Tolkien’s The Silmarillion is a good book, a long book, a beautiful book, a tragic book, a salvific book, a book that heals the soul.
I couldn’t possibly be expected to explain all of this in one blog post. So I’ll just make a few observations (spoilers included).
Observation 1:This guy writes fantasy in three different genres!
Tolkien is amazing, and for so many reasons. Besides inventing Dwarvish and Orkish and more than one version of Elvish, and besides writing the best piece of literature in human history (The Lord of the Rings), he also wrote fantasy in the Adventure genre (The Hobbit), the Quest genre (The Lord of the Rings), and the Myth genre (The Silmarillion).
Silmarillion is not the same kind of story as the other books. It actually reads like myth, although it’s also the true story of the First Age of Middle Earth.
Observation 2: It’s actually several books.
The first book tells the story of the creation of the universe (by one God, Eru, called Ilúvatar by the Elves), the rebellion of Melkor (the Satan character), and how Eru took the rebellion up into his own good ordering of creation–making something good out of evil.
Other books tell of the origins of Elves and Men, how the Elves came to Valinor, how Earth was marred by Melkor (now called Morgoth), how the Elves rebelled against the Valar, how they returned to Middle Earth, and how they waged heroic yet hopeless war against Morgoth for centuries.
These Valar, by the way, are (speaking theologically) best described as angels. In the story, however (and speaking literarily) they are the gods.
Observation 3: Sorrow upon sorrow.
The long heroic war has bright moments, like Beren and Luthien and Tuor and Idril Celebrindal. It has glorious moments, like the death of Fingolfin. But mostly it’s just a disaster: a total loss of the homes and lives of everyone who stands against Morgoth.
All the heroism, all the temporary triumphs amount to only one thing: They spin a tiny thread of hope for the future.
None of the characters understand this hope, of course. How could they? They are in a world marred by sin and slowly, irresistibly disintegrating. To understand how any hope could come through their own struggle against evil they would have to know how salvation will break into Middle Earth from outside of it.
Observation 4: Eucatastrophe!
Eucatastrophe is Tolkien’s word for a catastrophe in reverse, for the “help unlooked-for” that saves when all hope is lost. It’s also a good word for grace.
In Silmarillion, the eucatastrophe comes when Eärendil bears a Silmaril to Valinor and the Valar finally have mercy on the rebellious Elves. (And, for those who like battles, the eucatastrophe includes a gigantic yet swift and decisive war against Morgoth. Hooray!)
Remember that tiny thread of hope? Eärendil is the son of Tuor and Idril, and he marries Elwing. Elwing is the granddaughter of Beren and Lúthien, who together liberated a Silmaril from Morgoth. Elwing brings the Silmaril to Eärendil, which enables him to come to Valinor.
And in conclusion: You should recognize all kinds of theological connections here.
But feel free to ignore what I say about it. Read the books themselves: the Bible, the Silmarillion, and Ralph Wood’s book tying it all together: The Gospel According to Tolkien.
Dr. Mark J. Boone is a teacher and researcher in philosophy, especially the history of philosophy, primarily the ancient and medieval eras, writing his dissertation on Saint Augustine. Dr. Boone is the Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Forman Christian College. Mark is an occasional book reviewer for the journal Augustinian Studies and has written articles dealing with Plato, William James, theology and the arts, and religious epistemology. In some of his precious little spare time Mark makes animated cartoons based on famous speeches and dialogues in the history of philosophy, available on YouTube and Vimeo under the username TeacherofPhilosophy.