The Silmarillion - J.R.R. Tolkien, Martin Shaw As I've just finished listening to the audiobook version of The Silmarillion, I thought to take this opportunity to review this volume of Tolkien's posthumously published works (which I first read 30 years ago). I'll be posting this review here and with the hardcopy version of the book.

First off, specific to the audiobook: Martin Shaw does an excellent job of reading. The only quibble I have is the opening and closing musical interludes, which seem superfluous and don't really add anything to the experience.

Listening to the work, rather than reading it, I was forced to hear every word. In the past, having read and reread the book so many times, I would skip over sections because I "knew" what was there. It turns out that I had forgotten much detail, and I was once again reminded of how much telling detail Tolkien can pack into a paragraph or two. An example of this occurs near the end of the book when Tolkien describes the battle between the Last Alliance and Sauron on the Dagorlad: "Of the Dwarves few fought upon either side; but the kindred of Durin of Moria fought against Sauron." (p. 294) How many casual readers would catch the implications of this? Dwarves fighting for Sauron! Who were they? From what mansion? Were there Dwarves in Sauron's armies during the War of the Ring?

Another example occurs in Chapter 2 of the "Quenta Silmarillion" - "Of Aule and Yavanna." In four pages not only are the Dwarves created but also the Ents. A careless reader, though, might miss that latter incident. (pp. 43-46)

If you've read and enjoyed The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, it's a crap shoot on whether or not you'll appreciate The Silmarillion as it is a book of an entirely different species. The closest equivalent would be one of those compilations of Nordic myth or Icelandic sagas - it's a collection of the stories told around the hearth fires of the Numenoreans and her successor kingdoms in Middle Earth. (In one of the later volumes of The History of Middle Earth, Tolkien explicitly writes that these Tales are the lore passed down by Men as best they understood what they received from the Elves, who, in turn, had received much from the Valar.)

Though I was only ten at the time, I had already read the trilogy and was transported when my father bought The Silmarillion for me. It was exactly the kind of information I was craving - the background and histories of the story I had read. Even at that tender age, my favorite section of The Return of the King was the last third of the book - the appendices. I think also, The Silmarillion sparked a life-long interest in linguistics and language as it included a frustratingly small section called "Appendix: Elements in Quenya and Sindarin Names" and I would spend happy hours whiling away the time making up my own names.

To the book itself, however: The bulk is taken up with the "Quenta Silmarillion," the history of the War of the Jewels when the High Elves followed Morgoth back to Middle Earth to wrest from him the silmarilli, which he had stolen. It's preceded by a creation myth (the "Ainulindale") and the "Valaquenta," which recounts how the Valar prepared Arda (the World) for the coming of Elves and Men, and Morgoth's relentless efforts to thwart them. The final two sections tell of the Downfall of Numenor (the Second Age) and the Third Age up to the War of the Ring (which brings us to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings).

Tolkien loathed the subject whenever it came up, but it's clear that Christian theology and myth undergird much of Middle Earth's. In "Ainulindale," - "The Music of the Ainur" - we learn that Eru Iluvatar (All Father) created the Ainur - the Valar and their lesser cousins the Maiar - and he caused them to make a great music wherein they saw the creation and unfolding of the World (Arda). Now the most powerful of the Ainur was Melkor, who would later be named Morgoth, The Black Enemy, by the Elves, and he burned with the desire to create worlds and life just as Eru did. His envy and desire poison the original Music just as it will the World when it's actually created; and, just as in Abrahamic myth, an eternal war between Good and Evil results.

The "Valaquenta" recounts the efforts of the good Valar and Maiar to prepare Arda for the coming of the Elves and Men. It culminates in an apocalyptic battle that ends with Melkor's imprisonment soon after the first Elves wake up on the shores of Cuivienen in the East of Middle Earth. (Men would not awaken for many years yet.) It's too late, however. The entire fabric of Arda has been infected with Melkor's despite so that even the most virtuous actions carry the seeds of tragedy. Thus, the Valar invite the Elves to repair to their home in Valinor in the far West so that they can teach the First Children and protect them from the evil creatures left over from Melkor's freedom. Eventually, that action leads to rebellion, civil war and exile of a large part of the Elves to Middle Earth (in The Lord of the Rings, Galadriel is the last of these High Elven lords to linger in Middle Earth).

As I mentioned, the bulk of the book is concerned with the actions of these exiled Elves in Middle Earth, who have returned to take back the silmarils that Feanor created. Feanor ("spirit of fire") was the most powerful Elf who ever lived. He created three gems (the silmarils) that captured the holy light of the Two Trees (Telperion and Laurelin), which gave light to the Valinor before the Sun and the Moon were made. As you may gather from this enormously compressed synopsis, Tolkien is creating a complex mythology that I won't even begin to elaborate further. Suffice it to say that Melkor weasels his way out of captivity; foments rebellion amongst the Elves; steals the silmarils, killing the Two Trees in the process; and escapes back to Middle Earth pursued by Feanor and the High Elves, who have committed the sin of kinslaying in the fever of their rage and incurred the wrath of the Valar.

Here the interested can read of the three foundation myths of Tolkien's world: "The Fall of Gondolin," "Beren and Luthien," and "The Tale of Turin Turambar." The latter has recently been recast and published as The Children of Hurin. Of the three, my favorite is "Beren and Luthien." Here we have the seeds of an exciting, epic quest for the sake of love (the Sindarin High King Elu Thingol will not allow his daughter, Luthien, to marry Beren until he takes a silmaril from the Iron Crown of Morgoth) and probably the only relatively fully rounded female character Tolkien ever created - Luthien Tinuviel (of whom Arwen Undomiel in The Lord of the Rings is a very pale reflection).

Of the many faults one may find in Tolkien's writing (and there are some, I'll admit), the dearth of female characters can be numbered among them. Of the women mentioned, they often yearn for nothing more than to be men or are the long suffering wives and mothers of heroes. For example, one of Galadriel's names means "man-woman"; Aredhel the White is known for her "tomboyish" ways - she loves to ride to the hunt with the sons of Feanor; Eowyn wishes to be a man so that she can ride to war and earn honor and glory; and then there are the sufferers: Morwen, wife of Hurin and mother of Turin, and her cousin Rian, who bears Tuor; Idril Celebrindal, wife of Tuor and mother of Earendil; Tar-Miriel, forced to marry her cousin Ar-Pharazon, the last king of Numenor; Celebrian, wife of Elrond, captured and tortured by the Orcs; Elwing, wife to Earendil; and Arwen, the passive observer of Aragorn's struggles in the War of the Ring.

Luthien, on the other hand, evinces no desire to be a man yet she plays an active (I would argue dominant) role in Beren's quest. It's she who overcomes Sauron to rescue Beren from his dungeons; it's her enchantments that lull Morgoth to sleep to allow Beren to cut a silmaril from his crown. And it's she who has the strength to accept the fate of mortal men and die with Beren. So the canard about Tolkien and women isn't entirely justified. If one desires further proof, read the stories of "Aldarion and Erendis" and "The History of Galadriel and Celeborn" in Unfinished Tales. And if they're really interested, they can sample earlier versions of these tales and others in the edited volumes of Tolkien's notes (The History of Middle Earth).

The Silmarillion is only for the geekiest of geeky readers :-) - anyone interested in plumbing Tolkien's mind and discovering why he wrote his masterpieces. If you like those works and his other fantasy (Farmer Giles of Ham, for example) you may be seriously put off and confused by this volume but I certainly wouldn't discourage anyone from testing the waters.

In fact, I would urge it.