If The Hobbit is the tip and The Lord of the Rings is the iceberg, then The Silmarillion is the glacier from which Middle Earth was calved. A dark, epic history, the book outlays the mythic roots of Tolkien’s imaginary land. Truly for the connoisseur, it is written in an entirely different tone than The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. A tone that emphasizes tragedy and time over questing and adventure, filling its pages are cosmology, culture, the will of the gods, and tragically heroic tales. “Epic Pooh” it is not.
Starting with the music of the Ainur and ending with the downfall of Sauron (as told in The Lord of the Rings), The Silmarillion is the history of the three ages of Middle Earth. Written in mythic style, the gods, the world, the elves, mankind, and the roots of good and evil are revealed. All of the names and places which lacked context in The Lord of the Rings come suddenly to life. Why was Elrond so revered? For what reason does Gimli speak of Moria in breathless tones? Where does Gandalf get his power? Why do the elves and dwarves foster enmity? Why is the White Tree in Minas Tirith of such significance? Why is the balrog to be feared? How did the Numenorian kings of old lose power?
The answers to these questions are but a minor part of Tolkien’s imagined history, however. Epic wars, land sweeping migrations, oaths taking millennia to fulfill, feuds without end, and epic scenes involving dragons, fires, floods, and jewels to rival the ages are the heart of the book. And the story is told in ribbons: some play out effortlessly to a bittersweet end, while others meet and intertwine in a fashion only myth can offer. In short, Tolkien has woven a history as epic as any in reality.
Written in the style of the Norse, Greek, or Hindu mythologies, the events that change history are the focus of The Silmarillion (a dash of Christianity cosmology thrown in at the beginning). Throughout Tolkien maintains the tone of a historian. Characters are described in abstract voice, sweeping cultural changes take place in a paragraph, and little emotion is invested in the fate of characters caught up in these events. Thus, readers looking for the same type of story as The Lord of the Rings will be sorely disappointed. A philologist by study, Tolkien’s scholarly roots, though aimed at an imaginary world, are on full display in this book.
If The Hobbit is for the young, The Lord of the Rings the young and old, then The Silmarillion is for those wise to the undercurrents of Middle Earth—or just that person who wants to know the back story behind all of the obscure hints and lines in the other works. The Silmarillion tells of the Golden Age of elves, cycles of evil, and of the rise of Men. Nature is presented as primordial, as are the value of humility, beauty, virtue, and honor. Like The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion is well indexed, including family trees, notes on pronunciation, and a list of names and events. Given the mythic import, this is the book which draws Middle Earth tantalizing closer to reality and is the canvas on which the more famous novels were created.