Thursday, May 15, 2014

It's... It's ALIVE

                Throughout the discussion, we focused on the idea of jewels having properties of their own.  Much could be said about the socially attached power and meaning of jewels, of the heightened status of someone wearing expensive jewelry, or the power and influence it may grant them.  We can also, of course, attach symbolic meanings to birthstones, have lucky gems, or use a rosary to represent different prayers.  However, meanings attached to the stones are attachments or constructions; they are not inherent qualities of the material themselves.  Gems can act as reminders or stand-ins, but aren’t imbued with powers of their own.  This does not seem to be the case for medieval scholars, classical thinkers, or within Tolkien’s work.  To them, jewels not only possess powers and virtues, but they possess something more divine.  It seems as if this school of thought would attribute a sort of grace or spirit within the jewels.
                Marbode makes the latter camp’s views fairly clear in De Lapidibus.  He starts by using the jewels as metaphors, making comparisons such as jasper “reveals” faith in men, or sapphire having an appearance “similar to the heavenly throne”.  This is not unfamiliar territory; he is using the inherent qualities of the jewels (color, hue, opacity, etc.) as a symbol for religious tenets.  He moves beyond these simple analogies to actually attributing medical powers to the jewels.  He goes through the various healing properties of gemstones.  It is important here, that while certain gems need preparation to act as a healing agent (“Chrysolite… applied to gold shavings and washed, is a protective amulet for nocturnal fears”) this preparation only allows the inherent powers of the gem to become active.  Like that herbs may need to be boiled or crushed to be effective medicine, or athelas which becomes enhanced by the healing hands of the king, gems are a natural part of God’s world, and these qualities reside within them, not from any outside source.
                In a fantasy writing setting, this isn’t a very big leap to make.  Magical jewels, rings, necklaces, and the like are all too common in the genre.  However, the silmarils seem to be special in this regard.  Descriptions of their beauty and strength can be found throughout Tolkien’s works.  A particularly interesting passage, however, comes in Chapter 7 of the Silmarillion: “Yet that Crystal was to the Silmarils but as is the body to the Children of Iluvatar: the house of its inner fire, that is within it and yet in all parts of it, and is its life.”  For all intents and purposes, these jewels are actually alive.  While this may be a shock at first, it remains consistent with the rest of Tolkien’s works.  Consider the other entities that possess the flame imperishable: the Ainur, the Children of Iluvatar, the creatures within Arda, and even Arda itself.  As such, we can expect that gems and stones would also contain some portion of that spirit.  Yet the silmarils clearly represent some higher strata of gem.  They possess their own light, enhance light which shines on them, manage to capture the holy light of the two trees, and somehow entrance everyone who beholds them.
                Almost without exception, every character in The Silmarillion covets the jewels at some point.  Feanor abandons paradise, and commits the first slaying of the Children of Iluvatar by other Children of Iluvatar in a mad desire to regain them, and his sons are ever at work, attempting to fulfill their fell oath.  Thingol, the picture of wariness, careful steps, and seclusion throws his life away for the jewels when the dwarves fashion it into a necklace.  Beren and Luthien possess it for a time.  Even the Valar ask for the three jewels, albeit politely and with good cause, after the darkening of Valinor. The Silmarils almost exert will over their possessors.  Could these gems, more valuable and wonderful than any before or after, be said to have their own will, or dare I say it, be alive?
I realize this argument is a rather bold one.  The Oath of the Sons of Feanor is, after all, the force that continually brings conflict to Beleriand throughout the Silmarillion.  However, two important points to consider are the actions surrounding the silmarils before and after the oath is sworn and fulfilled.  The driving force behind the darkening of Valinor and the exile of the Noldor is the silmarils.  After this, Feanor and his sons swear their oath, which along with the Doom of Mandos, spells out their ruin.  After the events of The Silmarillion, Maedhros and Maglor actually manage to fulfill the Oath.  They acquire their father’s gems from the hands of the hosts of Valinor themselves.  However, they don’t enjoy their victory for long: Maedhros finds himself “in pain unbearable, and… cast himself into a gaping chasm filled with fire” while Maglor “could not endure the pain with which the silmaril Tormented him, and he cast at last into the sea.”  The jewels, imbued with some a (great) portion of the flame imperishable that lies within Arda, force themselves into the heavens, the waters, and the earth. 
What fascinates me is how the jewels seem to have an active role in all of these interactions. If we suppose, then, that the jewels are somehow alive and have a will, what is their will?  The middle English poem, Pearl, sheds some light on what Tolkien may have thought on this subject.  Looking at stanzas 22 and 23:

“Good sir, you have your speech mis-spent
To say your pearl is all away
That is in chest so choicely pent,
Even in this gracious garden gay,
Here always to linger and to play
Where regret nor griefe’er trouble her
‘Here is a casket safe’ you would say
If you were a gentle Jeweller
But, jeweler gentle, if from you goes
Your joy through a gem that you held life,
Methinks your mind towards madness flows
And frets for a fleeting cause of grief.
For what you lost was but a rose
That by nature failed after flowering brief”

                We see here the obvious fault of Feanor and his sons; they desired to possess the works of their hands, and couldn’t find pleasure in the mere act of subcreation.  As to where the silmaril’s wanted to go, or what their goal is, Pearl’s 35th stanza reveals:

“Yet my Lord, the Lamb, through power divine,
Myself He chose His bride to be,
And crowned me queen in bliss to shine,
While days shall endure eternally.
Dowered with His heritage all is she
That is His Love. I am wholly His:
On His glory, honour, and high degree
Are built and founded all my bliss”

                Perhaps, the silmarils, the holiest of gems on Arda, the pentultimate example of craftsmanship or subcreation, had the pure desire of returning to their places in the world. For Tolkien surely believed, as Iluvatar states in the Ainulindalë, that all things belong to and serve the greater glory of God, and that  all “wilt perceive that they are but a part of the whole and tributary to its glory.”



  1. Considering the possibility of gems having a will of their own, I'm surprised you didn't mention the most obvious example of an inanimate object seemingly having a will, the ring. Can we see the ring as a sort of dark mirror of the Simarils in this sense? There might be more nuance than a simple mirroring, however. After all, the "will" of the Simarils seems to direct people towards rather disastrous ends. Is the will of the Simarils a sort of neutral, driving to reach their "place" (I think your noting this is a perceptive insight) at the expense of all else? Or only at the expense of those whose wills are already warped? Like many questions in Tolkien, we're drawn back to questions of freedom and the nature of things, and it's interesting to think how gems and the like fit into these fundamental themes.

  2. Hi SB,

    I think that your discussion about the agency and personification of actual traits and emotions by jewels and gems in the Tolkien verse is fascinating. We discussed in class that there is an emphasis placed on the Silmarils because they are valued as gems but they are exalted because they shine with a heavenly light in a manner that is different from the different creatures and creations in Arda. However, you very correctly pointed out that these seemingly heavenly objects have the ability to corrupt, much like the One Ring that Sauron creates.

    I think that looking at the intent of the creators of the gems and jewels is also important when considering the role that these objects play in Tolkien’s verse. Feanor creates the Silmarils to capture the beauty of the Two Trees of Valinor while Sauron creates the Ring with the intent of bending the mind and free will of the peoples of Middle Earth. I think that is why the Ring is described in much more of a negative light as an object itself unlike the Silmarils. While both objects have the ability to bend the wills of individuals, the inherent qualities of both these jewels is different. Coveting an object of subcreation was not acceptable in the context of Illuvatar’s creation, which is why Feanor’s actions were wrong. However, Sauron’s misdeeds and wrong doings extend far beyond the betrayal of the Valar and that is something that is inculcated into the inherent properties of the Ring. I think Tolkien does a good job in highlighting the fact that coveting anything to a uncontrolled degree is wrong but that the inherent quality of these jewels is largely rooted in the will and intent of their creators. That’s why I think that one can distinguish the Ring from the Silmarils as an object of Evil. It certainly is fascinating to think about this in a larger context of creation and free will, especially when considering Illuvatar’s intent behind creating the different peoples of Middle Earth.

    Thanks for a great read!