The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien

November 16, 2010 at 02:13 (Book Reviews, Fairy Tales, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , , , , )


This is an excellently crafted mythology. It seems like the readability of the various sections of the book is inversely proportional to the beauty, and the importance to Tolkien’s world. The Ainulindalë and Valaquenta are some of the lengthier sections and involve mostly singing, but they set in stone Tolkien’s worldview and cosmology, and form the basis for every stroke of his pen in the entire Middle Earth saga. Contrarily, the easier and simpler fairy tales of Beren and Luthien, or the tragedy of Turin Turambar are much more accessible and even beautiful works of literature as independent stories, but are only reflections of the solid rules, morality and cosmos that trip up so many happy-go-lucky readers of the Silmarillion. As tempting as it is to skip past the lagging descriptions of the Ilúvatarian pantheon (avec attributes) or still more tempting, to simply assume that they are a glibly-painted backdrop and ultimately irrelevant to what proceeds, is a gross error. The lofty genesis of this book is the closest any reader can get to the real Tolkien, and the beliefs, loves and desires that spurred him to write his legend in the first place.

Quite simply, without the Akallabeth, there is no reason why we should consider the character of Aragorn as a great hero, nor Sauron as a great deceiver. Without Beren and Luthien, Arwen’s story is just another romantic subplot (which goes a long way to explain why in his adaptation Peter Jackson was forced to create an alternative character for her, rather than tangling with ancient family history!), and utterly unremarkable in its tragedy. Without seeing the Noldor as victimised and traumatised rebels against God, the Elves as we see them in Lord of the Rings are Tolkien’s rather shabby übermensch, with some phenomenal archery skills; and Galadriel is a very poor deus ex machina rather than a dispossessed, stubborn and repentant queen of a lost and tragic race. Together, the stories in The Silmarillion provide depth to all that is shallow in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and complement all that is deep.

The weakest element of the book is surely its lofty style and its millennial viewpoint. It is difficult to force investment in a character who will only live for some forty years out of thirty thousand. A great deal of this weakness is combated in the compendium of Unfinished Tales, in which the depth and tragedy of so many of the stories in the Quenta Silmarillion are explained and exposited marvellously, thoroughly enriching the thousands of years of history with the charming characterisations and hopeless quests that make the Lord of the Rings such a favourite. But the existence of a salvific companion cannot make up for the failings in this story; nor can the adventurous and thrilling prose in the other Middle Earth stories fully repay the Silmarillion’s reader for the occasional dry patch of genealogy and summary. It is in spite of these difficult areas that this book shines as an unassailable classic of literature, and the sheer brilliance of the story that is enough to drown out admittedly slow moments ought to speak in a clarion voice to its doubters.

Related reviews:
The Fellowship of the Ring
The Two Towers

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