More Tolkien nerdery

I finished my reread of The Lord of the Rings some time ago, and capped it off with The Silmarillion. And I also eventually finished going through the Peter Jackson trilogy, of which I’m sad to say that my opinion hasn’t changed much: it is impressive and enjoyable on the level of sheer spectacle, and for raising the bar in how the fantasy genre is portrayed on screen. But as an adaptation it misses the spirit of Tolkien for the letter, and in general I find it much more difficult to care about this version of the characters.

Anyway, onto The Silmarillion, which is one of the most eccentric works of modern literature. It isn’t a novel so much as it is an attempt to create what a historical document from Middle-Earth might look like (in particular, the “Translations from the Elvish” that Bilbo is working on during LOTR). In this regard, its own somewhat tortured history actually contributes to its verisimilitude: Tolkien spent the greater part of his life working on these stories, and his thinking on them obviously changed as time went on; which is something that clashed against his desire for consistency. Combine that with Christopher Tolkien and Guy Gavriel Kay’s posthumous reconstructive work and you have a text that reads like a scholar’s attempt at streamlining a bunch of different sources into a coherent narrative.

So it isn’t as readable as Tolkien’s novels, and its literary value has been a lot more controversial. I tend to think it’s a flawed masterpiece. Its history of Middle-Earth’s first age is still an unprecedented act of worldbuilding: few people who try their hand at this sort of thing are willing to devote the level of time and dedication that Tolkien did (which is probably healthy, given that there was little to no realistic chance that these stories would ever reach a state that Tolkien himself would be perfectly satisfied with publishing). And it also reads well as a counterpart to LOTR: in both works it is underlined that human power alone is not enough to defeat evil, and this here plays out as grand tragedy in the house of Feanor’s hopeless war against Melkor in defiance of the Valar (and, especially with the final chapter’s recontextualization of the events of LOTR, it really becomes clear that the elves are tragic figures in Middle-Earth).

In the midst of it is Beren and Luthien, Tolkien’s great love story. If there’s any of these stories that could have withstood an expansion into a LOTR sized novel, I think it would have been this one.

But really, to read more deeply into Middle-Earth after LOTR is to increasingly become a scholar wading through documents in varying degrees of disrepair. There’s a certain poetic circularity in that, given his own career as an academic. But it’s also a bit daunting: in spite of some false starts, I still have yet to make any real inroads into that mammoth History of Middle-Earth.


About Josh W

Scribbler and doodler
This entry was posted in Assigned Reading, fragments of culture, pop culture and its discontents and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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