I know a lot of Christians really prioritize Bible study. I love reading the Bible, too. But every January I do Tolkien study. Or, to be more exact, Silmarillion study.
It wasn’t until I was a graduate student that I finally started reading Tolkien. His work seemed too giant, monolithic, and cumbersome. But it was 2001, and the movies were about to come out, so I figured I should read the books first. And since I am a complete-ist (I drive my wife crazy insisting on listening to record albums in their entirety! I am an “album-rocker.”), I figured I couldn’t start with The Fellowship of the Ring but that I must start with The Hobbit.
It was a lovely fairytale.
Then I read The Fellowship of the Ring: tougher, a bit slow in parts for this reader. After the first movie I finished the other two books of The Lord of the Rings. As with many others, I was impressed by their unbelievable scope and imaginative greatness and especially the layering of backgrounds and histories through in-world literary references by the characters themselves. I had no idea what they were talking about, of course, but it seemed so rich, so beautiful, so majestic.
One more book loomed large on my reading horizon: The Silmarillion.
I had been warned. The Silmarillion is no novel. It doesn’t read like The Lord of the Rings. It is slow going. It is confusing. You might get bogged down. So, I asked for a copy for Christmas. I picked it up on the Feast of Stephen and started reading.
I absolutely could not put it down. A true page turner! And I mean that — also — literally. Like reading the Bible for the first time, I found myself having to flip to different pages to make sense of where things were happening by looking at the different maps provided. None of my previous knowledge of Middle-Earth from The Lord of the Rings helped at all. The entire First Age as described in The Silmarillion takes place in a land now sunk deep under the sea. I had no idea who all these elves were. It was two full Ages before the beginning of The Hobbit. Elrond? Not even born yet. And there is no single protagonist to connect any of these people and narratives together.
The Silmarillion reads more like the books of Chronicles at times. I had to keep flipping to the names index in the back to remember who folks were. I had to turn to the genealogical charts to remember who was related to whom. Was he a dark elf or a wood elf? Which kind of wood elf? Also a green elf? Was he one of those willing elves who nevertheless failed to see the light of Aman, or was he actually among the Eldar? I absolutely loved it. And I have been hooked ever since. So every January: it’s Silmarillion study time for me.
I have now read The Silmarillion more than seven times (after seven I lost official count). But I have come to realize that I love reading The Silmarillion for exactly the same reasons that I love to read Scripture. It is written like ancient non-fiction rather than modern fiction. It is fictional non-fiction! And, geek that I am, I have always preferred reading non-fiction to fiction. Here presents the perfect leisure reading opportunity for someone like me: fabricated non-fiction! For me, The Lord of the Rings can drag at times. The Silmarillion I simply cannot put down.
I have found that, like good Bible reading, I slowly started to love all the characters, all their complicated relationships. I found myself predisposed to loving one character because I discovered that she was the great-granddaughter of another character. It gets complicated. And I love the complication!
But, I hear you object, The Silmarillion isn’t true! Why read non-fiction that isn’t true? And non-fiction that takes multiple, studied readings even to follow? The Silmarillion is Tolkien’s myth. And, according to Tolkien’s approach to myth, that makes the story (in the most important sense) more, not less, true. It is a narrative that channels archetypal truths to us. I find myself at times nearly brought to tears with the simple realization that God brought all this beauty into being through the mind of a single human being.
But, I hear you object, if you love reading something that is like the Bible, wouldn’t it be better to read the Bible? I hear you. All I can say is, my love of The Silmarillion enhances, rather than diminishes, my love of Scripture. Reading The Silmarillion helps me read the Scriptures. My Tolkien study now amplifies my Bible study. Enough for now, I need to get back to The Silmarillion.
Nathan Jennings‘s other posts may be found here. The featured image is J.R.R. Tolkien’s watercolor “Taniquetil” (1927-1928). Its use here qualifies as fair use.