A podcast about Middle-earth and all things Tolkien.
I created this guide to be an über-helpful resource for those attempting to read The Silmarillion for the first time, or for those who have read it and are interested in going deeper. Please feel free to contact me with questions, correspondence, recommendations, and corrections.
After we discussed The Silmarillion chapter-by-chapter, we recorded a 40-minute episode on the entire plot of The Silmarillion. You can listen to that here…
I’ve also created an 8-part video series on The Silmarillion entitled “Intro to The Silmarillion.” You can view that here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLqUat2OcwnPD6rnkcZw7MHykbf-yhtAGf
It’s a major turning point in the life of every Tolkien fan: what to do about The Silmarillion. You’ve read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (I hope), and you are looking for more Middle-earth (and probably more hobbits).
I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news.
THE BAD NEWS? You’ve pretty much exhausted all the stories about hobbits (with a few minor exceptions).
THE GOOD NEWS? There’s a ton more to learn about Middle-earth, and more stories about characters you already know and love, and it all begins with The Silmarillion.
By the time you’ve finished The Lord of the Rings, you’ve probably heard about The Silmarillion, and you may have even picked up a copy already. So if you’re like most Tolkien fans, you pick up your copy, break it open, and things quickly get all Old Testament on you: what’s all this about Ainur and Ilúvatar? And then, more strange names? And then a bunch of bizarre business about lamps and some world that doesn’t seem to bear any resemblance to the Middle-earth of Bilbo and Frodo. Some – the strong-willed – may survive. Most – including yours truly – throw in the towel around Chapter 3 when they realize that none of the Elves are named Legolas or Elrond.
This guide is for anyone who has ever thrown The Silmarillion across the room in a rage of frustrated, hobbit-less exasperation. It is designed to help any Tolkien fan not only make it through The Silmarillion, but get the most out of reading it.
I wrote it because I really believe that The Silmarillion is 100% worth the effort it takes to get through it and I want to help you on that journey. It’s a tough mountain to climb, and the going is really slow at first, but once you start getting further up and further in, you’re able to look back on all of Middle-earth (aka Arda, but more on that later) and the views become even more spectacular. The Silmarillion unlocks the entirety of Middle-earth’s history, and once you’ve read it, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit get even better.
This guide is essentially a just the basics, chapter-by-chapter roadmap of The Silmarillion that is designed to fill you in on main characters and events in each chapter.
It rests on a few basic assumptions.
ASSUMPTION #1: You have already read The Lord of the Rings & The Hobbit.
While I am sure there have been some folks who have tried to read The Silmarillion before reading LOTR or The Hobbit, I have to imagine that most readers come to The Silmarillion because they have just finished Tolkien’s other two Middle-earth works and are hungering for more. So, if you haven’t, there might be some larger conceptual issues you have, such as “What’s an orc?” and perhaps even “Who’s Gandalf?” If that is the case, I highly recommend attempting those works before you try The Silmarillion.
ASSUMPTION #2: You don’t fear the spoilers.
To be clear, I try not to spoil really important stuff, but yes, there is a risk in reading this that you’ll learn something much sooner than you would via a straight reading of the text itself. At the end of the day though, The Silmarillion isn’t really so much about the surprising plot twists as it is about the beauty and detail of the work. Tolkien was not really trying to pull any “Luke, I’m your father” type of reveals on us in these stories.
For those who HAVE NOT read The Silmarillion: First, try reading it. This guide is intended to help those who have tried to read it and failed. If you get a few pages in and realize you need help, then that’s where this guide will hopefully come in handy. You might start with the Plot Summary and the Maps so that you have an idea of the over aching story and landscape, and then review the guide to each chapter before diving into it for a read. Also, my podcast The Tolkien Road devotes at least 1 episode to each chapter in the book, so that might also be helpful for those who learn better by listening.
For those who HAVE read The Silmarillion before: This guide can be used to enhance multiple readings of The Silmarillion. Take me, for example: the first time I actually made it through the whole work, I mean that I simply passed my eyeballs over every word on every page. My comprehension was low. It took sheer willpower to geterdun, and so I would have struggled to recount to you even who Túrin Turambar was. For someone like me then, I might have used this work as a guide to chapters I had not understood as well.
I truly believe The Lord of the Rings is the greatest novel ever written, and from what I understand there’s a whole lot of people who agree with me. And what does one do when one finishes reading “the greatest novel ever written”? One looks for other works by the author who wrote the greatest novel ever written.
Since you can’t really go forward from The Lord of the Rings (no sequels), your only choice is to go backwards, and that means The Silmarillion.
Despite an extremely limited number of exceptions though, one cannot easily transfer what one already knows of Middle-earth from the works of the Third Age to those of the First. This does not *seem* to be the same world as The Lord of the Rings. Not even the maps look familiar!
While The Silmarillion purports to be a history of Middle-earth from the First Age, this isn’t the sort of “prequel” where we get “the early adventures of Gandalf and his young apprentice Sauron.” There is no fresh-faced young Obi-Wan Kenobi to latch onto as a familiar personage, and Sauron is merely the main bad guy’s henchman, and doesn’t really make much of an appearance until way later in the story anyway.
So why is The Silmarillion so hard to read?
First, plot complexity. I believe it is because there is not a clear and coherent narrative that immediately jumps out at the reader, nor one main figure around whom our minds can structure the reading of the story. While The Lord of the Rings is challenging itself, the story really focuses on a small group of main characters (the Fellowship), and there is one main problem clearly driving all of the action (what to do about Sauron’s Ring). In The Silmarillion, the group of main characters is much larger, and changes quite frequently, and we don’t ever really get to know them in the same way as we get to know the members of the Fellowship.
Second, characters. In The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, you have a few main characters, and then additional characters that come in and out of the story. However, it’s easier for your mind to get with the program because you are seeing things through the experience of Bilbo (in The Hobbit) and the Fellowship (in LOTR). In The Silmarillion, there’s no one group whose experience is entirely in focus.
Third, timelines. The Hobbit takes place over about a year. Lord of the Rings is similar (excluding the time lapse between Bilbo’s birthday and Frodo’s departure). The Silmarillion encompasses a pre-First Age span of millennia, and then a roughly 500 year First Age, and then a 3000 year Second Age. So the timeline is in centuries rather than days, weeks, or months.
Fourth, vocabulary. The Lord of the Rings isn’t short on unfamiliar names, but once you start to read The Silmarillion you realize that Tolkien the Philologist was taking it easy on his readers. The Silmarillion grew out of his fascination with ancient languages and legends, and the vocabulary is expansive.
Fifth, style. The writing style of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is fairly friendly. It’s written as if
I could probably identify some other reasons, but I think those are the big ones. So given all of these, any reasonable person would then ask…
The Silmarillion as we have it is actually more than what Tolkien would have referred to as “The Silmarillion”. In the following, I breakdown the different parts of what you get in the publication titled The Silmarillion and explain how they fit into the overall picture.
FOREWORD: The Foreword was written by Tolkien’s son Christopher, who has been the primary manager of his father’s legacy since the elder Tolkien passed away in 1973. The Silmarillion was not actually published until 1977, 4 years after Tolkien had passed away. In this brief section, Christopher explains what this book is, and why he included the things that he did. The important thing to remember is that The Silmarillion we have is, according to Christopher, the book that his father wanted us to have, all sections included.
PREFACE TO THE 2ND EDITION: In this very brief note, Christopher explains the importance of the introduction and what exactly it is.
INTRODUCTION: The “Waldman Letter”. In this long letter, written to Milton Waldman of the Collins Publishing Company, we get a sense from Tolkien of exactly what The Silmarillion was and of the key themes of it. Though perhaps not something the first time reader should get bogged down in, it is nevertheless quite worthwhile for those wanting to know more about what was on Tolkien’s mind as he composed The Silmarillion over the course of a lifetime. FYI, a longer version of this letter can be found in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.
AINULINDALË: The Music of the Ainur. This is the Middle-earth “Creation Story,” its Genesis, and serves as something of a preface to The Silmarillion. In it we find out who the main antagonist of The Silmarillion is and why he does what he does. We also learn about some of the “god-like” figures (the Ainur) that will be major figures in the story of Middle-earth. FYI, I have written a book about this story, entitled Tolkien’s Overture.
VALAQUENTA: Though it doesn’t do much to advance the plot, “Valaquenta” is something like a catalog of the major supernatural figures at work in The Silmarillion. It catalogs all 14 Valar, talks about the Maiar (who are like the Valar, but lesser and at their service), and discusses the major bad guys at work too. BTW – a few very famous LOTR characters are mentioned in this chapter under different names.
QUENTA SILMARILLION: The meat of the story aka “The Silmarillion proper”. These 24 chapters tell about the wars caused by Melkor, the coming of Elves and Men, the creation of the Dwarves, the origin of the Silmarils, and the great tumults that formed the landscape of Middle-earth that we are more familiar with in the Third Age. Though the main story concerns the intrigue surrounding the Silmarils, there are a number of loosely connected sub-plots that play out in the various chapters.
AKALLABÊTH: This is a history of the Second Age of Middle-earth (or at least the history of Númenor). Sauron is the main bad guy here, having been Melkor’s right hand man previously. If you are looking forward to the upcoming LOTR TV show on Amazon, then I highly recommend familiarizing yourself with this story, as well as the re-counting of the early history of the Rings of Power in the section that follows.
OF THE RINGS OF POWER AND THE THIRD AGE: This is a summary of the Third Age and the major events therein. If you’ve read The Lord of the Rings, you’re already familiar with many of the details here, but this tells that story from an historical perspective and dovetails with “Akallabêth” to present a full account of the Second Age. Also, a must read for those excited about the LOTR TV show on Amazon.
While The Silmarillion on first glance seems to suffer from disunity in plot, there is a discernible “single strand” running through it that can help to unify the whole thing: the struggle of the Valar, Elves, and Men against Melkor/Morgoth, Sauron, and their minions.
Here’s my take on it, though it should be stressed that this has the potential to spoil important points of the plot for you. Even so, keep in mind that reading this plot only gives you about 1% (really, less than that) of what makes up The Silmarillion anyway.
AINULINDALË/VALAQUENTA: The Creation of Arda. Ilúvatar creates the Ainur, and inspires them to create a grand music which eventually becomes the world of Arda. He has created Arda as a dwelling place for Elves (immortal) and Men (mortal) among many other creatures. Some of the Ainur descend into Arda in order to help form it and prepare it for Elves and Men. These Ainur are called the Valar and the Maiar.
CHAPTERS 1-2: Continuing creation and war with Melkor. Once in Arda, the Valar create 2 huge lamps in order to light the world, one in the north and one in the south (see the Maps section). Melkor, the greatest of the Ainur, jealously throws them down forever changing the landscape of Arda. The Valar replace the lamps with the Two Trees of Valinor. We also learn how the Dwarves came to be.
CHAPTERS 3-5: The Coming of the Elves. After many ages, the Elves awaken in the far east. The Valar fear for their safety, so they capture and imprison Melkor, and then summon the Elves to Valinor. 3 tribes of Elves complete the journey: the Vanyar, the Noldor, and the Teleri.
CHAPTERS 6-9: The Silmarils & the Fall of the Noldor. One of the Noldor, Fëanor, is a skilled craftsman, and creates three jewels called the Silmarils. These jewels are extremely beautiful because they contain the mingled light of the Two Trees. Melkor lusts for the jewels and hungers to hurt the Valar and the Elves, and so he feigns repentance in order to destroy the Two Trees and steal the Silmarils. With the aid of the giant spider Ungoliant, he succeeds, and flees to Angband in the far north of Beleriand. Against the wishes of the Valar, Fëanor leads the Noldor on a hell-bent mission to destroy Melkor and anyone else who stands in the way of regaining the Silmarils. As a result, they are banished from Valinor forever.
CHAPTERS 10-23: Wars and Intrigue in Beleriand. Upon their return to Beleriand, the Noldor team up with Elves who remained behind (the Sindar, the people of King Thingol) and, later, Men and Dwarves, in various attempts to defeat Melkor and reclaim the Silmarils. All in all, five major battles are fought between Melkor (now Morgoth) and the peoples of Beleriand. None of these wars are successful at defeating Morgoth or regaining a Silmaril, although the lovers Beren and Lúthien do succeed in obtaining one the Silmarils.
CHAPTER 24: The First Age Ends with Morgoth’s Defeat. After these major battles, the Noldor are finally spent of their might, and slowly the great kingdoms of Beleriand begin to fall. It looks as if Morgoth’s forces will completely overwhelm Beleriand, and so the mariner Eärendil sets sail for the West, and by the light of the Silmaril of Beren and Lúthien, obtains passage into Valinor and the aid of the Valar. The ensuing War of Wrath sees the forces of Valinor utterly overwhelm Angband and bring it down entirely, though the battle is so fierce that Beleriand itself essentially falls into the sea. Many of the Elves and Men of Beleriand perish in the war, but some escape into the East, over the Blue Mountains, and establish new realms there. The First Age of Middle-earth ends (as does Quenta Silmarillion).
AKALLABÊTH: The Tragedy of Númenor. After the fall of Melkor, the Second Age begins as an age of peace. For their aid in the anti-Morgoth cause, some of the Men of Beleriand are rewarded by the Valar with an island kingdom that will become known as Númenor. Although not quite located in the Blessed Realm itself, it is closer than Men were normally allowed, and the people of Númenor (henceforth known as the Dúnedain, or Elf-friends) are also rewarded with a longer lifespan than is normal to Men. “Akallabêth” covers almost the entirety of The Second Age (from Year 1 to Year 3319), and includes the period in which the Rings of Power are fashioned in Middle-earth.
OF THE RINGS OF POWER AND THE THIRD AGE: An Overview of the War of the Rings Period. While “Akallabêth” focuses on the downfall of Númenor, it overlaps with the history of the Rings of Power. This section/chapter focuses on the events that led to their creation, and continues the story after the fall of Númenor all the way through to the destruction of the One Ring at the end of the Third Age.
There are 2 maps in The Silmarillion, and though they can be helpful, they are not immediately so. In fact, they only describe the world of The Silmarillion beginning around Chapter 10 or so. There is nothing that explains that for the new reader, so you essentially have to figure that out on your own. And it sure would be nice if there were maps for those early chapters! There are dozens, maybe even hundreds of place names listed out in the stories of Valinor, but no clear visual indication of how they all relate to one another.
Since I know how much a map helps, I’ve created a few very simply map sketches to explain the landscapes. I’ve correlated those with the relevant chapters. These are simple sketches, designed to equip your brain with a few major reference points (including a few from the Third Age) in order to make the story easier to understand. After Chapter 10, the map of Beleriand in the book becomes useful. Here’s a link to John Howe’s re-creation of that map.
I highly recommend picking up The Atlas of Middle-earth by Karen Wynn Fonstad. It’s an outstanding guide for those who are map-inclined, and it not only supplements your reading of The Silmarillion, but of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as well. You can find a link to it in the Resources section.
In Chapter 1, the world that will become known as Middle-earth is essentially one large land mass with a lake in the middle. On this lake stands the island home of the Valar: Almaren. Since there is no sun yet, the Valar construct two giant lamps to light the world, Illuin and Ormal. Melkor, being the destroyer that he is, eventually knocks down these lamps, and it causes the once simple form of Arda to be marred irreparably.
After the destruction of the Two Lamps, the Valar make a new home for themselves in the far west, a land called Aman. They settle in the region they will call Valinor and establish the city of Valmar. Meanwhile, Melkor returns to Utumno in the far north and constructs another fortress known as Angband to serve as a first line of defense against the Valar. Eventually, the Elves awaken in Cuiviénen on the eastern shore of the Sea of Helcar. In order to secure their safety, the Valar wage war on Melkor, destroying Utumno, imprisoning him, and once again radically changing the shape of Arda.
With Melkor imprisoned, the Valar now seek to bring the Elves to Valinor from Cuiviénen. It’s a long journey, and not all of the Elves are willing. Those who are willing eventually make it to Beleriand, and cross the sea on Tol Eressëa, the Lonely Isle. From here, the action mainly takes place in Valinor through Chapter 9, with Ungoliant and Melkor striking from the south and fleeing to the north across the Helcaraxë. The Noldor follow in pursuit, and from that point, the map of Beleriand included in the book becomes relevant. Just realize that Angband/Thangorodrim is just to the north of that map and you should be able to follow the action for the rest of the story.
My website SilmGuide.com contains more detailed notes on each chapter in The Silmarillion, and I link to those guides with the associated chapters. This guide will explain the very basics of each chapter and maybe give a few pointers on some of the more difficult things to understand.