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  • Book of the Lost Narrator: Rereading the 1977 Silmarillion as a Unified Text
  • Dennis Wilson Wise (bio)

1. Introduction

In Tolkien’s famous essay about Beowulf and the critics, he chides his colleagues for failing to treat the poem as a literary object; they neglect its aesthetic beauty while snuffling around for philological or genealogical data. In a way, I apply much the same point to readers of Tolkien’s own 1977 Silmarillion. Christopher Tolkien had once written that he treated the 1977 text “of the same order as the writings published by my father himself” (UT 3), a “completed and cohesive entity” rather than “a complex of divergent texts interlinked by commentary” (1). Christopher Tolkien later distanced himself from this position, deeply regretting that he “attached no importance” to his father’s concerns about presentation (LT I xi) and thereby left for The Silmarillion “no suggestion of what it is and how (within the imagined world) it came to be” (xii). Understandably, Tolkien scholars followed this path, discounting The Silmarillion for the much more authentic-seeming History of Middle-earth. Additionally, they see the 1977 text, though powerful in places, as a product rife with flaws, uneven in structure and detail, sadly heterogeneous in style, and furthermore marred by the editor’s unavoidable hand.

I wish to present an alternative reading of the 1977 text. Like Gergely Nagy, but for profoundly different reasons, I believe that The Silmarillion, “exactly as it stands in the 1977 text, is a profound work” (“Adapted” 35), a narrative and rhetorical masterpiece. I do not value The Silmarillion for its hint of avant-texts or textual prehistory, its echoes of oral folklore transformed into written forms. Nor do I see the work’s supposed flaws as mimetically reproducing this transformation—in fact, I argue against there being flaws at all. Instead, I see The Silmarillion as a “completed and cohesive entity,” a single unified text in which all five stories are structurally linked and thematically interlocked, where all the seeming inconsistencies and strange silences are actually part of an intentional rhetorical strategy devised by a single, anonymous author of high moral seriousness.

Perhaps to the dismay of some, I also charge that this heavy narratorial hand renders questionable the “veracity” of the history he writes. Indeed, I see this anonymous writer as eerily similar to Geoffrey of Monmouth, someone who clearly worked from existent “sources, [End Page 101] oral or written, in the British tradition” (Jankulak 14) but for whom “writing true accounts about real events” was not his prime intention (2). He modified—even invented—the historical record as the situation demanded. Ultimately, the writer of The Silmarillion, like Geoffrey of Monmouth, had a fundamentally literary purpose, a purpose higher than “true history”: the guidance of the reader toward the life rightly led.

My argument proceeds as follows. Section 2 deals with two preliminary matters: (a) the importance of treating The Silmarillion as an autonomous yet canonical text and (b) the “compilation” thesis against which my “unified text” thesis operates. In section 3, I analyze two brief passages representative of the whole. These passages, I argue, constitute a tour de force of careful rhetorical manipulation and guidance. Section 4 tackles the objection that an inconsistency of narrative style and level of detail indicates, contra my argument, a compilation of lost texts. Finally, section 5 shows how the final two stories in The Silmarillion, the “Akallabêth” and “Of the Rings of Power,” form codas thematically vital to the Silmarillion’s structure as a whole.

2. Complicating Factors

2.1. The Canonicity of the 1977 Silmarillion

When critics dismiss or discount the published Silmarillion, they generally do so from one of two poles. Brian Rosebury represents the first. He baldly states that Tolkien’s reputation must “very largely rest on The Lord of the Rings” (8), implying that his other works, such as The Silmarillion, do not merit much attention. The other pole of critics discount the book in favor of more “authentic” posthumous writings. The work of Verlyn Flieger and Douglas Charles Kane seems applicable here. According to Vladimir Brljak, Flieger tends to view Tolkien’s entire mythology, “rather than...


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