I was a voracious reader of fantasy in my teens and early twenties. Moorcock, Tolkien, Lieber, Kurtz, Feist, Eddings, Brooks, Donaldson, Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms, Thieves World, Heroes in Hell; I devoured series fantasy. And later I would delve into McKiernan, Cook, Howard, Jordan and others.
Now, in the past decade, I’ve made a couple of attempts to re-read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but given up each time (I can say the same thing about Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and Grey Mouser series). I like the stories and the events, but parts of them just read so sloooow. I’ve not run into that problem with Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion series, or Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni books. But I’m still a huge Tolkien fan, even though I don’t sit down and read through him any more.
I’m in a rather small minority that prefers The Silmarillion to his two better-known works. And that’s because I’m completely sold on Tolkien as a world builder and storyteller. That’s why he’s still a favorite.
From the story of the Silmarils up to the start of the Third Age, Tolkien set the standard for world building and epic history. I enjoy the vast creations of Robert Jordan, Steven Erickson, Stephen R. Donaldson, David Eddings and many more, but Tolkien was unsurpassed.
One of my first Dungeons and Dragons characters was an elf named Gil Galad, wielding his spear, Aeglos. Fingolfin, the Sons of Feanor, Hurin, Turin, Melkor, Ancalagon, and Glaurung: The Silmarillion is just chock full of heroes, villains, lands, kingdoms and events.
Have you read of Beren and Luthien? You talk about the makings of a superb romantic fantasy! And The Children of Hurin could be the next Peter Jackson movie, depressing as it is (if Christopher Tolkien wasn’t dead set against Jackson touching The Silmarillion). While I could do without ever reading about Tom Bombadil again in The Hobbit, the epic sagas and the disparate characters that struggle through them mark Tolkien as a master. There are many ‘short stories’ in chapters of The Silmarillion that could be novellas, or full-length novels, though some are only a few pages long.
Nauglamir, The Necklace of the Dwarves, takes up parts of five pages in The Silmarillion. But it’s an entire saga. The dwarves of the Blue Mountains made this stunning necklace for the Elf Lord, Finrod. He gave them priceless jewels from Valinor to include and the necklace was the finest item crafted by dwarves in the First Age. We’re talking prime jewelry here.
When the fortress city of Nargothrond fell to Glaurung and an orc army, Nauglamir became part of the dragon’s horde. After Glaurung’s death, Hurin came to Nargothrond and left with but one treasure: Nauglamir. He took it to the elven kingdom of Doriath and gave it to its ruler, Thingol.
Thingol had one of the three Silmarilli, the greatest creations of the elves. They were radiant jewels. The dwarves of Nogrod visited Doriath and agreed to incorporate the Silmaril of Beren and Luthien into it. But once they did so, they lusted for it and demanded it as their payment.
Doriath (a bit clueless) insulted them and ordered them out of his kingdom. So, predictably, they slew him and fled with the priceless necklace. But the elves rose up and reclaimed the necklace, killing the fleeing party; only two dwarves managing to escape the slaughter.
And those two dwarves crafted their own “truth,” telling that Thingol had ordered the dwarves slain to avoid paying them for their work. The dwarves, enraged, took an army to Doriath. They emerged victorious in The Battle of the Thousand Caves and sacked the capital, Menegroth, carrying off a great treasure, including Nauglamir.
But the human lord Beren gathered an elven army and slaughtered the dwarves at a river crossing, completely eradicating the Nogrod army, with Beren killing the Dwarf Lord himself and taking Nauglamir, which he gave to Luthien. And lo, it was the very same Simaril that Beren had cut from Morgoth’s crown, but lost when the great wolf Carcaroth ate his hand, which clutched the jewel! Seriously: there’s a LOT going on here.
There’s more, with the sons of Feanor (creator of the Silmarilli) slaying their elven brethren (including Beren and Luthien’s son) to get the jewel. But Beren and Luthien’s daughter escaped with it, throwing herself into the sea. But even then, the story wasn’t done. I’m telling you, this is just one little piece of The Silmarillion, but it’s an epic story worthy of its own book!
This was the final, edited and canonical version included in The Silmarillion. And it’s a riveting tale. But all that evolved from a separate notebook titled, “The Nauglafring: The Necklace of the Dwarves.” That story is told in The Book of Lost Tales 2 (which became the second volume in The History of Middle Earth).
In this version, Thingol is Tinwelint (man, that is a terrible name) and instead of just the necklace of the dwarves, there’s a huge pile of treasure involved. His wife tells him there’s blood on the treasure and that it’s cursed. So, Tinwelint decides to throw it all in the river. Except he wants to see it one more time and can’t overcome his greed. That certainly won’t end well.
Unfortunately, Tinwelint is a greedy fool (though he’s really ensorcelled by the treasure’s bloody and evil history) and an elf named Ufedihn stirs the pot. I believe that here we actually have the first-ever mention of dwarves and he convinces Tinwelint to send the treasure horde to them to fashion wonders from. The greedy Tinwelint agrees, but holds Ufedihn hostage until his treasure is returned.
The dwarves perform their task, bring the goods back, then offer to make a wonderful necklace if Tinwelint will let them incorporate the Silmaril into it.
Tinwelint is pissed and gives them a miniscule payment at a feast in their honor, where he forces them to toast him. Of course, this breeds bitter resentment in them. So, the dwarves form alliances with orcs, goblins and some of Melkor’s followers. One of Tinwelint’s elves betrays him to this alliance and they kill Tinwelint and sack the city.
Ulfedhin’s greed is too great and he attempts to murder the dwarven chieftain on their way back home. But he fails and flees. Which is good, because in this version also, Beren and the elves slaughter the entire dwarven army and recover the necklace.
There are a few more bits, but the original version puts a bit more blame on the elven king, while still casting the dwarves as greedy and even worse in taking on evil allies. Ulfedhin is an interesting character who is totally removed from the final version. There’s a bit of a Loki feel to him.
The Nauglamir is the stuff of an absorbing novel, with elves, dwarves, greed, treachery, romance, heroes and villains, combat: and this is just one little bit of The Silmarillion. And a part of it is just a fragment of Beren’s life (there’s a tale for another novel or two)!
I’m not crazy about the creation aspect at the beginning of The Silmarillion, but if you like history, the rest of the book is a fascinating read on a grand scale.
I haven’t read all of the books, and you really have to pick and choose what to read within a book, but I like Christopher Tolkien’s twelve-book The History of Middle Earth series. I do think there is much for the fan of Tolkien to learn, though it’s likely that a sizable chunk will be of less interest.
You can read Bob Byrne’s ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column here at Black Gate every Monday morning.
His “The Adventure of the Parson’s Son” is included in the largest collection of new Sherlock Holmes stories ever published.