Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Silmarillion: Thirty Years On, a review

The 1977 publication of The Silmarillion was a singular event in fantasy fiction. I’m happy to stand corrected, but I can’t think of another book of foundational myths and legends about a fictional, secondary world published prior. But as I mentioned in my introduction to my series Blogging the Silmarillion it also left most critics puzzled, even put-out or angry. Expecting another The Lord of the Rings, many acted with bafflement, others with harsh criticism.

But in the subsequent 35 years opinion seems to be shifting. While it will never be as popular as The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, most fans of Middle-Earth view The Silmarillion as absolutely indispensable. Other genre fans do too, it seems. For example, in a recent vote of over 60,000 genre fans to determine the Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy books The Silmarillion checked in at no. 46, proving that it’s more than just a book for the JRRT fanboy.

As for Tolkien scholars The Silmarillion is a goldmine, bringing to life ancient ages of Middle-Earth that were previously only hinted at in poems and appendices to The Lord of the Rings, or in Tolkien’s personal correspondence. The Silmarillion provides us a startlingly new perspective on the workings of free will and fate in Middle-Earth, of the nature of evil, and the problem of death. It showed how Tolkien forged his world from Christian and Pagan influences, including the Old Testament, Celtic myth, and Norse legends. The Silmarillion introduced readers to the eldest days of Middle-Earth, including the “hows” of its creation and the “who” of its chief creator, along with its wide-ranging geography, both pre and post-cataclysm. It also opened a new window into Tolkien’s creative process, including his ingenious method of creating depth by layering “forgotten” texts and “historical” events and myths on top of each other, a technique that produced a three-dimensional world that feels real, and lived in. Soon the debates began about how much of the work was Tolkien’s own vs. that of his son Christopher, who finished and published The Silmarillion after his father’s death with the aid of fantasy fiction author Guy Gavriel Kay.

The incredible significance of The Silmarillion and the exciting new avenues it opened up are summed up in The Silmarillion: Thirty Years On (Walking Tree Publishers, 2007). This collection of six essays includes one previously published piece by Rhona Beare in a now out-of-print introduction to The Silmarillion, but it is completely rewritten for this book. The other five pieces are original scholarship.

I’ve always enjoyed reading essays on fantasy literature and in particular JRR Tolkien scholarship. They serve to illuminate these works and prompt us to think deeper about various aspects of the work. What scholarly essays don’t always do, however, is touch us, or move us deeply, or get our heads nodding in a “yeah, that’s why I love fantasy fiction too,” type of way. But that’s how “Reflections on Thirty Years of Reading The Silmarillion” by Michael Drout made me feel. Drout’s essay is intensely personal, a recollection of his first encounter with The Silmarillion which he received as a Christmas present in December of 1977. Drout had just moved from New York to a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts (my neck of the woods, incidentally). That winter the region was hit with the Blizzard of 1978. In addition to the suffocating snows the nine year-old Drout was coping with his parents’ impending divorce and separation from his friends, family, and childhood home. Yet paradoxically the bleakness of The Silmarillion and its terrible scenes of carnage and defeat (The Battle of Unnumbered Tears, the Fall of Gondolin) served as a salve for Drout, who learned in its pages the value of courage and resilience and of exhibiting tenacity in defeat. Drout also learned that nostalgia is a genuine emotion worthy of exploration, not of shame, as it is a part of the spectrum of the human condition. At some point in our adolescence most of us begin to dimly realize that we’re alive, which also means we realize that we’re also going to die someday, and that all our lives end in darkness and uncertainty. We long for the days of our innocence, and that longing creates a form of stasis in our minds, a vision of a paradise of old not unlike the immortal lands of Tolkien’s ageless Elves. Drout says that The Silmarillion and its tales of glorious elder days and even of long defeats “make(s) this lost beautify seem completely natural… Tolkien’s work has provided a master narrative, the workings out of a pattern of building and loss, triumph and fall, beauty and wreckage that seems to me to lie beneath all of human history, both the immediately personal histories of individual lives and the vast sweep of peoples and nations. Tolkien created both the longing and the memory for which it longs.”

The name Steve Tompkins is likely unknown to many or most readers of this blog. Tompkins wrote for the now defunct website The Cimmerian, of which I was also contributor. He wrote the introduction to the Del Rey Kull: Exile of Atlantis and for the REHupa fanzine. In 2009 Tompkins passed away unexpectedly at the far too young age of 48 but his essays are worth finding and gleaning for their insights. Of Drout’s essay and its exploration of nostalgia, he wrote:

We humans aren’t as lucky (or is it unlucky?) as Tolkien’s Elves, but Valinors of sorts are available to us, be they the green-gold stun grenade of a spring day, the Polaroid poignance of that one page it might be easier to skip in the photo album, or a chance hearing of a long-ago hit single that ruled the airwaves all during one of those cusp-between-adolescence-and-adulthood summers when possibility and probability were still in equipoise.

 That’s poetry disguised as prose, folks. At risk of sounding maudlin it was Steve’s essay caused me to seek out The Silmarillion: Thirty Years On. Now onto the rest of the review.

Rhona Beare’s piece (“A Mythology for England”) serves as a perfect introduction as it addresses the question of “why” The Silmarillion was written. Tolkien wanted to compose a body of myth appropriate to England, Beare writes, since he was unsatisfied with the Celtic (which proved too self-contradictory and incoherent for his tastes), while the Greek was entirely of the wrong climate and character. England belonged to the North-west of Europe, with its cold winters and native pine, willow, oak, and yew trees, very different than the warm, mild Mediterranean climes. In short, it was a land closer in spirit to Beowulf than Apollo. Beare explores this Northern connection in some detail, but also branches out to demonstrate that Tolkien seems to have found inspiration in other sources as well: For example, China’s first emperor (who longed to escape death by finding the elixir of life) may have inspired the corrupt Numenorean king Ar-Pharazon, who likewise sought immortality at all costs; in Plato Tolkien may have first read of the downfall of Atlantis, and from the Greek romance of Alexander he may have derived inspiration for the two trees of Valinor.

Anna Slack’s “Moving Mandos: The Dynamics of Subcreation in ‘Of Beren and Luthien’” demonstrates how the act of subcreation—of making by the laws in which we’re made, to paraphrase Tolkien’s poem Mythopoeia—is noble and good. “Tolkien argues that just as God made men, so men, fashioned in the likeness of God, make still because their fibre retains some consciousness of that initial creative act,” Slack writes. Eru, the creator of Middle-Earth, spoke the world into being, just as Luthien subcreates through her songs, and Beren "makes" though his oaths to avenge the death of his kinsmen and recover a Silmaril, which he fulfills. These aren’t just words, but transformative acts: Luthien’s song of mourning for Beren in the halls of Mandos moves the god to pity and leads to Beren’s resurrection. “This dynamic gives supernatural value to words, and as such affects the transaction between writer and page, implying that the historical world can be altered by both the utterances and subcreative works of men, just as the creator’s voice brought forth the eternal,” writes Slack.

Michael Devaux’ “The Origins of the Ainulindale: The Present State of Research” is an in-depth examination of the first section of The Silmarillion which tells of Eru's creation of Arda and the godlike Ainur. Devaux strays outside the pages of The Silmarillion in his research, evaluating the Ainulinale against versions published in the History of Middle-Earth. This is probably the most “academic” (and driest) essay in the volume, a detailed comparison of the various texts to determine which parts of the myth are original and which were subsequent reworkings by Tolkien. It is interesting here to see how Tolkien began with a more pagan-inspired creation myth and gradually drifted closer to his Christian roots and Genesis, along with a strong strain of Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Jason Fisher’s “From Mythopoeia to Mythography: Tolkien, Lonnrot, and Jerome" fills in a much-needed chapter in the history of The Silmarillion: The incredibly difficult job Christopher Tolkien had in bringing his father’s drafts and notes into a completed, publishable form, and the agonizing decisions he made along the way. Fisher compares Christopher’s work to Snorri Sturluson, Jacob Grimm, and Elias Lonnrot (the Kalevela), and other great mythographers of the past who faced the difficult task of assembling single, coherent works from scattered or fragmented legends.

Fisher says Christopher’s choice was “between making nothing unfinished available posthumously; making everything available, no matter how unclear, disordered, or inconsistent; or attempting to strike a balance between these two extremes.” He ultimately chose the latter approach, a “minimalist” rather than a “maximalist” view to collecting the tales (choosing the most representative stories, rather than the kitchen sink, as we get in The History of Middle-Earth). J.R.R. Tolkien had at one point imagined The Silmarillion as a collection of different texts, poems, annals, etc., possibly in order to create the illusion that he was recording a history, not presenting a fictional text, a conceit which lends The Lord of the Rings its great depth. Christopher ultimately did not opt for that route, but rather presented the stories as a (fairly) straightforward narrative. While Fisher argues that the task of assembling The Silmarillion “could have been approached from any number of angles,” resulting in a markedly different final book, in the end we owe Christopher an enormous debt for bringing it to print.

In the concluding essay of the volume (“Viewpoints, Audiences and Lost Texts in The Silmarillion”) Nils Ivar Agoy states that The Silmarillion fails as a representative of Tolkien’s favored “lost text technique,” in which he attempted to lend authenticity and depth to his writings by presenting as a “lost” text “discovered” or retold centuries or millennia later (just as The Lord of the Rings is supposedly taken from Bilbo’s Red Book of Westmarch). “This technique has many functions, the most important of which—besides giving great pleasure to Tolkien himself—is that it lends verisimilitude to the works, makes the reader’s suspension of disbelief easier by blurring the line of fact and fiction,” Agoy writes. The Silmarillion cannot be successfully read from this viewpoint, he argues, because it is unclear who the stories are for and why they are written as they are (they’re not told from an Elven, or Hobbit, or even Human perspective, but rather from that of an omnipotent narrator or occasionally the Elven). Agoy recommends we take a “lost text holiday” when reading The Silmarillion and it enjoy it as a laconic, remote account of the elder days of Middle-Earth.

In summary, I found all the essays in The Silmarillion: Thirty Years On highly readable and enjoyable, but it was Drout’s that proved genuinely moving. Again I thank him and Steve Tompkins for helping me to express why The Silmarillion—this much-maligned “Elvish telephone directory”—means so much to me, and to so many others.


Fred said...


Great review. It's good to see that maybe _The Silmarillion_ is finally getting the respect it deserves. I think the most astute observation you made of it is that it is not _The Lord of the Rings_. Too many people expected another LoTR and were disappointed and therefore couldn't see it for what it really was.

Ted Cross said...

The Silmarillion evolved for me as I read it again over the years. It was tough for me to like as a young teen. Then I enjoyed it in my early adult years but didn't put in all the necessary hard work to actually fall in love with it. Then in my thirties, I read it again while checking every name in the appendix and checking every map location while I read, and it became my favorite Tolkien book. Yeah, it was a tough slog, but so worth it. I wish the Tolkien family would give Peter Jackson permission to do some of it as movies. I'd love to see Beren and Luthien done as a 2 or 3 movie set!

butcherhammer said...

I knew nothing about Tolkien or his works when I first picked up The Lord of the Rings in the late nineties as a teenager, but I knew the Hobbit came first, and I wanted to read his stuff in chronological order. I always want to read everything in chronological order. Before I got started I discovered the Silmarillion was really the first book in order. I had no idea it would be so different from a novel, but I enjoyed it quite a bit.

My point is that I read the Silmarillion first and had no expectations at all going in. I think that might make a difference for some readers. I have no idea how it would have gone for me if I had read these books the way everyone else did, but I imagine I still would have enjoyed it quite a bit, this kind of unusual thing being right up my alley.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks for the comments guys. If you do enjoy The Silmarillion you might want to consider The Silmarillion: Thirty Years On.

I wish the Tolkien family would give Peter Jackson permission to do some of it as movies.

Given Christopher Tolkien's opinions of the LOTR films that's not going to happen in his lifetime.

Lagomorph Rex said...

I'd honestly prefer the Silmarillion never get adapted to film.. I think that parts of it are essentially unfilmable.. not that we are technologically incapable of doing it mind you.. simply that the cosmological sections would go straight over the average viewers heads.. yet they are vitally important in establishing the background needed to do the book justice.

Anonymous said...

Great Review, and some insightful comments.

I too initially read the Silmarillion in my late teens and was at first baffled by the amount of names and detail, but gradually its grown on me and I can safely say it my favourite of Tolkien's works.

Although there is certinly enough material to make a series of great films, I don't think adapating it would be a good idea, its so far removed from Tolkien's other work I dread to think waht the filmakers would ahve to do to make it more commerical.

If you can forgive me for being a little forward I've also started a blog of my own.

Below is the link to a post I wrote about Cirdan the shipwright and I was curiuos to see what you think.


Brian Murphy said...

Paul: Thanks, and thanks for sharing the link to your essay about Cirdan. I'll admit to not having given him much thought, other than recognizing him as a colorful secondary character in Tolkien's legendarium, but you did a fine job pulling together a comprehensive picture of how woven into the tapestry of Middle-Earth he truly is. I like your speculation that he may have departed over the Sea, at last, with Sam.

Jason Fisher said...

Thanks for the thoughtful and attentive review. I'm pleased to see people are still finding and reading this collection of essays. It's not very well-known, and it's a pretty short and somewhat eclectic collection, but I think it deserves to be read more widely. I am, of course, a bit biased about that! ;)

Brian Murphy said...

You're welcome Jason. It was a wonderful essay, and I'm honored to have you drop by this space!