I just finished J.R.R. Tolkien’s THE SILMARILLION, published in 1977, four years after the author’s death, thanks largely to his son Christopher Tolkien, who edited the book and added in an appendix and an extremely helpful index of names. I read Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT and THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy many years ago. I intentionally took my time to get to this prequel to those four books, and I can see why. I had to ripen into middle age to have enough patience to read this ornately detailed text. This took me longer to read than Tolstoy’s ANNA KARENINA, which is more than double this book’s length.
THE SILMARILLION is a series of narratives about Tolkien’s make believe world of Arda and Middle-earth, the very beginning of the book a creation myth. Tolkien drew much of his inspiration from Norse and Celtic mythology respectively. His prose has a lyrical lilting quality to it, as if someone were speaking all the words aloud in any possible number of Gaelic accents, whichever happens to be the most musical in tone.
For more than half of the book, I felt a mix of fascination and irritation. The plethora of beautiful names of characters (Elven, Dwarf, human, dragon, and other fantastical creatures) and places and their colorful descriptions held my interest. But, having to constantly look so many of these up in the index in order to keep things straight in my head annoyed me for a good while. Eventually, I got used to doing this and found I didn’t have to refer to the index quite so frequently. Still, I continued to refer to it down to the last page of story. And since beings, places, and objects (especially buildings, rings, and swords) each tended to have two to three names, my reliance on the index was only further reinforced. Perhaps not everyone will need, or has needed, to refer to the index so frequently as I did while reading this tome, which is actually less than three hundred pages in length if you exclude the index and appendix.
I compare this book— especially the first half of it or so— to walking through a museum of ancient, fantastical history, filled with assorted artifacts and detailed descriptions about them. I only wish a map of Middle-earth were included. I would have constantly been looking at it to properly place in my mind where regions/countries, cities, and natural places, such as rivers and mountain ranges, all were in relation to each other. I vaguely remember some map(s) in the first part of Tolkien’s THE LoTR and THE HOBBIT texts, but this old copy of THE SILMARILLION had no such illustration. I made due and tolerated some confusion around what was where in relation to an event or other places because I preferred this over taking the time to get online and study a map of Middle-earth. After all, it’s not like I was going to be tested on this book in some class. I’m just not that geeky or obsessive and wanted to stay in the lyrical flow of the stories— and be done with the book without even more delays.
Eventually, the stories pick up pace with more action and an increase in focusing on individual characters, mostly concerning wars and battles fought, or situations somehow contributing to these, and always clearly between good and evil. Tolkien’s morality-filled universe is a simplified Manichean one, but still a relevant allegory, I find. His message of the need to be ever vigilant of greed and the thirst for power, in oneself and others, continues to be as crucial today as has always been the case with humankind. I appreciate how he includes the values of hope and perseverance, hope that the light within nature and societies can and will live on and, with individual and collective perseverance towards the light, will ultimately come through triumphantly for long periods, even as darkness ebbs and flows. It is a cycle, a cycle of life, as seen through cycles within cycles, such as the transitioning of seasons, of civilizations rising and falling, and of land masses changing. This all is expressed in a steady and beautiful rhythm in THE SILMARILLION.
The book is a worthwhile read if you are naturally patient or can muster up enough patience like I finally did.