Review of The Silmarillion: 30 Years On

The Silmarillion: 30 Years On(to the main page on The Silmarillion: 30 Years On)

The following are extracts from a review that appeared in Tolkien Studies 6 (2009) on pages 283-289.

The Silmarillion: Thirty Years On, edited by Allan Turner. Zollikofen: Walk- ing Tree Publishers, 2008. [4], iv, 168 pp. $17.00 / 8.30 (trade paperback) ISBN 9783905703108. Cormarë Series no. 15.

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? [...]

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 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 [...]

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.

A more difficult read is Anna Slack's "Moving Mandos: The Dynamics of Subcreation in 'Of Beren and Lúthien'." [...] Slack's argument for Tolkien's use of oath and song to invoke eucatastrophe is a fertile topic for which ample evidence can be found. The first part of the essay establishes the groundwork for her theory, presenting what Slack terms the two textual modes of the "Beowulf Syndrome" (dyscatastrophe or tragic outcome) counterbalanced by the "Eagle Effect" (eucatastrophic outcome). " [...]

Next up is Michaël Devaux's textual study, "The Origins of the Ainulindalë: The Present State of Research," [...] The article's first premise — to identify trends in interpretation — required comparison of earliest to latest versions of Ainulindalë [...]. [H]e undertakes to establish the degree to which "theologisation" of the legendarium can be charted through the various versions of Tolkien's creation myth [...]

Of special interest to me as a reviewer is Jason fisher's article, "From Mythopoeia to Mythography: Tolkien, Lönnrot, and Jerome," because it reflects in some degree my own study of the Kalevala's influence on Tolkien. fisher's essay focuses first on the similarities of content and language (epic themes and linguistic borrowings) found in the finnish national epic, Kalevala, and The Silmarillion [...].

Nils Agøy's essay, "Viewpoints, Audiences and Lost Texts in The Silmarillion," addresses a problem I recall experiencing the first time I read the book: from whose point-of-view is it told? [...] As Agøy demonstrates, Tolkien himself struggled with the problem of viewpoint and provenance, ultimately discarding "both Ælfwine and the notion that the 'Silmarillion' material was almost purely Elvish" (161) because he was unable to reconcile the text's inaccurate astronomical concepts with twentieth-century facts. [...]

I've saved Michael Drout's revelatory essay, "Reflections on Thirty Years of Reading The Silmarillion, "for last because my reaction to it is complicated. [...] Drout's discussion of Tolkien's aesthetic technique approaches The Silmarillion from two perspectives: the big picture ("the epic sweep of darkness and the heroic resistance to it") and "the beautiful passages" down at the sentence level. Time and again, sweetness and light are tempered by the bitter darkness in the rise and fall of Tolkien's diction [...].

As you can see, I'm very favorably impressed by the offerings of The Silmarillion: Thirty Years On. Its technical faults (another proofreading round for typos would have been advised) are small, and its contributions to Tolkien scholarship are considerable. Each of the authors in the volume has valuable ideas for readers to draw on and perhaps carry further. The book confirms that, even after three decades, the importance of Christopher Tolkien's first attempt at bringing his father's astonishing subcreated world to light has not dimmed with the years.

(extracts from book review by Anne C. Petty, Crawfordville, Florida)

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