With huge thanks to Ed Grabianowski for his permission to host this wonderful article - a perennial read of mine!
Note from Ed: This was originally written five or six years ago, then it was lost in a blog purge, then rescued by Kevin Beynon at Libreture, so it seems only right for it to find a new home there.
I was about to embark on another Lord of the Rings reread when I thought, maybe I should finally get through The Silmarillion first, and see how it changes my experience when I finally get to my next LotR. It turns out I really enjoyed The Silmarillion! I decided to write this article to either convince you that you should also read it, or give you a shorthand version of the important stuff that relates to the primary trilogy (whether you’re a fan of the books or the movies).
Before we venture forth, two brief notes. First, some of the things in this list are, of course, mentioned at various points within the LotR books themselves. But they’re like puzzle pieces scattered across the table. Reading The Silmarillion is like seeing the assembled puzzle.
Second, one of the things that always held me back from reading it in the first place was that I thought it would be a dry, boring list of names or elvish pronunciation guides, like the appendices for LotR. It is not like that at all — it’s a dramatic, epic tale with a fascinating narrative. To be sure, there are a lot of names to keep track of, especially the elves, since for like three generations they all seem to have names that start with ‘F,’ and they almost never die, so there are sons and grand-daughters and great-great grand-nieces all co-existing at the same time. I even wrote out a family tree to help myself keep track. But is a very readable narrative.
Here, then, are ten things in The Silmarillion that will influence how you see The Lord of the Rings (and The Hobbit).
1. Tolkien’s blended mythology
Professor Tolkien’s creation is, without any doubt, wonderfully original. But like all great works, it borrows and remixes its creator’s influences. At the heart of Middle-Earth is a complex blend of Christian monotheism with Norse/Germanic paganism. This becomes clear in The Silmarillion because it is effectively like the Bible of Middle-Earth, the origin story of an entire world and the beings who live there. And like the Bible, it describes events as a sort of overview, but rarely gets into the details and dialog you’d find in a typical novel. For instance, the Battle of the Pelennor Fields takes up several chapters in The Return of the King, but in The Silmarillion it is simply described as a major battle that occurred during the events leading to Sauron’s downfall and the ascension of Aragorn to the throne of the Reunited Kingdom. It takes about half a paragraph.
The book starts, like the Bible, with the creation of all existence at the hands of Eru Ilúvatar, the one god above all others in Tolkien’s mythology. Ilúvatar is the source of everything, a very monotheistic Judeo-Christian idea. But the first thing he creates is a group of beings called the Valar, who are basically like pagan deities — they each have their own “portfolio” of concepts which they specialize in. There’s a sea god, a nature goddess, an air god, even a goddess of grief and mercy (Nienna, whom I find quite interesting — she was known to stare out her window and gaze at the void beyond existence). Ilúvatar also created the Maiar, who were sort of like demigods, deities of lesser power than the Valar, but also sort of like angels and heralds of the Valar. They interacted with the peoples of Middle-Earth much more frequently and directly than the Valar — indeed, Gandalf and Sauron were Maiar, and one of the Maiar married an elf, creating a lineage of elves which have divine Maiar blood in their ancestry (including Elrond -- we'll discuss Elvish immortality shortly).
So if you choose to read The Silmarillion, you'll find both a sweeping overview of the most important events in the history of Middle-Earth and a glimpse of the core ideas that were swirling in Tolkien’s mind and led to the vast mythology he eventually wrote.
2. Elves screwed up everything
Reading The Lord of the Rings, you might assume Tolkien had kind of a thing for the elves. A central theme of the story is the sadness of the elves’ inevitable passing over the sea, into “The West,” leaving Middle-Earth forever. Basically everything elven is pure and gorgeous and amazing, and everything not elven is a pale shadow of true elven beauty. Here’s the thing, though — the elves were basically handed a great deal by Ilúvatar. They’re immortal, they can go back and forth between heaven (Valinor) and Middle-Earth, they’re very powerful, they never get diseases, and even if they get killed in battle they can come back -- sometimes. They get to hang out with the Valar and all the lands of Middle-Earth are theirs to settle and build beautiful stuff in.
But there’s one thing the elves in the Third Age don’t talk about — that almost everything bad that happens in Middle-Earth happens because of elves. One elf in particular: Fëanor. Fëanor was one of the sons of Finwë, one of the three original elf kings. Fëanor had it all, looks, skill, strength. He created the Silmarils (as well as the Palantiri, more on those later), three gems that contained the last remnant of the light of the two trees the Valar used to light Valinor. They were incredibly powerful and beautiful gems, and Fëanor grew proud and jealous, hiding them and getting paranoid that the Valar would steal them. There’s a lot more to the story, but basically Fëanor convinced his followers to leave Valinor for Middle-Earth, and in doing so they murdered another group of elves to steal their ships. And Fëanor made his sons swear an oath that they would never allow anyone else to have the Silmarils. This oath led to countless betrayals and tragedies, as the Sons of Fëanor turned against their fellow elves, all to get their hands on those gems. All this served to aid Melkor (later known as Morgoth), the dark and evil Valar that spent his entire existence working to destroy anything beautiful the Valar made.
This is, of course, a simplification, since Melkor/Morgoth, a figure with an origin quite similar to Lucifer (with a little Loki mixed in for good measure), is really the source of all evil in Middle-Earth, and he was the one who stoked Fëanor’s paranoia. To be sure, Morgoth did an enormous amount of evil on his own. But the crushing betrayals and loss of faith and innocence that stemmed from Fëanor all seem worse because they came from a fellow elf, a form of internal corruption and greed more insidious and horrible than the depredations of an external bad guy. And all this paints the superior attitudes of the elves in the Third Age in a very different light.
3. Middle-Earth used to be twice as big as it is in the Third Age
The Middle-Earth you’re familiar with extends from The Shire and areas nearby in the northeast to Minas Tirith and Mordor in the southwest (this is a simplification, again — there’s quite a bit to the north and west of the Shire, for instance). There are vast areas to the east and south, but these are “off the map,” wild, untamed lands that play almost no part in the story. But as large as Middle-Earth might seem in LotR, it used to be twice as big.
A lot of what happens in Middle-Earth during the First Age takes place in the western half of Middle-Earth, a huge area called Beleriand that simply isn’t there anymore. If you look on a map of Middle-Earth, not far west of the Shire you reach a huge ocean. That used to be an entire second half of Middle-Earth, as big again as what you know from LotR. Morgoth, who had moved to a fortress in northern Middle-Earth called Angband, was causing so much grief that the other Valar were eventually roused to cross the sea and go to war against him. It was known as the War of Wrath, and the Valar won, exiling Morgoth into the void until the end of time. But the war was so brutal, its participants so powerful, that Beleriand was simply destroyed, shattered and sunken beneath the sea.
So if you’re wondering why the Valar didn’t just come deal with Sauron in the Third Age, they had vowed never to interfere directly with Middle-Earth again after they obliterated half of it the last time they got involved. It’s why they send Maiar in the form of the Wizards to help instead.
4. There’s something Galadriel isn’t telling you
Galadriel is one of the most powerful elves in Middle-Earth during the Third Age — possibly the single most powerful. She is Fëanor’s niece, so her origin is quite close to the very first elves who ever existed. She was born prior to the start of the First Age, in fact. But remember when Fëanor rebelled and took a bunch of elves from Valinor to Middle-Earth? Well, Galadriel was among them, joining and advocating for the rebellion because she wanted her own kingdom in Middle-Earth rather than hang out with the Valar in Valinor. She did not directly participate in the kinslaying and Fëanor's other heinous misdeeds, but she was part of that insurrection all the same, and she wasn’t terribly proud of it.
At one point, Galadriel becomes friends with Melian (the Maiar who married an elf that I mentioned earlier), and Melian is like, “Hey so it was really cool when a bunch of elves just happened to arrive here in Middle-Earth from Valinor to help us fight Morgoth, but I kind of having a feeling there’s more to the story here.” And Galadriel, who hasn’t mentioned the rebellion or the kinslaying or any of that, well, here’s a direct quote from The Silmarillion:
‘That woe is past,’ said Galadriel; ‘and I would take what joy is here left, untroubled by memory’ …
Then Melian looked in her eyes, and said: ‘I believe not that the Noldor [the elves who rebelled] came forth as messengers of the Valar, as was said at first: not though they came in the very hour of our need…For what cause, Galadriel, were the high people of the Noldor driven forth as exiles from [Valinor]? Or what evil lies on the sons of Fëanor that they are so haughty and so fell? Do I not strike near the truth? … A darkness you would cast over the long road from Tirion, but I see evil there, which Thingol [Melian’s husband] should learn for his guidance.’
‘Maybe,’ said Galadriel; ‘but not of me.’
In other words, as soon as Melian starts looking into her backstory, Galadriel suddenly becomes your favorite animated gif of someone shrugging.
This also makes Galadriel and her sadness at the passing of elves from Middle-Earth even more interesting. Keep her long life, the fact that she left Valinor against the wishes of the Valar, her apparent shame at the circumstances surrounding that, all in mind when Frodo offers her the Ring.
5. Aman isn’t actually on Earth any more
The “planet” that all this happens on is called Arda, and Aman is the holy continent where Valinor lies, far to the west. But at first, Arda was flat, and Aman was literally a continent. To get from Middle-Earth to Aman, you just sailed across the sea. At one point there was even a northern land bridge connecting them! And Ulmo, the god of the sea, once let a group of elves who were living on an island near Middle-Earth go to Aman by simply moving their island across the sea.
Eventually, magical storms and winds made it very difficult to reach Aman, partly because the Valar were annoyed at the Noldor for leaving. An elf named Eärendil only managed it because he had a Silmaril. And even in the Second Age the Númenoreans could sometimes see part of Aman (actually the island Tol Eressëa, but close enough) from the coast of Númenor. But when the Númenoreans were seduced by Sauron and tried to invade Aman, the Valinor got mad. They made the planet, Arda, round, but they left Aman where it was. Meaning, the world was “bent” into a round shape, leaving Aman somewhere in the sky, or in space. It became impossible to reach except by the Straight Road, a magical path following the old route from Middle-Earth to Aman, heading straight into space instead of following the curvature of the planet. So when Frodo and Gandalf and the elves head “into the west” at the end of the LotR, they’re actually taking a magical space journey, or possibly a trip into another dimension. Weird, yeah?
6. Glorfindel is kind of a big deal
Early in their journey, the hobbits meet an elf named Glorfindel. He certainly comes across as quite a hero, helping them escape the Ringwraiths and putting Frodo on his horse to cross the river Bruinen (Arwen takes over this role in the film).
But Glorfindel isn’t just Good Guy Elf. He was, like many elves, alive during the First Age. Unlike most elves, he died in battle so heroically he was given a new body and allowed to return to Middle-Earth to continue being a bad-ass. How did he die? Well, the elves had built a city in Middle-Earth called Gondolin that was made to mirror their finest city in Valinor. They hid it carefully from Morgoth, but it was eventually found and attacked by hordes of orcs and balrogs. Yes, multiple balrogs. Glorfindel battled hundreds of orcs and a fire drake, then held more orcs off while some of the elves escaped the city through a hidden way. Finally he battled a balrog one on one, and they killed each other simultaneously.
Usually, when an elf was killed, their spirit would travel to the Halls of Mandos, and after a while they'd be reborn in Valinor, living out eternity in paradise. But Glorfindel was so hardcore, his death so heroic, that he was granted a new body and allowed to return to Middle-Earth.
Not only that, but after he came back, Glorfindel was a war hero in the Third Age, and he was actually the one who made the prophecy about the Witch-King of Angmar never falling “by the hand of man.”
The icing on this cake of tale is why Tolkien allowed Glorfindel alone among the elves to be reborn. He screwed up. In his vast legendarium of creatures and characters, at some point the Professor himself lost track of which names he'd already used, and later realized he had two Glorfindels running around, separated by thousands of years. I love that he didn't just rename one of them, but rather embellished his own mythology to invent a reason that it was actually the same elf all along.
So if you ever run into Glorfindel near Fornost, buy him a beer. That guy’s got some good stories.
7. The One Ring is Sauron’s biggest mistake
When you think about all the horrible stuff Sauron does in the Third Age, and the awful corrupting power of the One Ring, you might think Middle-Earth would be better off if he’d never made it in the first place. But you’d be wrong. Making the One Ring was a huge blunder.
The people of Middle-Earth were learning to make amazingly powerful artifacts. The elves, for instance, made a ton of magic rings, but only three are left at the time of LotR. In the Second Age, Sauron was sulking around as a smooth-talking handsome guy named Annatar, offering helpful suggestions on how to make very nice rings. But he was really like a hacker installing back door passwords into security software so he could go back and hack into it later. He made the One Ring as a sort of master ring to control the others, and it worked pretty well against humans. The dwarves weren’t really corrupted into Sauron’s service, but they did become reclusive and covetous and less likely to help the other races of Middle-Earth partly due to the rings’ influence, and Sauron ended up recovering some of their rings from various dragon hoards and abandoned dwarven fortresses. Only the elves mistrusted Annatar, so their rings weren’t totally hacked.
Here’s the problem, from Sauron’s point of view: To make the One Ring work properly, he had to put an enormous amount of his personal power into its forging. Over the millenia, he’d been defeated many times, but was able to reform after some time had passed, losing a little of his power each time. But he was still monstrously powerful. By infusing so much of his power into a ring, he gave himself a vulnerability. Yes, he wielded the Ring to terrible effect, but during the Last Alliance of Elves and Men, Isildur defeated him by simply slicing off Sauron’s ring fingers. Losing the Ring meant Sauron was destroyed; still temporarily, since Isildur was seduced and refused to destroy the Ring.
(You've got that whole scene playing in your head right now, don't you? "ISILDUR! Cast it into the fire! Destroy it!")
When Sauron returns to Mordor at the end of Third Age, it is possible to utterly destroy him by destroying the Ring. He literally depends on its existence for his own survival. And we all know how that went. Had he not made the Ring, he’d have remained a massively powerful deific being. Maybe dwarves, elves and men wielding uncorrupted rings of power could have destroyed him anyway. Maybe not. But he definitely would not have been destroyed by a trio of halflings (one a mutant).
8. The seven Palantiri
The Palantiri play a major role in the LotR. They’re seeing stones that also subject users to the mental domination of other users, as Sauron corrupted Saruman and drove Denethor II mad. We know of three: one in Orthanc, one at Barad-dûr, and one at Minas Tirith. But originally there were seven, made by Fëanor and sent to Middle-Earth as a gift to the Dúnedain by the elves. The stone that Sauron used was originally placed at Minas Ithil, which became Minas Morgul when the Ringwraiths took it over and stole the Palantir. A stone kept in Osgiliath was lost when the city was abandoned. In the north, stones were placed in towers at Annúminas, Elostirion, and Amon Sûl. You might know Amon Sûl better as Weathertop, the place where Gandalf leaves a message for Aragorn and Frodo is wounded by a Ringwraith. It’s a nice look at the depth of Middle-Earth’s history to know that the moss-grown ruin you see was once a mighty watchtower that housed a legendary magic artifact. Only the Elostirion stone remained by the end of the Third Age, and it was taken to Aman.
Also interesting: the Valar and the elves in Aman may well have been keeping an eye on the War of the Ring, since an eighth Palantir, the Master Stone, was known to be housed at Tol Eressëa.
9. The kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor
This is a huge topic and central to the story of LotR. Here is what is obvious from reading or watching The Lord of the Rings: Aragorn’s return makes him king of Gondor after many years of stewardship after the line of kings was thought to have died out. It is slightly less obvious that he reunites Gondor and the northern realm of Arnor as the Reunited Kingdom. It’s less obvious because Arnor doesn’t exist as a kingdom at the time of the War of the Ring. It helps to picture the Reunited Kingdom as a giant ‘L’ shape. The vertical portion of the ‘L’ encompasses most of the lands west of the Misty Mountains, including the Shire and lands to the north. That’s Arnor. The horizontal portion of the ‘L’ includes Rohan and Gondor.
What is not obvious at all is the deep, deep history that pertains to why the kingdoms are the way they are. We have mentioned the fate of Númenor when the Númenoreans were seduced by Sauron, turned against the elves, and tried to invade Aman. The Valar got very angry, bent the world into a round shape, and obliterated Númenor, sinking it beneath the ocean completely. Just before this disaster, a few Númenoreans who rejected the teachings of Sauron quietly escaped Númenor and fled east, to Middle-Earth. Their leader was Elendil, and he founded the two kingdoms.
Elendil was killed during the Last Alliance of Elves and Men in personal combat with Sauron — it is Elendil’s broken sword, Narsil, that Aragorn reforges (and also the sword that Elendil’s son, Isildur, used to cut the Ring from Sauron’s hand). The men of these kingdoms are known as Dúnedain, which derives from Edain, the term for the original noble tribes of men who entered Middle-Earth from the east, combined with the elven word for “west.”
The two kingdoms were sundered by a variety of succession disputes. Gondor waned in power and geographic size but still stood guard against Mordor throughout the Third Age under the stewards. Arnor collapsed into civil wars and battles against the Witch-King of Angmar. The capital was moved to Fornost at one point, which is remarkably near to the Shire if you look on a map of Eriador. But eventually Arnor ceased to exist, leaving only ruins and the wandering Rangers, who few knew were Dúnedain. Aragon would have been the 26th king of Arnor if Arnor still existed.
This relates to a few things in LotR. In the prologue, we learn that the Hobbits have been protected and grown ignorant of the world beyond their borders. They received their charter to found their own land from Argeleb II, 20th king of Arnor, but once Arnor collapsed the Shire grew ever more insular. The Silmarillion places the founding of the Shire and the protection of the Hobbit-folk within the context of the larger events wracking the northern kingdom (Hobbits, by the way, are actually human — they evolved along their own path of short stature and hairy feet at some point in the distant past).
The origin of the Barrow Downs and the wight that Frodo and company encounter is tied to this history as well. The barrows are the tombs of ancient kings, probably from Arnor itself, but possibly also from even earlier kingdoms, “Black Númenoreans” who had settled Middle-Earth in the Second Age (the color being a reference to their disloyalty to elves and the Valar). Their unquiet spirits were easily corrupted by the presence of Sauron and the Witch-King to the north. When he was in Númenor, Sauron began the practice of blood sacrifice to his dark lord Morgoth. The scene in which Frodo finds the other Hobbits clad in white with a sword across their necks is a terrible echo of this practice, being acted out by the deathless king in his tomb.
10. How do half-elves work?
Elves and humans can intermarry freely in Tolkien’s mythology — it happens a handful of times. Their offspring are half-elves. At first, this is of no real significance and it’s not clear what their fate would be. Are half-elves immortal like elves, will they die as Men do, or something in between? We never find out because of events surrounding Eärendil, one of the coolest characters in The Silmarillion. Both Eärendil and his wife, Elwing, are half-elven (technically Elwing is 3/4 elven). Eärendil barely escaped the fall of Gondolin, carried on the shoulders of a family servant named Hendor, which may carry a certain echo for Game of Thrones fans. He later marries Elwing and comes into possession of one of the Silmarils. A series of tragedies befalls them thanks to the Oath of Fëanor -- dammit Fëanor! Ultimately they both sail to Aman with the help of the Silmaril.
At this point they aren’t really allowed there, but Eärendil had pledged to go and ask the Valar for help defeating Morgoth. So instead of executing Eärendil and Elwing, the Valar do two things. First they agree to come to Middle-Earth and battle Morgoth, which leads to the War of Wrath we mentioned earlier. Second, since Eärendil’s journey was on behalf of both elves and humans, they give him and Elwing the choice to take either the fate of elves (immortality in Valinor) or of Men (a finite life leading to the unknown shores beyond death). Elwing chooses to be elven, and Eärendil does too just to stay with her, even though it’s not what he would have chosen on his own. After that, Eärendil rides around on a sailing starship wearing the Silmaril on his forehead exploring outer space. Seriously.
He shows up in his magic spaceship for the War of Wrath too, defeating Ancalagon the Black, the greatest dragon ever (Gandalf mentions Ancalagon in The Fellowship of the Ring, suggesting not even his fire could destroy the Ring). And I almost forgot to mention that the Phial of Galadriel that Frodo receives as a gift when leaving Lothlórien is filled with water infused with the light from Eärendil’s Silmaril, and thus indirectly contains light from the two cosmic trees which lit the world before the First Age.
The ability of half-elves to choose their fate, between elves or humans, turns out to be magically hereditary, so a long line of Eärendil’s ancestors are the same way. This is important because Elrond is part of this line, as is his daughter, Arwen. I never really grasped the meaning behind Arwen’s choice to stay with Aragorn — I thought she had to make the choice because of her love for Aragorn, and that it was simply a matter of choosing to stay in Middle-Earth or head into the west. But she was always going to have to choose between immortality or a short life in Middle-Earth. Elrond, wanting his daughter to come with him to Valinor, is obviously ambivalent when Arwen falls in love with Aragorn, knowing that to be with him she would have to choose the Gift of Man.
Another significant link between The Silmarillion and LotR is the mirroring of the relationship between Arwen and Aragorn with that of Lúthien and Beren, the most prominent elf/human pairing in Middle-Earth’s history (and ancestors of Arwen). But I'll leave that to you to explore on your own when you read The Silmarillion.
Note: because of the insanely complicated genealogies that result when immortals and mortals intermarry, Arwen and Aragorn are actually very (very) distantly related, and Aragorn does have some trace of a half-elven line in him. Apparently not enough for him to get the choice of fates, however.
Happy Reading (and watching)...
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