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.