Readers who have already been involved with Hobbitry, Middle Earth, and the fantastic adventure-romances of J.R.R. Tolkien will doubtless recall from the four volumes previously published passing allusions to epic cycles antedating those tales of the Third Age in which Bilbo Baggins and Frodo his faithful nephew play such impressive parts. These hobbit-adventures, which fully occupy not only The Hobbit* but the three volumes grouped under the generic title Lord of the Rings, describe just two brief moments in the history of Middle Earth, the years 2941-2942 and 3018-3019. Around these concentrations of episode, crucial though they are, lie enormous blank spaces of Middle Earth history; and it was only to be expected that these blanks should have been filled somehow, with legend, myth, genealogy, history, natural history—the busy business of Middle Earth.
So indeed they were; but the filling-in material was never published until now, and now only (it would seem) in part, and subject to considerable editorial arrangement and selection. The actual composition of the Tolkien cycle is thus revealed as The Hobbit first, with the mythical backgrounds filled in next, their presence now explaining to some extent that considerable difference of tone and feeling which is noted in the final compositions of the series, The Lord of the Rings trilogy. What is published now as The Silmarillion is what Tolkien referred to, in the foreword to the trilogy, as “the mythology and legends of the Elder Days.” He described it there as “work done for my own satisfaction” in which he had little hope that other people would be interested. Consultation with friends, he says, changed “little hope” to “no hope,” and so the material remained unpublished.
It appears now, when the first four volumes have established a Tolkien cult; and by that cult the book is now being carried forward to enormous sales. But it is beyond question that there will be far more purchasers of the new volume than ever read it through, and one suspects had it been published earlier, it might well have laid a blight on the entire series. For The Silmarillion, despite the cuts that have evidently been made in the original materials, the selection and arrangement that have been imposed on them, remains an empty and pompous bore. There are epic elements in it, but they have been smothered by an overgrowth of genealogy.
The narrative is not in itself very sturdy. Oaths, feuds, sword fights, lost cities, doomed lovers, and ill-starred friendships abound; but there is a dearth of characters and an oversupply of stereotypes. The familiar Tolkien division prevails between level-eyed, steely-but-gentle good guys, and snarling, black-minded bad guys; but the action remains exterior and mechanical. Above all, Tolkien has a fascination with names for their own sake that will probably seem excessive to anyone whose favorite light reading is not the first book of Chronicles.
It came to pass [Chapter Ten informs us] during the second age of the captivity of Melkor that Dwarves…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.