Part one of three? I expect to keep the reader’s attention for three parts? Am I crazy? I probably am. But that has nothing to do with the fact that any self-respecting fantasy fan or “geek” of any kind would do very well to examine this study of one of the great pillars of geekdom…
I inched my way through another dreary commute. Heart yearning for something, anything to distract me from the inescapable life-sucking vortex, I fumbled around on the passenger seat for an audiobook. I had just enjoyed a fast-moving tale from the Star Wars extended universe with a great narrator, and I couldn’t afford something that would put me to sleep. The drive was already hypnotizing me with boredom. I grabbed a tape (yes, a cassette tape) from the pile of “books” from the library and popped it in. It was something I had been meaning to read (“listen to”), if only to educate myself, but it was old and long and could lull me dangerously close to a slumber-induced pileup…
Two minutes later, after a long musical introduction but just after the first sentences came out, my jaw dropped.
It literally dropped.
I remember the moment well—where I was, the scenery around me, the sound of Martin Shaw’s delicious accent as he read, the realigning of my mind as the world changed. The tapestry of beauty, import, and imagination instantly entranced me. And the fact that the words were penned by a mere mortal shocked me to the core. It began like the quiet strokes of a symphony…
There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad.
Was it just a lofty beginning? A poetic moment in a world-building prelude that precedes many a fantasy novel? No. Something about its confident simplicity told me otherwise. There was a mastery here… a truth, a depth, a something that went so far beyond the imaginativeyarns of a mere book. This was something both new and ancient. As it went on, concepts ignited that stretched from deepest mythology to cosmic sci-fi, and characters emerged that complex storylines would breathlessly attempt to chase.
As a fantasy reader, the curtains pulled back to reveal a heaping, exotic banquet of living worlds, teeming magic, and unforgettable inhabitants. As a fantasy writer, I knew that I would be forced to measure anything I would ever write against its towering awesomeness.
This was J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion.
Some may call The Silmarillion the history of Middle Earth—but how can it be a mere history when it transports you to the plains of Ard-galen, where the dwarf army halts the advance of Glaurung, father of dragons; and to the bridge of Tol Sirion the island fortress, where Luthien Tinuviel, searching for her beloved, strips Sauron’s power with a song of earth-shaking beauty.
Some may call The Silmarillion the foundation of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings—but how can it be just a foundation when it contains those stories and so many more, making them seem almost as footnotes before the grander narrative.
Go I too far? Indulge I overmuch in my slavish devotion to Tolkien? Nay, good friends, nay! Perhaps I gild my prose a bit, but it’s hard not to with epic moments like this running through my head…
…and even as the Moon rose above the darkness in the west, Fingolfin let blow his silver trumpets and began his march into Middle-earth, and the shadows of his host went long and black before them…
A line here and a line there can’t begin convey the epic awesomeness of the stories in The Silmarillion. The one I quoted above is actually the climactic conclusion of a tale of rebellion, betrayal, tragic love, and heroism set against a clash of cosmic forces.
But here’s the trouble… Here’s what the naysayers are waiting for… Here’s why few voices join my cry…
The Silmarillion is hard to read!
The fact is, it reads more like a history book—or the Bible—than a novel. It’s not something you typically cuddle up with and plow through in a single sitting. Most fantasy fans and normal humans simply haven’t read it. But that doesn’t change the fact that The Silmarillion is the most underappreciated work of fiction ever written, and in fact it is one of the mostly underappreciated works in all of literature. How dare I throw around such haphazard superlatives? How can I make such a grand sweeping statement, without even a corroborating PhD attached to my name? Well, with the mighty strokes of my keys, I just did. But when something so distantly outpaces every other piece of fantasy you’ve read, it deserves some lofty praise.
And I’m not the only madman:
“O Mighty Tolkien! Prince of Fantasists! . . . I have just been reveling in one of the greatest literary privileges and experiences of my life . . . The Silmarillion . . . greater and more satisfying than both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings!” — Richard Adams, author of Watership Down
“A creation of singular beauty . . . magnificent in its best moments.” — Washington Post
I will not attempt to disentangle the many arguments for and against my grandiose statements, nor will I attempt tasks far beyond me—such as as filling the tomes required to define “greatness” in fantasy and literature, or listing the countless books and movies that owe their vital organs to Tolkien. I will simply try and persuade Tolkien and non-Tolkien fans alike to read it.
In Part 2, I will tantalize fantasy fans with a Middle Earth appetizer that will make you pause the 900 page sword-and-sorcery tome that has you spellbound with cliffhangers at the end of every chapter. In Part 3, I will provide the mystical answer of how get into The Silmarillion and love it, even if you’ve tried before (which will include a Silmarillion MOVIE).
Many thanks to Kip Rasmussen for allowing me to use his art in this article. See more and order prints at KipRasmussen.com.