Tuesday, June 15, 2021

When Did the Public Learn to Expect "The Silmarillion" as an Actual Forthcoming Book?

By the mid-1960s, it was fairly common knowledge that J.R.R. Tolkien was trying to ready for publication a volume called The Silmarillion.  But when and how did that title become known?

The first appearance of the word “Silmarillion” in public was as early as in 1938, in the letter Tolkien wrote to The Observer, which appeared in their 20 February 1938 issue. Tolkien wrote à propos of The Hobbit:

My tale is not consciously based on any other book—save one, and that is unpublished: the ‘Silmarillion’, a history of the Elves, to which frequent allusion is made.

By the time Tolkien’s sequel to The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, was published in 1954-55, it can be safely assumed that almost no one recalled the 1938 reference.  But in the appendices to volume three, The Return of the King, there are two mentions of the word, but neither imply that it might be a volume to be published in the primary world. 

The first is in Appendix A, Section I “The Númenoran Kings”, part (1) “Númenor”, at the end of the third paragraph:

The silmarilli alone preserved the ancient light of the Two Trees of Valinor; but the other two were lost at the end of the First Age, as is told in the Silmarillion.

That is the first edition text.  In the 1965 revised edition, the final clause reads “as is told in The Silmarillion.”

The second is in Appendix F, Section I “The Languages and Peoples of the Third Age”, in the final sub-section headed “Dwarves”:

Dwarves. The Dwarves are a race apart. Of their strange beginning, of why they are both like and unlike Elves and Men, the Silmarillion tells.

(This form is retained in the 1965 revised edition.)

Neither appearance of the word implies an actual primary world book.

The next reference (that I know of)* is to a somewhat hopeful remark in the letters column of John O’ London’s magazine on 3rd March 1960, where a writer signed “J. Burn” of Sheffield (evidently a woman, owing to other comments in the letter) wrote:

… from the reviews I gained the impression that Tolkien’s Lords of the Ring [sic] books were some sort of fairy-tale with humanised animals as heroes. I was not interested in them until an acquaintance lent me the first two volumes. I became an addict, and still look for the advertisement of The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien.

It was not long after this that the first remark (again, that I know of) about an actual publication of The Silmarillion came out.  It appeared in the British fanzine Skyrack, issue 20, dated 20th June 1960. In a column by Ken Slater (1917-2008), a well-known and long-standing mail-order bookseller who began bookselling as a hobby in 1947, and in 1954 turned it into a business which ran for more than fifty years. Slater noted:

ORDERS ARE NOW BEING TAKEN by the publishers for Professor Tolkien’s promised new work, provisional title, THE SILMARILLION, which recounts the earlier history of The Ring. The publishers still can’t give a date or a price for the work, but this acceptance of orders is a step forward.

Arthur R. Weir (known as “Doc” Weir) summed up what he expected to find in a letter dated 21 September 1960, published in the letters column (Entmoot) of the first issue of Peter Mansfield’s fanzine Eldritch Dream Quest (November 1960):

À propos of THE SILMARILLION, it should not only tell the story of how the dwarves first came to exist, but should also tell how the Great Enemy originally stole the Silmarilli from Eldamar, and the tale of Beren and Lúthien Tinúviel, and also, of course, of Eärendil their son; presumably it will finish with the fall of Nargathrond, since it was in that that the other silmarils were for ever lost.

Doc Weir (1906-1961) had self-published as a booklet one of the first internal studies of Tolkien’s invented world, A Study of the Hithlain of the Wood-Elves of Lórien (1957), the year before he joined science fiction fandom. [Update to this sentence, see my post "'Doc' Weir Revisited" 6/10/23.] Weir died in March 1961, so never got to read The Silmarillion. A Memorial Fund was set up and since 1963 has given an annual Doc Weir Award for fan recognition.

By 6th December 1961, in Skyrack issue 40, Ken Slater noted laconically “Tolkien’s ‘The Silmarillion out by Allen & Unwin next October.”

Of course it was not to be, and rumors went on for many years. A version of The Silmarillion, editorially constructed by Christopher Tolkien, finally came out in September 1977.

Does anyone know of any earlier pre-1960 mentions of The Silmarillion as a forthcoming book?


*It is possible that word of The Silmarillion got out to science fiction fandom in September 1957 when Tolkien was awarded the International Fantasy Award at a luncheon in London just after the 1957 World Science Fiction Convention—held for the first time in England—had concluded. But none of the reports that I have seen mention any forthcoming work by Tolkien.

Thanks to Dale Nelson for assistance with this post. 





  1. I certainly recall reading the references to the Silmarillion in the LR appendices and being confident that it was a book that was intended to appear at some future point, but where did I get that idea? As you say, it's not specified (or even much implied) in the references themselves. I'm pretty sure it's not something I only heard about after I joined the Mythopoeic Society.
    The letter of J. Burn, of much earlier date than my memories, gives a similar impression: it reads as if she'd learned elsewhere about the impending publication, because she writes with a confidence not easily derivable from the appendical references. Which in turn suggests that there were earlier allusions that we have no record of.
    I know that, by the time The Silmarillion was actually published, I was aware of its long history of being promised for publication and not appearing, for on the announcement that CT was preparing it and that it would appear soon, I expressed (in print!) skepticism that it existed at all. I was thinking of the similarly long-promised Sibelius Eighth Symphony, which did indeed never appear, though scattered scraps of it have been found in recent years.

  2. Having just gone through Rayner Unwin's REMEMBRANCER - according to his memory - he notes he took a contract for it with him when visiting Tolkien in Oxford in 1959 - would they have shared this piece of news with the wider publishing world then?

  3. Thanks. I see that Rayner visited Tolkien on 19 August 1959, and got Tolkien to sign three contracts, for Sir Gawain, On Fairy-Stories,and The Silmarillion, with no delivery dates, though with an understanding that the first two would be ready by the end of 1959, and The Silmarillion by the end of 1960. Interesting details, but we don't of course know when any of this went public.

    1. Although it has been purged of all Tolkien-related correspondence (bar one letter, iirc) advertisements as suggested by the notes in the zines might be found with the George Allen & Unwin Archive at Reading - it might have been mentioned in their 1959/60 catalogue/ press material (probably out in October)?

  4. I have no evidence, but is it possible early public knowledge developed in the period immediately after Tolkien's introduction to Milton Waldman in late 1949? Waldman certainly saw some of "the Silmarillion" material; and it was certainly viewed (by Tolkien) as a publishing venture at this time. Maybe it's possible knowledge grew around this time?

    1. And even more tenous, but worth throwing out there: Lewis alludes to "the Silmarillion" material in his preface to THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH (1945), stating people would have to "await the publication of much that still exists in MSS" in respect to "Numinor [sic] and the True West". One wonders what anyone made of this comment at the time?

    2. Well, I remember what I made of it, on reading THS in the early 70s. I thought it was a reference to The Lord of the Rings, so I presumed I had that covered. It wasn't until after The Lost Road was published that I realized that was the MSS that Lewis was thinking of. So not The Silmarillion either.

  5. Outside of letters columns & fanzines THE SILMARILLION as a future publishing venture is also explicitly cited by Edmund Fuller in his BOOKS WITH MEN BEHIND THEM (Random House 1962): "Tolkien, retired from Oxford, is at work on another saga creation of comparable scale, to be called THE SILMARILLION." The copyright notices for this book are 1959, 1961, and 1962. So Fuller was in full possession of this information at publication time in 1962 or likely before.

    1. Some of the Fuller chapters appeared in earlier forms in periodicals, but so far as I know, the Tolkien chapter didn't.

  6. There is a strange snippet on GoogleBooks, dated 1959:


  7. This magazine, known familiarly as AB Bookman's, was for the use bookselling trade, and consists of many want lists by booksellers looking for specific titles requested by their customers. If the 1959 date on the Google search is correct (and I've encountered many similar instances when it wasn't), this could mean that someone in the US advertised a want for the Silmarillion that early. I will try to check this out further. Thanks.