- The Silmarillion: Thirty Years On
Has it really been more than three decades since The Silmarillion landed in bookstores to the bewilderment of some and the delight of others? A lot of water has flowed under the bridge to Nargothrond since then, giving us new perspective on Christopher Tolkien's first attempt to publish a portion of his father's sprawling legacy.
With the multi-volume History of Middle-earth now behind us, shall we consider The Silmarillion simply as a piece of literature in the Tolkien canon or can we still continue to use it as resource for study? Both, I think. Although I've read The Lord of the Rings many times, I've always preferred The Silmarillion, embracing it first as a work of art and only later as a resource to be mined for knowledge of Tolkien's legendarium. And I still find myself returning to it for study, because there are passages and precise turns of phrase that occur nowhere else in the vast archive of material published by Tolkien's son Christopher.
As The Silmarillion: Thirty Years On ably demonstrates, there is still much to be gleaned from that early presentation of Middle-earth mythology and legend. Allan Turner's well-balanced and thoughtful collection of essays chosen to commemorate the thirty-year publication anniversary of The Silmarillion is a welcome addition to Tolkien scholarship. The volume is slim at 176 pages, but the depth and breadth of thought encompassed in these essays makes it well worth owning. Topics range [End Page 283] from Northernness to eucatastrophe, from mythopoeia to narratology, from nostalgia to theologisation, all displaying unique, carefully argued, and sometimes contrasting points of view.
The collection begins with Rhona Beare's "A Mythology for England," bringing The Silmarillion commentary full circle, so to speak, for it was she who queried Tolkien about The Lord of the Rings via letters in 1958 and the early 60s with persistent questions of the detailed, nit-picking type that many authors dread and never answer—"What were the colours of the two wizards mentioned but not named in the book?" "Did the Witch-king ride a pterodactyl at the siege of Gondor?" (Letter 211, in Letters). Luckily for us, Tolkien answered her candidly and at some length on many topics, adding immensely to our understanding of his conception of Middle-earth. Some forty years later, Beare published a pamphlet titled J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Silmarillion" (New Lambton, Australia: Nimrod Publications, 1999), which I recall reading with some distaste because of its study-guide style. Happily, the section from that guide reworked for this new collection of criticism is much improved, incorporating a connection between Eärendil and the Bickling Homilies into her discussion of the "North-western temper and temperature" toward which the legendarium is slanted.
Beare's analysis of "northern" and "southern" myths and legends as the product of climate and landscape—the "warm dry climate of Greece" vs. the "cool, cloudy, misty and damp" environs of England and the Celtic lands—remains sound, as does her discussion of Tolkien's debt to Beowulf. All this is common knowledge for most readers of The Silmarillion. The transition from Northern "race-memory" of seafaring peoples to Tolkien's recurring dream of Atlantis and the way in which it surfaces in the Akallabêth is of more interest, but Beare's added insight into the possible derivation of Eärendil is where her essay provides new avenues of thought for the curious. "Myths leave traces on language" (20), she explains, and for Tolkien, this meant looking for clues in Old English. Following traditional usage for earendel, "Eärendil" is both name and noun, both hero and the Morning Star. Beare's thoughtful discussion of traces in both Crist and the Homilies is well-supported with numerous examples, making this the highlight of the essay.
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