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Why the Silmarillion?

When I planned a paper around J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythology and told my professor that I wanted to use The Silmarillion as a source, his reaction was one of confusion. Why would I need to use The Silmarillion? Wasn’t The Lord of the Rings enough?

Note to any Tolkien lovers who are about to rise up in arms. This professor is no idiot (some professors are). He likes good literature. He also did not have a prejudice against fantasy as such; in fact, he was quite familiar with The Silmarillion. He just didn’t see the point.

He’s not alone. While Tolkien’s more devoted admirers consider anyone who does not appreciate The Silmarillion a “fake fan,” many of the accused would insist they aren’t fake fans. They are fair-weather fans. And fair weather is a good thing. The sun is nice. Also puffy white clouds, and birds that chirp happily.

So. Paper aside, is The Silmarillion really that important? A short Q&A for the uninitiated might help:

What is The Silmarillion about?

The Silmarillion is the history of Middle Earth up until the beginning of the Fourth Age. It starts out with a creation myth and ends up in heroic legend and, in places, history. It is from an Elvish perspective and mostly concerns events related to the Elves, with the exception of a few humans who became involved in Elvish affairs. Most of those humans are ancestors of Aragorn and Elrond. (Yes, Elrond is in here. So is his twin brother. So are Galadriel and her brother, Finrod.)

Did J.R.R. Tolkien think I should read it?

In a word: yes. Although The Silmarillion as we know it was not published until after his death, Tolkien hoped to publish an earlier version along with The Lord of the Rings. His publishers refused, but Tolkien’s letters reveal that he often had to dip into Silmarillion material in order to answer the questions of people who wrote him. To really understand some things in The Lord of the Rings, you have to know more about the Elves. And you can only find that in The Silmarillion.

Isn’t The Silmarillion boring?

No. But you have to understand how to approach it. A lot of people come to The Silmarillion expecting a second Lord of the Rings. So they end up disappointed. The Silmarillion simply cannot be read as an adventure story. It isn’t one. But if you start out realizing that you are reading a book of mythology, then your perspective changes. Understand what you are getting into and don’t try to rush your reading. Good mythology is meant to linger around in your head.

I feel like I understand The Lord of the Rings. Are there any other reasons to read The Silmarillion?

Yes. If you are into mythology, Tolkien’s mythology is a delight for its own sake. But it also shows the complexity of human (and Elven) nature even more than The Lord of the Rings. Not all Elves are good, and some of the Elves are only good sometimes. Young Elrond and his twin brother are raised by the man who attacked their settlement and kidnapped them. They even have a good relationship. And that’s only the beginning.

I still don’t like The Silmarillion….

Okay. Just so long as you understand why you don’t like it. Mythology isn’t for everyone, and not everyone likes every mythology. That’s fine. But understand—The Silmarillion is mythology. It’s not a second Lord of the Rings. And some of us prefer it that way.

Is there a more interesting book that includes some of the stories from The Silmarillion?

Well, for a general overview, there’s this video. But your best bet, for a real taste, is to try The Children of Húrin. While it’s more depressing than The Silmarillion considered as a whole, it reads more like The Lord of the Rings. It covers the story of Túrin Turambar, which appears more briefly (and with a few conflicting details) in The Silmarillion. If you like flawed heroes and evil dragons, it’s the place to go.

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Posted by on December 22, 2014 in Fantasy

 

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Ten Ways to Annoy a Tolkien Fan

There are more, but these will do for a start.

1. Call The Lord of the Rings a trilogy.

Just so you know—it isn’t. This is an unfortunately common mistake. Someone made it in a book review I was reading today, thus inspiring this post. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings as one book, but it was so long that it was published in three installments. It ain’t a trilogy. It’s a book.

2. Claim that The Lord of the Rings is pro-war.

For starters, there are consistent pacifists, but very few people who would argue the opposite—that all wars are always good. But if you mean that The Lord of the Rings encourages unnecessary warfare, you haven’t been reading it carefully. (Or you just watched the movie….) Faramir basically outlines Tolkien’s philosophy of warfare in The Two Towers. Warfare is sometimes necessary but never desirable.

 3. Argue that The Lord of the Rings is racist.

If you’re worried that Tolkien’s characters have little mercy for evil monsters, all I can say is that you must hate folklore. All the mythologies I can think of have similar monsters, and that includes non-European nations.

4. Whine that people prefer The Lord of the Rings to “true literature.”

It is true literature. And it is part of the reason I went on to read Beowulf in full, along with The Kalevala, Nordic legends, and a book of random Old English poetry. The Lord of the Rings is many things, but it isn’t shallow.

 5. Complain that The Lord of the Rings is too complicated for ordinary people to understand.

This group should get in touch with the folks in #4. Maybe they could find a happy medium somewhere.

6. Argue that The Lord of the Rings is “escapist.”

Philip Pullman earns an F here, I’m afraid. His essay “The Republic of Heaven” shows a remarkable failure to understand Tolkien from someone obviously versed in his writings. Does Tolkien include every aspect of life in his stories? No–but does anyone? This sounds like a rehashing of the debate over whether art imitates life, or the other way around. I’m inclined to answer “yes” when anyone asks that question. In any case, my initial reaction to The Return of the King was a reaction to its darkness. Fluffy Tolkien is not.

7. Fret about the lack of female empowerment in The Lord of the Rings.

If a close study of Galadriel’s character doesn’t help you here, then you’re hopeless. And, honestly, there are some people who can’t enjoy certain kinds of fantasy, including Tolkien’s. That’s fine. If Tolkien repels you, copy C.S. Lewis’s policy in regard to detective stories–don’t comment on what you won’t like anyway.

8. Complain about the lack of empowerment in The Lord of the Rings in general.

Tolkien didn’t write the story to make people feel good. In fact, when asked to suggest a theme for the story, his response was “Death.” Tolkien’s mythology was born, quite literally, in the trenches of World War I. If All Quiet on the Western Front teaches nothing else, it shows that most people involved in that war were not feeling very empowered.

9. Call Frodo a wimp.

Okay, so you love Sam. Great. We do, too. Some of us even like him more than Frodo. But Frodo is not a wimp. By making that assertion, you are making us question whether you have actually read the books. If you haven’t, read them (of course), and in the mean time distinguish between the movie and book versions of Frodo. And be prepared to argue with people who think you missed the point of the movie.

10. Ask why the eagles didn’t carry the Fellowship to Mt. Doom.

Just kidding. Ask away.

 
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Posted by on August 14, 2013 in Fantasy

 

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