In my personal universe winter is closely associated with the development of my fascination with Tolkien. It was in December that I first picked up The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, with the latter sitting on my bookshelf for several years after the purchase, untouched and unopened, biding its time to storm into my life precisely when it meant to. I spent the whole last month of the year with my nose buried in the books, unable to part with the stories. However, no matter how much I loved The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, it was my January dive into The Silmarillion that sealed my respect and love of Tolkien’s books and turned me from just a reader into the student of his works.
Tolkien’s work at The Silmarillion was a never-ending labour starting in 1910s. This tale occupied his mind fully and was his chief brainchild that the Professor never ceased to perfect, but, alas, never completed. In a letter to Milton Waldman Tolkien wrote:
In order of time, growth and composition, this stuff began with me–though I do not suppose that that is of much interest to anyone but myself. I mean, I do not remember a time when I was not building it.
(Silmarillion, p. x)
It is thanks to the titanic effort of Tolkien’s youngest son Christopher that readers all over the world can now enjoy The Silmarillion compiled by the editor and the literary executor of J. R. R. Tolkien in the way that he deemed good and suitable for the purpose. Besides, it is also to Christopher Tolkien’s great labour that we owe The History of Middle-earth, which shows how much thought the Professor gave to The Silmarillion: the tales kept on evolving, acquiring important details and becoming more and more complex. Essays on languages and their histories, traditions, cultural aspects of various peoples, as well as philosophical issues provide an enormous background for the tales, showing how seriously Tolkien was approaching his favourite creation. As an author, he needed to know as much as possible about the world he was building. A lot of time and effort was given to compiling the material most of which was most likely never meant to be published. In the same letter to Mr Waldman Tolkien stated:
They [stories] arose in my mind as ‘given’ things, and as they came, separately, so too the links grew. An absorbing, though continually interrupted labour (especially since, even apart from the necessities of life, the mind would wing to the other pole and spend itself on the linguistics): yet always I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there’, somewhere: not of ‘inventing’.
(Silmarillion, p. xii)
The tales grew out of languages. Creating languages was always a big part of Tolkien’s life. In case of The Silmarillion they inspired the Professor to build the whole world for them, to place them within a context in order to let them live like any other real-world languages do, to provide them with speakers and their traditions. With such an extensive back history, background and in-depth approach to writing, The Silmarillion is more than just a tale: it is the whole universe with only a small part of it revealed with many more things hidden and waiting to be discovered. It is also a notoriously difficult book to read.
That winter when I first picked up The Silmarillion was a particularly snowy one. The temperature was about a dozen degrees below zero, so the frost was nice and pleasant, and the snow — white, sparkling, fluffy — was lying everywhere in snowdrifts, covering the whole city with winter magic. It was enchanting outside. New Year holidays had just started, and the prospect of the whole week of relaxation was in front of me. I intended to spend it reading The Silmarillion.
Once I began my reading, the story struck several chords at once. Some of them were like small specks of enlightenment, when I came across a name I knew from The Lord of the Rings or when I learnt about the origins of Sauron and Gandalf. I loved the way The Silmarillion was casting new light on something I already knew, deepened my understanding of already familiar stories, albeit in tiny details, explained some previously unexplained things. In other aspects the read was far from smooth and easy.
If I were to compare my first walk through The Silmarillion with anything, then I would go for the journey through Mirkwood. Even though at first I was able to keep track of the names, places and events, eventually I lost it: the path wove and wove intricately, and soon I found myself in complete darkness with little understanding of what was going on or little memory of what had happened before. Small flashes of catching up with the narrative were as elusive as the lights of the Elvish feast: once I approached a certain point which I thought I understood, soon the lights went out and I found myself in the dark again. Though usually a quick reader, I went through the story very slowly, laboriously, but I kept reading anyway. The difference between my personal journey through Mirkwood and the one Bilbo and the Dwarves undertook was that despite all the difficulties, I was really enjoying mine.
To lighten my walk through The Silmarillion, I copied the genealogies onto a piece of paper and made brief notes about each character. My desk was covered in post-it notes with the names of the Valar, their relationship and respective domains as well as different kinds of the Elves and notes on what made them special. Besides, a map was always at hand for me to follow the routes various characters followed.
Despite all of those, though, I could not put the book down. I kept on reading even when I had lost track of what was going on or what had happened to this or that character. The Silmarillion held me so firmly in its grasp that even those obstacles could not ruin the magic the tales were weaving. Now, looking back at that period when I was still discovering the beauty of The Silmarillion, I see several reasons for that.
The first one is the language. Being a philologist, I am very sensitive to language, style of writing and tone of stories. The tone of The Silmarillion, the turn of phrases, the vocabulary Tolkien used enchanted me. Combining an epic style of myths with elevated prose of tales, Tolkien painted vivid pictures with words, sentence structures and descriptions. It was the book that made me very aware of how language can influence the perception of stories, and if before I had judged the use of language on an intuitive level, in case of The Silmarillion it was very conscious. It felt like reading poetry, but in prose style, sensing the beauty of the language, how even a short phrase built out of carefully selected words conveyed more than a thousand other — less aptly chosen — words could say. Confessing to Milton Waldman that he wanted to create the mythology for England, Tolkien wrote:
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.
(Silmarillion, p. xii)
Another reason for my keeping up with the first difficult read was the sense of reality that these tales were building. The sub-created world, the concept of which Tolkien discussed in On Fairy-Stories, was so believable that I did not want to leave it, regardless of the fact that it was a difficult journey. With its cosmology, tales and background (which at that time I was not aware of, but whose depth I could feel in every line) Middle-earth was absolutely believable. More often that once I had the feeling of reading the ancient history of the real world, rather than an imaginary one. Even though many events were only briefly described, I could feel the scale of tragedies and happy events, I felt through various stages of lives together with the characters, I cried and laughed together with them and mourned the deaths of those characters who had become especially dear to me.
When I closed the book having finished it, I had very little memory of most of the contents. There was a very general picture of the events sketched in my head, but that was all. I was left, however, with a deep fascination with the style, the atmosphere and the grandeur of The Silmarillion, its majesty and beauty, of wonderful tales with their epic character and emotions they made me feel. Above all, I wanted to read the book once again as soon as possible. The enchantment was complete: The Silmarillion had got me.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
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