This weekend, I completed The Silmarillion. Not my first time. In fact, I have read The Silmarillion so many times since the fall of 1977, I have no idea what number of reading I’m actually on. Eight times? Nine? Ten? It was the first J.R.R. Tolkien I had ever encountered, even before The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. I can still see myself sitting on the floor of my maternal grandparents’ family room in Hays, Kansas, trying to read the story of Creation, the “Ainulindalë,” over and over again. At age ten, I am not quite sure how much of it I actually understood, but, to this day, I cannot read or teach the first three chapters of Genesis without imagining Ilúvatar and the Powers. Tolkien’s mythological version of Creation is one of the most beautiful things I have ever read, and I think it does mighty justice to the Hebraic account. Regardless, Tolkien’s version is indelibly imprinted on my soul and mind.
This most recent reading of The Silmarillion is the first time, however, that I have mapped out the entire book—not just in marginalia but on paper and in .doc format. I have kept track of characters, plots, empty spaces, ideas, etc.
As always and with each reading, I have come to the same conclusion: this is one of the richest stories ever imagined and recorded. Whether I’ve read it ten times or one hundred times, I will always be amazed by its depth and its intensity of beauty.
This time, two new thoughts hit me. Or, if they are not new, they are not ones I remember having had before.
First, if every college student had to read The Silmarillion as a core text, the world would be a much better place. Indeed, as I finished the book yesterday, I couldn’t help but think that almost all of the wisdom found in the collected works of Eric Voegelin, Leo Strauss, Christopher Dawson, and Russell Kirk finds a place in this book. Of course, the story of The Silmarillion is timeless. It is the story of pride against love, of love against pride. It is the story of preferring self to other, or other to self. It is the story of choosing art or dominion, or dominion or art.
In The Silmarillion, there are terrible beauties and horrific tragedies. As much as I have encountered, I have never read a non-explicitly religious book that is as rich with wisdom as The Silmarillion. It is better than anything Friedrich Hayek, Dawson, or Voegelin wrote, frankly. And, like the Greeks of antiquity, Tolkien tells this timeless tale through myth, dialogue, and parable (though not allegory!)
Tolkien’s Silmarillion does for modernity what Dante did for the Middle Ages and what Virgil did for the Roman age of transition from republic to empire. I firmly believe that Tolkien will someday be understood as the best representative of this Epoch of human existence. Not that I will be around to confirm this.
Second, I also have come to realize over the last several years how important Christopher Tolkien is to the entire mythology. This hit me hard yesterday as I finished the book.
At the beginning of this version of The Silmarillion (the second edition), Tolkien’s son and literary heir, Christopher reprints a long letter his father wrote to a friend and would-be publisher in 1951. It’s a long letter and often quoted.
Here is just one significant part of it:
But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story—the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths—which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country. It should possess the tone and quality that I desired, somewhat cool and clear, be redolent of our ‘air’ (the clime and soil of the North West, meaning Britain and the hither parts of Europe: not Italy or the Aegean, still less the East), and, while possessing (if I could achieve it) the fair elusive beauty that some call Celtic (though it is rarely found in genuine ancient Celtic things), it should be ‘high’, purged of the gross, and fit for the more adult mind of a land long now steeped in poetry. I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd.
And, yet, it’s not absurd at all. In fact, it’s exactly what has happened. No one knows for certain when Tolkien began his mythology, the “Legendarium,” as he would come to call it, that encompasses The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and myriad other stories. In the same letter quoted above, Tolkien claimed this myth—in some form or another—had always been with him. “I do not remember a time when I was not building it.” Clyde S. Kilby believed Tolkien had formally begun the planning and writing of the mythology around 1913, while Tolkien gave specific dates ranging from 1915 through 1917. We do know for certain that some of the first writings Tolkien made were done in the trenches in World War I and actually appear on the back of official military orders and messages.
Scholars such as Carl Hostettler and Verilyn Flieger have done much to identify the exact moments of creation in Tolkien’s mythology, and I will only refer you to their work rather than go through it now.
This much is certain: J.R.R. Tolkien never completed The Silmarillion. It took Christopher four more years after his father’s death for The Silmarillion to see the light of day and an actual bookstore book shelf! In 1980, Christopher released yet another compilation of his father’s stories, Unfinished Tales. Between 1983 and 1996, Christopher published the twelve volumes of The History of Middle-earth. Since, he has edited and released his father’s work on the Volsunga, the Arthurian legends, Beowulf, and The Children of Húrin (another story set in Middle-earth and from The Silmarillion).
There was a time that I would’ve criticized Christopher for this or that choice made in the publishing of his father’s work. No more. I realize now how vital Christopher has been to the entire process–absolutely essential, frankly, in getting his father’s work out.
And, the dates matter. For the same of argument, let me claim that Tolkien began the formal writing of his mythology in 1915, a date generally accepted by Tolkien scholars. This means, of course, that 2015 is the 100th anniversary of the mythology. Yet, J.R.R. Tolkien passed away in September 1973. His works have continued to be released more than four decades after he left this mortal realm.
Christopher Tolkien will turn ninety-one this November. In other words, the mythology is so profound, dense, and wide that it’s taken the lives of two men to bring it to the public. And, not everything has been published. A few things still remain.
So, a huge thank you to J.R.R. Tolkien, and an equally huge thanks to Christopher Tolkien: RAF pilot, Oxford University professor, and keeper of the flame of the Legendarium.
Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.