The History of Middle-earth

In 1937, the world of literature was regaled by the vivid portrait of a new and magical world. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, published almost two decades after he begun writing it, introduced readers to the labyrinthine world of Middle-earth. In 1954, with the publication of the first two installments of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, made Middle-earth as one of the most fascinating creations of literature. The trilogy’s movie adaptation, filmed nearly half a century after its publication, renewed the interest of readers and moviegoers alike. The impact and success of the movie adaptation of J.K.K. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings Trilogy is unmatched in recent memory. But how did Middle-earth came to be?

J.R.R. Tolkien, in his posthumous work, The Silmarillion, offered avid fans of an elaborate account of the history of Middle-earth. The draft stories of The Silmarillion was initially provided as a sequel to The Hobbit but was rejected by Tolkien’s publisher. While it was shelved, Tolkien wrote in its stead what would be one of the most popular literary trilogies. It took a couple more of years before The Silmarillion saw again the light of day as a fully published literary work.

Following his death, the manuscripts of this epic fell in the hands of Tolkien’s son, Christopher. However, what the Tolkien scion has received was a draft of stories, some even predated The Hobbit. Relying on his understanding of his father’s intentions and creativity, Christopher, with the assistance of Canadian fantasy writer Guy Gavriel Kay, endeavored to complete and edit these stories to come up with what he deemed would be a narrative that is a reflection of his father’s corpus. In the introduction, which is seminal in understanding the story, Christopher Tolkien wrote: “I set myself therefore to work out a single text, selecting and arranging in such a way as seemed to me to produce the most coherent and internally self-consistent narrative.” And thus commenced the story of Middle-earth.

“The doom of the Elves is to be immortal, to love the beauty of the world, to bring it to full flower with their gifts of delicacy and perfection, to last while it lasts, never leaving it even when ‘slain’, but returning – and yet, when the Followers come, to teach them, and make way for them, to ‘fade’ as the Followers grow and absorb the life from which both proceed. The Doom (or the Gift) of Men is mortality, freedom from the circles of the world.”

~ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion

The story of how Middle-earth came to be was divided into five parts, commencing with Ainulindalë (“The Music of the Ainur”). Borrowing both biblical and mythological elements, is a brief Ainulindalë chronicle of the creation of Arda, the version of Earth in the vast Tolkien cosmology. Eru Ilúvatar, the fictional supreme being of the universe, first created the Ainur, angelic beings referred to as the Holy Ones. The “offspring of his thought”, the Ainur were taught music by Eru Ilúvatar. Through three themes of music, the Ainur’s symphony resulted into a vision of Arda and its people. When Eru Ilúvatar offered an opportunity to settle in Arda, many accepted and took physical form. The group, however, was divided into two – the Valar, the greater Ainur, and the Maiar, the lesser Ainur.

Ainulindalë was immediately succeeded by Valaquenta, aptly subtitled an “Account of the Valar”. In broad strokes, it painted and elaborated on the the profiles of the fourteen Valar, with an emphasis on Melkor, the most powerful Ainur who was gifted by Eru Ilúvatar with the the “greatest power and knowledge“. Ainulindalë and Valaquenta were mere prelude to the substantial Quenta Silmarillion (“The History of the Silmarils”), the heart and soul of the book. In fragments of various tales woven together in an abstract tapestry, it chronicled the story of three forged jewels referred to as the Silmarils.

From the crystalline substance silima, the Silmarils were crafted by Fëanor, son of Finwë, King of the Noldor. For the power it wields, it was acclaimed as “the most renowned of all of the works of the Elves”. It was also consecrated by, Varda, one of the Vala. When forcefully taken in possession, the Silmarils burn the hands of its possessors. After Melkor, nicknamed Morgoth, “Dark Enemy of the World” by Fëanor, destroyed the powerful and magical Two Trees, the Silmarils contained the last pure light of the Two Trees. The power the Silmarils held made it the subject of the Valar’s desire; they planned to take the gems for their own wicked plans. What ensued is a war that pitted Elves against Elves.

One of the biggest achievements of The Silmarillion was its worldbuilding. Predating his more popular works, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, this strange but colorful collection of interconnected tales held the promise of Tolkien’s genius for complex and magical worldbuilding. This very same facet would be seminal in his latter works. By marrying elements of mythology, creationism, and religion, he managed to conjure a lush narrative about the provenance of middle-earth. In creating a plausible origin and history, The Silmarillion is a standalone work that proved seminal in capturing the whole landscape of Tolkien’s vast fantasy world. In ways more than one, it is unmatched in the world of literature.

“Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashipn the theme of Iluvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Iluvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void.”

~ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion

The various elements of fantasy made up for an astonishing and immersive read in The Silmarillion. It was equally imaginative, powerful, and evocative. Tolkien’s brand of fantasy broke the archetypes of the aforementioned genre. He refused to adhere to the standards and in the end, he conjured one of the most memorable fictional worlds. Middle-earth, undoubtedly, is one of the greatest fantasy universe created by literature. Years after its publication, the images and influences of Middle-earth and its stories still reverberate in the contemporary. Tolkien has certainly set the bar high for fantasy fiction, one that contemporary writers can only wish to emulate.

However, The Silmarillion is no mere painting of Middle-earth. It was a complex and labyrinthine work that was wrapped in different layers. As the reader sheds a new page, a new layer is uncovered. The book contained several familiar elements prevalent in Tolkien’s works. Mythology and religion loomed above the narrative as it dealt with the story of creation. There was also a reference to the sunken city of Atlantis. The narrative also focused on the familiar good versus evil trope. Warfare and bloodshed is a recurring theme as the insatiable appetite for power and riches inevitably leads to the corruption of one’s morals.

The Silmarillion is likened to a seed that Tolkien planted and cultivated. In diligently caring for it, it blossomed into what would be one of the most epic products of literature. Whilst it was bereft of the thrill of conquest that compelled many a reader in his succeeding works, The Silmarillion is a vivid depiction of the themes that would later on be magnified in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. All of Tolkien’s work resonated with a clear message about the lines towed between good and evil. The narrative subtly underscored how the wonderful attributes such as the beautiful, the good, and the kind coexist wit the wicked, the hateful, and the envious.

A seminal element Tolkien’s works is language. Various tongues and languages permeated all throughout the narrative. Tolkien has developed a language that suited his works, with its distinct tone and own complexion. The middle-earth tongue rendered the narrative a lyrical quality that can equally be a challenge and a pleasure to experience. Poems, annals, and music are essential to the narrative. However, there was an inconsistency in the language and storytelling of The Silmarillion. There was a disconnect within and amongst the stories and the main narrative. The transitions were abrupt. The book’s vast cast of characters made it doubly challenging to immerse. The younger Tolkien, to assuage the readers’ understanding, provided an index of characters and appendix that defined complex terms.

“Now fair and marvellous was that vessel made, and it was filled with a wavering flame, pure and bright; and Earendil the Mariner sat at the helm, glistening with dust of elven-gems, and the Silmaril was bound upon his brow. Far he journeyed in that ship, even into the starless voids; but most often was he seen at morning or at evening, glimmering in sunrise or sunset, as he came back to Valinor from voyages beyond the confines of the world.”

~ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion

The history of middle-earth was lush and rich, so is Tolkien’s worldbuilding. Whilst The Silmarillion is a must read for avid fans of The Lord of the Rings, the lack of any unifying element to Tolkien’s major works make it a challenge to paint it as part of the whole. The inconsistencies in the storytelling, the language, and the characters leaves a gaping whole. It was no surprise that although The Silmarillion is a commercial success, it failed to live up to Tolkien’s major works in terms of critical success. Christopher Tolkien did give a caveat in the introduction: “A complete consistency (either within the compass of The Silmarillion itself or between The Silmarillion and other published writings of my father’s) is not to be looked for, and could only be achieved, if at all, at heavy and needless cost.”

J.R.R. Tolkien’ foray into the magical and fantastical is unmatched. The world that he has conjured captivated the imagination of many. Middle-earth remains to be one of the most magical worlds literature has produced. It was less consistent and less accessible, but The Silmarillion is nevertheless a necessary tale in the understanding and appreciation of Tolkien’s vast magical landscape. In it, Tolkien cultivated the seeds that would eventually germinate into seminal works of literature. Predating his major works, The Silmarillion oozed with the promise of Tolkien’s prose. For all its faults, The Silmarillion won in its exploration of realities that uncannily reflect the pandemonium existing in the contemporary – the corruption of values, the insatiable desire for power, and their consequences.

Ratings

66%

Characters (30%) – 21%
Plot (30%) – 19%
Writing (25%) – 17%
Overall Impact (15%) – 9%

It is no surprise that J.R.R. Tolkien is a powerhouse in the world of fantasy fiction. The successful movie franchise of his highly acclaimed The Lord of the Rings Trilogy suffices as an evidence to the impact of his work. This worldbuilding is simply astronomical on so many scales. In Middle-earth, he provided a world that is beyond imagination. Despite this, I was initially apprehensive about buying and reading The Silmarillion because I thought it is a short story collection. To some point I was correct as the book is a collection of interconnected tales that detail the story of how the Middle-earth came to be. Just like Tolkien’s other works, I did struggle a bit with the language. Moreover, there seems to be no visible thread that reconciles The Silmarillion with either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. However, I must admit that Tolkien’s worldbuilding was simply stellar. The level of imagination was on another level. Some themes were repetitions of themes covered in his other works but what perhaps differentiates the story from his other works is the lack of conquest or adventure. It also lacked consistency or coherence; at least Christopher Tolkien readily issued a caveat in the introduction. Nevertheless, it was still spellbinding. Tolkien’s prose is simply otherworldly.

Book Specs

Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company
Publishing Date: 1977
Number of Pages: 304
Genre: Fantasy Fiction, Mythopoeia

Synopsis

The Silmarillion is the core of J.R.R. Tolkien’s imaginative writing, a work that he could no publish in his lifetime because it grew with him. Its origins stretch back to a time long before The Hobbit. But The Hobbit was caught up in what Tolkien called “the branching acquisitive theme” begun in The Silmarillion, and eventually The Lord of the Rings emerged from this as well.

Tolkien considered The Silmarillion his most important work, and, though published last and posthumously, this great collection of tales and legends clearly sets the stage for all his other works. For this is the story of the creation of the world and the happenings of the First Age. This is the ancient to which characters in The Lord of the Rings look back, and in whose events some of them, such as Elrond and Galadriel, took part. The three Silmarils were jewels created by Fëanor, most gifted of the Elves. Within them was imprisoned the Light of the Two Trees of Valinor before the Trees themselves were destroyed by Morgoth , the first Dark Lord. Thereafter the unsullied Light of Valinor lived on only in the Simarils; but they were seized by Morgoth and set in his crown, guarded in the impenetrable fortress of Angband in the north of Middle-earth. The Silmarillion is the history of the rebellion of Fëanor and his kindred against the gods, their exile from Valinor and return to Middle-earth, and their war, hopeless despite all their heroism, against the great Enemy.

The book includes several other, shorter works, in addition to “The Silmarillion” itself. Preceding it are “The Ainulindalë,” a myth of the Creation, and “The Valanqueta,” in which the nature and power of the gods is set forth. After “The Silmarillion” comes “The Akallabêth,” a tale of the downfall of the kingdom of Númenor; and finally, “Of the Rings of Power,” the connecting link to The Lord of the Rings.

About the Author

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (or J.R.R. Tolkien) was born on January 3, 1892 in Bloemfontein, Orange Free State, South Africa. When he was three years old, he travelled to England with his mother, Mabel, and younger brother, Hilary, for a family visit. With the untimely demise of his father, Tolkien’s mother took their children to her parents before finally settling in a former Worcestershire village. Following the death of their mother when Tolkien was 12, the guardianship of the Tolkien brothers were assigned by Mabel to her friend, Father Francis Xavier Morgan of the Birmingham Oratory.

Tolkien started reading at the age of four. HIs interest in books was further cultivated by his mother who let him read as many books as he want. Tolkien attended King Edward’s School, Birmingham and later St. Philip’s School. In October 1911, he begun his studies at Exeter College, Oxford, initially studying classics. In 1913, he changed his course to English language and literature, graduating in 1915 with first class honours. When United Kingdom entered the First World War in 1914, Tolkien did not immediately volunteer to join the army, opting to complete his degree first. In July 1915, he finally enlisted. On July 16, 1919, he was taken off active service and over a year later, he was demobilized and left the army, retaining his rank of lieutenant.

After leaving the army, Tolkien’s first job was at the Oxford English Dictionary. He also took up a post as a reader in English language at the University of Leeds. In 1925, he returned to Oxford with a fellowship at Pembroke College. It was during his stay at Pembroke that Tolkien wrote The Hobbit (eventually published in 1937) and the first two volumes of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (both published in 1954). He has also written and published a score of children’s stories, short stories, and essays. Some of his unpublished works were also compiled and edited by his son, Christopher Tolkien and were eventually published posthumously.

Tolkien passed away on September 2, 1973.