The Plot

The Silmarillion was first published four years after J. R. R. Tolkien’s death, primarily as a result of the editorial efforts of Tolkien’s son, Christopher Tolkien. Although this is Tolkien’s final work, one greater in scope than any of his previously published works, it is actually the first work of true fantasy that he began to write. During Tolkien’s rehabilitation after his experiences in World War I, he began to write poems concerning some of the primary characters who appear in The Silmarillion. The events within this book precede those occurring in his more popular works of fantasy, The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954-1955). The Silmarillion, in many ways, can be viewed as the legendary prehistory that serves as a backdrop for those other works.

The book has five distinct sections: “The Ainulindalë,” “The Valaquenta,” “The Quenta Silmarillion,” “Akallabâth,” and “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age.” The first and second sections detail the genesis of Arda, the mythical world of which Valinor, Beleriand, and Middle-earth are a part, and also explain the names and attributes of the chief divinities, both good and evil, who inhabit Arda.

The third section, “The Quenta Silmarillion,” is the main part of the book. It covers the history of Arda from the beginning of time to a cataclysmic battle between the forces of good and evil, a battle that...

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The Silmarillion

These myths of creation, tales of the settling and unsettling of the early dwellers in the earth, the conflicts of power and morality, and the ascription of powers and limits of power to the vast array of beings conjured up within the covers of this book, lend to this final work of J. R. R. Tolkien a scope and philosophical range of ideas which quite transcend the narrative. Tolkien begins at the very beginning: far earlier than time, far earlier than Judeo-Christian narrations begin, for he begins with the very creation of the gods (called Ainur in this account) and their earliest development under the tutelage of God. What these gods did in the beginning was sing, and through singing created language, and out of language and music created poetry. The power and the magic of words and music are one of the several insistent themes recurring throughout this book. By songs do the Valar learn and understand, by oaths and curses do the Eldar doom themselves and their allies, and by song and epic are heroic deeds and heroic deaths remembered and rewarded.

Readers of Tolkien’s book can feel comfortable with his myths, for he knows well the devices of myth creation and wields them with mastery. His myths of the trees of light, their creation, radiant beauty, destruction at the hands of Ungoliant, and subsequent partial preservation in the form of the Silmarils and the sun and moon (with appropriate myths narrated for each), are central to the entire invention of the book. Throughout the First Age, Middle-Earth lies in the dimness of starlight, while Valinor is bathed in the radiance of the trees of light. By contrast, the Unlight of Ungoliant is the most hideous and most destructive evil in the book. Even Melkor-Morgoth, who corresponds in many ways to the devil, is afraid of so black an evil. This darkness, however, is summoned forth by Melkor, who, like Milton’s Lucifer, was the favorite of Eru (or God) until in his pride and independence he defied Eru and the Ainur, and was therefore punished and ostracized.

Still echoing Paradise Lost, the rebellious Melkor seeks to wreak revenge upon the Ainur. In his pride, independence, and anger lie the beginnings of all evil and destruction. The trees of light are destroyed by Ungoliant and the earth is plunged into darkness, alleviated finally by the light of the sun and moon. These are explained as the final products of the trees of light: a flower of silver which becomes the moon; and a fruit of gold which becomes the sun. As in Greek mythology, these are guided by a young god and a young goddess through the sky by day and night. The parallels to and echoes of Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian mythology and legend are numerous throughout the book, and are effective devices to lend a sense of authenticity and antiquity to the narrations.

The battle of good and evil, which apparently can never be resolved nor finally won on this earth because the proponents of each side are immortal, and because both are eternally committed to their stance, is the dominant theme of the book. The myths tell how the earth and its inhabitants, including Gods, Elves, Dwarves, and Men, came into being, and how evil and destruction began. The book is not really a hopeful or happy one, because the situation does not and cannot change. Throughout the ages of the earth, good and evil must be eternally locked in battle, which is essentially a battle between the Gods. Elves, Dwarves, and Men are depicted as being largely helpless and hapless pawns in these divine power struggles. The efforts made by Elves and Men are valiant, often heroic, but always doomed by conditions and forces beyond their control or even their comprehension. The Elves are doomed by the ancient oath of Fëanor, and the Men who join them as they move into Middle-Earth are then included in the doom, which cannot be recanted. The binding power of an oath, according to the Silmarillion, is beyond morality or choice, and firmly within the realm of the absolutes.

This absoluteness, the sense of inevitability, is totally in keeping with the sense of legend and myth which Tolkien is creating in this series of narratives. It all happened long ago and in another country, when the earth was young, and the rules were somehow different. Then he adds credibility to his myths by infusions and hints of other legends and myths, and by creation of a geography that could be some place not too unlike the British Isles. He uses special devices of language to establish links to the known and credible. The words which he has created as names for places, people, and events in his mythology bear strong phonological and morphological resemblances to Old English and Celtic. His words are not really authentic terms in either of those languages, but they often could be. Aside from the invented names themselves is the special use Tolkien makes of them to imply ancient age. He will give two or three names for the same character or phenomenon or place, to convey the idea that over a long period of time the different people or Elves or Gods have adopted different...

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Isaacs, Neil D., and Rose A. Zimbardo, eds. Tolkien: New Critical Perspectives, 1981.

Matthews, Richard. Lightning from a Clear Sky: Tolkien, the Trilogy, and “The Silmarillion,” 1978.

Nicol, Charles. “The Reinvented Word,” in Harper’s Magazine. CCLV (November, 1977), pp. 95-96.