Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Jewels and Bridges

    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.

AS

6 comments:

  1. A very nice account of our discussion in class! I particularly like how well you were able to capture the sense of the jewels as "bridges" from the material to the spiritual, and how Tolkien "makes literal what has become symbolic in our world." One important point to make about the phial that Galadriel gives Frodo: it is not just that it contains light, but that it contains *the* light--of Paradise/Valinor, of the Trees, and of the star of Earendil. It is, quite literally, a star-glass that can bear the light of Heaven under the earth. An interesting reversal, if you think about it, of where gems actually come from!

    RLFB

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  2. A very nice account of our discussion in class! I particularly like how well you were able to capture the sense of the jewels as "bridges" from the material to the spiritual, and how Tolkien "makes literal what has become symbolic in our world." One important point to make about the phial that Galadriel gives Frodo: it is not just that it contains light, but that it contains *the* light--of Paradise/Valinor, of the Trees, and of the star of Earendil. It is, quite literally, a star-glass that can bear the light of Heaven under the earth. An interesting reversal, if you think about it, of where gems actually come from!

    RLFB

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  3. I agree that you hit the nail right on the head regarding how in Chrstianity and in Tolkien’s mythology jewels act as bridges between the physical and spiritual worlds. However, I think there is a little more distinction between the relationship between jewels and light in medieval Christianity and Tolkienology than you have time to discuss in your post. Professor Fulton pointed out in class yesterday that the art of faceting jewels was not developed until after the symbolic role of gems had been well established, which is why most of the artifacts we looked at in class yesterday did not have the reflective facets most people think of when thinking about jewels. While unfaceted gems still do interact with light (ex. the clear gems used in monstrances), one cannot quite say, as Tolkien does about the Silmarils, that unfaceted gems “rejoiced in light and received it and gave it back in hues more marvelous than before” (The Silmarillion, 86). I think that when Tolkien was writing that, he was applying the medieval Christian symbolism of gems as bridges between the physical and spiritual worlds, with the more modern practice of cutting and faceting stones so that they reflect as much light as possible. In hindsight, it’s rather a shame that the art of faceting jewels was not known to medieval lapidaries and theologians; as Tolkien realized, the two really do match quite well together.

    LP

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  4. I like your idea of the jewels as indicating both ordinary and divine levels. Indeed, the jewels introduce a double perspective, so to speak. They form by their contrast with mundane or terrestrial reality a measure of that reality. In themselves they constitute the material (not necessarily the object) as sacred. One might say that they turn the object inside out. It allows the object it enshrines to crystallize, and the interior form is made exterior. The permanent form is shown on the outside. Thus, it is appropriate that they may enshrine a saint’s bones, themselves mutable as material (barring the miraculous), or the ancient light of Valinor, which may be thought of as alive and also had passed, disappearing with the sap of the trees. Light means movement, and movement often suggests life (but it is important that it doesn’t inevitably suggest life). What is significant in all of this, is that the jewel-encrusted world is in counterpoint with the rest of the world. It may even establish a primitive world, alone against which the rest of the world has any significance at all. Or, one might ask of a different story, how much sense does the salvation story of the Christian Bible make without the vision of the New Jerusalem at the end?
    JCT

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  5. I would mainly like to make an addendum to the argument you present about jewels. There is an even closer relationship between the use of jewels in Lord of the Rings and the historical importance of jewels in medieval Europe than you describe in the post. Many aspects of the jewels of Middle-earth not only mimic some of the biblical jewels, but the use of jewels in Christian relics shares much with Tolkien's use of them. Tolkien's jewels connect the people of Middle-earth with the light, as you mention, which is, in a sense, somewhat divine. The jewels of the Christian relics, in the same way, can be seen as a connecting force between the corporeal and ethereal worlds. In this way, to a certain extent, the jewels also serve a practical purpose: as emblems of saints, they help with the same protective and assistive purpose that a patron saint of a city might, acting as a focal point of worship in a particular community. The jewels, and the reliquaries themselves, are physical, earthly manifestations of Christian saints and holy objects, and thus, in some cases, physical evidence of the presence of God on Earth (this sense is further cemented by the medieval association of jewels with paradise). Jewels function in the same way in Middle-earth, connecting the people of Middle-earth to the wider universe and, as Frodo found as he was battling Shelob, sometimes answering their prayers.

    Ro Ca

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  6. This was a well thought out post. You made a clear link between the way that jewels act as bridges between the material and the spiritual in Middle earth and in Christianity.

    I wonder if ti is significant that it is the gems themselves that posses spiritual significance in Middle Earth, rather than the relics that are contained within as in Medieval Christianity. Furthermore, even when the gems were significant independent of any religious relic, the spiritual significance was indexical, instead of intrinsic to the gem. It wasn't the actual physical object that was important, but the religious concept or figure that it represented. This is very different from Tolkien's world, wherein the gems have power in and of themselves. The light of the trees of Valinor is infused into the Silmarils, they are not representative of any divinity. On reflection, this seems rather similar to the relics of Christianity.

    If anything, the difference seems to be a result of the fantasy genre. The gems should have some sort of intrinsic power in addition to being reminiscent of divinity. In Middle Earth this divinity stems from the trees/lights of Valinor.

    -Nick Carter

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