Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Silmarillion!

Our book today is The Silmarillion, compiled in 1977 by Christopher Tolkien from the copious miscellaneous writings his father J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, left behind when he died, writings that tell in more or less coherent narrative form the vast mytho-history of Middle Earth that's hinted at repeatedly in the two famous fantasy novels. Of all Christopher Tolkien's various necrotic vampings on his father's legacy, The Silmarillion comes to the closest to being something the father might actually have published himself had he lived.

It's a deeply, almost unfathomably strange book.

The guiding idea here is that Middle Earth isn't just a slight variation on, say, rural England of the 1890s but rather an entirely separate world with its own history, its own mythology, its own cosmology, and its own theology. In his preface to The Silmarillion, Christopher Tolkien claims that the story as he sets it out existed long, long before The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, contained in hastily-hotted old notebooks (the similarity here to Watson's battered tin dispatch-box is irresistible, and I'm betting those notebooks prove just as inexhaustible) dating back to the earliest years of the 20th century. If this is true, then Tolkien was indeed a trailblazer, since comprehensive ground-up ideological constructions of alternate realities had at that point been almost the sole preserve of science fiction, not fantasy. Certainly even Tolkien couldn't have known the tsunami his new approach would unleash; fantasy novels by far outsell science fiction novels these days, and their most common staple is the sporting of this kind of enormous undergrowth of hyper-detailed background reality. And if you detect a weary note in that, you're right: it seems to me that a very, very large percentage of the fantasy novels written in the last thirty years are a lot prouder of their meticulously-tended background reality than they are of the actual foreground-story they're supposed to be telling. Slavish imitators of Tolkien always see what he was doing, but they almost never see how well he was doing it, and the result is like sitting through somebody's extremely protracted description of a dream they just had.

Not with The Silmarillion, though: it's very, very good reading. And this is perhaps it's strangest quality, because there's no earthly reason it should be good reading. We've talked about the art of pastiche fiction here many times over the years, and we've seen it done on all kinds of templates, from Sherlock Holmes to Star Trek to Buffy the Vampire-Slayer. But The Silmarillion takes the humble art of pastiche fiction to undreamt-of levels, because the book is one long pastiche of nothing less than the King James Bible. Say what you want about Tolkien, but one thing is clear: he had a brass pair of palantir.

As such, it should be as silly and unreadable as the Book of Mormon, but J. R. R. Tolkien is a much better story-teller than Joseph Smith's garrulous angel. The Silmarillion has dull patches (Tolkien is very faithful in his pastiche, and so we learn that a fantasy-version of Deuteronomy isn't any more gripping than the original), as any long book will, but in all it's a fantastic book, populated by characters of such consistent realization that you quickly become grateful that most of Tolkien's major characters are Elves and so functionally immortal - the names gain a weird resonance as page after page - and age after age - go by in hearing them again and again.

But before the Elves, there are the gods: Tolkien (father and then son) begin the book with an account of the creation. There's a pretty little fusion of Christian and pagan right from the start, since there's both a Supreme Being whose the font of everything and a slightly lesser council of divinities who still wield enormous power. And one of those lesser divinities is evil, of course. This Satan is cast out into the realm that will one day be Middle Earth, and over the next several thousand years, this evil one is a recurrent plague to the newborn races of beings - Elves, Men, and Dwarves - who are created by the gods and come to inhabit Middle Earth.

All this mythologizing is grand and done grandly (I know it doesn't sound interesting, but trust me: you won't put the book down), but it's backdrop for the main stories Tolkien wants to tell. The foremost of these is the story of a proud, mighty Elf called Feanor and his proud, violent, fractious, and notorious sons - and the marvellous gems, the silmarils, they forge and hoard - but the real theme of the entire work is almost Homeric: that everything wanes with time. The wars between the evil god and the mightiest of Elves and Men in the first two Ages of Middle Earth are far bigger and more serious than that in the Third Age, between one of the god's lowly lieutenants and the few scattered remnants of Elves and Men still powerful enough to contest his will (only a handful of the Elves are the same in each case - Middle Earth is hazardous to your health). The simarils are far more compelling and beautiful than the Rings of Power in the book readers all know. Elves are more powerful, Men live much longer, even the stars in the sky are brighter.

When you notice this theme and read The Silmarillion with it in mind, the gorgeous melancholy of The Lord of the Rings becomes so clear as to almost break your heart, because it's the story of the end of everything great in the world. After it, there will be good in the world - and perhaps there will be bad - but nothing of either will be great.

Greatness abounds in The Silmarillion, punctuated by giant battle set-pieces that read like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle on mushrooms:

Now the phalanx of the Guard of the King broke through the ranks of the Orcs, and Turgon hewed his way to the side of his brother; and it is told that the meeting of Turgon with Hurin, who stood beside Fingon, was glad in the midst of battle. Then hope was renewed in the hearts of the Elves; and at that very time, in the third hour of morning, the trumpets of Maedhros were heard at last coming up from the east, and the banners of the sons of Feanor assailed the enemy in the rear. Some have said that even then the Eldar might have won the day, had all their hosts proved faithful; for the Orcs wavered, and their onslaught was stayed, and already some were turning to flight. But even as the vanguard of Maedhros came upon the Orcs, Morgoth loosed his last strength, and Angband was emptied. There came wolves, and wolfriders, and there came Balrogs, and dragons, and Glaurung father of dragons. The strength and terror of the Great Worm were now great indeed, and Elves and Men withered before him; and he came between the hosts of Maedhros and Fingon and swept them apart.

There is more, of course, to the Silmarillion than epic battles (although those sequences draw very visible enthusiasm from Tolkien) - there's also adventure, betrayal, internecine strife, cultural folklore, and at least one attempt on Tolkien's part at crafting something largely absent from The Lord of the Rings: an epic love story. This last, the tale of Beren and Luthien, is given its own fair-sized chapter and makes for memorable reading, but Lord of the Rings fans will find it hard not to skip ahead to book's concluding chapter, "On the Rings of Power and the Third Age," in which Tolkien manages a feat unprecedented in fantasy literature: he tells in brief, annalistic form the same story he elsewhere tells in lengthy, narrative form. It's fascinating to read about Halflings and such from a different viewpoint, to read about Curunir and Mithrandir and need to remind yourself that they're Saruman and Gandalf - in short, to find yourself wondering what "There and Back Again" would have read like if it had been written by Elrond.

Not much good can be said of Christopher Tolkien's many, many subsequent dippings into his father's literary notes and jottings, even though 2007's The Children of Hurin was a runaway bestseller. But in fashioning the Silmarillion from those notes and jottings, Christopher Tolkien has given fans of The Lord of the Rings their inestimable second epic, and he's to be thanked for that.


Greg said...

What a fantastic entry! I've always wondered whether or not I should pick this up. I loved The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings of course (I don't think I've ever met anyone who didn't), but his son's name always scared me off. Same with the Dune prequels and sequals, though there I doubt I'm missing anything.

brian said...

Excellent post. I've always been wary of reading this one as well, but will now give it a shot. The only other Tolkien I've read (besides 'The Hobbit' and 'LOTR') was 'Smith of Wootton Major and Farmer Giles of Ham' which I remember being fun.

Kevin said...

I too will now give the book a go. I actually already own it, so that'll save me a trip...

NoKingKong said...

I read Silmarillion when it was first released 30+ years ago, and have had many of the same reactions as neatly described in this review. Thanks.

Thomas said...

It blew my mind that so many people bought The Children of Hurin, since the story is in The Silmarillion and the two are just about as long!

Speaking of Chris Tolkein going to the well, I saw he edited and published yet another book under his father's name: the legend of sigurd and gudrun.

Anybody read that one yet?

Locke Peterseim said...

I remember first reading this when I was 12 or 13, because I loved The Hobbit and LOTR... and then going "What in the Sam Hill is THIS crap?!?! Where's the damn hobbits?!?! Jesus, Elves are BORING!!!"

I'm happy to report, that with each re-reading over the decades, I did grow up a bit and have come to appreciate it more and more... 'Bout due for another run at it one of these days...

Drew said...

Greg, the Dune sequels are quite odd at times, and nowhere near as good as the original book. However, the two prequel trilogies are absolutely stunning. The depth and background created is nothing short of fantastic.

Shawn Burke said...

I might be in the minority, but I love The Silmarillion even MORE than The Hobbit or LOTR. Likely partly because it has more action than the novel version of LOTR, but mainly because I think it is both more emotional and intellectual than LOTR, while retaining the fairy tale like feel of The Hobbit. I also like the fleshing out of things hinted at in the other books. Alot of people say it is a hard read, but I have read it cover to cover twelve times in five years versus twice for The Hobbit and once for LOTR. And as said before, I DO love those books. But The Silmarillion just does it more for me somehow.