I did it: after of years of it taunting me from my bookshelf, I finally got around to reading The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien. I had the pleasure of buddy reading it with Mary Drover, which was a lot of fun. To be honest, I was a little intimidated by this book at first, so reading it alongside another bookworm definitely helped me work my way through it.
I went into this book not knowing very much about it, apart from the fact that it recounts events that took place before Tolkien’s famous trilogy. Until reading the preface I had no idea that this text was compiled from Tolkien’s unfinished writings posthumously by his son, Christopher Tolkien. Seems to me like that could be a topic for a whole different post—particularly about the ethics of this, the order in which texts should appear, etc.—so I won’t get into any of that here (but would love to hear your thoughts on it!). I think the idea of The Silmarillion being pieced together after Tolkien’s death is fascinating, although it does raise a lot of questions. I think it reveals a lot about Tolkien himself as well. He clearly had more ideas in his mind than time to perfect them on paper, more words he wanted to write than he was able to fit together into a completed text. It’s just amazing thinking about the world he created, and The Silmarillion is a testament to just how brilliant Tolkien was at constructing a fictional world.
However, just because Tolkien was a masterful world-builder does not mean that he was necessarily always a masterful storyteller. To be quite honest, I struggled to follow the events of this book and walked away with only a vague outline in my mind of what happened. There are just so many names that are mentioned briefly in passing without much context, and it’s difficult to keep track of them all over the course of a 400 page book. The Silmarillion is absolutely packed with detail, but in the same way that a history textbook is: detailed, but still overarching and vague. There isn’t much personality here, not much character development or description besides what one would find in a short story—largely because in a way this book is a collection of short stories about a particular place over time. On one hand, I admire and appreciate the scope, breadth, and relative depth of this text; on the other, I felt like I was always one step behind, trying to figure out how all of the pieces fit together and where I was in time and place. This book felt like more of a long-winded explanation than a story, which is perhaps exactly what Tolkien meant it to be. I’m not faulting the book for being expository in this way; however, I do think that it could have been written so it was less confusing for the reader. But if this book was scrapped together posthumously, can I even fault it for that? So many questions!
My favorite part was definitely the last section, where it talks about the events leading up to the trilogy and vaguely about the events of the trilogy itself. Once I felt like I was in familiar territory, it became easier to follow along. I especially enjoyed learning about the wizards and their dynamics, and that is one part where I actually wish Tolkien had gone into further detail than he did. Gandalf is such a fascinating character, yet even here I don’t think he got enough time in the spotlight. At the same time, it was really interesting to read about the events of the trilogy from a distanced, detached perspective. Tolkien mentions hobbits only in passing, and briefly explains the destruction of the Ring before moving on. There’s something odd about reading explanations of these events that are so emotionless, when the trilogy is so emotional for me.
Overall, I enjoyed The Silmarillion enough for what it was and am glad that I finally got around to reading it. I do think it would benefit from being reread, but that won’t be happening anytime soon (sorry, Tolkien!). Reading this book has made me curious about Tolkien’s other writing, and I’m looking forward to possibly picking something else up by him in the future. For now though, I think I’ll stick with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Have you ever read The Silmarillion? Would you recommend any of Tolkien’s other works? What are your thoughts on publishing texts posthumously? Let me know in the comments section below!