A few months ago I wrote about J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earthian™ tragedy, The Children of Húrin. Initially, after I finished the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, I wanted to read the Silmarillion, BUT I couldn’t find it at my local used bookstore. Instead I read, the soul-ripping tale of Túrin and his tragic exploits mentioned above. Having emotionally recovered from that depressing tome by reading lots and lots of comics , I was ready to begin yet another adventure into Tolkien’s universe (side note: Jason Aaron’s Men of Wrath is NOT a viable palate cleanser). As luck would have it, I found a cheap copy of the Silmarillion and spent the next couple of weeks learning more than anyone really needs to know about the mythology within the Lord of the Rings (and I loved it).
Before we get started, let me get something out of the way. The language found in Tolkien’s work can be dense. He was a philologist, meaning that he was a HUGE fan of languages and the written word. That coupled with the fact that Tolkien started this book in 1914 and worked on it until his death (it was completed by his son, Christopher Tolkien), means this tome can be a bit overwhelming for someone that has mostly stuck to novels written, you know, in the last two or three decades. I had been reading several of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes short-stories prior to working my way through Lord of the Rings, the Children of Húrin, and the Silmarillion, which made the transition a bit smoother than my earlier attempts at Tolkiening™.
Originally, I was going to give you a brief synopsis on the five parts that make up the Silmarillion. The problem is this book comprises a vast swath of time, and each part is almost a microcosm for a specific area of the mythos/lore found throughout the books and films. The third part, which we will get into below, contains a series of stories that are sometimes interconnected, and sometimes not. Trust me when I say it’s really difficult to provide a synopsis, let alone a “brief” one (I just deleted several paragraphs that solely pertained to the first part). You see, the Silmarillion isn’t necessarily a prequel to Lord of the Rings, although it does take place before that story.
Let me attempt to explain that oxymoron of a sentence over the next paragraph or four. The Silmarillion is comprised of five parts, all of which were translations of Elven histories written by none other than Bilbo Baggins in his book, Translations from the Elvish. Bilbo had a lot of time on his hands after handling the One Ring for so many years, so he decided to spend it writing dense histories.
The Ainulindalë, the first section basically serves as the Genesis of Tolkien’s universe. This chapter and the next, the Valaquenta, are full of myth and lore, like how the sun and moon were created, destroyed, and created again; where the stars came from; detailed descriptions of fourteen Valar and some of the Maiar (all of whom were created by Eru (aka Illúvatar, aka God), and how much of a jerk Melkor is. Some of the Maiar that were seduced to the Dark Side by Melkor became Balrogs, we see one of these in The Fellowship of the Ring, when Gandalf (also a Maiar) tells one exactly where he will not be passing. Another Maiar of note: Sauron. That’s right, the big baddie from Lord of the Rings is one of Melkor’s lackeys.
The Quenta Silmarillion, which makes up a majority of the book, is a series of interconnected stories that make up the history of the Elves. These tales are full of valor, treachery, blood oaths, magical jewels made from the light of the Two Trees destroyed by Melkor and Ungoliant the enormous spider, you know, the usual stuff. The tales range from beautiful, to dark, to rather bland, but I enjoyed learning the history of the Elves. Also, Sauron’s physical form gets mauled by a giant war hound.
The last two parts are titled the Akallabêth and Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age. While the Quenta Silmarillion mostly focuses on the Elves, the Akallabêth centers on the rise and fall of the kingdom of Númenor. The men of Númenor started off strong. The men lived long, fruitful lives and the kings of Númenor were friends of the Elves and Valar. However, the line of kings eventually turned their backs on the Elves, moved against Sauron (who in turn befriended but ultimately betrayed them), and eventually fell (somewhat literally). Some of the Númenoreans stayed true to the Valar and left Númenor settling on Middle-Earth. One of these Elf-friends, was a man named Isildur. You might remember him as the man who cut the One Ring off Sauron with the broken sword called Narsil, reforged as Andúril, the Flame of the West, which was presented to Aragorn, Isildur’s heir and true king of Gondor.
The final chapter, Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age, is probably the most relevant chapter if you are reading this purely to have a deeper understanding of the Lord of the Rings. This chapter details Sauron’s rise to prominence, the establishing of the White Council (headed by Sarumon), the forging of the Rings of Power by Celebrimbor (featured prominently in the video game Shadows of Mordor), and the forging of the One Ring to rule them all by Sauron.
Ultimately, this book was a lot of fun. Sure, parts of it were dry (looking at you “Of Beleriand and it’s Realms,” the chapter that literally is only about the land of Beleriand and it’s realms…), but there were just so many good stories in this book that it definitely tipped the scales to the positive. I will say that this book is definitely not for everyone. Just the sheer number of names per person makes it hard to keep everything straight (seriously, everybody has like five interchangeable names). I would definitely recommend reading the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings prior to reading this book, despite the Silmarillion taking place prior to the events in those books. The reason I say that is because this book can be a little drab at times, but it’s real appeal lies in just how much context this book provides for the rest of Tolkien’s world.
If you are a fan of Lord of the Rings, or Tolkien’s other works, and wish to know more about that world, this is the book for you. Otherwise, I would stick to the more well-known Tolken books.