The Silmarillion – A Masterclass in World Building

Who’s a Tolkien fan here? A Silmarillion fan?

Who knows their Melian from their Maedhros, their Finrod from their Fingon?

I’ve recently re-read The Lord of the Rings for the first time since high school. It’s incredible how much I’d forgotten how different the storyline is from the (nonetheless amazing) movies. Not only is the infamous Tom Bombadil never seen, but also Erkenbrand, Prince Imrahil, Ghan-buri-Ghan… but I digress.

After LOTR my natural progression was to reread The Silmarillion. Again, it’s been years since I’ve read this one, but knew what I was in for – a beautiful, tragic tale that can, admittedly, be a bit of a slog. I don’t think that is Tolkien’s fault – or anyone’s really. It’s simply the result of a man’s work not being published (or completed) before his death.

One of my copies of The Lord of the Rings – I adore Alan Lee’s artwork.

Nonetheless I think it’s a wonderful example for authors of the incredible depth you can go to in world-building, and how it can make your world feel more real. I think The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion are the kind of books you can almost always find something new in whenever you reread them.

This time, I was struck by the overwhelming sadness and tragedy of it all. The world of Arda is constantly in decay, and with each battle comes new sorrow, emptiness, and pain. Yet there are still glimmers of beauty about it – the tale of Beren and Luthien of course chief among them. Yet even that tale is not wholly happy.

Something about the way it is written, with little dialogue and much narration, creates (in my opinion at least) a distance between the characters and the reader, which makes the tales seem far off and, well, legendary. Which of course is what they are.

Tolkien’s poetry in The Lord of the Rings hearkens back to the (unpublished at the time) tales from The Silmarillion.

When I was struggling to come up with a full novel idea, I took a leaf from Tolkien’s book (which I’d read in The History of Middle Earth) and just started making up a creation myth for my own fantasy world. Coming up with it was fun, I could sit by the back door in the sun with pen and paper and write out a tale to help found the mythology behind my stories. That myth may need to change and adjust a lot, but it was there and helped me realise what it was I like to focus on in story and in fantasy in particular.

This kind of worldbuilding which led to the Silmarillion – all the work in the background that may never see the light of day, is incredibly enriching. When you read a story and the characters can offhandedly mention histories and legends and people and places from a time before, there’s a wonderful delectability about it.

All this to say, even though it can be a tough read, I hold a special spot in my heart for The Silmarillion. And while this time around the entire story is almost dripping with sadness and emptiness for me, it’s still so rich and beautiful.

How about you? Have you read The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion? What did you think?

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