Why The Silmarillion is the Best Book Ever
Posted by Alan Edwards
I know this blog is better known for screaming ranting hate and me bitching very loudly about things like cupcakes or Brad Pitt’s hair or smoke detectors and other things, but occasionally – very occasionally – I talk about things I love that are not currently being shit on by Peter Jackson and instead wax rhapsodic – or, well, as close as I can get to rhapsody at any rate – about things that bring me joy. This is one of those posts. Sorry to disappoint you guys.
Anyway, I love The Silmarillion. It’s been my favorite book since I took in the first few pages a long long time ago. I know I’m in the minority on this one. In fact, I know only one other person who agrees with me. Even people who love Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings can’t get through it at all in a lot of cases. Most people say it’s dry, it’s dull, hard to read, hard to keep track of what’s going on, etc etc yadda yadda.
I get it. It’s not written like most books. Of course, it’s not really written by Tolkien himself, since it was basically an attempt by his son Christopher to turn the vast amount of notes and work-in-progress stuff into a single cohesive narrative to share the history of Middle-Earth. But I’ve never thought of it as dry. Matter-of-fact, maybe, but there is a sort of poetry to the whole thing all at the same time. Check this out:
Blue was her raiment as the unclouded heaven, but her eyes were as grey as the starlit evening; her mantle was sown with golden flowers, but her hair was dark as the shadows of twilight. As the light upon the leaves of trees, as the voice of clear waters, as the stars above the mists of the world, such was her glory and her loveliness; and in her face was a shining light.
That’s fucking poetry, only less emo and not bullshitty like James Franco.
And here’s the thing: this story is beyond epic. Like thousands of years of history are being related, with an especial focus on about 500-600 years of the First Age involving the War of the Silmarils. That story makes the entirety of the Lord of the Rings look like a footnote, which essentially it is: those books chronicle the fall of the last of Morgoth’s lieutenants, Sauron, who even at the height of his power is a pale shadow of his master, and by the end of the Third Age Sauron is a bare vestige of what he once was in the First and Second Ages. The story told in LotR would not even earn a footnote in Silmarillion. The tale of Beren and Luthien alone make Frodo’s quest look like a run to the grocery store.
I mean, check this out. In order to marry Luthien, Beren has to bring Luthien’s father Thingol a Silmaril, which is worn by Morgoth who is essentially a fucking GOD, from the depths of Angband which makes Mordor look like fucking Hobbiton, even though entire nations of Elves are trying to do the same damn thing and getting mown down left and right. Beren isn’t even really the hero in it – Luthien does most of the heavy work. She rescues Beren from Sauron’s tower, forcing the big bad Dark Lord to run like a bitch, puts the entirety of Morgoth’s minions to sleep, then beguiles one of the seven beings who MADE THE WORLD long enough for her to manage to put him – the most powerful being in the entire world, most likely – to sleep. Then she wakes Beren up, he gets the Silmaril, gets greedy, wakes Morgoth up, and then they have to run like hell only to find the greatest werewolf in existence awake and ready for them. In LotR Frodo loses a finger. Beren gets his mother-fuckin’ HAND bitten off trying to use the Silmaril to cow a giant wolf. So he loses the Silmaril they just won, they escape, go back to Luthien’s father who demands to see the Silmaril, and Beren’s got one hand. However, Beren had vowed that the next time he saw Thingol he’d be holding a Silmaril. Since technically his hand in the belly of a now-crazed beast is holding a Silmaril, Thingol relents. But then, news of the insanely powerful and now-powerfully insane werewolf comes because he’s ravaging the lands all around Thingol’s kingdom, so Beren and Thingol and the most powerful warriors of the realm go to kill the beast. Beren gets wounded protecting the king, the werewolf is killed, they reclaim the Silmaril with his hand still intact around it until it dissolves in the light, show it Beren, and he smiles and fucking dies.
But that’s not even the end! Luthien decides to go talk to Mandos, the Vala (basically a god; Morgoth was one as well) in charge of keeping the Halls of the Dead. She wants Beren back, or at least to share whatever comes after death. It’s a little complicated, since Elves never really die – kill them and they go to the Halls of Mandos for a while and then can return to the world and walk among the Valar – but Men do, and no one – not even the Valar – know what happens to them when they die. So Luthien lays down and WILLS HERSELF TO DIE, goes to Mandos, sings him the whole damn story of the plight of the Elves and Men, and for the first time and last time, MOVES THE FUCKING GOD OF DEATH TO PITY. He doesn’t know what exactly to do, but he talks to Manwë the chief among the Valar, who thinks it over and says, OK, Beren and Luthien can go back to the world and live for a while, but when they die Luthien shares Beren’s fate as a mortal (this would set the precedent for people like Elrond, Beren and Luthien’s great-grandson, and Arwen choosing to live as mortal or immortal). So they go back to Middle-Earth proper, live for a while, avenge the death of Luthien’s father, and eventually die, but not before siring the descendants of the royal family of the Numenoreans, including their great-times-a-thousand-grandson Aragorn.
That story is one chapter of Silmarillion.
Something else too – people love and constantly talk about how George R. R. Martin gives no fucks about his characters and kills them left and right and makes people all sad and shit. Compared to The Silmarillion, George is writing a fucking Sesame Street story about Grover. Practically everybody – EVERYBODY – that you like and is awesome and heroic and lovable dies in the most dire and tragic and heart-wrenching ways. Fucking everybody. And the somewhat matter-of-fact way in which it’s told just adds to the finality of it all. Take Fingon, now High King of the Noldor after the death of his father Fingolfin. Valiant, awesome, totally a great and epic character. He fights Gothmog, the most powerful Balrog (and namesake for Sauron’s own lieutenant in LotR, another pale imitation) to a standstill until another Balrog comes from behind and wounds the High King. Then Gothmog splits Fingon’s helmet wide open and kills him. The aftermath is described as follows:
Thus fell the High King of the Noldor, and they beat him into the dust with their maces, and his banner, blue and silver, they trod into the mire of his blood.
That’s it. That’s cold.
I get that the book isn’t for everyone, and in a way maybe that makes it more special to me. It is an effort to get through the first time, but it is seriously worth it. It is the best book of all time, and I include the Bible in that, because both books deal with the creation of the world and falls from grace and the coming time when the world gets remade again, but only one of them has proscriptions about what you can eat and wear and do and say and gets used to justify the trampling of rights and lives without remorse or pity. The other one has fucking Balrogs and dragons and Elves and fucking epic stories of love and loss and vain hope and ultimate triumph with a terrible cost. I’ll take the latter. Maybe that’s just me.