Jewels have taken on numerous characteristics throughout history, representing birth months, predicting personality traits and acquiring curative properties. We’ve discussed at length how jewels possess admirable characteristics, traits like purity to which Medieval Christians aspired. It seems only natural that jewels would have comparable value in Middle Earth, and indeed this similarity is hardly accidental. In the stories of both peoples, jewels function as a critically important bridge between the mundane present and the perfection of another time to which all aspire. It is this connection which I find especially intriguing, as jewels are able to serve a number of different functions that connect the ordinary with the divine. The exact function of the jewels may vary, but the connection to goodness and light ultimately brings together shared elements of Middle Earth’s history and Medieval Christianity.
In Christianity, this connection often occurs through the deliberate use of symbolism. The twelve tribes of Israel, for example, are represented before God with their corresponding precious stones affixed to Aaron’s breastpiece, so that “whenever Aaron enters the Holy Place, he will bear the names of the sons of Israel over his heart” (Exodus 28: 29). Medieval Christians understood that such gemstones originated in the Garden of Eden, and viewed jewels as a connection to God based on their source in Eden as well as their physical characteristics. Their interaction with light suggests their inherent goodness, and jewels are an unchanging reminder of God’s glory. As such, wearing various gemstones provided a tangible connection to God, both physically and spiritually. The notion that these jewels actually came from a holy place is critical to their unique nature as a connection to the Lord.
Even as jewels were apparently present in the beginning, but according to Revelation they are quite relevant in the end as well. Once again, the jewels are both physically and symbolically important: they are the foundation for the city of God, the city which is the bride of the Lamb (Revelation 21). They are holding places for Christian relics, imparting their unchanging quality on the “living” relics encased within—until they too become gemlike in the end. They represent purity and permanence, as well as myriad other characteristics as described in the Lapidary we read for this class. Though they are not considered living, these jewels still possess admirable characteristics which are lauded among the Christians who possess them. Regardless of how true these claims are, it is increasingly clear that jewels in Christianity occupy an unusual space between God and His followers.
Jewels in Middle Earth occupy a similarly ambiguous place, but for different reasons. As with other Christian influences in his work, Tolkien makes literal in Middle Earth what has become symbolic in our world. Others have drawn parallels between Lothlorien and the Christian paradise, including their unusual makeup. Representing a kind of paradise, Lothlorien’s gold and silver growth suggests that jewels have somewhat different qualities in Middle Earth. Lothlorien itself is a remnant of an earlier paradise, and provides the Fellowship a rare opportunity by allowing them to enter. Their experience there among the living gold and silver offers a glimpse into the time of much earlier lights, and the jewels they take from it reinforce its unique connection with things long-past. For the Silmarils were alive, and “they rejoiced in light and received it and gave it back in hues more marvelous than before” (The Silmarillion, 86). Indeed, the juxtaposition of gems and life, made possible through light, is a theme that remains even long after the Silmarils are lost. Jewels interact with light such that they are both amplified.
Not only is Lothlorien a jeweled sort of paradise, but it is also the source of numerous living gems and gifts for the Fellowship. Aragorn, Elessar, is here marked Elfstone and given a sheath whose gems illustrate the lineage of his sword. Most importantly, Galadriel’s gift to Frodo is a crystal that actually contains a kind of living light. Even more than the protection offered by our gems or even our reliquaries, this crystal phial is literally “‘a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out’” (LOTR Bk. II Ch. 8). Going a step further than in our world, jewels are able to interact with light in a way that connects the people of Middle Earth to something that is otherwise unattainable due to past sins. Jewels serve as a physically present conduit in Middle Earth between the living light and the people who need its grace.
In both Middle Earth and the Medieval Christian world, the function of jewels is directly related to the importance of light. Though they are certainly not the only things that do so, jewels are able to provide a link between the residents of this world and something greater. Their physical properties allow them to contain, reflect, and amplify light, and they have an unchanging quality through which they represent both the past and the future while existing in the present. Whether the past involves paradise on Earth or living lights, jewels bring to the present an element of holy things now lost. In addition, jewels can represent people and certain people can become like jewels. They possess qualities that many aspire to themselves, and in the Christian tradition were thought to convey tangible effects on those who wore them. Their non-accidental relationship to light further accentuates its significance in Middle Earth, emphasizing qualities like purity and permanence. Jewels possess both tangible, objective qualities and historically-based spiritual significance, making them an ideal way for ordinary people to reach closer to the divine.