The Road Goes On—The Making of J.R.R. Tolkien's 'Silmarillion'

This article, and others about one of the world's most celebrated writers, is featured in Newsweek's Special Edition: J.R.R. Tolkien—The Mind of a Genius.

When J.R.R. Tolkien passed away on September 2, 1973, the world lost one of its greatest storytellers. But the imaginative author still had tales to share with the world, and under the supervision of his youngest son Christopher, more of Middle-earth’s heroic exploits and treacherous deeds have made it to bookstores during the past 40-odd years. For the professor who continued tinkering and expanding his world up until the end, there’s no more fitting legacy than sharing the fruits of his labor with his readers. More than any other book, one text is responsible for Middle-earth’s immortality—The Silmarillion.

The crown jewel of Tolkien’s posthumous works, The Silmarillion is the author’s definitive history of his universe. While not as recognizable as The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings to the casual visitor to Middle-earth, both of those works were inexorably shaped by The Silmarillion, which Tolkien had worked on since he was a young man.

“There were several Silmarillions,” Christopher Tolkien said in the 1996 documentary J. R. R .T.: A Film Portrait of J. R. R. Tolkien. Tolkien recorded the earliest versions of his world’s mythology in notebooks he carried with him while serving king and country during World War I (these primordial tales would eventually be compiled by Christopher into its own separate work, titled The Book of Lost Tales). Here, Tolkien first wrote of the exploits of Túrin Turambar and the adventures of Beren and Lúthien. “It’s quite unlike his later manner of writing, when he adopted a more remote…exalted, even manner,” Christopher said. “It’s more immediate, and even funny.” Tolkien continued work on these stories about ancient Elves and their allies battling with evil until his mythology was more or less complete by the 1930s. But the unprecedented success of Tolkien’s The Hobbit would bring momentous changes to a work he considered complete.

GettyImages-3264291 J.R.R. Tolkien pores over a book in his study while smoking his pipe, 1955. Two years later, the author would accept an International Fantasy Award for 'The Lord of the Rings,' one of the few awards given to Tolkien during his lifetime. 'The Silmarillion,' which was published after his death, won the Locus Award in 1978. HAYWOOD MAGEE/PICTURE POST/GETTY IMAGES

The story of Bilbo Baggins and his quest to the Lonely Mountain was originally conceived with no connection with his vast and epic mythology. The Lord of the Rings, which began as a simple sequel to the immensely successful The Hobbit, also lacked concrete ties to The Silmarillion (at least in the book’s early stages). But the grip of Tolkien’s earliest tales on the rest of his oeuvre proved inescapable, and the author found himself adding references to his myths within The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, especially because several characters from the latter work, such as Galadriel, hailed from the time period described in The Silmarillion. Tolkien added these characters into his larger legendarium, and in doing so couldn’t resist the temptation to delve deeper into the myths he created and their implication for his world.

“He became more and more interested in what you might call the metaphysical aspects of his secondary invention,” Christopher Tolkien said. “Above all with the nature of the Elves.” The result was that Tolkien died with what he regarded as his most important work, the urtext of a universe loved by millions, in a state of frozen transformation.

Fortunately, Christopher Tolkien was intimately familiar with his father’s vision for Middle-earth’s mythology and proved capable of sorting through the reams of notes and journals the professor left, containing everything from the genealogy of Elf kings to poems to the details of life in Aman. Working with Guy Gavriel Kay (who later went on to become an accomplished fantasy writer in his own right), the younger Tolkien crafted the final version of The Silmarillion for publication in 1977. For the first time, fans of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings learned of the titanic clashes between good and evil and feats of heroism only hinted at in their favorite fiction.

The Silmarillion’s sweeping scale covered everything from the creation of the universe to the end of the Third Age, providing Middle-earth fans thirsty for more of Tolkien’s universe with a deluge of fantastical new places to read about. The tome’s text is written in a faux medieval style that reads more like a holy book than anything approaching a novel, and can intimidate even the most diehard Lord of the Rings fan. Those who stick through to the end, however, are rewarded with a deeper understanding of literature’s most richly imagined universe, which Tolkien always envisioned as containing histories, customs and languages just as intricate as those found in the real world.

The Silmarillion’s success among Tolkien fans made possible the publication of the 12-volume The History of Middle-earth (which provides early drafts and notes for many of the stories found in The Silmarillion and Tolkien’s other works), The Children of Húrin (a novel based on Tolkien’s notes that expands a short story found in The Silmarillion) and, soon, Beren and Lúthien (a compilation of different versions of one of Tolkien’s most well-loved stories). Years after his death, Tolkien continues to live on through these riveting fables, becoming a legend worthy of one of his own works.

This article, written by Issue Editor James Ellis, was excerpted from Newsweek's Special Edition: J.R.R. Tolkien—The Mind of a Genius. For more on the man who crafted one of fiction's most influential worlds, pick up a copy today.

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