Friday, May 16, 2014

Light, Dark and Twilight: The Silmarils and the Illumination of Darkness Across Fiction

Walking alone in a dark forest. Lost in a dark cave of mist and shadows. Traversing an alien landscape, stumbling through the darkness. Lost. 

Until a flash of light. A beacon of hope. Illuminates what is unseen, casts aside the shadowy cloak of mystery and brings out a guiding light. The concept of darkness harboring evil and a great light that banishes that evil is not a new trope-the very start of the Bible has G-d bringing light to a dark and formless world1. In the Silmarillion, we learn of the creation of the world, and the two lights of Illuin and Ormal that lit the Earth, before they were destroyed by Melkor. When the lights are destroyed, the world was again, plunged into a darkness-the darkness in which evil beings like Melkor thrive. Chapter One recounts how “in the darkness, Melkor dwelt, and still often walked abroad, in many shapes of power and fear…”

But eventually, light would return to the world, when the trees rose to replace the lamps, before Melkor once again schemed to bring light out of the world, and struck down the trees. Light would again, return to the world for good, when the sun and the moon were created from the fruit of the trees, and the light of the trees would be made into the Silmarils.

The Silmarils themselves had the power to burn any evil being who touched them-they acted as a sort of weapon against evil. Light, overpowering evil. The idea of lights-such as the lamps or trees-casting out the darkness of a new formed world, or the idea of a gem or light or light-giving object can be found across many works in many medias. In Tolkien alone, you have of course, the Lamps, Trees and Silmarils. You also have the
Phial of Galadriel-whose light brought hope to the Hobbits in Mordor, and was able to help cast out the evil of Shelob. You have Sting-which glowed blue when the dark presence of orcs or goblins was nearby, thus acting as a sort of guide to where evil might strike. And I’m most likely forgetting a great deal more by Tolkien himself. But one can spend all day looking at how Tolkien casts light and darkness-it’s more fun to see how it compares to other fictional worlds.

Of course, one can find this concept of “Light in the darkness” in what is probably the most popular modern day “Fantasy” world-the world of Westeros as depicted in the book series A Song of Ice and Fire3 and the TV show Game of Thrones. A common expression said by adherents of R’hllor  (The Lord of Light) is The Night is Dark and Full of Terrors. In this world, there were long periods of darkness, and it is said that the sword “Lightbringer” brought light back into the world, cast out the evil in the darkness, and basically saved the world from an icy death. This shares ideas and origins involved with the Silmarillion. A great darkness that was cast over the world by a great evil (Melkor/The Great Other). A light that cast out the evil in the world (the Lamps, the trees/Lightbringer) and the idea of a future climactic battle between good and evil in which these lights play a crucial role (the Silmarils in Dagor Dagorath/The coming of Azor Ahai and Lightbringer). In both of these mythos, it is not the perceived beauty or splendor of the light-bringing object that matters (contrary to what was discussed at length in class) but the inner light-a light that can cast out evil-that is truly important.

A somehow even more…. fitting example can be found in a slightly more unlikely place-in the video game The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess4. The premise of the game deals with a Twilight Kingdom that has covered the land in…well, Twilight. But this Twilight is more analogous to the darkness that covered the land after the lights were destroyed and Melkor was free to run wild. This darkness could be pushed away by collecting the various Tears of Light that had scattered by the twilight monsters. Collecting these tears of light into a vessel would create a jewel-which would then wipe away the twilight from the area, and bring back the light-just as the scattered lights of the trees were used to create the Silmarils. In another part of the game, one must venture to the Twilight realm to advance further, but cannot progress due to the impenetrable shadow barriers. By collecting two orbs of light-one positioned to the North, and one positioned to the South, one can advance further. Carrying the orb physically pushes away the cloak of shadow, but areas that are far from the orb can act as a festering ground for these shadow monsters. These orbs parallel the lamps and the trees, which keep out darkness and evil when they were lit, but when they are gone, the land is cast into shadow. 

When the two orbs are brought together, they bring together their light bringing power into the sword the hero carries-and gives this sword a new power of light. This sword now has added power to attack and vanquish evil monsters, and any evil being who touches it will be burned to the touch-just like the Silmarils.

There are obviously dozens of other instances of this idea of “light driving out darkness/evil” all across fiction, but what can this tell us about the world in which Tolkien has created? These three worlds share the idea of darkness being a state that harbors evil, and that only light can shed the evil from that world. And the virtue of the light is not just the light itself, but some sort of magical quality the light possesses-whether it be the light of the Valar, the fires of R’hllor or the Light Tears of the Guardians-this light has some sort of quality that makes it evil’s bane. The sword in the darkness, the light at the end of the tunnel, the sunrise over a misty field-light is a cleansing force, and a force for good.


1.     Genesis 1:3, The Bible.

2.     Silmarillion, 32, J.R.R Tolkien, 1977

3.     A Song of Ice and Fire-A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, A Dance With Dragons-George RR Martin, Bantam Spectra Books, 1996-2011.  

4.     The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Nintendo EAD, 2006


  1. I wish there had been more on how this dichotomy between light and darkness informs Tolkien's works. The connection between light-good and darkness-evil is fairly obvious and common, as you point out, but is there anything unique about Tolkien's treatment of this theme? We might look to the place of shadows as a possible point of entry into thinking about this. Shadows, darkness, are themselves products of the light, does this nuance things? More, what does the fact that darkness is not a positive quality in its own right, but instead an absence, tell us about evil? There are many other areas in which this theme could be pushed that would surely yield interesting food for thought, better than merely surveying occurrences of an admittedly common theme.

  2. Wow, I've played Twilight Princess a decent amount and didn't see that comparison, but I totally see it now! The tears and the Orbs and everything, ah, so cool.