Why you should read J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion

Why you should read J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion

In 1977, four years after author J.R.R. Tolkien’s death, his son Christopher completed and published his father’s most ambitious and sprawling book: The Silmarillion. Part Lord of the Rings backstory, part winding heroic epic, and part trippy meditation on the creation of the universe, The Silmarillion is a deeply weird and notoriously difficult-to-read saga. The prose is regal, the scale is enormous, and the plot (if you can even say that there’s a central plot) includes true love, backstabbing, accidental incest, gods, demons, the fate of the entire world, and three shining jewels known as the Silmarils.

It’s odd. It’s dense. It has dozens of characters with virtually identical names.

It’s also a profoundly beautiful and rewarding read.

Friday marked the 40th anniversary of the book’s publication, and to celebrate, two of EW’s biggest Tolkien nerds, Christian Holub and Devan Coggan, teamed up to reflect on (and geek out about) the wonderful weirdness of The Silmarillion.

CHRISTIAN HOLUB: We’ve hit the 40th anniversary of The Silmarillion, perhaps the most misunderstood of Tolkien’s major works and certainly the only one never made into a movie by Peter Jackson. Devan, you and I are big fans of this book, but there seems to be a divide between hardcore Tolkien fans who adore it and general readers who are more skeptical of all the cosmic mumbo-jumbo. Devan, why do you think that divide exists and how did you first come to read The Silmarillion despite its challenging reputation?

DEVAN COGGAN: I think my first experience with The Silmarillion was pretty par for the course. When I was a kid, my father read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings aloud to me, and I immediately fell in love with the expansive, intricate world that Tolkien created. Elves, dwarves, hobbits, dragons, orcs, wights… Middle-earth had a richness I had never experienced before. (I used The Annotated Hobbit to teach myself how to write in Dwarvish runes at age 9, which should tell you everything you need to know about 9-year-old me and how many sports I played.) As I got older and became even more obsessed, I picked up The Silmarillion because: a) I adored Tolkien and b) I wanted more stories set in the world that I loved so much.

And, to my surprise, I couldn’t get into it. I knew going in that unlike The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion was structured not as a single narrative but as a collection of tales, telling the story of the world all the way from its creation up to the events of The Hobbit. (Heavy stuff.) It’s been compared to a textbook, and for good reason: Tolkien was notoriously meticulous about his use of language and geography, and as a result, parts of The Silmarillion can read a bit like an ancient history book, albeit one with glowing trees and werewolves and giant spiders. I zoned out before I even got to the good stuff.

I revisited The Silmarillion years later, and this time, I found it an easier read (partly because I was so determined to finally finish it). I still get some of the names confused — looking at you, Finrod, Fingon, Fingolfin, and Finarfin — but now, I’ve come to appreciate it not as a supplement to The Lord of the Rings but as a sort of sacred text of its own. The sheer scale and detail is breathtaking, and The Silmarillion has a sense of epicness that makes it a bit like reading a book of ancient myths — all gods and monsters, love and death, triumph and tragedy.

What about you, Christian? How does The Silmarillion’s reputation compare to your own experience reading it?

CHRISTIAN: Aside from the Dwarvish runes (how have you never told me that?), your experience with The Silmarillion sounds pretty similar to mine. I got really into The Lord of the Rings in early elementary school, and it was the first long, “adult” book I remember finishing. I was hungry for more, so eventually, my dad (who first got me into Tolkien) gave me his copy of The Silmarillion, even though he had never really finished it himself. In a not-so-surprising twist, my young brain was turned off almost right away. An intricate, nigh-biblical telling of the origin of the cosmos was not quite the fantasy action I wanted. So I shelved it away for years.

Then, a few years ago, I finally returned to The Silmarillion. It may have been inspired by The Hobbit movies, which I found mostly annoying except for the scenes with the White Council (Saruman, Gandalf, Galadriel, and Elrond). Their discussions and adventures, going on in the background of those movies, hinted at the greater Middle-earth mythology and reminded me how much I didn’t know. Also, there was a rather convincing fan theory going around at the time that the Arkenstone (those movies’ big MacGuffin) was a Silmaril. That interested me enough to check out The Silmarillion again, at which point I realized that this book is actually extremely my ish.

One important thing to know about this book is how different it is from both of its famous siblings, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Unlike those, The Silmarillion is not an adventure story Tolkien wrote as a bedtime story for his kids or an epic fantasy he could read aloud to his university students. It’s meant to be a comprehensive atlas of this big mythology that was bubbling in Tolkien’s brain for his entire life, and it’s also unfortunately incomplete — it took Tolkien’s son Christopher decades after his father’s death to piece the manuscripts together in a comprehensible order (a lifelong process Christopher showcases in detail in his recent book-length treatment of Beren and Lúthien, if anyone out there is interested).

But for all that, the imaginative scope of The Silmarillion is something to behold. Tolkien loved to build worlds, and early on he discusses his cosmic pantheon in depth. The Valar’s basic structure should be familiar to any student of mythology: Manwe the sky god is the leader, his wife Varda is queen of the stars, Ulmo controls the sea, Yavanna grows green, Aule builds things, Mandos is lord of the dead, Melkor is the fallen angel who turned against his kin, etc. But they each have rather unique personalities, and there are also some figures among them that indicate Tolkien’s deepest beliefs. My favorite Valar, for instance, is Nienna — basically the goddess of grief. As Tolkien writes, “she is acquainted in grief, and mourns for every wound that Arda (Earth) has suffered in the marring of Melkor.” But for Tolkien, coming to terms with the sadness of life is actually empowering: “all those who wait in Mandos cry to her, for she brings strength to the spirit and turns sorrow to wisdom.” Man, I love that.

Do you have a favorite Valar? What personalities make The Silmarillion and all its mythology actually come alive for you?

DEVAN: Why is introducing your kids to Tolkien such a dad thing? Shoutout to Tolkien Dads everywhere, exposing their kids to orcs and dragons and heavy questions about power/corruption at way too young an age.

For me, the Valar are one of the aspects that give The Silmarillion its epic scope. They’re a bit like the Greek gods, sitting high atop Mt. Olympus, but the Valar are better behaved and less likely to get in trouble by having sex with people/animals they’re not supposed to. Personally, I’ve always been a fan of Varda, the Lady of the Stars, who is mentioned by name in The Lord of the Rings. The Elves adore her and refer to her as Elbereth and Gilthoniel, and it’s her name that Frodo invokes to help drive away the Ringwraiths at Weathertop. If Melkor is filled with darkness and hatred, Varda is his pure opposite: all radiance and light, the being who created the stars and brought light to world. In fact, one of my favorite lines in The Silmarillion describes how long before the world was born, Varda recognized the darkness in Melkor’s heart and “rejected him, and he hated her, and feared her more than all others whom Eru made.” Tolkien isn’t clear on whether that rejection was more of a general denouncing or a true romantic rejection, but either way, I’m very here for the badass star lady made of pure light who literally rejected Satan (who is now totally terrified of her).

But if we’re talking actual favorite personalities in The Silmarillion, things don’t really get good until the Elves show up. In The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the Elves are generally portrayed as wise and regal, if occasionally a little snooty. In The Silmarillion, the Elves are a mess. They are the first beings brought into the world, and they are a bit like children — literally, they’re referred to as the Children of Ilúvatar — who the Valar have to teach how to walk.

Most of The Silmarillion concerns the fate of the three Silmarils, three perfect jewels that shine with pure, radiant light. The three Silmarils were crafted by a particularly proud and noble elf named Fëanor, and they immediately became the great treasure of the Elves. That is until Melkor stole them, killed Fëanor’s dad, and ran away to Middle-earth. (He was soon renamed Morgoth because he was so evil he needed an equally evil name.) Fëanor is understandably pissed, but instead of listening to the Valar and being rational, he and his seven sons swear an unbreakable oath to retrieve the Silmarils at any cost. If anyone, friend or foe, comes between them and a Silmaril, they will show no mercy. Fëanor’s oath essentially drives the rest of the book, pitting Elf against Elf (and Man and Morgoth and pretty much anyone else who gets in the way).

The story of the Silmarils features heavily in my personal favorite part of The Silmarillion (and one of Tolkien’s most popular stories): the tale of Beren and Lúthien, which you mentioned. Beren was a mortal man and an outlaw, Lúthien was an elf-maiden, and together, they fell deeply and irreversibly in love. Sound familiar? That’s because everyone in The Lord of the Rings won’t stop talking about how Aragorn and Arwen are basically Beren and Lúthien 2.0, as Lúthien is the only elf to give up her immortality and choose to live a mortal life with the person she loves. It’s romantic as hell. It’s also inspired by Tolkien’s real-life relationship with his beloved wife Edith, and their tombstones are each engraved with the names Beren and Lúthien. Again, romantic as hell.

Essentially, the two fall madly in love, but in order for Beren to earn the hand of his beloved, Lúthien’s father tells him that he has to go fight Morgoth and come back with a Silmaril in his hand. You know, a normal thing for a father-in-law to ask. So begins an epic tale of werewolves, vampires, disguises, double-crossing, resurrection, jealousy, and a heroic dog who can only speak three times in his life. It also involves the funniest moment in the entire book, where Beren comes back to Lúthien’s dad and says, “Yeah, I have the Silmaril in my hand. Granted, a werewolf bit off my hand, and now both it and the Silmaril are in the belly of the aforementioned werewolf, but… STILL COUNTS.”

What about you? Are you as into Beren and Lúthien as I am, or do you have a different favorite?
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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. The elf 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.

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.