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The Silmarillion – A Rewarding Slog

This past month I randomly decided to pick up a book that I brought back with me from the UK on my last trip home: The Silmarillion. I am pretty sure I have read this book before, but that could just be wishful thinking. I like to think of myself as ‘a bit of a fan of Tolkien’, but I would never go as high in the ranks of Tolkien geekdome as, say, my favourite Dr Tom Shippey. He knows everything (I think).

One day. One day…

But I wouldn’t be able to call myself a true ‘fan’ without reading this book, so I put my doubts to rest and can now say with certainty that I absolutely have read The Silmarillion. And what a read it was. I spent many hours over the past few weeks in the morning, on my lunch break, in the evenings before and after dinner to get through it. I didn’t plan to finish it so quickly, it really just was that engrossing that at the end of each chapter I just wanted to dive straight into the next one.

The Silmarillion is often miscalled the ‘prequel’ to The Lord of The Rings. The term prequel is thrown around a lot in the entertainment world but as with many words that are learnt out of context, its meaning is lost or misunderstood. Some call The Hobbit the ‘prequel’ to The Lord of The Rings as well, which makes me a little bit sick. The Silmarillion should more accurately be called the ‘precursor’ to both books as many of the stories therein were written far before Tolkien even imagined hobbits and as he himself said, those stories gradually got sucked into his ever influential legendarium. Yes, I am a pedant.

prequel > NOUN a story or film containing events that precede those of an existing work

The Oxford English Dictionary

What Is It, Then?

The big baddie of the First Age: Melkor (also known as Morgoth, Bauglir, Arun…)

A just question, my lord. The Silmarillion is basically a collection of stories that Tolkien started writing decades before The Hobbit and LOTR that outlines the history of not only Middle-earth, but the world as a whole, that focusses mainly on Elves and their battles over the the Silmarils, the gems of power that create the Silmarillion itself. It describes the creation of the world and the peoples within, the battles that were waged and includes stories of select characters who are related to many fan favourites in The Hobbit and LOTR. I would go into more detail on this but there really is no point. It’s difficult to summarise a book’s story when there isn’t a core narrative, that being one of the book’s major criticisms.

It’s described as ‘a difficult read’ by many, and with good reason. It is. Tolkien’s work is the only series that I have seen ‘advice’ and discussions on ‘how to read’ or in what order to read them. The reputation of this book of being difficult is one that has been around for decades and will likely never go away, particularly with the dumbing down of a lot of popular culture (just my opinion). This comes down to a few reasons that I would like to share here.

  1. The Names!

There are certainly a lot of names floating about and it is easy to get lost in not only the character names (of which are numerous for each character in the many languages of Tolkien’s world), but also the place names as well, which can feel like characters in themselves with the sense of importance that is laid on them. Not only is it the sheer volume of names but also how to read them. Once you get your head around that (there is a handy pronunciation guide at the back) it makes it less of a chore and actually more enjoyable to read the names out loud and feel your tongue roll those Rs and say vowel combinations not so common in English. Being able to say Ainulindalë and noticing some of the relationships between words in Elvish is as satisfying as it is nerdy.

  1. The Timeline

The Silmarillion is not a single narrative as is The Hobbit or The Lord of The Rings, which can make it very confusing for anyone who has not read a book like this before. It starts fairly clearly: literally the creation and beginning of Arda (the world) but as things move on and we are introduced to various characters, the timeline becomes less clear. Characters who died in the previous chapter pop up in the next one but I think always with the understanding that the next story is happening concurrently with the previous and therefore creates a link between different stories that may be unclear initially. These links may seem unnecessary in places but are important to understand the relationships even between characters that come much, much later in the history.

  1. The Writing Style

The Lord of The Rings is hardly typical of most novels in terms of style but is much closer than The Silmarillion. Many people dislike the lack of dialogue and the ‘high fantasy’ style of writing. I can understand this. Reading sweeping descriptions of hundreds of years of history with the odd dialogue or monologue thrown in may not seem very exciting to some, but as the story covers thousands of years, it’s important and inevitable to keep everything within the confines of the book and overall I feel it works in the book’s favour. It keeps a strong air of mysticism around what could have been ten large novels, which would have just been too much.

  1. The Language

Not only does the overall writing style of the text cause some confusion but as does the characters’ language and word usage. Tolkien uses not only archaic words, but more common words with their archaic definitions and lots of flowery Shakespearian language, which understandably can be off-putting for some.

Despite these ‘difficulties’ it does not mean that it’s an impossible read! And I would advise anyone with an interest in Middle-earth to at least give it a go. For what it’s worth, I have put together a list of things that I would advise for anyone who hasn’t read it but feel inclined to try.

The only way I will ever read any of Tolkien’s works again.

My Advice for Reading The Silmarillion

  1. Don’t unless you have a genuine interest. This isn’t a book you can just pick up and expect to enjoy because of its connection with LOTR. It definitely requires knowledge of his other works and characters that may not be so prominent in his more popular books.
  2. Have a reference book at hand (including a dictionary!). Not to scare any potential reader, but this time round I kept my copy of JEA Tyler’s The Complete Tolkien Companion at hand if ever I forgot a character or place name. While this is not the most recommended amongst readers, it’s the only one I have and includes great descriptions of characters, locations, some vocabulary, etc. Robert Foster’s Tolkien’s World from A to Z: The Complete Guide to Middle-earth seems to be the most lauded. There’s a new hardback illustrated edition coming out later this year. Anyone with a kind heart and a spare £100 knocking about is most welcome 😉
  3. Stop if you get lost. It can be frustrating to get lost in a book and I would advise taking a breather and going back to it later after a quick refresher.
  4. Don’t feel disheartened. If you really love the Lord of The Rings but find yourself not liking so much The Silmarillion, it probably just means it isn’t the right time. I think I learnt to appreciate it more as a text after learning more about English literature and mythology in general. It might also just be that you’re too young, by which I mean you lack a lot of experience to enjoy some of the themes in the book. Just wait and one day you’ll probably enjoy it so much more. Even if you don’t, it’s not the end of the world. The Lord of The Rings will always be there!
  5. Do some background reading. The book suffers from a paradox. In order to really ‘get it’, it helps enormously to have some background knowledge of the big players, descriptions and explanations of which can be found on numerous YouTube videos and online fora and provided in a more easily accessible style. Watch a few videos about some of the characters and I think that will help you stay on track.
  6. Read it more than once. Even if you don’t complete it the first time, that’s fine. You’ll find that each time it will get easier as you become more accustomed with the characters and their stories.

Ultimately the ‘difficulty’ behind reading The Silmarillion comes down to expectation and interest. Readers of more traditional narratives such The Hobbit may need to prepare themselves in advance before diving knee-deep into The Silmarillion, which is a far cry from The Hobbit in scope, style and overall difficulty. If you don’t like history texts, I’d advise you don’t read this book. But if you have a genuine interest in some of the references made in The Lord of The Rings links to the overall mythology of Tolkien’s legendarium, The Silmarillion can be a real treat. You just have to stick with it and maybe take a little break if you feel you’re getting lost.

Get your tea and biscuits ready.

As much as Tolkien would have loved to have had this work published during his lifetime (albeit completely separate from and importantly before LOTR), the reality is that it was not deemed suitable for the then modern reader and likely not a success. It’s easy to see why. I wonder how popular this book would have been without the fame and popularity of Middle-earth that The Hobbit and LOTR brought with them but I can say that it probably would have been enjoyable to the very small readership it would have been intended for. It can be appreciated by those who enjoy the lofty style of writing employed and the myths and legends it tells, however disjointed they may seem.

The Silmarillion was ultimately published posthumously as Tolkien could never quite finish bringing all his stories together and it fell to his son Christopher to create what we call The Silmarillion today. I imagine this book is to many a disappointment and I can understand that completely. It really isn’t for everyone, but that’s fine. It doesn’t need to be.

Beren and Lúthien with Huan the wolf.

For those readers I would recommend the stand alone books based off the stories in The Silmarillion. The Children of Húrin, Beren and Lúthien and The Fall of Gondolin all take stories from the book and add to them with some of Tolkien’s more detailed writings of these tales along with some great artwork and essays. While they don’t offer the pure grandeur of The Silmarillion, they do create more of a focused narrative that is easier to follow but still not in the style that perhaps many readers would appreciate. I’ll likely give those another read in the near future and write about those as well.

To finish, here is a video of Christopher Tolkien giving his views on The Silmarillion, which I think adds an extra level of appreciation to it.

A great insight into the development of The Silmarillion.

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