Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Corruption of Light and Darkness

Reading the Quenta Silmarillion, I was struck by the importance of the distinction between light and darkness. There is no doubt that understanding the effects of that distinctions provided me with a whole new outlook on Tolkien’s writings. I was able to better comprehend the role of light within the legendarium and how good and evil were defined by its presence.

It seemed to me the first instance where there is an awareness of darkness is when Iluvatar called into existence the song of the Ainur. Prior to the vision, nothing existed. This nothingness, however, did not imply darkness; nothingness is not darkness. But when the Music was made visible, the Ainur “beheld it a light in the darkness” (Silm. 15).  It’s interesting to note that awareness of darkness came about only when light was first manifested. More importantly, light had to be known and seen first so that darkness could be determined.  Fleiger writes that “light and dark exist because of one another as well at each other’s expense” (Splintered, 86). The manifestation of light also brings about the manifestation of darkness, that is, a non-corrupted darkness.

Now, when the Valar go to Arda, “all was but on point to begin and yet unshaped, and it was dark” (Silm, 10). Again, I feel the need to stress the fact that, at this point, light was already conceivable. Arda was dark precisely because there was nothing; the Valar still needed take the vision, the blueprint that had been composed by Iluvatar, fashion it and bring it to existence in Arda. To remedy the lack of light, Aüle formed two lamps which would keep the light flowing in Arda, so that “all was lit as if it were in a changeless day” (Silm, 27). It is only after the establishment of the two lamps, the Source of light in Arda, that the seeds of Yavanna begin to grow throughout Arda, and “wealth there was of her imagining, and nowhere more rich than in the midmost parts of the earth, where the light of both the lamps met and blended” (Silm, 28). There is something extremely unique and spectacular about the idea that, similar to the sun in our primary world, the light produced by the Two Lamps was necessary for the growth and development of the natural beauty of Arda. But why have light every day? An Arda filled with light serves as the ultimate distinction between the world, and everything else; a distinction that I believe will serve to further reinforce the contrast between light and darkness as the mythology develops.

Augustine claimed that happiness came from clinging to God and wretchedness from distancing oneself from God (City, 471); these claims fit in perfectly with the dichotomy of light and darkness presented in the beginning of the Quenta Silmarillion. Taking them into the context of Tolkien and the importance of light, Melkor’s wretchedness and his hatred and jealousy of the Valar’s creations came from his refusal to affiliate himself with the Light. There are plenty of mentions of Melkor “brooding in the darkness” and “growing dark as the Night of the Void” (Silm, 28). His separation from the light and his constant association and interaction with the dark only furthered his corruption. It is in the darkness that hatred and rancor brewed within Melkor, feelings that became his main motivation for destroying the Two Lamps.  The hate and anger residing within Melkor didn’t just lead to the destruction of the lamps. It also resulted in the corruption of darkness. Before that, darkness simply meant the absence of everything; said darkness was not meant to be evil or corrupted. But the hateful intention that came with Melkor, his intent to purposefully rid the world of Light and all that is derived from it (illumination, growth and life, etc) is what ultimately corrupted the darkness. Why feel the need to intentionally plunge the world into darkness? Because light and everything illuminated symbolized the entirety of what he was no longer a part of; it represented what he always wanted to achieve (the creation of his own dominion) but never did. Within the darkness produced by the destruction of the lamps, there lingered remnants of that hatred and evil that would forever be associated with darkness. Ultimately, his failure and unwillingness to adhere to Iluvatar, the Valar and the Light perverted the primary nature of darkness and, consequentially, light.

Throughout the Quenta Silmarillion, there is the constant creation and destruction of light; the diminishing of that light comes as a repercussion of Melkor’s actions. The Two Lamps, the sources of endless and all-encompassing light in Arda, were created and Melkor destroyed them. The Two Trees, which provided gold and silver light in Valinor, were created and Melkor destroyed them too. Out of those trees sprung the Sun and the Moon, sources of alternating light. Light begins to diminish with every destruction, going from all-encompassing (Lamps), to softer and more reserved (Trees offering light only to Valinor) to just the sun and the moon. With every creation and destruction of light, it’s impossible to deny that the darkness is getting stronger; darkness begins to infiltrate places where there was once only light, meaning that light is becoming increasingly aware of darkness. Before the destruction of the two lamps, the Valar could not sense the coming of the destruction of Melkor precisely because of the permanent light produced by the Lamps. They were only aware of the light which surrounded them and not of the coming shadow. Awareness of what was light and what was darkness was a fundamental requirement that had to be established before the arrival of the Children of Iluvatar, the intended dwellers of Arda. It offered them the ability to discern between light and darkness and ultimately, good and evil.  

 -Selene M.


  1. I like very much what you say about the way in which Melkor corrupted the darkness, but I'm not sure I understand why the Valar could not sense the coming darkness thanks to their living in the light: does this mean that light is unenlightened? Surely not. But there is something intriguing here about the ability of those who live in the light to be able (or not) to protect themselves against corruption.


  2. You make an excellent point about Melkor corrupting the (once neutral) darkness! I had not thought of it this way before, but I think you are right that, as we discussed in class, evil is not the absence of good, but rather its willful destruction, so that in this way Melkor’s violence toward light is not because the light is inherently good, and so angers him, or that darkness is inherently evil. Melkor chose darkness rather than light in the same way he chose his own theme over Iluvatar’s and his isolation over working with the other Ainur, so destroying the light is simply an extension of these choices, which lead Melkor into evil.

    I agree that the treatment of light and dark in the Silmarillion gives one a better understanding of the significance of light and dark through the rest of Tolkien’s legendarium. For example, you note that the first light of Middle Earth, the Two Lamps, illuminates the whole world all the time, but that the amount and grandeur of light diminishes from that point on – lamps, trees, sun and moon. I will add to this list the silmarilli, which contain the light of the Two Trees in diminished form: one of the silmarilli survives after the First Age in the form of the star Eärendil (a lovely, but further diminished form), some of which is later given to Frodo (an even further diminished form). The diminishing light seems to also parallel the gradual diminishment of Middle Earth (although this does not happen in a continual progression and it takes thousands of years) from a place where the Valar walk, to the land of the Elves, to the dominion of Men. All this talk of light and dark leads me to wonder what are we are thus to make of the awakening of the Elves, which took place before the creation of the Two Lamps, but after the separation of light and dark – the Elves awoke under the dim light of Yavanna’s first stars!