Ethan's Reviews > The Silmarillion

The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien
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May 19, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: tolkien, more-than-once, all-time-favorites

Whenever I tell someone about this book, my descriptions usually begin with something like "it's amazing!" and ends with "you should definitely read it," and the stuff in the middle is a jumble of enthusiastic comments about characters, events, and emotions that are most likely foreign to my listener. Though I understand that not everyone who reads The Silmarillion will enjoy it to the same degree, there's no denying that this is a work of great literary genius.

This book recounts the history of Arda from its very creation through the end of the second age of Middle-earth, focusing mainly of the events of the first age. It is divided into five sections that each focus on a different aspect or period of the history.

The Ainulindalë (Music of the Ainur) relates the story of the creation of Eä and the great Music of the Ainur. This is perhaps my favorite part of this book. Tolkien's description of the music and how it is the very act of creation itself never fails to move me deeply. Aside from his poem "Mythopoeia," this is probably the passage that most fully works out his thoughts about sub-creation. This book is well worth your time, even if you never read any further than this.

The Valaquenta deals with the various Ainur and their distinct personalities. Here one learns of the distinctions between Valar and Maiar and which are evil and which are good. This passage is often one of the first difficulties for first-time readers because there is no plot; Tolkien is setting the stage for when the story will continue in the Quenta Silmarillion. Fortunately, however, this section is not long, is rewarding for those who persevere, and becomes dearer after each subsequent reading.

The Quenta Silmarillion is what most people think of when they think of "The Silmarillion" and could be considered the Silmarillion proper. It is by far the largest of the five sections and contains the bulk of the stories of the first age. Its narrative is primarily concerned with the doings of the Ainur and the elves, though a few men play prominent roles later in the book, and, as its name suggests, all the tales revolve around and relate in some way to the history of the Silmarils. Each time I read them the tales become richer, deeper, and fuller, and my appreciation for this work grows with each new reading. Contained herein are tales of surpassing beauty, filled with sorrows and joys that only add to their grace. The working of Ilúvatar's third theme (see Ainulindalë), described as "slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came," is evident in these tales and I couldn't agree more with Tolkien's description.

As its name suggests, the Akallabêth (The Downfall of Númenor) tells of the fall of the greatest human civilization ever to have been in Middle-earth. Like many of the tales of the Quenta Silmarillion, it is a sad story, though not without the light of a new dawn promised ere long. I am always struck by the contrast between the nature of elves and men when I read this tale. Elves are slow to change, undying, and keen-eyed; men are fickle, fear death, and easily deceived. Yet, men are not inferior to elves on all points, and the very thing which they fear most was initially intended as a gift from Ilúvatar that has been corrupted by fear of the darkness. Man's fallen nature is easily seen in this tale.

The final section of this book is Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age. It tells of the history of the Rings of Power from their making by Annatar and Celebrimbor and the elves of Eregion to the destruction of The One Ring and the fading of the three. It's basically The Lord of the Rings whittled down to nineteen pages, though is does have some important material that occurs prior to the trilogy.

Now that I've bored you with my effusive descriptions of each section, I have a few suggestions for first time readers (some of these are taken or echoed from Corey Olsen, The Tolkien Professor).

1. Have a map handy. Tolkien loved geography, especially his own invented one, so he takes time to describe his work in great detail. Even after having read this three times, I still find myself flipping back to my map often.

2. Don't try to keep track of all the divisions of the elves. The main two that you need to know are the Noldor and the Teleri (a group of the Teleri become the Sindarin later on). There are some helpful flow charts out there on the internet that visualize the seemingly endless divisions of the various elven kindreds, so if you're feeling precocious, I suggest having one of these handy.

3. Don't try to remember all the names. Tolkien was a linguist, so names were kind of his thing. Many people and places have three or four names, which only adds to the confusion. Rather, try to keep track of the significance of certain characters, events, or places in light of the overall story. Doing this will help you keep track of who's important and which characters are merely accessory. (And for what it's worth, this Tolkien nerd still has trouble with the house of Finwë.)

Now all that's left is for you to go and read it for yourself. And most importantly, enjoy it.
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Reading Progress

May 19, 2012 – Shelved
May 21, 2012 – Shelved as: tolkien
May 21, 2012 – Shelved as: more-than-once
September 17, 2013 – Started Reading
September 18, 2013 –
page 57
September 18, 2013 –
page 73
September 18, 2013 –
page 106
September 19, 2013 –
page 118
September 24, 2013 –
page 131
September 24, 2013 – Shelved as: all-time-favorites
September 26, 2013 –
page 140
September 27, 2013 –
page 150
October 3, 2013 –
page 179
October 4, 2013 –
page 198
October 11, 2013 –
page 259
August 19, 2015 – Finished Reading

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