Book review: “The Silmarillion” by J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion is one of those books I put on the top top shelf, because I thought it would be way to too hard to slog through (right next to Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Hugo’s Les Miserables). I probably wouldn’t have read it either, unless it came up in a recent read Ten Books that Every Conservative Must Read. Well, not The Silmarillion persay, but its more well-known The Lord of the Rings. The author really hit home that at its core, The Lord of the Rings is more than just a good story. Take this passage about Aragorn:

The entire drive of the third book, The Return of the King, depends on this vision of a great king, a thing of seeming myth that suddenly intrudes into real life to fulfill an age-old prophecy. To reduce him merely to a brave man, as the film does, tarnishes the crowning of the book, the climactic coronation of Aragorn at Gondor…

We live in a democratic age, one that is all too easily tarnished by envy, so that we find it hard to believe that there is extraordinary goodness, courage, and wisdom. This leads us to a fundamentally confused view of kingship: that all kings are tyrants… But remember that Aristotle stated quite soberly that if there were one person, preeminent in virtue, a man of supreme goodness, it would be good for “everyone to obey such a person gladly” as their king. If there were a man like Aragorn, as the book presents him, we should welcome him as king. If you cannot feel that, deep down, then The Lord of the Rings will be entirely lost on you.

An interesting passage, and I would say the whole of The Silmarillion is also feel with such a strangeness, not just because it’s fantasy, but because the whole moral order is different, the way the characters relate to one another, the world, and what they hold sacred. The Silmarillion is a hard read, more intimidating than The Lord of the Rings because it is written more like the Bible than Harry Potter or some other fantasy novel. And more like The Old Testament than the New. It doesn’t have explicit treatises on morals, but the whole world is caught up in a battle between good and evil. Every action is laden heavy with meaning. The very title, The Silmarillion captures the major plot point of the book, the Silmarils, over which fratricide, murder, and wars are fought over:

Then Feanor swore a terrible oath. His seven sons leapt straightway to his side and took the selfsame vow together, and red as blood shone their drawn swords in the glare of the torches. They swore an oath which none shall break, and none should take, by the name of Iluvatar, calling the Everylasting Dark upon them if they kept it not; and Manwe they named in witness, and Varda, and the hallowed mountain of Tanequetil, vowing to pursue with vengeance and hatred to the ends of the World Vala Demon, Elf or Man as yet unborn, or any creature, great or small, good or evil, that time should bring forth unto the end of days, whoso should hold or take or keep a Silmaril from their possession.

One concept that arises over and over in The Silmarillion is doom. More than just Mount Doom too. It doesn’t necessarily mean coming to an awful end– but it does mean that quite a bit too. But from my reading, it seems to indicate fate or destiny. Some characters are particularly attuned to it, such as the queen of Doriath, Melian:

But Melian looked in her eyes and read the doom that was written there, and turned away; for she knew that a parting beyond the end of the world had come between them, and no grief of loss had been heavier than the grief of Melian the Maia in that hour.

The fact that doom features so prominently in The Silmarillion surprised me. It reminded me of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ comparison of the fatalistic sense of prophecy in Greek literature with the Judeo-Christian sense of prophecy, which is more warning and call to repentance:

Two ideas rescue the biblical idea of justice from tragedy. The first is repentance. Whatever wrong we have done, we can redeem, either by restitution or remorse, preferably both. The second is forgiveness. God does not condemn us for the evil we do if we openly and candidly admit the evil we have done. David sins. Confronted by the prophet Nathan he acknowledges his sin, and is forgiven. Repentance expresses the freedom of the sinner, forgiveness the freedom of the sinned-against. Between them they constitute the biblical refutation of tragedy. No evil decree cannot be rescinded. There is no inexorable fate. That is the difference between a Greek oracle and a biblical prophet. An oracle predicts; a prophet warns. If a prediction comes to pass, it has succeeded. If a prophecy comes to pass, it has failed. That is why the prophets were agents of hope. The future they foresaw was neither inescapable nor final. For every sin there was atonement, for every exile a return.

I know The Lord of the Rings isn’t meant to be a Christian book either, but the author was a devout Catholic. I wonder if anyone has done any analysis of doom in The Lord of the Rings universe?

Imagine trying to understand our governments, our institutions, our way of life, at least in the West, without having read the Bible, or Shakespeare. Perhaps that isn’t the best example. But that’s kind of what it’s like trying to read Lord of the Rings without reading The Silmarillion. You find interactions between characters that don’t make sense, underlying expectations you don’t pick up on, names invoked you don’t know, and allusions you don’t pick up on. It’s still a really good story by itself. But if you read The Silmarillion, there’s a lot of stuff that kind of went over your head. Things like:

  • Where did Gandalf come from? What is he?
  • What’s that whole thing with kings and stewards going on in Gondor? When did that happen?
  • Why are those eagles showing up randomly?
  • Why was there one ring to rule them all? What was with that opening scene?
  • Where did Sauron come from?
  • Why are there elves randomly in Rivendell so far away from all the other elves?
  • Why does everyone want to sail off into the west at the end so suddenly? Why the rush?

It’s been awhile, and maybe there are clues in the text to pick up on these by themselves. But The Silmarillion fills you in on all these backstory. They give you some tidbits in flashbacks in the original three movies, and they gave even more in The Hobbit adaptation, but the history of Middle Earth extends much further back.

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