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A Reader's Guide to the Silmarillion (1980)

by Paul Harold Kocher

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Paul Kocher's first book on the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, Master of Middle-Earth: The Fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien, is very highly regarded and brought genuine insights. Many people probably first learned of some of Tolkien's works, such as the forgotten masterpiece The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, from Master of Middle-Earth. So when I discovered that Kocher had written about The Silmarillion, I was intrigued.

Sadly, there is little evidence that Kocher brought that same level of critical acumen to this book. It's mostly an abridged retelling with some amplification and connections to Tolkien's other works, as well as some insight into the Catholic theology that influenced Tolkien. There might perhaps be a place for that, given that many people find it hard to read The Silmarillion. But those who struggle with The Silmarillion probably won't want to read this version either, so it's rather a waste.

And that ignores the errors. In the early pages, I kept saying to myself, "I don't remember that!" or "Is that from some alternate version of the book?" (After all, Tolkien wrote many, many versions of many of the tales in The Silmarillion, and Kocher might have seen those.) On page 55, I finally caught Kocher in a clear and undeniable error: "none of the seven [sons of Fëanor] ever married. By contrast, Fingolfin's two sons, Fingon and Turgon, and his daughter Aredhel the White all married and had chldren, as did also Finarfin's four sons and their sister, Galadriel."

But we know that Fëanor's son Curufin married and had at least one child -- Celebrimbor, who forged the Three Rings. And we have no reason to think that the other six sons of Fëanor did not marry; all we know is that they did not have children. (And, speaking as a scientist instead of a reader, there is a pretty good chance that Fëanor was genetically abnormal -- witness both his unique skills and the seeming "segregation distorter" gene that caused him to have all male children. If the rules of biology apply to Elves, there is a fair chance that Fëanor's sons were sterile; they might have married, but only Curufin managed to sire a son.) Also, of the four sons of Finarfin, only Orodreth is recorded as having offspring (his daughter Finduilas). Angrod and Aegnor may have married, but they have no children listed, and we are explicitly told that Finrod's beloved had not gone into exile, so he did not marry.

A person willing to really sit down with Kocher and with The Silmarillion could doubtless find many more instances of this problem. I can only say that anyone who truly wishes to understand The Silmarillion would do better to really read that book, and read the commentaries from other scholars such as Tom Shippey and Hammond and Scull. ( )
3 vote waltzmn | Feb 2, 2016 |
Actually just a somewhat streamlined retelling. Doesn't add anything, and certainly doesn't "guide". IMHO: a waste om money. ( )
1 vote Nicole_VanK | Aug 21, 2012 |
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A Mythology for England
In a paper read at Exeter College, Oxford, in 1912 J. R. R. Tolkien praised the mythological ballads of Kalevala, Finland's national epic, as being "full of that very primitive undergrowth that the literature of Europe has on the whole been steadily cutting and reducing for many centuries with different and earlier completeness among different people."
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