It is Tolkien Reading Day, after all.
Discounting all the various stories and unfinished tales that have popped up in the decades since his death, J.R.R. Tolkien produced three major works about Middle-Earth: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings (or LOTR), and The Silmarillion.
The last of these, Tolkien’s lifelong magnum opus, remained unfinished at the time of his death, and was posthumously assembled into a semi-coherent whole by his son Christopher. Three Hobbit movies later, it is also the only major work of Tolkien’s legendarium that remains unfilmed. This is understandable: The Silmarillion features so many different characters and events that it would probably work better as an anthology of short films than as a long epic. But since March 25 is Tolkien Reading Day (aka the greatest fake Internet holiday of all), the absence of a Silmarillion film is irrelevant. All we have is the book, and the book is very much worth reading. Here’s why.
Franchises rule everything around us
These days, the biggest fad in pop culture is trying to build a complex mythology around any and every franchise you can find. Inter-movie continuity has grown beyond Marvel superheroes to everything from Ghostbusters to old Universal monster movies.
But The Silmarillion did it first, and best. The Silmarillion explains not only the backstories of characters like Sauron and Elrond, it begins with the origin of Middle-Earth itself. Tolkien actually wrote most of it before starting LOTR, which gives it a unique resonance. Most prequels reek of a desperate attempt to connect events to the original work, but Tolkien did it the other way. The characters in LOTR are shadows of The Silmarillion, not the other way around. Sauron is a protégé of the first Dark Lord Melkor, the monstrous spider Shelob is a child of primordial dark spirit Ungoliant, and the forbidden romance between Aragorn and Arwen is an echo of their ancestors Beren and Luthien.
At the same time, there are some inconsistencies in continuity. Tolkien was a stickler for detail, but he died before he could iron out all the kinks in his mythology. This left his son with the unenviable task of patching together notes and writings from over decades. But Tolkien also purposefully left some holes open in the mythology (none of us will ever know exactly what the deal is with Tom Bombadil), which, like the earliest Star Wars films, creates the exciting atmosphere of an open, unknowable universe.
The massive ambition and mythic scope
The Silmarillion’s imperfection is actually one of the most interesting things about it. This work was reaching for something a little grander and more ineffable than LOTR. Here we get back to The Silmarillion being unfilmable. Tolkien’s attempt to tell the whole prehistory of a universe in one book means that he never stays with the same set of characters for long. LOTR is packed with all kinds of characters and locales, but the same nine-man fellowship keeps it easy to follow. The Silmarillion, by contrast, starts with God (Illuvatar) and his angels (the Valar) creating Middle-Earth, follows their conflict with the renegade Melkor, and then describes Melkor’s various battles with the elves of Middle-Earth over the following centuries. Multiple generations of elves pop up, and their names blur together in 100 Years of Solitude style: Feanor and Fingolfin and Finrod and Finarfin and so on. This can get confusing, especially since the book can devolve into family trees for pages at a time, but also lends The Silmarillion a mythic scale. Perhaps Tolkien’s biggest theme is how people and places come and go. Nothing lasts forever except that the same old battle against the eternal darkness. The war of LOTR may seem apocalyptic, but Middle-Earth has gone through several such convulsions before.
World myth gets filtered through a unique perspective
The Silmarillion doesn’t just contain echoes of LOTR, but also of other world mythologies. After all, Tolkien’s vision for the Middle-Earth saga was to create an Ur-myth for England, so it follows that he would try to explain most other iconic pieces of folklore. Melkor was the greatest of the Valar, but his ambition gets ahead of him and he starts to think of himself as a creator on par with God himself. His rebellion against Illuvatar thus resembles the fall of Lucifer from Paradise Lost, down to his demonic name change (from Melkor to Morgoth) and later temptation of men and elves into the same rebellious streak. One of those elves, Feanor, leads his own rebellion and escape from the land of the Valar. He ends up killing some fellow elves. For this blood crime, he and his kindred are cursed like Cain. Mandos, lord of the dead, dooms them to “grow weary of the world as with a great burden, and shall wane, and become as shadows of regret before the younger race that cometh after,” a fate that haunts the elves all the way through LOTR. The later part of The Silmarillion deals with Numenor, a beautiful island city of men blessed with long life and superb talents. The only rule is that they can never visit the land of the Valar. Melkor is gone by this point, but his follower Sauron infiltrates Numenor and slowly convinces the kings to betray the Valar and worship Melkor. Illuvatar’s wrath is so great that he literally changes the world, sinking Numenor into the sea like Atlantis – though one squadron of loyal men, led by Elendil, escapes this flood on a suspiciously Ark-like ship.
It can be vivid when it focuses
Despite its grandeur, The Silmarillion can be incredibly sharp when it focuses on a singular story or group of characters. The tale of Beren and Luthien’s forbidden romance, for one, is riveting. For anyone whose main experience of LOTR recently has been the Peter Jackson movies, it also contains reminders of how beautiful a writer Tolkien could be. Here, for example, is how he describes the initial love-at-first-sight encounter between the elf and man: “But as she looked on him, doom fell on her, and she loved him; yet she slipped from his arms and vanished from his sight even as the day was breaking. Then Beren lay upon the ground in a swoon, as one slain at once by bliss and grief; and he fell into a sleep as it were into an abyss of shadow, and waking he was cold as stone, and his heart barren and forsaken.”
Similar transcendent passages punctuate the stories of Turin Turambar, the man who wields a cursed black sword and fights the first dragon, and Earendil, the elf who travels to heaven in a desperate attempt to seek the divine help against Morgoth.
The sadness of the world
The beauty of the Shire can be rather deceiving; life in Middle-Earth is actually pretty tough. In LOTR, most of the noble kingdoms are crumbling into ruin from neglect and indifference, allowing Sauron’s power to grow. This isn’t too different from the history of Middle-Earth as seen in The Silmarillion, where men and elves are constantly struggling against the outer darkness. Occasionally glorious kingdoms like Doriath or Gondolin will pop up, but they all fall eventually, returning the world to chaos. In more philosophical passages, Tolkien refers to “the weariness of the world.” The earth, in other words, is so full of struggle and hardship that it bogs down everyone eventually. All you can hope for are brief respites.
This is what makes human mortality so special in Middle-Earth. They don’t have to witness the same struggles over and over, like the immortal elves. They get their time, and then they’re done. The elves vainly try explaining to the jealous Numenoreans that their fear of death is only a fear of the unknown, a trick of the devil: “the Doom of Men, that they should depart, was at first a gift of Iluvatar. It became a grief to them only because coming under the shadow of Morgoth it seemed to them that they were surrounded by a great darkness, of which they were afraid; and some grew willful and proud and would not yield, until life was reft from them. We who bear the ever-mounting burden of the years do not clearly understand this; but if that grief has returned to trouble you, as you say, then we fear that the Shadow arises once more and grows again in your hearts.”
This philosophy, which almost resembles Martin Heidegger’s idea of being-toward-death, represents a beautiful underpinning of the Middle-Earth mythology, and one that often gets lost in the giant battle sequences of the Jackson movies. Like the rest of The Silmarillion, it makes Tolkien’s other work even richer.