Recommended Reading: The Silmarillion…

2008 July 10
by Dante

While not one of my favorite books by J.R.R Tolkien, I have long admired the significance of his posthumously published work The Silmarillion. Most other nerds do not share my reverence of this particular book, considering it a somewhat disjointed very difficult read. In fact, many of my Tolkien-loving friends have never finished it.

I consider that a dirty shame.

What is it?

The Silmarillion is essentially a collection of myths, legends, and histories of Middle Earth. This includes, but is not focused on, the Third Age of Middle Earth which contains the Lord of the Rings stories that everyone loves.

This work is considered by most to reflect the main body of Tolkien’s unfinished works. He started writing the stories that would eventually become this work in 1914, and continued revising and expanding them all throughout his life. At one point, he heavily desired that The Silmarillion be released alongside the Lord of the Rings stories but his publisher wasn’t biting.

Why you should care.

There are five main sections of The Silmarillion, and you can find out more about their contents courtesy of a very well crafted Wikipedia article on the topic. One of my favorite sections is the first, which mirrors an allegorical retelling of the creation story regarding Middle Earth and its races.

As the book progresses, its tone shifts first to myths and histories of the elves and we are given a wonderful love story, “Of Beren and Lúthien”. I will not do the story the injustice of being summarized by my clumsy hand, but suffice it to say if you want depth of characters and a lesson in epic storyline construction you really can start there and be completely satisfied.

I could go on and on about how excellent aspects of this text is, but that would take a long time and my hands would be numb from typing. Anyone who delights in world-building would benefit from the depth and grandeur that Tolkien (and his son, who edited The Silmarillion) gives Middle Earth beyond what most people are familiar with.

It is a shining example of how being passionate about world-building does not have to involve every last detail you ever conceived of in every storyline. If Tolkien had included 1/5 of the characters that he speaks about in The Silmarillion in The Lord of the Rings stories, it would’ve been fifteen volumes and nobody would’ve ever heard about it because the first person to start reading it wouldn’t be done yet. It takes a light touch to color a small portion of your landscape correctly with the right characters, and Tolkien gives a master’s course in doing this in The Lord of the Rings.

In addition to the world-building aspect, you also get some excellent character archetypes from the tales contained in its 365 pages. The aforementioned Beren and Lúthien are great examples, as are Fëanor and his line, who created the magical jewels called Silmarils that the collection is named after. The passion, motivation, and depth of these characters are excellent examples of how good character development can be in a short space. Taking a few of these stories, reading them, and reflecting on how you can build characters as dynamic as these would be an excellent exercise to prepare you for your next campaign, whether writing one or playing in one.

This article is clearly biased.

This week, I was able to add a first edition / first printing of this book to my collection and I consider it a true prize. It doesn’t trouble me at all that many of my Tolkien-nerd friends don’t apprecaite it. I do, and that’s the important part!

7 Responses leave one →
  1. happyturtle permalink
    July 10, 2008

    I think Beren and Luthien would translate wonderfully to the big screen, with Liv Tyler as Luthien, of course.

    Have you read “The Children of Hurin”?

  2. Ben Overmyer permalink
    July 11, 2008

    What really interested me in the Silmarillion is not the character development or the epic stories. Rather, I absolutely loved the lyrical, intertwining language of it. Tolkien grabs every grammatical rule I’ve ever heard of, breaks it in twain, and then recombines the pieces into something somehow more beautiful than the original whole. It’s as if he reinvented the English language just for those stories.

  3. David permalink
    July 11, 2008

    To really date myself, I had a Paladin named in honor of Fëanor back around… ummm… 1978. I may still have that character sheet somewhere. Hmmmm.

  4. Dante permalink
    July 11, 2008

    I really wanted to do a wizard with a magic item creation bent in honor of Fëanor but found the item creation rules so lacking and impossible to do in the expanse of a standard adventure I never got the chance.

    I haven’t gotten the opportunity to look at the item creation stuff in 4e to find out if its any more do-able, but I might revisit that idea when we go to jump into that edition.

  5. Anonymous permalink
    July 12, 2008

    *Is consumed by a fireball of jealousy*

    You have a FIRST EDITION?????

    *explodes and does 2d20 damage for a radius of 50 feet of flaming badgerchick*

  6. Dante permalink
    July 13, 2008

    Not just a first edition. A first edition, first printing! 🙂

    /me successfully makes his Reflex save and avoids all badgerchick damage.

  7. Dante permalink
    July 13, 2008

    @happyturtle: Nope, I haven’t had a chance to read The Children of Hurin yet, its on my reading list but unfortunately the time I have available to read lately is extremely short.

    I’ll check it out soon though, and I’m sure I’ll be posting something here about it! 🙂

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