Book Impressions – “The Silmarillion”

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.

General Information

Title: The Silmarillion

Author: J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Chris Tolkien

Original Publication Date: 1977

ISBN: 0-261-10366-0

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.

Impressions

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-existant
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.

18 replies on “Book Impressions – “The Silmarillion””

  1. y42 says:

    Well said
    I agree completely.

  2. pythor says:

    Amen!!!
    I enjoyed The Hobbit. Several times, in fact. I read 2 and a third of LoTR. I knew the end( I had seen the animated version.), and couldn’t bring myself to push through to it. I did try to read Silmarillion, but only got a few pages. I know it’s considered a classic. I don’t care. Even a classic needs to engage the reader, and this never did.

    • theangrymob says:

      Re: Amen!!!

      I enjoyed The Hobbit. Several times, in fact. I read 2 and a third of LoTR. I knew the end( I had seen the animated version.), and couldn’t bring myself to push through to it.

      Try again. There is a large section of story after the film’s ending.

  3. graikor says:

    I’m sorry, I didn’t think it was THAT bad
    I grant that much of it is very dull, but there are a few high points:

    * the tale of the splitting of the elvish race and the betrayal of Melkor/Morgoth

    * the final victory over Morgoth

    * the rise of Sauron

    * the background behind the first Ring War

    True, there are a lot of parts that drag (unfortunately, they’re mostly in the earlier part of the book), but there are some chapters that are genuinely involving, and the information itself is highly informative. Knowing all the background of the early years of Middle-Earth made me appreciate how fully realized Tolkien’s creation really was – even more so than the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.

  4. UncleJam says:

    Nope…
    I completely disagree with almost every point in this impression.

    I first read The Silmarillion when I was about 10 or 12, after having read The Hobbit and LotR. I was blown away. For my money, this book beats the others hands down. I can’t bring myself to read The Hobbit any more and I haven’t reread LotR in probably 10 years, but I reread The Silmarillion every couple of years and always find new nuances or interpretations that I didn’t get the previous times.

    It’s “lack of depth” is really no different than any other work of myth, whether Greek, Norse, the Bible, or some other. That is the frame in which one needs to view The Silmarillion. It should not be compared with something like LotR, which is a novel and structured as such. On that level, sure, The Silmarillion fails, but that’s not the level on which it is meant to operate.

    • y42 says:

      Re: Nope…

      that’s not the level on which it is meant to
      operate.

      The level on wich its meant to operate is work notes, not
      published for public consumption.

      • nulldevice says:

        Re: Nope…

        that’s not the level on which it is meant to
        operate.

        Actually “Lost tales” etc were work notes. Silmarillion was the actualy backstory that Tolkein wrote, although ti had to be re-edited but Christopher T . It didn’t get published becasue he revised it several gazillion times, was unsure if a book of creation myths and legends referred to in the LOTR would actually be of interest to anyone but himself…and then he died. “Lost Tales” are the earliest notes and versions of the Silmarillion and LOTR.

  5. Erf says:

    Very different audience
    The book was indeed a very dry read, especially in the first third. (Heh.) I really enjoyed it, myself, but it was definitely not a novel; it was a textbook on myths, and should be viewed as such. (The storytelling improves in the later chapters — they feel more like stories — but the characters are uniformly flat throughout.) So if you’re not into reading about myths for their own sake, you won’t enjoy this book. If you do like myths, though, the stuff in here includes some great stories of heroism, betrayal, etc etc.

    Actually, I think a good target audience for The Silmarillion is the same as the audience for all those “Middle Earth Companion Guide” and “The World of Tolkien” type books — a lot of background material which serves to enrich the main book (LotR).

  6. eclectric says:

    Sigh…
    I have a firm opinion that nobody should read this book if they are expecting anything like the Lord of the Rings. It’s obvious you were expecting something like that.

    The Silmarillion is more like a decent summary of the first and second Ages. Like most summaries, it tends to do away with dialog and action in order to set down the plot in an agreeable length.

    Tolkien desired this work to be published, but he could not find a proper framework in which to do it. His mistake, of course, was that he couldn’t distinquish what was truly important (the stories of Beren and Luthein, Turin, and Tuor), with what wasn’t. The Silmarillion, as published, was mostly complete, though across several decades of development. Chris Tolkien himself said publishing it in this format, as a whole rather than as an academic study, was a mistake.

    Nearly every story in the Silmarillion has a better (if less complete) version within the History of Middle Earth. And there, you will find textual discussions that trace the growth of the mythology, which some (like me) find interesting.

    Let me also say that if my calculations are correct, you are still early in the story. Have the Noldor even gone East? The true heart of the story is Beren and Luthien, both in the mythology and within the heart of the Author. Unfortunately, the most complete version of this story is a long poem found in HoME 3. In the end, the most complete and well-written of all the tales of the First and Second age is the Narn I Hin Hurin, found in the Unfinished Tales.

    I would love to hear this book on an Audio version, since it really reads like a spoken tale.

    • AnCatDubh says:

      Re: Sigh…
      –snip-

      I would love to hear this book on an Audio version, since it really reads like a spoken tale.

      The J.R.R. Tolkien Audio Collection from Caedmon, US/Canada ISBN 0-694-52570-7 features Christopher Tolkien reading from The Silmarillion. Alas, it is only part of the series of cassettes I remember from my youth, but it does bring the stories of Beren and Luthien and of the Noldor to life.

      While the beginning of The Silmarillion are somewhat dry and biblical, the stories of Beren and Luthien and of the Children of Hurin make up for it, and it is important to know the history to put these in context. I wonder what it would have been were John rather than Christopher able to bring it into publishable form and release it. Regarding the rest of the HoME series, for someone interested in textual study and in how a story is formed, they make good reading. For someone looking for LoTR, don’t bother.

  7. is says:

    It’s not as bad as you put it….
    But it’s not a great book. It’s dry. I wouldn’t even call it a “book” really except that it is in book form.
    I see the Simarillion as a history book. It gives a lot of details and background for middle eath and beyond.

    Frankly, I thought it was kind of interesting, but ONLY in the context of the LoTR and the Hobbit. If I had no interest in the LOTR or the Hobbit there would have been no way I could have gotten thru the Simarillion.

    It was never intended to be a coherent “story” type book and therefore it shouldn’t be read like one, or reviewed like one.

    • hitch says:

      Re: It’s not as bad as you put it….

      It was never intended to be a coherent “story” type book and therefore it shouldn’t be read like one, or reviewed like one.

      which is precisely why it wasn’t.

      • is says:

        Re: It’s not as bad as you put it….

        It was never intended to be a coherent “story” type book and therefore it shouldn’t be read like one, or reviewed like one.

        which is precisely why it wasn’t.

        Which was my point :O) thanks!

  8. merlinus says:

    One of my favourite books of all time …
    … but then, I like mythology. The Silmarillion is not a novel – it is more like Greek and Roman mythology. Tragedy and triumph, in wondrously painful quantity. Except, IGNORE THE FIRST 100 PAGES!! That first section of the book is a “genesis” story for the universe and is so boring that this is what drives most people away from the book. Skim it or skip it, but read the rest of it – you’ll be glad you did.

    • Cerberus7 says:

      Re: One of my favourite books of all time …
      Hey, that’s been my favorite part, so far. :) I’m not yet half-way through, though, so we’ll see how my opinion changes.

    • nogoal1786 says:

      Re: One of my favourite books of all time …
      Thank You!!!!!! I am a devoted tolkien fan and all authors may have a flunker, but i do not think that Silmarillion was it for tolkien. I even loved the first 1oo pages. My favourite part of the book was the story of Beren and Luthien.

  9. dcheesi says:

    Guaranteed cure for insomnia
    The Silmarillion is like the Old Testament of Middle Earth. Only read it if you enjoy that sort of thing. Or if you consider Hobbit-worship your official religion :)

  10. ladyslug says:

    Not an exciting read, but interesting for Middle-Earth buffs…

    I have read (virtually) all of The Silmarillion, but that is because I
    was
    interested in some of the information included in the appendices at the
    end of “The Return of the King” and I wanted some additional detail/
    explanation of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth world.

    I enjoyed the “chapters” that read the most like stories and
    folktales,
    such as an expanded story of Luthien and Beren, or the theft of the
    Silmarillion and the ensuing conflict. However, I recall skipping large
    chunks of the chapters that consisted of nothing but a description of the
    landscape of various parts of Middle Earth. (And I am not kidding here,
    he talks about how there was a forest, and then next to it a river, and
    then next to it a hill, and maybe some mountains, etc.) These are the
    parts where you really get the impression that perhaps these notes were
    for Tolkien’s use when designing maps or reference during characters’
    travels.

    So I am somewhat split on the matter: parts of this book really
    fascinated me, while others put me straight to sleep. I agree that it is a
    good resource for those clamoring for history, folktales, and other
    minutiae of Middle Earth, but a poor choice when looking for a good
    story to read.

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