Ossus Library Index
Fantasy Index


by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien
(1986, George Allen & Unwin)

The History of Middle-Earth, book 4

The first versions of the Silmarillion, the first Map and the Annals of the World, with commentary relating them to the earlier and later works.


+ -- 2nd reading (hardcover)
December 8th to 20th, 2003


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 tragedy.

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relates to what came before, in the previous three books, or what comes later, in The Silmarillion or the future (unpublished at the time) books in this same series.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 version.

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 hand.

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 Book 12 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.


-- First reading (hardcover)
June 26th to July 13th, 1989


No review available.


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