The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

This is going to be one of my weirder fantasy book reviews. When I first thought to alternate between classics and fantasy, I assumed that the fantasy stories would have shorter, less academic-sounding reviews than the classics. Now I realize it all depends on the book. The Three Musketeers is a fun high-adventure story, so it got a fun review showcasing its best features. This week we're diving into one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s dense, not-so-popular works. I’ll reflect on my own experience with the book and give helpful tips and strategies for those who want to read it.

Why I Read The Silmarillion:

A little over a year ago, I nagged a friend into giving me a book recommendation. He chose Dies the Fire, the first in S.M. Stirling’s Emberverse series.

So what does that have to do with The Silmarillion?

The series has tons of winks for Tolkien nerds, but my favorite is an eccentric girl named Astrid Larson. At age thirteen, she was already an archer and spoke fluent Sindarin. Traumatic events in the story drive her mind deeper into Middle-earth as a coping mechanism. Basically, everything goes to hell, and she goes bonkers. When they're rebuilding society after the Change, Astrid creates her own mercenary mini-country, the Dúnedain Rangers, where new recruits must learn both Sindarin and sign language. Throughout most of the books I read, Astrid is an entertaining major side character with a religious fanaticism for all things Middle-Earth. To a certain extent, I read The Silmarillion because I wanted to hang out with her just a little longer.

Also, my brother has read The Silmarillion—and he doesn’t read! That’s kind of embarrassing for me as a person who writes high fantasy novels.

The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien Hardback Book | Lydia Sanders #TwistyMustacheReviews


The Silmarillion is the mythic backdrop of Tolkien’s other Middle-earth stories. It is a story of good versus evil, of the creator god Eru versus a fallen Valar named Melkor. However, Eru rarely acts in the story. The book is more about the Valar, elves, men, etc. It charts the rise and fall of Melkor and the seeds of evil that he and his minions sow in the hearts of men and elves.

The book is made up of five major parts:

Ainulindalë - In which the world is created and some of the Ainur enter the physical world to prepare it for the coming of men and elves. In this section, Melkor starts being a bother.

Valaquenta - In which the Valar and Maiar (the Ainur who entered the physical world in the previous section) are described and named. This is more of a footnote or genealogy than a story. By the end of this section, Melkor works his way solidly in the hated enemy category and gets a frightening new moniker.

The Quenta Silmarillion - This is the bulk of the book. It details the rise of Melkor/Morgoth and how he does his best to wreck everything. It includes stories about the wars of the Silmarils, as well as sections of the life stories of major important people. Love stories. Family feuds. Deceits. Battles and other fights. Oaths of vengeance. Movements of large people groups. Curses. Accidental incest. You get the idea: lots of traumatizing stuff happens to lots of people.

Akallabêth - Which covers the rise and fall of the Númenóreans, their temptation by Sauron, and the creation of the Númenor kingdoms in exile.

Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age - This section connects the events of  Akallabêth with The Lord of the Rings. It includes both backstory and a summary of what happens in the LOTR books, so anyone who lives under a rock and doesn’t already know what happens in LOTR should probably read the trilogy first if they don’t want major spoilers.

I read the 2nd edition, which according to the blurb “features a number of minor textual corrections along with a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien describing his intentions for the work.” It also has a bunch of appendix stuff in the back that includes major genealogies, an index of names/mini character profiles, stuff about the languages and pronunciation, and a map.

My Top 7 Tips for Reading The Silmarillion 

Before I ever opened this book, I knew I wasn't the ideal reader. Strong characters and plots are way more interesting to me than setting, and Grandpa Tolkien (as Brandon Sanderson calls him) had a bad case of world-builders’ disease. I’d read The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and a couple of his short stories before, so I was already familiar with the symptoms and thought I was prepared to deal with them. I was wrong. 

Tip #1: Don’t approach this thinking it’s going to be like LOTR. 

The Silmarillion reads more like a mythic or religious text. It's not an epic adventure story that follows one or a few characters. You won’t deeply connect with individual characters so much as get a general feel for the big movements of history, good versus evil, and so on.

 In The Silmarillion, Tolkien uses archaic formal language to elevate the storytelling and give the writing a sense of age. This is way different from something like The Hobbit, which reads like your Brittish grandfather is telling a bedtime story.

As I was reading, I came across parts that reminded me of Biblical stories and Greek mythology. This is no accident. The Wikipedia article on The Silmarillion mentions a bunch of myths and legends that influenced Tolkien’s writing. I am definitely adding those to my Goodreads TBR.

Tip #2: Use the appendix when you’re really confused.

You know those mini character profiles and genealogies in the back? They’re important. In The Silmarillion, Tolkien dumps names on his readers like confetti. Characters and other things may have multiple names, and he uses them interchangeably. He also introduces lots of characters at once, and sometimes their names all start with the same letter.

 Frequently referencing the index of names in the back of the book will help you keep them straight. I didn’t do that. The result is that I read the book faster, and was almost always confused about what was going on. Even just remembering whether a character was an elf, a Valar, or a human was hard sometimes, much less who is related to who and who hates who, and so on. The appendix will help with that.

Tip #3: Don’t feel like you always have to know who’s who and what’s what.

A bunch of things aren’t worth looking up in the appendix because they’re not that important. If a name seems like it’s a throwaway that’s not going to be mentioned again, just keep reading. If something keeps coming up and you can’t remember what it is, look it up.

Tip #4: If you’re still confused, recruit outside help.

Wikipedia has some good summaries that can help keep you from getting lost in all the little details, and since Tolkien has a cult following, there are all kinds of character profiles and stuff online if you need them. Use them. They’ll make your life easier.

Tip #5: Don’t worry about spoilers.

This isn't a unified story with a twisty plot that'll be ruined by spoilers. You’re not likely to fully understand The Silmarillion the first time you read it anyway. It’s more like religious meditation literature that's meant to be read over and over again. If you read a summary before each chapter, especially in The Quenta Silmarillion, you’ll probably like the book better.

Tip #6: Listen to the audiobook, or read it aloud.

If you’re like me and struggle to read big chunks of exposition and description, I would recommend getting a good audio version of The Silmarillion with consistent name pronunciation. Listening to the audiobook while reading the text would probably be even better for reading comprehension.

When I read The Silmarillion, I didn’t have in audiobook form; I had it in hardback. As I was reading, sometimes my eyes would glaze over and I’d catch myself reading the same line over and over again. I had to read aloud to myself to get through most of The Quenta Silmarillion.

Reading aloud might be a sufficient strategy if you’re also following my other tips, but if I ever reread this, it will be in audio form. I just can’t deal with that kind of sore throat again.

On a more positive note, The Silmarillion is sprinkled with lovely descriptive quotes, especially in Ainulindalë and in dark moments of the story. You can tell that Tolkien cared about choosing the right words. Reading the prose in your head doesn’t do it justice.

Tip #7: You don’t have to read the book in chronological order.

Jump around to whatever looks interesting. It’s a bit like reading the Bible—you don’t have to start with the creation story. 

In fact, if you’re already familiar with The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, I recommend reading the last section first. It’ll be more interesting because you already know some of the characters. That part also has less name-dumping and the writing is more approachable in general.

Bottom Line

I don’t consider myself to be a real Tolkien nerd, but after powering through this book, it’s tempting to become one. Like, maybe if I understood Tolkien’s conlangs and how he created the names of things, it would be easier to read and follow the story next time…or maybe that’s just my inner Esperantist whispering sweet little nothings into my non-pointed ears.

It was also nice to see what some of the legendary characters of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit were up to before popping into those stories.

That being said, parts of this book were hella boring. I tended to like everything else better than The Quenta Silmarillion, and within The Quenta Silmarillion, I found the sections named after specific characters to be the most interesting.

I will probably continue to read and reread Tolkien’s work, but I’m not sure that I would read more of his posthumously published stuff.

This book is difficult to rate because it’s really meant to be meditation literature.  I think that if I reread it and rate it again, it’ll probably get a higher rating, just because the names, etc. wouldn’t trip me up as much. For now, I’m going to rate it based on my first readthrough, which puts it at 3/7 twisty mustaches.

I recommend this book for hardcore Tolkien fans—but they really don’t need my recommendations anyway.

So what do you think? Have you read The Silmarillion? Do you want to read The Silmarillion? Are there any other books you'd like me to read and review? Leave a comment below or my hairless ghost lemur will haunt your dreams.

Review of The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien | Lydia Sanders #TwistyMustacheReviews

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