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5 Tips for Reading “The Silmarillion”

As Professor Tolkien’s birthday comes and goes, a lot of fans of his work begin, for some, their annual read-through of his work. The SilmarillionThe Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are the most common ones to be read, though for most fans the first book on this list can be the hardest. Why is that?

Tolkien is often criticized in today’s culture as being too archaic and hard to read, and for some people out there they’d completely concur. I myself can agree to some extent, especially when you can get into some of the “ecclesiastical” portions of his writing. But that shouldn’t deter you from trying to read his stories, as bound within the covers are some of the greatest works of our time. Whether you’re on your first pass-through of The Silmarillion or your 10th (like myself this year), here are some tips I found help me when reading the daunting work ahead of me.

One of the amazing covers of The Silmarillion throughout the years.
One of the amazing covers of The Silmarillion throughout the years.

Set your own pace and stick to it

I think this one is a relative no-brainer. A book with this many characters, places and events that often intersect and can become quite convoluted; you need to take the book at a pace that you can keep up with. If you try and read at a pace that isn’t comfortable, you’ll likely end up becoming frustrated and eventually put the book down. Figure out what works best for you and go for it!

Set a goal and make it happen

This step applies to many ventures we take in life, and it works here no less. By setting a goal for your reading you’re not only helping to establish your pace, as mentioned above, but you’re also making sure that you are not being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the book. If you know you only have one chapter to read tonight, or ten pages, and you make your goal, you’re experience with the book will be much better as a result. Make the goal realistic and be sure to know what you’re shooting for each time you pick up the book and you’ll get through the book in no time.

Don’t get hung up on the names

This is a big one. The Silmarillion is known for introducing characters at a pace that GRR Martin would later emulate with his A Song of Ice and Fire series. You’ll start to realize who the real important characters to remember and who you can forget relatively early on. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to know who the characters in the story are, but don’t get yourself hung up on trying to memorize every person introduced to you. In fact, many characters will be mentioned once and then are never brought up again (I’m looking at you, Vairë!).

In fact, as the story progresses, a lot of the characters brought up in the early chapters will make regular appearances throughout the narrative. Valar and Maiar pop in and check on Elves and Men early on, but eventually it’s about knowing which Elf is more important than the next. Fëanor plays a major role, Beren and Luthien have one of the most beautiful love stories in fiction and Turin Turambar is a tragic character. One of the greatest resources to keep track of everyone, if you need to, is actually right in the back of most volumes of The Silmarillion. There is a great “Index of Names” in the back of the book to reference if you need to do so!

Sorrow and tears unnumbered grace the pages of The Silmarillion, each story more beautiful than the last. Image courtesy of Ted Nasmith
Sorrow and tears unnumbered grace the pages of The Silmarillion, each story more beautiful than the last. Image courtesy of Ted Nasmith

Audiobooks work wonders

For those who simply cannot get past the high-esoteric and archaic nature of the writing, pick up the unabridged audiobook and simply follow along. Martin Shaw’s masterful performance makes the book come alive in a way that is second to none. While not all of his pronunciations are completely accurate (And let’s face it, none of ours are truly as we are not native speakers of Elvish!), Shaw truly draws you into the story that makes even the “Of Beleriand and its Realms” interesting. If you can and are willing to spend the money on the 13-CD set you won’t be disappointed. Until recently my day job was driving for most of my day and I will tell you, time passes quickly and splendidly as you listen to Shaw’s skillful reading of Tolkien’s life work. In fact, if you have a goal to finish a chapter a night, the audiobook is a great way to follow along and knock that goal out relatively quickly.

Don’t be ashamed to take a break

Of all the tips I’ve written, this is by far the most important. On your first read-through of The Silmarillion, you might find yourself needing a break up the almost Biblical language with something a little more modern. That’s fine! In fact, I would encourage this, as oftentimes most of the complaints I hear about The Silmarillion is how daunting and overwhelming the book can be. Truth be told, it took me seven tries to read the book once, and a lot of that can be attributed to the fact I tried to just slam through the story. After reading it a few times I find I can read it straight through, but those early readings I needed to read something else inbetween to simply make it manageable. Honestly, all of the houses of Elves and Men can start to meld into one giant family tree if you don’t give yourself some room to breathe.

Don’t stay away too long, else you might see yourself having to re-read some passages to catch yourself up again. I would recommend having another book waiting in the wings and alternate the two as you see fit. Read a chapter or two of The Silmarillion a few nights and then spend the weekend reading your favorite spy novel. You’ll find that more often than not you’ll be drawn back to the world of Arda trying to figure out if Balrogs truly have wings, whether Glaurung is a sentient being or simply a shell for a fallen spirit or pin-pointing that moment where the Earth takes its present shape.

 

Hopefully these tips will help you in your endeavor to read one of the best works of fiction of our time. The Silmarillion adds a lot of context that can otherwise be lost on readers of the other stories in Tolkien’s mythos. By reading the story of Arda from its beginning and then moving onto The Hobbit and then The Lord of the Rings, you’ll be left with a greater appreciation for the vast world that Tolkien crafted over his lifetime.

The Silmarillion is full of some of the most beautiful stories in Arda, as well as some of the most tragic Tolkien ever wrote. From the beautiful magic of the Ainulindalë, the Unnumbered Tears sown throughout the story, and the amazing beauty of Beren and Luthien’s story; The Silmarillion is one of the great works of our time and provides a lot of backstory that would otherwise been left untold. While some don’t hold the book to be truly “canon” with the rest of his novels, there’s no denying the vast wealth of content to be unfolded before your eyes. Here’s to number ten!

Are you starting your first reading of The Silmarillion? Let us know what you think and if these tips helped you in the comments below!

About Joseph Bradford

Freelance Game Journalist, currently covering games for Legendarium. Tolkienist. Once thought he saw a woodchuck chuck wood. Turns out they can't.
  • John Galenhir

    Well done Joe! Strangely enough, the same 5 tips could be applied to the Bible! 🙂 Personally I find the Silmarillion to be the true wine of Tolkien’s works.

  • Joseph Bradford

    There’s something to be said about James Earl Jones reading Leviticus to make it almost manageable!

  • Silmarillion is hard to read only first ten times. Afterwards it becomes easier.

  • Darrell

    Joseph: this is a great article! I especially agree about the Martin Shaw performance on the audiobook. After 20 years of struggling with the names, I can now say “Nírnaeth Arnoediad” with confidence!

  • Gory

    this is so useful!!! I’m in my second attempt to actually finish this book, I’m taking notes and doing concept maps because I forget the details, names and places so easily !!! Thanks a lot for this tips 🙂

  • Nichole

    I found having maps of Middle-earth handy as I read to be very useful. I bought the Atlas of Middle-Earth, but there are many maps available online for those who don’t want to buy another book. It helped me get a sense of the scope and relationship between different tales, especially in the geography-heavy chapters. It’s probably just the way my brain works but those visuals made everything seem much clearer.