One of my favorite aspects of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings books is the completeness of the world that he created. I never cease to be amazed by the history and lore that infuse those books, such that the reader feels that they must surely be a true history of some people, somewhere. Thus, The Silmarillion came as no surprise to me. For most of his life, Tolkien kept hundreds of notebooks full of his imagined backstory about the inhabitants of Middle Earth, for his own fun and reference while writing, and on the assumption that someday he would pull them into publishable form. After his death, his son, Christopher took on the task.
Parts of the beginning of the book read like the “begats” from the Old Testament of the Bible, listing a mind-blowing profusion of characters and their roles. I would likely have tossed the book aside had it not been the monthly read for the high school club I supervise. Then it would settle into a marvelous tale reminiscent of Nordic myth. Only to stop again with a geographical study of such yawn-inducing detail that you could follow step by step on the kindly included map. Only for my students did I persevere.
After throwing so many names and places at you, and you should be so lucky as to only have to learn one name for each character and local-they all have at least two or three (Elves, Dwarves, and humans all give a single entity their own monikers in their own languages-for that matter, even those three races are given numerous names), Tolkien does bring it round to useful purpose in the end. Keep in mind that there are maps, genealogical charts, and a complete list of characters in the back of the book, and press forward without worrying if you can not keep it all straight, because once past those sections, you are in for an adventure through the depths of Tolkien’s imagination.
The narrative hits its stride about a hundred pages in and carries the reader willingly along through the trials and triumphs of the various races and individuals. Christopher Tolkien did a masterful job of organizing his father’s writings; superb editing is apparent because the motivations and shifting allegiances are clearly delineated-despite the massive cast and histories of various peoples, I never felt lost in the shuffle.
As you read The Silmarillion another side of Tolkien also takes shape in your mind. In addition to the creator of fantastical worlds and tense plot lines, the theological and philosophical sides of the man become readily apparent within the souls of his characters. I loved seeing the moral and ethical dilemmas into which he plunged his characters and watching how he resolved them, as it spoke volumes about the author’s personal thought processes.
As difficult as the first third of the book was to get through, I would definitely call it worth it for fans of The Lord of the Rings. I look forward to revisiting those books with a new found knowledge of the “history” of the characters, as many things which are alluded to in The Ring are explained in The Silmarillion. Fans of the trilogy will begin to recognize many familiar names and places as they near the end of The Silmarillion. And the last two thirds of the book was sheer, epic adventure as only Tolkien can deliver. The writing style was very interesting as well, very much in the style of Scandinavian myth and lore, and quite different from the style in which his other books were written.
This is really not a book for those who disliked The Lord of the Rings, but a fun read for fans, or a great starting point for those who have yet to read the other books and would like to begin with a little back story.