Critical Analysis of the Popularity of J. R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion
The Bible, as we all know, is the most-distributed book of all time. John Ronald Reueul Tolkien's The Silmarillion cannot claim quite that much popularity, but certainly the sales figures produced by the book demonstrate that Tolkie
n benefited, as do publishers of the Bible, from the support of an almost religious following. The temptation to call readers of Tolkien a cult is unavoidable, due to the nature of the man's work. Readers who enjoy Tolkien are prepared to accept an ent
irely new world, that of Middle-Earth, which exists only in the author's mind. They must therefore accept and attempt to recognize in the text the philosophical and moral rules of this society, to some degree. The comparison to religion is obvious. Bu
t may we completely discount the enormous popularity which was enjoyed by The Silmarillion during 1977 and 1978 as purely a result of the die-hard support of Tolkien's hordes of adoring fans? The hardcover edition, released in September of '77,
debuted at the #8 spot of Publisher's Weekly's best-seller list for the week of 9/19/77. It quickly peaked at #1 on 10/3/77, and stayed there for 18 weeks, into the next year. On the New York Times best-seller list, The Silmarillion enjo
yed 23 weeks of top billing, and it would remain on both lists for over a year. It was more than two years before Tolkien's history of Middle-Earth was finally off the best-seller lists in all its forms. How can this popularity be explained? More imp
ortantly, how can such a popular book have received such poor reviews?
Tolkien enthusiasts have often been called (among other things) 'special' readers, adoring fans, even a cult. These readers are guilty only of being willing to put up with the author's many quirks in order to appreciate his undeniable linguisti
c genius. Though most critics found little to praise in The Silmarillion, those who respect Tolkien's brilliance did recognize his aim, to produce a mythic history of Middle-Earth up to and beyond the age described in the author's famous The
Lord of the Rings trilogy. For attempting to write the basis for an entire world, its philosophy, religion, societal morals, creation, evolution, and eventual destruction, Tolkien did receive some credit. L.J. Davis in The New Republic, remi
nded us that "when you try to play in the same league with Milton and the King James Version, you have to own a hardball." Essentially, some critics made it clear that they could see how a Tolkien lover would love the book, while the overwhelming majorit
y denounced it as too serious, difficult to read, slow, and overly compressed; it wasn't worth their efforts.
Critics disliked many aspects of Tolkien's history: the narrative style, the ponderous genealogical histories, but most roundly, the lack of a character like the hobbit of The Lord of the Rings, a character for the reader to identify and bo
nd with. This criticism points to much of the problem with this book's reception. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings, had written fantastic fantasy books which set the tone for an entire genre. They were the very first of their genre to be so pop
ular, and sparked a new interest in fantasy the world over. The Hobbit, while criticized by some as too childish, was also a phenomenal success, selling massive amounts. Anything Tolkien released at this point would inevitably be judged against t
hese highly appreciated works; he had created rather high standards for himself. Even though Tolkien himself had once said that he did not expect anyone to be interested in his Silmarillion texts, they were published four years after his death, ed
ited by son Christopher Tolkien. These works served as the backbone to his imaginary world, the history on which he drew, and it is questionable whether he would have wanted this work to be published as it was, if at all. In any case, they were certainl
y not finished texts intended for reading but actually scholarly sketches of a work in creation, the world which was constantly in motion inside Tolkien's head.
Clearly, the expectations of many Tolkien critics were not met by The Silmarillion. It is important to note, however, that Tolkien did acknowledge that the book was not likely to interest anyone but himself. For him, it was akin to the fir
st unraveling of a thread in his mind; the author always maintained that the world of Middle-Earth was not something he had created but rather a place he found in his mind, with all of its details coming slowly forth as he wrote. It is not surprising, th
en, that the first history of this land is less than exciting and lacks good narrative pace. The first inklings of new things are never the most impressive. One must therefore applaud Tolkien for his acknowledgement that with the Third Age of Middle-Ear
th and the adventures of small creatures called hobbits he had stumbled upon a more exciting and personal story to entertain a reader. One can only assume this is the reason Tolkien published his Lord of the Rings first. It also explains the some
what removed narrative style of many passages; Tolkien was not writing finished history, but sketches of what he knew already while waiting for more information to reveal itself.
Tolkien himself has been described as a phenomenon; less interesting due to his art than because of his amazing success in a field which had not yet been profitable, fantasy science-fiction writing. He is also a linguistic phenomenon, a genius at
language and wording, expert at making one single word convey layers of definition and connotation. He wrote and spoke two languages which no one else knew, full and complete languages with grammar and syntax rules. The man was an undisputed genius, and
the manner in which it came to be discovered, through The Lord of the Rings, is surprising. One cannot help but wonder what the reception to The Silmarillion might have been had Tolkien revised and published it instead of his trilog
y. Would he then have been dismissed as a raving lunatic, carrying around a world inside his head which no one knew a thing about and proposing to write a mythical history of it? No, this book could only have been published as it was, after the phenomen
al success of The Lord of the Rings.
One thing is certain about Tolkien, with near-unanimous agreement among the critics; he was an expert linguist who could paint a beautiful picture with words on his best days. At his worst, though, Tolkien was not bad, he just seems to have been w
riting for himself, to remind himself of the things which he knew about Middle-Earth.
As is quickly becoming clear, the answer to the question of Tolkien's popularity is not so easily explained. There were aspects of his work which greatly appealed to the academic community: his linguistic brilliance, his attention to detail, his noble a
ttempt to create a mythical history for his own country, if a fictional one. However, Tolkien was not always concerned enough with the reader for many critics. He described his world at his own pace, sometimes too quick and compressed but sometimes too
long-winded. And it is not untrue that the style of The Silmarillion is dense and very similar to that of The Bible or an ancient text, especially at the outset:
"There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Iluvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made" (The Silmarillion, 15).
Though the style does pick up as the characters begin to have adventures of their own which demand some direction, one gets the impression of watching the action from a distance - whether temporal or physical is not certain. Perhaps it was Tolkien
's perception of this work as the history of a place which inspired this style, but historical description makes it difficult to avoid boring one's readers; how many high-school history books can one read straight through?
Tolkien's gift, the only thing which makes reading The Silmarillion easier, is his brilliant diction. The words the author uses remind one more of poetry than prose, resounding in the reader's mind until they are irreversibly etched into
the mind. The proliferation of places and roads even today named after those in Tolkien's trilogy is testament to the impression his language makes upon people. Who would not want to live on Gladden Fields Road in Albemarle County, for example? The na
me alone simultaneously implies joy and open spaces, accompanied by adventure and courage. This aspect of Tolkien's writing is in full force in The Silmarillion, as he is given the opportunity to name every person, place, and thing encountered by
his characters. Naming was most definitely one of the author's joys; one imagines him sitting at home pondering where his characters might go next, eager to provide the perfect name for it.
The joy Tolkien takes in his linguistic freedom suggests another reason why critics disliked The Silmarillion. The book is an indulgence -- this is not a criticism. If it had been published by a mediocre author during his lifetime, he wou
ld have begged to publish it, to satisfy his own love for the world he had discovered/created. Tolkien, however, did not clamor to publish his book, even while he was alive and after the success of his trilogy. He knew it was a starting place, a well fr
om which to draw stories, not a piece intended for light reading for college students.
All of this analysis, and still we have not come to a satisfactory explanation of the popularity of Tolkien's Silmarillion. Clearly, the book was not his best work. It was not intended to be, and the author published and profited from wha
t was his best work, The Lord of the Rings. Critics, assigned the task of analyzing the book's literary value, were accurate in their analyses. As Charles Nicol stated in Harper's Magazine, the book seems to be "not works to read for ple
asure so much as documents to study when one has the time," as Tolkien likely did when he needed inspiration for his later stories (11/77). So why did so many copies sell? Of course, the majority may be ascribed to the innumerous readers who enjoyed his
previous works and expected more of the same, but the book continued to sell and remains in print today. Clearly, there is some value to The Silmarillion. That value may take many forms. For the Tolkien lover, it is an essential volume of the h
istory of the author's imaginary world. It provides historical background for the stories which were loved by so many. The true fan would consider it worth buying simply to refer to while reading The Lord of the Rings, for elaboration of allusio
ns the author makes in those volumes. Still others may be interested only in Tolkien's sheer linguistic brilliance, and might want the entirety of the genius's works on record. Many readers probably bought it on the recommendation of a Tolkien enthusi
ast, found it tiresome, and abandoned it.
Nonetheless, for the attentive and intellectually aroused reader, The Silmarillion holds value; it is a creation myth and a mythical history, designed as parallel to that of reality as possible. It is interesting as a foil to the history of
reality, as an examination of religion, as a philosophical essay. Middle-Earth is no utopia, but it is a world untainted by modern pollutants. Indeed, when these pollutants threaten, they are usually represented by some action or event caused by the ev
il parts of Middle-Earth's society, the forces of darkness captained by Morgoth or Melkor. These forces continually threaten the healthy, enjoyable lifestyle of Tolkien's other characters, and must be conquered to essentially save the world. Tolkien'
s body of work is a thinly disguised interpretation of our own world; this is why the hobbit was necessary to the Third Age, when no men were in Middle-Earth. The hobbit was as average and person-like as possible; they were amiable, smaller than the immo
rtal elves, content, unadventurous, and generally likable.
The Silmarillion sold for many reasons, the chief one among them being Tolkien's legions of fans created by The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. The enormous volume of books sold, however, must be attributed to the genius of
the author and genuine interest by a variety of people in his efforts to create and sustain an imaginary world in his mind alone. Others wanted to share in what had been Tolkien's private world, and this sold books. Tolkien could have lived a thousand
years without worry for money as long as his mind continued to develop a world by which people were so comforted.