Opening Passage: The Silmarillion is actually four distinct works brought together to represent a complete course of narrative, but the opening of the Ainulindalë serves for the whole book:
There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad. But for a long while they sang only each alone, or but few together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly. Yet ever as they listened they came to deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony. (p. 3)
Summary: The Silmarillion is in its overall structure a tale of art, both its glories and temptations. The making of Arda is structured in stages. First, Ilúvatar makes the Ainur; he then teaches them to make music together, and eventually brings them all together to make a glorious music, in which they will share themes given by Ilúvatar but will adapt and adorn it as they think best. Thus begins the Great Music, the first layer of art-making, as the Ainur sing together. But one of their number, Melkor, of immense talent, is driven by a deep desire to create, and in the course of his singing, he conceives of the idea of not merely adapting and adorning but of making music that is his very own and not derived from Ilúvatar's theme. Inevitably, this creates discord where once there was harmony; some singers falter, not knowing what to do, while others shift to singing his theme. Then Ilúvatar begins a second theme in the midst of the increasing noise, one that builds on the previous but takes it in a new direction entirely. It is a theme of power and force, and Melkor attempts to override it with power and force, and Ilúvatar begins a third theme, subtle in its character but interweaving everything else. Then it is as if there are two kinds of music going on at once; Melkor's, which is repetitive and brash, ignoring all else, and Ilúvatar's which is beautiful and deep but is capable of taking and incorporating even Melkor's theme. Then Ilúvatar brings the Music to an end.
The Song, of course, is a representation of the history of Arda as it will be; but Arda is not yet made. Ilúvatar takes the Ainur to the Void where it will be and shows them a Vision of it, for which he provides them some explanations. But when you have woven the themes and seen the first, preliminary vision of the whole, you have still actually to make. Ilúvatar sends for the Flame Imperishable, his pure power of creation, and the world is; but it is formless and empty, and the Ainur must descend into it, slowly becoming part of it and one with it, actually to build it. Because of the Music and the Vision, they know more of the world, of what has been, and of what will be; but when it comes to things made, some things can only be perceived and understood in the actual making.
All of the themes of this part of the story, the Ainulindalë, will recur throughout in different variations. The Valaquenta gives us a general account of how some of the major Ainur, the Valar and Maiar, work out their making of Arda, and the Quenta Silmarillion begins with the first stages of their actual making, which begins already in a kind of war between those Valar who are faithful to the original theme and Melkor; Melkor is eventually forced to flee. Varda, the Lady of the Stars, builds two great lamps to light the work constantly, the first working light for the first rough drafting, and all seems to be going well, the Spring of Arda, the Year of the Lamps. But Melkor builds his forces and fortifications in secret and destroys the lamps in a great tumult that threatens to destroy the whole; everything becomes dark and the Valar can barely keep things from being irreparably lost, must less actually stop Melkor. The Valar then build their own fortifications, Valinor in the land of Aman in the west, and there Yavanna, the Giver of Fruits, achieves her greatest work: two mighty Trees of light, one silver in light and one golden in light, which do not shine with constant light like the lamps, but each with an oscillating light, waxing and waning in perfect coordination so that at one part of the day, Laurelin, the golden Tree, blazes forth with light, and then wanes until Telpirion, the silver Tree, begins to wax and their light mingles for a while, until soon Telpirion's light is the dominant light. Thus begins the Year of the Trees, when the Count of Time begins. But the light of the Trees is not mere light; it is living light, holy light, Light as Life. It is understanding and art in their perfect union.
The fortification of the Valar in Valinor is interesting, and in a sense already indicates a problem. Responding to Melkor, who fortified himself in Utumno, they have inadvertently imitated him. And the result is that they have not only protected many wonderful things both made and in the making, but also shut themselves off from protecting much of the rest of the world. The rest of the world sleeps in darkness, and Melkor can work freely there. The theme of Melkor is disrupting the original theme. This problem will become more acute when the Children of Ilúvatar begin to awake.
The Elves, the Firstborn, first come into existence under the stars far to the east. The Valar and Melkor have, from the Song and the Vision, a rough idea of when they might enter the theme, but not much else, because the Children of Ilúvatar are made by Ilúvatar himself, not the Ainur. But Melkor is better situated and prepared for their coming, and by the time the Valar find the Elves, Melkor has already been spreading lies and perhaps experimenting on individuals he has captured. And the Valar response to discovering the Elves is to fortify them, as well, to bring them to Valinor so that they may be protected. It is clear from much of what J. R. R. Tolkien has said elsewhere that he thinks this was a grave mistake. It was a reasonable and honest one; it's just that in responding to Melkor, the Valar have played by his rules. Because it was reasonable and honest as an error, great good will come of it; but it is an error, and great tragedy will come from it, as well. Nonetheless, the Valar assault Utumno and capture Melkor, bringing him back in chains to Valinor, and the Elves are summoned to Aman, although not all of them go.
In the holy light of the Trees, under the tutelage of the Valar and Maiar, the Elves grow great and splendid in mind and will and craft, far greater than they ever could have in the twilight expanses of Middle Earth. In them something of the perfection of art and skill begins to reside. But greatest of them all is Fëanor.
Fëanor is one of the Noldor, a tribe of Elves who are especially inclined to be talented in crafts of making; they study under Aulë, the great smith of the earth, and learn skills that can only be discovered with his help. One of the things they discover is the making of gems. And Fëanor, the most talented of them all, makes three gems of incomparable excellence that hold in themselves the light of the Trees, a work so extraordinary even the Valar are impressed." And Varda hallowed the Silmarils, so that thereafter no mortal flesh, nor hands unclean, nor anything of evil will might touch them, but it was scorched and withered; and Mandos foretold that the fates of Arda, earth, sea, and air, lay locked within them" (p. 73). But by the time Fëanor creates the Silmarils, Melkor has already served his punishment -- the Valar have known him from before the foundation of the world, he is one of them, and they have no reason to think that he cannot be corrected -- and now attempts to show his reformation by teaching the Elves. Being the subtlest of the Valar, he begins to poison the minds of the Elves with discontent over living in paradise, where they are in tutelage, rather than free to rule realms of their own in Middle Earth. And seeing the Silmarils, Melkor, whose 'creative' response to all great creation is to want to make it his own and in some way an expression of himself, desires them. To see something splendid in its own right and want to twist it so that it is as you yourself would wish -- this is one of the great artistic corruptions.
Melkor will eventually destroy the Trees. After the Trees are gone, they cannot bes remade from scratch. The Valar suggest using the light from the Silmarils to remake them, but Fëanor refuses. The Valar point out that Fëanor's ability to make the Silmarils depended on skills learned in Valinor and the light of the Trees, which Fëanor did not make, but while Fëanor's love for the things he has made has become possessive and greedy, it is also true that the Silmarils cannot really be remade, either. And when Melkor steals the Silmarils, Fëanor snaps; all of the Valar are kin, as far as he is concerned. He and his sons swear an unbreakable oath that should never be made to pursue and destroy anyone who takes the Silmarils for themselves, and he convinces most of the Noldor to flee Aman to Middle Earth, where they can rule. The theme of Melkor is repetitive, and the Noldor are inadvertently beginning to imitate it. The problem is that Middle Earth is across the sea. So they attempt to convince the Elves who live by the sea, the Teleri, to give them the Teleri's ships. But those ships, too, are of extraordinary craftsmanship, loved by the Teleri as if they were children, and can never fully be remade again if lost. The Noldor attempt to seize them by force, and for the first time in the history of the Elves, Elves take up arms against Elves to slay them. The whole host of the Noldor is too many for the ships that they seize, so they split into two groups, one marching on land, one (that of Fëanor and his sons) in the ships, to a place where they can be ferried across. Mandos, the Doomsayer of the Valar, speaks a prophecy that they will shed tears unnumbered and that all they do will betray them; while some Noldor turn back to ask forgiveness, most do not. And finally, Fëanor and his ships sail to Middle Earth, and Fëanor, instead of sending the ships back to ferry the rest across, burns the ships. The theme of Melkor is indeed repetitive; this is a very Melkor-like thing to do. Fëanor will die shortly after; those he left behind will take the long, hard, often deadly road of the northern ice; and the sons of Fëanor will continue their war of vengeance against Melkor, who wears the Silmarils in his crown, little understanding what it is to make war against one who has helped to shape the very world. In the west, the Valar salvage what they can of the Trees, and make the Sun and the Moon. And with the rising of the Sun, which begins the First Age, the Secondborn Children of Ilúvatar, Men, awaken in the east.
The rest of the tale in the Quenta Silmarillion will be woven together from four threads: (1) the six great battles in the war against Melkor, each more devastating than the last, with the fifth, Nírnaeth Arnoediad, the Battle of Tears Unnumbered, giving him almost an insuperable advantage; (2) the interaction of Elves and Men, which will create things even Melkor cannot anticipate, and the great heroes of Men who in cooperation with the Elves will disrupt his plans: Beren, who for the love and with the aid of the Elf maid Lúthien seizes a Silmaril from Melkor's very stronghold; Túrin, under a dark fate and doomed to despair, greatest of the warriors of men; Tuor his cousin, salvaging the hope from the ashes of inevitable defeat; and Eärendil, Tuor's son, bringing salvation beyond hope; (3) the rise and fall of the great Elven kingdoms of Beleriand: Doriath, Nargothrond, Gondolin; and (4) the theme of making represented by the Silmarils themselves and the downfall that comes from pride in making. Great things will be done by Man and Elf, glorious things, for as Children of Ilúvatar they have within themselves the drive to create; but the theme of Melkor plays its repetitive notes, and all that they create falls to ruin because of the sin of pride in what they make and the sin of envy for what others make.
The sixth great battle against Melkor consists of the Valar themselves raising the standard of war against him at the plea of Eärendil. After many devastating years of battle, Melkor is seized and thrust out of the world. Those Elves who aid the Valar are rewarded by being allowed to return to Aman if they wish, which some do and some do not; the Men who aid the Valar are rewarded by being given a great island in the sea, as close to the Undying Lands as is possible for mortal men. Thus begins the Second Age we come to the Akallabêth, the story of Númenor and the golden age of Men, when they become most like the Elves in greatest of making. But while Melkor may be gone, his theme continues; some of his followers had escaped, including Sauron, the greatest of his lieutenants. The Melkorian theme will play over again, allowing for the difference in circumstances. Sauron will dominate the Middle Earth in darkness, but will be made prisoner by the glory of Númenor; but he will by distortions of truth bring a restlessness to the Men of Westernesse through their desire not to die, and corrupt this desire into a thirst for domination, one that leads them to go to war even against the Valar. Then Númenor will be lost, the world made round, and the Third Age shall begin.
Sauron's will be destroyed in the destruction of Númenor, but he is a Maia and cannot die. Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age tells how in the Middle Earth the remnants of the Númenoreans make their kingdoms and how he remnants of the Noldor in Region, especially Celebrimbor, the grandson of Fëanor, receive the help of one who calls himself Annatar, Lord of Gifts, and make the Rings of power, by which they may increase the power of their making and undo some of the weariness of time. But we know this story, as the Melkorian theme plays in another variation: Annatar is Sauron and he makes a single Ring to rule them all, by which he may dominate even the minds of those who use the others.
No creature has in themselves the original power of creation, but we have in ourselves something like it. By means of it, we create in a secondary sense, in cooperation with primary creation, and it is part of what we are meant to do and be. But there are temptations on the way. Melkor falls by wanting his secondary power of creation to be a primary power of creation; to create is to make from your will as you will, but there is something else that is like this and yet not like this, since to dominate is to make what you will to be as you will, and spoiled will to create is the corrupt will to dominate both what you yourself create and what others create. Fëanor and the Noldorins, loving the things they make, have a desire to rule; this, and the greediness of Fëanor's possessiveness of the Silmarils, leads to the Kinslaying and the flight of the Noldor. The great kingdoms of Beleriand are undermined by possessive envy and fall through pride associated with making. The Men of Númenor wish their power to make the world to be free of the limit of death, and the more they rebel agains the latter, the more they become corrupted with the desire for domination. It is the theme of Melkor and none of us are entirely free of it.
The Silmarillion is one of the great works of the twentieth century, but the circumstances of its writing meant that it was in considerable disarray at Tolkien's death. Much of it was early and Tolkien had changed his ideas about a number of things in the meantime (e.g., he eventually decided that having the Sun and Moon created after the Trees as more trouble than it was worth, but never came to a satisfactory way to rearrange it). Christopher Tolkien was in general quite careful never to stray very far from some draft or other of his father's, constrained only by the need to have a coherent and continuous narrative, and the one situation where he had to do some major reworking on his own authority, "Of the Ruin of Doriath", it is as minimum as can be and still make the story work. Christopher Tolkien eventually regretted some of this, as it required him to diverge from where his father clearly intended the story to go -- but the fact of the matter is, whatever course his father may have been coming to, much of that was never actually written up in more than note and outline. The result, while a mish-mash of J. R. R. Tolkien's intentions at various stages in creation, is nonetheless quite faithful to the whole vision. There are a few limitations due to the circumstances, though. Every time I read The Silmarillion it's just very obvious that the last half of the Quenta Silmarillion is unbalanced. Ideally, and structurally, the very, very dark story of Túrin, the noble man of pride and despair, should be balanced out by the story of his cousin Tuor, the noble man of humility and hope, who serves as the bridge from the darkest point to the hope beyond hope that is found in Eärendil. But this is no really how it reads, because the Túrin part of the story was very fully developed, while much of the Tuor part of the story was still in relatively primitive form. But this is minor, and The Silmarillion is one of the greatest achievements of art, and one of the greatest statements of the nature of art and its temptations, in the past hundred years at least.
Favorite Passage: There are many good passages, of course, but I am always struck by Aulë's making of the dwarves, which serves in the narrative to highlight the difference between a mistake made by an honest desire to create what is good and Melkor's corruption of creating to extend what is his, and likewise the difference between a willingness to subordinate one's love of what one makes to the greater good and Fëanor's refusal to do so:
Then Aulë took up a great hammer to smite the Dwarves; and he wept. But Ilúvatar had compassion upon Aulë and his desire, because of his humility; and the Dwarves shrank from his hammer and were afraid, and they bowed down their heads and begged for mercy. And the voice of Ilúvatar said to Aulë: 'Thy offer I have accepted even as it was made. Dost thou not see that these things have now a life of their own, and speak with their own voices? Else they would not have flinched from thy blow, nor from any command of thy will. Then Aulë cast down his hammer and was glad, and he gave thanks to Ilúvatar, saying, 'May Eru bless my work and amend it!' (p. 41)
Recommendation: Highly Recommended
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, Christopher Tolkien, ed., Ballantine Books (New York: 1993).