I’m going to come right out and say what will make most people think I’m slightly crazy: I enjoyed reading The Silmarillion more than I enjoyed reading The Lord of the Rings. Why? I haven’t the faintest idea. Maybe I was too young to properly appreciate The Lord of the Rings. Maybe my love of mythology made The Silmarillion a shoe-in. Maybe the lack of three-dimensional characters was more understandable in a book this vast. Maybe I’m just weird.
In any case, The Silmarillion is challenging, beautiful, epic reading and well worth the time and effort it’ll take to fully appreciate the work Tolkien has put into his secondary world. Published after Tolkien’s death and edited by his son Christopher Tolkien (who had the unenviable task of wading through his father’s mountain of notes), The Silmarillion provides the historical background for what follows in The Lord of the Rings. Yes, as mind-boggling as it may be to conceive, The Lord of the Rings is only the tail-end of a massive history, as The Silmarillion is far more than a mere ‘prequel’ to Tolkien’s famous trilogy; in fact anyone who does describe it as a mere prequel is doing it a grave disservice.
For The Silmarillion is a history; albeit a totally invented one. The inspiration for Middle-Earth came through two major facets; Tolkien’s desire to provide a mythology for England (believing quite correctly that the Arthurian legends were strongly influenced by the French) and his own passion for created languages. After designing two invented languages (Quenta and Sindar), Tolkien needed a context in which they were used – what followed was The Silmarillion. It’s impossible not to feel a sense of awe at the completeness of Tolkien’s visions, for found here is his life’s work set out into several books and chapters:
`The Ainulindale’ is the rich and poetic account of the coming of consciousness to the world as Iluvatar, (Middle-Earth’s God), makes a contingent of Valar (reminiscent of angels) and teaches them a harmonious song that shapes a vision of the world that is to come. Yet even now there is strife, due to the presence of Melkor, the mightiest of the Valar who sings his own melody against the tune of the other. The parallels to the Biblical account of God and Lucifer is very clear, and the similarities continue into…
`The Valaquenta’, which is a detailed account of the fourteen central Valar; seven male, seven female. The Valar are best described as gods, each with separate attributes assigned to them. Though this segment is devoted mainly to describing each one and their positions within the world, it is written with extraordinary imagination and poetry as Tolkien describes the hierarchy of the Valar, the secondary spirits called the Maia, and the enemies that emerge at the dawning of the world.
This is followed by `Quenta Silmarillion’, which makes up the bulk of the book and contains the namesake of the book. The silmarils are three beautiful jewels formed by the elf-craftsman Feanor that contain the light of two miraculous trees. But when Melkor (soon to be called Morgoth, the first Dark Lord), hears of their existence, he forms a plan that allows him to successfully capture the jewels and escape. Furious at the theft, the hot-headed Feanor swears a binding oath to retrieve them, setting into motion a tragic chain of events as his people set sail from the Western Isles back into Middle Earth to wage war upon Morgoth.
What follows is a massive chronicle, highlighting events and individuals within this great war, with a scope too large to even begin to summarise. Needless to say, it’s nearly impossible to keep track of all the characters (especially when they have similar sounding names) and one story blends into another continuously so that it feels like one massive volume rather than a range of smaller stories. The story is marked by the founding of great cities, the forging of dynasties, the division of peoples and waging of battles. There is tragedy, beauty, torture, escapes, murders, betrayals, hubris and even incest, all of which is too vast and detailed to go into any further detail on.
However, one story does deserve special mention, that of Beren and Luthien, a mortal man and an elf maiden who fall in love (and are the precursors to Aragorn and Arwen). After Luthien’s father tells Beren he can only win his daughter’s hand by fetching one of the silmarils that rest inside Morgoth’s iron crown, the couple take it upon themselves to steal the gem from within the Dark Lord’s own fortress. A major theme prevalent in The Lord of the Rings is also present here, that of simple folk (in this case an outcast and a maid) doing what the great and mighty find impossible. Tolkien himself drew a comparison between the hobbits and this tragic couple, but the tale of Beren and Luthien held an even deeper meaning for him. He affiliated his beloved wife Ethel with Luthien, and when she died he had the name “Luthien” inscribed beneath her name on her gravestone. When Tolkien passed away several years later, the name “Beren” was added to his name.
Finally, “The Akallabeth” moves away from the Elves to explore Mankind, their island home of Numenor and its destruction (much like our legend of Atlantis) and “The Rings of Power” which puts the events of The Lord of the Rings in a nutshell, ending on the most poignant note imaginable.
When coupled with The Silmarillion, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings suddenly take on an even greater depth and beauty than when read singularly. My appreciation for both volumes went up tenfold after experiencing the massive history and scope of their history that Tolkien meticulously mapped out for them. The Lord of the Rings may be Tolkien’s most famous work, but The Silmarillion is his masterpiece.