Thursday, May 15, 2014

Yin and Yang in Middle Earth

            The Dwarves of Tolkien’s Middle Earth have an intense connection with the Earth. Not surprisingly, they have an intense fascination with the rocks and gems of the Earth as well. The Elves, in a different way, have a strong tie to the Earth comparable to the Dwarves’. While the Dwarves are more connected to the ‘belly’ of the Earth so to speak, the Elves are more connected and interested in cultivating the surface. In such a way, gems and rich earths are often associated with Dwarves and trees and rich foliage with the Elves. Despite the Elves’ and the Dwarves’ expressed disdain for one another, there exists thick overlap in their interests. The Elves value what is beautiful, such as riches like gems, and the Dwarves require substance such as food and medicine from the plants cultivated on the Earth.
            If there is something to take away from this interplay between the two races and their focuses, perhaps it is that of yin and yang. Seemingly opposite things rely on one another to exist, both in the yin yang concept and in Middle Earth. As seen in The Tale of the Sun and the Moon, [1] the existence of the sun is intertwined with the existence of the moon in order to maintain balance over the world. Before the creation of the moon and night, Lórien complained to Manwé, “the eyes of us ache by reason of [the sun’s] flaming, and beauty and soft sleep is driven far away.” The sun at this time was so bright and persistent such that the fount of Kulullin, “dulled and her garden wilted in the heat, and her roses lost their hues and fragrance.” The Sun was damaging the world, “making it a place where no quiet or peaceful shadow could remain.” The nightly moon was thus needed to ensure peace and prosperity over the world. The coolness and soft light of the moon at night was necessary to compliment the heat and brightness of the sun at day.
            Along the lines of complimentary forces, the existence of Melkor and his rebellious, destructive nature in the world is also necessary alongside the Ainur and Valar’s calmer, orderly natures. When the Ainur create mountains, Melkor razes them; when they create oceans, he shifts and spills them; when they create lanterns and trees for light, he topples them and poisons them. In this long process, Melkor is a key component to the shaping and molding of the Earth. The existence of Melkor reminds me of the scene in The Phantom Tollbooth when the conductor allows Milo to conduct nature, and in essence the world, while he naps.[2] I feel that the conductor must have known that Milo, a child who had never conducted nature before, was going to mess up or conduct differently from himself. In a similar way, Ilúvatar creates and allows Melkor, an element of change and chaos, to exist alongside the other Ainur and Valar. Ilúvatar must have known Melkor, like the other Ainur, would not be perfect. Amongst the other Ainur, such ‘imperfection’ is most clearly noted when Aulë creates the dwarves against Ilúvatar’s say so. Yet despite this, Ilúvatar shows satisfaction with what all the Ainur do, working their actions and creations into the grand scheme of the world. In such a way, Ilúvatar, like God, is a conductor, working seemingly contrasting elements into one glorious theme of creation. [3]
            In regards to God and creation comes another story in which the concept of yin and yang is exemplified: that of Pearl. In Pearl are many complimentary themes. There is that between what is terrestrial and what is heavenly, for the narrator of the poem is sleeping on Earth yet dreams of obtaining a glimpse of The Heavenly Kingdom. There is also the comparison of placing great importance on oneself and on one’s own needs versus placing great importance on others and on the desire and needs of others. The narrator cares greatly for his personal possessions, for in the beginning of the poem he seeks his lost pearl at great lengths. On the other hand, in his dream he shows a passion to serve and love God and gain admittance to The Heavenly Kingdom. He also shows great devotion to the girl that visits and converses with him in his dream, such that he no longer focuses on retrieving his pearl but rather on conversing with the girl about God, heaven, and repentance. By the poem’s end, the narrator is indebted to the girl and is resolved to fulfill God’s will. This contrasts sharply to his attitude of self-interest and worldly possession at the beginning of the poem. In yet a final yin-yang comparison, we see the narrator go through a process in which he feels first desire, but then satisfaction and content. [4]
            In conclusion, the contrast between Dwarves’ love for gems and caverns and Elves’ love for trees and gardens is not a dividing one. Rather it is a uniting one, for theirs is a love for nature. Theirs is a love for cultivation of the Earth, both above and below the surface. Dwarves must sculpt and maintain their structures and bounty within the Earth, while Elves must nurture and maintain their structures and bounty on the surface of the Earth. Although the distinct aspects of the Earth above and below the surface may make Dwarves and Elves seem worlds apart, one cannot exist without the other in a healthy Earth. In saying that one cannot exist without the other, this applies both to the races and to their livelihoods and contributions on Earth. For a comparison, look at the story of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. [5] In this story, the forests of the Earth are polluted such that exposure to the forest air is toxic to humans. Yet, deep under the forests are flowing waters and sifting sands that cleanse the Earth and clean the air.  Without the toxic forests above, the waters and sands cleansing the Earth would be exposed and exploited. Without the water and sands in the belly of the Earth, the planet would not be supplied with fresh air, and all life would die.
In a similar way, the focuses of the Dwarves and Elves go hand in hand. In very unique ways, both races help ensure the health of Middle Earth’s natural resources. Dwarves and gems, in a sense, reflect the health of the inner earth just as Elves and trees reflect the health of the outer earth. The Earth is important through and through, above and below, in and out. In light of the plight humans have on the present day Earth, this is something that the human race can learn from; to respect all aspects, creatures, and races of the Earth, even those that we do not understand or see. It may be these things or people that, along with us, can ensure the vitality of the Earth both today and for the future.


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My ‘works cited’ are works from which I obtained quotes, and also works from which the content of a paragraph pulls greatly from. Works cited are not in MLA format but are simply given by name and author(s).

[1] The Tale of the Sun and the Moon, J.R.R. Tolkien
[2]  The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster
[3] The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien
[4] Pearl, Author Unknown and Translated by J.R.R. Tolkien
[5] Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Studio Ghibli


  1. Just to be clear: in Pearl, the girl is the jewel. The narrator is mourning the death of his daughter, not the loss of a possession. RLFB

    1. Interesting...that puts an curious twist on things. Most people I spoke to thought the pearl was a pearl, but that in his dream the pearl was represented by an entity, the girl.
      I didn't pick up on the pearl being a daughter, but I can see the poem being symbolic in that sense as well.

  2. C.C.C.,

    Thanks for the post! Lots of interesting and provocative stuff in here. I think yin and yang is an ok metaphor for approaching this, but I don't think Tolkien would have subscribed entirely to the sort of "unity of opposites" and "perpetual balance" inherent in the Chinese metaphysic.

    That said, the fact that Tolkien creates all sorts of apparently pairs and complements is incontrovertible, as is the point he rarely portrays something without eventually invoking a hint of its shadow or opposite. So I think the idea of something like opposites coexisting and almost calling each other into existence isn't really far from his creations.