Bookshot #145: The Silmarillion

Y'all: I did it. I can't count the number of times I've picked up this book over the years, bound and

determined to be a good nerd and a Tolkein Completist and read it and I've never actually managed to do it until this year and I'm so glad I did because wow, does The Silmarillion expand the world of Tolkein in ways that you didn't even know you wanted to learn about. 

Let's get the obvious complaint out of the way: it's dense, it's inaccessible, it's boring, etc, etc. Well, you have to know what you're getting into-- The Silmarillion functions as a sort of mythological epic of the First and Second Ages of Middle Earth-- and it's actually got the creation mythology of Middle Earth right at the start. The book itself is divided into sections- the first one, Ainulindale is exactly that: the creation narrative- Eru (also called Iluvatar) creates the Ainur, his children and eternal spirits and showed them a theme and told them to make great music. But Melkor-- the one who had been given the greatest power and knowledge of the Ainur broke the harmony and began to develop his own song. Some joined him, some stayed on the theme of Iluvatar which caused discord in the music. Eru fixed it three separate times- but then, stopped the music and showed them a vision of the world that will become Middle Earth. 

Some jumped at the chance to enter the world- and some Ainur became Valar, while others became Maiar. The Valar kept trying to make the world ready for the Elves and Men they knew were coming- Melkor kept interfering. In the second part of the book, Valaquenta describes Melkor and some of the Valar and Maiar in detail. (Also, how Aule created the dwarves just because he wanted to create something for himself- and how Eru slaps his hand for it- but ultimately relents and lets them stick around.)

The third section of the book is the Quenta Silmarillion and that's where we get into the meat and potatoes of the book. Less a complete narrative and more of a series of interconnected tales that tell the story of how the Valar moved to Aman and made their home, Valinor and two trees (from which the White Tree of Lord of The Rings came, I think) were made to illuminate the world- and eventually, Feanor captures the lights of the two trees into three jewels, The Silmarils. Melkor, initially repentant after his earlier misdeeds, kills the trees and steals The Simarils and the Valar eventually goes after him and makes a vow to stay in Beleriand until Melkor is defeated and the Silmarils are recovered. 

And that's the arc of the story really- we learn about the various kingdoms that the elves set up over the centuries-- the hidden Kingdom of Doriath (ruled by Thingol and protected by his wife Melian-- a sort of proto-Lorien where guess who else shows up? Galadriel-- she doesn't have many lines of dialogue in here, but her character completely changes because of this book. She is playing the long game from the very beginning- eschewing the political games of the boys and men- she doesn't go full independent, she swears the oath to join the fight to recover the Silmarils, but her goal is always Middle Earth. And I love that. I feel like in LOTR, Galadriel is this ethereal float-y queen who's kind of cryptic and speaks in riddles. Here, her power is more evident and less subtle.)

We hear about the hidden Kingdom of Gondolin- which eventually falls to Melkor's forces- as does Doriath-- but also, we get the tale of Beren and Luthien in full here- and they steal one of the Simarils back before choosing mortality after the death of Beren to share his fate. There are dragons and wars and eventually, weirdly- Melkor kind of wins. It takes Earendil going on a voyage to the west to stir the elves of Aman to action and everyone else having sort of failed, they get their power on and come and deal with Melkor once and for all-the resulting struggle sinks Beleriand beneath the sea and gives us the map of Middle Earth that looks way more familiar. And the remaining two Silmarils? The two sons of Feanor that are left at this point, get their hands burnt. One throws himself into a chasm, the other wanders along the coast singing his grief.

The fourth section of the book: Akallabeth, the fall of Numenor. The Kings that sailed out of the west- they used to live on a star shaped island named Numenor and Sauron, for reasons passing understanding is taken captive and brought back to the place where he corrupts the kingdom and convinces the last king to assault Aman itself- sort of like assailing the power of heaven. Heaven, needless to say is not pleased. The fleet sinks, Elendil and his sons survive and the West/Aman/Valinor is removed from the reach of men- and the world becomes round instead of flat. 

Finally, we get a retelling of the Rings of Power and the 3rd Age and that's the end. (This is pretty much the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit, boiled down to a 20 page summary.)

Overall:  Look, I'll be honest, I was somewhat curious about Amazon's Lord of the Rings show- and now I'm positively excited. There's acres of source material they can play with and storylines to explore. I think this is going to be excellent and I am here for it and it's all because of this book. I don't think you can expect it to be faithfully adapted to screen anytime soon- it's too dense and mythopoetic, but there's storylines and storylines and characters and characters you can play with. You can see Numenor fall. You can see people who remember the fall of Melkor and the great cataclysm that overthrow Beleriand and the great elf kingdoms of Doriath and Gondolin. I'm excited and I'm glad that I finally read this. It was worth it... I hesitate to say that it's Tolkien's greatest work, because it's probably his least accessible but there's something brilliant about the way he makes myths come alive and puts them at the right level of epic to scratch any itch the reader might have for epic tales of adventure and fantasy. My Grade: **** out of ****


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