CHRISTIAN: I agree with you that the Beren and Lúthien sequence is the most compelling in the book. I love it so much I recently read an entire book of all its different variations as the story evolved over time in the hands of both Tolkien’s, father and son. By the way, maybe that’s the answer to your question. The very first dad to introduce his kids to Middle-earth was Tolkien himself — and once the love of that world is passed on, it stays for life.
Beren and Lúthien is not the only short story woven into The Silmarillion. Among all the cosmic world-building, there are check-ins with actual mortal characters — as you said, they are the ones who actually make the story compelling, especially since their stories so often end in tragedy. Túrin Turambar, for instance, is manipulated by an evil dragon into marrying his sister, with predictably Oedipal consequences. Then there are the constant croppings of new elf kingdoms, which for all their beauty and magic are eventually destroyed by the forces of Morgoth. This is the stuff you latch onto as a reader, and if The Silmarillion is ever made into a movie (preferably not with Peter Jackson, let’s get some new blood!) I think it would work best as a kind of anthology piece, with Morgoth’s war against the Elves forming the backdrop for all these more human stories.
Beren and Lúthien’s story is the best because of its mixture of love, tragedy, and just bonkers fantasy adventure. Perhaps because Tolkien drew so much of it from his own marriage, the potent brew that is the Beren and Lúthien story is just so much more compelling than the parallel Aragorn/Arwen romance in The Lord of the Rings proper.
That brings us to a major aspect of The Silmarillion. Many of its characters and stories (though far from all) are ancient antecedents to more familiar faces from The Lord of the Rings. Beren and Lúthien are Aragorn and Arwen’s ancestors, Morgoth is Sauron’s dark master, and the dark spirit Ungoliant is the progenitor of the monstrous spider Shelob.
On that note, let’s talk about the big man himself. Devan, what do you make of Morgoth (a.k.a. Melkor)? What separates him from Sauron? Why is he compelling in his own right?
DEVAN: Oh man. Yes, let’s talk about Morgoth. While Sauron is essentially a servant of Morgoth who sets out to corrupt and conquer Middle-earth, Morgoth is the O.G., the creation of all evil that has ever existed in the world. Morgoth makes Sauron look like a low-level Disney villain. When Eru and the Valar were singing the world into existence, it was Morgoth who sowed discord and infused the earth with the very concept of evil. If Sauron is about dominion, control, and power, Morgoth exists purely to destroy. It doesn’t get much more hardcore than that.
Which, in essence, is part of what makes The Silmarillion so fascinating. It wrestles with these big, heavy themes (like the root of all evil ever) in a way that is so engaging and gripping. Which I think is why, as you mention, we still haven’t seen a television or film adaptation. In some ways, The Silmarillion is unfilmable… It’d be a bit like trying to make a complete film adaptation of something like the Bible. How do you capture all of the stories and all of the complexities within a single filmed version?
Personally, I’d love to see a film version of individual stories from the book, like Beren and Lúthien or Túrin Turambar. These are the tales that have a true narrative arc, which makes them easier to adapt. Alternatively, I have a dream that one day, someone will make an incredible anthology TV show with perfect production design that brings some of these stories to the screen. I think they’re beautiful and lively on the page, but imagine the cinematic possibilities of seeing Fingolfin storming Angband and singlehandedly dueling Morgoth, or Fëanor taking on a whole army of flaming balrogs, or Fingon rescuing his cousin Maedhros from the heights of Thangorodrim. This is the stuff my extremely nerdy dreams are made of.
Do you think a Silmarillion adaptation is even possible? Even if it is, would people want to watch a film or show that is so grand in scope and so entrenched with these weighty questions of life, death, and purpose?
CHRISTIAN: I certainly think an adaptation of The Silmarillion is doable. If you wanted to go the movie route, you could do it in the style of Robert Altman or those New York I Love You/Paris Je T’Aime anthologies, where you have these big ensemble casts and all these little stories nestled in this overreaching arc.
But in this day and age, the best outlet for that kind of anthology storytelling is obviously television. Luckily, we have a contemporary example of a fantasy series that contemplates major socio-political questions alongside gigantic battles with fire-breathing dragons and has achieved enormous popularity. I actually think that The Silmarillion is the Tolkien work most similar to Game of Thrones (so much so that I included it on a list of books to read during the show’s hiatus). They seem to share an attitude towards evil. While Lord of the Rings stands as one of the most black-and-white conflicts in all of fiction, The Silmarillion has a more conflicted attitude. Yes, Morgoth is the font of it all, but does he really do the most evil in the book? What about Fëanor, whose pride and arrogance leads to so much devastation and death? Do the Valar themselves commit evil by abandoning elves and humans to the vagaries of Morgoth for centuries? He was one of the primordial spirits who shaped existence, so don’t we all carry a bit of Morgoth with us? Tolkien even writes that “it seems to the Elves that Men resemble Melkor most of all the Ainur, although he has ever feared and hated them, even those that served him.”
In The Silmarillion, evil is everywhere — and that, more than anything, makes like a recipe for a prestige TV adaptation.
The Silmarillion also depicts a lot of death, and most don’t get a Gandalf-style Get Out of Jail free card here. But the book’s attitude towards death is very interesting. It’s not sexy or exciting, as in Game of Thrones. Instead, death is painful and traumatic — and also, in some ways, a gift. Tolkien’s Elves live forever unless they are manually killed and are often plagued by sorrow and weariness as a result. But humans live only a short time, and that is Ilúvatar’s great gift to us. As Tolkien writes, “Therefore he willed that the hearts of Men should seek beyond the world and should find no rest therein; but they should have a virtue to shape their life, amid the power and chances of the world, and beyond the Music of the Ainur, which is as fate to all things else.”
Contemplating the mysteries of life and death is one of the great pleasures of The Silmarillion, and that’s what will keep me coming back, even with all of its bumps and flaws, and regardless of whether it ever comes to the screen or not.