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The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien
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Book Name: The Silmarillion
Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
Publisher(s): George Allen & Unwin (UK)
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / eBook
Genre(s): Classic Fantasy
Release Date: 1977 (UK)

If you’re interested in the history of Middle-Earth then The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien will surprise and delight you.

Not every reader of The Lord of the Rings will love The Silmarillion, but far too few have tried this epic of epics. If you devoured the Appendices in The Return of the King, such as the tale of Aragorn and Arwen, then The Silmarillion will astound you. If you’ve watched all umpteen hours of bonus content from Peter Jackson’s movies, then it’s time to make a shorter and more rewarding commitment.

The eights stars is more of a weighted reader average. Personally, I’d bestow more than nine stars glittering with the light of the Valinor. I found The Silmarillion more powerful a tale than The Lord of the Rings. It was certainly more epic.

Written in the style of mythology with gravitas, The Silmarillion tells of the elves’ fall from grace. Far from the killing dervishes portrayed in cinema, elves were creatures of laughter and harmony. They had no magic but Art. They had no aim but to create beauty and no doom save their own immortality, which forced them to watch their creations die. Their love led to their downfall.

The elves lived in the heavenly land in the west, Valinor. A tree of silver grew there, and one of gold. They lit the world with divine light. The elves exalted in their glow, and they grieved when the Enemy slew the sacred trees. Wishing to cling to beauty, the elves collected the dying light of divinity in three jewels, the Silmarilli.

The Enemy stole the gems and imprisoned them in his crown of iron. In so doing, he provoked the elves into making a pact of annihilation. Those beings of joy and beauty swore death and destruction on any who claimed the Silmarilli. The elves pursued the Enemy east, over the sea, leaving paradise for Middle-Earth and casting themselves into exile.

The outcasts met humans for the first time. The two cultures wove about each other in the tales of Earendil the Wanderer, Elrond the Half-Elven, and Beren and Luthien. The human Beren fell in love with an elvish maid. Her father said that Beren could never wed Luthien unless he gave his bride one of the Silmarilli. Beren accepted the impossible quest.

Elves and men waged war against the Enemy in battles that make The Lord of the Rings seem a footnote. You may remember the ram used to break the gates of Minas Tirith. It was named Grond, after the mace wielded by the Enemy. The Silmarillion introduces hundreds of such ties to the stories we know and love.

The tale of Sauron, the creator of The One Ring, begins and ends with treachery. A servant of the enemy, Sauron tricked the elves into trying to make Middle-Earth as beautiful as Valinor. To achieve this sacrilege they crafted the rings of power. They succeeded only in making Sauron the god of the age.

The only force that could withstand him were the proud race of human kings, the Numenoreans. The forefathers of Aragon, they were blessed with longer life, which gave them more time to covet immortality. Masters of ships and sailing, they grew resentful of the one place they could not voyage: to the west and the land of Valinor. Catastrophe fell on them when they defeated Sauron and imprisoned him in their land.

The Silmarillion tells many different tales, all weaving around the elves and paradise lost. I loved the one about the impenetrable elvish stronghold, The Fall of Gondolin. I liked less the first story, The Music of the Ainur. In this creation myth, the world was sung into existence. If it doesn’t strike a chord with you, skip it. You only need to know that Melkor introduced a note of (necessary) discord to the harmony.

In the purest sense, Tolkien created his world not with song but his love of language. He invented two elvish tongues, and from these seeds he grew all the names in his stories. If you like the music of his naming then The Silmarillion will be a banquet.

Tolkien had a second motive as well. He mourned that Britain had no mythology to call its own. He felt that Arthurian legend revolved too much around Christianity, an element too modern for his tastes and not uniquely British. He wished to invent a mythos with the air of England, that “elusive beauty” of fog-shrouded cliffs and Celtic mystery. Who am I to say that he didn’t succeed?

Now if you’ll excuse me, the moon is coming out. It’s time to dance in the faded light of the Silver Tree.

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Rating: 9.2/10 (19 votes cast)
The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien, 9.2 out of 10 based on 19 ratings
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4 Comments

  1. I also very much enjoyed the Silmarillion, though it is pretty much all telling, not showing. But the yearning for the ineffable comes through on every page, the sense of Faerie, all those things that drove me into being a fantasy writer back in the day. And if you haven’t tried some of his other works, The Book of Lost Tales and all, those can be very moving as well. I found it especially fun to dig through all the references for the wizards…learning all I could about Rhadagast and the blue wizards, who they were, what their purpose was…

  2. quillet says:

    I think many fantasy fans have trouble with The Silmarillion because they’re expecting a novel — and it isn’t a novel at all. It’s myth. In fact, if you ask me, it’s a searingly beautiful and breathtakingly sad cycle of myths. Mind you, I had to read it more than once to really appreciate it, because the first go-around confused me. All those names! All those Elvish names that look so similar! I found myself constantly flipping to the index to figure out the difference between Finrod, Finarfin, Fingon, and Fingolfin, not to mention Finduilas. And that’s just (some of) the F’s! I could go on.

    But I did persevere, and I fell in love with the stories (to the point that I’ve even read the entire History of Middle-Earth — yes, all twelve volumes; do I win a prize for that?). The Silmarillion is dense at times, but deeply rewarding.

    Anyway, thank you for a thoughtful review. Your last sentence brought a tear to my eye. How amazing and wonderful that Tolkien can make me grieve for two Trees that never even existed.

  3. “I think many fantasy fans have trouble with The Silmarillion because they’re expecting a novel — and it isn’t a novel at all.”

    That was the main thrust of a lot of the criticism at the time of publication, that readers felt cheated. I could never understand that – I didn’t have any more information than the average fan, and it was exactly what I was expecting (something book-length in the style of The Tale of Arwen & Aragorn). I’d read it within a few days of it coming out, then starting reading reviews by people who seemed to have read a completely different book. I loved it then, and I still do.

  4. The Silmarillion is my favourite al time book. Which is impressive when you consider it was never really finished and was cribbed together from decades of notes by Tolkien’s son. I’m a history buff, which is probably why I enjoy it so much. It is history and mythology on such a grand scale that none of those multi-million word ‘epics’ come close to replicating.

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