Friday, May 16, 2014

Agency and Authenticity of Tolkien's Jewels

Going into the discussion on Wednesday, I would have told you that, well, jewels are pretty and rare and so whoever possesses them must be powerful and their social status enviable. But however true these statements might be for our twenty-first century, [they] need to be tossed out when considering the place of gemstones and jewelry in the long centuries of Middle Earth.

Tolkien’s works are full of references to jewels: the forest of Lorien is full of mallorn trees with silver bark and golden leaves, the dust in Valinor is so full of diamond dust that Earendil sparkles like a gem himself when he pleas before the Ainur, and the works themselves are named after the most impressive pieces of jewelry. In the Silmarillion and the Lord of the Rings, the fate of elves and men are bound up with the creation and destruction of the most beautiful and powerful jewels ever crafted by (or with) the Elves.

To understand fully why Tolkien chose to use jewelry as his high stakes prizes, we must rethink what jewels are and what they represent. These jewels must be thought of in a medieval way: as things powerful in and of themselves, prized because of their incorruptibility, permanence, and perfection. In the medieval context, gemstones were thought of as the final remains of Eden, having been found in the East near Paradise. They were keepsakes of Eden, that otherwise unattainable and unknowable haven.

In addition to being a remnant of Eden, gemstones were also prophetic, providing a foretaste of the glories of the heavenly Jerusalem. As we read in Revelations, the city ‘was of pure gold’ and the walls were ‘garnished with all manner of precious stone’ (Revelations: 21:19). At the resurrection, Christians would be restored to their bodies, which would be literally jewel-like, as we saw in the poem Pearl, when the man sees his daughter as ‘a precious gem in pearls arrayed’ (Pearl, 130).  This was no literary trope, however, and the resplendent gilding of Christian reliquaries, for example, were meant to truthfully display the future heavenly garb of the saintly Christian.

These same binaries exist in Tolkien’s universe, and help explain why gems and crafted jewelry serve such major roles in the tales. First- the East/West divide for medieval Christians is reproduced in the West/East divide for the exiled Noldori, and later the Numenoreans. The Silmarils, and later the enormous gemstone that is the Lothlorien, are remnants of Valinor on Middle Earth, and precious because they are ‘Blissful’. Second- the gems’ characteristic of being a reminder of past and irretrievable glory (the Bliss of Valinor), as well as an indication of a future return to jewel-like splendor (the possibility of the Elves returning over the seas), also seem to have been directly influenced by how medieval Christians decorated their devotional items.

*I know that it appears that I am mapping medieval Christian theology too closely onto the lore of Middle Earth, and (say it with me!) Tolkien would’ve hated that. My intention is not to seek a one to one relationship, but the medieval patterns certainly help explain how Tolkien thought about the character and power of gemstones, and such a comparison helped get me out of my twenty-first century conception of what jewelry means. Thanks for bearing with me!

From what I gleaned in class, and from what little outside reading I was able to do for this post, gemstones are heavenly, they are living things, and are full of the energy of the earthly paradise created by the Ainor. Despite this benevolent and spiritual framing, I feel something more ominous or threatening about Tolkien’s gemstones. The Silmarils, for example, are undoubtedly beautiful and ‘godly’, containing the light of the two trees. Yet their existence drives Feanor mad, and envy of them drives Melkor to his destruction in Valinor. Their existence instigates the downfall of the Elves, and gives their ultimately tragic lore its name. But the stones themselves, as living things, are not evil and do not consciously effect the actions of Feanor or Melkor.

The Rings of Power, particularly the One Ring, is different. We mentioned in class that Lothlorien is itself a gemstone: a permanent, unfading, beautiful and bounded place, filled with colors as piercing as the day color was created. And like all beautiful jewelry, it was crafted to be this way: Galadriel’s Elven ring of power is the tool responsible for such flawless craftsmanship. Her maintenance of Lothlorien is thus in keeping with the beautiful and worshipful/devotional act of creation, her ring, if it is a living thing, is a good one. However. The rings of power are not all so benign, or perhaps suffice it to say that they are not always used benignly.

Sauron (deceptively) urges the Elves/Celebrimbor to create powerful rings so that they might ‘labor together for (Middle Earth’s) enrichment’ and to make it ‘as fair as Eressea’ (Silmarillion, 287). The attempt, at least on the elves behalf, is to create the proper tools to make a Valinor on Middle Earth, to re-plant Eden. It all goes awry when the Elves realize that Sauron has poisoned his golden jewel and created a gem that is as destructive and blasphemous, as theirs are sustaining and pious. His ring has the ability to govern ‘the very thoughts’ of the other ring bearers, and thus to a certain extent it does the same thing that the uncorrupted (untouched by Sauron) rings were able to do, meaning to control the actions of creations of Arda (Silmarillion, 287). Ultimately it is the question of the One Ring’s ability to manipulate, not cultivate, which sets it apart from the other rings of power and sets the Lord of the Rings saga in motion.

The One Ring of Power, as a jewel, is far from incorruptible. It might not even classify as perfect or permanent: it can change its size when convenient, for example Frodo kept it on a chain because it always changing size on him and the Ring slipped off Gollum’s finger when it felt the time was right. Sauron’s Ring can be considered a living thing, like the Silmarils, but then why have it be corrupted? Is the Ring still a jewel once it has completely broached this cardinal rule? My first thought was that perhaps Tolkien was adding another layer, telling the story of a Fall in miniature: the One Ring is beautiful and full of potential to act as a proper Elven ring, to create and preserve, but its inner ‘will’ is swayed and seduced to Evil.

Or is Sauron’s ring is ‘inauthentic’? The medieval Christian ‘gemstone’ model was particularly concerned with the authenticity of relics. Many saints were gifted with the exceptional ability to authenticate a relic at first sight (and thereby authenticating their own sanctity, two birds one stone style); clearly it was not enough to have simply the appearance of sanctity or bejeweled splendor. If it is not a real gem, then it is not a real ‘piece of Eden’ and therefore has none of the attendant powers. The One Ring does not at first appear to be inauthentic, because it was forged (in Mount Doom) in much the same manor as the other jewels. Celebrimbor and Feanor both forged their jewels from earthly substances, gold or the light of the trees. The One Ring is thus equally natural and authentic, but its inner will has become abnormally corrupted.

By granting his jewels a considerable degree of agency, perhaps Tolkien is extending his consideration of good and evil, or perhaps I am thinking about this too minutely, and the gems are not at fault for their actions. I’m inclined to believe the former, however.



  1. Very nice reflection on how to think about the One Ring as possibly an "inauthentic" jewel--or relic. You make me wonder now whether this kind of tension is present in medieval thinking about gemstones, which could also be employed in black magic as well as for decorating reliquaries. RLFB

  2. I love this meditation on the nature of corruptible vs. incorruptible as a sign of authentic vs. inauthentic! I particualrly like the microcosm/macrocosm view of evil and corrupted will that you posit here, and find it a plausible reading—gems are living things and have equal possibility of enacting the narrative of the Fall!

    Professor Fulton Brown's question puts me in mind of the tradition of “poison rings,” which were allegedly hinged compartments on rings that could store powdered substances to slip into someone's drink (Here's one that caused a stir last summer, though this one is gem-less: There is a debate and confusion amongst archeologists as to whether or not these are actually used to deliver poisons surreptitiously, because they look so similar to rings that are thought to contain relics ( This is exactly the ambiguity at work here!


  3. While the investigation of the “will” of the Ring and the Elven Rings of Power is interesting, I think it misses the mark slightly. I don’t think the Ring “wills” its way off of fingers or into the clutches of beings. Instead, I think it acts much like water flowing down a hill does. Water always seeks the path of least resistance to lowest ground, and the One Ring seeks the path of least resistance to exercising its power, to being wielded. There are two reasons why this doesn’t give the Ring a “will”. First, the aforementioned seeking is just a quality of the Ring. The Ring is incapable of being lost, not because it wants to be found, but because it was made to be used. Second, the Ring does not “will” to be evil. Rather, its purpose causes the user of the Ring to turn to evil. This is because the purpose of the One Ring is to control. Control in and of itself is not evil. Tilling and weeding a garden is an act of control. Raising children requires some measure of control. However, any users of the One Ring parallel a Fall, not the Christian Fall, where Man’s Fall is in search of knowledge or power, but the Fall of Sauron, who fell because he wanted to impose too much order upon Middle Earth.

    -- Peter Alexieff
    (Despite my disagreements, I found the post very interesting!)