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On reading The Silmarillion

13 April 2017

As anyone who has read my blogs will know, I’m a fan of the Inklings, an early 20th-century literary group that included such writers as Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. If you look at the blogroll in the right-hand column you will find links to several blogs dealing with the Inklings, and you will also find a “tag cloud” where you can click on “Inklings” to find posts in this blog that deal with the Inklings.

One of the blogs I link to has just posted a guide to reading The Silmarillion, which lists a lot of very useful resources, though I disagree quite strongly with some of his recommendations for reading them — Approaching “The Silmarillion” for the First Time | A Pilgrim in Narnia:

This is what a friend of mine called The Silmarillion: the Bible for Tolkien geeks. It is an astute observation, I think. Like the Bible, The Silmarillion includes genres like myth, legend, history, genealogy, prophecy, and poetry. It is a text of texts from another culture based in other languages, but a text that is meant to inform not just the past but the present. Like the Bible, it better reread than read.

That’s one of the bits I do agree with.

If you encounter Christianity for the first time, and want to know more about the origin of the phenomenon, it can be good to look at the Bible. But rather than reading it from beginning to end, it might be best to start with the gospels. I would recommend beginning with one of the synoptic gospels — Luke, followed by the Acts of the Apostles, and then St John’s gospel, and then go back and start with Genesis. Genesis begins with the creation of the world, but if you want to know something about Christianity, then you need to know that, for Christians, the most significant thing about God is not that he was in the beginning and created the heavens and the earth, but that the God who is in the beginning is also the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

So with Tolkien.

One’s first encounter with Tolkien’s world is likely to be with The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. In those books, in addition to hobbits and men, one finds various kinds of beings like elves and dwarves and wizards, They appear in the story, have different roles to play, and they sing songs referring to other events and a background that the reader does not know about. The Silmarillion, which deals mainly with elves, fills in some of the background.

Where I part company with A Pilgrim in Narnia, however, is where he says Approaching “The Silmarillion” for the First Time | A Pilgrim in Narnia:

But why must we begin at the beginning? Here are some alternative ways to read The Silmarillion.

  1. Begin at Chapter 3: It sounds strange, but beginning at chapter 3 gets the reader right into the adventure of the elves and heroes of Middle Earth. Once the story of Middle Earth’s origins is in play, the reader can the go back to fill in the mythic material.
  2. The Tale of Beren and Lúthien: As I said in this post, I don’t think I have ever read anything better than the tale of Beren and Lúthien. It is a gorgeous sad tale of fidelity, courage, and the great deeds of the heroes and heroines of the past. It is also a great way to get a sense of the storytelling in The Silmarillion.

For me, The Lord of the Rings is a bit like the gospels. Having read that, it is time to go back to the beginning and read the Ainulindalë. The Ainulindalë is the first “Book” of The Silmarillion, and, if you are comparing The Silmarillion to the Bible, then the Ainulindalë is like John 1, Genesis 1-3, and Job 38.

So my recommendation is (assuming you are already familiar with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings):

  1. Read the Ainulindalë
  2. Read John 1, Genesis 1-3, and Job 38
  3. Read the Ainulindalë again
  4. Read the chapter “The Fight at the Lamp Post” from The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis
  5. Read Job 38:1-7 again
  6. Read the Ainulindalë again, and the rest of The Silmarillion

If you haven’t got it by then you probably never will.

I’ve read the Ainulindalë more than any other part of The Silmarillion.

And by all means make use of some of the very good resources mentioned in Approaching “The Silmarillion” for the First Time | A Pilgrim in Narnia.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Irulan permalink
    2 May 2017 12:17 pm

    I’m rereading the Silmarillion and last night, I read about Beren and Luthien. I have the old paperback, pictured above. It makes for an active reading experience, two fingers in the maps, another two in the genealogies and index, while still trying to keep one’s place! Maybe I should print out a map of Arda…

    Anyway, it got me thinking about good fantasy – and science fiction, for that matter. What sites can you recommend, Steve?

    • 2 May 2017 7:20 pm

      Check some of the blogs in my blogroll. “A pilgrim in Narnia” is good, and “The other Inkling” — they are fairly focused on Christian fantasy literature, of the significance for Christian theology of other fantasy literature.

      • Irulan permalink
        3 May 2017 9:41 am

        and science-fiction? Did you read the Dune series?

  2. dalejamesnelson permalink
    15 January 2022 10:13 pm

    Hi, Steve — thanks for linking to this column at the Inklings discussion list.

    I’m rereading The Silmarillion now, as we have arrived at 45 years from its first publication and all. One thing that strikes me is how, from the Elves’ point of view, one doesn’t have the sense of Genesis 1 with God seeing the Creation and declaring it good and very good. In the Elves’ tradition as represented by the early pages of The Silmarillion, the Creation seems to be short of what Eru intended. I’d have to turn back to some pages again to be more precise. — maybe I’m mistaken; but it does say “the sound of mourning was woven into the themes of the World before it began” (Valaquenta), etc.

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