After the success of The Hobbit, and prior to the publication of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s publisher requested a sequel to The Hobbit, and Tolkien sent them an early draft of The Silmarillion which comprises five parts. The first part, Ainulindalë, tells of the creation of Eä, the “world that is”. Valaquenta, the second part, gives a description of the Valar and Maiar, the supernatural powers in Eä. The next section, Quenta Silmarillion, which forms the bulk of the collection, chronicles the history of the events before and during the First Age, including the wars over the Silmarils which gave the book its title. The fourth part, Akallabêth, relates the history of the Downfall of Númenor and its people, which takes place in the Second Age. The final part, Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age, is a brief account of the circumstances which led to and were presented in The Lord of the Rings.
Ainulindalë and Valaquenta
The first section of The Silmarillion, Ainulindalë (“The Music of the Ainur”), takes the form of a primary creation narrative. Eru (“The One”, also called Ilúvatar (“Father of All”), first created the Ainur, a group of eternal spirits or demiurges, called “the offspring of his thought”. Ilúvatar brought the Ainur together and showed them a theme, from which he bade them make a great music. Melkor — whom Ilúvatar had given the “greatest power and knowledge” of all the Ainur — broke from the harmony of the music to develop his own song. Some Ainur joined him, while others continued to follow Ilúvatar, causing discord in the music. This happened thrice, with Eru Ilúvatar successfully overpowering his rebellious subordinate with a new theme each time. Ilúvatar then stopped the music and showed them a vision of Arda and its peoples. The vision disappeared after a while, and Ilúvatar offered the Ainur a chance to enter into Arda and govern over the new world. Many Ainur descended, taking physical form and becoming bound to that world. The greater Ainur became known as Valar, while the lesser Ainur were called Maiar. The Valar attempted to prepare the world for the coming inhabitants (Elves and Men), while Melkor, who wanted Arda for himself, repeatedly destroyed their work; this went on for thousands of years until, through waves of destruction and creation, the world took shape. Valaquenta “Account of the Valar” describes Melkor and each of the 14 Valar in detail, as well as a few of the Maiar. It also reveals how Melkor seduced many Maiar — including Sauron and the Balrogs — into his service.
Quenta Silmarillion (“The History of the Silmarils”), which makes up the bulk of the book, is a series of interconnected tales set in the First Age that make up the tragic saga of the three jewels, the Silmarils. The Valar had attempted to fashion the world for Elves and Men, but Melkor continually destroyed their handiwork. After he destroyed the two lights that illuminated the world, the Valar removed to Aman, a continent to the west of Middle-earth, where they established their home called Valinor, illuminated by Two Trees, and left Middle-earth to darkness and Melkor. When stars began to shine and the Elves awoke, the Valar fought Melkor to keep the Elves safe, defeated and captured Melkor and then invited the Elves to live in Aman. Many Elves travelled to Aman, while others refused and still others stopped along the way, including the Elves who later became the Sindar, ruled by the Elf King Thingol and Melian, a Maia. Of the three tribes that set out, all of the Vanyar and Noldor, and many of the Teleri reached Aman. In Aman, Fëanor, son of Finwë, King of the Noldor, created the Silmarils, jewels which glowed with the light of the Two Trees. Melkor, released after feigning repentance, destroyed the Two Trees with the help of Ungoliant, killed Finwë, stole the Silmarils, and fled to Middle-earth, where he attacked the Elvish kingdom of Doriath. He was defeated in the first of five battles of Beleriand, however, and barricaded himself in his northern fortress of Angband. Fëanor and his sons swore an oath of vengeance against Melkor – and against anyone who withheld the Silmarils from them, even the Valar. Fëanor persuaded most of the Noldor to pursue Melkor, whom Fëanor renamed as Morgoth, into Middle-earth. Fëanor’s sons seized ships from the Teleri, attacking and killing many of them, and left the other Noldor to make the voyage by foot. Upon arriving in Middle-earth, the Noldor under Fëanor attacked Melkor and defeated his host, though Fëanor was slain by Balrogs. After a period of peace, Melkor attacked the Noldor but was again defeated and besieged. Nearly 400 years later, he broke the siege and drove the Noldor back.
After the destruction of the Trees and the theft of the Silmaril, the Valar had created moon and sun, thereby also causing the awakening of Men, some of which later arrive in Beleriand and allied themselves to the Elves. Beren, a man who had survived the latest battle, wandered to Doriath, where he fell in love with the elf Lúthien, the king’s daughter. The king sought to prevent their marriage by imposing what he believed an impossible task: retrieving one of the Silmarils from Melkor. But together, Beren and Lúthien embarked on this quest. Sauron, a powerful servant of Melkor, imprisoned them along the way; but they escaped, crept into Melkor’s fortress, and stole a Silmaril from Melkor’s crown. Having achieved the task, the first union of man and elf was formed, though Beren was soon mortally wounded and Lúthien also died of grief.
The Noldor, seeing that a mortal and an elf-woman could infiltrate Angband, perceived that Melkor was not invincible. They attacked again with a great army of Elves, Dwarves and Men. But they were deceived by Melkor, who had secretly darkened the hearts of many of the men. Thus it was that the Elvish host were utterly defeated, due in part to the treachery of some Men. However, many Men remained loyal to the Elves and were honoured thereafter. None received more honour than the brothers Húrin and Huor. Melkor captured Húrin, and cursed him to watch the downfall of his kin. Húrin’s son, Túrin Turambar, was sent to Doriath, leaving his mother and unborn sister behind in his father’s kingdom (which had been overrun by the enemy). Túrin achieved many great deeds of valor, the greatest being the defeat of the dragon Glaurung. Despite his heroism, however, Túrin was plagued by the curse of Melkor, which led him unwittingly to murder his friend Beleg and to marry and impregnate his sister Nienor, whom he had never met before, and who had lost her memory through Glaurung’s enchantment. Before their child was born, the bewitchment was lifted as the dragon lay dying. Nienor, realizing what grew within her, took her own life. Upon learning the truth, Túrin threw himself on his sword.
Huor’s son, Tuor, became involved in the fate of the hidden Noldorin kingdom of Gondolin. He married the elf Idril, daughter of Turgon, Lord of Gondolin (the second union between Elves and Men). When Gondolin fell, betrayed from within by Maeglin, Tuor saved many of its inhabitants from destruction. All of the Elvish kingdoms in Beleriand eventually fell, and the refugees fled to a haven by the sea created by Tuor. The son of Tuor and Idril, Eärendil the Half-elven, was betrothed to Elwing, herself descended from Beren and Lúthien. Elwing brought Eärendil the Silmaril of Beren and Lúthien, and using its light Eärendil travelled across the sea to Aman to seek help from the Valar. The Valar obliged; they attacked and defeated Melkor, completely destroying his fortress Angband and sinking most of Beleriand; and they expelled Melkor from Arda. This ended the First Age of Middle-earth. Eärendil and Elwing had two children: Elrond and Elros. As descendants of immortal elves and mortal men, they were given the choice of which lineage to belong to: Elrond chose to belong to the Elves, his brother to Men. Elros became the first king of Númenor.
Akallabêth (“The Downfallen”) comprises about 30 pages, and recounts the rise and fall of the island kingdom of Númenor, inhabited by the Dúnedain. After the defeat of Melkor, the Valar gave the island to the three loyal houses of Men who had aided the Elves in the war against him. Through the favor with the Valar, the Dúnedain were granted wisdom and power and life more enduring than any other of mortal race had possessed, making them comparable to the High-Elves of Aman. Indeed, the isle of Númenor lay closer to Aman than to Middle-earth. But their power lay in their bliss and their acceptance of mortality. The fall of Númenor came about in large measure through the influence of the corrupted Maia Sauron (formerly a chief servant of Melkor), who arose during the Second Age and tried to conquer Middle-earth.
The Númenóreans moved against Sauron, who saw that he could not defeat them with force and allowed himself to be taken as a prisoner to Númenor. There he quickly enthralled the king, Ar-Pharazôn, urging him to seek out the immortality that the Valar had apparently denied him, thus nurturing the seeds of envy that the Númenóreans had begun to hold against the Elves of the West and the Valar. So it was that all the knowledge and power of Númenor was turned towards seeking an avoidance of death; but this only weakened them and sped the gradual waning of the lifespans to something more similar to that of other Men. Sauron urged them to wage war against the Valar themselves to win immortality, and to worship his old master Melkor, whom he said could grant them their wish. Ar-Pharazôn created the mightiest army and fleet Númenor had seen, and sailed against Aman. The Valar and Elves of Aman, stricken with grief over their betrayal, called on Ilúvatar for help. When Ar-Pharazôn landed, Ilúvatar destroyed his fleet and drowned Númenor itself as punishment for the rebellion against the rightful rule of the Valar. Ilúvatar created a great wave, such as had never before been seen, which utterly destroyed and submerged the isle of Númenor, killing all but those Dúnedain who had already sailed east, and changing the shape of all the lands of Middle-earth.
Sauron’s physical manifestation was also destroyed in the ruin of Númenor, but as a Maia his spirit returned to Middle-earth, now robbed of the fair form he once had. Some Númenóreans who had remained loyal to the Valar were spared and were washed up on the shores of Middle-earth, where they founded the kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor. Among these survivors were Elendil their leader, and his two sons Isildur and Anárion who had also saved a seedling from Númenor´s white tree, the ancestor of that of Gondor. They founded the Númenórean Kingdoms in Exile: Arnor in the north and Gondor in the south. Elendil reigned as High-king of both kingdoms, but committed the rule of Gondor jointly to Isildur and Anárion. The power of the kingdoms in exile was greatly diminished from that of Númenor, “yet very great it seemed to the wild men of Middle-earth”.