||As with the previous books in this
series, this one takes the various drafts of The Silmarillion and shows
its development towards the final form. This is the first time, however,
that the book actually takes on the style that it would have when it was
eventually published. In The Book of Lost Tales, these were stories told
to a visitor to the island of the elves, far in the future.
The Lays of Beleriand showed the tales of Beren and of Turin in poetic form. There
was also a small fragment of later tales such as Gondolin and Earendil.
This book, however, shows us a couple of
summaries of the whole story of the Silmarillion, and it brings the
drafts to the form they were in when The Hobbit was written.
The Sketch of the Mythology is probably
the best place to get a quick overview or summary of the Silmarillion,
even though the story had not reached its final form, and there are
several large discrepancies, and many names are not even similar.
Of course, if somebody is looking for a
way to navigate the Silmarillion, I would recommend the brief history in
the Tolkien Bestiary first.
Aside from the little details and some
major developments, the ending of the sketch is quite a mess, having been revised
many, many times. This is hardly an improvement on the
Lost Tales II,
where a complete narrative didn't even exist. Thankfully Earendil's time
traveling the globe is reduced from its Iliad- or Odyssey-like
proportions. I don't remember if in the Lost Tale Earendil actually slew
Ungoliante, but here he does! What an amazing feat! It is unfortunate
that his trip to Valinor here is worthless, because the hosts had
already gone to war with Melkor. I suppose this was the ultimate
The commentary on the Sketch should be
skipped unless the story of the Silmarillion is very well known, because
much of what Christopher Tolkien writes relates to what came before, in
the previous three books, or what comes later, in The Silmarillion or
the future (unpublished at the time) books in this same series. However,
knowing the story was well as I do, I found much of it rather
intriguing. The only parts that I found myself drifting through without
really reading was the numerous changes in names and parts of names,
which I found tedious.
The Quenta, which was the next version
of the story, is more fleshed out, giving many more details than the
Sketch, but is still far short on many plot points, even compared to the
Lost Tales. The main problem
with it as a story is that it is very impersonal. I wondered, for
example, why Feanor had seven sons, when so many of them died
anonymously in various battles. Yet I think this version was still meant
as a summary.
Still, the part that takes place in
Valinor is almost completely fully formed, and is recognizable
immediately. The early parts of the return of the Noldor to Middle-Earth
(not yet named like that) were constantly in flux, but much more was
pinned down in this version, especially in the notes. However, so much
detail was lost concerning the tale of Beren, and especially Turin. It
is from these points in the narrative that it is easily apparent that
this is a summary. The tale of Mim is still nearly absent, except for
his appearance in Nargothrond after the dragon is killed. Thankfully the
curse on the gold is due more to its association with the dragon than
the dwarf, though he is still able to curse it. Dwarves here still have
an evil nature, but the seeds of their development are seen in this
Near the end of the Quenta, it was
really cool to see the sudden changes that bring the story much closer
to its final form. Two points struck me especially strong. The first is
the move from Elrond being an only child, very probably human, to the
addition of his twin brother Elros, so that one could be man, and Elrond
could remain an elf. It is not entirely clear why this change was made,
but it appears that the legend of Numenor was starting to form in
Tolkien's mind. The second point was one I raised just above, that
finally here, in changes made to this version, Earendil's voyage to
Valinor actually made a difference and caused the Valar to go to war.
Since the story remarkably contains so
much of the final Silmarillion, it is the commentary relating changes
between versions that I found to be most interesting here. The story was
fun to revisit, but very familiar.
Considering that Tolkien built his
stories around his languages, it is not surprise that character names
form a large part of the way he "played" with this world. This made
parts of the commentary rather tedious, for that is the least
interesting part of the story to me.
The real meat of this book, and the
parts that I found to be most interesting were the First Silmarillion
Map and the Ambarkanta -the shape of the world. The first map is
probably the genesis of the chapter in the Silmarillion that tells us
all about the geography of Beleriand, which is a little tough to read,
but is amazingly fun to listen to on the
audio book, with the map in
The Ambarkanta was a very different
work, though, telling us about the various layers of air and substances
that surround the world. I found it intriguing that birds could not be
supported in Valinor, though I suppose the Eagles were an exception. The
layer that supported clouds was also thin in that region, so that
Valinor didn't have much in the way of blocked sky.
I also found it interesting how the
world changed with the wars of the Valar upon Melkor, or the fall of the
lamps that created the inland seas. An abandoned concept tells of
how the symmetry of the world was destroyed when the Valar created the
Mountains of Valinor, because they pushed Middle-Earth away! I cannot
even imagine the power of those wars. It's lucky neither elves nor men
were awake for those times.
The Earliest Annals of Valinor are
extremely difficult to read, because the wording is all mixed up from
how a dialog would normally be written. The story is also difficult to
grasp, because of the extreme compression. After all, these only relate
the events to specific years, and are not meant to describe them fully.
With the exception of the addition of the Green Elves, these annals
don't add much to the story, except as a precursor to the Tale of Years.
I haven't decided if it is too bad I
can't read Old English, or if it's too bad the Old English texts were
included in this book. Scholars might be interested, but I think most of
the reader base would not be able to read it at all. Still, the notes
and commentaries indicate that there was actually some development of
the tale in these versions!
The Earliest Annals of Beleriand are
much easier to read. In the first version, we get a complete description
of the Quenta from the time the Noldor arrived back in Beleriand, but
once again, they don't add too much to the story. The only really
interesting part was the association of years to the major events. It's
a wonder that some things took so long to do, with often years between
preparation for battle and the battles themselves, including the war
against Morgoth. Then, of course, at
the end, the complete fall of the elves takes place in less than two
decades! As Christopher Tolkien mentions in his commentary, the First
Age was very, very short in this inception compared to the 3000 years or
so that spanned each of the Second and Third Ages.
The second version, which doesn't go
very far, is interesting because of the extreme expansion that takes
place at the beginning, with extra wars and descriptions of where the
Noldor were located during the Siege of Angband. Of course, this is
typically where casual readers start to doze off, but with a map in
hand, it can be very interesting.
I have always enjoyed these tales as a
complete work, rather than as tales told by somebody, or translated by
somebody for my benefit. The tradition of these being campfire stories,
however, goes back to the Book of Lost Tales. In this book, we get
"translations" of various texts, including those in Old English. This
gets a little wearying, but it is easy to gloss over it here. It
culminates, of course, in an extreme "relating" of the tales in
of this series, where it gets, to my mind, very annoying. But that is
part of Tolkien playing with his languages, and making the tales into
something akin to Beowulf, which has to be read in translation (by me,
at any rate). Even Greek Creation myths have to be translated into
English for a large part of the population to read it, and many times
the meanings of words are different depending on the translator.
Mostly, this book is a good refresher
on the story of the Silmarillion. It contains two early drafts,
summaries really, and some early tales of years, for a total of three
versions of The Silmarillion. It is amazing to note how powerful the
elves and men of the First Age were, that they could even defeat Balrogs
in single combat. After seeing on screen how long it took Gandalf to
defeat the Balrog in Moria, I wonder how powerful Tolkien saw the elves
-or how ordinary he saw the Balrogs.
The most interesting parts of this book,
however, were the descriptions of the formation and shape of the world,
and how it changed with the various events that took place.
The book had
a pretty good introduction; I wish Christopher Tolkien had written a
suitable general conclusion, rather than just ending the book with one
of the sections.