Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Silmarillion”: Beginnings

I recently finished reading Corey Olsen’s excellent Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and I was struck by how easy and conversational Olsen managed to be, even while conveying the rich literary tapestry and meanings of this oft-overlooked book. My finishing of his book just happened to coincide with my beginning a re-read of The Silmarillion, so I thought I’d take a stab at providing an in-depth commentary of what in many ways is the work of Tolkien’s heart.

While it is true that The Silmarillion has grown in popularity as the years have progressed, it’s also true that it is still one of the lesser-appreciated parts of Tolkien’s expansive corpus. Part of this is because, for better or worse, it is sometimes difficult to make headway through the elevated diction and because the names (both of individuals and of peoples) are sometimes bewilderingly similar. It’s small wonder that most people begin it but give up before finishing.

To put all of my cards on the table…that was true for me once, too. In fact, I only read The Silmarillion from cover to cover for the first time a few years ago, and while I’m sad that it took me so many years to really appreciate the beauty and the tragedy of this work (both in terms of its composition and in terms of its subject), another part is glad that I waited until I was mature enough to truly appreciate it. While I still have some difficulty keeping the Elvish names straight (including the different tribes), I feel like I have a firm enough grasp on the narrative to be able to offer commentary.

To those who have never read The Silmarillion, I would definitely recommend starting with the Second Edition. This actually contains a letter that Tolkien wrote that sets out the broad outline of the various stories, and it is enormously helpful as a guidepost for which parts of the true touchstones of the story, both narratively and thematically. That way, even if you sometimes get a little lost in the weeds, as it were, you can always refer back to the beginning to get your bearings. While his letter doesn’t detail every part of the ensuing stories, the higher points are addressed.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention how grateful I am to Christopher Tolkien for all of the intellectual labour he put into making sure that this book saw the light of day at all. Tolkien was infamous for continuing to make adjustments to various aspects of his mythology, right up until his death, and I cannot imagine the tremendous amount of effort it took to bring this book into being. Christopher himself admits that he was only able to attain so much consistency, given the state of the record. In my opinion, what he has created for us is nothing short than one of the greatest works of epic myth-making in the modern world.

In the posts that follow, I hope to take a leisurely stroll through the book, beginning with the creation of the Valar and touching down into all of the various tragedies that befall the Elves as they labour through the many ages of the world. For the most part, I’ll keep my commentary rather light and accessible, rather than allowing myself to get lost in the jargon that is so common to literary criticism. Part of what I enjoyed about Olsen’s book was that he managed to speak in a way that was understandable to many different kinds of reader, and I aspire to do the same with this series.

I do hope that you’ll join me as we embark on this extraordinary journey, and that some of you at least share your thoughts with me. If nothing else, I sincerely hope that at the least this series of blog posts will help you find new ways of enjoying and appreciating Tolkien’s The Silmarillion.