Study Guide

The Silmarillion

by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Silmarillion Summary

Summary (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The Silmarillion is not a traditional, single-text novel, but a collection of five separately titled texts, the “Ainulindale,” “Valaquenta,” “Quenta Silmarillion,” “Akallabeth,” and “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age.” These texts are the distillation of decades of imaginative work and mountains of notes accumulated by J. R. R. Tolkien in a fantasy which stretches from the birth of a universe through its mythical age and the departure from the created world of its visible supernatural and immortal denizens. The work which the reader sees is the result of Tolkien’s and his son Christopher’s efforts to give form to a much longer and more diffuse text. Even so, it is extremely complex, with an index of names, tables of genealogies, maps, and scholarly apparatus on pronunciation and formation of names of places and characters. The “Ainulindale” (music of the Ainur) and the “Valaquenta” (account of the Valar) establish a creation myth, in which Iluvatar sings the universe into being. A choir of Ainur attend Him, each a separate theme of His thought in the universal harmony. Melkor, along with Manwe the most powerful of the Ainur, revolts, singing an individual, discordant theme, choosing cold, darkness, and evil. The other Ainur remain faithful. Even Melkor’s discords are absorbed into the creation of Arda, or Ee, “the World that Is.” The “Quenta Silmarillion” follows with its tales of how fourteen of the Ainur, led by Manwe, chose to dedicate themselves to the shaping of Arda and preparation for the coming of the “Children of Iluvatar,” the Elves, Men, and Dwarves. Each of these good Ainur, or Valar, rules some aspect of the world. Melkor, the fallen angel, also takes up residence in Arda, awaiting the birth of the new peoples and twisting the work of the Valar.

The Valar choose the far West of the flat world, Valinor, lighting it with two huge lamps in endless day, beginning a harmonious and symmetrical creation. Melkor, in jealousy, casts down the lamps, throwing the Spring of Arda into darkness and turmoil. In the battle that follows, the lands are rent and tumbled, and Melkor is forced into concealment but fortifies himself in the fortress of Utumno with his attendant demons, the Balrogs. Yavanna, ruler of the growing things, returns light to Valinor by singing into life two wondrous Trees, Telperion and Laurelin, which glow with their own cyclical light. From the dew of Telperion, the angel Varda (Elbereth) forms the stars which light the twilight of Middle-earth. In impatience for the appearance of the Children of Iluvatar, Aule, the fabric of Arda, forms the Dwarf sires and then gives them, in penitence, to Iluvatar, who accepts them as foster children but leaves them to sleep under the mountains of Middle-earth until after the awakening of his First Born, the Elves.

From the first appearance of the Elves, singing in the starlight of Middle-earth, the fascination of the immortals with these creatures of Arda is complete. The Elves are not bounded by early death, as Men will be, but by the life of Arda itself, continuing, unless destroyed by injury or terrible woe, until the end of their world. To protect the Elves from Melkor, the Valar war against him, casting down Utumno and confining the Enemy in inescapable prison for three long ages. Many of his evil creations remain in Middle-earth, however, and the Valar invite the Elves to leave the starlit lands and walk in the light of the Two Trees in Valinor. Many Elves do complete the long journey to Valinor, among them the Noldor, led by their king, Finwe. Many Elves also remain in Middle-earth. Chief among these is Elwe, or Thingol (which means “grey-cloak”), who falls in love with Melian the Maia, even as he journeys toward Valinor and chooses to remain with her, establishing the Elven kingdom of Doriath in Middle-earth. They will be the parents of Luthien Tinuviel.

During the ages of imprisonment of Melkor, Sauron, his lieutenant, is active in Middle-earth, but in general there is peace and great bliss for the Elves and Valar, who teach many skills to the Elven smiths and poets. Melkor, on passing the term of his imprisonment, appears reformed, joining the Valar in Valinor yet spreading discord through a veil of lies. The son of Finwe, Feanor, a master smith, distrusts Melkor and, fearing evil in the future, gathers light from the Two Trees, fashioning it into three marvelous gems, the Silmarils. Feanor is fiery, proud, and independent. He is unwittingly drawn into the trap of Melkor’s lies and rebels against the Valar. Melkor reveals himself in open attack against Valinor, aided by Ungoliant, a devouring force of evil in the shape of a monstrous spider. She poisons the Two Trees, casting the world into darkness, and then she helps Melkor kill Finwe and steal the Silmarils. Feanor and his seven sons swear an oath by Iluvatar to avenge themselves and recover the Silmarils from anyone who might withhold them, setting this goal above any other and thus shaping the subsequent history of their people.

Led by Feanor and his sons, a host of Elves prepares to leave Valinor, against Manwe’s advice. Fingolfin, Faeanor’s younger half brother, follows him reluctantly and finds that the hot-blooded Feanor has forced a battle against the Teleri, Elven shipmakers and sailors who live on the coasts of Valinor facing the East and Middle-earth. Feanor takes enough ships for his own followers, sails to Middle-earth, and burns them, abandoning Fingolfin. The Elves under Fingolfin and his sons continue on foot through vast northern wastes, crossing the frozen sea with much suffering to arrive in Middle-earth after Faeanor on the very day when the Moon first rises over Arda. Though the history of the Noldor people returning thus to Middle-earth is hidden from Thingol and the other Elves of the twilight, their arrival is troubling; nevertheless, the Elves welcome the newcomers, who establish new realms in opposition to the Dark Lord. Melkor, renamed Morgoth by Feanor, makes use of the confusion of his enemies to prepare for battle. He is checked, however, by the rising of the new Sun, a power of light which throws his own hosts into disarray. Feanor marches against Morgoth and forces battle but, although victorious, dies, his body falling into ash as the fiery spirit leaves it. His sons survive and continue to strive to recover the Silmarils.

During the second age of the imprisonment of Morgoth, the first Dwarves appeared, and Thingol made alliances with them, using their skill as smiths and builders to build the hidden city of Menegroth of the Thousand Caves in Doriath. Two of the Noldor returning from Valinor also build hidden cities, acting on advice from Ulmo, Valar lord of water; Finrod builds Nargothrond, Turgon, the white city of Gondolin. With the rising of the Sun, the first Men appear in Middle-earth, wandering into contact with Elves and Dwarves as they come from the East and South. Some ally themselves with Morgoth, others with the houses of the Elf kings. The “gift” of llvatar to men is their mortality, their freedom from the tie which binds Elves to Arda, yet this gift is a perplexity to the Elves, since their friends and allies among men quickly wither and pass away, while the Elves become ever more beautiful and wise with time. Genealogies become important as the slow pace of Elven history is...

(The entire section is 3007 words.)