IN THE BEGINNING was the word. And the word was with Tolkien. And it spoke of the Valar, a race of gods who first dwelt in a creation called Middle-earth but then retired to Valinor. The Valar loved the light and planted two trees, Telperion and Laurelin, wherein was the source of the light of the world. But one of the Valar, a renegade named Morgoth, envied the light, wishing to corrupt and control Middle-earth.
Now in those times there also dwelt in Valinor and Middle-earth many Elves. The greatest of these was a prince called Fëanor who shaped three famous jewels, called Silmarils, trapping the light of the sacred trees within them, that it might be imperishable. And Fëanor grew proud and greedy, and he longed to be free of the power of the Valar.
Now Morgoth whispered in the ear of Fëanor, to trouble him further. Together they came to Valinor and Morgoth pierced the two sacred trees with his spear and Ungoliant drank their light's blood from out of them and the two creatures escaped and a twilight settled upon the world. And the Valar called Fëanor to them and asked him to give up his Silmarils so that there might be light. But Fëanor would not. At that moment Morgoth attacked Fëanor's distant castle and took the jewels. And Fëanor swore a terrible oath that he would lead his Elvish people to Middle-earth and recapture the Silmarils or die in the attempt.
And so for ages and ages, a struggle went on between the Elvish princes and Morgoth's dark hordes. Again and again the Valar intervened to keep Middle-earth from destruction by Morgoth. But however much Morgoth was checked, there was yet always an evil and a darkness and pride and jealousy stirring some where upon Middle-earth.
That is pretty much how things go in this vast Genesis of Middle-earth, the Elvish books of Exodus and Kings, the combined Paradise Lost, Prometheus revisited and revised Bulfinch's Mythology that is The Silmarillion. Tolkien brooded over it for a lifetime but never got it published.
Now prodded into final shape by Tolkien's son Christopher, it has become a bestseller practically overnight.
Readers of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, teased for years by hints about the origins of Middle-earth will find in The Silmarillion a cosmology to call their own. Tolkien's familiar, deep-rooted sense of the unwinnable war between good and evil is also evident, along with a reverence for trees. Characteristically, dragons - those antique cruise missiles used by Morgoth - are plentiful, as are huge eagles, for rescuing heroes and depositing them safely on mountain tops.
Buried in the sprawling narrative are medieval romances, scenes from fierce fairy tales, and fiercer wars that ring with heraldic fury and brighten with the loyalty of warrior to king celebrated in Anglo-Saxon poetry. But there is no single, unifying quest and, above all, no band of brothers for the reader to identify with as they struggle across a perilous land scape. No Hobbits either, with their lame jokes and sheer joy in comradeship and camping out in the countryside that helped keep things rolling, volume after volume, through the dry and brambly patches of the Rings cycle.
A coldhearted reader, in fact, may find The Silmarillion at least half fustian and more than a yard long. There are moments when Tolkien sounds as if he were writing a parody of Edgar Rice Burroughs in the style of the Book of Revelations.
And only Tolkien's adoring legions, are likely to care whether the book stirs the Tolkien industry to further rounds of posters, maps, calendars, recordings and items like The Guide to Middle-earth.
But at its best Tolkien's posthumous revelation of his private mythology is majestic, a work held so long and so powerfully in the writer's imagination that it overwhelms the reader. Like Tolkien's other books, The Silmarillion presents a doomed but heroic view of creation that may be one of the reasons why a generation growing up on the thin gruel of television drama, and the beardless cynicism of Mad magazine, first found J.R.R. Tolkien so rich and wonderful. Says proud Fëanor, explaining why he will not give up to the Valar the jewels he worked so hard to craft: "For the less even as for the greater there is some deed that he may accomplish but once only; and in that deed his heart shall rest." So it was with Tolkien and his Silmarillion.