Warning: this post may contain spoilers for JRR Tolkien’s “World Bible” for Middle Earth, The Silmarillion
I’ve written about “world-bibles” before, which is just my term for the notebooks that I use to collect all of my world-building information for my larger and more complex stories. Typically, I put these together in OneNote, and they consist of a few different tabs on things like “timelines,” “politics and religion,” “characters,” “science, magic, and technology,” and “geography,” or something similar, and then I’ll have various notes jotted down mostly piecemeal within those tabs. They are varying levels of complete, and most of them I very much just build as I go and think of things to add (and I really should be more consistent about adding to them, since it would make my writing process for things like Blood Magic and Fo’Fonas a lot easier). JRR Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, though, is truly and literally a religious text for and of Middle Earth, straddling a line between being in-world and out-world.
In my most recent reread of The Lord of the Rings, I expressed that there is a certain mythical quality to the story and its manner of telling, and that is even more so present in The Silmarillion, which makes sense: according to the letter of Tolkien’s included with the text, Middle Earth was intended to be a sort of original mythology, evolved from the languages he had invented. It truly meets that goal, and more, being in many ways to my mind more compelling and unique than most “real” mythologies. As much as the pages of Homeric epics and similar are filled with outlandish creatures and oversized deities, there is something more real and true and full about the creatures invented in Middle Earth. Perhaps most unique about The Silmarillion as a mythos is that it is told not from the perspective of the humans, but from that of the Elves, the Firstborn, the Noldor, the Eldar.
Like most myths and religious stories, these stories are tragedies; in fact, I had forgotten just how sad much of the book is. For all that the elves are alien (and Tolkien does a fantastic job of expressing and immersing the reader in that alien-ness, something that anyone trying to write from a non-human perspective ought to study carefully), they are still very human in some of their failures and Falls, for The Silmarillion is really a collection of tales about the various Falls of that various races of Middle Earth. Except the dwarves, who feature only occasionally and are very much a side story to the main drama of Middle Earth (and there’s a very good reason for that, as you will discover if you read the book).
You could read this book to learn about the history of Middle Earth, about how, why, what, and who the Elves, the Humans, the Dwarves, the dragons, the Balrogs, the wizards, and so forth came to be. That is the guise in which I first read it, and to be honest the first time I read it I found it very, very dry, with long stretches of text that I found uninteresting interspersed with brief flashes of insight into the Lord of the Rings story. This time, though, I read it differently, and I am going to recommend that you read it differently, too. Instead of reading The Silmarillion as a companion to The Lord of the Rings for people who just can’t leave well enough alone and want to know what all of those random references in the core books mean, I highly recommend approaching and reading it as you would a mythical text of our own, real world. Reading it with that mindset, I found this a deeply compelling work, and deeply moving. Fair warning: this will probably dampen your enthusiasm at the end of the War of the Ring, because you will better understand why Elrond and Galadriel keep going on about the “evening,” and the “dusk” of their time, and why Elrond at one point in The Lord of the Rings expressed that no matter the success of Frodo and his quest there will be an ending for him and the elves.
All of that being said, it does provide some fascinating insights into Middle Earth, not least of all being Sauron’s origins (he actually becomes both less and more frightening a figure after his backstory is known – on the one hand, you know how he came to be and his various failures, but on the other, you realize that what the hobbits are facing is for all intents and purposes the might of a lesser god), the origin, role and purpose of the wizards, the origin of the balrogs and the dragons, and why the peoples of Middle Earth regard the sun and moon as second-best sources of illumination. Any number of the tales told in brief as epic myths in this text could easily be spun into entire volumes of their own on par with The Lord of the Rings (and indeed, some were made into their own novelizations).
If I had a critique, and that isn’t really the right word for it, it would be that even in this treatment of Middle Earth we still gain almost no insight into the nations of Men to the south and east. They are generic, easily manipulated pawns of Sauron and/or Melkar/Morgoth, and I think the greatest insight we gain to them is that of the wizards who come to Middle Earth during the Third Age, the ones who aren’t named (Radagast, Gandalf, and Saruman being those named) are sent to the peoples of the south and east. Which isn’t much of an insight. Now, I’m sure that Tolkien did this intentionally, as they weren’t meant to be part of this core mythos of Middle Earth, but they spark my curiosity.
It is perfectly possible to enjoy The Lord of the Rings and not want, need, or choose to read The Silmarillion. This is the sort of text that will only appeal to a subset of people interested in it for its insights into Middle Earth, its academic/literary significance to the body of Tolkien’s work, or its role as a work of genuine and original mythology. That being said, if you are even slightly intrigued by what I have here written, then I recommend you consider giving The Silmarillion a try.