Friday, October 21, 2011

A Preliminary Defense of The Silmarillion

"But Ulmo was alone, he abode not in Valinor nor ever came thither unless there were need of a great council; he dwelt from the beginning of Arda in the Outer Ocean, and still he dwells there. Thence he governs the flowing of all waters, and the ebbing, the courses of all rivers and the replenishment of springs, the distilling of all dews and rain in every land beneath the sky. In the deep places he gives thought to music great and terrible; and the echo of that music runs through all the veins of the world in sorrow and in joy; for if joyful is the fountain that rises in the sun, its springs are in the wells of sorrow unfathomed at the foundations of the earth." (34)
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, now officially my favorite work of literature, ever.

I just love how every negative criticism of The Silmarillion that is at all discerning, i.e. not "the writing sucks and the story is lame," describes why I love it:
"too serious, lacking the light-hearted moments that were found in The Lord of the Rings and especially The Hobbit. TIME lamented that there was "no single, unifying quest and, above all, no band of brothers for the reader to identify with". Other criticisms included difficult to read archaic language and many difficult and hard-to-remember names." [copied from Wikipedia]

My advice for the adventurous few who may attempt Tolkien's greatest work:
1. Skip the Ainulindale and the Valequenta until after you've read the Quenta Silmarillion and the Akallabeth.
2. Stick a post-it in the genealogies in the back of the book and reference them until you are familiar with the Elven families (especially the House of Finwe), forgetting who is who is the fastest way to loose track of what is going on. Later on in the book doing the same for the map may also be helpful, but don't worry about locations in the earlier chapters. Obtaining a middle-earth atlas may be helpful, as the printings of Tolkien's original maps are often quite poor.
3. Consider reading The Children of Hurin first, it is an expansion of chapters 20 and 21 and will familiarize you with many of the major figures while giving a much more unified plot line. It is also fantastically depressing, Tolkien really had a flare of Greek tragedy.
4. Experience reading ancient and medieval literature is invaluable. The Silmarillion is not a novel, do not expect compelling dialogue, well developed characters in the modern sense, or a continuous plot. Pore over it like a three thousand year old epic and you will find depths in it that match Ovid, Virgil, Sturluson, and Dante.
5. Tolkien penned the first versions of the original stories, Beren and Luthien, the Children of Hurin, and the Fall of Gondolin, in the trenches on the western front of WWI. Don't expect anything light or frivolous, but know that "amid weeping there is joy and under the shadow of death light that endures." (190) It may be escapist fantasy, but it is not an escape into anything less terrifying or beautiful than the world from which one may wish to flee.

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