Casual fans of Tolkien’s best-selling The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are often surprised (and often disappointed) by The Silmarillion. The other books follow the adventures of sympathetic mortal characters in a fictional world that, though in many respects fantastic, is nevertheless recognizable. Much of The Silmarillion, on the other hand, focuses on the doings of remote godlike beings in otherworldly settings. Moreover, though in places “heroic” and even archaic in tone, the more popular works are quite conventionally readable. The Silmarillion, in contrast, is written in what Tolkien somewhat defensively referred to as “high style”; decades before its eventual publication, he agreed with a prospective publisher’s reader that the work was full of “a kind of Celtic beauty intolerable to Anglo-Saxons in large doses.”

On a deeper level, however, it is unfair to judge The Silmarillion on such terms. Tolkien’s enormous fictional output forms a single whole that he once summarized as “a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story—the larger founded on the lesser in contact with earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths.” The Silmarillion is the repository of many of these backcloths; it is, in short, the mythology and ancient history of the world of The Hobbit and...

(The entire section is 493 words.)