The Silmarillion comprises five parts:
- The Ainulindalë - the creation of Eä, Tolkien's universe.
- The Valaquenta - a brief description of the Valar and Maiar, the supernatural beings
- The Quenta Silmarillion - the history of the events before and during the First Age, which forms the bulk of the collection.
- The Akallabêth - the history of the Second Age
- Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age
This five-part work is also informally associated by some readers with Bilbo's three-volume Translations from the Elvish, mentioned in The Lord of the Rings.
These five parts were initially separate works, but it was the elder Tolkien's express wish that they be published together. Because J.R.R. Tolkien died before he could complete a full rewrite of the various legends, Christopher scavenged material from his father's older drafts to fill out the book. In a few cases, he completely devised new material.
The Silmarillion, along with other collections of Tolkien's works, such as Unfinished Tales, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, and The Road Goes Ever On, form a comprehensive, yet incomplete narrative that describes the universe within which The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings take place. The History of Middle-earth is a twelve-volume examination of the processes which led to the publication of The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.
The Silmarillion is a complex work that explores a wide array of themes inspired by many ancient, medieval, and modern sources, including the Finnish Kalevala, the Hebrew Bible, Norse sagas, Greek mythology, Celtic mythology, and World War I. For instance, the name of the supreme being, Ilúvatar (Father of All) is clearly borrowed from Norse mythology. The archaic style and gravitas of the Ainulindalë resembles that of the Old Testament. The island civilization of Númenor is reminiscent of Atlantis—one of the names Tolkien gave that land was Atalantë, although he gave it an Elvish etymology.
Among the notable chapters in the book are:
- "Of Beren and Lúthien"
- "Turin Turambar (closely associated with Narn i Hîn Húrin: The Tale of the Children of Húrin in Unfinished Tales)"
- "Of Tuor and The Fall of Gondolin"
Development of the text
The earliest drafts of The Silmarillion date back to as early as 1925, when Tolkien wrote a 'Sketch of the Mythology'. However, the concepts for characters, themes, and specific stories were developed starting in 1917 when Tolkien, then a British officer stationed in France during World War I was laid up in a military field hospital with trench fever. At the time, he called his collection of nascent stories The Book of Lost Tales. These stories comprised an English mythology intended to explain the origins of English history and culture (as Greek mythology explains the origins of Greek history and culture).
Many years after the war, encouraged by the success of The Hobbit, Tolkien submitted an incomplete but more fully developed version of The Silmarillion to his publisher, but they rejected the work as being obscure and "too Celtic". The publisher, George Allen & Unwin, instead asked Tolkien to write a sequel to The Hobbit, which became his significant novel The Lord of the Rings.
But Tolkien never fully abandoned The Silmarillion. In fact, he regarded it as the most important of his works, seeing in its tales the genesis of Middle-earth and later events as told in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. He renewed work on The Silmarillion after completing The Lord of the Rings, when he greatly desired to publish the two works together. But when it became clear that would not be possible, Tolkien turned his full attention back to preparing The Lord of the Rings for publication.
In the late 1950s he again began work on The Silmarillion, but much of his writing from this time is concerned not as much with the narratives themselves as with the theological and philosophical underpinnings of the work. During this time he wrote extensively on such topics as the nature of evil in Arda, the origin of Orcs, the customs of the Elves, the nature and means of Elvish rebirth, and the "flat" world and the myth of the Sun. Serious doubts had entered about some of the fundamental aspects of the work that had gone back to the earliest versions of the stories, and it seems that he felt the need to solve these problems before he could produce the "final" version of The Silmarillion. In any event, with one or two exceptions, he never did much work on the narratives in the remaining years of his life.
After Tolkien's death
For several years after his father's death, Christopher Tolkien compiled a Silmarillion narrative. Christopher's intentions seem to have been mostly to use the latest writings of his father's that he could, and to keep as much internal consistency (and consistency with The Lord of the Rings) as possible. As explained in The History of Middle-earth, Christopher drew upon numerous sources for his narrative, relying on post-LoTR works where possible, but ultmately reaching back as far as the 1917 Book of Lost Tales to fill in portions of the narrative which his father had planned to write but never addressed. In one later chapter of the "Quenta Silmarillion" which had not been touched since the early 1930s he had to construct a narrative practically from scratch. The final result, which included genealogies, maps, an index and the first-ever released Elvish word list was published in 1977.
Due to Christopher's extensive explanations (in The History of Middle-earth) of how he compiled the published work, much of The Silmarillion has been debated by the hardcore fans. Christopher's task is generally accepted as very difficult given the state of his father's texts at the time of his death: some critical texts were no longer in the Tolkien family's possession, and Christopher's task compelled him to rush through much of the material. Christopher reveals in later volumes of The History of Middle-earth many divergent ideas which do not agree with the published version. Christopher Tolkien has suggested that, had he taken more time and had access to all the texts, he might have produced a substantially different work. But he was compelled by considerable pressure and demand from his father's readers and publishers to produce something publishable as quickly as possible. One must remember this version is more a product of the son than of the father.
In October 1996, Christopher Tolkien commissioned illustrator Ted Nasmith to create full-page full-colour artwork for the first illustrated edition of The Silmarillion. It was published in 1998, and followed in 2004 by a second edition (ISBN 0618391118) featuring corrections and additional artwork by Nasmith.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Christopher Tolkien published most of his father's Middle-Earth-related writings as the 12-volume History of Middle-earth series.
In addition to the source material and earlier drafts of several portions of The Lord of the Rings, these books greatly expand on the original material published in The Silmarillion, and in many cases diverge from it. There is much that Tolkien intended to revise but only sketched out in notes, and some new texts surfaced after the publication of The Silmarillion.