The Silmarillion is widely known as the book that separates the men from the boys amongst Tolkien fans. It is, in essence, the creation story of Middle Earth–the Old Testament to the Lord of the Ring’s New Testament. In it, a pantheon of gods create the world out of song, strange and fell beasts roam the land, elves and demigods fall in love in starlit glades, dwarves build the mines through which Frodo and his party wander, and humans are seduced by the evil charms of Sauron. And that is only the most basic of overviews of this book.
In truth, The Silmarillion, as it is bound and sold today, is really several different works of Tolkien’s that were compiled by his son after Tolkien’s death. The various stories within were worked upon by Tolkien throughout the entire course of his life. In fact, he tried to publish part of The Silmarillion before Lord of the Rings was even conceived, but his publisher asked him for something a bit easier to read–a bit more engaging.
It must be said: The Silmarillion, at times, can be tough to slog through. Long chapters are devoted to explaining the ancestry of extremely minor characters. Entire continents are slowly dissected by landmarks and geographical markings–something I have to say would be much better if left to a simple map. But if you can look past these shortcomings, The Silmarillion presents stories that rival–perhaps even best–those presented in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.
I found that the first books, which covered the creation and cultivation of the world by a pantheon of gods similar to the gods of ancient Greece, were beautiful and strange–totally unlike anything I’d ever read. I particularly found the concept of the Trees of Valinor–two trees that lit the world before the sun–strange and enchanting.
The real triumph of The Silmarillion, however, is the Quenta Silmarillion, the third book in the collection. In it, the elves strive with Melkor, an evil god–the master of Sauron–who has stollen the Silmarils, which are beautiful gems crafted by the elves from the light of the Trees of Valinor. It is an epic in every sense of the word, and to truly cover the events it contains is beyond the scope of this review. My favorite moments in it were the battle between Morgoth and Fingolfin–an evil god the size of a skyscraper fighting a comparatively small but valiant elf–and the ballad of Beren and Lúthien–a love story between an elf and a human that frankly blows the romance between Aragorn and Arwen out of the water. I thought the ending, in which Eärendil and Elwing sail to Valinor with a Silmaril, was particularly beautiful and well told.
The final two books of The Silmarillion cover the rise and fall of Númenor and the Rings of Power. These books are slightly shorter, but still fascinating, especially in the light they shed on the Lord of the Rings. The number of unexplained references to Númenor in Lord of the Rings is astounding. I’m honestly tempted to reread the series simply because, after reading The Silmarillion, I feel like they would be completely different books.
My complaints are few. Yes, the chapters that would be better presented as a simple map are tiring, and yes there might be just a bit too much erroneous detail provided at times–though this hardly seems a valid grievance considering that usually my issue with fantasy is just the opposite: too little description, too much resting on the laurels of Fantasy and concepts previously invented. There is none of that in this book. The Silmarillion is utterly original. Perhaps my only real criticism is simply with his pacing as an author–a complaint I have with Lord of the Rings as well. For example, when Númenor Falls–think the sinking of Atlantis–giant tidal waves rock the entire world. The planet goes from being flat to being round. A huge island sinks to the floor of the sea and the surface of the entire planet is altered. And this all happens in just a few paragraphs. I could use, perhaps, a bit more description of this and a bit less description of the genealogy of the Númenorian kings.
But having said that, there’s so much beauty elsewhere in the writing and the ideas presented in this book as a whole are so, well, fantastical that I can’t help but call it a triumph and a must read for any Tolkien fan.