Friday, September 3, 2010

The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien

I’ve kept The Silmarillion on the shelf for years but put off reading it because I had the vague idea that it’s supposed to be unreadable stuff, the Finnegans Wake of fantasy fiction. This isn’t true at all. I finally picked it up this week and raced through it, daft elf-names and all. It starts with a beautiful musical creation myth and then tells the history of the races of elves and men up to the time of The Lord of the Rings. The book is more a chronicle than a novel, many different stories pieced together from Tolkien’s lifetime of work inventing the histories and language of Middle Earth. Okay, so there are some fairly dry genealogical bits, but it’s also bursting with doomed warriors, gothic love stories and the fight against evil.

The overall tone is melancholic – Tolkien’s heroes are great men and women living under shadows too dark to dispel entirely. There’s something here of Tolkien’s own experience fighting in the First World War trenches, as well as the heavy influence of Beowulf and the Old Norse Edda. Probably I would never have read this if The Lord of the Rings hadn’t been such an important book for me in childhood. That would have been a loss. Together with Tolkien’s novels, The Silmarillion is a journey into a beautiful, haunting other world.

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