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Tuesday, August 16, 2005
Debating the Silmarillion
By Dr. Steven Taylor @ 2:08 pm

Since Scott Nokes is suffering slings and arrows over his post the other day on the Silmarillion, I feel I must come to his aid as I meant to comment on his post at the time.

The sin committed by Dr. Nokes is to be found in the following passage:

This book has sold millions of copies, and (if I can say this without incurring the wrath of the many Tolkienophiles) is boring beyond belief. It doesn’t have characters so much as it has concepts; it doesn’t have a plot so much as it has general movement; and it doesn’t have prose so much as it has an homage to the language of Romance. I can’t imagine why anyone would read it for itself — rather, I think, people read it in order for such revelations as saying, “Oh, that’s why Frodo starts chanting about Elbereth” and other such things.

As has been noted on numerous occasions, I am quite a Tolkien fan, and have read the Silmarillion at least twice and while I have enjoyed it for what it is, I have long thought that, on balance, it was mostly a boring book whose appeal existed in its linkage to the LotR rather than as a stand-alone work. On balance, it is an extended version of the fascinating, but hardly novel-like, appendices at the end of the LoTR. At a minimum it comes across more as an academic tome, rather than a piece of fiction.

However, the last time I read it I was especially struck by what Nokes above: the general lack of true plot, character development and actual narrative. Just thumb through a copy and notice how little actual dialogue there is to be found. Certainly there is a marked dearth of extended dialogic passages. There are characters aplenty, but not really any character development. Yes, we hear a great deal about Melkor, Turin and and such, but mostly we get sketches rather than actual stories about who they were, why and what they really did. Like the Old Testament, much of the Sil is broad-brush strokes of history and people that does not really tell us all that much about the characters or the history, but rather seeks to made a broader point.

It is, as Nokes states in his original post, basically the publication of Tolkien’s notes. They are fascinating on one level, but not comparable to the LotR, or even The Hobbit–indeed, Sil isn’ t really the same kind of book. That the book has been read by millions is a testament to Tolkien’s entire body of work, less a testament to the Sil itself.

(And for what it’s worth, I think I enjoyed Unfinished Tales more than the Sil because it had more actually narrative pieces).

And I would note that I love exploring backstory in mythology/fictional universes. I was geeky enough to read the Tolkien Companion and like books like they were novels and less as reference works when I was in late Middle School/early High School.

Noke’s defense is here, where he notes:

The Silmarillion is little more than a mythological scaffolding upon which to build a real mythology — that of LotR. The blueprints might be lovely, but when it starts raining, it’s time to get in the bricks-and-mortar house.

I think that that is an accurate description.

He also notes:

I still find fault with The Silmarillion because it would fail as a free-standing work. Presumably Paladin and Chris read The Silmarillion after reading The Lord of the Rings and therefore read it through the prism of LotR. Try imagining you had read The Sil first. Would you have read LotR? Or The Hobbit? Or any of the other collections of half-written works? I cannot see into your hearts, but I doubt it.

Paladin notes that he views the Silmarillion as a work in its own right that he loves it apart from the LotR–fair enough, but speaking for myself I have a hard time seeing that. I must admit that my main motivation in reading the book was because of the trilogy and doubt I would have read it once, let alone twice, if it was Tolkien’s only work. Like some soundtracks I love (and love at least in part because of the images they conjure from certain films and TV shows), I wonder if taken wholly our of context that Sil would fare as well. I am fairly certain that to me it would not, and I suspect I would not be alone. It certainly wouldn’t have sold as well as it did.

One thing’s for certain: without a radical re-working, there isn’t going to be a Silmarillion movie.

Indeed, the Silmarillion is a example of something I used to say about graduate seminars (and still say about class in general, as well as panels at conferences): it is possible for an activity to be simultaneously fascinating and boring.


  1. […] onferences): it is possible for an activity to be simultaneously fascinating and boring. - Steven Taylor Yup. Even though I’ve never heard of the Silmarillion.


    Pingback by Arguing with signposts… » QotD, academic/sci-fi geek edition — Tuesday, August 16, 2005 @ 3:23 pm

  2. Largely agree.

    Though you have to give props for the fight between Felagund (helping Beren) and the werewolf: “Felagund put forth all his power, and burst his bonds; and he wrestled with the werewolf, and slew it with his hands and teeth.”


    Um. That’s about the only passage in the entire book I really remember, though.

    Comment by Steven L. — Tuesday, August 16, 2005 @ 3:44 pm

  3. I must say I did read the Silmarillion before the Hobbit and LOTR. I actually liked it quite a lot. But I do find the middle section a bit tedious. My favoite part has always been Akallabeth, about the rise and fall of Numenor, because it seems to have the best plot out of the whole work.

    Comment by Brett — Tuesday, August 16, 2005 @ 8:26 pm

  4. Dr. Taylor Joins the Fellowship

    The saga over my “boring” comment regarding The Silmarillion continues with Steven Taylor joining our fellowship (in which I appear destined to play Boromir). Dr. Taylor comes to my defense here, shouting “Gondor! … er, Troy!”, to which I can onl…

    Trackback by Unlocked Wordhoard — Tuesday, August 16, 2005 @ 8:52 pm

  5. […] on, but I got at least one hit for someone Googling: The Silmarillion movie. So, I guess my previous post was worth the effort.

    Filed under: Pop Culture, Movies, Bloggin […]

    Pingback by PoliBlog: Politics is the Master Science » Proving the Worth of the Silmarillion — Thursday, August 18, 2005 @ 10:09 am

  6. Maybe the Sil is a different kind of story, one painted in broad strokes, like a history rather than a novel. RE a Silmarillion movie:bite your tongue! It wouldn’t be easy but the Sil could be transformed for the big screen with quite a bit of compression and some re-imagining. It would probably be best as a series rather than theatrical movies (they said for years LOTR couldn’t be adapted for the screen, and Bakshi and Rankin/Bass proved this theory before Peter Jackson proved it wrong). I found reading the Books of Lost Tales helped my grasp of the Sil–provides a lot of the narrative structure the Sil is missing.

    Comment by turin — Tuesday, August 30, 2005 @ 10:42 am

  7. The Silmarillion, in my mind, is a collection of Elven legends. I think we should pardon the stylistic differences between it and LOTR and allow it to be something which captivates our wonder in its own unique way.

    Tolkien himself mentioned that he desired others with similar wonder to write stories based off of the Silmarillion. It seems to me that those who REALLY want to see more of the Ainur and the Elves would be able to “go there” and bring back the things in more detail.

    I think CS Lewis has mentioned how the summary of a myth can be enough to grip our souls, because they are potent even without much detail. Phrases like “the light of Aman was in her face, like an unclouded mirror.”

    Perhaps some things are too good and beautiful to be put into words. Again, I think we should give some grace and let the Silmarillion be what it is.

    Furthermore, the Ainulindale perhaps is as good as a creation myth can be! It may be well-crafted because there is an appropriate attempt to communicate such high things.

    What do you think?

    Comment by RepublicFan — Sunday, September 11, 2005 @ 8:51 pm

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