Friday, March 5, 2010

1978 Locus Fantasy - THE SILMARILLION by J. R. R. Tolkein

Locus magazine fittingly inaugurated a separate award for fantasy novels with this posthumous work from one of the modern founders of the field. The fantasy genre would not exist in the form it does today without Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. After Tolkien died in the early ‘70s, his son Christopher gathered together various writings on the history of Middle-Earth; the Simarillion is the result, and it’s basically the mythical texts of Tolkien’s world rather than any sort of coherent novel.

In fact, there are a lot of similarities and parallels with the Bible. We get five separate texts here. The first is a creation story. A powerful deity brings the universe to life with music. The second book briefly describes the several lesser deities around the creator, like gods or angels, who eventually come to dwell in Middle-Earth. One of them, Melkor or Morgoth, wants more power for himself (the parallels with Satan are pretty clear) and becomes the enemy of all that is good on Middle-Earth. The fourth book is a tale of human hubris which is basically Babel meets Atlantis, and the final book tells the familiar story of the Rings.

The third book makes up the bulk of the text and follows the great battles between Melkor and the rest of Middle Earth through the “first age.” Many of these battles revolve around a trio of cursed magic jewels called the Simaril that come to rest in the crown of Melkor. Basically, we get a series of names of gods and elves and kings (often the same figure has multiple names) and their heroic deeds. A few moments really stand out, the story of forbidden human-elf love “Of Beren and Luthien” above all, but most of the work requires very careful and studious reading to follow the minutiae of a foreign history.

I think that if you meet two requirements, you will probably love this book. You must a). love The Lord of the Rings novels and the world that Tolkein created in Middle-Earth, and b). you have to take your time with this work, learn the multiple names for all of the beings and creatures described within and carefully follow their interlocking histories. For my part, I a). really enjoyed the Lord of the Rings novels and had a great time with the films (to be discussed later), but “love” is a very strong word, and b). I am in the midst of a project requiring me to read about two hundred novels and have a day job that also requires an inordinate amount of reading, so I’m not going to stop everything for a month and drink in every rich detail of Middle Earth’s history.

In other words, I did not love the book. Really, I barely made it through. But, I still think others who do meet the requirements should check it out (though they probably already have), and someday I might like to read it again and really take my time with it.

Grade: C

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