what the name might mean.
So … I found the family trees, index and word meanings within the book itself to be invaluable. I also used two other resources extensively, and found them very helpful in getting the most out of the Silmarillion. One is good ol’ Wikipedia, the best web site anywhere on the Internet, bar none. (I wish Douglas Adams had lived long enough to see the ascendancy of this real Hitch Hiker’s Guide to everything.) It’s truly amazing that it works as well as it does, and I must remember to write about it properly some time.
Apart from the very wide-area maps like this one, there are maps showing individual areas, details of cities, villages and caves, maps showing journeys, battles, migrations, and many more — all accompanied by text that explains what’s shown and quotes liberally from Tolkein to justify the depictions.
You may remember that back when I started to read The Silmarillion, it was largely on the recommendation of my co-blogger Matt Wedel, who had long ago written to me 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.” It turns out that he has a guilty secret: he never actually finished reading it — never even got to Beren and Luthien, which I think is pretty poor. But his excuse is an interesting one:
My best aid to reading the Silmarillion was the Atlas of Middle Earth, which, oddly enough, I have never really used to track the events in The Hobbit or LOTR. But for the Silmarillion it was clutch…loads of maps and capsule descriptions of what is going on at each step.
In fact, the AoME was so useful that it is probably at least half to blame for my not finishing. After a while I realized I could get the Biblical version from Tolkien or the Cliff Notes version from AoME, and the Cliff Notes version had pretty maps, so I switched over to just reading AoME and feeling like I’d gotten the gist of the Silmarillion. […] And at least half of the blame is mine.”
Gee, as much as half the blame? That’s pretty magnanimous!
Anyway, my point here is not to diss Wedel (although that’s always fun) but to emphasise how useful and informative the Atlas is. I unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone who’s wanted to make an assault on the Silmarillion but found it too intimidating. (That said, the single, small map in the back of the Silmarillion itself is surprisingly useful, even though it only shows the northwestern parts of Middle Earth and none of Aman.)
The greatness of The Silmarillion
If I try to explain what makes the Silmarillion such a great book — and here I am not using “great” in the usual sense of “good” or even just “adequate” but in the literal sense — then I find myself struggling. It’s like trying to explain what a truly stellar IPA tastes like: you can’t distill something so far beyond analysis into a capsule summary. The best you can do is drop hints, cast shadows and make allusions. Because the book’s power is in the accumulation of cameos and the, I was going to say construction but a better word would be accumulation, of a whole world. Not merely a world in the sense of geography and history, but also of philosophy, character, and perhaps even spirituality.
It’s seen in a thousand little moments. For example, I was moved by Finrod’s generous and spontaneous love for the Edain when he first met them, the first of of all the elves to do so. On the negative side, I was shocked and even revolted by the single-mindedness of the sons of Fëanor as they pursued their oath to recover the silmarils above all other claims of kindred or even common decency. I was infuriated by Thingol’s absurd demand that, in order to earn the hand of his daughter Luthien, Beren must obtain one of the silmarils from the iron crown of Morgoth, and resigned to the disastrous outcome that could hardly be avoided once the sons of Fëanor learned that Thingol had a silmaril. Most of these moments come and go so quickly that you could miss them very easily — Finrod’s love towards the Edain, for example, is stated literally in a single sentence. My guess is that most readers will not particularly pick up on that one, but will be touched by other moments instead. (Other aspects, particularly the oath of Fëanor and its consequences, are much more central and return to prominence repeatedly. I’m particularly haunted by the idea of Maglor, the only survivor of Fëanor’s seven sons, wandering the coasts alone in the forlorn hope of recovering the silmaril that he cast into the sea.)
Seeing The Lord of the Rings in a new light
Of course it’s a truism that the Silmarillion casts The Lord of the Rings into a new light, and I am sure I am not the first person, or even the ten-thousandth, whose first impulse on finishing the one is to immediately re-read the other. So I was surprised to find that Tolkien was worried that publishing The Silmarillion might have the effect of diminishing the better-known work:
I am doubtful myself about the undertaking. Part of the attraction of The L. R. is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist. To go there is to destroy the magic, unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed.
— Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, p. 333. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter, published 1981 by Harper Collins.
Part of me is inclined simply to write this off as an error of judgement on Tolkien’s part: I can hardly imagine that my reading of, say, Bilbo’s song at Rivendell about Eärendil will not be enhanced by knowing the underlying story. But perhaps the secret sauce here is the terse and economical style in which The Silmarillion was written. Whether by design or by happy accident, the density of the prose protects it from being too explicit, so that it never does lose its air of viewing far off an unvisited island. It’s more like sailing out to, and circumnavigating that island than it is like landing on it. So the Silmarillion does indeed reveal new unattainable vistas, and in doing so avoids cheapening The Lord of the Rings. I wonder how much Christopher Tolkien had to do with this?
In light of my new appreciation for Middle-Earth history, I’m going to close by offering a defence of one of Peter Jackson’s changes in the LotR movies: the arrival of elves at Helm’s Deep to help the Rohirrim defend their stronghold against Saruman’s Uruk Hai. I was already far from hostile to this change, which seemed to me not opposed to the spirit of Tolkien’s book even if it contradicted the letter; but now having read some of the history of Elves and Men in Beleriand, of the ancient alliances, of the dreadful defeats and the ultimately fruitless victories, I see far more clearly the significance of renewing that alliance as the Third Age draws to an end. That there is no great Elven history of friendship with those particular Men makes it all the more poignant. So it’s not just a nice moment; it’s a truly beautiful one. (Shame, then, that Jackson slightly muffs it by having Haldir, who we last saw in Lothlorien back in the Fellowship movie, announce “We are Elves of the house of Elrond”. But you can’t have everything.)
I leave you with this painting of Ted Naismith’s, because it amuses me to see the role of Glaurung so obviously played by a Diplodocus. Enjoy: