The Silmarillion – J. R. R. Tolkien

(HarperCollins audiobook 2001, read by Martin Shaw)

Let me say right now that I don’t much like audiobooks. The read word tends to distract me from other things, and I prefer to listen to music while doing chores or repetitive tasks such as data entry or writing.

That said, I do like this version of Tolkien’s grand mythology. It has the tone of myths meant to be retold by reading aloud, and rolls along in a tone of looking back on long ago, yet not so long ago that the events have been forgotten, which, I think, suits the audiobook medium almost better than the written word. Martin Shaw generally reads very well, only occasionally mispronouncing some of the names or places (or not being entirely consistent in his pronunciations), and he isn’t good at the women’s voices, trying to lighten his tone too much – so as to indicate femininity – than is necessarily convincing. He also doesn’t try to distinguish too much between the voices of the male characters (though his Glaurung is excellent), but I think this works since Tolkien writes very little actual dialogue in The Silmarillion. I think there’s a certain epic quality to his voice, too, which suits this work.

I’m not sure that The Silmarillion isn’t my favourite of Tolkien’s works – though I know he never wrote it in a finished form, the book we know as such having been edited from Tolkien’s available writings by his son Christopher – I just really enjoy the epic scope of the whole thing. The book consists of several parts:

Ainulindalë – the song of the music of the Ainur – a creation myth, in which the world is brought about through music, and discord is the first sign of evil;

Valaquenta – the tale of the Valar – a description of the spirits called Valar, and their dwellings, powers and interests;

Quenta Silmarillion – the tale of the Silmarils – a long history of the world up to the War of Wrath and the end of the First Age, the emergence of Elves and Men, the rebellion of the Noldor and their wars with Morgoth, and the fate and history of the jewels called Silmarils;

Akallabeth – the Downfallen – the history of Numenor, created as a land to reward the Edain (Men) for their faithful service against Morgoth, and their eventual downfall; and

Of The Rings of Power and the Third Age – a summary of the events after the downfall of Numenor, the rise of Sauron, and the history of Middle-Earth leading up to, and including, the events described in The Lord of the Rings.

The Quenta Silmarillion is generally what I think about when I think of the book – it’s certainly the longest part – and the most involving, since Tolkien often shows us the thoughts and feelings of the characters involved. The Akallabeth skips over many hundreds of years very lightly, and only gets detailed when Tolkien shows us the “pride and folly” of Ar-Pharazon and the final events leading to the destruction of Numenor (and a rumour of Atlantis). The Quenta shows us many interesting characters, from the hot-headed genius Fëanor to Lúthien, most beautiful of all “the children of Iluvatar” but who is powerful enough to contend with Morgoth himself, to Glaurung the dragon, with his power and malice, and Ulmo, the Vala who is most concerned with the Elves in exile.

Like The Lord of the Rings, there are few female characters, though those who do are memorable and often powerful in their own right – such as Melian and her daughter Lúthien, and Galadriel, who was eager to see Middle-Earth and who later founded her own land and guarded it with her power like Melian guarded Doriath. Even Morwen and Nienor, who are dependent on others, are strong-willed and brave. Tolkien does, however, have his male characters express love by referring to to the beloved as treasure (as Aragorn refers to Eowyn when she marries Faramir in The Lord of the Rings), or things to be possessed, which I find annoying, particularly as Beren, who does this with Lúthien, in referring to her to Thingol her father, is genuinely and deeply in love with Lúthien and she with him. Though I also find amusing that Beren tries to dissuade her from accompanying him on his quest to retrieve a Silmaril from Morgoth, when she’s the one who has the greater power (if not strength), and makes the deed possible.

One good thing about the audio version of the book is that Túrin is made much less annoying. When re-reading the book I tend to skip his story, since I’ve always considered that Tolkien’s attempt at a tragic hero doesn’t entirely work, since many of Túrin’s problems are of his own making (okay, so he’s been cursed, but surely that’s no reason for going around killing people unjustly). Shaw’s reading actually makes Túrin’s tale bearable, though I still don’t find the character very sympathetic.

The events of The Silmarillion also throw up other questions, some of which Tolkien doesn’t answer in the book, but about which he evidently had ideas, or had previously written fragments. Several subsequently published books suggest that Tolkien’s development of the world of the Elder Days was continuously developing, and that the fates (and names and relationships) of many characters originally differed from those which they became. Who knows – The Silmarillion, if he’d completed the whole thing himself, might have been a little different.

If you enjoyed The Lord of the Rings, you might enjoy The Silmarillion, but it’s written in a completely different style, often compressing time periods and with very little dialogue. However, it works very well as oral history, and I’d recommend Martin Shaw’s reading of it (though the music which begins and ends each section is a bit much).

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2 Responses to The Silmarillion – J. R. R. Tolkien

  1. I’ve got a copy of The Silmarillion that I bring on long trips, in hopes that I’ll knuckle down and read it, but I never do. I’m not sure why, as I love his legendarium and want to know more.

    • Ela says:

      It can be a bit daunting – so many characters, so much history – but I’d recommend the audiobook for gently easing one into the world. Or try reading it aloud: that can work well. Knowing stories from The Silmarillion can only help to appreciate concordances between events there and in The Lord of the Rings. But there are so many fantastic bits in it – my absolute favourite character is Maedhros, eldest of Feanor’s seven sons, who’s heroic and noble, but unfortunately torn by the oath he swears (along with his father and brothers) which lead the Noldor to Middle-Earth and almost ceaseless war with Morgoth. In fact, although there’s a nominally happy ending to the Quenta, it’s pretty tragic, too, for everyone.

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