Friday, May 16, 2014

The Silmarillion and Religious Tradition

Class on Wednesday did not at all go where I was initially expecting.

The notion which emerged most thoroughly from class on Wednesday for me was the link between the established mythology and theology of Middle Earth and deep Western and Christian tradition. This is mostly clearly identifiable through our discussion of gems and the readings assigned on the subject. Both of the Biblical passages discuss gems and gem colouring from the perspective of heaven and the construction of heaven. In particular, the passage from Revelation (and, additionally, the passage from the Tolkien-translated "Pearl" poem, indicating his own familiarity with these concepts) described the city of God in terms of gem-lined walls and jewel-encrusted gates, while the passage from Exodus spent a great deal of time intimately sketching out Aaron's breastplate, the specific materials of which it was constructed, and their exact positioning. From these passages, it was not unreasonable to conclude the importance of specific jewels in Christian theology, of which Tolkien would have undoubtedly been aware.

Given that one of the passages discussed involved the Silmarils and the Darkening of Valinor, and the familiar link between God and light, the idea of "jewels having power" and the subsequent link to the Silmarils themselves was not a stretch. Marbode's Lapidaries describe both the symbolic value of specific gems and the power ascribed to each and, taking into account Professor Fulton Brown's statement that this was a well-accepted guide at the time, the inherent power of gems in the Middle Ages forms another pleasing link to the Silmarils, which, in the theology of Middle Earth, truly do possess the light of heaven. In particular, this brings chills down the spine when reading the portion of the Lord of the Rings where Galadriel gives Frodo the phial; her description of it as possessing "the light of Earendil's star," itself a Silmaril now placed in the heavens, gives the phial true unearthly power. It is scarcely surprising that this chased Shelob away under in the caverns near Cirith Ungol: if Ungoliant hated the light of the trees that much, then surely her offspring would feel similarly?

Up to this point, I could follow the line of argumentation. If, as Marbode's Lapidaries attest, people believed in the inherent powers of gems, and gems themselves could be seen as unearthly objects (both because of their look/design and because of their importance in scripture), then the Silmarils trace the same path of possessing real power (they burn Maglor's hand, break Beren's knife, and shine with the light of Valinor long lost). They, themselves, are unearthly, and their final resting-places (the sky, the earth, the sea) seem thematically appropriate. This is a description of the Silmarils which is borne in Catholic scripture, but matches the description placed on the page; not surprising, given Tolkien's own characterisation of his work as in the Christian tradition.

But here I began to break from our thought-progression, and it comes from our brief commentary on the Sun and the Moon. Prior to class, I had been very excited to discuss this section, if only because the story of the creation of the Sun and Moon has always been one of my favourite stories from the "heavenly" portion of the Silmarillion. I always associated these stories with my own cultural tradition (Hinduism) and the portrayals of the Sun and Moon gods (well in this case Maiar, so demigods, I guess?) matched with my own cultural tradition and my favourite childhood stories.

As a kid, I used to have a series of Indian comic books, which told old stories about Hindu mythology and Indian history; it is from these that I first gleaned my love of mythological tales (which might explain why I like the Silmarillion so much). But the Sun and Moon god in Hinduism are not too distinct from Arien and Tilion. While the latter is a female/male pair and in Hinduism they are both males, the moon is similarly flighty, confused, bounding up and down at awkward intervals, and seen in the sky along with the sun. The Hindu tale of the phases of the Moon could easily have Tilion replacing the Hindu Moon god, who sees Lord Ganesha slip and fall after eating/carrying too many sweets and doesn't really do much to repair his insolence/boyishness. The story in the Book of Lost Tales, which details the construction of their vessels across the skies and the gods' attempts to replace the light of the trees could fit perfectly into a Hindu mythological tradition, with imperfect gods attempting to repair a problem for the world. While they may speak slightly differently, Manwe and Yavanna's failed attempts to revive the trees would not be amiss in Hindu legend.

Consequently, I was slightly confused when our class discussion glossed over this section, and progressed to discussing other links with Christian theology, like the resurrection of saints (this was fascinating, mind. I know very little about this kind of theology and I learned a great deal). I guess my question is simple: if the theological basis of the Silmarillion is wholly or thoroughly Christian (and the above logic of the Silmarils and gems seems to suggest as much), why did I as a kid and even now, as basically still a kid, associate it so strongly with my own, non-Christian cultural tradition?

The simplest explanation suggest some kind of universality of religious tradition; namely, that all religious traditions contain some similar components and I was just reacting to these familiar ideas, but I think it runs deeper than that. One of the comments in class was that this story is substantially more involved, and my immediate reaction in my head was that it is difficult to make a story which explains a celestial body with which we are so familiar! Hindu, Ancient Greek, Norse, etc. mythological traditions have deeply complicated stories about the turning of the seasons and the phases of the moon and such because they are intimate parts of our lives. Naturally, when stating his own, Tolkien would do as much, and build a more complicated, semi-polytheistic theology (Valinor does, after all, have a number of gods, at least when Eru is absent). Perhaps I was just responding to a complex system of many gods building a universe.

I don't mean to suggest that Tolkien was influenced directly by polytheistic religious tradition. That would require a great deal more developed argumentation and historical evidence. I simply wonder how much of his religious basis strays from the solidly Catholic foundation upon which he has built his world. The link between the Silmarils and gemstones is linear and logical, but perhaps he deviates when constructing myths for the world? Or perhaps all religious traditions do really draw from the same well, so to speak, at some point?

I'm not sure. It was just a surprise for me to read these chapters, which I've read since I was a kid as similar to a Hindu mythological tale, in that Christian theological vein.

- Vidur Sood

4 comments:

  1. "Or perhaps all religious traditions do really draw from the same well, so to speak, at some point?" There is a middle ground that we might consider: Christianity draws on a long tradition of mythology that very likely has common roots...and here I will fudge...somewhere in the traditions of Eurasia. One of the great challenges in the history of religions is to get beyond the recognition of similarities across traditions to the question of why such similarities are there--and there we enter the truly Perilous Realm! Tolkien was very interested in these questions, as he indicates in his comments in "On Fairy Stories" about Max Müller's theories about the origins of mythology. For my own part, I think that there are deep roots connecting Hinduism and Christianity, I am simply not sure that we have traced them properly yet. RLFB

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  2. I would add to Professor Fulton Brown's comments that the idea of Indo-European Eurasia was very much alive to people (perhaps especially philologists) of Tolkien's generation (for good and ill). Their idea that there's some lost Ur-IE culture underlying much of its successors’ is awfully seductive.

    Going in a different direction, the idea of cultural and psychological archetypes had been floated by Jung and was “in the water” at the time. I don’t know if Tolkien thought much of (or about) Jung, but it might be another influence…

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  3. I agree with your previous two commenters—there is certainly something suggestive about the resonances you feel with your own tradition and the tradition in which we read the jewels of Tolkien! I very much like this perspective that you bring, and it is a good reminder what a melting-pot shared cultural history can be—I am particularly reminded of the role that the Greek and Roman pantheon had in medieval poetry and prose, which discomposed me the first time I came across a medieval love poem dedicated to Venus. Which is all to say, I agree that nothing here is mutually exclusive, and it is likely that Tolkien was thinking through these same problems!

    --Jenna

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  4. Thanks for the comments! I would be very interested in reading Tolkien's own thoughts on this kind of thing (the influences religions have on one-another and similarities between religions) as well as the thoughts of others of the time. I don't really know any answers here, but am definitely interested in possibilities!

    - Vidur

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