The Appeal of The Silmarillion

Today is the 32nd anniversary of the publication of The Silmarillion. Each of us has her or his own story of coming to The Silmarillion, or to Tolkien in general. I’ve written my quite a few times by now and so won’t repeat it here. Suffice to say that I never thought I’d be the sort to study a book in the depth that I have studied The Silmarillion, much less write my own stories about it. Even now, I still don’t feel like I’m the sort to be a “fan writer.” When I read on multifandom sites like Metafandom, I sometimes feel a disconnect with the culture and experiences that other fan writers are reporting. (Of course, yes, “fandom” is an enormous and diverse community, so I’m clearly not going to relate or agree with everything that everyone “in fandom” says. I don’t expect to.) Rather, this disconnect, for me, underscores how The Silmarillion is indeed a special book for me.

I often say that I hated The Silmarillion the first time that I read it, and that much is certainly true. Fresh from my first reading of LotR, I wanted more of the same and, mistakenly, believed that The Silmarillion would meet my expectations. I remember clearly to this day standing in the aisle at the bookstore, in the fantasy section, reading the blurb on the back of the book that mentioned how the Silm was the story of the early history of characters like Elrond and Galadriel. I know them! I thought. They weren’t my favorite characters, no (believe it or not, I was a Hobbit fan before being seduced by the much more turbid history of the Elves), but like the sight of an acquaintance can make an unfamiliar journey more comfortable to contemplate, so the attested presence of Elrond and Galadriel reassured me that I wouldn’t become adrift in the pages of The Silmarillion.

Which is, of course, exactly what happened.

The Silmarillion isn’t a wonderfully written book. It’s not particularly enticing or absorbing. While there are passages that make me sigh with the happy contentment of a wordsmith who has just encountered a perfectly constructed phrase, there are just as many that I have had to read multiple times, mentally diagramming the sentence, to even understand. And most of the lines that get heavily quoted in the House of Felagund are throwaway quips. “Travel lightly but bring your swords!” my husband and I avow each Wednesday before we head off to German longsword practice. “Get thee gone!” I’ll snip at the dogs when they’re being annoying. If I’m in a particularly foul humor, “thou jail-crow of Mandos” might be further appended to that. The Silmarillion certainly isn’t my preferred book to read, even though I’ve probably read it more times than any other and I read parts of it several times a week for my research. But when I hunger for a book where my mind can drift into new worlds and savor the author’s words, it’s not The Silmarillion that I pick up. It’s usually a Romantic- or Modern-era novel for classic/mainstream literature or Ursula K. LeGuin, Neil Gaiman, or Peter S. Beagle for fantasy.

So what is it that makes this book so damned special? Clearly it is. I first read it almost six years ago and yet my passion for it shows no sign of waning.

For me, there are two kinds of books. There are those that I read for the chance to become lost in the author’s vision. The Lord of the Rings was that way for me. I remember leaving Frodo and Sam at Shelob’s lair and shouting, “Noooo!” at the book like some character in a hammed-up melodrama. Then there are those books where the author’s vision stops just shy of satisfaction and leaves me contemplating more questions than the book answered. That is The Silmarillion.

Once I managed to wrap my brain around the Silm (and the fact that it wasn’t LotR), I found that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Fëanor, especially, bothered me. At first, I couldn’t quite figure out why it was that he fascinated me; why I couldn’t stop thinking about him. There was a cult of personality around him; there was a certain injustice in his story that stung me deep; there was my own identification with some aspects of his character; there was his obvious fallibility; there was–most of all–the feeling that I couldn’t quite articulate that I wasn’t getting his whole story.

In writing about what motivated and inspired J.R.R. Tolkien, Professor Shippey writes that “One sees that the thing which attracted Tolkien most was darkness: the blank spaces, much bigger than most people realise, on the literary and historical map …” (38). There are facts–information known, attested, documented–and there is the space between where little or nothing is known. What lives in those shadowy spaces between what we know? Staring hard into them, one begins to fancy that something moves there. There is a form of life and reality, existing just beneath one’s awareness, just out of reach of what one can “put a finger on” and document as fact.

When I read The Silmarillion, I found myself staring into a lot of those shadowy spaces. And the more I read and the more I learned, the more I saw moving there, just out of reach of “fact,” though not imagination. It was not the “facts” of The Silmarillion that so intrigued me. It was the possibilities of what lay in those unknown realms between.

Tolkien studied medieval languages and literature, and the problems we face, in studying The Silmarillion, are much the same as the problems that he would have routinely encountered in his own studies. There is the question of authorship, to start: The Silmarillion being a posthumous work that was still very much in-progress at its author’s death, we have no idea what a “Silmarillion” would have looked like had Tolkien just five more years to complete it more to his satisfaction. Even attempts to trace what was JRRT’s and what was editorial intervention/invention proves challenging: witness Douglas Charles Kane’s Arda Reconstructed. We often have multiple versions of the same texts where each has changes and additions that the others do not. The versions of the text are often imperfect. JRRT was fond of writing drafts in pencil and then writing over them in ink. His handwriting was, at times, worse than Luxeuil minuscule. He liked to compose drafts in a seemingly random fashion in notebooks and on the backs of unrelated papers. He liked to fold his work inside of newspapers. He possessed–like medieval writers–a maddening unawareness of the value of his own work would one day hold for students of that work. And then there are the historiographical questions: If an author takes great pains to invent, declare, and even create histories for his imagined narrators, then are we as readers supposed to ignore that information and take his words at face value? Or are we–as I advocate–supposed to keep the narrator’s point-of-view ever in mind and the story they present only one tiny drop in a vast ocean that comprises “truth”? Suddenly, a book is not a story but history and myth. The more I read, the more I found myself asking these questions and the deeper the shadows became and the more they shimmered with imagined possibilities.

And the more questions I begin to answer, the more questions I find to ask. For me, this is the magic that is The Silmarillion; this is why it’s not the best-written book I’ve read and hardly the most entertaining but my favorite nonetheless: because it invites my imagination out to play.

So happy birthday, Silmarillion. I look forward to commemorating many more.

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5 Responses to “The Appeal of The Silmarillion

  1. French Pony says:

    I wonder if another part of its appeal to you might be that it’s not finished. LOTR and The Hobbit are finished, edited, polished books. Pretty much everything that Tolkien wanted in and out of them is in and out of them. The Silmarillion wasn’t finished in its author’s lifetime, and it shows. It’s a much rougher book, with gaps, inconsistencies, and a gaping need for editing. For such a thorough, observant writer such as yourself, there’s just more ways into the Silmarillion than into the other two.

    (I, of course, like the Sil because of the same personality quirk that leads me to wax rhapsodic over a treatise on the history of optics or a lengthy examination of the mbira dzavadzimu, but that’s just me, and it’s why I wound up safely tucked away in grad school.)

  2. Maeglin says:

    Hi, Dawn. You wrote – “Then there are those books where the author’s vision stops just shy of satisfaction and leaves me contemplating more questions than the book answered. That is The Silmarillion.”

    An interesting take, for sure. But if Tolkien wasn’t a great novelist, or even if he wasn’t a great writer, what of it? That argument seems to miss the point completely. The point of a ‘serious’ story or story-collection is not to be well-written or even necessarily ‘pleasing’, but to capture hearts and minds. In that respect (at least for me, and apparently you as well), the Silmarillion surpasses LOTR. When I think of the Silm, the work which seems most comparable is the Bible. No one would argue that the latter is well-written – but it certainly is influential! And, like the Silm, for many the Bible stops short of satisfaction and raises more questions than it answers. Yet both books contain much truth, and (imo) the SIlm contains more truth than LOTR.

  3. Aranel Took says:

    I really enjoyed this, especially as we have similar experiences: thinking it would be like LOTR and hating the Silm on the first read, and being Hobbit fans. 😉

    It’s very insightful to see your views on the book, coming from that same place as I did but then having it become so important to you. I have a lack of patience to begin with, so haven’t given it another chance. But now you’ve got me wondering if I should give it another go.

    “Unknown realms” is probably my number one reason for loving Middle-Earth as a fanfic writer. Tolkien left so many holes everywhere along with the complex backstory and it just begs to be explored. My Epic Hobbit Soap Opera has even moved into Khand and Harad in my sadly unfinished third novel, and the Easterlings, Corsairs, and Dwarves keep poking me.

  4. Spiced Wine says:

    The Silmarillion hooked me over twenty years ago with it’s sense of grand tragedy. I used to read it, get to the end, read it again (I did that with LOTR also), and again, and wanted to know more. The Elves of the Silmarillion seemed more pagan, more magnificent than those written of in LOTR. They died terrible deaths, they suffered, they were caught in a doom that was in itself a very *pagan* one. It appealed to me, although parts of it annoyed me, before I realized that such things as the Dagor Nirnaeth Arnoediad were an integral part of the epic tragedy, which I loved. However….there was not enough of it, and nothing on the characters in depth. Now, I am glad of it, because I am sure Tolkien would not have written them as I want to read them d;-)

  5. Dawn says:

    French Pony: I suspect that is the reason. The Silm begs for stories to be written about it! There are so many holes to fill in and inconsistencies to reconcile that I scarcely know where to begin! 😀

    Maeglin: I agree with you! 😀 My point was that I read/like stories for different reasons. Like I’m reading Ellison’s Invisible Man right now, and I’m really enjoying it, but I can’t ever imagine writing a story based on it. It’s a story to get lost in a world that another writer has created without having to do the imaginative work of filling in the holes s/he’s left or aligning the incongruous details so that they make sense.

    Now I have to do the latter with the Silm, which is why I suspect a lot of people don’t like the book but, for me, those gaps and inconsistencies seem an invitation to creativity. But it’s not a book I’d snuggle in with on a rainy day with the expectation of being wholly transported into the author’s vision. I have to supplement JRRT’s vision with a lot of my own, which has a different kind of appeal for me.

    So, yes, both move my heart and mind, just for different reasons is all. :)

    Aranel: A second try might not be a bad idea! And, no, I’m really not trying to recruit more Silm authors. 😉 But I do think that it’s a hard book to “get” much less like on a first reading, especially if you go into it expecting another LotR or TH.

    Given both of our proclivities for writing Tolkien-based stories that take on whole swatches of unwritten history, then the degree of our agreeance on why we write in M-e really shouldn’t surprise me. 😀 But I found myself nodding along with your second paragraph and can only say, “Me too.” :)

    Spiced Wine: I definitely agree on the pagan feel to the Silm and think that is perhaps part of the appeal to me too. Or, at least, why I am so drawn to the Elves. (That and the ears. I love the leaf-shaped ears! … and before anyone jumps on me, yes, I know leaf-shaped ears are not “canon.” But even if people write Elves with rounded ears, I give them leaf-shaped ears in my mind. 😛 )

    Part of the joy of fandom for me is getting to see how we all start with the same details from the texts and each construct our own world from that. As much as I have, at times also, lamented that there isn’t more (I could tear my hair out over the fact that JRRT stopped writing Shibboleth when he got to the Feanorians, for example!), the imaginative playground that his world has become because of its lack of detail, completion, and consistency is not something that I’d want to give up either. Quite a conundrum! :)

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