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PostPosted: Mon Jun 30, 2014 7:01 pm 
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I received over the weekend after many delays my copy of the book Tolkien in the New Century: Essays in Honor of Tom Shippey. I have long awaited this book, not just because it promised to be a wonderful compilation of essays on Tolkien in honor of one of the greatest Tolkien scholars of them all (which it has absolutely proven to be), but also in particular because I knew that Verlyn Flieger's contribution to the book was the essay that she had presented at the MythCon in 2011 at Albuquerque, NM, which I found fascinating at the time, but which passed too quickly to really digest. This essay, "The Jewels, the Stone, the Ring and the Making of Meaning," explores the role of the Silmarils, the Arkenstone, and the One Ring in their respective tales. It is a fantastic essay, and well-worth reading (as is the whole book; I strongly recommend it), but here I want to explore one part of it, one which (unlikely as that still seems to me) was inspired in part by something that I had written, along with something that Tom Shippey had written (indeed, one of the reasons that I had a hard time digesting what Verlyn was saying was that I was in such shock at hearing her citing my work).

Here is the passage in question:

Quote:
Discussing Bilbo's "Song of Eärendil" at Rivendell, Shippey points out (as we have seen) that "Eärendil's star [a Silmail] appears to be a victory-emblem, 'the Flammifer of Westerness,' and yet is associated with loss and homelessness, with the weeping of woment" (Road 194, my emphasis). Shippey's "and yet" highlights the disconnect -- not just in the poem but also in the "Silmarillion" as a whole -- between the positive connotations of Light and the negative impact of the Silmarils. In Arda Reconstructed Douglas Kane went a bit farther to remark that the "holy jewels ... alone preserved the 'pure' Light, yet also generated so much of the strife described in these tales" (23). Although Kane did not pursue the implications, his "yet also," like Shippey's "and yet," acknowledged the contradiction between preserving pure light and generating strife that distinguishes the Silmarils from the other artifacts.


Leave it to Verlyn to find the significant in a seemingly throwaway line. It is quite true that I did not pursue the implications in Arda Reconstructed, the purpose of which was not to explore the meaning behind Tolkien's work, but rather to explore how the published version was created. However, it is a subject well worth exploring, and one that I have long considered. Verlyn's conclusion is surprising for someone who is such a big proponent of Tolkien's work. After describing how the role of the Silmarils evolved from the earliest version in the Book of Lost Tales (in which the Silmarils do not capture the light of the Trees and are merely gems among other gems) to the point when they reach basically their final form in the earliest Quenta, before the writing of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, she concludes "[t]hat the message is not clear ... may be a function of the discrepancy between the height of Tolkien's ambition, the intractability of his material, and the limitations of his skill at the time. Like many poets, his reach exceeded his grasp."

It is hard to argue with this conclusion. Certainly, as both Tom and Verlyn note, "Tolkien's own efforts to say what The Silmarillion was 'about' were never completely illuminating," (pun intended). Certainly, the tale "grew in the telling" without any obvious plan that can be discerned from Tolkien's own words. And yet ... and yet ... there is something that I at least find incredibly powerful about the idea of these most holy objects being the source of so much strife and evil. This contradiction surely does not conform with Tolkien's strongly held Catholic beliefs (at least so far as I can say, being no theologist). But it does conform with my own view of the world, which rarely fits into neat patterns of good and evil, and in which opposite of what is expected is often what occurs. And perhaps there is a Jobian element of "the universe is beyond our understanding" that Tolkien himself would appreciate, whether or not he intended it. Or perhaps he fully well understood how powerful this contradiction was, and just never said so, or rather was never recorded in saying so. For myself, however, it is a big part of what makes 'the Silmarillion' so great.

What say you?

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Last edited by Voronwë the Faithful on Thu Jul 03, 2014 3:00 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Mon Jun 30, 2014 7:15 pm 
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First, CONGRATS. :D

Second, I agree with your view of the world - powerful objects are often the source of strife and evil - but your post needs a more thoughtful response. I will be back.

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PostPosted: Mon Jun 30, 2014 8:10 pm 
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Seems simple to me. "Light" is a general "good thing" in Tolkien's stories. But overweening desire for that light, particularly desire for that light as captured by the craft of elf or man (in the form of a Silmaril, in this case) can cause great strife. The desire to capture, control and hoard that light, as did the sons of Fëanor, is not such a good thing. It is not so dissimilar to the "desire" of Aman that the faithless men of Númenor were ultimately consumed by.

As much as I love Flieger (she's one of my favorite Tolkien scholars), I think she is getting too caught up in her own conceptual analytical framework here (i.e. her analytical lens of Tolkien's use of light). In effect, she's shining a focused light on only one element of Tolkien's mythos, and missing the surrounding forest.

Unless I am missing something...


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 30, 2014 8:39 pm 
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I agree with PtB. I've actually had some thoughts on this in my head for some time now but never got around to making a post on it.

There are a few instances where the Silmarils are used for good. Beren and Lúthien's Silmaril brings healing to Nandor, Eärendil and Elwing use one to help reach the Valar, and I feel like I'm forgetting something else too. It seems to me that the only ones who can "handle" a Silmaril, though, are those who do not seek to possess them as an end in itself. Everyone whose primary goal is to get a Silmaril or who hoards it is driven mad and ruined by it (or if they're already bad, made even worse) either in possessing it or just chasing after it. People who have or seek one in service of something higher, such as Beren's love, are not "eaten" by it like most characters are, though.

This resonates with some strands of Christian teaching that our desires are innately good, but should point beyond themselves and will consume and distort us if we make their fulfillment our greatest goal.


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 30, 2014 9:07 pm 
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Hmmm... I think the "desire" aroused by the beauty and light of the Silmarils is different in several cases...

To begin with,

Quote:
"love not too well the work of thy hands and the devices of thy heart;"


Whilst this quote relates to Turgon's doom, it equally applies to Fëanor who refused to give up his creation for the benefit of all in the Undying Lands.

Were the sons of Fëanor enraptured by the beauty of the jewels themselves, or simply held to, and driven mad by, an unbreakable Oath that should never have been sworn?


Did Thingol really desire a Silmaril when he set Lúthien's bride-price, or did he simply seize on it as an impossible request to fufill? Once he actually had it in his possession, having born the dreadful cost, it was probably guilt that caused him to develop a loathing fascination with the jewel...


Yet it was ultimately the lust for the jewel by the Dwarves of Nogrod, under the pretence of asking for the Nauglamír to be returned, that led to his demise.

Did Dior desire to keep the jewel for himself, or purely to preserve and honour the sacrifice of his parents? Likewise, Elwing who ultimately sacrificed a mortal life with her sons to help her husband reach Aman with the jewel, for the benefit of all the peoples of M-e...

To my mind the jewel(s) were only desired out of lust to control and hoard that light by the Dwarves, and, of course, Melkor/Morgoth, who I see as a blackened soul craving the beauty of something unattainable to him, even when he had them in his physical possession. That is the obvious metaphor for "light" being "good" and "darkness" being "evil..." The other cases involving the Silmarils are not so simple...

[ETA, x-posted with Kzer-za - what he said, too! Classic mythic device, that only those that try to do good with the holy relic/jewel, etc., will not be harmed by it!]

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PostPosted: Mon Jun 30, 2014 10:18 pm 
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Elentári wrote:
Hmmm... I think the "desire" aroused by the beauty and light of the Silmarils is different in several cases...

To begin with,

Quote:
"love not too well the work of thy hands and the devices of thy heart;"


Whilst this quote relates to Turgon's doom, it equally applies to Fëanor who refused to give up his creation for the benefit of all in the Undying Lands.


And, to the best that I was able to determine, was never written by Tolkien!

I'll be back to comment further later.

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PostPosted: Mon Jun 30, 2014 11:48 pm 
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I think the crucial word is "commodification." Something ineffable is transformed into something, if not fungible, at least alienated from its previously state of being freely and equally available to all.

I can't believe I just went all Marxist on the Silmarillion. :help:

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PostPosted: Tue Jul 01, 2014 2:43 am 
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axordil wrote:
I think the crucial word is "commodification." Something ineffable is transformed into something, if not fungible, at least alienated from its previously state of being freely and equally available to all.

I can't believe I just went all Marxist on the Silmarillion. :help:


Good Lord. This may be the first time that a Marxist concept seems to best capture an element of Tolkien's work. Fëanor and sons were mere commodifiers of light!

In that sense, the hoarding, or commodification of light might also be seen as a "corruption" of that light, which gels nicely with Tolkien's other examples of beauty corrupted (trolls, orcs, etc).


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PostPosted: Tue Jul 01, 2014 3:02 am 
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Elentári wrote:
Hmmm... I think the "desire" aroused by the beauty and light of the Silmarils is different in several cases...

To begin with,

Quote:
"love not too well the work of thy hands and the devices of thy heart;"


Whilst this quote relates to Turgon's doom, it equally applies to Fëanor who refused to give up his creation for the benefit of all in the Undying Lands.

Were the sons of Fëanor enraptured by the beauty of the jewels themselves, or simply held to, and driven mad by, an unbreakable Oath that should never have been sworn?


Did Thingol really desire a Silmaril when he set Lúthien's bride-price, or did he simply seize on it as an impossible request to fufill? Once he actually had it in his possession, having born the dreadful cost, it was probably guilt that caused him to develop a loathing fascination with the jewel...


Yet it was ultimately the lust for the jewel by the Dwarves of Nogrod, under the pretence of asking for the Nauglamír to be returned, that led to his demise.

Did Dior desire to keep the jewel for himself, or purely to preserve and honour the sacrifice of his parents? Likewise, Elwing who ultimately sacrificed a mortal life with her sons to help her husband reach Aman with the jewel, for the benefit of all the peoples of M-e...

To my mind the jewel(s) were only desired out of lust to control and hoard that light by the Dwarves, and, of course, Melkor/Morgoth, who I see as a blackened soul craving the beauty of something unattainable to him, even when he had them in his physical possession. That is the obvious metaphor for "light" being "good" and "darkness" being "evil..." The other cases involving the Silmarils are not so simple...

[ETA, x-posted with Kzer-za - what he said, too! Classic mythic device, that only those that try to do good with the holy relic/jewel, etc., will not be harmed by it!]


I think the desire to "possess" the light (and hoard it), in a hand-crafted jewel or some other vessel, is the common root to all these evils. Fëanor and his followers' desire was simply enshrined in the Oath, which acted as a magnifier of that desire.

On the flip side, those who wish to share the light with others are, in effect, not driven by the desire to possess/ hoard. I would argue that even if Dior's motivation was to preserve and honour the sacrifice of his parents, it is still a selfish desire to possess it "for the family," while Elwing's motivations are wholly selfless, and the result is the preservation of beauty for all.

Thingol is interesting. I don't believe he desired the Silmaril until it was in his possession. But he grew to desire it, and to keep it for himself, which was the sin that indirectly led to his death via the covetous dwarves. Yes, it was the desire of the dwarves that were the agents of Thingol's downfall. But if not them, something else would have precipitated his decline. His desire to keep the Silmaril for himself is the important plot point to focus on (as is the ill manner in which he came to possess the Silmaril - by sending his daughter's suitor to what he believed was certain death). The dwarves are, IMO, simply a narrative vehicle for illustrating his demise. We should not think of the dwarves as characters that are as "full" as the elves. At this spot in the story, they are primarily symbols of avarice, and its consequences, IMO.

Lastly, the manner of Thingol's possession of the Silmaril reminds me very much of the manner of Gollum's possession of the One Ring. Both relics were ill-gotten. The first, through an act of near-murder, and the second through an act of actual murder. This is not a good way to begin possession of such powerful relics, and is, IMO, a part of why both characters fall into evil.

But the critical element is whether or not "possession" is the aim of the seeker, or the acquirer (as in Thingol's case). Whether or not he sought it is irrelevant. As the Ring did for Gollum, the Silmaril essentially happened upon Thingol. It's what he does once he is confronted with it that speaks to his character. Gollum desires to posses the Ring for himself, and Thingol ultimately desires to possess the Silmaril for himself and his house. Bad move.

Apologies for the scattershot nature of this post. I'm using an iPhone in an airport, and it's hard to go back and reorganize!


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PostPosted: Tue Jul 01, 2014 3:55 am 
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I don't think you can ignore the fact that, as Verlyn notes, Thingol's possession of the Silmaril resulted from his attempt to commit the murder of Beren. It most definitely did not simply happen upon Thingol.

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PostPosted: Tue Jul 01, 2014 4:56 am 
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PostPosted: Tue Jul 01, 2014 6:13 am 
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Voronwë the Faithful wrote:
Elentári wrote:
Hmmm... I think the "desire" aroused by the beauty and light of the Silmarils is different in several cases...

To begin with,

Quote:
"love not too well the work of thy hands and the devices of thy heart;"


Whilst this quote relates to Turgon's doom, it equally applies to Fëanor who refused to give up his creation for the benefit of all in the Undying Lands.


And, to the best that I was able to determine, was never written by Tolkien!

I'll be back to comment further later.




:scratch: Sorry? That was quoted directly from the SIL, p150 in my copy:

Quote:
But love not too well the work of thy hands and the devices of thy heart; and remember that the true hope of the Noldor lieth in the West, and cometh from the Sea.



VtF wrote:
I don't think you can ignore the fact that, as Verlyn notes, Thingol's possession of the Silmaril resulted from his attempt to commit the murder of Beren. It most definitely did not simply happen upon Thingol.


I know you were replying to PtB with this, but for my part, I wasn't saying it did simply happen upon him, I was musing whether it was actually desire for the SIlmaril itself initially or rather using it as a means to an end (getting rid of Beren, as you point out) that led Thingol to make his request...but yes, it does fit nicely into the "wanting it for the wrong reasons" category!

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PostPosted: Tue Jul 01, 2014 1:42 pm 
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Elentári wrote:
Voronwë the Faithful wrote:
Elentári wrote:
Hmmm... I think the "desire" aroused by the beauty and light of the Silmarils is different in several cases...

To begin with,

Quote:
"love not too well the work of thy hands and the devices of thy heart;"


Whilst this quote relates to Turgon's doom, it equally applies to Fëanor who refused to give up his creation for the benefit of all in the Undying Lands.


And, to the best that I was able to determine, was never written by Tolkien!

I'll be back to comment further later.




:scratch: Sorry? That was quoted directly from the SIL, p150 in my copy:


Yes, it is absolutely in The Silmarillion, and one of the best known and best lines in there. But so far as I am able to determine, J.R.R. Tolkien never wrote it; it was written by either CT or Guy Kay. So far as I can tell, that line is editorially expanded from the much more prosaic "love it not too well," and possibly inspired from a line from the Quenta Noldorinwa stating that the people of Gondolin “grew to love that place, the work of their hands, as the Gnomes do, with a great love.” (See Arda Reconstructed, pp. 151-154.)

Quote:
I know you were replying to PtB with this, but for my part, I wasn't saying it did simply happen upon him, I was musing whether it was actually desire for the SIlmaril itself initially or rather using it as a means to an end (getting rid of Beren, as you point out) that led Thingol to make his request...


Yes, I was addressing PtB. However, I do agree with Verlyn that the Silmaril was already exerting a negative influence on Thingol when he hatched his murderous plot, even though he never expected that it would result in his obtaining one.

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PostPosted: Tue Jul 01, 2014 3:41 pm 
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Voronwë the Faithful wrote:
I don't think you can ignore the fact that, as Verlyn notes, Thingol's possession of the Silmaril resulted from his attempt to commit the murder of Beren. It most definitely did not simply happen upon Thingol.


I didn't ignore that fact, and mentioned it twice in my post. Here:

Quote:
His desire to keep the Silmaril for himself is the important plot point to focus on (as is the ill manner in which he came to possess the Silmaril - by sending his daughter's suitor to what he believed was certain death).


And here:

Quote:
Lastly, the manner of Thingol's possession of the Silmaril reminds me very much of the manner of Gollum's possession of the One Ring. Both relics were ill-gotten. The first, through an act of near-murder, and the second through an act of actual murder. This is not a good way to begin possession of such powerful relics, and is, IMO, a part of why both characters fall into evil.


However, Thingol's intention was not to actually acquire the Silmaril - it was to kill off Beren. But since that misguided action leads to his possession of the Silmaril, bad things are likely to happen.

In this sense, the Silmaril happens upon Thingol because of a deeply mean-spirited action by Thingol. This method of acquisition is important, just as Gollum's method of acquisition of the One Ring is important. Thingol sent someone to his death and got a Silmaril, and Gollum murdered his cousin and got the One Ring. Both characters: doomed!

But despite the Silmaril being ill-gotten, if Thingol was of a stronger moral fibre, he could have decided to share the light of the Silmaril with Middle Earth as at least a form of repentance. Instead, he hoards it, and that is the root of his downfall.

Quote:
Yes, I was addressing PtB. However, I do agree with Verlyn that the Silmaril was already exerting a negative influence on Thingol when he hatched his murderous plot, even though he never expected that it would result in his obtaining one.


That may be the case, and I am inclined to agree. And it is his desire for possession, however unrealistic, that is the negative factor (combined with an arrogant contempt for Beren, of course).

I suppose I don't see what Flieger is objecting to. Light itself is a force for good, but the desire to imprison it, hoard it, and keep it for oneself, is a force for evil. In other words, Fëanor, Thingol, the dwarves and all those who wished to possess the Silmarils are echoes of Ungoliant. They are consumers (i.e. "eaters") of light.

And all this flows from Morgoth's sin: desire to control the Music.


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PostPosted: Mon Oct 13, 2014 1:42 am 
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I was rereading Ainulindalë and this quote seemed relevant to the discussion about "possessing" and "consuming":
Quote:
Of the fabric of Earth had Aulë thought, to whom Ilúvatar had given skill and knowledge scarce less than to Melkor; but the delight and pride of Aulë is in the deed of making, and in the thing made, and neither in possession nor in his own mastery; wherefore he gives and hoards not, and is free from care, passing ever on to some new work.


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PostPosted: Mon Oct 13, 2014 2:21 am 
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I don't disagree with you, but I would be interested to see you elaborate on how that is relevant to the discussion about the Silmarils.

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PostPosted: Tue Oct 14, 2014 12:04 am 
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Sure - I also reread a bit about Celebrimbor, Valaquenta, and some early Quenta bits.

Aulë delights in making things, and it says in Valaquenta that he is the most like Melkor and even that both enjoy being praised for the things they make. But Aulë does not envy others, does not wish to hold onto and possess the things he makes, and does not wish to use his knowledge for power over others (one interesting bit is that he's the peacenik compared to Tulkas in the first war). This can be seen clearly in the creation of the dwarves, who he makes out of an overflowing desire to share, which is one reason Eru goes easy on him.

Fëanor, on the other hand, loves to gaze upon and possess his handiwork. And because possessing the Silmarils is the most important thing to him, the loss drives him to terrible things. Then Maglor and Maedhros, in finally claiming their Silmarils, find that the possession they've so long desired is now unbearable.

We can also see this with Celebrimbor, though he desires to hoard knowledge more than the crafts themselves. And the Numenoreans. And the dwarves of course.

The paradox of the Silmarils is that the only ones who can use them for good are those who don't actually want them. Or maybe I should say they only want them secondarily to something else (something good). Bilbo and Frodo's long resistance to the Ring is similar in some ways, though of course the Ring is inherently evil.

On a slightly Osgiliating note, while we all know Tolkien was wary about modern technology (and he says directly in a footnote that second-Age Eregion is an example of science and technology out of control), perhaps Aulë can be seen as a more positive perspective in the mythos.


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PostPosted: Wed Oct 15, 2014 10:36 pm 
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Just one more quote regarding the theme of possessing and "eating" the light for oneself:
Quote:
He [Melkor] began with the desire of Light, but when he could not possess it for himself alone, he descended through fire and wrath into a great burning, down into darkness. And darkness he used in his evil works upon Arda, and filled with fear for all living things.

One could almost say the same thing about Fëanor.


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