Reading The Silmarillion: The Foreword

The Foreword Notes on the Notes

It’s very difficult for me to read The Silmarillion with a fair and balanced mind. To be sure, it’s difficult to read any book with a fair and balanced mind; more precisely, it’s impossible. But with The Silmarillion, it’s even more impossible than usual. It’s so completely impossible, in fact, that it starts to become a difficulty – though hopefully not an insurmountable one.

The plain truth of the matter is, I can’t read The Silmarillion at all. For me, it’s like hearing my own voice, or seeing my own face (both now possible, of course, thanks to cameras and voice recorders and so on, but you can see the point I’m making – and there are no photographs of the mind). When I read a book, I open the pages, and I read the words, and I form some opinion of the sentences. I and the book must come to terms with one another. When I open up The Silmarillion, however, the words are part of the person turning the pages, the sentences are in the eyes that plod along the print, and a video camera is gazing at its own recording of its own recording of itself. In some small degree, when I try to read The Silmarillion, what happens is that I’m trying to read myself.

Let’s not exaggerate. I’m not a Silmarillion fanatic. I think I love the book, but not enough to read it frequently – it’s so long since I read it that, I don’t know, perhaps I don’t love it at all but only think that I remember that I do. I have a good memory (in some ways), so I remember many things about it, but I’m far from being some walking dictionary of the work. Large parts of the book have fallen from my memory entirely, leaving only the vaguest of placeholders to let me know that there was once something there, that I cannot remember anymore. I used to read The Lord of the Rings almost constantly – at least every year, sometimes every few months – but it was never so for The Silmarillion. And even for Tolkien in general, I couldn’t seriously claim to be a devoted follower – I haven’t read anything from start to finish in perhaps a decade. I’ve read The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, and Unfinished Tales, and a couple of companions and guides (including the excellent and essential atlas, by Karen Wynn Fonstad) – but I haven’t read any of the massive and indispensable (for the true fan) The History of Middle-Earth. [Although for some unknown reason I do have a copy of the fourth volume]

That said, of course, if I’m honest I don’t really know what I’ve read, because over time my memory of the appendices to The Lord of the Rings has so intercomingled with my memories of The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, and the scraps of information from this guide or that website or such-and-such a conversation and from this or that imagining or misconception or unattributable assumption of my own that I don’t really know what is and isn’t in The Silmarillion, and what I do or don’t know about Tolkien’s world, and from whence. I’m not even sure, come to think of it, that I’ve really read all of The Silmarillion from front to back – and if I did, I don’t know when, because unlike all those other Tolkien books I actually have no memory of originally reading it. But at root, that’s in a way the whole problem: not that I care about The Silmarillion too much, or that I know it too well, but that it has slipped out of sight behind and under knowledge, above and around care. For me, ‘The Silmarillion’ has become not really a text on paper but a region, a very occluded and ancestral and subterranean region, of my subconscious. I imagine this is how many prior generations thought of the Old Testament – after long childhood recitations, passages, names, quotations, events would ever afterward resonate in their brains, though their conscious mind could not necessarily pinpoint their origin or detail their precise relation. The Bible underlay and interwove their lives, their literature, their perception of almost all things – even for those who ignored it, or even rejected or condemned it. The Silmarillion I think is like that – almost like that – for me. It’s like the forgotten voice that our parents spoke with when we were young. Trying to read it is like trying to get to know my parents as other people know them. I cannot separate what there really is from what I only know there to be.

Now, apologies for that long and unnecessary bibliographical digression (note to self: is my habit of starting paragraphs with the superfluous use of ‘now’ some relic of long-ago reading of The Silmarillion?). I share it not only (but partly) as an apology for and explanation of the perspective I’ll be taking as I talk about The Silmarillion, and not only (but mainly) because I’m a man over-prone to rambling, vanity and tangential ruminations, needing only the flimsiest excuse – but also because it touches directly on the issues raised by Christopher Tolkien’s own short Foreword to his father’s work. To, I should say, his presentation of his father’s work.

Because that’s the first issue. Who did write this book… and what is part of this book? With my own knowledge of the situation – my own vague and ill-informed ‘knowledge’, I should say – I seem to see something a little distasteful about this Foreword – something dishonest. It’s a Foreword that seems to present the work that follows as the work of Tolkien pater – it suggests a light editorial hand, and no invention. In fact, it now appears that editorial decisions were often critical, and that substantial portions, particularly toward the end of the book, were the product of at best substantial interstitial composition and at worst wholesale manufacture, by Tolkien filius and his assistant, Guy (now better known as Guy Gavriel) Kay. I don’t mean to condemn their actions in editing the work – it’s clear (or seems clear to me, in my state of surprisingly opinionated ignorance) that the task that faced them was monumental, and I can entirely understand their (as I understand it) approach. My reservation regards instead only the Foreword, where I would have hoped for an honest and precise explanation of the extent of editorial alterations. I cannot say that the Foreword is untrue, but I certainly found it out of keeping with my ‘understanding’ of the situation, and so I think it may be misleading for new readers.

And yet that isn’t the problem. [Is the problem that I for some reason instinctively wrote ‘Tolkien pater’ and ‘Tolkien filius’, even though it clearly sounds ridiculously pretentious? Well no, but it’s something I should work on, sorry about that]. The problem really is not what Christopher Tolkien has added, but what the reader adds – to what extent is it fair for a reader to bring in their own knowledge of the mythos when reading these stories? Or, since that doesn’t make sense strictly speaking as written, how about: when trying the evaluate the book, to what extent should a reviewer stick to what is on the page, and to what extent should they take for granted their own wider knowledge of Tolkien’s world? And if we try to stick to the page, is that even possible? – I can hardly wipe it all out of my mind, after all, especially since I’m not sure where in my mind it’s all stored (or why). Of course, this is a problem with any book – but it is particularly a problem here, both because it is a book that, for me, is so embedded in my head that I cannot cut it out, and because it is a legendarily ‘dense’ book and unfriendly to first-time readers.

The second major issue that the Foreword raises is the matter of how best to approach the book – and the problem of charity. The son repeatedly urges us to be charitable toward the work of the father. On the one hand, we must understand that this is not a finished work compiled by the ‘author’, but only a compendium of fragments edited together by a dead man’s family. Be generous, is the implication – impute the flaws to the editor, award the virtues to the deceased. And on the other hand, we must also understand that, within the conceit of the author, these stories are not truly a story told by a man, but a relation of many stories told by many different (fictional) authors. Disagreements in style, and even in content, are only to be expected. Imagine, we might suggest, that there is another story missing here, a framing story in which a narrator explains that these stories are not truths but the remnants of myths (a ‘Book of Lost Tales’, as the original idea ran). If we have criticisms, take them out on the foolish elves who wrote these ridiculous narratives, not on the poor hassled author who tried to tease them out into coherence!

I’m not going to consider here what impact these two framing devices (the quentar as conflicting and incomplete myths collated and edited by Tolkien pater, and The Silmarillion as conflicting and incomplete narratives by Tolkien pater collated and edited by Tolkien filius*) have on either the quality of the book or our appreciation of it. That’s more a matter for during or after the read-through of the book itself. What’s interesting here is to what extent it’s fair to ask for this charity at all. Clearly, approaching a book from a certain perspective can change a lot about how we see it – but it’s not normally the done thing for an author, or an editor, to come right out at the beginning and tell us how to read it. Isn’t that meant to come across in the text itself? Or should authors in fact do this regularly – after all, while they can hardly hold our hand through the entire text, there are many books where the author might (to both our and their benefit) include a helpful signpost at the beginning of our journey. Perhaps the reluctance to do so is only a quaint old taboo… or perhaps the special pleading here does speak to some inadequacy of one of the Tolkiens, either as an author or as an editor. I don’t know the answer to that. And then to the extent that we grant this charity, and adopt a forgiving eye on the idiosyncrasies of the text – as certainly I myself can’t help but do – what reason do we have for this? Is it respect for the dead, and the infelicitously poor paperwork brought on by death – are we saying “I’ll do my best to imagine how it might have been had he lived to see it completed”? Or is it respect for Tolkien as an author, or as a person – “I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt because I respect the old man for the other things he’s done.” And then again, is the appeal for a generous reading really an appeal outside of the book? That accepts the son’s presentation of the work as truly a work by his father, and not by himself – should we instead see the Foreword as, in its own way, a part of the novel, a framing story that just happens to be true? If so, should we criticise it as a blunt, prosaic, inelegant framing story – or is such a framing story perfectly suited to the novel, a framing story that realistically portrays an editor compiling conflicting narratives into a single tale (a story that’s realistic because it happens to be true?). Or perhaps this framing story just stands in place of the ‘real’ framing story, the one that the father would have written, perhaps, if he’d lived long enough – and if I write a novel that would have been a lot better with a framing story that explains the idiosyncrasies of the text away in a satisfactory way, could you imagine please that that story exists, since I unfortunately haven’t yet lived long enough to issue a revised edition that includes it? I’d be going to write one one day, honestly, and it’d be really good, so just imagine the most effective framing story you can think of…

We are very used to seeing a book as the product of an author – but this book is the product of at least three authors. We are used to seeing books that are either fiction or non-fiction, either scholarly or artistic – but this book is both. I find that challenging, in terms of how I conceive of the book, and of the posture I adopt as I begin to read (and I do not think this is any less of a question for readers who are not aware of their own postures). More generally, the issue of how our own stance affects how we experience the book, and how that stance is influenced by factors peripheral to or external to the book itself (and there I go again, I keep thinking of this as a book by JRR Tolkien, and not, as it perhaps is, a book by Christopher Tolkien that mostly consists of quotations from his father’s unfinished works), raises the question of to what extent the qualities we ascribe to any book are really qualities of the book, rather than qualities we have brought with us to the book.

And yet, and yet… although these questions are fascinating, they are not very interesting. We  can’t get very far with anything if we go on about how we can’t take our eyes out of our vision. Of course we can’t. But if we’re intelligent readers, self-aware readers, we can in general get some sense of the world beyond the prism of our eyes. If we couldn’t, all life would be impossible. Perhaps we can’t say anything certain, anything completely precise or true… but for goodness sake, anyone who ever thought we could, about anything and let alone about a book, must have been too foolishly demented to be worth arguing with in the first place. So I’m not raising these questions in the pretence that they’re somehow fundamental and significant – they’re not. They’re so important, so foundational, so quintessential to all our experience, that they are really quite inconsequential and dull. Nothing’s less interesting than a genuine universal.

Instead, I’m raising these questions for three key reasons: firstly, because it does us good to look at our feet and the ground from time to time – it stops us running too fast over dangerous terrain and, hey, sometimes the ground is pretty pretty when you take the time to look at it; secondly, because while these questions are always present with any book (with any thing), I think they’re particularly present, and particularly concrete, with regard to this book in particular, which is, in its own odd way, rather on the edge of what we’re used to from fiction; and, thirdly and most honestly, because it all popped into my head and look, I’ve got a keyboard in front of me, and that’s usually, I find, a terrible mistake, and I’m damned if I’m going to pass up the opportunity for a semi-interesting meandering.

So there I am. I’m going to read the book, and I’m going to write about the book, and I’m going to review the book, and I’m going to do it all strictly on the basis of the words on the page, and nothing else. And you should know from the beginning that the preceding sentence is, due to characteristics both of the book and of myself, a well-meaning, honest, but barefaced lie. As the film puts it: you may not believe that, and I may not believe that, but by God it’s a useful hypocrisy…


*Yes, not only am I using ‘pater’ and ‘filius’ in cold blood, I also now seem to be using words in Quenya. Well, sue me (only, if you’re Christopher Tolkien, please don’t). For those who don’t know and who don’t care to look it up, ‘quentar’ is the plural of ‘quenta’, which we’ll encounter in the name of the largest section of the book, the Quenta Silmarillion, and so means ‘stories’ or ‘accounts’. It’s related to the word Quenya itself, meaning ‘speech’, the name of language of the Noldor elves in the book. Since it’s vaguely relevant, I’ll also mention that the Quenya word for what this book contains is a quentastaa historical account derived from collated records – rather than a real quentalë (the true history of a thing). No, I don’t speak Quenya, I just looked those last two up. But hey, everyone knows what a quenta is, right?

OK, no, normal people probably don’t know that. Actually, until a little while ago, I didn’t know I knew that. Turns out I did.


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