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I heard someone say recently that for J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings* was a happy accident. For decades Tolkien had been working on the mythopoeic saga of a world war fought over three powerful jewels–but when he submitted a draft after the success of The Hobbit*, his publishers rejected it as being “too Celtic.” As a result, Tolkien began working on “a new story about Hobbits,” which became The Lord of the Rings.
But that wasn’t the end of his mythic darling. Tolkien, perfectionist that he was, never finished it in his lifetime, but his son Christopher did. Or, at least, he compiled his father’s writings into a majestic narrative, one that adds even greater depth to his more popular works: The Silmarillion*.
My copy of The Silmarillion is fifteen years old this year, and it’s looking its age. It had been years since I last read it, but back in October I picked it up, inspired by several podcasts I’d listened to about Tolkien as well as the Tolkien biopic (which I reviewed here).
To my surprise, itproved more theologically-rich than I remembered. Maybe it’s because I know more about Tolkien now, and I see more clearly what he was doing. Or maybe I’m like Lucy Pevensie in Prince Caspian: every year I grow, I find “Aslan” even bigger in everything I read and watch.
Except in The Silmarillion, “Aslan” doesn’t go by that name. He is Eru Ilúvatar, the omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent Creator of Middle-Earth.
The Silmarillion* is, in many ways, Tolkien’s theodicy. It is the story of how Melkor, one of the powerful Valar (Archangels), rebelled against Ilúvatar’s Great Music. But it is also the story of how Ilúvatar proves to him that:
…thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any altar the music in my despite. For he that attempted this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined. [emphasis mine]
Contrary to popular opinion, Melkor, not Sauron, is the Satan-figure of Tolkien’s legendarium. Sauron is only a servant of Melkor, who, under the later name of Morgoth, sows discord and darkness among Elves, Men, and Dwarves. When Feanor, a passionate Elf-lord, creates the three beautiful Silmarils, Morgoth ensnares him and his people in a war of jealousy, lust, and fury. Before long the Elves are killing each other, Men worship Morgoth, and Orcs and dragons swarm through Middle-Earth.
And yet–and yet!–remnants are preserved. The call of Valinor, the Blessed Realm in the West, still reaches many hearts. As one of the first Men, Beor, tells the Elves:
A darkness lies behind us, and we have turned our backs upon it, and we do not desire to return thither even in thought. Westwards our hearts have been turned, and we believe that there we shall find Light.
Beor has never seen Valinor–yet he yearns for it. This longing for home permeates The Silmarillion*. The Elves who left Valinor in anger soon grow sad and homesick; the Men who’ve never seen it ache for it.
“Certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy earth,” wrote Tolkien in one of his many letters to his son Christopher. “We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of exile.”
Through the homesickness, though, there is joy. In spite of the Elven Kinslaying, or the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, or the tragedy of Turin Turambar, or the Fall of Gondolin, there are…
yet some [tales] in which amid weeping there is joy, and under the shadow of death [a] light that endures.
The Tale of Beren and Luthien, a heroic Man and an Elven princess, leads to the story of Tuor and Idril, another romantic Man/Elf pairing. These love matches bring together their estranged races and eventually produce one of Middle-Earth’s greatest heroes: Eärendil, who makes the dangerous journey to Valinor and appeals to the Valar for help. His bravery leads to the Chaining of Morgoth, while Eärendil himself is rewarded with an eternal voyage through the heavens, bearing the last surviving Silmaril aboard his star-trekking ship.
In The Lord of the Rings, Galadriel gives Frodo a phial containing the light from Eärendil’s ship…which is, of course, the light of the Silmaril…which contains in its own turn the holy light of the Trees of Valinor. Eärendil’s ship is also most likely the star Sam spots in Mordor, the star which reminds him that there is a “light and a high beauty which no Shadow can touch.”The Silmarillion* is not for the faint of heart: it reads more like Beowulf or The Iliad (minus the poetry) than The Lord of the Rings. That said, it is a deeply Christian work whose influence can be seen even in Peter Jackson’s cinematic trilogy.When I hear Gandalf tell Frodo in the Mines of Moria, “You were meant to have the Ring,” I remember: Ilúvatar planned this at the beginning of the world, in the Ainulindalë! When I watch Frodo hold the Phial of Galadriel in Shelob’s Lair and hear him invoke the Valar, I think: That’s the light of a Silmaril–and the very light of the Blessed Realm!
So yes, The Silmarillion is a weighty work–but it is a thing of beauty and will deepen your Lord of the Rings experience, whether you’ve read the books or just seen the movies. Read it, and you, too, may find yourself “wander[ing] ever westward,” heeding the rumor that “in the West there [is] a light which the Shadow [cannot] dim.”
12 thoughts on “Book Review: The Silmarillion”
I loved this review, Maribeth!! The Silmarillion is to me such a rewarding book to read – despite how daunting it can seem when first beginning, the echoes of the stories told in it can be found all throughout The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit (both the books AND the films). And I personally find it so thrilling to notice the moments where seemingly simple interactions and references turn out to be so much more, but can only be understood in that way by those who have spent the time digging deep into the lore of Middle-earth. This is actually one reason why I still love The Hobbit films, despite the liberties taken with them – Gandalf’s explicit reference to the Valar when calling on their strength in Dol-Gudor, and Legolas’s reference to Gondolin when examining Thorin’s elvin blade make my Tolkien nerd heart so happy. 😄
And THANK YOU for pointing out the real “Satan figure” in the Middle-earth Legendarium is Melkor/Morgoth, and not Sauron!! I’ve had to restrain myself SO many times in conversations or in the comments of articles examining LOTR from a Christian perspective for fear of being “That Nerd” who takes everything way too seriously and ends up coming off as a snob.
(Though I must admit, I may not have been quite so self-controlled when I encountered the claims that Gandalf is supposed to be a stand-in for Christ… 😛🙃)
Again, I really enjoyed this blog post!! Thanks for writing and sharing it with us; I’m hoping to be (finally!) publishing some new things on my blog soon, too, specifically on the idea of stories being “safe” – so if you’re interested, you might want to look for that. 😊
So thrilled you liked the post, Shay! It was one of the most personally rewarding reviews I’ve written, so I’m glad it resonated with you 🙂 And YES, I agree about the Hobbit films! I’m watching LOTR with one of my youngest sisters right now (it’s her first time seeing them), but I’m quite excited about getting to the Hobbit movies with her: I haven’t seen them in a long time and I look forward to revisiting Peter Jackson’s homages to The Silmarillion.
(*snickers over the Melkor/Morgoth controversy*) Honestly, I think sometimes we just have to take the risk of being “The Nerd,” especially where things with Major Theological Implications are concerned. I mean, when you realize that Sauron is actually a servant of the Greatest Enemy, that really puts the events of LOTR in perspective. And yeah, I agree–Gandalf isn’t a stand-in for Christ, especially if you’re comparing him to, say, Aslan. He may have some characteristics and similarities to Christ, but so does Aragorn. (In fact, I’d argue that Aragorn is more of a Christ-figure than Gandalf, but that’s another topic for another time…)
Oh wow, really looking forward to those new posts on your blog! I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled 😉
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It is strange to come across a book review so well written for someone who also loves it. Congratulations Maribeth!
Thank you so much! I’m glad you enjoyed the review!
Fantastic review, Maribeth! This made me so much more excited for when I finally get to read The Silmarillion. 🙂
Thank you so much, Amelie! The Silmarillion is a wonderful book–and as I’m re-watching all the Tolkien movies, I’ve found that having just re-read The Silmarillion has made the Hobbit movies ten times more enjoyable! Peter Jackson crammed as many awesome references to The Silmarillion as he could into those films, haha!
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Oh, that sounds great! I’ll have to rewatch those movies after I read The Silmarillion and see if I can pick out some of those references!
The version I read had Morgoth (I just had to look it up, same character, I know Tolkien had so many iterations of his works and his son had to sort through them). After I read it ages ago, whenever people spoke of Sauron, I’d think/say, oh but he was only Morgoth’s servant. I really need to read this again, but I didn’t know until last year that it was his real life’s work, and I’m so sad he didn’t get to really finish it like he truly wanted it, it would have been epic, his world-building is just incredible (I’m more into the Hobbit as a story rather than all the epics, but I love his world building). And Too Celtic my eye (I bet those publishers wanted yet MORE Greek and Rome or something), that is the best, there isn’t enough celtic. I want to read Celtic mythology, I’d recommend Faeries of the Celtic Lands for a start, it mentions the “real” faeries were what Tolkien got his elves from. I definitely see his inspiration, it was thrilling to learn that.
Yes, Morgoth was Melkor’s name after his “fall from grace.” And yes, people often think Sauron is the main villain of the Middle Earth Legendarium, but in fact he’s only a subordinate! It’s all very interesting and deeply theological.
I haven’t dug into it in any kind of depth – life was too full back then, and now has no spare energy (because I’m writing with very little brain) – but you make me want to revisit.
But not casually, so it will have to wait.
I never thought of it as a thing of its own, but only as a compendium of bits and pieces, and lost interest in the form. I see that I missed a lot, but they WERE very crowded years, and the science took all of it.
Yeah, I don’t think you can “casually” take on anything Tolkien wrote, haha! Everything he penned is so rich and complex, and often heavy. Emphasis on the word “rich,” though. The Silmarillion is like eating a multi-course feast.
I remember that the second time I read about the Battle of Helms Deep I got an entirely different mental picture than the first, and of course it was different from the movie.
I also got through Lucifer’s Hammer almost 3/4 of the way the second time before realizing that particular set of plot points was improbable in two different books, so I had to be reading the same one (cannibals and insulin).
When you read a lot over long periods of time, it can happen.
I’m sure I’d get an entirely different picture of the Silmarillion if I read it again. Almost a different person reading now, many years later (I read the original LotR around 1971!).