Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Silmarillion, a Review

The Silmarillion may be the most difficult book I've ever read, and likewise the most difficult review I've ever written. It's incredibly dense and filled with so much information and so many stories that a proper review would be quite long. In essence, it would be like reviewing the Bible, to which The Silmarillion is often compared, and that would certainly be no easy task. Nevertheless, I have tried, and this is the result.

I imagine any reader of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit would be somewhat familiar with The Silmarillion. This book, written as a collection of myths and legends, is epic in its scope, spanning from the creation story to the end of the Third Age (i.e., after Frodo destroys the Ring). The Tengwar inscription inside gives the best description of the book that I've read.
"The tales of the First Age when Morgoth dwelt in Middle-earth and the Elves made war upon him for the recovery of the Silmarils to which are appended the downfall of Númenor and the history of the Rings of Power and the Third Age in which these tales come to their end."
That sentence contains so much in its simplicity that it's almost deceiving. It demands questions. Who's Morgoth? What are the Silmarils? Ooh, what else can I learn about the Rings of Power? And what the heck is Tengwar? While The Lord of the Rings may hint at some of these things, the answers can only be found in The Silmarillion.

So what is The Silmarillion? It's essentially the bible of Middle-earth and all of Arda. It's Tolkien's legendarium, his masterpiece and life's work. It's a history book of things forgotten by many, and cherished by others.

After I read LOTR in 8th grade, and then The Hobbit, I got The Silmarillion. I tried to read it, but I've never been much of a fan of history, and this just lacked the beauty Tolkien's other works had, so I sat it aside, intending to give it another chance some time later. After a decade of waiting, the time finally arrived.

This time through it didn't seem as much as a history book as I remembered. Sure, it was dry from time to time, but for the most part I rather enjoyed the read. For one, it felt like reading a book on some other culture's myths, and I suppose this is actually what I was doing. Also, some of these stories are so breathtaking and tragic that it's hard not to get pulled into the tales. Yes, The Silmarillion may seem like a history book, and it is, in some ways, but it is also so much more.

The entire volume is essentially one long story arc, but it is broken up into several different parts. In the beginning, after Ilúvatar has created the Ainur, one of his creations rebels and seeks his own song. It is this, the rebellion of Melkor, also called Morgoth, that has led to the ills of the world (Arda) and the problems that follow the creation. Time and time again different heroes rise up to oppose Melkor and his followers, and this is what The Silmarillion consists of, hero stories. Stories with characters you want to root for, despite their long odds. Stories with villains so dastardly that you pray for justice.

These tales are fascinating. Tolkien's mythology is humongous, and each story has the epic feel associated with things like The Odyssey or The Iliad. Yet, as Tolkien writes in The Fellowship of the Ring, the tales are all fair, "though [they are] sad, as are all the tales of Middle-earth..." Indeed, there are a few silver linings throughout The Silmarillion, but mostly everything is heavy and tragic. This certainly does not limit the enjoyment of the book, however, as we already know how it ends 'ere we start (provided some simple deduction).

One distinct difference between this work and Tolkien's others is that The Silmarillion tends to lack the overly-wordy description that is famous throughout the LOTR. Here we get some description, but nothing like the adjective-heavy words commonly associated with Tolkien. There still seems to be some extraneous information, but this was no problem really.

The hardest thing about reading The Silmarillion is the gigantic cast of characters. Not only are there numerous people named, but so are the lands and rings and swords and whatever else Tolkien fancied Proper Nouning. (Can I do that? Use "noun" as a verb?) Add the fact that there are many different languages in Arda, and you may get one character with three different names, if not more. For that reason, I occasionally got lost trying to recall who was who and who's son someone came from and the proper lineage and blah blah. If I read this again, I think I may keep a notebook handy for side notes.

The Silmarillion is a beautiful book that I regret took me so long to finally crack open. I think I had some preconceptions about how the historical writing would pan out--that I would be bored and not enjoy the read--but I was wrong. J.R.R. Tolkien is a master at what he does, and it's evident that the time and love he put into this book took many years. It's sad that the man didn't live long enough to see his life's work published, but at least the book hit publication.

Overall, for anyone that read and enjoyed the Lord of the Rings, it's a no brainer. The Silmarillion is a must read if you're interested in any of the background of Middle-earth, especially Elven history. On the other hand, I would also recommend this book to anyone with a strong interest in mythology. Tolkien borrowed from Norse and German mythology, and lovers of these legends may enjoy The Silmarillion as well. In the end, The Silmarillion is not a light book, and perusing would be difficult, but the reader will find excitement and tragedy within its pages.


Carl V. said...

The Silmarillion is a very difficult read and times, but wow is it worth it. It really is one of my favorite books. There is so much richness contained inside. I'm glad you decided to finally read it and that you had a good experience with it. I know it isn't for everyone, but for anyone who is really in love with Tolkien's mythology this is a MUST READ.

logankstewart said...

@Carl: I'm glad I finally decided to tackle it, too. It's definitely something that I feel would take multiple reads to grasp everything, and even then I can see it being complex. Still, heck of a book.

Brandon said...

I think The Silmarillion is one of those books you can't really appreciate until you've reached a certain age. I read it in college and enjoyed it (though it was not easy reading), but I think If I had read it much earlier, I wouldn't have had the patience.
So basically, I second what you said Logan :)

By the way, have you read "The Book of the Dun Cow"? or "Watership Down?"

Both of those books rank close to LOTR in their epic-ness, and their legend/myth making.

Kristopher A. Denby said...

My family (mom, dad, aunts, uncles, and sister) were on the Tolkien bandwagon long before me. I remember my parents going to see that Bakshie travesty back int he day and coming back with a colorful accompanying booklet that I was pretty mesmerized by. But for the next 20 odd years of my life, that was where my interest in things Hobbittish ended.

Eventually a good adaptation presented itself in the form of Peter Jackson's LOTR films, and from the first intro scene I was a changed man. Sounds silly, but it's quite true. MANY of my interest changed with the interest that grew in me for things Tolkien.

I bought or asked for just about everything that has anything to do with LOTR, and I am still plowing through all of the books that I have on the subject. The Silmarillion is sitting on my bookshelf now like a derelict ship, run aground on a hidden shoal. One day, when I've more patience for it, I'll pick it up again and finish it.

Until then, it will sit. And wait for high tide.

Good post, Logan. Glad you got through it.

logankstewart said...

@Brandon: Never heard of The Book of the Dun Cow, but I do want to read Watership Down one of these days. Thanks for the "Dun Cow" recommendation, though.

@Kris: Best of luck whenever you get to it. Nice comment, by the way.