I have exactly four books that I’ve owned for longer than The Silmarillion, which I’ve owned in paperback since roughly 1989. The older books I own are The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King all by J.R.R. Tolkien, and The Story of Ferdinand by Robert Lawson. It took me over 20 years to read The Silmarillion, during which time I toted it through countless moves and through different life stages without ever discarding it. I didn’t want to read it, but I didn’t want to throw it away either.
I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in my pre-teen and early-teen years, and they were the first books for older readers that I ever truly loved. They captivated me the way many lifelong readers are captivated by an early reading experience. A bit later, at about age 15, I picked up a copy of The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien’s later-published prequel text covering the history of the elves of Tolkien’s invented world, believing quite reasonably that if I loved his previous books about Middle Earth, I would undoubtedly be just as enamored of this. My mom bought it for me from a bookstore at the mall.
I later learned that my early experience with The Silmarillion was very typical of people who loved The Lord of the Rings. I read about 30 pages, found it unbearably boring and difficult to read, and put it down. I finally finished reading The Silmarillion later when I was a much better, more experienced, more skilled reader. I’d watched all the movies (this was before The Hobbit was adapted) was determined that I would finally read the darn thing.
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Upon finishing The Silmarillion, I did indeed find it a rewarding experience. It is not like LotR or The Hobbit. It’s not really a novel in the way we usually think of it. Sure, it probably fits the technical definition of a novel, in that it is a work of fiction that tells a story and is too long to read in a short time. But there is not a lot of dialogue and no clear protagonist. The story it tells has conflict, the on-and-off war between the elves and the godlike Morgoth and his successor Sauron, but the conflict rages across generations and over centuries until all the elven kingdoms are destroyed by war and the gods return to destroy the land and defeat Morgoth, driving the surviving elves and men to a new land and remaking the map of Middle Earth.
I have sometimes heard it said of The Silmarillion that it is more of a history than a novel. There is some truth to this, but I think it works best if you think of it not as a history, but more like a religious text. It begins with a creation myth in which the race of gods create the world through a musical composition, but where Melkor (the previous name of Morgoth) purposely adds discordant notes indicating future strife and others, responding to Melkor’s sabotage, add grief and sadness to the melody. As it continues, the book reads like a book of legends of the past. Heroes were more heroic, dangers more dangerous, villains more villainous, treachery more treacherous, terrors more terrible.
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You can read it like you might read The Bible if you were reading it as literature, or the way a citizen of ancient Greece may have experience The Iliad. You can think of The Silmarillion not as a novel or as a history, but as a foundational text that tells a Middle Earth elf of the heritage and history he has inherited. Unlike Tolkien’s other works, where elves are sideline characters and don’t do a whole lot, at least collectively, the elves are front and center here and men are in supporting roles. Dwarves appear infrequently and hobbits are barely in it at all. The Silmarillion defines what it means to be an elf in the way that the Acts of the Apostles defines what it means to be Christian. Where Acts of the Apostles tells a young Christian that he or she has a heritage of martyrdom, The Iliad tells a young Greek that he or she inherits a tradition of martial heroism, The Silmarillion tells a young elf that he or she has a heritage of war, suffering, and loss. It is a novel only in the sense that there are no actual elves who will learn of their culture and heritage in this way.
I recently listened to the first episode of the StoryWonk podcast series on the works of Tolkien. The host, Alastair Stephens, said that Tolkien’s Middle Earth might be the most fully realized fantasy world ever created. I think the point is arguable, in large part because the Tolkien universe renders women almost completely invisible (and also because it is difficult to tell where all the people in Middle Earth get their food, but I guess Tolkien just wasn’t that interested in that sort of thing), but it is hard to argue against the position that Tolkien was the first fantasy author to build such a well-realized world, and that he put together a rich and detailed history and collection of languages for the peoples of Middle Earth. Tolkien was, after all, a professor of history and language more than he was a fantasy author.
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So what are some tricks to enjoying this complex and difficult work? Here are some of mine:
- If you are not completely enraptured by the Tolkien universe, don’t bother. Seriously, if you like Tolkien’s other works but aren’t extremely curious to continue, it’s not worth the trouble to read The Silmarillion. It just isn’t. There are other good works of fantasy literature out there that also have rich histories and good world-building detail that aren’t nearly so difficult. You may find the works of Brandon Sanderson or Jim Butcher to be quite inviting.
- If you made it through tip 1, see if you can find the audiobook. After making my way through The Silmarillion the first time, I heard someone say that the audiobook is quite enjoyable. I found it at my local library a few years ago and picked it up. It is a revelation. The narrator is Martin Shaw, a British actor you may know from Inspector George Gently. It is the perfect marriage of book and narrator. Recalling that The Silmarillion is best viewed as a religious text similar to The Bible, think about how most people experience the Bible, or at least how they experience it first. It is read to them, in church. While the works can be difficult to read, for some reason it is easily understood and internalized when another person is reading it to you. The same is true of The Silmarillion, and it certainly helps that Martin Shaw has a smooth baritone voice that sounds like it could be the voice of God. Granted, you lose the genealogical charts and the maps, but those are easily found with Google these days.
- Get used to everything having multiple names. As mentioned above, Morgoth had previously been Melkor until he was renamed. Other characters and places have a variety of names dependant on time and place. Tolkien was into languages, and his naming conventions reflect the languages he invented for the various peoples of his novels. There is a logic to it all, and I’m sure that logic is impeccable, but it is beyond my ability to comprehend. My advice is to just deal with it and go on; try to keep up with who’s who.
- Think about how it connects to later works. You might wonder upon reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings why the elves with their eternal lifespans and incredible fighting skills don’t do a whole heck of a lot. The Silmarillion provides hints of an answer, or at least raises a few theories. My theory, informed by this book, is that the elves are war weary. While the action takes place in the distant past, some of the characters from The Silmarillion are still alive during Lord of the Rings. The entire elvish race is likely only one or two generations removed from a centuries-long conflict that destroyed several elvish nation, killed countless numbers of their brethren, and left their lands at the bottom of the sea. Their was one event called “The Battle of Unnumbered Tears” for crying out loud. These people have seen some shit, and it is someone else’s turn to fight evil. Imagine if World War I ended with Britain utterly destroyed with few survivors and no inhabitable land, but technically victorious. This adds context to The Hobbit particular to the question of why the elves in that book were so hostile. They have sacrificed much, and trust few.