Hi everybody! In celebration of my university semester ending, I decided to take the weekend off before I went into full-on exam revision mode, which means I had some spare time to write. All this is to say: You’re getting an extra post this week 😉
Anyway, since my friend and I finally finished buddy-reading The Silmarillion a few days ago, I thought I would share some of my thoughts in more detail. Be warned, though – they’re not exactly the most favorable. While I absolutely adore The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion was … well … it was a slog. I did love learning more about Tolkien’s world, and The Silmarillion definitely gave some interesting background to his other works, but as an independent story? I wouldn’t necessarily say I’d recommend it…
Before I go into details, though, here is a bit of background information:
SOME BASIC INFO:
Title: The Silmarillion
Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
Publication Date: September 15, 1977
Date Read: May 23 – July 26, 2020
Rating: 2.5/5 Stars
A number-one New York Times bestseller when it was originally published, The Silmarillion is the core of J.R.R. Tolkien’s imaginative writing, a work whose origins stretch back to a time long before The Hobbit.
Tolkien considered The Silmarillion his most important work, and, though it was published last and posthumously, this great collection of tales and legends clearly sets the stage for all his other writing. The story of the creation of the world and of the First Age, this is the ancient drama to which the characters in The Lord of the Rings look back and in whose events some of them, such as Elrond and Galadriel, took part. The three Silmarils were jewels created by Fëanor, most gifted of the Elves. Within them was imprisoned the Light of the Two Trees of Valinor before the Trees themselves were destroyed by Morgoth, the first Dark Lord. Thereafter, the unsullied Light of Valinor lived on only in the Silmarils, but they were seized by Morgoth and set in his crown, which was guarded in the impenetrable fortress of Angband in the north of Middle-earth. The Silmarillion is the history of the rebellion of Fëanor and his kindred against the gods, their exile from Valinor and return to Middle-earth, and their war, hopeless despite all their heroism, against the great Enemy.
This second edition features a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien describing his intentions for the book, which serves as a brilliant exposition of his conception of the earlier Ages of Middle-earth.
I don’t even know where to begin with this book. Like I said, I love The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, so reading The Silmarillion was always something I intended to cross off my to-do list. And when one of my friends from school recently finished The Return of the King, we thought this would be the perfect time to revive buddy-reads and experience the book together! So every week, we read about three to five chapters and then discussed them on the phone. And let me just say – it was lucky we did this, because I’m not sure if I would have gotten through the book on my own. Reading this was EXHAUSTING. It is basically one huge world-building info-dump, and I constantly found myself forgetting who was who and struggling not to succumb to boredom.
That being said, though, I am also glad I read this. I know that sounds weird. Why would I be, if I clearly didn’t enjoy it much? What could possibly redeem it for me?
Well, let’s be honest, I just love the world. I am a sucker for Middle-earth and understanding so much more of its history? My inner nerd was enormously satisfied! There were so many questions I had when reading Tolkien’s other books. Questions like Why is Middle-earth called Middle-earth? How old exactly are the Elves? What exactly happened when Isildur first took the ring from Sauron? Where do the Elves go at the end of The Lord of the Rings? The Silmarillion cleared up a lot of my confusion, and I just love that I know this stuff now! That and all the Elvish history and folklore. You could really tell how much work and love Tolkien poured into his world 😊 He had an explanation for how quite literally everything came to be, and just the linguistic effort that he put into the names and languages in this book was enough to make me fangirl. I loved the attention to detail!
Let’s get into a few specifics, though. Rather than going with my usual organization of writing, characters and plot, I am going to try to break this review down into what I did and didn’t like. I think that makes more sense in this case. The Silmarillion reads a lot more like a history book than your typical fantasy novel, so I don’t feel as though I can do it justice by analyzing it with regard to typical narrative structures.
What I Liked:
I know it wasn’t technically part of the story, but the introduction to my edition of The Silmarillion included a letter from Tolkien to his friend Milton Waldman, who worked as an editor at Tolkien’s publishing house. And guys – I just loved the letter! In it, Tolkien basically tries to explain how cool and important the history of his world is and goes into full-on nerd-mode. You could tell he was obsessed with all the history and languages he had come up with, and that he just wanted to share the happiness it brought to him with everyone, no matter whether they had asked for it or not. Gosh, that letter just made my heart go out to Tolkien and me want to hug him 😊 His enthusiasm for world-building was just so relatable, and I loved how he didn’t even try to hide it!
The world-building was also the best part of this book. Everything had been planned out in minute detail, and I probably spent hours poring over the appendix of the book, looking up the places I had read about on maps or finding names in the genealogies provided. It was a lot to stomach all at once, and I didn’t look up everything, but I did like how intricately things had been planned out. Every single place that you could find on the maps had some kind of history that was referenced in this book, and by the end, I really understood how this world had come to be and how different parts of it were connected. I learned that some places I had gotten to know in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, like Rivendell or Minas Tirith, had pasts that were intricately connected with Elvish history and other cities that had come before them. I learned how and why Elves, Dwarves, Men and Wizards arrived in Middle-earth. I learned about the different groups of Elves and humans. I liked looking at the names of things and seeing how they were unique to certain parts of these cultures.
Most of all, I liked everything that gave me a deeper understanding of things directly related to The Lord of the Rings. I liked seeing more Sauron, more Galadriel, more eagles, more Elrond, more Gandalf, Saruman and Radagast. I liked learning about all of Aragorn’s ancestors. I liked that we learned more about the meaning behind certain symbols, such as the White Tree of Gondor. And I liked certain tidbits, like the parts about Ungoliant or the Three Rings that Sauron didn’t know about. However, that is also something I have to criticize about this book: I only ever got truly excited about things when they related to The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. I was never really invested in The Silmarillion as its own, independent story. But more on that later…
There is still one thing I loved that I have to mention! I didn’t really care about any of the characters much (with the exception of the ones I already knew from Tolkien’s other books, and even those were admittedly not particularly interesting in this one…) – except one. And that is Huan!! He is such a poor, loyal wolf-hound soul, and I adored everything about him 😍 Why couldn’t this book have had more Huan??
What I Didn’t Like:
That being said, this book pushed me to the edge of boredom. It read, quite honestly, like a fantasy version of the Bible. Maybe even worse. It was mostly an incredibly dull list of names and of events that we never got to see in any detail. To give you an idea, here is an example from a page I randomly opened:
Then Beren and Lúthien went forth alone, fearing neither thirst nor hunger; and they passed the River Gelion into Ossiriand, and dwelt there in Tol Galen the green isle, in the midst of Adurant, until all tidings of them had ceased. The Eldar afterwards called that country Dor-Firn-i-Guinar, the Land of the Dead that Live; and there was born Dior Aranel the beautiful, who was after known as Dior Eluchil, which is Thingol’s heir. No mortal man spoke ever again with Beren son of Barahir, and none saw Beren or Lúthien leave the world, or marked where at last their bodies lay.(Tolkien 222)
The entire Silmarillion reads like this. Not just the exposition or end of stories – everything. We never get any insight into what characters are thinking, what their internal struggles are, how they have to fight for what they believe in. There is no internal conflict that might make you root for someone. We never actually experience the hardships characters have to face on their journeys or in battle.
Instead, The Silmarillion only tells you strictly, factually, and very briefly what happened. It summarizes the entire history of this world, so barely any events get more than a few sentences. Because of this, I never really connected with the story. For me to truly get immersed, I need a certain amount of character-drivenness. The Silmarillion had next to none.
This also relates to another thing that annoyed me – the portrayal of evil in this book. Since we never got to see characters’ internal struggles, evil came across as absolutely black and white. It was always Melkor/Morgoth or Sauron corrupted this person, and that’s why they did the terrible things they did. No one is ever responsible for their own actions, no one even has to be tempted by evil! Either you’re strong enough to withstand Morgoth, or he corrupts you pretty much immediately. Other types of evil simply don’t exist. There are no gray zones. No character struggles to pick which path they should take or which ideals they should believe in. In fact, all the evil in this world can basically be traced to the fact that Melkor decided to take some artistic liberties during godly choir-practice. Okay, okay – that might be oversimplifying things. But I’m not entirely wrong!
Then, the female characters drove me absolutely nuts. About 90% of them were beautiful Elves that some other Elf/man found singing in the middle of the woods and then, entranced by the lady’s beauty and voice, decided to marry. I’m serious, this is exactly how it always happens!
Elwë, lord of the Tereli, went often through the great woods to seek Finwë his friend in the dwellings of the Noldor; and it chanced on a time that he came alone to the starlit wood of Nan Elmoth, and there suddenly he heard the song of nightingales. Then an enchantment fell on him, he stood still; and afar off beyond the voices of the lómelindi he heard the voice of Melian, and it filled all his heart with wonder and desire. He forgot then utterly all his people and the purposes of his mind, and following the birds under the shadow of the trees he passed deep into Nan Elmoth and was lost. But he came at last to a glade open to the stars, and there Melian stood, and out of the darkness he looked at her, and the light of Aman was in her face.(Tolkien 54-55)
And it came to pass that he saw Aredhel Ar-Feiniel as she strayed among the tall trees near the borders of Nan Elmoth, a gleam of white in the dim land. Very fair she seemed to him, and he desired her; and he set his enchantments about her so that she could not find the ways out, but drew nearer to his dwelling in the depths of the wood. […] And when Aredhel, weary with wandering, came at last to his doors, he welcomed her, and led her into his house. And there she remained; for Eöl took her to wife, and it was long ere her kin heard of her again.(Tolkien 154) (Yup, this one is plenty problematic. At least Aredhel does escape eventually…)
It is told in the Lay of Leithian that Beren came stumbling into Doriath grey and bowed as with many years of woe, so great had been the torment of the road. But wandering in the summer in the woods of Neldoreth he came upon Lúthien, daughter of Thingol and Melian, at a time of evening under moonrise, as she danced upon the unfading grass in the glades beside Esgalduin. Then all memory of his pain departed from him, and he fell into an enchantment; for Lúthien was the most beautiful of all the Children of Ilúvatar.(Tolkien 192-193)
I think you get the picture. Seriously, this was as unromantic and objectifying as it gets! And, even worse, barely any of the women ever did anything apart from looking beautiful, singing in the woods, and bearing their husband children. Yavanna, Galadriel and Lúthien did have a bit of agency, but all the others? I wasn’t a fan.
Another thing that I wasn’t a fan of was that when we did see characters and their histories, the story never went into enough depth. This is connected to the fact that we never learn about what they are thinking, but also goes beyond that. For example, we never do really learn where Sauron came from and how he became evil. Suddenly, he’s just there, info-dumped into the story as Morgoth’s most important servant. But I wanted to know more than that! Why did he join Morgoth? Why was he so tempted by evil? That part is never explained, and the same thing goes for about a million other characters in this book. Plus, some things were just plain illogical. Why weren’t the Elves able to get the Silmarils back from Morgoth if they are apparently so superior, when a human did manage to steal one? And if the Valar managed to get rid of Morgoth so easily in the end, why didn’t anyone think of doing that sooner? Plus, why didn’t they lock up Sauron, too, just for good measure? It seems like that would have saved a lot of trouble…
Also, can I just mention that everyone described as beautiful in this book was pretty much as white as it gets?
Finally, there was a lot of weird, random stuff that seemed to come out of nowhere. Like the part were Sauron suddenly “took upon himself the form of a werewolf, and made himself the mightiest that had yet walked the world” (Tolkien 205). Honestly, I felt like I was in Forks, not Middle-earth. Or other strange references that seemed to be taken from different myths and just felt kind of out of place here. For example, I just couldn’t read “Of Túrin Turambar” without my head screaming that this was basically Oedipus revisited. Or this:
[S]he put forth her arms of enchantment, and caused her hair to grow to great length, and of it she wove a dark robe that wrapped her beauty like a shadow, and it was laden with a spell of sleep. Of the strands that remained she twined a rope, and she let it down from her window […](Tolkien 202)
Doesn’t this just scream Rapunzel? Anyway, I found these random references hilarious. They didn’t seem to fit into the picture I had of Middle-earth at all, and I couldn’t help but snort whenever I came across one of them.
So yeah, on the whole, I’d say that The Silmarillion definitely isn’t Tolkien’s best. It may have helped him flesh out his world, but it is not written as an engaging story that you can submerse yourself in. I would really only recommend it to fellow Tolkien fans who have already read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Otherwise I doubt you’d get any enjoyment out of this. But who knows? If those quotes sounded like something you’d enjoy, feel free to go for it. The whole book is like this, so you should know what you’re in for 😉
Anyway, that’s it for today. If you’ve already read The Silmarillion, feel free to share your thoughts! Did you like the book? Do you agree or disagree with anything I said? I’d love to know!