I finally read “The Silmarillion”!
JRR Tokien began “The Silmarillion” before he wrote “The Hobbit”, worked on it periodically throughout his lifetime, and worked more on it after the publication of “The Lord of the Rings”. “The Silmarillion” was first called “The Legendarium” and it is the history of the First Age of Middle-Earth with a little bit of the Second and Third Ages (LOTR takes place at the end of the Third Age). Some people have jokingly called it the Elvish Bible. And indeed it feels that way because it begins with a Creation Story, has the Histories of the wars of Middle-Earth and what the different Elvish clans did throughout the ages, and hints at a Last Battle to come. This makes it feel much like the Tanakh (Old Testament) with its different sections like the Prophets and Writings.
There are references to “The Silmarillion” in all of Tolkien’s other works. You hear about Earendil and the Numoreans in LOTR. You get Galdalf’s reference to Udun and Arnor when he fights the Balrog in “Fellowship of the Ring”. You hear references to Elbereth, who is the god Varda (See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Elbereth_Gilthoniel) and there’s the references to Feanor, Celebrimbor, Beleriand, and the depiction of the Two Trees of Valinor on the door of the Moria Gate in Chapter 4 of “Fellowship of the Ring” (http://bit.ly/1oKuOyb). But you don’t get the full story of any of these things until you read The Silmarillion.
Yes, the book is hard to get through, even for a person like me who loves the intricacies of history and scholarship (See *** below for my full rant about this), but it is well worth reading.
There main sections are the Ainulindale, the Valaquenta, the Quenta Silmarillion, the Akallabeth, and Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age (a brief 20-page summary of the 1,000-page Lord of the Rings tale).
The Ainulindale is really amazing and beautiful Creation Story where Eru, the One God, makes many other gods and then has them sing the physical world into existence. I’d love to spend a lifetime making paintings of my impressions of it.
The Valaquenta starts to get confusing, with an explanation of what the gods did for the next few thousand years. There are the powerful gods (the Valar) and the lesser gods (the Maiar), more like angels than gods. Sauron, Gandalf, Saruman, and the Balrogs are all Maiar spirits (and maybe even other creatures in Middle-Earth like the giant spiders Shelob and Ungoliant, the giant eagles, and the Great Goblin from the Hobbit). But they throw around so many names that it starts to get confusing who did what.
The next section is the Quenta Silmarillion, the main section of the book that tells of the making of three beautiful jewels, the Silmarils, which are stolen by the evil god Morgoth. The Elves try for the rest of the book to get them back, to varying degrees of success. The story of Beren and Luthien is very good, about a mortal Man and an immortal Elf-maiden who fall in love and go on a journey to get back a Silmaril, even sneaking into Morgoth’s realm. When you get to Chapter 20 (the Nirnaeth Arnoediad), it’s crazy to read about Orcs chopping off the hands and feet of an Elf-king before beheading him in front of the Elvish army. The tragic story of Turin Turambar was consciously based on Kullervo from the Kalevala. It was hard for me to get through because it felt overly long, but in the end I liked it. The War of Wrath section, where the gods finally defeat the evil god, is very interesting, too.
Here’s a really great passage from “The Silmarillion” that will show you why it’s both a great read and a difficult read: ““But now in the western battle Fingon and Turgon were assailed by a tide of foes thrice greater than all the force that was left to them. Gothmog, Lord of Balrogs, high-captain of Angband, was come; and he drove a dark wedge between the Elvenhosts, surrounding King Fingon, and thrusting Turgon and Hurin aside towards the Fen of Serech. Then he turned on Fingon. That was a grim meeting. At last Fingon stood alone with his guard dead about him; and he fought with Gothmog, until another Balrog came behind and cast a thong of fire about him. Then Gothmog hewed him with his black axe, and a white flame sprang up from the helm of Fingon as it was cloven. Thus fell the High King of the Noldor; and they beat him into the dust with their maces, and his banner, blue and silver, they trod into the mire of his blood” (Chapter 20, pg 193-194).
My favorite part of “The Silmarillion” was probably the Akallabeth, the story of Numenor, an island given to Men by the gods and how they lose it. Really interesting stuff here, with Sauron being captured by the Numenoreans and how he corrupts everyone into defying not only the gods (the Valar) but also the One God (Eru Iluvatar). The destruction of Numenor is very well-done.
The last section, Of The Rings of Power and the Third Age, is interesting to read because it gives more info about the things that were going on in the background of the Hobbit and the LOTR, which are now being shown in the Hobbit films (even though the filmmakers don’t own the rights to “The Silmarillion”, so I’m not totally sure how they can incorporate some of this stuff). I’d LOVE to see a BBC mini-series of “The Silmarillion”. Maybe Peter Jackson can produce it?
*** Yes, there are some difficult names to realize how to pronounce, from Thangorodrim and Nan Dungortheb to Nargothrond, Menegroth, Taniquetil and Alquolonde. Did you get all those?
There are the Valar, the Vanyar, and then there’s Vinyamar and Valinor. Doriath is also called Menegroth and Eglador, depending on what Tolkien felt like calling it. The Elves have two names for everything (in Quenya and Sindarin) as well as Numenorean names for things... and sometimes things are listed in their Dwarvish names. And not only that but things and even people are often renamed by other people at different times. Hoo boy.
It’s hard to keep track of who is who when there are similar-sounding names like Tuor, Turin, and Turgon (the first is the son of a great warrior, the second is his cousin and also a great warrior, and the third is a High Elf... are you confused yet?). Then there’s Finarfin, Fingolfin, Fingon, and Finrod. Then there’s Mablung and Maedhros and then there’s Celeborn, Celebrian, and Celebrimbor.
The evil god is called Melkor, but also Morgoth and sometimes Bauglir. Sometimes the world is called Arda, sometimes Aman. Okay. But then there’s Beleriand, Ossiriand, and Middle-Earth. Um... what? The wars of “The Silmarillion” are all named with official Quenya titles, such as the Dagor Aglareb, the Dagor Bragollach, the Dagor-nuin-Giliath, and the Nirnaeth Arnoediad.
There’s also two types of Elves, the Light Elves and the Dark Elves. Okay, I get that. The Dark Elves are also called the Sindar and the Light Elves are called the Eldar. Okay. But there are three different clans of Eldar: the Noldor, the Vanyar, and the Teleri. Sigh.
I understand why Tolkien wrote things like this, though. He loved Medieval scholarship (he taught it at Oxford) and he specifically loved Finnish. If you look at the Finnish Kalevala, there’s Kullervo son of Kalervo, and there’s Vainamoinin and Sampsa Pellervoinin, and Ukko, Anikki, and Kyllikki. There are the difficult to pronounce Joukahainen, Ilmarinen, and Lemminkainen. Tolkien’s Ainur sounds like the Kalevala’s Aino and Tolkien’s Utumno sounds like the Kalevala’s Untamo. And Tolkien’s Silmarils are similar to the Sampo from the Kalevala.
And if you listen to this series of lectures http://amzn.to/1frbw0p, he goes over how Tolkien was putting the rhythms of Germanic epic poetry into sections like: “But now in the western battle Fingon and Turgon were assailed by a tide of foes thrice greater than all the force that was left to them. Gothmog, Lord of Balrogs, high-captain of Angband, was come; and he drove a dark wedge between the Elvenhosts, surrounding King Fingon, and thrusting Turgon and Hurin aside towards the Fen of Serech. Then he turned on Fingon. That was a grim meeting. At last Fingon stood alone with his guard dead about him; and he fought with Gothmog, until another Balrog came behind and cast a thong of fire about him. Then Gothmog hewed him with his black axe, and a white flame sprang up from the helm of Fingon as it was cloven. Thus fell the High King of the Noldor; and they beat him into the dust with their maces, and his banner, blue and silver, they trod into the mire of his blood” (pg 193-194).