Christmas books: 'The Silmarillion'

Reviewed By Father Jim McDermott, SJ
Wednesday, November 30, 2022

This is the fifth year I’ve been recommending books for Christmas in these pages. And more than any prior year, I’m noticing an underlying theme. When I look back on the books that have really spoken to me this year, the ones I can’t stop recommending, they’re all stories about people contending with some experience of, as Richard Powers titled his most recent novel, bewilderment. 

That may not seem like the most natural idea for a stocking stuffer, but it does resonate with where the world is right now. And all three books also offer the kind of faith in the face of uncertainty that is so much at the heart of the Nativity story we celebrate this month. I hope you and yours enjoy them. 

As the new “Lord of the Rings” prequel series “The Rings of Power” got going on Amazon Prime Video, I thought it would be interesting to finally read “The Silmarillion,” Tolkien’s history of Middle Earth before “The Lord of the Rings.” What I found was a gorgeous, Catholic-inspired myth of creation followed by a long-form version of the Fall as tragic as anything written by Oedipus or Shakespeare.

“The Silmarillion” is not for everybody; unlike “The Lord of the Rings,” this volume seems less interested in presenting a compelling narrative than it is in providing the overall sweep of events. (For George R. R. Martin fans, this is much more “Fire and Blood” than “Game of Thrones.”) But for those willing to be patient, the book is a powerful, satisfying read filled with stories of love and war, grief and temptation, hope and transcendent beauty.

The creation of the universe is imagined as a choral symphony, with Tolkien’s version of the angels as the singers, and God as the conductor who builds the entire history of the universe out of their melodic themes. Even the dissonance created by Tolkien’s Satan figure, an angel named Melkor, can’t overcome the guiding power of God. “No theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me,” he tells Melkor. “He that shall attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.”

Even at our darkest — and things get very dark in “The Silmarillion,” even darker than in “The Lord of the Rings” — life will find a way to continue and thrive again. It’s a beautiful idea that has deep resonance today.