Saturday, 28 January 2017

Why just looking at The Silmarillion (1977) makes me feel sad

Although I have quite recently read and listened to the audiobook of The Silmarillion several times with some appreciation; my reaction to this work remains coloured by my first encounter; still retains much of the negative affects from my earliest encounter.

The Silmarillion was published on 15 September 1977; after some four years of ever more impatient waiting and speculation following the death of the author.

The publication date was just before I left home to go to medical school - which was itself a time of intense ambivalence; of excitement and expanding horizons mixed with loneliness and homesickness.
I therefore bought The Silmarillion as soon as it was available, and of course took it with me to stand on the bookshelf in my room, but I didn't read it immediately. Instead, I saved-up actually reading it until I had arrived at college.

My excitement at reading this volume, at long last (as it seemed to me), was therefore bound-up with my excitement at leaving the family and beginning university. Tolkien, especially Lord of the Rings, stood for much that was best about my teenage years - and I was hoping that this spirit would be extended into the new era.

My sense of anticipation was therefore about as great as was possible. Yet I was so disappointed with the Silmarillion that I did not even manage to finish it - or rather, found myself skipping largish sections to get to the last chapters. So, it was less 'disappointment' than an actively-unpleasant experience - I would have preferred, indeed I expected, something much like the Appendices of The Lord of the Ring; but I was actually offered something that seemed more like the Old Testament.

In The Silmarillion there was no editorial voice (such as was present in the Prologue and Appendices of LotR) to mediate between myself and the events described (these editorial voices were sometimes Tolkien at other times Bilbo or merry or various others). Instead, there were just these rather dull, bare-bones accounts of the doings of Valar and Elves; each free-standing and disarticulated; and with no hints of how to make sense of them.

At any rate, this was my negative impression - and this accounts for my residual sense of distaste on seeing that spine on my book-shelves.

Clearly I was not also, and Christopher Tolkien expressed regret for exactly the problems that most struck me, when he came to embark upon the History of Middle earth - and he certainly set them right.

In stark contrast was my encounter with the Book of Unfinished Tales, which was published in 1980 but which (thanks to the above aversion) I only read in about 1986, when I found a copy left behind in a holiday cottage in Keswick. I liked Unfinished Tales so much, that I always carried it around since; still have the same dog-eared paperback copy; and before long it kick-started a Tolkien resurgence of interest - strengthened by reading the Biography and Selected Letters and Tom Shippey's 'Road to Middle Earth' (again, rather later than their actual publication).

And this second phase never stopped but has continued up to the present. But still, deep down, I hold my grudge against the Silmarillion of 1977...

More on this theme: 
http://notionclubpapers.blogspot.co.uk/search?q=silmarillion