Debating Tolkien’s Magnum Opus

The Silmarillion_4

Stephen King has The Dark Tower series. George Orwell has 1984. Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy is the author’s own unparalleled piece of writing.

“Magnum Opus” (translated from Latin as “masterpiece”) is a term that can be applied to virtually any piece of art or literature that has somehow had a significant impact upon those who experience it, and was brought about by a sophisticated, high standard and excellent creative impulse on the part of its creator.

We would be remiss not to consider J.R.R. Tolkien’s own magnum opus as being The Lord of the Rings. The sheer scale, depth and structured complexity of such a work is almost unprecedented.

Yet, shouldn’t we also consider some of his other works as possible contenders?

Can’t we consider The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún as his magnum opus? Tolkien’s own rendition of one of the most intricate Norse myths, retold in the same alliterative and verse style as the original works themselves, is both a daring and successful feat. Not to mention his numerous contributions and creations in shedding light on Anglo-Saxon literature.

My belief is that, for a written work to be considered of such high standard and sophistication, it need not necessarily run into a thousand pages long.

The Hobbit is as much a contender as its successor. It is, after all, the book in which readers are first introduced to Tolkien’s simmering fantasy world. The uniqueness of the fantasy and the elements of a children’s story are what make The Hobbit a work of art in its own right.

But where does The Silmarillion stand in all this?

It’s a tricky question which I find some difficulty in tackling. Others may have different thoughts about this but here I offer my own (brief) interpretation.

My honest answer would be that The Silmarillion should rightfully be regarded as Tolkien’s sole magnum opus.

Not that The Lord of the Rings deserves anything less than the highest praise and honour.

Yet, the potential for an even more sophisticated, refined and complete history of the First Age, with all the intertwined characters, cosmological and philosophical concepts, as well as the significantly much more detailed world in The Silmarillion, makes it a monumental piece of literary work 50 years in the making.

Truly, the word “epic” is dwarfed by the vast timeline and elaborated concept behind this work.

And therein lies the problem.

Although a complete book, with a proper beginning and end, it had to be Christopher Tolkien’s intervention which allowed readers access to the author’s own “passion project”. The edited nature of The Silmarillion, although in itself a work of art thanks to the contribution of both father and son, fails to earn the praise of many due to the uncertainty of the author’s original intentions for the finished book.

Given Tolkien’s constant writing, revisions and attempts at perfectionism towards such a complex set of stories, prevented him from ever having successfully completed it.

Should this uncertainty be a factor against an author’s potential masterpiece?

I would consider Christopher Tolkien’s own magnum opus to be his work on The History of Middle-earth series. In 12 volumes, he manages to collate, argue, provide commentary and shape (in a readable manner), his father’s vast hoard of writings that span more than five decades. It is an undertaking on a colossal scale and within which lies, albeit in fragmented and “raw” states, J.R.R. Tolkien’s own magnum opus which now survives as a complete cover-to-cover tome under the title of The Silmarillion.

11 thoughts on “Debating Tolkien’s Magnum Opus

  1. This is a good and unusual way to think about this question. I guess I am inclined to divide a couple of ways of thinking about magnum opus:
    1. Reception (what people buy and read)
    2. Literary Quality (what seems to be the strongest literary work)
    3. Vocation (what the author has(d) set his/her heart upon most)
    4. Canon (what is the most enduring work)

    In my world of C.S. Lewis, #1 would be Narnia. But when I think of Lewis’ “best” work (#2), I would have trouble, but working between Till We Have Faces, Perelandra, and The Great Divorce. None of these were very popular. But for #3, it was (I think) Perelandra that he loved.
    Still, perhaps his #4 category would be his literary history, particularly the 16th c. book, or even his Preface to Paradise Lost. Or maybe Mere Christianity, which might be read after every other book has turned to dust, even though it isn’t “great” in any real sense.

    So, Tolkien:
    1. LOTR would be the magnum opus
    2. Well, here we are. For me it would be the Beren & Luthien works, though I love the literature of LOTR.
    3. That has to be the Silmarillion, but I will say a “yes but” below
    4. It will be LOTR, though his most important work might turn out to be his Beowulf work, who knows? We are too close.

    On #3, the author’s heart, when I think of Silmarillion as his work of the heart, I still find myself tugged out to the whole mythology. And I think this is where JRRT is unusual, in that his corpus is a single whole–including much of his literary historical work. I think his magnum opus has to be the totality–and Christopher Tolkien has dedicated his life to this for that purpose.

    That’s my thought–so not a disagreement, but a twist of thought.

    1. Such a fantastic reply Brent! Thanks for posting 🙂 I guess I agree with you on the points you raised.

      I’m glad you brought C.S. Lewis as an example. I’ve read many of Lewis’ books and (Surprised by Joy and The Screwtape Letters are favourites of mine). I cannot speak too much about him as I’ve only ready the first three books of Narnia and have just started the first chapters of The Space Trilogy (which I’m loving!), but I would agree that his was most probably Narnia.

  2. This was a very deep post, and I have to say that I agree. And I believe that the word ‘epic’ does not do the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and The Silmarillion justice. They deserve a greater word, but what that word is I do not know.

  3. Thanks for the post, James!

    I think Tolkien’s magnum opus is Middle-Earth itself. All of its works are contained in the same universe, continuity, and canon. It’s not particularly a traditional book series, or even a series at all. Tolkien’s world, his legendarium in the context of all of its works is such an inspiring and incredible feat, it has to be his magnum opus. I’m not sure if a group of works can be regarded as someone’s “masterpiece”, so correct me if I’m wrong!

  4. Well said Brent. I think Tolkien himself would have agreed – after all it’s really all one story, one history as Sam himself said on the stairs of Cirith Ungol.

    The first time I read the Silmarillion – which I bought on it’s initial release date, I found it difficult to read, much more so than LOTR. And I thought to myself that it read like the Old Testament does when compared to the New Testamen. Brief descriptions of events and genealogies. Less cohesive, less descriptive, less dialogue. And very hard to absorb as a result. I had trouble figuring out where the plot was going or even if there was a plot.

    It took a few more readings and some epiphanies before the relationship of the two works and the magnitude of the whole Middle Earth saga became clearer to me. Today I would agree that the link between them creates a “whole” that is bigger than either half – even if both stand perfectly well on their own. We can never thank Christopher Tolkien enough for giving the world access to the Silmarillion. Through his effort the world got the chance to know what perhaps only HE knew at the time; that his father’s Magnum Opus was neither the LOTR nor the Silmarillion. It’s both.

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