C.S. Lewis once remarked of The Lord of the Rings that: “Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron. Here is a book which will break your heart.” While LoTR is (perhaps rightly) Tolkien’s most famous work, the work of his heart, as numerous biographers and letters attest, was always The Silmarillion. Lewis’s words ring even more true for The Silmarillion than they are for LoTR, for though sometimes ponderous, this book is always beautiful, always conscious of the grandness and the significance of its narrative, for it tells the tales of actions and people who will echo down through for the forthcoming ages.
Much as I love (and have long loved) Tolkien’s work in all its forms, my history with The Silmarillion, like many other fans, is somewhat vexed. My first encounter was with a copy that my Grandma bought me (though not a fan herself, she knew I loved Tolkien’s work). I have to admit that I had a lot of trouble with it and, being rather young and fickle, I finally gave up. I returned several times over the years, and gradually made my way through most of the stories Still, a full appreciation and understanding of the text eluded me. Part of this, I suspect, has to do with the fact that I usually picked it up after having done one of my periodic readings of The Lord of the Rings, and so my attention would typically shift to something else.
This time, however, I have decided to start with The Silmarillion and only then make my way to LoTR. So far, I have to say, the experience has been a marvelous one. Tragedy saturates this work, working at its core, suffusing all that it seeks to portray. From the destruction and malice wrought by Morgoth upon all things of beauty that the Valar attempt to make, to the ill-fated Feanor and his sons, this work captures the pinnacles and the troughs of the Elves. Time and again as I have worked my way through it I have found myself as deeply moved, if not more so, than by even the most poignant passages in LoTR. For all the tales of tragedy and bone-deep sorrow, however, it also contains a great deal of hope, for from the very beginning Tolkien makes clear that even the most hateful and destructive of deeds ultimately work to fulfill the grand purpose of Eru.
There are tales here that evoke and tap into the deep wells of emotion of all myth, and in that respect Tolkien has succeeded in what he sought: the creation of a grand mythology for England. His Elves, especially the Noldor (of which Feanor is one of the chief and most notable), are a people high and proud, and rightly so. They are in many ways the apogee of sentient life in this world, but with that great power and wisdom comes also their greatest weakness. Beauty in this world always comes with a price, and such is the case with the eponymous Silmarils, whose beauty is the root of the revolt of some of the Elves. Just as importantly, however, beauty is also transient, which for the immortal Elves remains a source of their greatest sadness.
This is also a world where an oath can have far-reaching consequences, even when those who take it no longer dwell in the mortal world. Such is the case with Feanor, with the result that he and his sons commit hideous acts of violence and betrayal, forever earning the enmity of some and the displeasure of the Valar. Though Feanor dies fairly early on–which is itself a tragedy, given that he possesses one of the strongest, most vibrant, and most gifted spirits among the Elves–the oath that he and his sons swore, and the Silmarils they were so desperate to regain, will haunt the rest of the tales of the Elves, a source of inspiration and of destruction, the terrible double-edged sword of unearthly beauty.
It is therefore quite easy to see why this was the work that Tolkien worked on off and on for most of his life. I’m not going to lie, however. It is often quite difficult to keep all of the names and relationships straight, in large part because so many of the major characters have names that begin with “F.” Nevertheless, if you can keep those straight (and in a world in which Game of Thrones is so popular, that may not be as much of a challenge for some), this book is immensely rewarding, a work of exquisite beauty and depth, full of all of the action and betrayal that we seem to desire from our fantastic fiction. It does not, perhaps, have the same earthy libidinal drive of Martin’s work, but it does possess a grandeur and a splendour that earns it its place in the epic fantasy pantheon.