The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien

Before I had this site, back when I was on Booklikes, a friend of mine asked, “What’s the best way for a new reader to approach The Silmarillion?”  I had no answer.  I could take an educated guess because I understood the basics of what this book was, but I could not offer a solution.  I had read the book, but I couldn’t claim to understand it.  It’s like I could feel the names and events jumbling together and crashing in waves against the rocks of my uncomprehending mind.  It was a sore point with me because I claim to be a fan of Tolkien.  The Lord of the Rings is my favorite book.  It’s filled with references to The Silmarillion… because Tolkien had been working on that for decades and felt he had no hope of publication of that work.  But that book was out of my grasp for so long, almost 25 years, so I’ve been reading LOTR for years as Tolkien expected I would, without benefit of his expanded Legendarium.  And so I wrote a blog post (that no longer exists) called “Silmarillion Blues,” wherein I lamented that this collection of stories and the more esoteric, non-canonical additions to the Legendarium were out of my reach.

But something happened while I was writing that blog post.  I came to a few understandings that I did not have before.  The first was that in all that time, I had become something of a medievalist.  I had studied The Bible and the history of the Middle Ages that it shaped before an English translation had ever existed.  I studied modern translations of texts from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance so as to get a better understanding of those times and places.  I had more understanding of mythology and history, and in those years of learning, my scholarship had improved considerably.  I also had many years of reading and re-reading The Lord of the Rings, including The Appendices, which were drawn from the stories Christopher Tolkien would ultimately edit together for us.  What little is there had slowly unlocked for me.  And then on top of everything, I had friends online who were perhaps willing to consider taking this journey with me.  Some already had in one form or another, proving it could be done.  The quest was simple: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and ultimately The Silmarillion, week by week, chapter by chapter, slowly enough to allow the deepest appreciation and comprehension.  The quest would take years, but I had time.  And so began the quest under the banner name Silmarillion Blues.  The whole time it took to get to The Silmarillion, I kept psyching myself out.  This was the book, my white whale, seemingly forever beyond by grasp, but I would have it.  And eventually we got there.

So help me, I not only understood this book, I enjoyed it as I have enjoyed so few reading experiences.  I cannot possibly relate in words what this has meant to me to discover that I had grown enough, literately speaking, to make this a reality.  And because of that, I can give this book a proper review in only one sentence:

The music of the Ainur is the symphonic masterpiece of literary creation.

How’s that for a broad, yet definitive statement?  But it’s true.  The Silmarillion is nothing short of the culmination of a life’s work, and it reads like it should embody that.  Professor Tolkien, because of the story told in The Lord of the Rings, is my favorite author.  Because of The Silmarillion, my appreciation for that story, the Legendarium as a whole, and the genius of the man who created it all have magnified 1000%.  So my appreciation of this work is ultimately less about the work itself and more about what it achieved in the grand scheme.  That’s by no means to say the work itself is somehow subpar.  Quite the reverse, it stands in my estimation as exactly what Tolkien hoped to accomplish and more: a lost mythology of Britain, in harmony with his own values and faith, and in estimable literary comparison to similar collections of stories found throughout the Middle Ages.  If anything, it stands as a triumph to the idea of “do what you love,” even if you think no one else will see it.

Lest I forget to put forth credit where it’s due, it is to Christopher Tolkien to whom I feel such a debt of gratitude for compiling and editing his father’s work against what I can only fathom as a challenge far more daunting and rewarding than carrying the One Ring into Mordor.  That’s part of what makes this work.  Not only is the grandiose, mythological tale in play here as living prose, but one can feel both the Professor’s love of creating and his son’s love of the creation.  I certainly did.  The word “epic” is thrown around far too readily these days.  This… this is epic in the truest sense of that word.  What the Tolkiens bring to fantasy is genre-defining in a way that no one else can truly claim.

The context alone had me at hello.  I braced myself for its magnitude.  I was unprepared for the sheer beauty of it.  The concept of creation as music resonated with me (no pun intended) in a way that spoke to my spiritual side and for my love of music.  I do not have Tolkien’s faith.  I sometimes wish I did, and maybe on some level I do, but certainly without the dogma of any religion most would recognize.  Throughout this book, I could feel the reverence he had for his beliefs, with almost zero preachiness.  This is a feat in and of itself.  More than that, I felt echoes to many of my own experiences.  Knowing the history as I do, and of Tolkien’s place in it, I could see the allegories in play that make this story into the highest form of literature.  In the purest sense of the word, this book left me in a state of awe.  And it makes me sad, for I know I will never experience its like again, even should I re-read this book.  The first time I read it, if indeed you can call it that, I  walked away with nothing but anger and disappointment in myself that it was beyond my grasp.  I feel like this reading was truly the first time I read it, such was the complete experience.  It’s the same kind of thing I’ve found in Shakespeare after decades of similar struggle, only… more.  And as with Shakespeare, the rewards of finally unlocking these stories will bring me joy for the rest of my days.

The journey continues, with renewed confidence and enthusiasm.  On March 18, 2018, I begin reading Unfinished Tales, with the first post on April 1 (intended chapter turnaround every two weeks for this one).  For those who have traveled with me thus far, and for those who will come along from here, thank you and welcome.

6 thoughts on “The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien

    • Thanks! Soon… I’m looking forward to it. One of the things medieval manuscripts has prepared me for is the idea of incomplete stories. I readily accept these at face value, with the understanding they’ll offer further glimpses into what is or might have been. From here on, that’s pretty much the name of the game.

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