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.