Sunday, January 3, 2010

Cimmerian sighting: Blogging The Silmarillion

Nevertheless it was the work of his heart, which occupied him for far longer than The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. The better-known works are in a way only offshoots, side-branches, of the immense chronicle/ mythology/legendarium which is the ‘Silmarillion.’

--Thomas Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien,
Author of the Century

Few works of fantasy are as maligned and misunderstood as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. As the late Steve Tompkins noted, it’s a work that seemed to have been much-purchased upon its 1977 publication but is anecdotally little-read, and is certainly the subject of many strong opinions, both positive and negative. Wikipedia sums up a good portion of the critical response to The Silmarillion upon its release as follows:

Some reviewers, however, had nothing positive to say about the book at all. The New York Review of Books called The Silmarillion "an empty and pompous bore", "not a literary event of any magnitude", and even claimed that the main reason for its "enormous sales" were the "Tolkien cult" created by the popularity of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The School Library Journal called it "only a stillborn postscript" to Tolkien's earlier works. Peter Conrad of the New Statesman even went so far as to say that “Tolkien can't actually write.”

Putting the ridiculousness of “Tolkien can’t actually write” and “a stillborn postscript” aside, there is some truth to the difficulty of reading The Silmarillion. Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey remarks in The Road to Middle-Earth that “it could never be anything but hard to read.” It’s not hard in terms of diction or structure, but rather, as Christopher Tolkien explains in Part One of The Book of Lost Tales, because it “lacks mediation of the kind provided by the hobbits (so, in The Hobbit, ‘Bilbo acts as the link between modern times and the archaic world of dwarves and dragons’).” The second reason is because it is not written as a novel. There is no main character in the foreground through which the story is relayed.

Prompted by the 118th anniversary of Tolkien's birthday and the dawn of the New Year, it’s my intention over the next several weeks to blog about The Silmarillion. I’m re-reading it in its entirety after the interval of several years and thought it would be enjoyable to write down my thoughts, impressions, and observations, and hopefully in the process make a small case for why it’s well-worth reading. I did something similar recently here at The Silver Key while re-reading The Lord of the Rings, and had a lot of fun with it. Please note that I am no self-appointed scholar or expert on Tolkien, just a fan. Writing about that which I read helps to further my own understanding and appreciation of the material.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.


Eric D. Lehman said...

I always liked the superstructure of the Book of Lost Tales. I wish Tolkien had gone that route and finished his most important work one way or the other. I love the stories of the First Age...many would lend themselves well to film. In fact, after LOTR I'm not sure why we haven't seen some of those get picked up. Maybe the Tolkien estate is balking again?

David J. West said...

I would consider myself one of those rare Balrog's that enjoys the Silmarillion.

I give it is something a little harder for most people to digest but it's sheer scope and briliance make it an absolute delight for those of us that do appreciate it.

Taranaich said...

Isn't it amazing that you're doing a series on The Silmarillion, while I'm doing a series on Almuric? Tollers and Two-Gun Bob both represented. Great minds think alike, eh?

For some reason, I actually found Silmarillion easier to read than LotR. I have absolutely no clue why: perhaps a childhood spent reading relentlessly dry dinosaur books prepared me for the read. I also loved Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men and Star Maker, which are effectively SF Silmarillions, and pseudo-non-fiction like The New Dinosaurs and Unnatural History.

I was a weird kid.

Anyway, I'm definitely looking forward to this series in upcoming weeks.

Brian Murphy said...

Taranich: I hope I can live up to my own self-inflicted hype! As I stated I'm no Tolkien scholar, and I'm doing this as much for my own benefit as any insights I can possibly pass along. I find that writing about a book as I read it helps with my own critical thinking process. I hope others (yourself included) post some commentary/feedback here.

I'm very much looking forward to your analysis on Almuric, too.

Great post today on the Haradrim. Between that and the DeCampistas, you've been batting 1.000 these days.

Miguel Martins said...

Brian, I'm really looking forward to your series too.

David: I'm one of those Balrogs!

I'll always have a soft spot for The Silmarillion. It was my introduction to JRRT when I was 14.

Brian Murphy said...

A nestful of Balrogs... what would Fingon say :)?

noisms said...

I love The Silmarillion. It has good associations for me anyway because I read it on a long train journey through Japan when I first arrived in the country - never underestimate the impact of your own mood at the time of reading when it comes to liking or loathing a book.

There are some wonderful scenes in The Silmarillion. The theft of the Silmarils by Ungoliant and Morgoth is a particular favourite. But my favourite section has to be the second part, on Numenor and Sauron. I would love to play a game of MERP set in the Second Age.

Atom Kid said...

Silmarillion has grown on me over the years. I got my first copy on Christmas of 1985. At the time I was expecting all the action and drama of LOTR but was a little turned off by the histories at the beginning.

As I've gotten older I have re-read the book and have really come to appreciate the intricate history of Middle-Earth. After all, to get a full understanding LOTR you should also read The Silmarillion.

Gabriele C. said...

It certainly seems a nest full of Balrogs. Here's another one. :)

Looking forward to the essays.

Brian Murphy said...

Noisms: I played some MERP "back in the day," and while I had fun with it, something about it didn't feel Middle-Earthien. I think it was the highly descriptive (and often comical) critical hit charts. How many characters in LOTR were killed by mace-blows that caused brains to pour from noses, or by tripping over turtles and impaling themselves on their swords :)?

You are right about the impact one's state of mind has on a book. I came to love Middle-earth after re-reading LOTR during a trying time in the Road of my life, and finding escape in its pages.

Atom Kid: Agreed, I remember trying to read it back in high school, failing miserably, and skimming through it for the battles :). I can't imagine not having it on my bookshelves nowadays.

Gabriele: All right, another Balrog in the fold!

E.G.Palmer said...

I love the Silmarillion. In the seventh grade, arguing the fine points of Middle Earth history with the guys was a big pass time.

Heh, that looks hopelessly nerdy in plain black letters, doesn't it?

I think I never had any problems understanding the Silmarillion because one of the very first books I read upon entering my fantasy/mythology phase was Bulfinch's Mythology. The flow of the writing in the Silmarillion seemed perfectly fitted for the vast sweep of time and the mythological/allegorical events it dealt with.
The Silmarillion is the Bulfinch's of Middle Earth.