Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Book Review: The Silmarillion

Title: The Silmarillion

Author: J.R.R. Tolkien

Date: 1977

Publisher: Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 0-345-27255-2

Length: 458 pages, including a glossary

Quote: “[T]he Younger Children of Iluvatar…were called…Hildor, the Followers, and many other names: Apanonar, the After-born, Engwar, the Sickly, and Firimar, the Mortals…Of Men little is told in these tales.”

The Silmarillion, in the mythology of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, is not an ordinary adventure story like The Hobbit and the Rings trilogy—although it includes adventure stories. It is the epic history of the Elves and Hobbits and other proto-humanoid races that, in Tolkien’s mythology, slowly died out as humans spread over our world.

It contains an incomplete, but usable, constructed language called Elvish, which has its own alphabet. Elvish is linguistically interesting because of its Indo-European roots and qualities; it’s definitely not either of the obscure European languages (Welsh and Finnish) it superficially resembles, and in fact it contains words with deliberately different meanings than the Welsh and Finnish words they most resemble, yet it obviously developed from the same roots as those languages. Tolkien was a scholar who worked to produce this effect. In some ways it may yet pay off, at least in the sense of “paying” for scholarly interest in the phenomenon of constructed languages. Although much money was spent in promoting and developing Klingon, which some linguists have gone so far as to claim as the official house language they’ve taught babies to speak with native fluency, and some scholarly effort also went into promoting Láadan, both Klingon and Láadan have very alien, artificial qualities that make them hard for students to learn. If you speak one or more Indo-European languages and you want to learn a conlang, Elvish is easier. I’ve personally known people who spoke Elvish.

Tolkien actually wrote snippets of prose and poetry in Elvish, and, toward the end of his life, was persuaded to let himself be recorded singing an Elvish funeral dirge (“Ay, laurië, lantar…”). An Elvish dictionary exists. The Silmarillion isn’t it, but does contain a glossary explaining the proper meanings of words and names that appear in the story.

That’s one of the first things readers notice about The Silmarillion. The other is that it’s told in the high-flown epic style proper to the kind of literature it was meant to be. That means it lacks Tolkien’s natural storytelling voice and has, instead, the pompous voice of a medieval court historian who expected his audience to get most of the story from the mere reiteration of historic names. For me, it’s possible to get into the story, but it takes a determined effort; when I look at a chunk of prose like “At that time Beren and Luthien yet dwelt in Tol Galen, the Green Isle in the River Adurant, southernmost of the streams that falling from Ered Lindon flowed down to join with Gelion; and their son Dior Eluchil had to wife Nimloth, kinswoman of Celeborn, prince of Doriath…” and realize that the history this narrator is demanding that I remember is all fiction, my natural impulse is not to read the book at all.

Nevertheless, for fans of The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, et al., who don’t mind burdening their memory with the fictional language and history of Middle-Earth, Tolkien did provide both adventure and romance, and The Silmarillion can be read as one of those long sweeping novels that try to be epics.

The whole Tolkien oeuvre, apart of course from the more realistic stories like Roverandom that the author tossed off without much thought, presents an interesting problem in classification.

Tolkien was a devout Catholic. The history of his fictional world is not entirely incompatible with his Catholic view of the prehistory of our world. There is, in fact, not only fossil but historical evidence that distinct “races” or ethnic groups of humans have gone extinct, some as recently as the nineteenth century. What we know about those people is not much like what Tolkien imagines about Elves and Hobbits, and the more we learn about real prehistory, the less probable it seems that Elves and Hobbits could ever have existed. But they might have existed—vanishing without a trace; we can’t prove they never existed. Ancient human tales from around the world frequently postulate lost races of (a) people who were like us but longer-lived, more beautiful, wiser, and more admirable than we are—idealized ancestors, or supermen—and (b) people who are like us but smaller, humbler, perhaps poorer or otherwise inferior to us—idealized versions of defeated members of enemy tribes who had gone underground, or gnomes. Probably these two streams of old English fairy lore sprang from exaggeration and idealization, but who can say they have no basis whatsoever in prehistory?

In any case they were so far beyond the Judeo-Christian tradition that their lore must be, in order to have any credibility, alien to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Is it possible, this being the case, to claim that Middle-Earth “reflects Christian values”? Can the stories of Middle-Earth be identified as “Christian literature”?

Much as some Christians want to claim Middle-Earth as our own…I find myself on the side that says they can’t. In order to be on this side, of course, it helps to have read a good study of comparative religion, the “Wisdom” that is common to all human religions, and identified the values Middle-Earth actually reflects as fundamental human values. Humans instinctively admire courage, wisdom, loyalty, generosity, and love. (When they say they don’t, they represent a dysfunctional aberration from the common history of humankind.) Humans also instinctively worship a Great Spirit of Powerful Goodness, even when a sense of unworthiness prompts them to imagine themselves approaching the Great Spirit only through more humanlike “lesser gods,” or a sense of despair prompts them to try to fend off misfortune by propitiating evil spirits instead. Tolkien’s Elves and Hobbits worship a Great Spirit in a way almost all humans, not only Christians, will recognize. Middle-Earth is thus compatible with Christianity, but not specifically Christian. On Tolkien’s own account, whatever Elvish influence survived among the Younger Children of the All-Father would have developed through European Pagan thought before it developed into Christian thought.

So, do you want to invest enough time and energy in Middle-Earth to read The Silmarillion? Very likely you don’t. If you just like adventure stories, there are simpler ones. If, however, you’re fascinated by the whole process of inventing an imaginary setting for a fantasy adventure story, and want to study the process at the same time that you enjoy the product, The Silmarillion is probably the world’s foremost example of something few writers have been rash enough to try to do—to explain previously written fantasy adventure stories through another fantasy adventure story. And it’s a whale, Gentle Readers. Very few writers would even try to sustain that medieval-chronicle tone for almost 400 pages. Tolkien not only sustains it, but does it well—by the end of the book you have formed a mental picture of the Green Isle in the River Adurant, and similar places, and the Elvish monarchs and heroes who dwelt therein. If you really want to take the trouble to read this book, you will get all the rewards this kind of book can offer you.

Me, personally…most of the time I’d rather curl up with a good biography or travel book about the real world, or else a frothy little children’s story that demands no mental effort whatsoever. And then again, sometimes when I want to write conceptual fiction, Middle-Earth is my inspiration. 

What I physically own is the first paperback edition of The Silmarillion. Copies in good condition (the back cover has detached from mine) have gone into collector prices on Amazon:


Since my copy is not in good condition, I'm offering it only in real life, for less than the online price of the newer edition. What you can buy by sending $5 per book + $5 per package to either address at the very bottom of the screen will be the new and commonplace edition of The Silmarillion. You can add paperback copies of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings to the package; I think all five paperbacks will fit.