The Silmarillion is not an easy read, but on the other hand, I don’t want Tolkien fans who might be interested to be unnecessarily scared away from it. I definitely had a rough start the first time I read it, but eventually it won me over.
I followed along with The Silmarillion Primer at Tor.com during this reread, and I highly recommend it. It’s intended for first-time readers and does a great job of explaining things, focusing on one chapter at a time. That said, avoid reading the comments at Tor if you don’t want spoilers. Each post includes maps, art, family trees, and flowcharts. Also, it’s surprisingly hilarious.
And speaking of art, one of my favorite Tolkien artists Jenny Dolfen, who focuses on The Silmarillion, has a book out, Songs of Sorrow and Hope: The Art of Jenny Dolfen, which I’ve added to my TBR. Much of her art is available online, as well.
The book is divided into 5 sections. I’ve decided to put the main narrative last, it simplifies things a bit.
The Silmarillion starts with two prologues:
The Ainulindale, Tolkien’s creation myth and an examination of how fate works in these tales. This is 10x more interesting on rereads, because of the way it ties in with everything else. But it’s really not very representative of the book as a whole. It’s ok to skip this, in fact, but probably don’t skip the next part.
The Valaquenta, which introduces the Valar, the semi-divine characters of Tolkien’s legendarium. And also the Maiar, who are sort of a level down from them — the same kind of beings as Sauron, Gandalf, and Saruman. Gandalf has a line in LotR about Sauron being “a servant or an emissary” but doesn’t bother to explain whose servant. The main antagonist of The Silmarillion, Melkor, was Sauron’s boss and is pretty clearly analogous to Satan.
The book also ends with two short sections:
The Akallabeth: the tale of the fall of Numenor. This is a very compressed account considering how much happens in it. It is not quite as engaging as some of the more fully fleshed out tales, but there are some wonderful passages.
The Quenta Silmarillion (“Tale of the Silmarils”) makes up the bulk of the book. It starts out telling of the beginning of time and the origins of the Elves. Some of the stories in these chapters have a Lord Dunsany-like feel to them, but the narrative is building up to something significantly darker than that.
At this point the Noldor, who are the main players in most of the book, are introduced. The index notes that their name literally means “the Deep Elves,” and explains that
The name… meant the Wise, but wise in the sense of possessing knowledge, not in the sense of possessing sagacity, sound judgement
…. LOL. I mention this because it tells you pretty much what you need to know about the Noldor. Their greatest craftsman, Feanor, invented the Silmarils, the three jewels that are central to the stories that follow. Some of these events have a pretty obvious Genesis/Paradise Lost influence. The Noldor — and really, the First Age Elves in general — often seem to have more in common with legendary human characters (in the sagas, for example) than with Elves in folklore, as far as their basic motivations are concerned.
The Feanorian arc — the tale of him and his sons — both starts and ends the main story, but it is somewhat in the background during the “Three Great Tales,” Tolkien’s collective term for the stories of Beren and Lúthien, The Children of Húrin, and The Fall of Gondolin. (The narrative compression of The Silmarillion means that quite a lot from the extended versions is left out. I’ve put a hold on The Fall of Gondolin at the library, but I’d really like to reread The Children of Húrin, eventually.)
a few of my favorite things:
favorite of the Valar: Nienna! I have rather mixed feelings about the Valar as a whole, but that would probably take an entire essay to sort out properly.
favorite chapter: The Nirnaeth Arnoediad, probably.
favorite character: Maedhros!!! On rereads I’ve come to appreciate many or even most characters, but he’s still my favorite. Without a doubt, he has one of the most compelling character arcs in the whole book; it was one of the few things that really stuck with me the first time I read it.