- 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 Akallabęth - the history of the Second Age
- Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age
The Silmarillion is a very complex work, employing an extremely wide array of themes that originate in lore of countries all over Europe, but not adhering to any of them. Thus, the title of Eru Ilúvatar (One who is Father of All) is clearly borrowed from Norse mythology; the character himself resembles the God of the Bible, and even the writing style in which the Ainulindalë is told resembles that of the Bible; the story of Túrin Turambar is very similar to a motif from Finnish Kalevala; and Númenor is obviously reminiscent of Atlantis (in fact, one of the names Tolkien gave that land was Atalantë, though he gave it an Elvish derivation).
Historically, the first drafts of The Silmarillion stories date back to as early as 1917, when Tolkien was hospitalized in a field hospital with trench fever. He tried to publish some the stories (in a very early version) some time in the 1920s; however most editors regarded them with suspicion (the fairy tale for adults was not a popular concept then). He tried once more, having published The Hobbit in 1937; however that time too, The Silmarillion was found to be too complicated, and so Tolkien was asked to write a simple sequel instead (that sequel developed into The Lord of the Rings).
However Tolkien never abandoned these stories, probably seeing in them the genesis of Middle-earth as it is, the later events (The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) being only the aftershocks. The last drafts of the Silmarillion stories were written just a short while before Tolkien's death in 1973. For several years, Christopher Tolkien worked on deciphering and connecting his father's drafts, which often were mere sketches. On some of the later parts of the "Quenta Silmarillion" which were in the roughest state, he worked with fantasy author Guy Gavriel Kay to construct a narrative practically from scratch. The final result, which was connected in a chronological sequence and made consistent, was published in 1977.
Currently, The Silmarillion is available in several editions, such as the 1990 version from Ballantine Books, ISBN 0345325818.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Christopher Tolkien published all or nearly all of his father's Middle-Earth 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. Part of the reason for this is that Christopher Tolkien heavily edited the Silmarillion to ready it for publication, in places incorrectly because he was unaware of the existance of much material which had come to light only long after publication. These later books also reveal that Tolkien developed certain parts of the story of The Silmarillion more than others. The chapters of the story with the greatest (and most interesting) detail include:
- The Tale of Beren and Lúthien (the Lay of Leithian [Elvish for Release from Bondage])
- The Tale of Túrin Turambar and Nienor Níniel (the Tale of the Children of Húrin, or in Elvish, the Narn i Hîn Húrin)
- The Fall of Gondolin