Critical Context

Tolkien labored through the last years of his life to bring the body of notes and scattered writings, accumulated over a lifetime, to publishable form. His son Christopher finished the work after Tolkien’s death, and The Silmarillion set records for early sales. Reviews, however, were mixed, as readers seeking a continuation of The Lord of the Rings found no hobbits, little dialogue, and a sweeping overview of cosmic events recounted in biblical language. There is very little of Tolkien’s verse, which readers found so enchanting in the earlier publications, and much detail of description and characterization is lost in the process of summarization which gives the reader so many characters in such a complex plot. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are both much more satisfying novels.

Yet The Silmarillion is not so much a novel as a history of an individual imagination grappling with the construction of an individual universe. Its goal is less to tell a tale than the tale, to contemplate the process of creation and the problem of individual freedom within mortal time. There are many scholarly studies of Tolkien’s works, The Silmarillion among them, which the reader may explore for discussions of imagery, style, and underlying philosophy. Many readers will go to The Silmarillion primarily for reference, to fill in the mythical background of Tolkien’s more accessible fictions, yet this unique work will continue to be appreciated for its own rewards.