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If JRR Tolkien had been born in ancient times, he could have founded a mythology with the stuff of The Silmarillion. This is a book that I find myself rereading again and again. A fair amount of criticism is attached to this work, as it was compiled by the son of JRR Tolkien from his father’s notes, and is not canon, as such. That being said, I think I enjoy The Silmarillion as much, or more than The Lord of the Rings for several reasons.
First of all, JRR Tolkien was wont to make the past grander than the present, even in terms of his mythology, and evidence of that can be seen in this book where armies of gods, elves, and men fight armies of dragons, balrogs, and the first enemy, Morgoth. The concepts, magic, battles, and beauty are on a much larger scale than anything that appears any of his later works. Great heroes live and die. The world is richer for them having lived, and also a little diminished at their passing.
Secondly, The Silmarillion was initially started by Tolkien when he was serving in World War I and while he never published it during his lifetime, he kept adding to and refining it until it served as a fictional cultural heritage to all of Middle Earth. All the characters of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have been touched in some way by the events of The Silmarillion even if not explicitly, and some characters in those books have seen the events described in it, firsthand.
The book is divided into 5 parts: The Ainulindalë (the story of the creation of the world), The Valaquenta (information about the gods and of their first battles against Morgoth), Quenta Silmarillion (The story of the war of the Silmarils), Akallabeth (the story of the Numenoreans and of the fall of Numenor), and of The Rings of Power and the Third Age.
The Silmarillion should be read as a book of mythology and folktales rather than as a coherant standalone story. It jumps between chapters that are informative and chapters that read like epic tales that would have been passed down by word of mouth in older times. Nevertheless, the book paints such a vivid world with such a compelling mythology that the entire Tolkien universe benefits from its having been. To the reader it gives greater insight into the nature of Tolkien’s creation and of the degree of thoughtfulness that was put into its inception. While this is definitely a sadder story in terms of content and while it is structurally different from his other works, I highly recommend it.
The artwork in this post was created by Chris Mills, and depicts an event in the fall of the elf kingdom of Nargothrond. It illustrates the meeting of Glaurung the father of dragons and the tragic hero Turin Turambar (a serious badass who apparently didn’t get the message that you’re not allowed to provide your own nickname). Chris was kind enough to let me use his artwork here and has created some exceptional watercolors of dragons, including Smaug. Some of his artwork can be viewed at http://www.elfwood.com/art/s/t/steading/steading.html.