The Silmarillion is arguably the most intimidating of J.R.R Tolkien’s books. It’s looked upon with dread by many lovers of Middle Earth as the ultimate test of endurance and devotion to Tolkien’s world.
I tried to read The Simarillion about fifteen years ago. I opened it, read maybe five pages and gave up. One of my reading goals this year was to try again. I did.
It turns out The Silmarillion is not as scary as I thought.
In this post, I want to talk about what The Simarillion is, give some tips on how to make it easier to understand, and maybe, make it a little less intimidating.
THE SILMARILLION IS NOT A NOVEL
The Silmarillion is a challenging book.
There’s no point in sugarcoating that fact; it is demanding. However, the most challenging part about it is opening it. Its reputation as a difficult read is intimidating and will stop many potential readers from even trying.
I should know, the first time I attempted to read The Silmarillion, disheartened by rumors of how demanding it was, I gave up before I even really tried; it took me fifteen years to open the book again.
The Silmarillion is a difficult book to read. However, reading it is much easier if you understand what type of book it is.
The Silmarillion is not a novel. It’s a collection of texts and short-stories that chronicles the creation and history of Arda—Tolkien’s world—where Middle Earth, along with other lands like Valinor, Beleriand, and Numenor, is located.
The book is not linear; it’s not always chronological, and it blends expository mythological texts with more traditional story-telling.
If you approach it with that understanding, that it’s not a novel, and not meant to be read like one, you’re going to have a much easier time.
The Silmarillions language and style of storytelling is much denser and more formal, but the format is similar.
The first time I tried to read to read The Silmarillion, I think I came to the point in which Tolkien began to name the Valar—Middle Earths’ pantheon of Gods.
Overwhelmed by the sheer number of names, relations, who was married to whom, etc. I might have groaned and then slammed the book shut.
The Silmarillion is a mythological work, and there are many similarities between it and our ancient history.
If you have an interest in myths and legends and are used to reading that type of storytelling, you’ll soon discover that you’re quite comfortable in the world of The Silmarillion.
These comparisons are not perfect, but they can help you understand the relationships between the characters, their roles, and what is going on in the world.
Even though Ulmo is not a carbon copy of the Nordic sea god Njord or Greek mythology’s Poseidon, merely making the comparison helped me pin his character down very quickly.
In the tragic tale of Turin Turambar, I recognized stories about Greek heroes like Heracles who, despite managing one great dead after the other, still always ended up in one personal tragedy after the other.
Once you see the likeness with the stories about Lucifer and his fall from heaven, you’ll quickly get a grip on the central conflict.
Of course, these are the examples I use, the context I quite naturally gravitate too; yours might be different. Maybe you’ll find your anchor in Hinduism, a Manga series you love, or Slavic folklore; it doesn’t matter, use what you know.
DON’T FIXATE ON DETAILS
The number of characters, places, creatures, unique items, and magical animals in The Silmarillion is mind-boggling.
Just keeping track of the main characters in every chapter, who’s related to whom, as well as the pantheon of gods is an overwhelming challenge.
You don’t have to keep track of everyone.
The Silmarillion is a history book. If you think about non-fiction history or even historical novels, there’s always an element of assumption in that kind of literature.
It’s assumed we as readers understand our history, not in detail, but a basic understanding. We know that the wheel was invented before the car. That there’s been two massive wars the past hundred years, and that some guy named Hitler was pretty awful
The Silmarillion is written with the assumption that we know the broad strokes of the history of Middle Earth. Which of course, we don’t. It’s not a failing on Tolkien’s part; it’s a stylistic choice.
This is one of the main reasons it’s so challenging to read.
Everything, from the languages, names, places, it’s all new to us.
In comparison, even as an atheist, the society I live in has given me a basic understanding of Christianity.
Reading the Bible, I would be able to make connections to history, art, geography, architecture, politics, and many other subjects that would help me interpret what I read.
Reading The Silmarillion is like reading the Bible, or any religious text, without any context to place it in. That’s why it’s important not to get hung up on details.
You’re not going to understand all of it.
You’ll come across hundreds of names, most of them are unimportant; you’ll understand the broad strokes, if not the nuances, of the story even if you don’t keep track of the enormous cast of characters.
The essential ones—the Churchill’s, Moses, Gandhi’s, and Hitler’s of Middle Earth— will return over and over throughout the book.
TAKE YOUR TIME
The Silmarillion is not a book you can read in a day or two. Well, obviously you can, but not if you want to understand what you’ve read.
It’s roughly three hundred pages. The audiobook version is close to fifteen hours; it took me eight days to finish. That’s less than two hours a day. Normally, I can easily listen to an audiobook for eight, ten, even twelve hours a day if I’m really into the story.
The stories in The Silmarillion are too intricate, and the language to rich, to read in one or two sittings. There’s just too much information; you’re brain will get tired.
The trick to reading The Silmarillion is to allow yourself time to process the stories—and potentially do any additional reading you think is necessary—while, at the same time, not take such a long break that you forget what you’ve read so far.
In The Silmarillion, there are appendices with family trees, a character index, pronunciation guides, and other resources; you’re going to need to use them.
Personally, because I love Tolkien, and knowing I wanted to take on The Silmarillion, I’d already invested in three of David Day’s books on Middle Earth.
On a side note: David Day’s books, although gorgeous, are highly controversial among Tolkien purists and scholars. Although the author disagrees, there is broad agreement among many that he invents facts and makes interpretations that are not supported by Tolkien’s own source material. In style and format, I think these books are perfect for a complete novice, or someone not used to reading academic literature. But, it’s worth keeping in mind that, if you’re planning on doing some serious studying of Middle Earth lore, David Day’s books are probably not the best source material.
This—the fact that you have basically to study to understand this book—is probably going to be the thing that discourages most readers.
Again, this is a book for a specific type of person. You’re either going to love diving into the appendices, or you’ll hate it.
If it’s the latter, you’re better off not reading The Silmarillion, because there’s no way you’ll understand it if you’re not willing to put in the work.
I quickly found a routine where I would listen to one story/chapter; then, I would take a break. After pausing, I would use my David Day books and read about the characters, places, and history, of the story I had just finished. Then I’d take another break before going onto the next chapter.
On a side note: I was very hesitant to listen to The Silmarillion as an audiobook. I believed it was too complicated, and that I needed to read it to understand.
Nevertheless, I did listen to it, and, surprisingly, it made things easier.
Because you need to stop and look up names and other facts so often, I found it convenient to be able to pause in the middle of a sentence and look something up without having to lose my place on a page and start rifling through the back pages of the same book.
However, if you do listen to the audiobook, you still need either a physical copy with the appendices or some other type of Tolkien companion.
HOW IS ALL OF THIS NOT SCARY?
With what I’ve written this far, it seems like reading The Silmarillion is hard work, which goes against the whole point of this post; the point is to lessen the intimidating reputation of this book.
But, I don’t think downplaying the challenging aspects is the right way to do that.
The Silmarillion is easily one of the more challenging books I’ve read.
I only understand the broad strokes of the story, and it’s going to take multiple readings even to get a basic grasp of everything.
It’s also one of the most satisfying books I’ve read. I thought I was in love with Tolkien’s work before; now, I’m obsessed with it. The scale and detail of this world are unbelievable. It’s so vast and plentiful.
It takes work to read this book, but you’ll be rewarded for your effort.
The Silmarillion is not difficult just for the sake of being difficult. It’s not one of those books where it’s obvious the writer is a pretentious prick who thinks abusing his thesaurus makes him smarter than everyone else.
It’s a challenging read because the world Tolkien created is so detailed and authentic.
That being said, going into this book for the second time, I had an advantage.
During the fifteen years since I first tried, and failed, to read this book, I’ve read many history textbooks. I’ve also read several fiction and non-fiction books on mythology and legends; this time, I understood how to approach this type of storytelling.
The key to reading The Silmarillion is realizing that you don’t have to understand everything to enjoy the story.
It doesn’t matter that you feel confused after only a few pages, or that you can’t keep track of all the elves whose names all seem to start with the letter F.
It doesn’t matter!
When you reach the end, you will have read a great story, and you will understand the big picture.
Understanding the big picture is good enough.
WHAT’S THE POINT?
If it’s such a challenge, is it worth it?
Honestly? That depends. The Silmarillion is primarily a book for people who already love history, myths, and legends.
It’s for people who want to know the whole story. It’s for those of us who didn’t skip the songs and poems in The Lord of the Rings. For them, for us, The Silmarillion is a goldmine. It adds multiple layers of depth to Middle Earth, and once you reach the end, you’ll have a completely different understanding of what lead up to The Fellowships quest.
I reread The Lord of the Rings trilogy after completing The Silmarillion.
I can’t claim that it was a vastly different experience; it’s still the same story. But there was a subtle depth that I hadn’t experience before. There’s no significant difference, but plenty of minor ones.
It’s standing on the bridge of Kazhad-dum and seeing more than a wizard fighting a fire monster; that it’s essentially, an angel fighting a demon.
The Silmarillion opens the door to a much larger world than the one presented in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Those two books represent the beginning of the end of a very long story.
If you can look past the challenging parts of this book, you’ll find a fantastic story; a tale darker, deeper, and just as good as The Lord of the Rings.
Sauron is a puppy compared to Melkor. Shelob is a pale comparison to her distant mother, Ungoliant. One Balrog? Pfft, try fighting a battle where’s there’s several of them and dragons. Really, really, big dragons.
Reading The Silmarillion is a challenge, but not an insurmountable one.
If you love Tolkien but have avoided The Silmarillion because of its intimidating reputation, give it a chance. Don’t pass on this book because you’re worried you won’t understand it.
You won’t. But that’s OK, you’ll still enjoy it.