The Silmarillion is the collection of lore, myths and history of Middle-Earth. It was compiled and edited by Christopher Tolkien, J. R. R. Tolkien’s son, and gives not only a depth of understanding into the world of The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings, but contains many interconnected short stories that are brilliant by their own rights.
I was given The Silmarillion as a challenge by my friend Ben, who kindly loaned me his copy. He has long been a Tolkien nut, and as I had already read (and enjoyed) The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings he recommended this to me as one of his favourite titles. The timing happily coincided with the release of Peter Jackson’s second installment of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and I am so glad I read this first as it gave me a bit of insight into certain aspects of the film.
In exchange I gave him Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.
The Silmarillion is a notoriously difficult book, and although I had known about it for a long time I was originally put off by it’s reputation. I know a number of people who have attempted it and given up, but when I finally had the reason to read it I was pleasantly surprised and it took me a little over a week to finish it. There are two main difficulties, one being the time transitions as many of the stories overlap and it is pieced together into sections of narrative rather than chronological events, and the other is that several characters have multiple names which can get a little confusing. I found though, that speed-reading was the best way to make sense of it – if you slowly and laboriously read this book trying to figure out who was who it would probably take you a very long time and you’d forget key events, but by speed reading I found that a lot of the things that confused me made sense in hindsight, about a page after I’d read them.
The most enjoyable part for me was reading the origins and lore of some of the races, such as the creation of the Dwarves and the Spiders (although I really wish that there had been more written about the Ents and the Wizards…), and some of the epic love stories that really deserve their own book. There were some really amazing leading female characters who I found very inspiring, which I was really not expecting. The other main thing that I really appreciated from reading The Silmarillion was seeing how Tolkien represented Christianity with his stories. As many people know, Tolkien was a Christian and tried to re-tell the gospel through myth (whereas his friend C. S. Lewis argued that allegory was a better medium which he practiced in Narnia). The first section of The Silmarillion is a parallel re-telling or equivalent of the creation story in Genesis written for middle-earth, and the I found his understanding of creation, prophecy, cosmology and the relationship between the Creator and the created absolutely mind blowing. There were other themes, such as mercy and judgement (particularly to do with the treatment of Melkor) which I found particularly revealing. Perhaps it is just my background in theology that makes this particularly interesting, but I think that anyone capable of reading it would also find it interesting and inspiring.
If I would have to describe this book in one word, it would be “insightful”. It has such a high level of quality of writing, a fast pace despite the repetition as stories overlap in time frames, brilliant characters who really deserve their own books to retell their epic adventures, and a real depth of insight into the character of God and the nature of love, mercy, and human nature. It is a difficult read, but completely achievable, especially if you have recently read some of Tolkien’s other works and are used to his style of writing. It is also available for free download via Project Gutenberg.