The Silmarillion

J. R. R. Tolkien

It must be twenty years since I last read this — one of my daughters is in the throes of Tolkien adolescent nerddom, which means I have someone to share ridiculously dorky puns with*, and I read her copy down the coast when I’d run out of books. When I was in Oxford a few years ago I saw an exhibition of 14th century hand-lettered Italian books in the Bodleian library, and the origins of Tolkien’s own invented scripts were clearly visible in their elegant red and black uncials. Similarly, now that I know something of the ancient texts and languages which constituted Tolkien’s day job, The Silmarillion seems less weird than it did to my teenage self, and more an impressive exercise in pastiche. That isn’t intended as a criticism: my taste in fantasy inclines to works which read like texts from the worlds in which they are set, or scholarly redactions of old tales, as in James Branch Cabell’s mock-medieval romances or the classicism of Borges’ “The Immortals”.

George R. R. Martin doesn’t really attempt this – his writing is all incident and plot with a sprinkling of ye olde terminologie like synthetic bacon-bits. In my youth I was prone to diss Tolkien’s style, bit in The Lord of the Rings he shifts between different registers, from cosy to epic, with unusual skill.

*”Tickle-me Ulmo”. Sorry.

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2 responses to “The Silmarillion

  1. Tickle me Ulmo made burst into laughter. Funniest footnote ever.

  2. I agree with this post. I’ve always liked The Silmarillion, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been inclined to defend it over and above most of Tolkien’s other works. Think I’ve re-read it, or parts of it, twice since I was in my twenties.

    It’s focused on what he was really exceptional at: subcreation, and the stories themselves are engrossing as an artificial Sturlusson or Milton. The element of tragedy and fall in Valaquenta, the story of the Noldor, and Akallabeth is much more emphatic than any in the Lord of the Rings, and the starchiness of Tolkien’s chosen vocabulary and phrasing is more apposite to this type of work too – it doesn’t seem so absurd when he uses “fell” as adjective, substitutes “yet” for “but”, or insists on referring to certain things as being “high” …

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