1977: Lost tales, unattained vistas

Review: The Silmarillion, by J. R. R. Tolkien

This review is included in the collection Writing Down the Dragon.


The fantasy boom of 1977 would never have happened without The Lord of the Rings to blaze the trail, and it probably would not have happened at that time but for the fever of anticipation for The Silmarillion. When that book finally appeared, four years after its author’s death and forty years after it was first offered to a publisher, legions of fans rushed out to buy it, and thousands of them never finished it. I cannot think of any other instance in which an author engendered such high expectations for his next book, and produced a book so wildly incongruous with those expectations. It was as if a stadium full of people had come to see a football match, and were treated to an ice ballet instead.

In fiction, as in every art, nothing is more fatal to enjoyment than the tyranny of expectations. It is a common complaint among authors that their readers are always badgering them to write the same book again and again. Sometimes the authors resist this demand, sometimes they give in, as L. Frank Baum did, and grind out joyless sequels until the whole of the original inspiration is forgotten and only self-parody remains. Baum tried very hard not to write sequels to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. He even proclaimed, at the end of one of the books, that Oz had been cut off for ever from communication with the outside world, and no more stories about it could possibly be told; but the children of America still pestered him for more, and he was slaving away at the fourteenth book when he died. Piers Anthony is probably the leading exponent of that school today, but there are scores of other unhappy offenders. Go to any bookshop with a well-stocked science fiction and fantasy section, and you will see more evidence than you could want. Instead of continuing to create original work, many an author has become merely the head writer of his own franchise, and his later books, in effect, are merely tie-ins to his early ones.

Tolkien escaped this treadmill by the clever expedient of being unable to tread it. He had never meant to write The Lord of the Rings in any case: his heart in the 1930s was with The Silmarillion and its natural sequel, the story of Númenor. It was Stanley Unwin (and a horde of eager children) who wanted a sequel to The Hobbit, and as you can see in the halting and erratic manuscripts collected in The Return of the Shadow, it puzzled Tolkien mightily to invent one. But he was determined to please, as determined as Bilbo:

‘Tell me what you want done, and I will try it, if I have to walk from here to the East of East and fight the wild Were-worms in the Last Desert.’

But the fulfilment of that promise brought him to the very end of the impulse that began with the strange words, ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ Tolkien had nothing more to say about the inhabitants of the Shire and their incongruous modern Englishry. He returned with joy (and vastly improved technique) to the matter of the Elder Days and of Númenor, and for a while, until power and hope began to fail him, he produced quantities of story as magnificent as anything he had yet published.

I say ‘quantities of story’, not ‘stories’, for in the event none of the new tales were ever finished. Fans were pressing for another book, and although they, being fans, wanted more of the same, he had anticipated and misdirected them, dotting his Appendices with references to something called The Silmarillion. Trusting rather naively that his intentions were congruent with theirs, the fans fixed all their hopes upon this mysterious book, and began to clamour specifically for that. But this left Tolkien in a cleft stick. The Silmarillion was nearly finished when he set it aside; it wanted only to be harmonized with The Lord of the Rings. That was not a simple task, but it could probably have been accomplished in a year or two if he had pursued it as his sole and fixed intention. But Tolkien’s intentions were seldom fixed and never solitary. He was at his best when driving projects three or four abreast, following their demands and implications wherever they led, even to places wholly unexpected.

So he wrote part of The Mariner’s Wife, and part of the Narn i Chîn Húrin, and made a fresh start on The Lay of Leithian, and had a go at The Notion Club Papers, and even tried coming up with a tale of the Fourth Age, The New Shadow; and he wrote long and involved explanations of the recondite details of Middle-earth in letters to fans, or in essays for his own reference (and amusement). But none of this brought him any nearer to his professed goal. Meanwhile he fell very much out of conceit with some of his most important early conceptions, as I have mentioned: he wanted to do away with the etiological myth of the Sun and Moon, and change the story of the origin of Men, and he never did come up with a satisfactory explanation of the Orcs. Matters like these, and the unending task of refining his invented languages, occupied him almost exclusively in his last years. In the end he died with a study full of chaotic and unfinished manuscripts, no closer to finishing The Silmarillion in 1973 than he had been in 1937.

In the circumstances, when The Silmarillion finally appeared, what could it have been but a fascinating and ambitious failure?

To every imaginative writer of genius, and to many of us who lack it, there comes a sort of climacteric at which the Secondary World ceases to grow and begins instead to ripen. Tolkien’s climacteric seems to have come in 1943, when he made the map of Middle-earth in coloured chalks that was pinned above his desk ever after. From the small and tentative landfall of the ‘Lost Tales’, Middle-earth had grown into an impressive edifice, as big as Europe and nearly as diverse, weighted with three ages of history and regret. It grew no more thereafter. There was never any map of Rhûn or Harad, nor a history of the Fourth Age beyond the reign of Eldarion. From then on he exerted himself to fill in the white spaces on the map, to bridge the gaps in the chronologies, to give narrative form and fullness to events only sketched in outline before.

Compared to the vast spaces of the 1943 map, and the 6,000-year span of The Tale of Years, the chronicle of the Elder Days was a little thing, just about a tenth as large in both space and time; and in the original Book of Lost Tales it was smaller still. But it was still too great in scope for a single novel. Stanley Unwin, though he wrote on the strength of such scanty information that he ought to have been ashamed to say anything at all, scored an accidental bull’s-eye when he told Tolkien:

The Silmarillion contains plenty of wonderful material; in fact it is a mine to be explored in writing further books like The Hobbit rather than a book in itself.

The original Book of Lost Tales, though still a mass of fragments when its author abandoned it, was already rather longer than the published Quenta Silmarillion. Still to be written were ‘Gilfanon’s Tale’, which would have covered the whole period from the exile of the Noldoli (later Noldor) to the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, and the story of Eärendil, which was never written save in outline, though it was to be the climax of the whole work.

Much has been written about Tolkien’s sources and influences, especially the sources of individual ‘motifs’ and plot-elements in his books. There is less discussion of his formal models, which is a great pity, because these give, in a sense, the key to the whole work. The single greatest influence on the ‘Lost Tales’ was of course the Kalevala, which was intended to be a comprehensive compilation of the heroic poetry of the Finns — though Tolkien’s tales were in prose. The Prose Edda was a model, and quite a logical one, for the radical abridgement of the ‘Lost Tales’ which Tolkien composed (apparently from memory) for R.W. Reynolds. In both cases the prose work was a précis of the existing body of legend, provided as an aid to readers or students of the surviving poems and sagas, so that they could understand the names and allusions and place each work correctly in the context of the whole.

Of course not all Tolkien’s influences were ‘Northern’, though those are naturally the ones most dwelt upon by biographizing critics. The earlier chapters of The Book of Lost Tales show the clear influence of the Old Testament, and ‘The Music of the Ainur’ (later Ainulindalë) is much closer to Genesis than to any pagan creation-myth. The middle part, from the making of the Silmarils to ‘The Fall of Gondolin’, bears a definite resemblance to the Iliad. Both are war-stories, of course, and in both it is much the same kind of war, a series of dramatically stylized battles and exploits, studded with heroes whose names were worth a thousand swords apiece, and incomprehensible without a fairly detailed knowledge of those heroes’ ancestral feuds and motivations. Both stories are much easier reading (for us ignorant moderns) with the help of a large genealogical table. Then the war ends in catastrophe, and in its aftermath Tolkien and Homer go haring off to sea. The tale of Eärendil, as outlined, bears some comparison with the Odyssey, and also with the stories about Sinbad the Sailor. Tolkien cannot have cared much for the extravagances and crudities of The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, any more than for the Matter of Britain (‘too lavish, and fantastical, incoherent and repetitive’) or for Shakespeare’s touches of fantasy in Macbeth. But Arthur and Macbeth left their imprint upon him, and I doubt that he wholly escaped the influence of the ‘arabesque’ fantasy so popular in his youth.

For the nineteenth century was a mythologizing age. What Lönnrot did for (or to) Finnish legend in the Kalevala was by no means unique. The Brothers Grimm set the fashion with their collection of German folk-tales. Sir Walter Scott and Thomas Percy did the same for the Scots and northern English, Lady Charlotte Guest for the Welsh (who scarcely needed her help), Schoolcraft and Longfellow for the Ojibwe, and so on. Macaulay even attempted something of the kind in his Lays of Ancient Rome. It was part of the new religion of nationalism that every great and civilized nation should have its own sacred myths. Even the French had one, though it was not a myth of the ancients, but of the moderns who cast off the shroud of barbarism and the yoke of feudalism in the glorious convulsion of 1789, and so created true civilization and the enlightenment of Man. This myth was largely put about by the French Revolutionaries themselves, but in spite of its obvious falsehoods it has its enthusiasts to this day.

But among all the proud nations with their myth-making clamour, there was one that held a curious silence; and that was England, the most powerful and influential nation of all. A sane mind might have suggested that so striking an exception invalidated the rule. But it takes uncommon insight and courage to be sane about the characteristic insanities of one’s own time. Instead the Romantic theorists set to work to explain the exception, or explain it away. Some held that the English were not truly civilized, but merely a race of money-grubbing ogres in top hats who had got rather above themselves. Others suggested that the English had once had a mythological tradition as rich as anyone’s, but had lost it in the cataclysm of the Norman Conquest. Tolkien made himself the champion of this latter school. In his academic work he strove to recapture and rehabilitate whatever survived of the stories of pre-Norman England, even the cryptic tales embedded in place-names; but in the work of his heart he tried another method entirely.

This method was not original with Tolkien, but he was perhaps the first to pursue it so industriously without nefarious intent. The ‘Ossian’ poems set a standard for this kind of literary deception, and indeed did much to engender interest in comparative or competitive mythology. In the nineteenth century, various authors invented or adapted myth-cycles to buttress their own invented religions. Any list of these would be controversial, and indeed grossly offensive to their present-day adherents, for several of these religions persist strongly. I will confine myself to saying that the accusation has been made against such persons as Joseph Smith, Mary Baker Eddy, and Madame Blavatsky.

Tolkien might well have hung a bogus religion on the framework of the ‘Lost Tales’, but he was well inoculated against that folly. For his romanticism was not dedicated to England only, but also to the Catholic Church. His approach to religion, unlike his friend Lewis’s, was almost entirely emotional, founded in what he considered (not unfairly) to be his mother’s martyrdom. Mabel Tolkien might well have died of her diabetes in any case, but not in such cold comfort, nor leaving her sons in such penury, had not both her family and her late husband’s spurned her as a papist. When Tolkien’s romantic spirit moved him to write fairy-stories, his conscience as a Catholic forbade him to pass them off as genuine private revelations, just as his conscience as a scholar in Old and Middle English forbade him to pass them off as genuine English legends. He therefore determined to offer them simply for what they were — a body of invented tales dedicated ‘to England; to my country’.

So he told Milton Waldman in 1951, in an impassioned plea to have The Silmarillion published in conjunction with The Lord of the Rings. But in the bitter austerity of postwar Britain, with its devalued currency and strictly rationed paper, it was an impossible request. The England of Chaucer and Shakespeare would have delighted in Tolkien’s gift; the England of Clement Attlee could not afford to accept it.

For a gift dedicated to England, The Silmarillion is remarkably un-English. Allen & Unwin’s reader wrote, in a remark made infamous by Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien:

It has something of that mad, bright-eyed beauty that perplexes all Anglo-Saxons in the face of Celtic art.

But this was wide of the mark. The exceedingly complicated web of Elvish histories and languages was in part Tolkien’s attempt to make sense (and style) of the confusion of the Prose Edda, with its ljosálfar, dökkálfar, and svartálfar. The story of Túrin was frankly modelled after the tale of Kullervo in the Kalevala. Tolkien was deeply enamoured of the sound and structure of the Welsh language, but genuine Celtic legends left him cold. He agreed frankly that they were in fact ‘mad’, and was rather hurt to see The Silmarillion tarred with the same brush. In fact the Celtic influence on Tolkien’s fiction was fairly small. But the uniquely English element (if we exception the brazen anachronism of the Hobbits) was smaller still.

But that exception is vital, for it was Hobbits that made it possible for The Lord of the Rings to succeed. Few modern Englishmen, and not many modern readers of any nationality, could easily identify with the heroic nihilism of Túrin or the romantic bravado of Beren, let alone with the high-minded loyalties and hatreds of the Elves. But almost anyone can identify with Bilbo, Frodo, or Sam. They mediate between the high style of archaic romance and the familiar conventions of the modern novel. Whatever The Silmarillion is, it is not a novel. Many of the constituent tales do not even descend to the level of romance, but breathe the cold and rarefied air of pure myth. What they lack is a landfall, a point of contact between the legendarium and the modern reader.

Tolkien felt this lack keenly, and tried many different ways to supply such a contact. The original ‘Lost Tales’ were told by various Elves to one Eriol or Ælfwine, an Anglo-Saxon mariner. This at any rate mediated between myth and early English history, but that is not much help to the average reader. To most of us, Ælfwine of England is almost as remote a figure as an Elvish king. Later, though he never quite gave up on Ælfwine, Tolkien made The Silmarillion a compendium of still older tales, prepared and abridged by an Elvish sage, Rúmil or Pengoloð. In The Lost Road and The Notion Club Papers, the tales of Númenor were conveyed to modern Englishmen in dreams and visions; this is one step better, but not a large step, for they were very curious and atypical Englishmen — almost as strange as Tolkien himself. It is very curious that he never settled upon the obvious method of relating The Silmarillion to the ‘Red Book of Westmarch’, by deriving it from Bilbo’s three books of ‘Translations from the Elvish’. That would at least have allowed him to introduce the legends in a familiar Hobbit-voice, and given us a firm imaginative vantage-point from which to look back at the history of the Elder Days.

But this was perhaps the lesser of two intractable problems. The other was the entire matter of style and presentation. As I have said, the original ‘Lost Tales’ were written at greater length than their counterparts in the finished Silmarillion; and much was lost in the abridgement. The cold and august style of Tolkien’s last years had great poetic beauty, but it could not easily descend to everyday incidents and emotions. Like Treebeard, it was ‘not very, hm, bendable’. The style of the ‘Lost Tales’ is quite different: occasionally twee (as in the dire frame-story, ‘The Cottage of Lost Play’), sometimes grating as it reaches too hard for an archaic effect, but vivid and immediate, with an emotional palette ranging from bitter tragedy to low comedy. The strong sensuous detail that made The Lord of the Rings so compelling is just as pronounced in, for example, ‘The Coming of the Elves’.

Here Ulmo has drawn the first two kindreds of the Eldar across the Sea to Valinor on a movable island; but Ossë, who in this version is a rather vain and puckish junior sea-god, does not want the third kindred to follow them and leave him lonely:

Then Ossë seizes that island in his great hand, and all the great strength of Uin may scarcely drag it onward. . . . Now ere [Ulmo] can return Ossë with Ónen’s aid had brought the isle to a stand, and was anchoring it even to the sea-bottom with giant ropes of those leather-weeds and polyps that in those dark days had grown already in slow centuries to unimagined girth about the pillars of his deep-sea house. Thereto as Ulmo urges the whales to put forth all their strength and himself aids with all his godlike power, Ossë piles rocks and boulders of huge mass that Melko’s ancient wrath had strewn about the seafloor, and builds these as a column beneath the island.

The island is stuck fast and cannot make the third trip. But Ulmo has the last laugh, for he fetches the rest of the Elves across in ships, with a novel means of propulsion:

Now does Aulë of the sawn wood of pine and oak make great vessels like to the bodies of swans, and these he covers with the bark of silver birches, or . . . with gathered feathers of the oily plumage of Ossë’s birds, and they are nailed and riveted and fastened with silver, and he carves prows for them like the upheld necks of swans, but they are hollow and have no feet; and by cords of great strength and slimness are gulls and petrels harnessed to them, for they were tame to the hands of the Solosimpi, because their hearts were so turned by Ossë. . . .

Now all are embarked and the gulls fare mightily into the twilit sky, but Aulë and Oromë are in the foremost galley and the mightiest, and seven hundred gulls are harnessed thereto and it gleams with silver and white feathers, and has a beak of gold and eyes of jet and amber. But Ulmo fares at the rear in his fishy car and trumpets loudly for the discomfiture of Ossë and the rescue of the Shoreland Elves.

All this ‘business’ is lost in the mature Silmarillion:

Now Ossë followed after the host of Olwë, and when they were come to the Bay of Eldamar (which is Elvenhome) he called to them; and they knew his voice, and begged Ulmo to stay their voyage. And Ulmo granted their request, and at his bidding Ossë made fast the island and rooted it to the foundations of the sea. Ulmo did this the more readily, for he understood the hearts of the Teleri, and in the council of the Valar he had spoken against the summons, thinking that it were better for the Quendi to remain in Middle-earth. . . . But the island was not moved again, and stood there alone in the Bay of Eldamar; and it was called Tol Eressëa, the Lonely Isle.

Gone are the jet and amber, the gulls and petrels, the swan-bodied ships of Aulë, and Ulmo’s ‘fishy car’ (so clearly patterned upon Poseidon’s chariot). Gone, too, are the interesting dissensions among the Valar, for Tolkien in his old age found such things impossible to reconcile with his theological preoccupations. It is duller than the earlier story, for precisely the same reason that Dante’s Paradiso is duller than his Inferno, or that Paradise Regained is duller than Paradise Lost. Or to take another example, distinctly lesser but perhaps more familiar, it is like the difference between the original Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation. The second series was more polished and ambitious than the first, but when Gene Roddenberry laid down the law that there should be no interpersonal conflicts among the crew of the Enterprise D, much salt went out of the work. The friendly sparring of Spock and McCoy, or of Ulmo and Ossë, was an element that should not lightly have been lost.

But the heart of The Silmarillion is not in these early myths, but in the four great tales of Beren, Túrin, Tuor, and Eärendil, the heroic Men who fought desperately to prevent the final triumph of Morgoth. The tale of Eärendil was never written in full, and the tale of Tuor never rewritten after the very early and unsatisfactory ‘Fall of Gondolin’; but the other two tales were recast and rewritten with almost manic fecundity. Tolkien never gave up trying to portray Beren and Túrin at full length, in prose or in verse. The Lay of the Children of Húrin is not a particularly effective poem, and its 2,276 lines served chiefly to give the author practice in writing alliterative verse; but the much later Narn i Chîn Húrin is an unfinished masterpiece. With The Children of Húrin, after a lapse of seventy years, Christopher Tolkien took Unwin’s advice and used The Silmarillion as ‘a mine to be explored in writing further books’.

I think this was the correct decision, and one implicit in the nature of the material. The Silmarillion is, as I have said, not a novel, and even as an epic romance it is rather unsatisfactory. Some critics accuse it of lacking unity. Actually it has a powerful unity, but it is the unity appropriate to history rather than fiction. There is no principal character that we can follow through his adventures to discover that world, as we discovered the Middle-earth of the Third Age through Frodo and his friends. The heroes come and go — Fëanor, Fingolfin, Finrod, Maedhros, Haleth, Hador, Lúthien, and the rest — some tragic, some ambivalent, nearly all doomed — more heroes than some novels have characters, and each the centre of his own tale. Homer knew better: he focused the Iliad tightly on Hector and Achilles, and left most of the Matter of Troy aside. The Silmarillion should not have been an epic, even a prose epic, but a cycle of epics.

At one time, indeed, rumour said that it would be released in four volumes, and that might have been the better approach. A very successful version might have been constructed with one volume dedicated to each of the four great tales, and the earlier history of the Eldar and the Silmarils brought in gradually as backstory. The history of Fëanor would have been a logical annexe to the tale of Beren and Lúthien. The Valaquenta and the early wars of the Valar against Morgoth would have fitted well with the tale of Túrin, since ‘in it are revealed most evil works of Morgoth Bauglir’. The story of the Nauglamír (or Nauglafring) was explicitly intended as the opening section of the Tale of Eärendil; and so on. Then each book would have had a sympathetic protagonist, and a hook upon which to hang a more or less novelistic structure; and they would also have retained some of the enchantment of remote vistas that Tolkien recognized to be so powerful an attraction in The Lord of the Rings:

Part of the attraction of The L. R. is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist. To go there is to destroy the magic, unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed.

Macaulay’s Roman poems strove after such an effect, as Tom Shippey describes in Author of the Century:

People learned to read histories and historical poems with a kind of double vision, to see both the event being described and the context in which it was described. Macaulay built this kind of vision into ‘Horatius’ . . . by including evidently nostalgic remarks about ‘the brave days of old’, which show that his feigned ‘lay’ is deliberately looking backward from some historical distance. It has two dates in it, event, and record. This is the kind of thing flattened out by the treatments of Virgil or Livy.

And it is, alas, flattened out by the treatment of The Silmarillion. The ingredients are there for a headier potion even than The Lord of the Rings itself: Bilbo, translating from the Elvish at a remove of six thousand years, looking back upon Túrin Turambar, who himself looks back in awe and wonder at the abyss of ages before the Sun and Moon were made. And Bilbo himself, though a comparatively homely figure, has a sufficient air of ‘long ago and far away’ to lend him some of that same glamour. It would be a triple dose in place of Macaulay’s double. To me, the most moving, indeed heartbreaking, line in The Lord of the Rings comes in Appendix A, at the end of ‘a part of the tale of Aragorn and Arwen’:

Here ends this tale, as it has come to us from the South; and with the passing of Evenstar no more is said in this book of the days of old.

Already, when the Red Book of Westmarch took its final form, Aragorn and Arwen had passed into history, and their deaths were in ‘the days of old’. It heightens still further the poignant sense of loss that hangs over The Lord of the Rings as a whole, and to me at least, makes it almost unbearable. It reminds us that the vista we have just seen is truly unattainable. Most fiction leaves us psychologically at the end of the principal action, looking forward in our imagination to the characters’ future. Tolkien takes that away from us, reminding us again and again that even victorious heroes die, and are forgotten in the depths of time.

The story of The Silmarillion, then, is exceptionally well developed, but the treatment, as compressed into a single book without evident source or standpoint in the history of Middle-earth, is far inferior to what it could have been. Tolkien meant to do better, but he lost the main stream of the work in side-channels of history and theology, and his imagination ran dry in its own delta.

The Lord of the Rings was immensely successful, and has been endlessly imitated. The Silmarillion, which I believe had the potential to exceed that success, fell sadly short of its author’s ambition, and has scarcely been imitated at all. I consider that one of the great tragedies of modern fantasy. A dwarf on a giant’s shoulders sees further of the two: that is an old and commonplace saying. No one will ever write another Lord of the Rings, and it is high time that well-meaning fools gave up trying. But the work that Tolkien left unfinished is still worth attempting, and he came close enough that a dwarf on his shoulders might see the unreached goal.

I do not mean that a lesser writer should try to fill the gaps in The Silmarillion: God forbid. What I mean is that it, rather than the much-abused Lord of the Rings, should provide a standard and a signpost, pointing the way forward for epic fantasy. The Road goes ever on, but few have cared to follow it so far. If we truly honour the work of Tolkien’s heart, we should be out there, blazing trails beyond the last milestone, seeking our way to vistas yet unattained.


  1. It’s a mistake to think of The Silmarillion as a late work in any sense. It was in the 1926 “Sketch of the Mythology” that the details you speak of were lost. Tolkien wrote that to accompany and explain his long poems, and then elaborated it first in the 1930 version, and then further in the 1950s versions, all of which contributed in some degree to the published work of 1977.

  2. I instinctively and wholly accepted the Simarillion, because I was thoroughly acquainted with compilations of mythology by the likes of Bulfinch. Even Christopher Tolkien’s copious notes, which so many have complained of, for me just added to the sense that I was reading a myth cycle. Not a novel, true, but something quite as good in its way.

  3. Gail Finke says

    Anyone approaching this book should read it aloud. I read it two times (once as a teen, once a young adult) out of a sort of determination to like it. But I didn’t like it — until, when we were newly married, my husband and I read it out loud to each other. It became a thrilling tale of operatic passions and epic deeds (and betrayals). I remembered reading that the Inklings had read sagas aloud, and if you think of this as a collection of sagas, their being better suited to recital rather than silent reading makes sense.

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