The Silmarillion at 45: Early Readers, Tell Us about Living with the 1977 Book

Extollager

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I don't know how many Chronsfolk read The Silmarillion as soon as it was published (U.K. and U.S. editions released Sept. 1977) or very soon thereafter, but here's a thread for them to tell about their first reading -- where they got the book, what they thought about it, etc. and/or how they have felt about the book in the intervening years, etc.

Readers who first read The Silmarillion after 1980 are asked not to write about their experiences of reading the book on this thread, so that it can retain some focus. Nothing is thereby implied that should give anyone offense; no one is suggesting that someone who first read The Silmarillion in 2017 or whenever is somehow less able to enjoy and write about it than the early readers are. Anyone who wishes to comment on the remarks of the early readers may do so, may ask questions, whatever. But the thread invites memories and reflections of people who happened to be "on the spot" then, just as an inquiry might that asked "Do you remember where you were when you heard that JFK was shot?" or "What were your thoughts when the Berlin Wall came down?" and so on. "Extraneous" details welcome!

In 1977, I was a student at Southern Oregon State College in Ashland, and saw the book on sale at the J. K. Gill store in Medford on 2 October. J. K. Gill was an office supply company and book store business in Oregon and Washington. The store I visited was in the Medford Shopping Center. I bought a copy for list price of $10.95. Oregon had no sales tax; that's all I paid.

I'd read Clyde S. Kilby's Tolkien and the Silmarillion on 13 July 1977. (Much of that book is available now in A Well of Wonder, and Kilby's account of his summer with Tolkien is of great interest.) The Silmarillion itself I now read 9-14 September. My memory is that I read the First Age material at least onto cassettes for a blind student whom I knew through Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship on campus. She was not one to let her disability limit her more than was inevitable; here is a press photo of her learning to ski at Mt. Ashland.
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I'll have to look to see if I wrote a review at the time, either for Elanor, the amateur press association (apa) of which I was a member, or for the college newspaper. My impression of that early reading is that I was impressed more than I was enchanted. Christopher Tolkien later wrote that he thought publication of the Silmarillion materials without a frame story was a mistake, and I think that puts the finger on the "problem"; but I was grateful to have the book, ten or eleven years after I first read Tolkien. Here at last was the book mentioned in the LotR appendices, in fanzines, etc.
 
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Extollager

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Here, in case it would be of historical interest as an account of one reader's review in an undistinguished state college's paper....

Silmarillion review by Dale Nelson, published in Siskiyou, student newspaper of Southern Oregon State College, 21 Oct. 1977, p. 6.

“Tolkien’s New Sequel” [headline not written by DN]

Readers of the appendices to J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings have noticed allusions to two books of legends of the First and Second Ages, the Silmarillion and the Akallabeth. These supposedly gave fuller information on the origins and character of the Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, and Wizards of Middle-earth. Many readers probably assumed that these were merely titles Tolkien invented as part of his game of mock scholarship.

Yet here and there, such as in reference books like Contemporary Authors, one would read that these were Tolkien’s “works in progress.” Four years ago he died. So perhaps whatever those manuscripts were, however long they were, they were lost to the public.

But the Silmarillion, the Akallabeth, and three short narratives, have just been published as The Silmarillion, which presently resides comfortably at the top of the national best-seller list! Ironically enough, Tolkien’s death probably hastened their publication. For he was that despair of publishers, a perfectionist and a procrastinator. Some of the original material for the Silmarillion, it turns out, has been around since the First World War.

Tolkien’s son Christopher, who drew the big fold-out map in the hardcover Lord of the Rings, went to work on the disorganized mass of manuscripts, and has edited them into the present volume.

The Silmarillion describes the working-out of the schemes of Morgoth the fallen Vala (angel) against the other Valar and their maker, Eru, and the newly-made Elves and Men. For evil was present even before the world was formed, so that nowhere in earth have the plans of the Creator been fulfilled in completeness of joy. This of course is a Middle-earth version of Genesis.

As the Silmarillion continues, the divine realms are left more and more in the background, with Middle-earth taking up more of the picture, so that we see the long and tragic tale of Feanor the Elf and his sons, who made the Silmarils, jewels preserving the light of holy trees poisoned by Morgoth, and several other histories. Readers of The Lord of the Rings will here find out more about places and things and people like Gondolin, the dragons, Earendil (the subject of a long poem Strider recites in The Lord of the Rings), and Beren and Luthien. They also are in poems in The Lord of the Rings, and their story was so close to Tolkien, that the names of the Man and of the Elf-woman were cut beneath the names of Tolkien and his wife on their tombstone.

The Akallabeth tells of the rise and fall of Numenor, Tolkien’s version of Atlantis, the land of Strider’s forefathers, who founded the realm of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings. Here we learn more about Sauron, the Dark Lord against whom the War of the Ring was fought.

“Ainulidale” and “Valaquenta” are two short pieces at the front of the book, dealing with the Creation, and with the personalities of the various chief Valar. “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age,” the last narrative item, gives background on the making of the Rings, including the One which Frodo the Hobbit bore to Mordor in the company of his servant Samwise and the wretched Gollum.

The Silmarillion is really autobiographical, for it is filled with words from Tolkien’s complex invented languages, a hobby which gave him decades of pleasure. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are bound to remain Tolkien’s best-loved works, with their wonderful landscapes and fuller character portrayals (and most of us identify much more easily with the comfort-loving Hobbits in the Shire than with the Elves, who do not die while the earth survives). But The Silmarillion is indispensable for those who want to penetrate deeper into Tolkien’s world.
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Your memories from when The Silmarillion was a newly-published book, anyone who was there?
 

Extollager

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I asked the same question at the Inklings discussion group. The reminiscence below is by Steve Hayes. I've read his novels The Enchanted Grove (a YA novel but this adult liked it) and The Year of the Dragon (for adults) and enjoyed them a lot. He writes from (and about) South Africa...


At the time the "Silmarillion" came out we were living in a small town, a
village really, of Melmoth in Zululand. It had no bookshop, and only a small
and fairly limited public library. For things like stationery and office
supplies we had to travel to Empangeni, 70 km away, and for a decent
bookshop, to Durban, 200 km away.

As a result, we did not see or buy the Silmarillion immediately it was
published, but only when we spent a few days in Durban in May 1979 and found
a copy in a bookshop there.

I then read it aloud to my wife, usually while lying in bed before we went to
sleep in the evenings, and so it took a while to finish it.

A few years later, in August 1985, I again read it aloud to my son, then aged
7. We had read "The Hobbit" aloud to all our children when on holiday in the
Drakensberg mountains at the end of 1984 -- a rather nice illustrated
edition. But only Simon, the middle one, enjoyed it enough to want go on to
"The Lord of the Rings" and "The Silmarillion". The other two kids preferred
non-fiction, though the youngest later developed as taste for Terry
Pratchett.

But Simon developed a love for fantasy literature, and designed the cover for
my book "The Enchanted Grove", which features the Drakensberg mountains, the
setting in which we had first read "The Hobbit" to him.

----Extollager (Dale Nelson) again: One of Rider Haggard's late romances, Heu-Heu, or The Monster (1923) features a terrific storm early in the story, in the Drakensberg Mountains. There are enough similarities to the mountain-storm in The Hobbit that I wouldn't be surprised if there were influence on Tolkien, who began writing his book around 1930.
 

Extollager

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Here is a link to David Bratman's account of his first readings of The Silmarillion. His reminiscence is great -- read it!

 

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