‘The Silmarillion’ Is a Dense Yet Highly Engaging Origin Story for J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth

 

As Game of Thrones draws to a close, and a new Amazon Lord of the Rings TV series awaits, J.R.R. Tolkien is sure to return as the king of fantasy (if he ever even left). Despite being dead now for nearly 46 years, Tolkien created, in Middle-Earth and the stories that take place there, a rich, vivid mythology that has ensured his immortality.

Many people first came to appreciate Tolkien’s work because of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy in the early 2000s. I was one of them. Only eight years old when The Fellowship of the Ring came out, I was not allowed to see either it or its sequel in theaters (though I did catch them later on DVD). But when my parents said they would let me see The Return of the King in theaters, I decided to read all of the books in the trilogy before the movie came out so that I would appreciate it properly. Even at age 10, I recall getting lost–in the best possible way–in the epic and fully realized world of heroism and mysticism that Tolkien had created. Seeing the last movie in theaters remains one of my best-ever theatrical experiences, and it confirmed my status as a Tolkien fan.

Looking for more ways to deepen my fanhood at the time, I came upon The Silmarillion, which I have now had the chance to discuss on an episode of the Legendarium Podcast. Described to me as the ‘Old Testament’ of The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion gave the backstory to which the more famous trilogy is the culmination: the creation of the world, the early struggles between its gods, the plight of the elves, the coming of men and dwarves (and their own trials), etc. Delighted that there was more material to read, I dove right in…only to crash on a rocky shoal of confusing names, excessive detail, and quasi-poetic prose that seemed straight out of some ancient tome. I got only a few dozen pages in before giving up on The Silmarillion.

Only recently, as the excessive cultural cachet of Game of Thrones has turned me into a rabid anti-Game of Thrones reactionary, did I make myself go back and finish The Silmarillion as part of my first full rereading of all of Tolkien’s most popular work, also including The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Rereading The Silmarillion, I could understand why, as a 10-year-old, I found it so daunting. The names were still myriad, and often confusing; the stories abounded, intersecting in ways sometimes unclear to me; and the prose had the same ancient tome quality that I recalled from my youth.

Yet these were far more minor complaints this time around. While 15 years ago, they kept me from getting lost in the work as I did in Lord of the Rings, now they could barely restrain my enjoyment of it. For The Silmarillion is a true epic, the product of a single mind (two if you want to count his son Christopher, who compiled and edited what his father never completely finished). Usually, epic traditions are the products of entire cultures and many authors, assembled over centuries or more. But in preparing a backstory for The Lord of the Rings (which–importantly–was never the focus of Tolkien’s writing, but rather the bulky bottom of the iceberg that allowed him to tell the tiny top of his most famous story), Tolkien just decided to create such a mythology of his own accord within a discrete period–a stunning achievement. Sure, others have followed his lead since. Yet many of them have gotten too lost in their creations, too high on playing god, to produce a work that also contained transcendent themes (or ended!).

For though The Silmarillion is an epic, of gigantic scope and scale, it is also strongly driven by individual actors and choices. Pride, arrogance, fate, hubris, irony, mortality–those all-too-human forces–play out among a cast of often larger-than-life characters nonetheless subject to them.

Indeed, it is hard for me to explain how, exactly, but The Silmarillion seems not merely like the mythic creation of its author, but rather like a window into an entire other tradition, heretofore unknown. Something about the way it was written strongly suggests that what we have is actually a translation from another language, now long forgotten, and that what we are reading pales in comparison to the actual story, now long disappeared. This is not to say The Silmarillion is a bad work; rather, that in depicting its own rich mythology, it successfully conveys a sense that what actually happened was somehow even grander than what we are reading. It is, at times, hard to believe all of this came from the imagination of one man. Tolkien himself felt similarly. He wrote that, in creating his legends, he “…always I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there,’ somewhere: not of ‘inventing.’”

The most compelling reason for the more casual Lord of the Rings fan to read The Silmarillion, however, is that it puts everything in Tolkien’s more famous work in context. It deepens one’s understanding of what happens there, and answer some questions about where some things came from. It also instills an appreciation for how, in Tolkien’s understanding, everything in The Lord of the Rings is merely a less impressive imitation or centuries-old echo of the ancient struggles depicted in The Silmarillion, a sort of “there were giants, in those days” aesthetic that often goes underappreciated in Tolkien’s immortal work.

At any rate, if you want to hear more from me (and others more qualified) about Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, check out my appearance on the Legendarium Podcast.

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There are 141 comments.

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  1. Lincoln

    I had a similar experience, though shifted later a few years. I loved reading LOTR when I was about 14, then finally got around to the Silmarillion in college — and it was just a grind. Then returned to it at about 32 and just ate it up. I think the appreciation for the whole series deepens as you get older, wiser, and more mortal … every time I’ve read LOTR I’ve picked up on things I hadn’t appreciated earlier — the wistfulness of the Elves immortality but eventual weariness; the absolute heartbreak of widowed Arwen (in the appendix) shuffling off to an abandoned Lothlorien.

     

    • #1
    • March 25, 2019 at 2:51 pm
    • 2 likes
  2. Coolidge

    I’ve read it three times throughout my life (the first time when I was 13), and I always come away with the impression that “The Hobbit” is for children, comparatively, “The Lord of the Rings” is for the casual admirer, but “The Silmarillion” is the real work of art.

    • #2
    • March 25, 2019 at 3:16 pm
    • 3 likes
  3. Member
    LC

    I’m very excited that the Amazon series will be set in the Second Age.

    In general, I think both LOTR and GOT have made the right move to set their prequel series during a previous age, thousands of years ago.

    • #3
    • March 25, 2019 at 3:32 pm
    • 2 likes
  4. Member

    Jack, I read all of The Hobbit, LOTR, The Silmarillion, and Unfinished Tales back in my teens — about 10 years you were born. I still remember them well.

    For some reason that I can’t explain, Turgon has always been my favorite among the kings of the Noldor. The death of Huor and capture of Hurin, covering Turgon’s retreat in the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, was fantastic. Plus, he was Glorfindel’s king.

    For those who don’t know, Turgon was one of the ancestors of the half-Elven (including Elrond, Arwen, and Aragorn). The details would probably bore everybody except me and Jack.

    I thought Thingol (another great Elf king) was a jerk. Feanor too, and his sons were apples that didn’t fall very far from his flawed tree, though if I recall correctly, a few of them finally repented of their father’s quest and terrible oath, to destroy anyone, friend or foe, between them and any of those darned Silmarils.

    As a youth, Beren was my favorite human character. Now it’s Turin, followed closely by his father Hurin. I guess the tragic stuff becomes more appealing as we age.

    How about a list of great moments, heroic or tragic?

    The Fall of Fingolfin, almost holding his own against Morgoth himself
    The rescue of Maedhros by Fingon
    Hurin and Huor covering Turgon’s retreat
    Finrod breaking his bonds to save Beren from Sauron, sacrificing himself
    Turin killing the first dragon Glaurung
    Tuor’s successful quest to Gondolin (I think there’s an amazing story about the tunnel and gates in Unfinished Tales, too)
    Ecthelion and Gothmog (lord of Balrogs) slaying each other at the fall of Gondolin
    Glorfindel and another Balrog slaying each other in the escape from Gondolin

    • #4
    • March 25, 2019 at 4:34 pm
    • 3 likes
  5. Member

    And I haven’t mentioned anything about the Akallabeth!

    • #5
    • March 25, 2019 at 4:36 pm
    • 1 like
  6. Member

    Jack, you really got me going on this one.

    My wife kinda reminds me of Morwen, though I don’t recall the color of her eyes, if we ever knew. Morwen’s eyes, I mean.

    I’m not like Morwen’s husband Hurin, though. More of a Beor.

    I trust that my children will have a better fate than Morwen’s and Hurin’s kids.

    • #6
    • March 25, 2019 at 4:46 pm
    • 1 like
  7. Member

    I believe Tolkien said that Middle-Earth was an attempt at creating a uniquely English mythology.

    • #7
    • March 25, 2019 at 5:00 pm
    • 2 likes
  8. Member

    JackButler:

    Described to me as the ‘Old Testament’ of The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion gave the backstory to which the more famous trilogy is the culmination: the creation of the world, the early struggles between its gods, the plight of the elves, the coming of men and dwarves (and their own trials), etc.

    Not bad. But it’s also a fantasy structured according to the Bible as a whole.

    • #8
    • March 25, 2019 at 5:08 pm
    • Like
  9. Member

    LC (View Comment):

    I’m very excited that the Amazon series will be set in the Second Age.

    In general, I think both LOTR and GOT have made the right move to set their prequel series during a previous age, thousands of years ago.

    So wait. They’re aiming to avoid blasphemy by writing original in-world stories? No books to abuse?

    • #9
    • March 25, 2019 at 5:09 pm
    • Like
  10. Member

    Tolkien called himself a “subcreator,” which seems to get at what you say about the creation preexisting him.

    Kevin Furr (View Comment):
    the wistfulness of the Elves immortality but eventual weariness

    The long defeat.

    Professor Joseph Pearce has a course on LOTR through Catholic Courses Institute. @littlemissanthrope and I took it last year, and I’ve only since then become a huge fan at age fifty-mumble-mumble. I’m reading the Silmarillion for the first time. Great stuff.

    • #10
    • March 25, 2019 at 5:31 pm
    • 1 like
  11. Member

    LC (View Comment):

    I’m very excited that the Amazon series will be set in the Second Age.

    In general, I think both LOTR and GOT have made the right move to set their prequel series during a previous age, thousands of years ago.

    This sounds fun, though it makes me worry. Who are they going to make gay?

    Seriously. I predict that they will have at least 3 gay characters in the Second Age of Middle Earth.

    My specific predictions are: Tar-Palantir will be homosexual. Anarion will be bisexual.

    You have to be a serious Tolkien nerd to even know these names, let alone understand the reasons behind these predictions.

    • #11
    • March 25, 2019 at 6:26 pm
    • 2 likes
  12. Member

    Western Chauvinist (View Comment):

    Tolkien called himself a “subcreator,” which seems to get at what you say about the creation preexisting him.

    Kevin Furr (View Comment):
    the wistfulness of the Elves immortality but eventual weariness

    The long defeat.

    Professor Joseph Pearce has a course on LOTR through Catholic Courses Institute. @littlemissanthrope and I took it last year, and I’ve only since then become a huge fan at age fifty-mumble-mumble. I’m reading the Silmarillion for the first time. Great stuff.

    Great video from Prof. Pearce. I may look for more, but I have a quick question.

    I agree that LOTR is fundamentally religious and Christian. I know that Tolkien was a Catholic, but I don’t see anything specifically Catholic — i.e. Christian but non-Protestant — in LOTR. Do you remember any such details?

    • #12
    • March 25, 2019 at 6:38 pm
    • 1 like
  13. Member
    LC

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    LC (View Comment):

    I’m very excited that the Amazon series will be set in the Second Age.

    In general, I think both LOTR and GOT have made the right move to set their prequel series during a previous age, thousands of years ago.

    So wait. They’re aiming to avoid blasphemy by writing original in-world stories? No books to abuse?

    https://www.amazon.com/adlp/lotronprime

    So definitely Numenor.

    • #13
    • March 25, 2019 at 6:44 pm
    • 1 like
  14. Member

    LC (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    LC (View Comment):

    I’m very excited that the Amazon series will be set in the Second Age.

    In general, I think both LOTR and GOT have made the right move to set their prequel series during a previous age, thousands of years ago.

    So wait. They’re aiming to avoid blasphemy by writing original in-world stories? No books to abuse?

    https://www.amazon.com/adlp/lotronprime

    So definitely Numenor.

    There’s plenty of material on Numenor, though it’s concentrated at the end.

    If I were writing it, I’d start with Tar-Palantir (second to last king) restoring the old ways. He could be the basis for some retrospection on the prior history of Numenor, explaining why the old ways had to be restored. Then into Ar-Pharazon’s seizure of the throne and the defeat and surrender of Sauron.

    The next season could cover Sauron’s further corruption of Ar-Pharazon, with increasing danger to the Faithful. Then the attack on the Blessed Lands, and the Downfall. End of Season 2.

    The next season could cover the escape of the Faithful and the establishment of Gondor and Arnor, the forging of the Last Alliance, and the second defeat of Sauron. End of Season 3.

    There is material for further seasons about the early part of the Third Age. It’s mostly in Unfinished Tales and the appendix to LOTR. A good season 4 could start with the death of Isildur and loss of the Ring, the success of Gondor, and the gradual decline of Arnor in its wars against Angmar. If I recall correctly, the death of Arvedui (last king of Arnor) roughly corresponds with the end of the line of Isildur in Gondor, and the assumption of power by the Stewards. The establishment of the Shire occurs in this End of season 4.

    Another season could cover the Eorl coming to the rescue of Cirion, the establishment of the kingdom of Rohan, and the rangers long, unsung battle in the North. They could include interesting adventures with the Dwarves. End of season 5.

    • #14
    • March 25, 2019 at 7:12 pm
    • 2 likes
  15. Member

    There’s too much Judges, Kings, and Chronicles in the story of Numinor to imagine they wouldn’t dramatically botch it.

    • #15
    • March 25, 2019 at 7:27 pm
    • Like
  16. Member

    More re the Amazon series. They have a map (here).

    The presence of Ost-in-Edhil in Eregion is an indication that they’ll be starting earlier than I first hypothesized. They’ll probably be telling the story of the wars between Sauron and the elves, and the forging of the rings. The Numenoreans eventually come to the aid of the elves, so there would be both men and elves involved.

    Incidentally, they position Numenor in the see of the southern coast of Harad. This is the first time that I’ve seen Numenor positioned in relation to the rest of Middle Earth.

    • #16
    • March 25, 2019 at 7:36 pm
    • 1 like
  17. Member

    Arizona Patriot (View Comment):
    I agree that LOTR is fundamentally religious and Christian. I know that Tolkien was a Catholic, but I don’t see anything specifically Catholic — i.e. Christian but non-Protestant — in LOTR. Do you remember any such details?

    Well, part of the problem may be my ignorance of Protestantism. Do Protestants celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation? Which is March 25th, the date the Ring is destroyed. 

    Also, the Lembas bread is “applicable” (Tolkien’s preferred term over “allegorical”) to Eucharist — the bread that sustains us on the journey.

    Galadriel’s gift-giving is applicable to Mary as the Mediatrix of all Graces.

    — to name just a few.

    But, mostly because Tolkien himself said “LOTR is a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.”

    Do you happen to know how Tolkien came to be a Catholic? It’s quite a story.

    • #17
    • March 25, 2019 at 7:45 pm
    • 3 likes
  18. Member

    Robert Wood’s book is the place to study that sort of thing.

    • #18
    • March 25, 2019 at 7:52 pm
    • Like
  19. Member
    LC

    Arizona Patriot (View Comment):

    More re the Amazon series. They have a map (here).

    The presence of Ost-in-Edhil in Eregion is an indication that they’ll be starting earlier than I first hypothesized. They’ll probably be telling the story of the wars between Sauron and the elves, and the forging of the rings. The Numenoreans eventually come to the aid of the elves, so there would be both men and elves involved.

    Incidentally, they position Numenor in the see of the southern coast of Harad. This is the first time that I’ve seen Numenor positioned in relation to the rest of Middle Earth.

    Haha the link I included is this map. That’s why I said definitely Numenor. I realize now the comment I made implies that they’re going to write original stories about Numenor. What I meant is Amazon has said the series will adapt Numenor, we just don’t know how much.

    • #19
    • March 25, 2019 at 8:13 pm
    • 1 like
  20. Member
    LC

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    There’s too much Judges, Kings, and Chronicles in the story of Numinor to imagine they wouldn’t dramatically botch it.

    Hey with a billion dollar show, you can do anything! 

    • #20
    • March 25, 2019 at 8:21 pm
    • 1 like
  21. Member

    LC (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    There’s too much Judges, Kings, and Chronicles in the story of Numinor to imagine they wouldn’t dramatically botch it.

    Hey with a billion dollar show, you can do anything!

    Except gain wisdom.

    What use is money in the hands of a fool?

    • #21
    • March 25, 2019 at 8:24 pm
    • 2 likes
  22. Coolidge

    Skyler (View Comment):

    I’ve read it three times throughout my life (the first time when I was 13), and I always come away with the impression that “The Hobbit” is for children, comparatively, “The Lord of the Rings” is for the casual admirer, but “The Silmarillion” is the real work of art.

    As true as your statements are, some of us remain untouched by The Silmarillion’s magic until we are older.

    Once we “get it” we can’t figure out why we didn’t get it sooner.

    • #22
    • March 25, 2019 at 8:56 pm
    • 2 likes
  23. Moderator

    Arizona Patriot (View Comment):

    Western Chauvinist (View Comment):

    Tolkien called himself a “subcreator,” which seems to get at what you say about the creation preexisting him.

    Kevin Furr (View Comment):
    the wistfulness of the Elves immortality but eventual weariness

    The long defeat.

    Professor Joseph Pearce has a course on LOTR through Catholic Courses Institute. @littlemissanthrope and I took it last year, and I’ve only since then become a huge fan at age fifty-mumble-mumble. I’m reading the Silmarillion for the first time. Great stuff.

    Great video from Prof. Pearce. I may look for more, but I have a quick question.

    I agree that LOTR is fundamentally religious and Christian. I know that Tolkien was a Catholic, but I don’t see anything specifically Catholic — i.e. Christian but non-Protestant — in LOTR. Do you remember any such details?

    The destruction of the the One Ring occurred on March 25, which was deliberately done by Tolkien to coincide with The Annunciation.

    • #23
    • March 25, 2019 at 8:57 pm
    • 3 likes
  24. Member

    I did not know that. Good stuff.

    • #24
    • March 25, 2019 at 9:01 pm
    • 2 likes
  25. Coolidge

    Arizona Patriot (View Comment):
    I agree that LOTR is fundamentally religious and Christian. I know that Tolkien was a Catholic, but I don’t see anything specifically Catholic

    People see what they want to see. There’s nothing intrinsically christian or catholic about the stories, beyond just having a few moral consistencies with a few interpretations of christianity or catholicism.

    • #25
    • March 25, 2019 at 9:01 pm
    • Like
  26. Moderator

    There are many fans of Tolkien throughout the Christian world. Fr. Damick, an Orthodox priest, has recently launched a podcast aimed at Orthodox fans (of which there are very many, including myself and my own priest).

    Their most recent episode has a very long discussion, including a section on the nature of story telling and myth, and why Tolkien, though having established many of the tropes so common to modern fantasy fiction, has really never been surpassed in terms of his world building. Long episode, running 2 hours, but well worth the listen.

    https://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/amonsul/003_the_bridge_of_kotar_dum

    • #26
    • March 25, 2019 at 9:03 pm
    • 2 likes
  27. Moderator

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    I did not know that. Good stuff.

    If you read his letters, he discusses these things in some depth.

    • #27
    • March 25, 2019 at 9:08 pm
    • 2 likes
  28. Moderator

    I read through LOTR for the first time in 7th grade. I was hooked. Re-read it in 9th grade, then immediately delved through The Silmarillion. Then set about acquiring all of the unfinished works put out by Christopher Tolkien, and have read through most of those too. Re-read LOTR several times since, and The Silmarillion too. Yet I find myself going back to the longer unfinished works more often because TS was itself what he was trying to condense and publish when he died, and to even get it published he often cut down the depths of many of the tales therein, while the longer unfinished forms were not only richer, but more profound.

    Still, my favorite works of his were short stories, unrelated to LOTR.

    First there is Leaf, by Niggle, which is a beautiful expression of the pains of creation, procrastination, and the inability to fully capture the truths of eternity in our mortal lives.

    Second would be Smith of Wooten Major, which explores the boundaries between the fey and our mortal realms. I’m hard pressed to describe this one further, but it is haunting.

    • #28
    • March 25, 2019 at 9:14 pm
    • 4 likes
  29. Member

    SkipSul (View Comment):

    Second would be Smith of Wooten Major, which explores the boundaries between the fey and our mortal realms. I’m hard pressed to describe this one further, but it is haunting.

    You’re making me feel guilty for missing so much.

    Father Christmas Letters is another good one.

    And “Farmer Giles of Ham” is super fun.

    • #29
    • March 25, 2019 at 9:18 pm
    • 1 like
  30. Moderator

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    SkipSul (View Comment):

    Second would be Smith of Wooten Major, which explores the boundaries between the fey and our mortal realms. I’m hard pressed to describe this one further, but it is haunting.

    You’re making me feel guilty for missing so much.

    Father Christmas Letters is another good one.

    And “Farmer Giles of Ham” is super fun.

    There was a paperback volume that was issued in the late 80s which contained these tales, as well as his essay On Fairy Tales, which is also something worth reading. I know since the popularity of the LOTR films, however, while many many more of his works are now available, they tend to be split up and sold as slimmer volumes and are actually, in that sense, a bit harder to find. I was blessed to discover Tolkien when he wasn’t nearly so popular, which was why I was able to acquire 1st editions of both the US and UK Silmarillion on the cheap in used book shops, and some other rarities besides.

    But look up Niggle, Smith, and his essay on Fairy Tales if you can. They are profound.

    • #30
    • March 25, 2019 at 9:23 pm
    • 4 likes
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