There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made …
If you love The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and want to follow the third road of the J. R. R. Tolkien fantasy triad, these first words of The Silmarillion might trick you into putting the book back on the “May Read … Someday” shelf, right beside War and Peace and Les Misérables.
I’m making a plea for you not to shelve it. Or for you to reach up to the shelf and take down Professor Tolkien’s 1977 volume of the Elder Days of Middle-Earth and try again. Too many people have let The Silmarillion’s reputation for difficulty—and its actual difficulty—keep them away from discovering what may be one of their favorite works of fantasy.
I was there once, too, wondering if I could hack through a book that started as someone’s linguistics project in World War I. (“Linguistics project” always gets people flooding through the doors!) I read The Silmarillion in high school after a friend finished it. He told me chapter-by-chapter the saga of the war of the sons of Fëanor to regain the Silmarils, the radiant jewels their father fashioned, from the Dark Lord Morgoth. I heard of battles with hundreds of Balrogs, a love story between an elf and a human, a tragedy wrought by a hypnotic dragon, and Sauron turning into a werewolf. I was excited to leap in, but also nervous, since The Silmarillion already had its reputation as a rough go—like reading a mash-up of the Hebrew Bible and an Icelandic Saga, but invented from the ground up.
Those first pages—a creation myth called Ainulindalë—didn’t disappoint me on the difficulty. “You cannot pass!” the pages screamed, like a wizard blocking a bridge. But I went onward, moving into the main body of the work, the Quenta Silmarillion.
I don’t recall when The Silmarillion snared me for good that first time. It was long before the core stories “Beren and Lúthien” and “Túrin Turambar,” the sections most readers fondly recall. Before I reached the fairy tale magic of Beren and Lúthien and the Greek tragic agony of The Children of Húrin, I was ensnared. It wasn’t just the spectacle of Romance. It was the style, which was no longer an obstacle.
I don’t need to describe it, because Sam Gamgee does it perfectly in Book II of The Lord of the Rings. The gardener of Bag End, a fellow as much like you or me as anyone in the novel, sees the majesty of Lóthlorien and says, “I feel as if I was inside a song, if you take my meaning.”
Now ask yourself: What parts of The Lord of the Rings give you the shiver of being “inside a song”? Is it Gandalf’s challenge to the Balrog?
I am a servant of the Secret Fire, Wielder of the Flame of Anor. The Dark Flame will not avail you, Flame of Ûdun. Go back to the Shadow.
Or maybe the description of the Lord of the Nazgûl’s winged mount?
A creature of an older world maybe it was, whose kind, lingering in forgotten mountains cold beneath the Moon, outstayed their day, and in hideous eyrie bred this last untimely brood, apt to evil.
There’s no daylight between these passages and the opening of Chapter 19 of Quenta Silmarillion:
Among the tales of sorrow and of ruin that come down to us from the darkness of those days are yet some in which amid weeping there is joy and under the shadow of death light that endures. And of these histories most fair still in the ears of the Elves is the tale of Beren and Lúthien.
There’s more: the description of Elwing rising to meet Eärendil’s ship as he returns from his voyage, “like a white bird, shining, rose-stained in the sunset, as she soared in joy to greet the coming of Vingilot to haven.” The sweep of battles with poetic names like The Battle of Unnumbered Tears. The heartbreak, almost Shakespearean, of an elf maid’s dying words to her unrequited love: “Tell the Mormegil that Finduilas is here.”
So you’ve already fallen in love with The Silmarillion’s style. You only have to do a bit of work to get deep inside the song. Sam had a long journey as well to get to Lóthlorien.
The depth of the story is daunting: a sprawling epic starting with the world’s creation and ending with a summation of The Lord of the Rings in a few sentences, and packed with enough character and place names to fill forty glossary pages. But the real trouble is that readers have no characters to serve as their gateway into the story and world. Tolkien knew this would be a problem: “I do not think it would have the appeal of L.R. [The Lord of the Rings]—no hobbits!” We don’t have Sam Gamgee’s eyes to experience the wonder first. The Silmarillion is unfiltered.
But readers have a few tools to help, and they’re easy to find today. When you go back into The Silmarillion (or go in for the first time), bookmark the genealogies of Elves at the back. Keep a glossary handy; I used Robert Foster’s The Complete Guide to Middle-Earth in case I couldn’t separate Fingon, Fingolfin, and Finarfin. (Watch those three names. Tricksy, my precioussss.) Today, hundreds of websites and wikis can give far more detailed information if you find yourself lost among the Nargothronds, Menegroths, and Dorthonions. You need to do a bit of work, but soon the names will feel as familiar as beloved song lyrics.
Perhaps it’s best to go back to Sam Gamgee, still in Lóthlorien, for a final piece of advice. “It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish, as my old gaffer used to say.” So start the job and take up The Silmarillion. See if you can get inside the song. And if, at the end, you didn’t feel you got it all, no worries. You probably didn’t—but it’s waiting for you to come back.