On Sunday, I finished a book that left me rather breathless and awestruck upon it's completion. Some books do that to me on occasion, and it is my extreme pleasure in today's review to present to you JRR Tolkien's The Silmarillion.
Last year, on the hottest 4th of July I have ever experienced near the Great Lakes (a real feel of 110 F), I wandered a concrete pavement in the blazing sun, determined to snag a few books. If we were ever to have a nation-wide Lady Bibliophile gathering, this book sale is where I would take you. It's absolutely glorious fun. I had just recently finished LOTR, and having heard of The Silmarillion, I was quite pleased to find it in excellent hardcover condition among the classics.
That book tumbled into a paper bag with a jumble of other books, and I took it on trips and stored it under my bed, only to find out this morning that it's a first American edition. Oops. I have no idea how valuable that is, but I think it will have a place on my shelf until I do know. Besides, it's worth taking good care of on any score, due to the sheer glory of its contents.
What a book. I rather suspect that I am fearfully arrogant or borderline crazy to try to review it; but I cannot help giving it a try.
JRR Tolkien worked on this masterpiece to great length before his death. In essence, it's the precursor to the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, though I and most Tolkien fans recommend reading it after LOTR. Though Tolkien never finished it, his son Christopher lovingly and carefully compiled it into a finished work, so you don't have to worry about reading an incomplete story. It's all there.
Sil explains the creating of Middle Earth, the whole religious system of their world, and the coming of elves and men. It didn't explain hobbits, which I will have to look up again in the Lord of the Rings to be completely sure where they came from, but it did explain the origins of Radagast and Gandalf and Saruman and the other wizards, which completely alleviated my original reserve about them. I am impressed, and applaud Tolkien for his biblical groundings. It's not always perfect, but the bulk of it is, and I might add, I like it better than CS Lewis at this time.
The Silmarillion I have consists of five volumes: Ainulindale, Valaquenta, Quenta Silmarillion, Akallabeth, and Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age. In the back are genealogies, pronunciation notes, indexes of names found in the narrative, and an appendix of elements in Quenya and Sindarin names--a study of phonetic elements for those who wish to delve further into the Elvish roots and meanings. Also, in the back of the book was a beautiful unfoldable map of Belariand/Middle Earth.
Being the book that this is, I'm going to go through the stories systematically, and give plots for each of them, rather than lumping it all together.
When Eru Illuvatar (the God-figure of the Tolkien tales) first created, the beginning of his works were the Holy Ones, aka the Ainur, (everybody in Tolkien stories has at least two names, generally three, and it's good if you can keep track of all of them.) And he made them to sing together before him in various themes of melody, and to make it pleasing to his ear. And they did so. But one of the Ainur, Melkor by name, was the greatest of his fellow Holy Ones and began to make music of his own that was in discord to the music of Eru Illuvatar. And the two contended together.
Illuvatar spoke to the Ainur, revealing to them his plan to create a world, and to establish therein the Children of Illuvatar, for his glory and pleasure. And the Valar were enamoured with Illuvatar's plan. After he created Ea, some of the Ainur descended and took upon themselves an existence in the confines of the world, to beautify and care for and complete the work that Illuvatar had begun for them. These Ainur are called the Valar, and they do not live in Middle Earth anymore, but in their own land, which used to be accessible but now is carried beyond the reach of mortal man. Manwe and Ulmo, Aule and Melkor, and many more were the Valar that crossed over.
And their work upon Ea, the World that Is, was very beautiful indeed.
The second volume of the Sil, "Valaquenta", gives the names and duties of each of the Ainur/Valar who come to Ea, and their work in Middle Earth before Melkor corrupted it. This book is important to pay attention to, for it is the history of names and characters that aren't really explained again, so if you take the time to ground yourself well in who each of the Valar is, then you'll be grateful ever after. But if you forget someone, just come back to the Valaquenta and look them up; it's a handy section, one of the shortest of the various accounts in The Silmarillion.
It also gives account of the Valar's enemies.
While the Valar beautified Middle Earth, one of their own craved for power he could not have; Melkor, the one who made music in discord to that of Illuvatar. He arose and created creatures of his own, laying waste to the beauty the Valar created, and gradually descending into the deepest spirit of Darkness, even drawing others unto himself and corrupting them. Among his creatures were Balrogs and dragons, and perhaps the saddest of all, the Orcs, which are corrupted elves.
By far the largest section of the book, and the bulk of the story (the rest are really prefaces and appendices) Quenta Silmarillion tells the story of the three great gems and the corruption of the Children of Illuvatar.
The Children of Illuvatar are Elves and Men. Elves do not have the gift of death by age, only by wounds or a broken heart; but to men Illuvatar gave the gift of death. We also have the dwarfs, which were created by a rather impulsive Valar, and who Illuvatar adopted out of pity; but they were never originally intended to be part of Middle Earth.
When Melkor corrupted Middle Earth, the Valar left and created a safe and pure haven for themselves, called Valinor, where all was light and peace. Once they heard that the Elves had made an appearance on Middle Earth, the Valar summoned them to Valinor, so they could live in an uncorrupted and safe haven. Some of the elves came, and some didn't. There are about three elf divisions which tangled me up the first time I tried to understand them, but have patience and you'll get the hang of them. Suffice it to say for the purpose of this review that the Noldor elves made it to Valinor. And Melkor hated the Elves in Valinor with a deadly hate.
Now Feanor, one of the Noldor elves, took the blended light of the Trees of Valinor and made three great gems, called the Silmarils. Through the wickedness of Melkor the original trees were destroyed: and the Silmarils contained all that was left of the light of the Trees of Valinor. Precious relics indeed--the cause of the bloodshed of thousands and the sins of many, and tears to fill the entire River Sirion and beyond.
After Melkor destroyed the trees, he sent his servants to breathe lies about the Valar in the ears of the Noldor elves. And many of the elves believed him. But after he had done his work, he slayed the house of Feanor while its master was away, and took the precious Silmarils for his own, and fled to his stronghold in Middle Earth. The Noldor rose up in a great passion, demanding to return to Middle Earth, and laying a great curse upon themselves by Eru Illuvatar to pursue anyone who held a Silmaril, the bliss and beauty of the Valar. Come war and tears and heartbreak, come treachery and absolute corruption: it mattered not. They would carry through their oath.
They sold their entire future for the possession of the Silmarils. And this story is how that curse passed from one generation to the next; how the elves came to slay even their own kin in their rage, and how the Valar utterly forsook them in their wickedness.
But in spite of the Noldor's wickedness and Melkor's corruption, and the grief of their curse, surprising glory and redemption rise from the heart-wrenching pages of Tolkein's epic work. And of course, the Silmarils could not be left in the grip of Melkor forever.
Now we get into a slight difficulty regarding spoilers and all that, but I have endeavored not to give any, and I don't think I will. The Silmarillion has one over-arching struggle wrapped up in a bunch of individual plots, so that unless I were to tell you the fate of each elf-lord, or what became of the Silmarils themselves, I couldn't really give huge plot endings. The index is much worse as far as that goes. I would forget who a person was and look them up in the back, only to read the end of their story when I wasn't finished with it yet. Grr. But back to Akallabeth.
When Men came into Ea, the world of Illuvatar's creation, Melkor sent messengers among them to corrupt them, and many were turned aside to wickedness. But some were drawn ever westward towards the Valar, and they journeyed long and hard until they came to the coast of Beleriand. These faithful men were called the Edain, and they set sail to follow the Star of Eaerendil in the sky, hoping to find Valinor. Due to their faithfulness, a rich isle was given them, neither a part of Middle Earth, nor a part of the Valar's land, but an isle in the sea called Andor. The Edian dwelt there, growing in riches and beauty and wisdom, often returning to Middle Earth to trade goods and teach the people there. And they brought much healing to Belariand. The elves called these men Dunedain, and it is from these people that Aragorn son of Arathorn comes from. The Edain had only one restriction from the Valar: they could never sail east out of sight of their island. West they were free to go, but East was barred to them. And like all men, and indeed, practically everybody in the Sil, they rebelled after a time, giving themselves over to the cunning counsels of Melkor's lieutenant Sauron. The Valar forsook the Dunedain, and their wickedness grew apace, until it was so large that it could no longer be ignored. The rest of the tragic history and redemption of the Dunedain I leave you to discover for yourselves.
Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age
This last section is background information to the Lord of the Rings: the founding of Osgiliath, the forging of the Rings, the origin of the Wizards and the Nazgul and all that lovely stuff is found here. But IF you haven't read LOTR, please don't read this section in the Sil until you have. It has fearful spoilers, and you'll do quite fine reading the books without knowing this until after.
The Book as a Whole
The Silmarillion is not a volume to be read for sheer idle entertainment. It is a book to be approached seriously. A book not only to be read, but also to be studied and savored. Do not, I beg of you, rush through without proper attention to following the maps. That's like reading the Bible without knowing where everything is. Not that I'm comparing Sil to the Bible, mind, merely attempting to draw a parallel. For one chapter I was referring to the map about every four words, but by the end I could read a few paragraphs and remember where everything was placed. You'll be glad you did it. The lush valleys and rocky crags, the River Sirion and Forest of Brethil, the dark Nan Elmoth and legendary Firth of Drengist bring the legends alive when proper care is paid to their location.
Besides, here's proof that maps are enjoyable:
Take it from the word of a person who can only get you to the nearest shopping center by landmarks, this is a map worth loving, whether you're a person geographically inclined or not. Cherish it, put sticky notes on it, and don't leave it in the van. You'll be wandering lost in Belariand until it can be reclaimed.
I must close now, before I have given my thoughts or favorite characters, impressions and evaluations of this stunning legend. That's all going to be on Friday, friends and fellow bibliophiles, in Part Two of The Silmarillion. It deserves to be taken time over. :)
And don't forget that according to all accounts, the Desolation of Smaug trailer releases today at 1:00pm EST in front of Man of Steel. :) It's going to be exciting, folks!