Friday, May 16, 2014

Run the Jewels

Rare gems hold such a special place in our minds that it’s hardly surprising that writers have ascribed magical powers to them for centuries.  Whether they are guides to the ostensibly real powers that they’re thought to hold in the primary reality, or tales of their uses in a secondary reality, there is an allure to these objects that persists through time.  In class on Wednesday, we discussed a few of the physical properties that lend themselves to this sort of attraction.  The vibrant, distinctive color of gems, the smoothness of cut, polished jewels, and the uncanny light that they seem to give off all aid the impression that these stones have magical powers.  Other precious materials may be rare, and even shiny, but they don’t appear to glow with an inner light like gems.  Especially in the medieval period, jewels lay at a perfect intersection of natural occurrence and craft to make them appear mysterious.  While they can be found in deposits in mines, it’s the trained skill of humans that brings them to the form meant to give them their powers.  This aspect of a material that has an entire industry of workers who can shape and perfect the relatively dull rocks dug from the earth, but no real method of production without this raw material, creates a mysterious aura around gems.  The fact that humans cannot recreate them without perceptible flaws just makes them that much more special when found in nature, and more likely in our eyes to have strange, unexpected properties.
Of course, jewels aren’t valued simply because they’re shiny. One would be remiss to ignore the important function that scarcity plays in their valuation.  Sure gems are aesthetically pleasing, and someone completely unfamiliar with their origin could mistake their light as a sign of magic, but I think that this unfamiliarity is an equally important part of the perception.  Consider an analogy to herbs.  To a certain extent, people are willing to believe in the healing properties of various herbs (at the very least in fantasy settings) as long as they’re somewhat uncommon.  If a medicine man were to recommend a poultice made from dandelions and grass, I highly doubt than anyone would even consider trying it before dismissing it.  After all, if the weeds in our backyard cured any sort of ailment, wouldn’t they be in wider use?  However, some sort of rare plant can’t even be tested if the average person isn’t even able to obtain it.  In the same way, I think a lot of the appeal of Marbode’s catalogue and similar perceptions of gems is in their rarity.  The nature of the average person’s interaction with jewels seems to support this.  People may have precious pieces that they wear on special occasions or one rare stone that they wear all the time (almost as a totem…), but it’s not common for someone to interact with gems as a matter of course.  Reading through the catalogue, I doubt that anyone can simply pull out of their pockets an example of each jewel, even if they own them.  These objects are rare, so we treat them with some distance and caution, which only intensifies the idea that they are special and mysterious.  To learn about jewels in the middle ages in the context that they are special things only royalty wear gives them a significance that leaves those who see them rarely free to wonder what secrets they hold.  Handling varieties of gemstones as a matter of course would doubtless take away some, if not all, of the illusion of their power.
On a different note, I thought a lot during class about the ways in which the use of gems can add, with varying degrees of success to a fantasy setting.  Due to all the elements discussed already, not to mention the tradition of religious symbolism across cultures, this seems like a natural element for inclusion in any fairy story.  However, this is not always successfully used, and I think serves to illustrate a concept that came up earlier in the course with respect to the use of language in fantasy (4/16).  As we discussed, there are certain words that seem to just naturally evoke a fantasy setting in the same way that magical gems might.  Saying “ichor” and “thou,” especially once elves have already been brought up screams fantasy novel, which can work for or against an author. If the entire work is constructed in a coherent manner than fits with this sort of speech, the setting is enhanced, as consistent use of “fantasy words” in the context of dialogue that has been shaped to only fit a secondary reality can only add to the illusion.  If, however, the dialogue has not been constructed in this way, the results can come off as “tushing” or an attempt to shoehorn in elements that don’t fit with the rest of the story, ruining the degree to which the reader can truly believe the secondary reality.  I think that the use of gems works in a similar way.  In my experience as a reader, the degree of power and rarity of gems must be in careful balance with the overall setting for the world to remain believable.  For example, having once been 12, I’ve read a lot of poorly constructed fantasy in which a normal schoolchild finds herself in a world that closely resembles our primary reality except for the existence of 5 Magical Gems, whose incredible power threatens to tear it apart. The description of these gems is invariably so over the top in comparison with that of the rest of the setting that they’re no longer credible.  Rather than being the natural, but mysterious objects we discussed in class, they become these monstrous, blinding power crystals that elicit groans from the reader (once he ages).  In comparison, the silmarils fit seamlessly into middle earth.  They’re large, sure, but not ridiculously so. Their major characteristic is described as an amplification of something that is already commonly noticed about gems: the way in which they seem to give off an inner light.  The silmarils don’t seem artificial in Tolkien’s world, but a natural extension of what the most pure gems would be.  Given that jewels in our primary reality bend light in alluring ways and the role that the light of the trees of Valinor plays in the Silmarilion, combining the two into a legend of gems so bright that they captured this most pure of lights doesn’t seem contrived at all, but adds to the mythos of the story.  Similarly, descriptions like those in Marbode’s catalogue fit very well in a subtle fantasy setting.  The relatively abstract descriptions of their powers are just past what we would find plausible, rather than the immersion-shattering insertion of “gem that lets you shoot fire out of your hands, even though absolutely everything else in this book is swords.”  The ubiquity implied by the catalogue also seems to help a fantasy setting.  Rather than having two or three gems that contain the power of the universe, lending some power to the objects that we already consider special makes it that much easier to enter a secondary reality and accept it at face value. Tolkien's slow and subtle revelations of magical power throughout LOTR seem to follow a pattern similar to this, and serve (at least for me) as an element that helps separate his work from other fantasy settings that I probably won't revisit.

Brian R


  1. Of course the "realism" of Marbode's catalog derives largely from the fact that he thought what he was writing about was true. Perhaps we could also say the same for Tolkien, who inherits much of the worldview that underlay Marbode's thought?

    I like that you drew the connection to language as well, it makes sense given what we know of him and his process that Tolkien would think about elements in his stories in the same sort of way that he thinks about the words used within. I think it might be interesting to draw a further connection to a closely allied concept that you hint at, magic. It's almost odd how rarely magic is used in the texts given that one of the protagonists is a wizard as is one of the antagonists. While in the Hobbit it occurred slightly more often, there's a subtle theme of unreliability to the magic of LotR, a sense that magic isn't "Magic", but similar to the gems, unique but not utterly removed from the laws of the world (if that distinction makes sense). I'm sure other examples abound.

  2. As a geologist (and, really, something closer to a mineralogist) who works very closely with precious gems in a scientific and museum/conservation setting, your post was very interesting to me. One specific line stood out the most, and that was that "humans cannot recreate them without perceptible flaws". Actually, many minerals can be produced and synthesized in artificial settings--indeed it is usually the ONLY way to get the flawless crystal structures and pure compositions required for industrial and scientific applications. Open any Skymall catalog and you can see impossibly-cheap necklaces set with massive artificial emeralds and sapphires, usually with higher purity and quality than those found in the Earth.

    And yet, lab-grown gems remain significantly cheaper than natural ones despite their objectively-better characteristics, and most people would shy away from purchasing an artificial stone for a loved one in favor of a flawed natural gem (and indeed, all natural gems are flawed at some level). They don't seem to have the "power" associated with natural minerals, and certainly those who prize pure gems for their power do not extend their interest to artificial stones. It is likewise difficult to imagine a lab-grown gem in a fantasy setting.

    Certainly this practice wasn't around in Marbode or Tolkien's time, but I still think it is interesting to see how the value of gems is not solely from their physical characteristics, but rather from their history in the Earth and the effort to find them.