These are my impressions of the book, and not a full review. I won’t give any book a full review unless I read it all. I just can’t bring myself to read every word on every page of this monstrosity.
Title: The Silmarillion
Author: J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Chris Tolkien
Original Publication Date: 1977
Cover Price: 24.99 GBP; thankfully, I found this hardcover in a “previously unsold” bookstore for a mere $4.99 Canadian. I’m not convinced I got my money’s worth.
We’d normally have the “buy from” links here, but I’m not sadistic enough to suggest anybody pay for this.
When I read The Hobbit, I felt that it was published because it was a fun little adventure story, well targeted at a young audience. When I read The Lord Of The Rings, I felt it was published because it was epic fantasy at its best. As some of you know, The Lord of the Rings was very popular, and is considered by some to be the most read book of the 20th Century (since the only book that outsold it in that century was the Bible.)
From what I’ve read of The Silmarillion, I’m convinced it was published because The Lord of the Rings is a very popular book. I’ve heard that it was published after J.R.R. Tolkien’s death, edited together by his son from a set of notes J.R.R. used to write his masterpiece work. I’ve heard that J.R.R. had no intentions of publishing this work in any form. I have no reason to doubt these rumours.
This is why I’m writing a set of impressions rather than a review. I refuse to review a book and give it a score unless I’ve read it from cover to cover. In this case, that will never happen. I’ve been trying to read this all summer, and I’ve never managed to read more than 6 pages in a single sitting. I’m on page 132 of 365 of this copy, and I can push myself no further. It’s possible that the situation improves, but I suspect that will not be the case. (If it is, I’m sure some kind reader will let us know.) I wouldn’t even bother writing these impressions if the review hadn’t been requested by one of our readers.
The first thing I should point out is that The Silmarillion is not a story. It is a collection of the creation myths of Middle Earth, strung together as chapters, often with weak or non-existent transitions and no characters with any depth. We know some characters are evil, because the narrative voice tells us so. We know some characters are noble and heroic, because the narrative voice tells us so. The actions of these characters should speak for themselves, but since that requires the characters to actually take action, we often have no chance to make these determinations ourselves. The creation myths span enough time that characters will appear and disappear all the time, often with similarities in their names that can lead to confusion for one who is not taking notes. The plot is vague and unclear, reverting to a set of drab stories that happen to fall in (nearly) chronological order.
This is all it is. It lacks the descriptive details of the works that J.R.R. Tolkien brought to publishers himself, and it lacks any depth to any characters. I understand that epics with large casts often have large numbers of flat characters, but even The Lord of the Rings had depth to Frodo, Gandalf, the other major members of the Fellowship, and Gollum. This shows none of that depth, at least in the first third of the book. We don’t get the great descriptions of the world these characters live in. We don’t get the same sense of building danger, approaching a climax. Instead, we get a string of tangentially related events that clearly exist in the background of The Lord of the Rings but would likely not have been published on their own. This book does nothing to build an emotional attachment for those readers who haven’t read The Lord of the Rings.
In my opinion, there is a very, very small audience for this book. I believe with certainty that it was marketed and published based solely on the popularity of The Lord of the Rings, and that nobody would publish it purely on its own merits. This is a book that feels very much like an additional set of appendices to The Lord of the Rings, and yet, J.R.R. Tolkien chose not to include it with the other appendices; I think he made the right decision.
My advice to you is this: if you read The Lord of the Rings and felt that the appendices included weren’t enough to satisfy your thirst for the world J.R.R. Tolkien created, then you should find a copy of this in your local library. If, like me, you skimmed the appendices but didn’t even bother to read most of them, you shouldn’t even consider exerting the effort required to take this book off the shelf.