It had been many years since I’d read The Silmarillion, and while progressing through the work in preparation for this article, I kept asking myself why I enjoyed the book where others found it difficult to complete, and as I unfolded the large map that came with my hardcover edition for the umpteenth time, I finally was able to pinpoint why I liked it. First, I had always enjoyed Greek mythology, and I remembered continually checking out all the mythology books from the library in grade school; and second, I had always enjoyed atlases, especially historical atlases. Anyone who has completed The Silmarillion will immediately see the connection: The Silmarillion opens with Tolkien creating a detailed mythology, and trying to follow the litany of names and battles as the story progresses without referencing a map of Beleriand can become tedious.
So does this mean anyone not interested in mythology or maps will set The Silmarillion aside for a more conventional story? Perhaps, but I will postulate that the background and depth of The Silmarillion greatly enriches Tolkien’s other works; essentially, the mythology and the historical chronicle of names and battles is the point as it provides context for The Lord of the Rings. In essence, The Silmarillion is a narrative history rather than a novel, and once it is approached as such, I feel that many of the difficulties with the work fall away.
With my latest reading of The Silmarillion, I found two main elements emerging that supplied an enhanced contextual understanding of The Lord of the Rings that I hadn’t recognized before. I will label these two elements diminishment and estrangement. On the surface, The Lord of the Rings presents the classic theme of the ordinary man stoically uniting to meet the challenges of their time, heroically rising to confront the evils around them without the need for glory or renown; however, with the perspective of their diminishment and estrangement revealed via The Silmarillion added to the equation, I believe the rise of our heroes in The Lord of the Rings becomes a much more powerful and astounding story.
As the third age draws to a close in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien continually reminds the reader that many of the actors are echoes of their forefathers, whether they are elves, men, dwarves, ents, dragons or orcs. With the exception of Gandalf, we even see this diminishment in Elrond, Galadrial and Saruman. What is missing, perhaps, is the degree of this diminishment, a diminishment that also extends to Sauron, although without reading The Silmarillion this may not be readily apparent either. It is an age without heroes, an age waiting for someone to rekindle the courage and strength of legends; however, with the perspective of The Silmarillion, the courage of Beren and Luthien is reborn in Frodo and Samwise; the strength of Hurin and his cry of ‘Aure entuluva!’ is renewed in Theoden and Eowyn; and the vision of Earendil and Elwing is awakened in Aragorn and Arwen. When the scope of the decline by the end of the third age is fully realized after a reading of The Silmarillion, the rise of our heroes in The Lord of the Rings against that weight of decline is all the more profound.
The Silmarillion also provides the context for the estrangement between elves, men and dwarves that we see by the time The Lord of the Rings unfolds. Ages of betrayals between the races has truly led the peoples of Middle Earth to the brink of everlasting servitude under the yoke of evil embodied in Sauron, and the long accumulation of division and mistrust has put the continued existence of the races in doubt by the end of the third age; and only when the depth of this estrangement is realized after a reading of The Silmarillion does the proper significance of the bond between Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli become fully appreciated.
Does this mean that not reading The Silmarillion reduces the brilliance of The Lord of the Rings? No, I would certainly view that as a stretch, but I think it is clear that the added depth brings an enhanced clarity to the immensity of Tolkien’s vision. Understanding the history that occurred in the first and second ages does allow for a fuller rounding of the events and characters in The Lord of the Rings. Also, we cannot forget the gems that are hidden in The Silmarillion between the narrative history, two examples of which are the feats of Beren and Luthien, and the tragedy of Turin Turambar. When all the detailed information that answers many of the fundamental ‘whys’ of Tolkien’s world are added into the mix, I believe a reader has many reasons to plow through The Silmarillion.
There is one more aspect of The Silmarillion that I would like to comment on, and this is the number of untold stories that exist. What I mean by this is the number of stories that Tolkien could have told. Why did he write The Lord of the Rings and not another story? Why not write a trilogy on Beren and Luthien? There are many more examples of this in The Silmarillion, but one of the stories I always thought would have been fascinating to be told would have been a trilogy surrounding the forging of the rings. Here we had the remnants of the Nolder and the height of the Dwarven kingdom at Khazad-dum living side-by-side. A detailed story on the actors here could have been as unique as the story told in The Lord of the Rings.
I would like to close with one final comment on Galadrial. Has anyone ever wondered why she did not have a more prominent role in The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings? Clearly, by the time The Lord of the Rings is told, she was the most powerful person in Middle Earth. She was third generation Nolder, born under the light of the Two Trees of Valinor, and even with the length of ages, she would have retained the power and the glory of the first age. Is it plausible that her role in the final confrontation with Sauron would have been as limited as it was? True the waning of the elves and the waxing of men was the prominent theme in The Lord of the Rings, but given Galadrial’s ancestry, I have always found it interesting that she did not play a more direct role in the battle with Sauron.