Consider this -- J.R.R. Tolkien's fantastical epic "Lord of the Rings" is only the tail end of his invented history.
Yes, Tolkien spent most of his adult life crafting the elaborate, rich world of Middle-Earth, and coming up with a fictional history that spanned millennia. And "The Silmarillion" was the culmination of that work -- a Biblesque epic of fantasy history, stretching from the creation of the universe to the final bittersweet departure of the Elves from Middle-Earth.
A complete summary is impossible, because the book spans millennia and has one earth-shattering event after another. But it includes:
*The creation of Tolkien's invented pantheons of angelic beings under Eru Iluvatar, also known as God.
*How they sang the world into being, and the creation of Elves, Men, and Dwarves (hobbits are not really covered).
*The legendary love story of Beren and Luthien, a mortal Man and an Elf maiden who gives up her immortality for the man she loves.
*The attempts of the demonic Morgoth and his servant Sauron (remember him?) to corrupt the world.
*Feanor and his sons, and the terrible oath that led to Elves slaying one another.
*The Silmarils, the glorious gems made from the the essence of the Two Trees that generated the world's light.
*Elves of just about any kind -- bad, mad, dangerous, good, sweet, brave, and so forth.
*The creation of the many Rings of Power -- and the One Ring of Sauron.
*And finally, the quest of the Ringbearer, Frodo Baggins, and the final battle that would decide the fate of Middle-Earth.
If you ever were confused by a reference or name mentioned in "The Hobbit" or "Lord of the Rings," then chances are that "The Silmarillion" can enlighten you about what it meant. What is Numenor? Who are the Valar? Who is that Elbereth Gilthoniel that people keep praying to? How did the Elf/Dwarf feud originally begin? And how exactly is Elrond related to Aragorn?
For the most part, it focuses on the Elves and their history, especially where it intertwines with the history of Men -- although Dwarves and Hobbits don't get nearly as much ink devoted to them. But in that story, Tolkien weaves together stories of earth-shattering romance, haunting tragedy, gory violence, good versus evil, the rise and fall of cities and kingdoms, and much more.
However, it's not really written like Tolkien's other works. It's more like the Bible, the Mabinogion or the Eddas. Tolkien didn't get as "into" the heads of his characters here, and wrote a more detailed, sprawling narrative that would have needed countless books to explore in depth. But while his prose is more formal and distant here, it still has that haunting starlit beauty ("Blue was her raiment as the unclouded heaven, but her eyes were grey as the starlit evening; her mantle was sewn with golden flowers, but her hair was dark as the shadows of twilight").
It's clear to see, while reading this, the extent of Tolkien's passion for his invented history. Someone who had a lack of enthusiasm could not have spent much of his adult life writing, revising, and polishing a history that never was. It's also almost frighteningly imaginative and real: It isn't too hard to imagine that these things could actually have happened. In a genre clogged with shallow sword'n'sorcery, Tolkien's coherent, carefully-written backstory is truly unique.
Casual Tolkien fans probably won't be able to stick it out. But those who appreciate the richness and scope of Middle-Earth should examine "The Silmarillion," a sprawling fictional history full of beauty, tragedy and love. A work of literary genius.
on 28 December 2001
When you read Lord of the Rings there are innumerable references, some of them too puzzling and important to ignore, to events from the past; people, battles, places, names. It occurs in The Hobbit as well, but to a much lesser degree.
If you read either of those and don't like them, or found them hard going, so be it, and don't bother with this. But, if you read them and like them, you will be wanting to know what it was all about. Where did dragons come from? Who are Elrond and Gandalf? What is the Balrog? Where did Sauron come from? Who are the Men of Westernesse? What was the Last Alliance? Where did the One Ring come from?
Tolkien did that deliberately. He created a complete world, with a history from start to finish. Lord of the Rings is only the end of the tale that starts in the Silmarillion, with the beginning of Middle Earth. He wanted LotR to be the story, the compelling tale, but what happens in it, and the places it happens in, is all part of a great history.
That history is told in this book. From creation of Middle Earth to beyond the end of LotR, it covers everything that happened. It genuinely is a complete mythology.
For that reason, the Silmarillion is an inferior *story* to LotR, but tells you the *history*. It doesn't read like a story at all, but like a history, a bible of Middle Earth. Many, many happenings, places and especially names, will put off the casual reader, and rightly so. It is the stuff of legend, too dense for anyone without an interest in getting to the heart of Middle Earth and, therefore, LotR and the Hobbit.
One of the best things is the glossary in the back, which has in it every term, name, thing and place in Middle Earth, and what they are. Of course, even though it is technically a prequel to LotR, don't attempt reading it first. Like I say, it fills out the world that LotR and the Hobbit create.
on 3 October 2008
First things first, before you consider purchasing this book, it is of paramount importance that you are aware of the following. For the avoidance of doubt, this isn't really a literary novel in the way that LOTR is; you won't find the finely-hewn descriptions of the landscape or the close focus on characterisation. As others have indicated, its written in the archaic style of historical middle english legends or even that of a religious text i.e. lots of "...and lo, it came to pass", "...thus X begat Y, Y begat Z" etc, etc.
If that prospect doesn't appeal to you, even if you consider yourself a Tolkien fan - frankly, DO NOT buy this book! If on the other hand you can deal with the peculiarities of the narrative - perhaps you have an interest in myths and legends or want to gain a more in-depth knowledge of the concepts that underpin the LOTR universe - by all means dive in. You will be richly rewarded with a story of even greater scope and imagination than LOTR.
Essentially, The Silmarillion is to LOTR what the ancient greek myths are to the Illiad or The Odyssey, in that the events portrayed in LOTR are but the latest episode in a continuum of fictional history that stretches back eons. Where LOTR mainly concerns the Hobbits and Men, Silmarillion concentrates mainly on the Elves and goes someway to explain the lack of their presence in LOTR and the estrangement between them and the leaders of Men.
In these days of "universe building" stories ("Star Wars", "Star Trek" et al), its hard to appreciate the scale and majesty of what Tolkien achieved on his own (to the extent that even he couldn't fully complete it within his lifetime - his son Christopher had to finish it off). In addition, the fact that most of the detail in the book is only sketched out, provides ample opportunity for others to flesh out the stories as Christopher has done with "The Children of Hurin" - its a wonder that more authors haven't taken the opportunity (perhaps they are restricted by the Tolkien Estate).
As with all stories in this format, it does have a tendency to take itself rather seriously - there is very little in the way of humour or light relief. Also, due to the sheer density of myth, the number of characters involved and the similarity of names (e.g. Fingon, Fingolfin, Finwe, Finarfin, feanor etc.) its quite easy to get confused. Thankfully, like LOTR, there is a map and a number of explanatory appendices you can refer to if you get lost.
In conclusion, its unlikely that this will appeal to the casual reader. It requires real effort to get through, but the imaginative return is more than sufficient. I have recently re-read this book for the umpteenth time and still haven't tired of it - I find I get something new from it on each read. In addition, it aids your understanding of LOTR itself by filling in the gaps of knowledge (ever wondered who "Beren and Luthien" are?)
Of all the material published by the Tolkien estate (including all the "history of middle earth" series), it is the one book, other than LOTR itself, I'd label "Essential Reading".
on 29 January 2000
"The Silmarillion" is the book you should read AFTER having read "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit". It explains the entire history and mythology of Middle Earth, taking you right through from its creation to where "The Lord of the Rings" ends ... the middle section of "The Silmarillion" is, in my opinion, the best part. You find out why it is that Gandalf and Thorin Oakenshield are so pleased when they discover the swords Glamdring and Orcrist in the troll's lair. You find out more about Gondolin, the Elves, and why exactly it is that they act the way they do in "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings". You also find out more about the Men of Middle Earth, who Sauron is, who Elbereth is and other such elements which frequently obtain only a brief sketching in the other works.
"The Silmarillion" is a great read in itself, giving great extra evidence on how carefully thought out Tolkien's Middle Earth was. My advice is to re-read "The Lord of the Rings" after having read "The Silmarillion". It is at any rate definitely worth the investment!
on 8 February 2000
It took me three attempts to get past the first chapter - the song of creation in which the world is formed - but it the effort was worth it.
The full majesty of Tolkien's vision unfolds in this book, which was only hinted at in Lord of the Rings. The Silmarillion tells the history of the Elves, the Dwarfs and the Men - who were born into paradise only to see it spoiled by their own weaknesses and the machinations of The Enemy.
The Silmarillion explains the glory of the Elves, and why Tolkien loves them so much, but also allows for the triumph of Beren, a mere Man who achieves the greatest feat in Tolkien's history.
If you have read Lord of the Rings, you have to read the Silmarillion - and then read Lord of the Rings again!
on 10 December 2001
Having read Chrisipher Tolkien's reworking of his father's notes in 'The Silmarillion', I don't believe that JRR ever really intended them to be published. The history of Middle Earth is a many splendid thing, but ne'er made complete even by his son's most passionate editing.
But the wondrous voice of Shaw adds a magnificent majesty to the plight of the Elves and the forces of good against the Dark Lord. Unabridged, unsurpassable. I imported the CD version of Silmarilion through Amazon.com a few years ago and was entralled by every word Shaw recited of this great biblical history of Middle Earth. I've only listended to this entire collection hundreds of times, and I can only imagine tiring of it's retelling several lifetimes from this one.
Excellent audio version of what many have found to be a difficult Tolkien masterpiece. Martin Shaw is an outstanding narrator. His tone, colour and dramatic ability give life to a literary form which could appear little more than a mystical reworking of the book of Deuteronomy.
No hesitation in recommending this. For all Tolkeenies, it gives wide and convincing backdrop to the events pre-dating the War of the Ring. If you have not read it before, I would suggest having a copy of the book to hand as well. The biblical lists of names can be baffling without such assistance- even with the best of storytellers .....
on 18 February 2006
This is NOT an easy read, and can seem a bit like a list of names or the old testament at times. You have to study this book - work at it, with the Return of the King's appendix and this books appendix at hand to constantly be refered to. It took me two attempts to get through it the first time, but now I honestly enjoy dusting this off at least as much as the lord of the rings. It's now impossible for me to read one without the other.
The sense of history, depth and grandeur that's apparent in the lord of the rings is so MUCH more convincing than any other fantasy novel for a reason. That history has been written. It's real (if you follow me!).
Tolkien created a series of languages, a world, all of its history, all of it's peoples, all of its geography, its gods, its conception, its weather, its plants, its trees, its animals, its seasons, its calendars etc etc. He created everything. The lord of the rings is not just a little fantasy story flung against some backdrop reminescent of medieval europe. Sadly most "epic fantasy" stories are just that.
However, the lord of the rings is really just a side track, and one that tolkien was loathe to take himself. As a story it's epic enough. It really only deals with a very short, fleeting piece of something so much larger. The Silimarillion is your first chance to appreciate this, and I suggest you enjoy it!
This book is flawed, Christopher Tolkien admits as much himself in the history of middle earth and the foreword to unfinished tales. CT indulged in some "editorial meddling" (his words) to make a coherent story from a collection of disparate, contradictory writings. The result is, in spite of this, still rather convoluted and taxing. For me, the need to keep your wits about you, cross check information and really work at reading this is part of the fun. Having done all this a few times over the years, now this is a gentle coffee table book.
The only real 'problem' with this work is that it just leaves you wanting more!
Luckily for you the history of middle earth and unfinished tales provide you with just that.
on 21 January 2004
It is a testament to the Silmarillion that it makes the Lord of the Rings feel so small. The battle for the one ring forms little more than a footnote in the vast expanse of history that Tolkien has created here, and Sauron is a mere footsoldier in the armies of Morgoth (read Satan).
The Silmarillion reminded me of the early books of the bible, but fortunately without the "and Ahab begat Mephibeseth" etc. Tolkien has written a creation myth all his own, and were it not for that fact that he never published his work, it might seem as though the Silmarillion were a work of arrogance, simply a showcase for the staggering imaginative power of the writer.
As several reviewers have already commented, this is not story-telling in the Lord of the Rings genre, and it has little in the way of character development. However, I would recommend this book to anyone who is prepared to spend some time to understand their favourite childhood story a little more fully. This book will explain how wizards came into being, and will show why Aragorn is so important as the leader of men. Peter Jackson also borrowed from this work for his film, for example the very first scene in the Fellowship is nowhere to be found in the Lord of the Rings.
The book also stands alone as a work of great literary power. Although there is little room for character development, Tolkien refers to his protagonists with such awe and reverence throughout that this can be easily overlooked. To ask whether Feanor felt guilt at times, is like asking whether Nelson enjoyed sugar in his tea. In this account of great deeds, the smaller details are inconsequential.
In my personal opinion, this is a greater achievement than the Lord of the Rings, although I would not expect many to agree. It does take some patience initially, and many people will not have read anything like this before. However, those people are in for a treat.
on 20 December 2004
The Silmarillion is a collection of wonderful stories about the creation and history of Valinor and Middle Earth. I've enjoyed reading the book: borrowed copies, old copies with flies and earwigs preserved (probably mummified) between the pages and, most recently, my very own copy. Now I've also listened to the audiobook read by the very competent Martin Shaw. I've been trying to get hold of this audiobook for ages and finally I have it. And it's just as terrific as I hoped it would be. I'm not surprised that Martin Shaw reads it well. I've enjoyed his reading of The Hobbit, so knew what to expect.
I highly and whole-heartedly recommend this audiobook to all who love Tolkien's tales of Middle Earth - but with one small reservation. There are some very long descriptions of the lay-out of Valinor and Middle Earth. There are great lists of unfamiliar place names, described as being north of this place, south-west of that place, below this range of mountains, to the east of that river and so on. It can be very confusing when you have no map to refer to, as you can when reading the book. The book also provides graphic representations of the genealogies of the elves and men in the stories. The stories tell of many many characters, some with similar sounding names. It's easy to get confused. I had access to the maps and genealogies in my book and that was fortunate for me because I would find it difficult to keep track otherwise. Under the circumstances (there being so many descriptions of distance and location) it's surprising that there is not a map included with this audiobook. There are maps in the book because they are extremely useful - indispensable for people with little or no spatial ability, like me. The BBC's audiobook of Lord of the Rings includes a lovely big copy of the map of Middle Earth from the book. Unfortunately, that won't help you to find your way around the Middle Earth of The Silmarillion because great floods and upheavals have drowned and distorted the land by the end of the second age. If you have a good imagination for geographical data and a good memory for names (unlike me), none of this will seem to be a problem. Otherwise, you'll enjoy some parts of this audiobook more if you have access to the book with its maps and genealogies.
There are 13 CDs in the box and the reading time is about 14.75 hours.