The Silmarillion has a bad reputation. After a spike in the popularity on American college campuses of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, his readers were eager for a similar work. When they discovered that Tolkien's unpublished stories were consciously not in a traditional novelistic form, they largely turned their backs on them -- not just The Silmarillion, but all of his remaining unpublished works. In the years following the publication of The Silmarillion, one could easily find copies of it in used bookstores. This is all too bad, since there is much to appreciate in The Silmarillion, if one does not expect it to be like The Lord of the Rings.
The volume is composed of five works: "Ainulindale," "Valaquenta," Quenta Silmarillion, "Akallabeth," and "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age." "Ainulindale" is and account of the work of Eru, the One, called "Iluvatar" by the Elves. Eru created everything. First among his creations were the Ainur (or more specifically, the Valar), god-like beings that remind one of the Olympian gods. Tolkien describes their primary activity as the making of music, which is disrupted by the dissonance of one of the Ainur, Melkor, because of his pride. Later, the music of the Valar takes on a new ontological form as Ea, the material universe and Arda, the world in which all of Tolkien's stories are set. Included as a region of Arda is Middle Earth. The tone of all of this is rather like The Book of Genesis. Never does Tolkien establish what one might consider a novelistic plot or characters of any substance. What story line that can be found, is based on the rebellion of Melkor. Upon my first reading, I was thrilled by the depth and majesty of the work and fascinated by its theological undertones, but like so many other readers, I was hoping that the remainder of the work would be more like The Lord of the Rings.
The second work in the volume, "Valaquenta," seems more like a snippet from an encyclopedia, providing entries on the Ainur: the Valar mentioned above and the Maia a demi-god like being. Ther is also an entry on "the Enemies," including Melkor and Sauron, a Maia of The Lord of the Rings. There is no doubt value here, but because the roles of the Valar and the Maia are not great in the remainder of the volume, the detail we find here is rather unnecessary for the whole. We do get, however, a deeper understanding of the powers of the world that the Valar represent and so have a better sense of the cosmology within which the stories of the "Childern of Iluvatar" (elves and men) unfold. Those stories are told in the three subsequent works in the volume.
The Quenta Silmarillion is the longest and most complex work in the volume. It is a history of the First Age of the world in which the actions of the elves are of greatest import. Elves are the "first born" of the Children of Iluvatar, discovered first by Melkor who had taken refuge in Middle Earth. Their fate was decided by a war between Melkor and the other Ainur, the outcome of which was the defeat of Melkor and his imprisonment for three ages. Following the war, the Ainur invited the elves to come to Aman, "the Undying Lands" to live forever in peace and under the protection of the Ainur. Three ambassadors were chose from the elves to receive the summons, Ingwe, Finwe, Elwe. Each became a king of a portion of the elves and each encouraged their subjects to travel across the sea to the join the Ainur. However, not all of them made the journey.
Perhaps the most gripping story in the Quenta Silmarillion is that of the "Flight of the Elves." While in the Undying Lands, one elf, Feanor, son of Finwe, made three precious jewels that contained a sacred light. He called the jewels "the silmarils." They were, however, stolen from him and taken to Middle Earth by Melkor who had finished his time in prison. In his pride and lust for the silmarils, Feanor and all his sons made a vow to recover them and treat anyone who withheld the silmarils from them as an enemy. His decision to return to Middle Earth was opposed by the Valar, who declared that Feanor and any elf that left the Undying Lands with him could not return. Feanor's pride led him to disregard the decree and he journeyed to Middle Earth. Shockingly, his departure involved a civil war among the elves in which elves killed elves, forever staining their history. In the end, Feanor and his followers made it to Middle Earth. The remainder of the Quenta Silmarillion is the story of their struggle against Melkor to regain the silmarils.
Many of the stories told of that struggle contain thrilling details, but by and large they are schematic, outlining the broad history of the elves in Middle Earth. The most well developed stories have been published in other works by Tolkien's son Christopher as part of the series of volumes entitled The History of Middle Earth and in one instance as a separate book, The Children of Hurin. In all, the Quenta Silmarillion truly demonstrates Tolkien's expansive imagination. If one is fascinated by the complexity and extent of his vision in The Lord of the Rings, one should be absolutely overawed by what he has given us in the Quenta Silmarillion. Unfortunately, the idiom in which he has chose to write has not attracted the audience it deserves. To truly appreciate the value of the work, one must give it more than a single reading. I'm sure very few people have been so committed to understanding Tolkien's vision as to do this.
As if the Quenta Silmarillion were not enough to establish the majesty of his vision, Tolkien provides us with accounts of the Second and Third Ages of Middle Earth in The Silmarillion. The Second Age is an account of the history of men, particularly the race of men called the Numenoreans, following the defeat of Melkor which ends the First Age. During the Second Age, the evil of Melkor is carried on by his surviving vassal, Sauron. Deceived by Sauron, men are induced to attack the Valar in the Undying Lands, which unsurprisingly brings about their destruction, with the exception of a dissident group, loyal to the Valar.
The final work in The Silmarillion is "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age." This tells the story of the creation of the rings of power by Sauron and ultimate the War of the Last Alliance in which men and elves defeated Sauron and in which the prince of the Numenoreans, Isildur acquired the one ring of power, only to lose it when ambushed by orcs. It is with the end of this last work that we are finally brought up to the time of Tolkien's more popular works, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Undoubtedly, The Silmarillion is not everyone's cup of tea, but for anyone who loves The Lord of the Rings, the stories and history it holds give depth and meaning to that world. It may take two or more readings to become clear about the various events and numerous figures in the legendarium, but once one has this, Frodo, Samwise, Gandalf, Aragorn, and all the rest of Tolkien's familiar characters can be seen in the supremely heroic light that the author envisioned for them.