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.