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J. R. R. Tolkien

The Silmarillion

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1977

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Summary and Study Guide


The Silmarillion is a collection of works by J. R. R. Tolkien, published posthumously by his son, Christopher Tolkien, in 1977. The form the novel takes is mythopoeic, meaning that Tolkien creates his own mythology for the fictionalized world he’s created. Tolkien describes the universe of Eä, which contains the lands of Valinor, Beleriand, Númenor, and Middle-earth. Both of Tolkien’s more famous works—The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings—also take place in this universe.


The novel begins with the creation of the world by Eru. He creates the Ainur and sings with them to fill the Void, though one—Melkor—is singing discordantly. The world is populated by Elves and Men. Ainur who live in the world are named Valar. Soon, the Valar fight with Melkor.


The 14 Valar each have their own specialties and are led by Manwë, who lives in Valinor on top of the world’s highest mountain. As well as the Valar, there are powerful sprits named the Maiar, who work as servants for the Valar. Notable Maia include Sauron and Melian. Melkor (known as Morgoth to the Elves) is separate from the other Valar and wishes to control the whole world using his dark power.


The Valar chase away Melkor and then begin to shape the world. However, while they feast in celebration, Melkor makes himself a dark kingdom. When the Elves arrive, the Valar teach them poetry and crafts. Elves live forever (unless they are killed), while Men are mortal. While the Elves are close to the Valar, many Men are inclined toward Melkor’s darkness.


The Dwarves are created by Aulë without Eru’s knowledge. Though he offers to destroy his creation, the Dwarves are allowed to live. Yavanna, concerned that her natural creations (plants and animals) are threatened, goes to Manwë. He tells her to create the Shepherds of the Trees (Ents) to protect the forests.


Melkor builds his dark forces to include Balrogs, dragons, werewolves, and many other monsters. Varda creates the stars to illuminate some of Melkor’s darkness. Oromë meets (and is fascinated by) the Elves and resolves to protect them. Melkor captures Elves and turns them into Orcs. The Valar go to war with Melkor to protect the Elves. The Valar win and lay siege to Utumno. When they break the siege, Melkor is placed in chains, but the Valar do not fully expunge his dark dungeons. The Elves are invited to Valinor; some remain, most go.

Melian is one of the most powerful Maia. An Elf leader named Thingol falls in love with her and becomes waylaid on his journey to Valinor. His people continue on without him as he and Melian remain together in Middle-earth, forming a new group known as the Grey Elves.


Oromë and Ulmo help the Elves cross the sea to Valinor by moving islands. Not all the Elves cross at once, and they splinter into various factions, many of whom stay behind in Middle-earth for centuries. In Valinor, the Elves build a city and plant trees. They learn fantastic skills under the kingship of Finwë, whose sons are Fëanor, Fingolfin, and Finarfin. The Elves have children and their children have children.


There is an extended period of peace while Melkor is chained and the Elves are in Valinor. Fëanor, whose mother died shortly after his birth, grows up to become one of the most formidable and learned Elves. Melkor is brought before Manwë and begs for a pardon that is granted. He is restricted in his movements but feigns reform, even teaching the Elves certain dark matters.


Fëanor creates the Silmarils, three jewels whose beauty exceeds everything else. Melkor lusts after them. The Elves learn about the arrival of Men; Melkor uses this surprise to foster Elvish resentment toward the Valar. Fëanor becomes corrupted with pride and eventually threatens violence against his brother, Fingolfin. He is banished from Valinor and so he leaves, taking the Silmarils. Melkor also flees, his crimes revealed.


Oromë and Tulkas chase after Melkor but fail. Melkor has hidden and meets Ungoliant, a terrible giant spider. Melkor and Ungoliant form an alliance and attack Valinor; Ungoliant kills the Trees and drinks their sap; Valinor is consumed by darkness. Before anyone can react, Melkor and Ungoliant have already fled.


Yavanna tries to resuscitate the Trees but fails. Their magic is gone, living on only in the Silmarils. Fëanor refuses to hand over the Silmarils, but word soon arrives that Melkor has stolen them and killed Finwë. Fëanor curses Manwë and Melkor. During their escape, Ungoliant and Melkor argue and part ways. Melkor returns to his old fortresses and sets the Silmarils in an iron crown. Fëanor, now king of the Noldor, leads them away from Valinor. He and his sons swear vengeance against anyone who keeps the Silmarils from them and swear to recover the jewels. He leads many Elves on a long and arduous journey, during which they steal ships from fellow Elves (whom they murder) and eventually they betray Fingolfin, who has reluctantly followed Fëanor. As they depart Valinor, there Mandos recounts the Doom of the Noldor, a curse that is laid upon Fëanor and his people. They return to Middle-earth.


The Elves of Middle-earth form a profitable relationship with the Dwarves. Thingol is told by his wife, Melian, to build a fortress and he hires the Dwarves to do so. They build Menegroth. A gathering darkness means Thingol must hire the Dwarves to build him weapons. They fight off the evil creatures, and Elves from all around come to Thingol for protection. He is attacked again by the returning Melkor, after which Melian erects a magical barrier around their lands.


The Valar mourn the loss of Fëanor. They build the sun and moon, the light of which force Melkor deeper underground. The Valar reinforce Valinor and make it almost impossible to find. When the sun rises, Men begin to appear. At first, they are allied with the Elves.


Fëanor and the Noldor make camp in Middle-earth and fight off Melkor’s Orcs. They chase the enemy all the way to Angband, though overstretch themselves. Fëanor is killed in the attack and compels his sons to swear an oath, promising to take back the Silmarils, then he dies. Fëanor’s son Maedhros is captured by Melkor and dangled from a high cliff by his wrist. Fingolfin arrives in Middle-earth and, though his people resent Fëanor’s people, he saves Maedhros by riding an eagle and cutting off Maedhros’ hand. Fingolfin settles his people; his sons, Turgon and Finrod found cities of their own, Gondolin and Nargothrond respectively. The united Elves war against Melkor; the Sindar and the Noldor become almost as one people.


Melkor’s fortress is almost impregnable. To the south, a number of Elvish kingdoms are founded, all bordering one another. Turgon begins to build Gondolin, a hidden city with a secret entrance. Thingol learns of the existence of the Silmarils, eventually sending away the Noldor from his kingdom.


Turgon’s sister Aredhel leaves Gondolin to search for the sons of Fëanor. Aredhel meets a Dark Elf named Eöl, who casts a spell over her. The two marry and have a son: Maeglin. Eventually, Aredhel escapes to Gondolin. Eöl chases her there. In the court, Eöl attempts to kill Maeglin out of spite but kills Aredhel instead. Turgon executes Eöl, who curses his son. Maeglin remains in Gondolin.


Men enter Beleriand for the first time and befriend Finrod. More Men are coming, he learns, and not all Elves are pleased by this. Fingolfin welcomes the Men to his kingdoms, though Thingol is more concerned. Melkor has attempted to corrupt the Men, but Men and Elves ally to fight him. They form a shaky alliance.


Hundreds of years later, Melkor attacks. He unleashes lava and flames, as well as a dragon named Glaurung. Fingolfin leads a counter attack and challenges Melkor to single combat. He loses, but inflicts many wounds on Melkor that prompt Melkor to delve deeper into his dungeons. Following Fingolfin’s death, Fingon becomes King of the Noldor. Melkor’s armies take over the northlands. Men named Húrin and Huor form a friendship with Turgon, who has remained hidden in Gondolin. Years later, Húrin helps Turgon repel a massive assault from Melkor.


Beren is the lone survivor of Melkor’s attack on a group of Men. Beren spends years as an outlaw and then finds himself in the court of Thingol. Beren falls in love with Thingol’s daughter, Lúthien. This displeases Thingol, who sets Beren an impossible task to win Lúthien’s hand: He demands a Silmaril. Beren accepts. He befriends Finrod on his journey and they travel to Angband. Beren and Finrod are captured by Sauron, whose werewolves murder their companions. Lúthien sneaks out of her house to help Beren. Finrod wrestles with a werewolf and both die. Lúthien rescues Beren with the help of Huan, a hound. They sneak into Melkor’s lair and Lúthien sings a song to put Melkor and his court to sleep. Beren steals a single Silmaril but as they escape, they are attacked by a werewolf. It bites off Beren’s hand, which is still holding the Silmaril. Thingol is nevertheless impressed and approves the marriage. Later, Beren finds the werewolf; he kills it and is mortally wounded. The Silmaril is cut from the wolf’s stomach. Beren dies in Lúthien’s arms, and Lúthien dies of heartbreak. Beren and Lúthien are both resurrected as mortals and allowed to live together.


Maedhros hopes to attack Melkor. He is joined by Fingon and Turgon. The Elves almost win, but an army of Men switch sides to Melkor, and the Elves escape with the help of the Dwarves. Fingon is killed, while Turgon makes it back to Gondolin. Huor is killed but Húrin is captured alive, and Melkor sets him on a stone chair on top of a mountain, forcing him to watch as Melkor’s armies destroy the lands below.


Túrin is the son of Húrin and Morwen. He is sent to Doriath for safety and is fostered by Thingol. He leaves after an accident in which an Elf is killed, becoming an outlaw with his friend, Beleg. They are attacked by Orcs while staying with Dwarves, and Túrin is captured. Beleg saves him but, when Túrin wakes, he mistakenly kills Beleg. Túrin eventually travels to Nargothrond and falls in love with Finrod’s daughter, Finduilas. Túrin becomes an advisor to Thingol and encourages him to be more aggressive against Melkor. Meanwhile, Morwen finally travels to reunite with her son, bringing his sister, Nienor. Túrin’s advice is poor, and Nargothrond is attacked by the dragon Glaurung, who kills many Elves and enslaves Finduilas. Túrin is caught in the dragon’s spell and unable to help Finduilas; she is later murdered by Orcs. Túrin tries to save his mother and sister, who are still searching for him. Morwen and Nienor are attacked; Glaurung’s spell gives Nienor amnesia. When she is wandering naked and confused, Túrin finds her. He takes her to the place where he is hiding. They fall in love, marry, and she becomes pregnant, though her real identity remains a mystery. Túrin leaves to kill Glaurung. The two fight and Túrin mortally wounds Glaurung, lifting the spell on Nienor. Nienor later finds them both; she understands her real identity and kills herself. Túrin similarly discovers the truth and falls on his own sword.


Melkor releases Húrin. Húrin’s movements reveal to Melkor the general location of Gondolin. Húrin finds Morwen beside Túrin’s grave; she dies in Húrin’s arms. After visiting the ruined Nargothrond and collecting Nauglamír, a necklace to the Dwarves, Húrin travels to Thingol and gives him the necklace. Thingol hires Dwarves to set his Silmaril in the necklace and, when it is done, the Dwarves kill Thingol. Melian’s protective spells disappear and she returns to Valinor. Dwarves sack Doriath but, before they can escape with the Silmaril, Beren returns and kills them. He keeps the Silmaril, eventually sending it to his child, Dior, who now rules over Doriath. The sons of Fëanor raise an army to retrieve the Silmaril and kill many Elves, but Dior’s daughter escapes with it on a boat. 


Melkor attacks Gondolin. Some Elves flee to safety, led by Tuor. They unite with survivors from Doriath. Ulmo tries to convince the Valar to intervene against Melkor, but they refuse. Tuor and his wife, Idril, sail into the sunset and are never heard from again.


Eärendil becomes Lord of the Elves. He tries to find both his family and the Valar but fails. His people are attacked by the sons of Fëanor, who demand the Silmaril. Eärendil’s wife, Elwing, casts herself into the sea with the stone and becomes a bird. Eärendil sails to Valinor. Elwing finds him and they sail together. Arriving in Valinor, Eärendil begs Manwë for help against Melkor. Manwë accepts, but Eärendil and Elwing must stay in Valinor forever. Manwë leads the Valar against Melkor. They beat Melkor and banish him to the Void. Middle-earth is forever changed. The sons of Fëanor make a final attempt to steal the Silmarils, but both they and the stones are destroyed.


After the fall of Melkor, the age of Men begins. They spend thousands of years on an island of their own, Númenor, though their leader eventually becomes corrupted by Sauron. Men launch an attack on Valinor but fail. Sauron is cast back to Mordor, and Númenor is destroyed. The world becomes a sphere, and Valinor disappears. Some Men survive and sail to Middle-earth.


Sauron convinces the Elves that he has reformed. He teaches them how to make powerful rings but makes an even more powerful one for himself—the One Ring—that allows him to control the others. The Elves deduce Sauron’s motives, however, and wage war against him. Sauron makes nine rings for Men and seven for Dwarves. The Elves hide their three rings as the rings corrupt the wearers. Men who wear the rings become the Nazgûl. Men and Elves form an alliance to fight Sauron. Isildur, a man, cuts off Sauron’s arm and removes the One Ring, which is later lost. Sauron goes into hiding and peace descends. The arrival of the wizards occurs, who notice the steady return of Sauron. Gandalf leads the fight against Sauron, while Saruman is corrupted by the One Ring’s power. Eventually, Frodo Baggins casts the One Ring into Mount Doom and Sauron is killed. The Noldor leave Middle-earth forever.