Tolkien's Silmarillion - An Overview
Created | Updated Mar 2, 2015
JRR Tolkien's most famous work is undoubtedly The Lord of the Rings trilogy, with The Hobbit coming a close second. Readers of these books look forward to reading his other major book, The Silmarillion, but are daunted when they open it; it is very different. The Silmarillion is not a single story, but a collection of interconnected legends resembling fairy tales, told in a very old-fashioned style of English. Tolkien worked on these interwoven legends for all his life and they never reached a point where he considered them ready for publication. When Tolkien died, his son, Christopher Tolkien, decided to edit them to make a single book and the result is The Silmarillion.
The book is very uneven - some stories are fully fleshed out in detail; others read more like a storyboard, with events presented rapidly in succession. There are contradictions and repetitions. Nevertheless, The Silmarillion is essential reading for any Tolkien fan.
The book contains one main section, The History of the Silmarils, and four short sections: The Music of the Ainur, Valaquenta, The Downfall of Numenor and Of the Rings of Power. The first two of these are background information for the main tale, while the other two are independent.
The Writing of the Book
Tolkien started writing The Silmarillion in 1917, when he was only 25. He had been fighting in Europe in the First World War but was sent home to England suffering from 'trench fever'. At about that time, translations of Irish fairy tales had recently become available and interest in the old stories of various European countries was growing. But England itself had very few old tales. Most of the fairy stories known to a typical English person, such as Snow White or Cinderella, are French or German. Tolkien decided to write his own fairy stories for England. The stories soon outgrew England and he set them in the land of Middle Earth, an old Germanic name for our world, but in Tolkien's stories a slightly different world. The fairies became the immortal elves.
As time went on, Tolkien's stories grew and he started to invent languages for the elves to speak: Sindarin inspired by Welsh and Quenya inspired by Latin, Greek and Finnish. Then he thought of a framework for the stories which allowed the elves to be separated from each other for long periods in which their languages could develop separately. So some aspects at least of the tales grew out of the needs of the language; Tolkien being a language expert, this is to be expected.
On several occasions, Tolkien approached publishers with a view to putting his stories into book form. No one was interested; while there was much demand for old folk tales, nobody wanted new ones. He turned his hand instead to other things, producing first The Hobbit and then The Lord of the Rings, both of which sold phenomenally well. But he continued working on the tales of The Silmarillion, which were closest to his heart.
At the time of his death in 1973, Tolkien had laid out the form of the book, with the five sections as they are now, and much of the content was in place. But the tales within the main Quenta Silmarillion section, which form the bulk of the book, were incomplete and inconsistent. It was left to his son to put this together into a form that was ready for publication. He enlisted the help of Guy Gavriel Kay, a fantasy writer, and together they wrote much of the ending of the story and tidied up the loose ends.
The Silmarillion was published in 1977 and has sold reasonably well ever since, appealing to those who have read The Lord of the Rings and just have to know more. However it has never really gained a wide readership.
There has never been a film made of The Silmarillion. Although it is not a huge book, it covers a lot of ground. Any movie which tried to include it all would have to cover at least 600 years of history and have at least 25 main characters. This puts it in the general category of 'unfilmable'. But it is quite possible that a good movie could be made of some of the stories within the book: the tale of Turin Turambar is probably the most suitable, with a hidden elvish city, a dragon and a doomed hero along with liberal helpings of tragedy, betrayal and incest.
The rest of this entry contains a summary of the plot of the sections of The Silmarillion.
'The History of the Silmarils' (Quenta Silmarillion)
'The History of the Silmarils' tells of the war of the elves against the first Dark Lord, Morgoth. The war was without hope, because Morgoth was a creature far more powerful than the elves, a Vala, one of the Powers of the Earth.
Setting the Scene
The story starts with the creation of the world. The Valar, the Powers of the Earth, were appointed by Iluvatar, the Creator, to prepare the world for the coming of the Children of Iluvatar, who are immortal elves and mortal men. The greatest of the Valar was Melkor (later known as Morgoth), but he rebelled against Iluvatar, wishing the world for himself. He fought with the other Valar, undoing many of their good works, setting himself up as the first Dark Lord.
Most of the story is told from the viewpoint of the elves and in particular, the group of elves known as the Noldor. When the elves awaken for the first time, Middle Earth is in darkness, lit only by the stars. The Valar live in Valinor, a blessed land far across the sea in the west of the world, which is lit by two giant trees, one of gold and the other of silver. Melkor has built a huge fortress in the north of Middle Earth, but the Valar have just fought with him and imprisoned him, so there is peace in the world.
The Great Journey
The Valar decide that the elves should come to Valinor, and most of the elves start on the journey west, but it is a long one and many tarry or stop along the way, so the elves become divided into different groups, some of which never reach Valinor at all.
Those who travel across the sea became known as High Elves. Most of the stories are about a group of High Elves called the Noldor. They are the only High Elves who ever return to Middle Earth. The other important group are the Sindar or Grey Elves, who get as far as Beleriand, the westernmost part of Middle Earth at the time, but don't cross the sea to Valinor. Beleriand lies west of the Shire and the Blue Mountains, in a region which later, in the time of The Lord of the Rings will lie beneath the ocean.
The High Elves become great in mind and body due to contact with the Valar. They are the greatest and cleverest elves, and the greatest of them is Fëanor. Although he does not rule the elves, he is the most skillful in craft and his spirit burns with a flame fiercer than any elf before or since. He discovers how to make gems and produces the three most beautiful gems ever, the Silmarils, capturing the light of the two trees in them.
The Exile of the Noldor
Things really start hotting up when Melkor is let out of prison, having served his time. Melkor wants the Silmarils, but Fëanor doesn't trust him so he won't let him near them. Melkor starts spreading slander against the Valar and Fëanor's heart is turned against them, although he still has no time for Melkor.
Melkor launches an attack on Valinor with the aid of a giant spider creature, Ungoliant. Together they produce a great darkness and destroy the two light-giving trees. He then kills Fëanor's father, steals the Silmarils and heads back to Middle Earth.
Fëanor is furious. He curses Melkor and makes up the name Morgoth, 'black enemy', for him. He swears a mighty oath, that he will never rest until he gets the Silmarils back, no matter who has them. His seven sons swear along with him. From that moment onward, they are cursed, because they have set themselves against Morgoth. Fëanor makes a speech and persuades most of the Noldor to follow him. They decide to leave Valinor, against the advice of the Valar, and go to the harbour, where they ask to borrow the ships of another group of elves, the Teleri. But the Teleri love their ships and won't part with them, so the Noldor fight with them and kill many of them. In this way, the Noldor damn themselves.
At this stage, the Valar announce that the Noldor must return to be judged for their crime. The Noldor disregard this, continue on and eventually reach Middle Earth, but are exiled, banned from ever returning to Valinor. Enchantments are set in the sea around Valinor to prevent anyone from reaching it.
The Valar are conscious that they are guardians of the whole world, and don't want to abandon Middle Earth entirely to Morgoth, particularly since they know that men, the second Children of Iluvatar, are about to awaken somewhere there. So they construct the sun and the moon and set them in the sky. Morgoth's creatures have always loved darkness, so this is a major blow against them.
The War against Morgoth
Once in Middle Earth, the Noldor find that they can't immediately capture Morgoth, because he has returned to his fortress of Angband to the north of Beleriand. They set up kingdoms for themselves in the areas not already ruled by Thingol, the King of the Grey Elves, and set about a long and hopeless war against Morgoth. This starts out well, but gradually goes downhill. Morgoth breeds orcs, werewolves and dragons to assist him. He has balrogs, spirits which he has persuaded to join him and has turned into demons of fire and terror; and he has Sauron, who is mighty in Earth lore and as evil as his master. With this lot of monsters and fell beasties, he is invincible. In battle after battle, the elves lose ground until Morgoth's forces hold the whole of Beleriand.
'The Great Tales'
Men arrive late to Beleriand, after the war with Morgoth has begun. Many of them fit into the society set up by the elves and become their friends. But other men become subjects of the Dark Lord and fight on the side of evil. The great tales all involve men as well as elves. Three tales stand out from the rest as worthy of mention:
The Tale of Luthien and Beren
Beren, a man and a great hero, wanders into the woods of Doriath and meets Luthien, an elf maiden and daughter of the King of the Grey Elves. They fall in love, but the King will not give his blessing on the union, setting Beren an impossible task: he must go into the fortress of Angband and bring back a Silmaril from the crown of Morgoth. Beren and Luthien set out on what appears to be a hopeless quest, but after many adventures, they confront the Dark Lord and succeed in getting the jewel.
On the return journey, they encounter an enormous wolf who takes the Silmaril. Eventually, the wolf is slain and the jewel presented to the King, but Beren is mortally wounded. Luthien travels in spirit to Valinor and sings a song of sadness to the Valar. They grant Beren some extra life, but Luthien must give up her immortality. The couple return to Middle Earth, live together for the rest of a normal human life, but never speak to anyone again.
The Tale of Turin Turambar
Turin is a young man whose family has been cursed by Morgoth. Being a Vala, Morgoth's curse carries considerable power. Turin grows up a strong and handsome young man who wields a mean sword and constantly fights against the forces of evil. But everything goes wrong for him.
Things start going amiss when Turin kills his best friend in a mistaken ambush and becomes an outlaw. He eventually arrives at the elvish kingdom of Nargothrond and becomes important there due to his skill with the sword and knowledge of strategy, but his plans for Nargothrond leave it open to the enemy.
Morgoth sends armies led by Glaurung the dragon and they conquer Nargothrond, killing most of the inhabitants or leading them off to slavery. In the confusion, Turin's sister Nienor, whom he has never met, is mesmerised by the dragon so that she doesn't know who she is. Turin finds her and befriends her, falls in love with her and eventually marries her. Finally Turin confronts and kills the dragon, but the foul creature reveals that Turin's most wicked act was to marry his own sister. In despair, Turin kills himself.
The Downfall of Gondolin
Turgon, one of the greatest of the Noldor, decides that the only way to avoid being beaten by Morgoth is to hide, so he builds the city of Gondolin in a secret valley in the mountains. He brings all his people to the city and seals the way so that they are cut off from the outside world. For hundreds of years, they successfully hide from Morgoth.
As time progresses, Turgon's daughter Idril grows to be one of the most beautiful creatures that ever walked the earth. Turgon's nephew, Maeglin, falls in love with her, but tells no one, because elves are not permitted to marry their cousins. He is torn apart inside by this illicit love. Meanwhile, Tuor, a man and the cousin of Turin, is guided by the Valar to Gondolin, where he is accepted by the King and eventually marries Idril.
Maeglin takes to wandering far into the mountains on mining expeditions and is captured by the enemy. Under torture, he quickly cracks and reveals the location of the hidden city. Morgoth launches a huge attack on Gondolin and destroys it, although a few including Tuor and Idril escape.
The end of the History of the Silmarils is one of those sections which is written in abbreviated style - it was provided only to round the tale off, but a lot more work was required to make a well-spun tale. Eärendil and Elwing are 'half-elven', each having both human and elvish parents or grandparents. Taking the Silmaril which Beren and Luthien wrested from Morgoth, they sail into the West and somehow manage to reach Valinor, despite the enchantments around it. They plead their case before the Valar. Because they represent both elves and men, the Valar listen and relent, lifting their ban and deciding to deal with Morgoth once and for all. The War of Wrath takes place, in which Morgoth is defeated and cast out into the void outside the world, from where he can never escape.
But Middle Earth has suffered badly as a result of the wars. Most of Beleriand has sunk beneath the sea. Very few of the original Noldor or Sindar are left.
The Other Works
'The Music of the Ainur'
This legend tells how before the creation of the world, Iluvatar made creatures called the Ainur who lived with him. They made a great music together, although Melkor constantly strived to take control of the music. Then Iluvatar showed them that the music was actually the design for a world. He gave them a vision of the world they had designed and offered them the work of caring for it. Those of the Ainur who chose to enter the world became bound to it and are known as the Valar, the Powers of the World.
The Valar were told to rule the world, but not to impose their will on the Children of Iluvatar, the elves and men who would eventually arrive in the world.
'Of the Valar' (Valaquenta)
This short section lists the names and attributes of the Valar. The most important of these were:
- Manwë, Lord of the Air
- Varda, Lady of the Stars, also known as Elbereth
- Ulmo, Lord of Waters
- Aulë, Lord of the Earth and father of the dwarves
- Yavanna, the Lady of Living Things
- Melkor, the Great Enemy
It also tells of some of the lesser powers, the Maiar, who helped them, including Melian, the mother of Luthien, and Sauron, who was also known as Gorthaur the Cruel.
'The Downfall of Numenor' (Akallabeth)
After the war in which Morgoth was caught and cast out of the world, the men who had helped on the side of good were rewarded by being given long life, great wisdom and a special country set on an island called Numenor in the Western Ocean, within sight of Valinor. They became the greatest of men, ruling the oceans and providing help to all the countries of Middle Earth which bordered on the sea. But they never travelled to the Kingdom of Valinor, for they were forbidden to enter it.
As time went on, the Numenoreans became less generous, demanding tribute rather than providing assistance to Middle Earth. Despite having much longer lives than ordinary men, they started to envy the immortality of the elves. Sauron counseled the king, saying that the gift of immortality was in Valinor for a king who was strong enough to take it. The king commanded his fleet to assail the blessed realm. As punishment for disobeying the ban, the island of Numenor sank into the sea and the world was changed.
'Of the Rings of Power'
This documentary section tells the history of the rings of power, of which Sauron's One Ring was the mightiest. Most of the information in this section already exists in The Lord of the Rings.
The book also contains family trees of some of the elves and men of the main story, a comprehensive index to all names in the book, of which there are many, and a short guide to Elvish elements in names.