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Letter of Recommendation: Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, read by Martin Shaw


So for the past year or two, almost nonstop, I’ve been reading and rereading JRR Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, the great, weird pseudo-prequel to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Or rather, I’ve been listening to it, since the version I’ve been rereading is the audiobook read by Martin Shaw. If my digital counters are correct, I’ve listened* to the whole thing at least 40 times (where “listened*” includes dozing off and barely paying attention, but those count too). I recently described it on Twitter as my favorite book of any type, and that’s the kind of big talk that requires some elaboration, which I’ll try to give here.

The Silmarillion is a weird-ass book. You could call it a book with a book up its own ass. I called it a pseudo-prequel because while it was published after The Lord of the Rings and to a certain extent presupposes it, much of it was written well before The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings was published. It also doesn’t really tell you (except for a comparatively short bit at the end) what happened just before The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings that led up to it as it does what happened centuries before that set the entire universe into motion. So it’s not so much “Young Aragorn goes on adventures” as “who were Elrond’s parents and grandparents exactly?” It’s a much deeper cut.

It includes some of the oldest material Tolkien ever wrote that had anything to do with Middle Earth, as well as later revisions he made. You could see it as a kind of historical/mythological background for The Lord of the Rings, or as a set of connected stories that are interesting in their own right. There are no hobbits, but plenty of elves, dwarves, humans, and angelic and demonic monsters and gods. It’s all told in a high, historical style, with relatively little direct dialogue or internal monologue. There are very few routes into the material by way of consistent or relatable characters. But despite all this, it’s a remarkably moving, cinematic, and powerful piece of fiction.

Oh, and it also wasn’t exactly intended for publication, and was sort of a mess when Tolkien died, so his son Christopher did a lot of work assembling and condensing the material and making it consistent. It’s been through the blender a couple of times.

While there are great examples of narrative within it, it’s not really a narrative. It’s a combination of narratives and architecture, or taxonomy. Some of the chapters tell stories, and others explain who everybody is, where they live, and how they’re related to each other. It stops and starts in time, telling different stories from different points of view. Some of the chapters are much richer in narrative details than others, giving you the impression that it’s been condensed from heterogeneous materials (which it kind of was). The books it’s closest to are anthologies of classical mythologies (which it kind of is).

None of this sounds like it should be a great book, let alone a great audiobook. But I’m telling you, somehow, it works. The stops and starts, the catalogs and stories within stories, give it a modular quality that is especially good for listening for twenty minutes or an hour at a time. You can pick it up and leave it off anywhere, and you haven’t necessarily missed anything. Something new is always starting.

What it actually reminds me of is modern serial storytelling, especially in prestige TV dramas. Every episode builds towards the whole, but can also stand on its own. There’s a huge interconnected cast of characters, and a high bodycount, which means narrative focus tends to drift between different characters as focal points as people come and go. It just happens over centuries rather than years, because they’re gods and elves and shit.

There are also a few self-contained stories in the book that are given longer treatment that represent Tolkien’s best attempts to imitate the kind of older storytelling he was trying to revive. The two most noteworthy stories are Beren and Luthien, which sort of prefigures the Aragorn and Arwen story but also channels old folktales and myths in a way that none of The Hobbit or LOTR can really touch, and then the story of Turin Turambar, which was expanded and released on its own as The Children of Hurin. The Turin story is high Germanic operatic tragedy. (A third story, The Fall of Gondolin, never really reached a final form, and it gets a rather cursory telling in The Silmarillion).

The rest of the stories are told pretty quickly. It’s written more like a movie treatment than a novel. And I think this helps the book work as an audiobook as well โ€” you have to work a little harder to generate the characters and their interactions in your mind, so you do it, mainlined from a relatively brief audio description, so you don’t have that dragging feeling like you’re already ahead of the text. It’s just one brisk scene after another.

Now, all this means that there’s huge potential in The Silmarillion as a high-end TV series, especially now that Amazon owns the rights to the Tolkien legendarium. There’s also huge potential to screw it up. And โ€” I think โ€” Amazon is not necessarily wrong in thinking there might be more commercial potential in writing the adventures of a Hot Young Aragorn from more-or-less scratch than there is in bringing the stories of Elrond’s grandparents to the screen for a bunch of hard-core Tolkien fans who aren’t ever going to really be happy with what they’re given.

But if you are a hard-core Tolkien fan, or want to be, or want to get a jump on the stories that might or might not be the next Game of Thrones, or just want to experience a very different but exciting kind of high fantasy storytelling, then I strongly recommend the Silmarillion audiobook. I don’t know how I would have fallen asleep or killed time typing blog posts for the past few years without it.

Update: For some reason, Audible won’t let you buy or download the Shaw audiobook in the United States. If you’re in the UK, you’ve got better luck. This link for Kobo audiobooks seems to work in the US, although I didn’t go all the way through with a purchase. (And it might be less appealing than if Audible just did what it’s supposed to do.)

Update: The Fall of Gondolin was just released as a standalone book, in hardcover and e-book. It’s still in an unfinished state, and presented in multiple versions, but it sounds like Christopher Tolkien made the best of it he could. (Thanks, @RLHeppner!)