Approaching Tolkien: ‘The Silmarillion’

silmarillion header

(Above: This is my last attempt in trying something like this … I promise!)

– The ultimate reading experience

This is the real deal. Forget what you’ve read in ‘The Hobbit’ or ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (actually, it would be wise to remember severything), cleanse your mind of any thoughts, sit down and start (or try) reading ‘The Silmarillon’

Complicated book, complicated (and long) blog post.

I’ll be blunt here. ‘The Silmarillion’ might not be a very pleasant reading experience at first. I’ve said this before: it’s dense, deep and downright intricate. It’s not just one story, but rather a series of inter-connected narratives within a whole world, whose history (from the first to the last page), spans the length of a couple thousand years.

I’ve always seen ‘The Silmarillion’ as a chronicle of events, rather than a novel. One of course has to keep in mind that the book has been edited by Christopher Tolkien and is not what Tolkien himself (the father) saw as a finished product.

True enough, every chapter and page written in the book were all conceived by J.R.R. Tolkien, but what his son has done was to re-organize all “loose” material and laboriously place the narratives within a chronological order of their events (apart from rewriting certain passages to “fill the gaps”).

To understand more, read the Foreword to the book provided by Christopher Tolkien himself in order to appreciate both ‘The Silmarillion’ itself, as well as the work that has been undertaken for the reader to finally hold a copy in his or her hands.

turin and glaurungIt’s definitely not a walk in the park to go through the pages, it being the complete opposite of the easy-to-read text in ‘The Hobbit’. Having gone through ‘The Lord of the Rings’ makes it that bit easier, since the writing can be more fully understood.

Nonetheless, ‘The Silmarillion’ is still archaic in nature and vastly relies on the reader’s acute understanding of things and the knowledge of the established rules within Arda (i.e. the World).

Don’t worry, everything is explained in detail as you begin reading the book, however, it would be a far easier (and definitely a more enjoyable read) if you were accustomed to a few of the interconnected issues and concepts found in ‘The Lord of the Rings’.

Which is why, in one of my earlier blogs ‘Where to start?‘, I had suggested that one goes through ‘The Lord of the Rings’ a second time before trying ‘The Silmarillion’ – just to get a solid grasp of some of the themes and general outlook of the world itself.

If you followed my advice of going through ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (with extensive insights into the Appendices), you will be armed to the brim to face this major obstacle.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to sound as if ‘The Silmarillion’ is something to dread – because, once you get accustomed to it, it becomes one of the most sensitive and immensely rewarding reading experiences you’ll ever have.

(Remember, I voted it as my favourite book here: ‘Tolkien’s “greatest” book?‘). But I do advise caution.drowning of anadune

Don’t expect an easy read, uncomplicated narratives or just another ‘The Lord of the Rings’ book. If you’re prepared for the complexities then you won’t be disappointed.

So, even if you come to a point where you just don’t seem to have the will or understanding to continue reading – don’t stop. Keep going.

And once you finish, go through it again and again. I assure you, it will get easier (and better) the more you re-read it.

– In brief, here’s a very rough and short synopsis

‘The Silmarillion’ commences with Eru (the All-Father) creating the World and the so-called Valar (angelic powers); and their struggle with the first Dark Lord, Morgoth. Intertwined with these events, is the awakening of the Elves in the world and their plight and dangers to reach the Undying Lands (home of the Valar).

The main narrative progresses to reveal the creation of three jewels (the Silmarils), by the hands of the greatest elf of the First heraldAge – Fëanor. Things turn sour and dark when Morgoth steals the jewels and, in an attempt to regain them, Fëanor revolts against the Valar and leads many of the Elves back to Beleriand (which is the north-western region of Middle-earth).

The history of ‘The Silmarillion’ chronicles the events surrounding the major characters and their war against the Dark Lord – the bitter struggles, feuds, loves and heroic acts that also incorporates other races such as Dwarves and Men.

– The structure of the book

‘The Silmarillion’ is actually composed of five works:

-> Aiunlindalë (the Creation of the World)

-> Valaquenta (an explanation on the various beings and powers involved)

-> Quenta Silmarillion (The History of the Silmarils)

-> Akallabêth (The Downfall of Númenor)

-> Of the Rings of Power (a brief look at the events leading into ‘The Lord of the Rings’)

The first three works deal with the events given in the synopsis above. The last two recount events that occur in the Second and Third Ages respectively – again, read the Foreword to the book to learn more.

fingolfin challenge

– Those blessed “Appendices”!

Much like ‘The Lord of the Rings’, there is quite an extensive amount of material available in ‘The Silmarillion’, besides the 5 works themselves. Rather than being actual “appendices”, they take the form of a letter, several family trees, a pronunciation guide, an Elvish vocabulary, an index of names and places, and a map.

– Letter

In ‘Where to start?‘, I had already stated the importance of reading the letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien to Milton Waldman (an gondolineditor for publishers in London). It is an exquisitely written synopsis of some 20 or more pages that explains (in very simple terms, and in the author’s own words) all the events that occur in ‘The Silmarillion’, right till the end of ‘The Lord of the Rings’.

I had also warned against the potential revelation of subtle spoilers to all the narratives, since it is clearly implied what happens at certain moments in the story. Therefore, I would suggest you go through the letter bit by bit – reading a few pages first and then going through the first couple of chapters.

Once you arrive at a point not yet covered by the letter, go back to it and read a couple of more pages – just to get the feel of what they deal about. It will definitely help you in understanding better many of the underlying concepts and motifs in the story.

Though ultimately, it’s entirely up to you whether you want to read the letter before, after or during your reading.

– Family Trees

As you go through the text, be sure to check out the diagram at the end of the book that maps out the different Elven groups and their names. Make sure you know your Moriquendi from your Calaquendi and your Sindar from your Teleri.

Furthermore, you’ll meet dozens upon dozens of characters: father’s sons, mother’s daughters, sister-sons and pretty much every possible relative term you can think of.

Thankfully, readers have been provided with a couple of helpful family trees (similar to the ones found in ‘The Lord of the Finwe family treeRings’), to guide you through who’s who.

Keep yourself informed and constantly check for any mystery names that need untangling.

It might feel like, with all this skipping and referencing, you’re losing the flow of the story. But this is not the case. If you don’t do so, it is a given that you’ll be lost within the first few pages.

I find myself having to go through the family trees or the index to check particular names, and this after 6 or 7 readings of ‘The Silmarillion’. You just can’t absorb it in all at once.

The guides and material are there for a reason – to help you throughout your reading. Use them wisely and constantly.

– Pronunciation Guide

This basically a one-page note on how to pronounce consonants and vowels when it comes to names of characters and pronunciation guideenvironments.

Mastering the correct word pronunciations will give your readings an added bonus amidst the realism and depth of the story itself.

I suggest you go through this after reading the book – so as to avoid any further complications by trying to remember how every single name is spelt. Of course, you’re free to try it out any time, but it would be wise to first get a solid grasp of the story.

-Elvish Vocabulary

And here’s your gold mine. To me, this is my favourite part of all this section – a fairly concise selection of words in the two Elven Languages (Quenya and Sindarin) that basically make up all the names of characters and places within ‘The Silmarillion’. For each word, you’ll get the relevant meaning and translation in English.

This guide is essential for anyone embarking on the journey towards learning the languages of Tolkien’s world (a post or two on this matter soon to come). They provide the basic formations and meanings to many words that make up the distinct names in Arda.

– Index

Another important asset is the index of names and places. You might find that, half way through the book, a particular location or character is mentioned once more and by that time, you’ve already forgotten what or who it was.

A quick check through the index will point you in the right direction and provide you with a short, one-phrase description of who the character or what the place is.

– Map

Yes, another map – though different from the ones you’ve now become accustomed to from ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’.

Actually, there are two maps (very similar) of Beleriand: one before the beginning of a chapter that describes the different beleriand mapElven establishments within the lands; and another at the end of the book.

The former is more of a sketch, laying out where the different realms are situated. The latter is a fully drawn map of the entire land of Beleriand – more in tune with the one found in ‘The Lord of the Rings’.

How this places itself with the familiar Middle-earth maps will need an explanation that only ‘The Silmarillion’ can provide.

Again, I cannot stress enough the importance of going back and forth between text and maps (or family trees or the index) to enhance and sustain your reading experience.

It’ll be worth it …

Melkor-and-Ungoliant

– Conclusion

At the end of ‘The Silmarillion’, first of all: whether or not you understood anything, congratulate yourself for the achievement – pat your backs and celebrate profusely.

Secondly, start re-reading it again …

Repeat until subject matter has thoroughly sunk in your head.

Ultimately, enjoy the book for what it is – after all, reading is all about learning in a fun way!

(If anyone has any comments or suggestions, just reply back to this post or send me an email)

(Illustrations and artwork by John Howe)

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8 thoughts on “Approaching Tolkien: ‘The Silmarillion’

  1. This is a big if, but…

    If you enjoyed the style and flow of the Silmarillion, try reading a few Norse sagas… not quite so action-packed but very similar in style and information. You can definitely see where Tolkien got his stylistic inspiration from. I’d recommend the Orkeyenga Saga, and Njal’s Saga; both are centred around fairly concrete themes for historical narratives (Njal’s more so than Orkneyenga), and are brimming with action, although maybe less colourfully described than Tolkien’s stuff.

    Or maybe Sigurd and Gudrun, if you want to see where Tolkien got a few of his actual ideas from (I seem to remember a precursor to both the Ring and Nauglimir make appearances).

    • Thanks again for your suggestions.

      As a matter of fact, I’ve been through both Prose and Poetic Eddas, the Volsunga Saga, Beowulf and some other Norse stories.

      Though I haven’t yet gone through the Orkneyinga saga or Njáls saga (will certainly been tackling them now though!)

      As you’ve stated, Tolkien’s influence is clearly manifested through these brilliantly written narratives.

      I’m also hoping to delve into these influential works individually in future posts.

      Thanks once again for your contribution 🙂

  2. The Silmarillion is such an amazing book ..the thing is, every time i’ve started reading it – i’ve got busy with other things halfway through. I enjoyed what i did read, but it’s a heavy read, and i need a nice long holiday, to finally get back and read it again. Maybe someday….

    • Hey Eliza! Thanks so much for leaving your feedback 🙂

      I can’t agree more with what you said: The Silmarillion is definitely an amazing book.

      Yes, it is rather a tough read, requiring some much-needed dedication to complete. However, the more you read the book, the more you get accustomed to it and the more you’ll be able to enjoy it.

      I’ve just finished my 8th or 9th read a few months ago and the love towards this work just keeps on growing …

  3. I also was led into the Norse sagas and Beowolf after reading the Silmarillion. I found a great help in getting through the huge numbers of names in the Silmarillion in getting the “Books on Tape” version. One time I just listened through the whole thing in my quiet hour before sleep each evening – very meditative, and it got the proper pronunciations into my head. Otherwise I can get lazy and remember a character only as “the Ch guy”, ending up hopelessly confused. The next time I listened through the CDs while following along reading the book, which kept my mind on what I was reading. Such careful reading (might one even call it “study”?) is very much worth it, as it lets a modern reader really feel that he has been there, and had the immersion experience.

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