Monday, 12 January 2015

The Blog Fantastic 033: The Silmarillion review (Unread 001)

Like many other fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, whether you discovered it before watching The Lord of the Rings films or not, you eventually find out about The Silmarillion. There are varying opinions about this work but one of the prevailing comments made about it is that The Silmarillion is a difficult book to read. Having been forewarn of the challenges I put off reading it for years even though I really wanted to know more about the history of Middle-earth. For now, I’ll simply say that it was unfortunate to not have read it earlier. I wilfully deprived myself of a wonderful and satisfyingly challenging reading experience.

As most fans of Tolkien’s body of work will know, The Silmarillion was published posthumously. Tolkien’s son, Christopher Tolkien, assembled the book from multiple manuscripts into a cohesive narrative. In doing so he had a lot of difficulty as many of the stories told in the book existed in multiple versions while other texts were incomplete or only fragments remained in the possession of the Tolkien Estate. In order to reconstruct certain texts as well as create original material to bridge certain passages together, the young Tolkien enlisted the help of Guy Gavriel Kay, a Canadian who became a renowned fantasy novelist in his own right a few years after the publication of the text. Much can and has been said about Christopher Tolkien’s efforts but I will not be discussing them here as I would like to focus on the published work, not on the editing of the book nor its merits as something wholly or only partially attributed to J.R.R. Tolkien. I must admit that I personally find that sort of discussion interesting though I don’t think it’s entirely consequential. One thing is clear, I’m very grateful that he and Kay took on the challenge. 

The book is divided into five sections. The first, the Ainulindalë, is purely a creation myth as it tells of the creation of Eä, the universe, the Ainur, a pantheon of gods, and Arda, the planet on which Middle-earth exists. This is done through song and music and the prose has a lyrical beauty that reinforces the musical connotations of this section. Tolkien also introduces the first and arguably the most powerful evil of in all of his legendarium: Melkor. The second section, the Valaquenta, is a who’s who of the Valar, the gods of Arda. The third section of the book, Quenta Silmarillion, is the longest part of  the novel and comprises three quarters of its page count. It tells the history of Arda from the arrival of the Valar and all of the events prior to and of the First Age of Elves and Men. The fourth part is titled the Akallabêth and its subject is the Second Age, focusing on the rise and fall of the Kingdom of Númenor. The fifth section, Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age, recounts the Age in which the events of The Lord of the Rings take place. The War of the Rings is but a fragment of this section as it deals principality with Sauron’s continued rise to power following Melkor’s defeat.

Ulmo and Tuor by John Howe.

Combined, these five sections tell thousands of years’ worth of history in which countless events, large and small, take place. The largest section of the book, Quenta Silmarillion, deals mostly with the First Age of the Children of Ilúvatar (Eru Ilúvatar being the supreme god of Eä) which either begins during the Years of the Lamps or the Years of the Sun (I admit, I do not have a great understanding of the early timelines and their names). What is important to remember is that the First Age lasts for relatively 1,000 years and begins with the arrival of Men and the return of the Noldar to Beleriand (a land west of Middle-earth where all of the major events of the First Age take place). The Second Age and the Third Age lasted approximately 3,000 years each. That means that there are very few details about the Second Age and the Third Age in The Silmarillion as compared to the First Age. That’s not a problem. It actually helps give the book a more mythic feel as readers who are familiar with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are quite certainly very unfamiliar with the First Age. That distance between the events of this book and the events the readers are already familiar with enhance the discovery of the story being told.

It’s not easy providing a summary of this book as it is itself already a summary of thousands of years of history. The above two paragraphs simply give you an idea of the general structure of the eras of Arda’s history, the number of years covered in the book and the way those stories are organized within the book. To provide you with a short description of The Silmarillion, it’s the history of Arda and its two main races: Elves and Men. Tolkien and Tolkien recount this history by sections and those sections are further broken down into chapters that deal with one subject after another. The chapters are organized, for the most part, in chronological order but they sometimes mix up the order with the goal of telling two stories that take place in more than one geographical area at approximately the same time. The overarching story has to do with the Doom of the Noldor (a race of Elves, the curse is also known as the Doom of Mandos) which is the equivalent of Man’s Original Sin in Christian theology. The Doom of the Noldor was a prophecy of the Valar which said of the Noldor that “Their Oath shall drive them, and yet betray them, and ever snatch away the very treasures that they have sworn to pursue.” If The Silmarillion can be said to have a core narrative, then the Doom of the Noldor is the driving force of the book. It also plays quite nicely with the main theme of the work which is self-determination vs. predestined existence. Another major theme deals with the corruption of power and the overcoming of great odds at the cost of immense personal sacrifice.
The rescue of Maedhros by Ted Nasmith.

There are two things that make The Silmarillion a memorable and worthwhile read. The first is that there are several individual chapters that stand out and are a joy to read. A few standouts chapters include “Of Fëanor”, “Of the Silmarils”, “Of Beren and Lúthien”, “Of Túrin Turambar”, and “Of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin”. These stories have a tighter focus on characters and the events surrounding their lives of key characters or a major event in the history of the First Age. More than any other chapters these tend to be the ones that most resemble narratives as those that are found in The Lord of the Rings though we do not get nearly as much detail in storytelling and characterization as we did in that novel. The overall writing style of The Silmarillion is maintained during those chapters and the stories are certainly condensed in order to remain consistent with the rest of the book but they are undeniably more grand and fleshed out than many of the other chapters. What makes them so worthwhile are the events and the stories that are told. Many of the chapters listed here are the culmination of many other events described in  Quenta Silmarillion that preceded them. They are often moments of conflicts and they are all linked together with the main themes of the book and of the history of the Elves. All of these stories are masterful on their own and linked together as they are in this book they’re elevated to the status of modern myth. They’re truly impressive and I wish that they could all be further developed and released as longer stories in the way that “Of Túrin Turambar” was released as The Children of Húrin.

The second reason this book is so great is that it offers a detailed (though still incomplete) vision of senior Tolkien’s lifework. It doesn’t always succeed, probably because it is an unfinished work and Christopher Tolkien and Guy Gavriel Kay did have to edit some parts rather heavily, but enough of it was already fleshed out to effectively communicate just how detailed and thought-out this legendarium is. The themes, not only of the First Age but of the entire history of Arda, are identified in this novel. By starting the book with the Ainulindalë, purely a creation myth, and following it with the arrival and the Elves, their curse, and their tangled relationship with Men, Tolkien has developed a world of his own and he’s devised a rich and fascinating history. It doesn’t simply give the events a sense of realism, it’s written as if all of these events really did take place. The book reads as though it is a lovechild of a history and myth and it gives it a certain sense of uniqueness and importance that I’ve rarely felt while reading a fantasy novel.

The death of Glaurung by John Howe.

In The Silmarillion, many things are tragic. Many things are beautiful. Many things are also evil, dangerous, and seductive. Everything has its place and all the stories fit together so well that that it reinforces and supports the idea that Eru Ilúvatar wrote the Music of the Ainur from start to finish. He’s planned it all and it adds a lot of depth to the characters in The Silmarillion. Are Turin’s actions predestined or was his life the result of his choices and the choices made by others? How much control has the Doom of Mandos had on the lives of the Elves? Is Ilúvatar’s gift of death to Men responsible for the eventual defeat of Morgoth and Sauron? Maybe Ilúvatar did not plan all things as he claims, only most things or perhaps his plans were unmade by the will and actions of Elves and Men. The Valar have certainly been surprised on many occasion through the First Age and the time before the First Age, perhaps Ilúvatar has also been surprised by the individualities and self-made destinies of Men and Elves.

Everything is so meticulously planned that there are passages that are difficult to read because everything within this book is taken so seriously. It’s one of the reasons this book is a difficult read. It’s also difficult because the book doesn’t have a main character. You don’t even follow a core group of characters. It is one long narrative about Arda and individuals and major events are highlighted only for their impact on the larger narrative. It’s the story of a planet, of its lands and people, more than it is a story of individuals. Tolkien, more than any other writer I can think of, invested a lot of time writing about the geography, the very lands and seas, on which his stories take place. Most books would not include a chapter such as “Of Beleriand and its Realms” in which the lands, the forests, the mountains and the rivers of Beleriand are described in detail. We’ve all read books where the entire novel could take place in completely different setting and the story wouldn’t be affected by a geographical, and sometimes even temporal, changes. That is not true of these stories. It can be strongly argued that these stories would not work if they took place in a setting other than Valinor, Beleriand, or Middle-earth.

Glorfindel and the Balrog by John Howe.

This amount of detail and verisimilitude also has its drawbacks. Most of the characters, places and events have multiple names. It makes it difficult to appreciate the larger narrative when you’re spending a lot of effort trying to understand the events of a single chapter. I suspect that you can only truly appreciate the entirety of The Silmarillion after more than one read. During the first third of this book I thought it was a creation myth. It is, in part, but the creation myth is there only to help explain the rest of the story. The book doesn’t begin with that for the sake of beginning at the earliest chronological point of the story. It’s there to lay the foundation of the other stories that follow in the book. Like a real history book, context is everything and with this level of detail, proper context is required in order to understand rest of the history of Arda in its entirety. Another drawback of this style of book is that characters are painted in large brushstrokes and they often lack detail themselves. They lack depth and are sometimes difficult to identify with.

One of the reasons why this is a difficult book has to do with the language style and the languages, specifically English and two main Elvish languages such as Quenya and Sindarin. When I reviewed The Children of Hurin I commented on the writing style as being old, archaic: 
I have to say the archaic writing style made the story feel really old which suits the book perfectly as it is a tale from the First Age in Tolkien’s legendarium. The writing style reminded me of Homer’s style of writing, especially the way Tolkien mentions the lineage of a person in the earlier chapters of the book. I also like that the novel is written in a matter-of-fact way. Tolkien tells you what happens as much as he lets it happen through the dialogue and the actions of the characters. Some people do not like the “tell and not show” style but when telling a story that is supposed to have happened a very, very long time ago it works exceptionally well. It’s almost as if the story is so old there are a few details missing, that explains why the writing is clear and to the point because only the most important details have survived through the ages.
Additionally, Tolkien uses familiar words in unfamiliar ways. He uses many English words as per their old use and their old definition. The word “doom” is a good example. It doesn’t simply mean something bad. It’s used within The Silmarillion as something that is fated and unavoidable. The use of doom in this way also keeps its negative connotation and it’s quite clear that when used as the Doom of the Noldor, that the Noldor Elves’ fate is tied to some unavoidable and bad situations. It’s a particularly nasty example of destiny. Doom also means decision and the Doom of the Noldor is tied to oaths that any Elf might make. Their decision to state an oath will tie them to the fate of their decision which, ultimately, will always be a negative one.

The Silmarillion is read with a notable difficulty but it’s worth the effort you put into it. Christopher Tolkien made sure to give the reader as much help as possible by providing a very comprehensive index, along with family trees, a map of Beleriand, and a pronunciation guide at the end of the book. I referenced the index on numerous occasions while reading. With each additional chapter the need to verify something in the index started to go away as I became increasingly familiar with characters, locations, and all their various names.

Tuor and the hidden city of Gondolin by Ted Nasmith.

While it never attains the same depths of character development as The Lord of the Rings and even The Hobbit, it will help fans of those books to truly comprehend the scope and grandeur of J.R. R. Tolkien’s vision. His legendarium, as seen in The Silmarillion, is a combination of mythmaking and world building that makes this fictional universe one of the richest, most detailed, and captivating places in all of literature. Tolkien didn’t settle on explaining the world as it is during the time of The Lord of the Rings. He mapped out the story from the very creation of the universe all the way until the end of the Third Age and the departure of the Elves from Middle-earth. It’s a story that spans several thousands of years, most of them well developed and plotted out – so much so it can’t all be contained within The Silmarillion which deals more with the events form the beginning of creation to the end of the First Age. All of Tolkien’s characters have their place and their role within that fictional world. Reading The Silmarillion has helped me better appreciate and understand what Tolkien did with The Lord of the Rings. It’s interesting to see how both books feed into and complement each other.

This is the kind of book that begs to be revisited time and again. It’s so rich in detail that it rewards careful reading. The more you familiarize yourself with the chronicles of the First Age (and the rest of the stories) the more you will understand them. I haven’t reread The Silmarillion yet but the more I read it the more I understood the book. I became used to the archaic style and density of the prose. I became familiar with the names of people and places. I understood character motivations better than I did earlier on in the book. How are you supposed to understand character motivations when you’re not even sure you’re associating the right character to the right name? It’s kind of puzzling when you start to read this book for the first time. There are passages that are akin to reading a family tree that has not be illustrated as a graph and it is difficult to visualize and to keep characters in the correct genealogical order but if you stick with it (and maybe reread those paragraphs a second or third time) you begin to understand and appreciate the splendour of Tolkien’s vision. I have a feeling I’ll enjoy this book even more the next time I read it but for now, I’m content to think about my reading of the history of Arda and try to convince a few friends to give the book a chance. It’s really worth it.

No comments:

Post a Comment