Wednesday 27 May 2020

The Silmarillion (1977) should Not be sold as a work by JRR Tolkien; because it isn't

The Silmarillion (1977) is to The History of Middle Earth, what Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare is to Shakespeare's plays. 

This describes my (elsewhere elaborated) feelings about the net effect resulting from the extensive process of selection, compression, subediting and forced-harmonisation that was imposed on JRR Tolkien's original material by the 1977 Silmarillion.

(My understanding is that Christopher Tolkien did the selection and ordering, and Guy Gavriel Kay did line-by-line editing/ ghost-writing.) 

Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare has some literary value by the critical consensus of the past, and was apparently popular with our ancestors. But there is a heavy price to pay in literary terms; as may be seen from its presentation of Portia's courtroom speech from The Merchant of Venice:

The importance of the arduous task Portia had engaged in gave this tender lady courage, and she boldly proceeded in the duty she had undertaken to perform. And first of all she addressed herself to Shylock; and allowing that he had a right by the Venetian law to have the forfeit expressed in the bond, she spoke so sweetly of the noble quality of MERCY as would have softened any heart but the unfeeling Shylock’s, saying that it dropped as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath; and how mercy was a double blessing, it blessed him that gave and him that received it; and how it became monarchs better than their crowns, being an attribute of God Himself; and that earthly power came nearest to God’s in proportion as mercy tempered justice; and she bade Shylock remember that as we all pray for mercy, that same prayer should teach us to show mercy.

Similarly; the 1977 Silmarillion is a partial, distorted and flattened 'nursery' version of JRR Tolkien's primary writing; which may be found in Unfinished Tales and the twelve volumes of The History of Middle Earth.

It is not that The Silmarillion is bad; but objectively, it is not a part of JRR Tolkien's oeuvre.

In all honesty; The Silmarillion should not be published and sold under the name of JRR Tolkien; but instead as a sort of 'condensed book' reduction and rewrite of the primary texts.


dearieme said...

Perhaps they should have sold it to Readers' Digest?

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - Harsh but fair.

Joel said...

I've read good chunks of the History volumes, and agree that some of the best jewels (Silmarils?) are there.

But I have not read everything. If you had to publish the Table of Contents of a "Silmarillion selection" from these, what would it look like? (I assume that we could also include material from the Appendix.)

I might even start reading your selection to my daughters, who are already asking for me to start on the Silmarillion after we finish Lord of the Rings.

John Fitzgerald said...

I haven't read any of the Histories to be honest, though I'm always intending to, especially the volume that contains the Notion Club Papers. But I'm a fan of the Silmarillion. I came to it in 1997, when I was 26. I had previously read The Lord of the Rings in 1985 and The Hobbit in 1981. So you could say that I took my time! I thought it was tremendous though and I still do now - epic, high, and bardic. Great depth and resonance. I particularly like the beginning and the end - Ainulindale and Akallabeth. I was also deeply moved by the passion of Feanor which spills over into madness and the tragic fate of his son and closest follower, Maedhros. So, I'm a fan. Like Joel though I'd be interested to see what you feel the best and definitive versions of these stories are, so something tells me you might already have done this on your Notion Club blog?

Bruce Charlton said...

@John - Recommending reading lists is not the kind of thing I do; because I know that my own tastes are unusual/ unique (after all, apparently nobody else likes The Notion Club Papers the way I do - I have never had any significant interaction/ discussion about the NCPs with another enthusiast - despite running a blog of that title for a decade); and also because I never find other people's reading lists to be any use for me (indeed counter-productive).

I need to come upon the right book at the right time (allowing synchronicity/ destiny to play its part); and I think that is what works best.

It is, indeed, an aspect of our age that we should each take responsibility for our own reading, rather than following a canon - obeying external institutions or supposedly authoritative persons (not least because these are almost sure to be corrupt, as well as probably not what we need here-and-now).

dearieme said...

If by some chance, bc, you have not read Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner, you really should.

Perhaps the best novel in English - or near English, at least. A stunnerama.

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - I have read it, and agree it is first rate: should be better known. Very original in form, and it does what Jeckyll and Hyde does, but better.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I'm not sure what it's got to do with the Silmarillion, but let me add my recommendation to Dearieme's and Bruce's. Confessions of a Justified Sinner is one of the most remarkable novels I've ever read. (In fact, come to think of it, I think a comment like this of Dearieme's ages ago is what first tipped me off to its existence. So, keep spreading the word, D!)

Howard Ramsey Sutherland said...

Thanks, DM and WJT, for the pointer to Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Intriguing. Interesting names Hogg gives his characters. Is Rabina rabid, and does Wringhim get wrung, and if so by whom?
At Dr. Charlton's suggestion on the NCP blog, I've read the NCP twice. Enjoyed them each time, and was tantalised that Tolkien never finished them. Somebody (Bruce?) suggested they might have been the time-travel analogues to Lewis's space trilogy. Makes sense, and sad it didn't happen. I wish Tolkien had written more about Numenor when it was still afloat, a great cautionary tale. Did Tolkien have in mind the kings of Israel who lusted after strange gods and paid the price when he crafted his tale of a promised land? Stories are different, but similar morals.
Agree that The Silmarillion as published in 1977 misses the mark; I've read the Hobbit and LOTR - especially the latter - more times than I can remember starting from age nine, but struggled to finish The Silmarillion once.
What do the learned amongst you think of Tolkien's renderings into Modern English? I like his Gawain, but am not very familiar with the others.

dearieme said...

Wot, Wm, you suggest I repeat m'self? How very dare you?