Approaching “The Silmarillion” for the First Time

As brilliant as lovers of Middle Earth recognize that it is, there are few books as daunting as The Silmarillion. It is a dense and complex text of genealogies, places, and characters, each woven together with multiple names in multiple languages and tucked into mythic threads that go out in various directions. I was slain by the text a couple of times before I finally conquered it. At only 130,000 words, I marvel at the edition that Tolkien must have had in mind when he told publishers it would be 400,000-600,000 words!

Readers who closed the cover of The Lord of the Rings and turned to The Silmarillion for more of Middle Earth are often quite surprised. Sometimes the first few pages of text is just too much.

Yet, despite its challenges, it is a rich reading experience for those who stick with it. Not only does The Silmarillion fill in the great mythic background behind LOTR and The Hobbit, but it is filled with compelling stories of beauty, longing, love and loss, great adventure, and heroes as they grapple with the meaning of mortality. And, more than anything else, J.R.R. Tolkien saw The Silmarillion as an integral part of his Legendarium. Finding a way to access the text puts us in fellowship with the man behind Middle Earth.

I’ve decided to compile some tips for those that want to read The Silmarillion. Until someone takes up my call for a Silmarillion Talmud, following one or another of these tips can open up a whole new experience of reading for Tolkien lovers.

I. Read the Books before Middle Earth

Among the difficulties of reading The Silmarillion, one of the key ones is that the language is so strange. It is evocative, calling us to greater appreciation of its breadth and grandeur. But there are many genres set within an archaic text and filled with difficult names and strange places. One of the ways that can strengthen our ability to enjoy The Silmarillion is to read the books that Tolkien loved and that played some part in forming the Legendarium.

There are several ways to do this. Douglas A. Anderson has an excellent book called Tales Before Tolkien: The Roots of Modern Fantasy. It includes 22 short stories from late 19th and early 20th century authors who play with fantastic literature before the age that will be transformed by Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and to a lesser extent C.S. Lewis’ Narnia. It includes authors like H. Rider Haggard, E. Nesbit, David Lindsay, Andrew Lang, George MacDonald, and William Morris.

Beyond Doug’s book, those latter three authors are particularly important. The richness of Andrew Lang’s twelve coloured book collection of fairy stories–perhaps the red and blue books are most important–is evident in Tolkien’s lecture, “On Fairy-stories,” which he gave in honour of Andrew Lang. George MacDonald is another wealth of storytelling in the fairy tale genre, and Tolkien himself notes that William Morris’s stories like The Well at the World’s End were an important influence in terms of language development, adventure, and imaginative scope.

The influences are perhaps unending, but I would roughly put them into these categories:

  1. Early Fantasy and Fairy Tales: See The Tales Before Tolkien, plus Lang, Morris, MacDonald, Jonathan Swift, Grimm, and other speculative authors you love. E.R. Eddison’ The Worm Ouroboros was a particularly important book, as well as Lord Dunsany’s work.
  2. Arthuriana: Tolkien spent a good part of his life reading and working in Arthurian literature, including his own translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. There are great knew translations of the older tales that exist, including Tolkien’s own incomplete Fall of Arthur.
  3. Nordic Literature: This is a vast library, but books like The Song of the Nibelungs, The Poetic Edda (or Elder Edda), and The Volsungs help us appreciate Tolkien’s love of Northernness and the root of some of his language development. There are new translations of many of these pieces, including an excellent Poetic Edda by Jeramy Dodds (see my review here). You may even want to try Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, which I enjoyed on audiobook.
  4. England’s Tales: Although Tolkien lamented the lack of “myth” in England–most of the tales are borrowed, including the Arthurian ones which are first in French–there is no doubt that Beowulf was a critical text for Middle Earth. Tolkien’s own translation is now available, but reading anthologies of Old English poetry will draw you into the imaginative landscapes that Tolkien loved and spent much of his scholarship developing an appreciation for.

These background tales are now becoming so important that The Royal Mint and Penguin have each developed beautifully designed books to prepare readers for Middle Earth.

II. Don’t Begin at the Beginning

I remember the first time I picked up the Bible. It was a King James version someone gave to me with the hope that I would somehow hault the downward path of perilous self-destruction I was on. The strange language and evocative opening words of Genesis drew me in, but within a few lines I was lost. The Silmarillion begins in the same kind of way with “Ainulindale” and “Valequenta,” a series of complex creation myths that flood over into the first couple of chapters of the “Quenta Silmarillion,” the core text of the book. If you go to the average bookshelf and pull down The Silmarillion, you are likely to find a folded down corner within the first forty pages or so, an indication that someone picked up the book and got lost in the mythic material.

But why must we begin at the beginning? Here are some alternative ways to read The Silmarillion.

  1. Begin at Chapter 3: It sounds strange, but beginning at chapter 3 gets the reader right into the adventure of the elves and heroes of Middle Earth. Once the story of Middle Earth’s origins is in play, the reader can the go back to fill in the mythic material.
  2. The Tale of Beren and Lúthien: As I said in this post, I don’t think I have ever read anything better than the tale of Beren and Lúthien. It is a gorgeous sad tale of fidelity, courage, and the great deeds of the heroes and heroines of the past. It is also a great way to get a sense of the storytelling in The Silmarillion.
  3. “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age”: While many Tolkien lovers detest Peter Jackson’s films, it was the prologue to the first film that had me hooked immediately. I don’t think I am alone. Yet readers looking for this story in The Silmarillion will only find it at the end of the tale, in the section called “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age”. If you love it, why not begin there?

III. The Silmarillion as Read-Along Book

Audiobooks are one of the fastest growing segments of the book world. While this can have a downside, think back to your earliest experiences of reading. For most of us, this was lap-reading, snuggling in to the warmth and comfort of someone we love and listening to a trusted voice read words on that page that are still black scribbles to us. We did not know all the words but we trusted the reading experience. As a result, our trust in the reader filled in the blanks in the story. Rereading those stories later when the black scribbles were words was a great delight.

While the deep and overly-dramatic voice of Martin Shaw is not the same as a warm lap and a homemade blanket, audiobook reading can bring new depth to the experience. I prefer to use audiobooks to reread rather than read the first time, but the audio can accentuate our first time in the text. Open up the book and turn on the audio. While narrators are going to be much slower than our silent reading would be, the professional reader never gets distracted. He will keep our eyes on the page, keep us moving forward.

There are snatches of Martin Shaw’s Silmarillion text on the web, and you can purchase it from iTunes and Audible (though not in Canada). There is also a German version by Achim Höppner on Audible, and you will find some fan readings here and there within the internet of the Fourth Age.

IV. The Bible for Tolkien Geeks

This is what a friend of mine called The Silmarillion: the Bible for Tolkien geeks. It is an astute observation, I think. Like the Bible, The Silmarillion includes genres like myth, legend, history, genealogy, prophecy, and poetry. It is a text of texts from another culture based in other languages, but a text that is meant to inform not just the past but the present. Like the Bible, it better reread than read.

Unfortunately, like the Bible, we know that the discipline of reading a challenging text will pay off, but it is hard sometimes to stay motivated. So, like the Bible, perhaps we should bend our will to the task.

For anyone who has finally set up a schedule of Bible reading–or a diet regime, exercise program, meditation schedule, or a commitment to secretly bless someone on a daily basis–in the end it will take rugged determination, a ruthless attention to organization and habit, the support of loved ones, and a whole lot of grace and self-forgiveness along the way. Here are some tips to get into The Silmarillion the way we get into any hard good thing:

  1. Bedside Friend: Have your copy of The Silmarillion at the bedside, reading a section (1-4 pages) each night before turning to your favourite novel.
  2. Daily Habit: With eBook readers and phone apps–not to mention mass market paperbacks–reading is portable. Perhaps taking your 15-minute break at work to enjoy a coffee and a few pages of Tolkien is the kind of daily habit that would work. The weekend might break this up, but if you are sharp on Monday the habit will soon be easy to you.
  3. Accountability Partners: Anyone who has done something difficult will know how embarrassing it is to fail. That is why we anticipate that experience by inviting others to hold us accountable to our tasks. Do you have someone you can trust to ask you the hard question: Have you picked up your Silmarillion today? If so, enlist him or her to hold your feet to the flame.
  4. Reading Challenges: Take that concept of accountability to a new level by making The Silmarillion part of your Goodreads challenge. Even better, announce on your blog or Facebook page that you are going to read The Silmarillion, through hell or high water–or, more likely, too many emails and dishes that need to get done. If you are a step counter or run your books on Excel sheets, a reading challenge could help you (not that I know anyone like that).
  5. Suffer With Others: Why not set up a reading group in your local community–online or in real life? There is no need to suffer alone. And when it comes together or you are puzzled, there is someone else to talk about it with you.

V. Read with Resources

There are a tonne of resources to support your reading of The Silmarillion. Here are just a few:

  1. Appendices: Make sure you take advantage of the family trees, pronunciation guides, Elven dictionaries, and maps that are part of your copy. I have been looking for a second copy at yard sales and thrift stories so I don’t have to flip back and forth, but they are there for you.
  2. The Greatness of Tolkien Nerds: I won’t take time to link all the possible resources that exist online, lovingly created by people who have been captivated by the Mythmaker’s work. The ones I have found most helpful are the Tolkien Gateway and the LOTR Project–the former for basic information including histories and kin connections, and the latter for its interactive maps, timelines, and cool apps. Beyond that, becoming a member of the Tolkien Society opens you up to a wealth of resources.
  3. Higher Education: While some schools are still closed to the idea that fantastic literature is worthy of exploration, you may find a Tolkien class at your local college. Beyond that, I want to suggest Signum University as a key resource. J.R.R. Tolkien is part of its regular curriculum–including a class this summer by Tom Shippey and Corey Olsen (the Tolkien Prof podcaster) called “Beyond Middle Earth.” Dr. Olsen, President at SignumU, believe it or not has done lectures on every section of The Silmarillion and given them away for free here (the mp3s work, I believe). Signum’s MA in Imaginative Literature has a Tolkien track and is open to thesis projects in The Silmarillion.

These are just a few tips that might help the reader who is ready for The Silmarillion. What about you? What has helped you finally get into the great texts behind texts like The Silmarillion? Please tell us in the comments below or by sharing this post on Twitter or Facebook.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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19 Responses to Approaching “The Silmarillion” for the First Time

  1. A Writer says:

    This is such a great list! Several of your suggestions, including re-reading, using the Appendices, and reading a number of the books before Middle Earth were especially helpful for me when I was discovering the Silmarillion (a years-long process for me, too).

    I also suggest writing a character list and tucking it inside the cover for a quick reference (and bookmark!). Hand writing it will aid memory, too. I found that I really gained steam on the Silmarillon when I purchased the lovely illustrated edition. The size meant it had to stay home, and coupled with the beauty of the illustrations this made me approach it as something to savor slowly instead of attempting to read at my normal breakneck pace.

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    • Actually, this is a critical point. If you make a character list for yourself, you are likely to remember it. I have a few books with my own family trees sketched in them (I often get lost in the 19th c. novelists). I would love to get the beautiful version!
      And another point I made that you emphasize here: The Silmarillion is a book that is made for great rereading.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: On reading The Silmarillion | Khanya

  3. Steve says:

    Thanks for a very good list of resources, though I do disagree with some of your recommendations — see here: On reading The Silmarillion | Khanya

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    • You are always ahead of me so it is nice to see a response. And it seems we are often in disagreement, but (if this makes any sense) disagreeing often on the same side.
      I should probably note that this was not how I read it. I cherrypicked, I dove in for certain stories (including the creation myth), and then I false-started once. For me, determination and online tools was how I did my first read through.
      Your point about reading the creation myths together–biblical and Tolkien’s–is I think a very good one. I don’t know all creation myths, but I am familiar with many in the ancient Near East, Japan, and the Mediterranean. Loving them gives the Silmarillion new layers.

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  4. louloureads says:

    Thanks for this post! Interestingly, the only chapter of The Silmarillion that I have actually read and enjoyed is the first. I love reading creation accounts and have always been fascinated by the similarities and differences between cultures/belief systems, as well as the way various creation myths resemble the account in Genesis, so that perhaps accounts for my love of it. I also really love the story of the creation of Narnia, and was interested in seeing the way that Lewis and Tolkein were apparently drawing from one another’s ideas. Maybe I will skip Chapter Two for the time being, and start again with Chapter Three 🙂

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  5. L.A. Smith says:

    Thank you, Brenton! The Silmarillion intimidates me, frankly. But you have given me hope that it is not a task beyond my reach. I know where to go when I feel up to tackling it. Before I felt a bit hopeless about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Chad Cloman says:

    I first tried to read it when I was a kid in my early teens, not too long after it was first published in paperback. Couldn’t do it. After I graduated college, a friend mentioned that it read like scripture (to which I agree). I finally read it a few years ago and was fascinated. I’m planning a re-read in the not-too-distant future, just because all the names got so confusing—now that I’ve got the big picture, it should be a bit easier.

    So the one thing I would add to your article is to consider (or plan on) reading it twice.

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  7. joviator says:

    I was standing in line outside the bookstore when it opened, on the day The Silmarillion went on sale. I can remember how disappointed I was. The way I think of it now, the book contains mythology (like Bulfinch’s or Edith Hamilton’s), and teenaged-me wanted the myths themselves. I’m going to need a couple centuries’ worth of literature, painting, and sculpture to really get those stories.

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  8. DreamerAlone says:

    I am almost done with The Silmarillion now, after several starts and stops – in the beginning it was hard to keep going, and there was so much I didn’t understand. But now, being at the tail end of it, I can look back and see how it all makes sense! Oh, and the tale of Beren and Luthien…what can I say? That may well have been the most beautiful Man-written love story I have ever read. All in all, The Silmarillion has unlocked a whole new world to me, and it’s awesome to be able to peer a little further through those windows LOTR opened. As I read I find myself getting more and more tied up in the lives of people like Turin, Tuor, Turgon, Melian, and the ill-fated sons of Feanor, caught up in the sorrows and joys of Tolkien’s world. It is a master tale, a great tapestry of rich beauty.

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    • Yes, that is the experience many have. Perhaps I should have simply written, “trust that it will all be okay in the end!”
      “Man-written loves story”–quite a category. I don’t know enough love stories to divide them yet by gender. But this one is a great tale.

      Like

  9. DreamerAlone says:

    Well, I mean, opposed to the Bible’s Song of Songs, etc. It’s that simple. I haven’t read many love stories either, really, because most people nowadays have the wrong idea of love. 🙂

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  10. The first time I read (i.e. slogged) through it several years ago was difficult. I believe I did have to put it down for a while. But after getting more immersed into Tolkien’s works (I have read 10 of the 15 works published before his death along with 8 that Christopher edited/compiled), I re-read The Silmarillion in December 2016 over the course of 2.5 weeks. And, surprisingly, it was a much faster read. I had read Book of Lost Tales Vols. 1 and 2 earlier in the year as well, so those were a huge resource. I need to continue getting Vols. 3-12… Which would be easier if I weren’t trying to get hardcovers on a budget! 😉

    Anyway, I find the evolution of the Turin story to be quite fascinating – seeing how it came together from reading it in The Silmarillion, Lost Tales, Unfinished Tales, and The Children of Húrin, one can see how certain details were added, removed, and expanded upon.

    So, the moral of the story is to force your way through The Silmarillion once and then enjoy a re-read.

    Also, I can’t wait for the new Beren and Lúthien!

    Like

    • Yes, well said. You also point out the … how do I say it?–the integrated nature of Tolkien’s work. While going Hobbit–>LOTR–>Silm makes a lot of sense, knowing any of the other bits can be helpful in reading the Silmarillion.

      Like

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