Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Jewels vs Metals, and then Starsteel, which is a bit of both

Jewels in the Tolkien Legendarium demonstrate properties of purity, creation, and longevity. As we discussed in lecture, jewels are very important symbols for the protagonists within the Silmarillion, and indeed the larger part of the story is centered around deeds surrounding the greatest jewels ever created. By and large the jewels we have encountered thus far are universally positive creations, whether they are the Silmarils, emitting the purest of light, mithril, a symbol of great wealth and power, gold, the mark of nobility, or the gems set within the Elven Rings, which have the power to preserve and maintain the elf-kingdoms even as Middle Earth crumbles around them. In my opinion, discussion about the properties and symbolism around Tokien’s jewels is made less serious if we don’t discuss their polar opposite.

Directly in thematic opposition to the Jewels are works of iron, which by and large represent the sins associated with the coming of industry. Angband, the fortress of Morgoth literally means ‘Iron Prison’ (Silmarillion, Appendixes), and Morgoth wears the Silmarils upon an iron crown (Of the Flight of the Noldor). There are many other examples besides these, particularly when it comes to the dealings of Saruman and Sauron during the Third Age, and the way in which they raise and breed their armies through industry and the destruction of the surrounding Trees. The letters from Tolkien depict iron as being influenced by Tolkien’s experiences against tanks and machine guns on the front lines of battle. And of course we know from history that the Maxim machine gun really put an end to the glorious cavalry and infantry charges of the “good old days” and turned warfare into a thoroughly depressing affair.

Symbolically, we can first discuss some of the more obvious symbolism of this dichotomy. Although iron and jewels both must be created through masterful craft and skill, and both are materials that ultimately are “strong” in the legendarium of Tolkien, there are very important thematic differences. A simple analysis gives us some insight into this conflict. Jewels, by and large, are translucent, and not only allow light to shine through them, but also bend light into new hues and colors that couldn’t be seen besides (see Wikipedia: Index of Refraction). It is this refractive and reflective nature of jewels that I think is the most important among the jewel properties. Repeatedly, Tolkien references the ability of the jewels to “glitter” or “shimmer” in the light, and indeed even the weapons wielded by the Good Guys, although they are instruments of death, bear these similar properties. For example, Aeglos the “snow point (icicle)” and Ringil, which “glitters like ice”(Of the Ruin of Beleriand) both have powers rooted in ice, which does in fact glitter in the light, and become “more powerful” when they do so (or at least, the Good Guys are rarely seen without glimmering weapons). Other items wielded by the Good Guys exhibit the same property, such as Bilbo’s shining mithril coat, or Aragorn’s standard at the Battle of Pelennor Fields (RoTK, the Battle of the Pelennor Fields).

So with this in mind, we can turn the discussion towards iron, a black metal, which neither reflects nor refracts light, and in so doing is the polar opposite of the jewel. It is implied in the Silmarillion that iron requires just as much skill to work as jewels do, (Aule and the creation of the Dwarves are a good example of this), and certainly the great Fortress of Angband which is strong enough resist any assault (famous last words). Yet despite requiring mastery of arts to work, iron is depicted as the evil material, and I think much of this stems from its properties in opposition with the properties of the jewels. Iron materials are primarily used as the instruments of the Bad Guys, Angband and Morgoth’s crown being mentioned before, and additionally Angainor, the iron chain that imprisons Morgoth (Of the Beginning of Days, Of the Voyage of Earendil), and the various prisons of iron besides that the Good Guys get thrown into.

Finally, once we have established this dichotomy of jewels and iron, there remains one more material that is outside of the realm of either. The meteor that was used by Eol to forge Anglachel and Anguirel is “made of iron that fell from heaven as a blazing star” (Of Turin Turambar). Stars, from discussion on Monday, were created by Varda from the remnants of Telperion, so they should be considered in our discussion among the “Jewels and Trees” category, and yet the star that has such a lofty history becomes turned into the weapon Anglachel, which infamously will become Gurthang, the sword of Turin. I see this as Tolkien symbolizing the way in which industry (iron) corrupts the old world (the stars). And fittingly, during Dagor Dagorath, the old world is redeemed and avenged against the corruption of industry when it slays Morgoth, wielded by Turin Turambar.

-James T.

15 comments:

  1. Excellent point! I had not thought about this before, but you are absolutely right: in order to understand the place of jewels in Tolkien's stories, we need to include the artifacts of iron. I like very much the irony (oh, my goodness, no pun intended, but there it is!) of Turin's sword.

    RLFB

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  2. It was interesting to read about your ideas on metals, because I also think it’s important that we understand how it is being used to contrast the jewels and all the ideas and significances that surround them. The properties of both jewels and metals, I think, can also reflect the sides that are using them. Jewels represent preservation—of beauty, light, and all that is good. This is exactly what the “Good Guys” are doing. They are trying to preserve the most good in a world being overtaken by evil.

    The properties of metals can tell a different story about the side that’s using them. Tolkien talks about the coming of Industry (as you said), which is something we tend to think about nowadays as an advancement in history and technology and modernity. In the mythology, however, I think it symbolizes destruction—the destruction of the good that the Good Guys are trying to preserve. The physical appearance and properties of metals echo the nature of the side they are mostly paired with. Like you said, they are darker and less reflective, and with the exception of a couple of metals, they are easier to destroy than jewels. So, while it may seem that there is a bigger amount of metals around, the few jewels that remain are not easily destroyed. It’s just like the Bad Guys and the Good Guys! :)

    Seleste M.

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  3. The different ways in which jewels and metals are worked also points to the way in which the forces of good and evil work towards victory. Jewels are naturally occurring, and only require cutting slightly to clear away outer impurities and to bring out their natural reflective beauty. However metal is found in chunks of ore, that must be totally melted down, and hammered or twisted into its desired shape.

    The good characters like Frodo or Beren start out as normal people, who are slowly rid themselves of their 'impurities', like doubts, fears, etc, and are polished by their experiences into brilliant heroes and heroines.

    The bad however are destroyed and remade as Sauron sees fit, such as the way the ring broke down Gollums mind, or the way in which the orcs were created, taking something natural and twisting it to his own purposes.

    -Katie M.

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  4. One of the additional ideas that I am most interested is where iron comes from. I believe that you hint at this in your post, so please excuse me if I am being repetitive.

    Iron, as you point out, involves the destruction of Trees, but I'd add that its not just destruction in any old way, its burning. This burning of the trees releases all of the "light" that they have to offer and "blackens" them. They then take ore from the darkest places of the world, and melt it down, once again releasing light. It is as if they are killing the products from which iron is made in order to produce it, this dark lifeless thing.

    Charles Martino

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  5. I enjoyed reading your post on the alternate perspective. Gems and iron are in fact different and their dichotomy plays an important role in the legend as a whole. One of your points which I thought was the most important (and which you also agreed was a key component of jewels) was the fact that jewels “not only allow light to shine through them, but also bend light into new hues and colors that couldn’t be seen besides.” This immediately reminded me of our discussion in class towards the beginning of the quarter about sub-creation. Jewelry, as a whole, has amplification properties. Though some jewels can supposedly create light on their own, for the most part jewels refract and magnify the light that is around them in such a way that we can better appreciate the light. Similarly, sub-creation “refracts” our primary reality in a new way. Iron, conversely, does not have this characteristic and, as you wrote “neither reflects nor refracts light.” Jewelry can thus also be seen as “good” inasmuch as it is “living” and also taking part in creation while iron is a dead metal which seems to demonstrate a lot of destructive properties.

    B. Wille

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  6. I think it is also worth pointing out that the chain which binds Morgoth was not originally formed for that purpose: he wore it as decoration, perhaps as a substitute until the Silmarils could be obtained? Perhaps there is a larger argument to be found there, an argument which explores how evil binds and entraps itself.

    I find it interesting that, while the Dwarves have a great affinity for the earth and have mastery of metal, the crown of Durin is formed out of natural things which have not been controlled or shaped: the mountain peaks and shining stars (do we think these are actually jewels? I'm curious) reflected in Kheled-zâram.

    Finally, I'd just like to point to Gimli's descriptions of the caves behind Helm's Deep. Despite being comprised of minerals and jewels and what we consider to be inanimate objects, he describes them as gardens and living areas. I think this goes back to your earlier point as to the inherent nature of jewels, which require only a little light to shine and reflect onto the world. There appears to almost be a form of sub-creation occurring here. It is the world as we know it, but in a different form and through different eyes. And the pact that Legolas and Gimli make to explore each together seems to indicate a desire to enter a Secondary Reality to further appreciate the Primary.

    Just some random thoughts which you evoked =)

    J. Trudeau

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  7. Hm...This is definitely an intriguing idea, that iron should be one part of a dichotomy, and jewels/gems the other.

    I think I'm just not ready to consider iron to be the "polar opposite" of jewels, at least not if the jewels are wholly good (therefore making Iron wholly bad). Correct me if I'm wrong, but don't the Dwarves work with iron? So not just orcs and Morgoth and Sauron. While it's true that Iron and other metals do not share the same properties involving the reflection/refraction of Light, metals have useful properties like strength and resilience (much like Dwarves, actually).

    This reminds me of a few weeks ago when we asked in class, "Does Tolkien hate technology/machines?" I would say no, but that Tolkien does hate the often reckless surge of Industry, which ceases to value human craftwork and also harms any bit of Nature (that is, trees) in its path. Maybe I'm just splitting hairs, but I think it's the same with Iron: Tolkien doesn't consider it *bad* or *evil,* per se, unless it is mined/forged in the way that Orcs, Sauron, and Saruman do it -- with no regard towards craftwork/skill or Nature.
    Dwarves, after the nature of their own Maker, Aulë, take great pride in and exert skill and care when they work with metals.

    - Jen. Th.

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  8. I'm so happy that someone commented on this, because I had been considering the tension between metals and gems as well. In the simplest terms, one could say that iron and its dullness represents industry, the desire to create for one’s self, while gems seem to preserve nature, free life and the creations of Iluvitar’s thought. So now, just as you turned to a starsteel, I wish to turn to a puzzling circumstance: The One Ring and the Rings of Power.

    The Great Rings are very much products of industry. In particular, the One Ring is forged in a mountain by Sauron. Yet it eerily resembles a gem: it radiates as gold, and when put into fire it literally burns from within. We’ve often discussed the connection between fire, light and life, and just as gems seem as a reliquary for light and in some cases fire, here the One Ring serves very much the same purpose. Yet the One Ring is distinct. Materially, the ring is completely plain aside from its sheen. It has no ornamentation and no gemstone. Furthermore, the light within this ring is distinct from that within gems. It is fire from the mountain, manipulated and taken by Sauron to create a ring through industry, very much unlike the pure light of Iluvitar that might presumably reside within gems. So from whence then does the One Ring derive its power? The Ring serves even more blatantly to preserve life; it contains within it the spirit and will of Sauron. It seems almost as if this ring is a corrupted gemstone, created to resemble a gem but inevitably a reliquary for Sauron’s corrupted will, a vesicle for Morgoth’s sin rather than Iluvitar’s light.

    But what then of the Rings of Power? These resemble more typically gemstones, but they only serve the One Ring, subject to its sway and the will of Saruon. In this way, we may come to understand the One Ring much like we understand Sauron. Sauron is a deceiver; in Numenor he appeared as majestic, showing himself as beautiful and good only to then dominate the will of the Numenoreans. Similarly, perhaps the One Ring is a deceiver, manipulating the gems of the Rings of Power through its gem-like appearance, even though contained within its shimmer lie not the fire of Iluvitar, but instead the fires of industry.

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  9. Sorry, forgot to sign the last comment.

    Max L.

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  10. Everybody has great points, but I think jewels are getting too good a representation, and iron a too bad one. Unless you have a very powerful and magical jewel , it can’t be used to fight an Orc. Imagine if every sword was replaced with a jewel! Just picture the soldiers of Gondor and the Orcs flinging rubies at each other, and Aragorn standing wielding the Mighty Turquoise Reforged! I think I like swords and axes and spears better. They can smash Orc heads.

    I don’t think jewels are meant to be entirely good. There is a fine line between a jewel being a vessel for light and a prison. Jewels form prisons too. Is it right for light to be confined to a jewel, feebly shimmering, condemned to eternal preservation, like an immortal Elf? Not entirely.

    Just as there are precious metals, so too are their precious stones. Mithril is just as precious as a jewel. The dangers of exploiting, hoarding, possessing, what is “precious” (MMYYY PPPRECCIOOOUSSSSS!!!!) is present in both the forms of metal and jewels. Whether the metal or jewel is good depends on the character of he/she who bears it. An axe in an Orc’s hand: chops trees; an axe in Gimli’s hand: chops Orcs. A palantir (I assume its some form of jewel or something) in Saruman’s hands: bad; a palantir in Aragorn’s hand: good.

    Sam D.

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  11. I think it is also worth pointing out that the chain which binds Morgoth was not originally formed for that purpose: he wore it as decoration, perhaps as a substitute until the Silmarils could be obtained? Perhaps there is a larger argument to be found there, an argument which explores how evil binds and entraps itself.

    I find it interesting that, while the Dwarves have a great affinity for the earth and have mastery of metal, the crown of Durin is formed out of natural things which have not been controlled or shaped: the mountain peaks and shining stars (do we think these are actually jewels? I'm curious) reflected in Kheled-zâram.

    Finally, I'd just like to point to Gimli's descriptions of the caves behind Helm's Deep. Despite being comprised of minerals and jewels and what we consider to be inanimate objects, he describes them as gardens and living areas. I think this goes back to your earlier point as to the inherent nature of jewels, which require only a little light to shine and reflect onto the world. There appears to almost be a form of sub-creation occurring here. It is the world as we know it, but in a different form and through different eyes. And the pact that Legolas and Gimli make to explore each together seems to indicate a desire to enter a Secondary Reality to further appreciate the Primary.

    Just some random thoughts which you evoked =)

    J. Trudeau

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  12. Hm...This is definitely an intriguing idea, that iron should be one part of a dichotomy, and jewels/gems the other.

    I think I'm just not ready to consider iron to be the "polar opposite" of jewels, at least not if the jewels are wholly good (therefore making Iron wholly bad). Correct me if I'm wrong, but don't the Dwarves work with iron? So not just orcs and Morgoth and Sauron. While it's true that Iron and other metals do not share the same properties involving the reflection/refraction of Light, metals have useful properties like strength and resilience (much like Dwarves, actually).

    This reminds me of a few weeks ago when we asked in class, "Does Tolkien hate technology/machines?" I would say no, but that Tolkien does hate the often reckless surge of Industry, which ceases to value human craftwork and also harms any bit of Nature (that is, trees) in its path. Maybe I'm just splitting hairs, but I think it's the same with Iron: Tolkien doesn't consider it *bad* or *evil,* per se, unless it is mined/forged in the way that Orcs, Sauron, and Saruman do it -- with no regard towards craftwork/skill or Nature.
    Dwarves, after the nature of their own Maker, Aulë, take great pride in and exert skill and care when they work with metals.

    - Jen. Th.

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  13. This is a nice point, helping as it does to systematize the imagery of the legendarium into a unified scheme. I am especially intrigued by the suggestion that Tolkien’s witness of war in his own day would have affected his conception and use of iron. Iron is a deeply ambiguous metal, and long associated with the cause of war, all the way back to Homer. It is powerful and yet potentially sinister, and reactions have varied from fear to awe. While I don’t always admit biographical readings (which are often actually allegories), it strikes me here as significant, and it helps to deepen the imagery. At least, it seems that the wars of Tolkien’s experience had allowed him to realize the meaning of the metal, as perhaps did industrialization. The iron setting of Morgoth’s crown debases the unknown crystalline substance of the silmarils, and yet the star world/crystalline world will defeat, one might even say deceive, the iron world in sending down a meteorite with which to fashion a weapon of victory.
    JCT

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  14. I loved your take on Iron as an inevitable comparison which must be made upon considering the jewels/trees. I completely agree with your point that it may be understood in the Silmarillion that it takes just as much skill to forge something out of iron as a jewel.

    I remember our discussion in class of the capacity of jewels to encase life, since these gem stones are able to carry a light that is in itself alive. Although, as you pointed out, it cannot be said that iron shares in this same relation with light since its material is more dull and cannot reflect back the hues of light as a gem would, it is nonetheless worthwhile to note that some objects forged of iron do in fact share in this inner life. The first one, as you note, would be Turin’s sword Gurthang. This sword becomes in effect one of the protagonists in Turin’s tale, and even ‘talks’ to him so as to grant him his plea; "Yea, I will drink thy blood gladly, that so I may forget the blood of Beleg my master, and the blood of Brandir slain unjustly. I will slay thee swiftly." (Silmarillion, 271).

    How more alive could this seemingly innanimate object be?! It even has a name, a brother, moral grounding, and even feelings of its own - i.e. “it mourns for Beleg even as you do” (Silmarillion, 250). I see that you are completely on target in making the connection that iron in the Silmarillion may function on the same level as jewels/trees only predominantly on ‘the Bad Guy’s side’.

    I especially enjoyed the connection you perceived between the “industry (iron) corrupting the old world (the stars)." That was great!

    - J. Machado

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