Friday 20 May 2016

Two books that were massive disappointments: Tolkien's 1977 Silmarillion and Robert M Pirsig's Lila (1991)

When The Silmarillion was published in 1977, I had been utterly immersed in Tolkien's work for five years with an intensity that only teenaged fans can muster. To say I was 'looking forward to' its publication is a gross understatement - I had even exchanged letters with Tolkien just before he died asking when the book was coming.

Then it arrived in the bookshops, and I bought it (in hardback - expensive when relying on pocket money) immediately... and yet I found (to my own astonishment, and indeed embarrassment) that despite expectations - I enjoyed it so little that I could not even finish it.

I have since read it through, and also listened twice to the whole thing on audiobook; but I still find The Silmarillion Tolkien's worst book - and the only one I don't spontaneously love; deeply flawed in many ways - although with some excellent sections (such as the account of Numenor - which is wonderful in its way).

But then the 1977 Silmarillion is not really JRR Tolkien's work, but a compilation and edited mosaic of his unpublished texts made by Christopher Tolkien and Guy Gavriel Kay; who were primarily trying to remove inconsistencies (internal and between the Silmarillion text and the Lord of the Rings) - and literary quality was the main casualty. Christopher has since expressed regret at having published the 1977 Silmarillion in the way he did - and has since produced the wonderful 12 volume History of Middle Earth (with all of the Silmarillion texts and more - but in better versions) preceded by the marvellous Unfinished Tales.


My other great disappointment was Robert M Pirsig's Lila: an enquiry into morals - which was also a long-awaited follow-up; to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: an enquiry into values (1974). I had really loved ZAMM, re-read it multiple times, and had also exchanged letters with its author - in relation to my publishing one of the earlier scholarly essays on the subject.

ZAMM did not change my life as much or as deeply as Lord of the Rings, because no book ever has - but it did change my life, and was certainly one of the main books of my early adult life (perhaps a dubious distinction?) - and it is a book I still find very enjoyable and valuable; although now I find its 'message' (being ultimately atheistic, un-Christian) to be actually rather dangerous in the sense of getting what feels like quite close to a satisfactory philosophy of life but not getting to the necessary destination. This means it is easy to 'get stuck' on the book; holding an incomplete, unsatisfying and ultimately nihilistic world view. At any rate, this happened to me.  

But no other philosophical text had made anything like the sustained impact of ZAMM; and in 1991 my life was extremely unsatisfactory and I was really seeking some guidance - so as soon as I saw Lila and bought it; and as soon as I bought it I cleared space in my life to read it straight through.

It is not a good book. While ZAMM is close to novelistic perfection in terms of its writing, structure, pacing, and the intrinsic interest of its parts; Lila is not - it is clunky, preachy, contrived - and has a general atmosphere of seediness and malaise which I find very unappealing (especially in comparison to the freshness and 'innocence' of ZAMM).

The book gives every indication of being squeezed-out of an unwilling and uninspired Pirsig with the 'help' of an editor - it is asif written by a different author than ZAMM.

I don't like the philosophical aspects of Lila any better. While accepting that the implicit premise that the William James-esque Pragmatism of ZAMM is incomplete and unsatisfactory, the proposed Metaphysics of Quality is equally ungrounded and untheistic; but dull and pedantic.

I picked Lila up a couple of days ago to check my reaction - and it has not changed: I have no inclination to re-read. What I loved about ZAMM is almost entirely absent from Lila.


With both The Silmarillion of 1977 and Lila of 1991; it was not merely a case of the books failing to live up to the supreme standards of their illustrious predecessors (a matter of 'regression to the mean', if you like); but of being books of a different kind altogether, and books lacking (almost entirely) exactly what it was that I most valued in the earlier work by the same author.

From my perspective, I would prefer that these two books had never been published.


William Wildblood said...

My experience is identical for the Silmarillion. I bought it the day it came out, started it that night and never got beyond the first 20 odd pages. I can still remember my disappointment. I'd been expecting The Lord of the Rings mark 2 but just got an extended appendix like that at the back of The Return of the King. I still have the book. Perhaps I should finish it one day!

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - Indeed: for me it was like the Appendices *only worse*

(If I had had another book-full of Appendices I would have been absolutely delighted!)

I wouldn't bother persisting - but I *would* strongly recommend buying Unfinished Tales, and if you like that (which is probable); then start a long and leisurely sampling of the History of Middle Earth series, which has some real gems embedded here and there,


William Wildblood said...

Thanks Bruce. I will try Unfinished Tales. I've just re-watched the Lord of the Rings films with my 10 year old son who thinks they are the best things ever. When I ask him what he likes about them he says it's because they are more real than the real world. As indeed Tolkien's vision is.

grandadrepsher said...

Strangely enough, for me the appendices were almost more exciting than the actual text of LOTR. I pored over them endlessly. I even taught myself to type by typing them all out on a massive old typewriter when I was in grade school. When the Silmarillion came out, I was delighted that all my questions would finally be answered, and I devoured it. I still love the Silmarillion. I own it in 3 languages, and frequently re-read parts of it. I've hardly dipped into the History of Middle Earth. Maybe now that I'm retired, I'll have more time for that.

I never looked at Lila. I loved Pirsig's first book when I was in college, but haven't picked it up since. Thinking back on it now it seems somewhat sophomoric.

JP said...

Had the exact same feeling of extreme disappointment with the 1977 Silmarillion. Haven't finished it to this day.

The only greater disappointment (at roughly the same time) was the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Ralph Bakshi animated LOTR movie. Ugh!

Bruce Charlton said...

@JP - "Ralph Bakshi animated LOTR movie" ... please don't remind me of it...

By some contrast, the completion of that LotR animation project by the cheesy Rankin-Bass collaboration had its moments - mainly amusing ultra-kitsch/ camp (the orcs whipping song)

But, in context, I found the Eowyn v Nazgul scene effective

Brett Stevens said...

Glad to see someone else found The Silmarillion unreadable. I tried, but the lack of organization was not whimsical, merely chaotic. The wonderful voice was not there. It read like a combination of outlines.

The same is true of musicians. When they get big, there is a rush to pump out material. This is why the fourth album of so many bands seems to be a re-issue of demos or live material. They do not want to get rushed into a bad album that damages their brand (band name value) and disappoint fans, who will then hesitate to buy the next.

It is amazing how much incompetence afflicts our managerial class in the West. The money starts up, and they are afraid not to do the stupid thing that everyone else is doing, because they can be criticized on that basis. Another way that humanity herds itself into oblivion...

John Fitzgerald said...

I've found The Silmarillion very powerful when read aloud - especially the opening creation myth. It's a tremendous book, in my view. Such mythic grandeur and scope. The tragedy of Feanor and his sons is a tale worthy of Aeschylus or Shakespeare. Then there's Earendil the mariner, the fall,of Numiinor, the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, the list goes on ... Give it another go if you can. Aloud!

Bruce Charlton said...

@John - As I said, Ive read it three times since - but all the best bits have better versions in the History of Middle Earth (fresher, less editoed), plus there are some parts of HoME which are better than anything which made it into the 77 Silmarillion; plus the SIlmarillion ends badly/ wrongly:

Karl said...

Thank you. I shall cheerfully ignore Lila. As for the 1977 Silmarillion, it's too late to dissuade me from buying and reading it, but you have probably saved me from someday going back and having another go at it. I plan to try the History of Middle Earth instead.

You have a knack for recommending books, but this post in which you deprecate plausible book choices is another valuable service. And think how much more widely your negative advice will be followed!

John Fitzgerald said...

Well, to be fair, I've never read The History of Middle Earth, so maybe that should be my next port of call!

DanC said...

I loved the Silmarillion when I was 14 and I still love it in my 50s.

AnteB said...

Most of you seem to have read the Lord of the Rings long before the movies came out. What do you think about Jackson´s movies? A lot of hardcore fans don´t seem like them.

For me, I immersed myself in the books after I watched the first movie. I love both the books and the movies. There will probably be no greater movie experience than, as 13 year old boy in the cinema, to watch Aragorn fight the nazguls or the Fellowship pass through the Argonath.

Bruce Charlton said...

@AnteB - If you word-search this blog you will see that I regard the LotR movies as among the very best movies ever made.

On the other hand they are far inferior to the books!

That is because the best movies are not as good as the best books - the movie is a lower, because more passive and shallower, art form than the novel/ romance.

Tamarack said...

@AnteB Two departures from the book leap to mind. One was Aragorn's long and pointless fight with CG wargs--and far worse was Gandalf's deliberate violence against Denethor, followed by his usurpation of Gondor. This was a violation and perversion of everything the servant of the Secret Fire supposedly stood for, and the audience's predictable guffaw confirmed that the director had abandoned the book for all the wrong reasons. On the other hand, I confess that I rather liked the equally deliberate changes to Arwen's role (purists no doubt ground their teeth).

Bruce Charlton said...


There were plenty of things I didn't like in the movies - mostly concentrated in The Two Towers - but overall they were a magnificent achievement from my perspective. But movies just can't be as good as the very best books: they are an inferior art form.