Monday, May 19, 2014

Etymology of Light

In Tolkien's gem lore, light functions as the etymology of the most important jewels appearing in his legendarium. Much as words serve as placeholders for entire histories, stories, and mythologies, jewels serve as placeholders for the driving force of light. The word 'Silmaril' itself means "radiance of pure light,"containing the word silima which in turn contains the element 'sil' or "shine." Other important gems also contain their properties in their etymologies. The Arkenstone appearing in The Hobbit, perhaps itself one of the lost Silmarilli, is a derivative of a word found in the poetic Edda, in Old English, eorclanstan. This also happens to be the term Tolkien uses to refer to the Silmarilli in Old English, bolstering the theory that this gem is in fact a Silmaril. Tolkien's usual method of containing histories in words is preserved here, although we use light and variations of light to convey the source of the power and beauty of these gems. The Star of Elendil, the jewel worn by the heirs of Elendil, also contained a measure of the light from the Two Trees, in effect the same as the stars themselves, as they were created out of the light by Varda. But the power of words is also coupled to the light, and some of the power contained in gems and stars is also contained in the words themselves. This is evident when the name "Elbereth" comes up in invocation and is used by Frodo when he is attacked at Weathertop. The power of words and light is therefore intertwined, and there is no surprise that the histories of the most famous jewels in Tolkien's legendarium are traces of light named for traces of words, the source of the power contained within them.

As we went over in class, gem lore has a storied history through the Christian tradition and medical tradition of the medieval period, and the idea that precious stones and gems could have protective, magical, healing properties was important to the people at the time's interpretation of their physical world. I've personally always been fascinated by the chemical history of the middle ages, specifically the philosophy of the alchemists, who were concerned with such ideas as anima mundi and prima materia, the vital force of the universe contained in the primitive base of all matter. The alchemists believed that it was this prima materia that formed the first ingredient of the Philosopher's Stone, a material of pure matter that could transform all imperfect materials into perfect material (or, less philosophically, turn lead into gold). It is interesting to note the similarities between the splintering of a quintessence into materials of power and Tolkien's splintering of light into gems with power. That what we would refer to as magical properties are in fact physical seems counterintuitive to our non-magical interpretation of the world. However, the philosophy behind alchemy is in many regards historically similar to Varda's light in Tolkien's legendarium, where this light, derivative of the light of Iluvatar, is the prima materia, or first ingredient, with power so great that even the mention of it can drive away evil beings. Tolkien's duality of light vs. darkness as good vs. evil is echoed in the medieval philosopher's perfect vs. imperfect. In fact, in Paracelsus' famous alchemical text of the early 1500's, he states of the final form of the philosopher's stone, "A lamp, the oil of which is mingled with this spirit, continues to burn for ever without diminution." Sound familiar?

Although the relation of gems to Saintly relics and resurrection is an important connection, I think it is interesting to take into account the vast and rich gem lore found in the occultist philosophies of the same time period. Much of the power of materials, stones and gems can be found or explained in such texts, and I think discussing them adds another dimension to the discussion of how natural works can be taken for miracles. The splintering of light that traces the source of power, beauty and craftsmanship is very well reflected in the difficulty of crafting the Philosophers Stone and the symbolic ritualism and reverence necessary to create a hallowed object. Much like Feanor creating the Silmarils out of the crystal silima which contained the light of the Two Trees, the alchemists of the middle ages sought to create their version of a perfect object that was imbued with the natural power of the prima materia.

From tracing Tolkien's etymologies of the most famous gems that appear in his legendarium, it is evident that he conceptualizes the stories behind these gems and their associated natural counterparts (ie. the Two Trees, Lorien, the stars, sun and moon) as containing components of a transmutable source of light from which all the good, beauty, and craft in the universe is derived. The power that gems symbolize was clear to the Catholic church in the Middle Ages, where they were used to designate the holiness of an object. At the same time, occultist philosophy was also creating and refining its own procedure where natural properties of certain materials could be perfectly magical if the philosopher had the skill to create it. Although this was historically based on Greco-Roman traditions, it was more closely tied to what we might consider more mainstream Christian thought today than it might appear at first, as many alchemists were Catholic and steeped in the philosophy of the Church as well. Expanding the discussion of what Tolkien may have drawn influence from to include these texts could offer us additional avenues of exploring the sources of power and beauty in the important jewels and the role of light in his legendarium.



  1. Do you have specific alchemical texts that you would recommend? I know some of this literature, but it would be helpful to have suggestions! RLFB

  2. I really like the way you characterized Light as prima materia. In class, we were trying to fathom the various images Tolkien frequently employs in his writing: trees (with leaves like jewelry), jewels, Music, water/sea (with echoes of Music and reflections of light), etc. without settling on their relationships with each other, except that they all seem to contain a kind of unearthly quality. I think your idea of prima materia successfully united all these images and depicted the role of Light in Tolkien’s universe, because for him Light is both a material that dispels (literal) darkness and monsters, and a metaphor of purity with religious connotations. Prima materia is how these two come together. Moreover it emphasizes fluidity, which, though not characteristic of specific materials within Arda, is characteristic of Light and shows the inner connections of all aforementioned images.

    The comparison of Feanor and an alchemist is also interesting. They were both ambitious to reach for perfection with their craft, yet Feanor is trying to craft nature into art while the alchemists were defying nature in the first place (based on what little I know about alchemy?). Therefore Feanor’s motivation is uncorrupted until he gets too attached to his sub-creations, while towards alchemists I suspect that Tolkien would have made a judgement in the beginning.

    Sophie Zhuang