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.