Friday, 27 April 2012

'The Silmarillion' by J.R.R. Tolkien (1977)

The Silmarillion is an amazing work of fiction but it's most definitely not for everyone. Even though it's technically a prequel to The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings it really shouldn't be read by anyone who hasn't already read those books beforehand. Anyone who comes into this book as a Tolkien newcomer is likely to find it extremely dense and confusing. I wouldn't even recommend this book to casual Tolkien fans either. If you just couldn't get through the appendices in Return of the King, and if you actually prefer the Peter Jackson films to the LOTR book then The Silmarillion probably isn't for you. To fully appreciate this book you really do need to be a die-hard Tolkien fan. This is because The Silmarillion isn't really a novel in the traditional sense. Instead it's really more of a history book in the style of the Norse Sagas that Tolkien loved. The book informs the reader of various events that happened up to and around The Hobbit and LOTR. Things that are only briefly mentioned in those books are explained in much more depth here, and the reader is given far more background information on Middle-earth and Valinor. I think it's important to come into The Silmarillion with the right expectations. Tellingly Amazon and are absolutely full of reviews from people who said that they hated this book when they first read it, but when they came back to it the second time around they loved it. With this in mind I've summarised the different sections:

This first section of the book is a creation story. Tolkien's Christian beliefs are more obvious in The Silmarillion than they are in The Hobbit and LOTR. Basically, in this section Eru or Ilúvatar (God) creates the Ainur (angelic beings) in Heaven before the existence of time. Ilúvatar then has the Ainur sing a great symphony through which he creates the world (Arda). Now doesn't the concept of creating a world through music just sound so beautiful? However, the most powerful of the Ainur, Melkor (who later gets renamed Morgoth), knows some of Ilúvatar's thoughts and he wants to create worlds just like Ilúvatar. So feeling all envious and bitter inside Melkor starts to sing his own tune, and by doing so he pours himself and his evil desires into the music. Some of the Ainur then start copying him and the beautiful, harmonious music becomes a cacophony. Ilúvatar gives the Ainur a new piece of music to sing but Melkor and some of the Ainur start rebelling again. Finally Ilúvatar says - and I'm paraphrasing badly - "Enough! What you have just sung you will now see created". He shows the Ainur a vision of Arda in the future and the music - with all of its forces of good and evil - is then made manifest in the form of Arda. Again I think this is such an amazing and beautiful idea. Melkor's rebellion is also very similar to Satan's fall from Grace which I find very interesting.

This section is quite short. In this section some of the Ainur (who become known as the Valar) leave Heaven and go into the world. They arrive in Middle-earth to prepare it for the coming of the Elves (the Dwarves and Men won't show up for many years yet). The Valar use Ilúvatar's vision as their guide. The Valar and their realm of Valinor are defined and described in depth in this section, and we also get information about the Maiar. They came into the world with the Valar and are their slightly lesser servants and helpers. Melkor also arrives into the world, attempts to thwart the Valar's plans, and recruits some of the Maiar into assisting him.

Quenta Silmarillion
This is the largest section of the book by far and it concerns the War of the Silmarills. After the Elves appear on Middle-earth the Valar become extra-determined to defeat Melkor and manage to capture him and destroy his fortress. They then invite the Elves back to Valinor with them in order to protect them from the evil creatures that are still left over from Melkor's reign. Most of the Elves accept the invitation. Fëanor (the most skilled and powerful of the Elves) then creates sacred jewels (the Silmarills) but these are stolen by Melkor after he manages to weasel his way out of prison. After the theft Fëanor re-names Melkor "Morgoth" (which means "Black Enemy"), declares war on him, and pursues him back to Middle-earth. In the process he and his tribe (the Noldor Elves) anger the Valar by killing some of their kin (the Teleri Elves). The Valar are furious at the Elves' rebellion and they refuse to have anything more to do with Middle-earth and the Noldor Elves.

Subsequent chapters then deal with the coming of Men into Middle-earth thousands of years after the theft of the Silmarills. Beren (a man) falls in love with an elf called Luthien, who is the daughter of the Elf King Thingol. The Beren-Luthien story is briefly mentioned in LOTR but is given so much more depth in this book. Thingol doesn't want Beren to marry Luthien at all so he gives Beren a task which he thinks is impossible. He tells Beren that he will only agree to their marriage if Beren can retrieve a Silmarill from Morgoth. Beren's quest starts off badly as he gets captured by Sauron but Luthien rescues him and they escape. They then sneak into Morgoth's fortress and manage to steal a Silmarill from him. This is a really exciting story and was my favourite part of The Silmarillion. It's exciting and romantic and Luthien is a pretty badass heroine. She's the one who defeats Sauron and rescues Beren from the dungeons, she's the one who sends Morgoth to sleep with enchantments so Beren can cut the Silmarill from his crown, she's the one who has the strength to accept the fate of mortal men and die with Beren. Sure Beren helped her out but Luthien did most of the work and is the more interesting character of the two. After the Beren-Luthien tale we then get the tragic, melancholy story of Túrin Tarambar. Then after that we get a story about Túrin's cousin Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin, before finding out how the Elves managed to make peace with the Valar and finally defeat Morgoth once and for all. This then ends the First Age of Middle-earth.

This is a very interesting part of the book since it has parallels with the story of the Noah's Ark story from Genesis as well as the Atlantis myth. After Morgoth is overthrown, the Men who aided the Elves and the Valar in their war against Morgoth are rewarded for their loyalty. They are given long lives and get their very own island to live on called Númenor. The island isn't a part of Valinor or Middle-earth but is closer to Valinor. Elros - the brother of Elrond who has chosen to belong to the lineage of Men - becomes King of the Númenoreans and all is well for a while. The Númenoreans become a powerful nation and they remain on good terms with the Elves and the Valar. However, after thousands of years pass, the Númenoreans start to become resentful of the fact that they can't live forever and aren't allowed to come to Valinor - despite the Valar's insistence that even they don't have the power to make Men immortal and that living on Valinor would only make the Númenoreans feel more depressed. The Númenoreans become increasingly resentful of the Valar when they imprison Sauron - who had been Morgoth's most dangerous servant and ally - and bring him back to Númenor. They don't realise that Sauron has willingly allowed himself to be taken captive so he can turn them against the Elves and the Valar. Sauron starts to become influential in Númenor and corrupts their society. Most of the Númenoreans turn evil and they declare war on Valinor. The Valar then pray to Ilúvatar for help and he responds by destroying Númenor and most of the Númenoreans in a flood. Only a few Númenoreans survive. These are the ones who are still loyal to the Valar and the Elves, and have already escaped from Númenor and sailed to Middle-earth, including Elendil and his sons Isildur and Anárion. These men then become Kings of Gondor and are the ancestors of Aragorn, who appears in LOTR. The Second Age of Middle-earth ends.

Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age
This is the final section of the book which is called and it does what it says on the tin. It gives the reader more information about the rise of Sauron and how he comes into power after Morgoth's downfall. This section gives a brief overview of the battles between Sauron and the peoples of Middle-earth, which come to a temporary halt when Isildur cuts the One Ring from Sauron's hand. In addition to this we also find out where Gandalf came from and why he was sent to Middle-earth. Everything that happens after this section is then picked up in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

I would say that that The Silmarillion is an essential read for die-hard fans of The Hobbit and LOTR. I'm not saying that it's as entertaining as those books though. This book is mostly very interesting but not all of it is easy to read and there are some hard-going, challenging sections. The sheer amount of information that Tolkien provides can get quite overwhelming at times. There are so many events and places in this book and there's an enormous amount of characters! Some characters have very similar names to each other too! And some characters have multiple names! At times I would be like "Wait, WHO is this person again?!" At times I could feel myself getting confused and frustrated with the book. But in the end the confusion and frustration that I occasionally felt was worth it. The book is beautifully written and Christopher Tolkien (J.R.R. Tolkien's son) did a superb job in editing it. The Silmarillion was published posthumously since J.R.R. Tolkien died before he had finished putting his notes into order. Also the information that you get - as confusing as it is at times - really adds to your appreciation and understanding of The Hobbit and LOTR. No-one and I repeat NO-ONE has created a fantasy world with as much richness and depth and complexity as Middle-earth/Valinor. You find out how Middle-earth/Valinor was created in this book. You find out how evil was brought into the world. You find out where Sauron and the Balrogs and the Dragons and the Orcs came from. You find out more about Valinor and other regions of Middle-earth. You get more information on the Elves, Dwarves and Men and their origins. You find out why the Elves have such a frosty relationship with the Dwarves. You get more information on what Gandalf was up to in The Hobbit when he mysteriously vanished. You find out the significance of Frodo crying out O, Elbereth! in LOTR. This book doesn't explain everything though and some things are still left vague. The book mostly gives the history of the Elves with bits of information about the Men and the Dwarves thrown in. No information is given about Tom Bombadil and the Ents and surprisingly the Hobbits are barely mentioned. I suppose this is a bit of a shame but then again I've always found the Elves the most fascinating of the various peoples of Middle-earth and I guess it's good to maintain some mystery.

Rating: 4/5

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