Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Jewels don’t grow on trees. Except in the Silmarillion, when they sort of do.

My title has nothing to do with the topic of my blog post— I just thought it was clever and wanted to incorporate it somehow. Indulge me, please.

Jewels are ubiquitous throughout the Tolkien universe, and in class we discussed their inherent worth and power, which jewels in our modern world do not have. Owning or wearing a jewel may confer some level of social capital or monetary wealth, but the gem itself is simply a mineral cut in a pleasing way (or, nowadays, a product of scientific advances). Humans generally desire them, sometimes for their beauty and sometimes for their use as a status symbol, but very few people are genuinely looking to gain superpowers through possession of a colorful rock. In Tolkien, however, and often in other mythologies, jewels themselves bestow actual, tangible powers upon their bearer or owner. In Anne Bishop’s The Black Jewels trilogy, individuals store reserves of strength in their stones. Taking Eragon as an example (while resisting from passing judgment on it…), we see that jewels here have both the power to store and magnify energy. In the Silmarillion, the powers of the Silmarils are unclear. They cause most who come across them to desire them to the point of madness; they are filled with the light of the Two Trees, but what exactly that confers is vague; and they are hallowed by Varda, making them excruciatingly painful to any evil thing that touches them. After their theft, Melkor sets them in an iron crown, but rather than give him power, they instead seem to leech him of strength.[1] Later, we get a more tangible answer as to the power of jewels in Tolkien with the descriptions of Narya, Nenya, and Vilya, which were set respectively with ruby, adamant, and sapphire, and gave the bearers the ability to “ward off the decays of time and postpone the weariness of the world”.[2] Although it is still not clear if it is in fact the jewels or the rings as a whole which posses such power, we can take this to mean that jewels to some degree have power of their own. The Ring of Barahir, too, has jewels: four small emeralds.[3] But these jewels most definitely hold no power, except to identify the wearer as a descendant of first Barahir and later of Elendil.

Jewels, either with their own power or simply as markers of majesty, are clearly important to Elves and the Valar. It is written that when the Teleri came at last to Aman, the Noldor gave them many gems, “opals and diamonds and pale crystals, which they strewed upon the shores and scattered in the pools… and many pearls they won from themselves from the sea, and their halls were of pearl, and of pearl were the mansions of Olwë…”[4] Yet we find the most particular thing: when Sauron makes his One Ring of Power to rule all the others, he forges a simple gold band, with no embellishments or jewels whatsoever, besides the fire-revealed inscription. Why wouldn’t Sauron, the being who has most likely (given that his master Melkor wore them upon his head at all times) seen the glory of the Silmarils with his own eyes, put jewels on the lynchpin of his domination?

Fortunately I can’t read Sauron’s mind (what a scary place that must be), so I don’t pretend to have the answer to this question, but I think that asking it raises a huge issue that we circled about in class. It felt that we fairly well established that when approaching jewels in Tolkien, we must reposition ourselves to understand them as items of innate meaning, as opposed to seeing their value simply as a product of their placement in human social constructs. I would instead argue that jewels do not have inherent power in Tolkien’s universe, besides that which is bestowed upon them by outside sources, such as the mystical (magic, perhaps?) of the Elves or the enchantment of a Vala. Jewels are not once (at least to the extent that I have read, and I would be the first to admit that I am far from an expert on all that Tolkien wrote) described as storing energy, or striking someone with lightening, or making one who touches it stronger. They are in fact described much as we would describe them—valued for their beauty, for their rarity, for their perfection. Jewels are no different in Tolkien, they simply exist in a universe where there are creatures who can imbue them with mystical characteristics.

This is not all to say that jewels are not incredibly highly valued by the inhabitants of the World, nor that they may not place some mystical importance on them. I only fear that if we decide that jewels are simply what they seem to be, items of intrinsic power which confer characteristics onto their bearers, then we lose the opportunity to delve further in to why, exactly, Elves and Men and Dwarves and Valar and Maiar all seem to be so drawn to jewels—and by extension, why we are. Is it because they are a symbol of an individual’s mastery over the earth? Is it because they shine? Is it because they so neatly fit into metaphor and simile about light and reflection and depth? Whatever the answer, it doesn't lay in an inherent power, waiting to be tapped by protagonists.


[1] Silmarillion, 81.
[2] Ibid., 288.
[3] Ibid., 167.
[4] Ibid., 61.


  1. Great title, and I would say that it does have something to do with your post.
    You say that " but very few people are genuinely looking to gain superpowers through possession of a colorful rock" but didn't we learn in class that in medieval times (at least) some people genuinely thought that jewels have power? Maybe this doesn't matter, as people today and in Tolkien's time don't believe this.
    I would also like to know how you think precious metals fit into this. Gold and silver are valued for the same reasons jewels are (I can't recall if they're supposed to contain actual power). Can they be considered jewels of a sort, and does this make up for the fact that the One RIng doesn't have a jewel?

    Chloe B

  2. Thanks for the post, AGB. I think a close reading of Flieger would probably inform what the Silmarils’ containing the Light of the Trees would suggest, which is to say something of the Divine Radiance in the universe (maybe analogous to the Nûr of the Koran or the Shekhinah of the Hebrew Bible). This might also explain why there are no jewels on the One Ring. Melkor’s Silmarils were trophies, not tools. And given that the Light is a force which opposes Sauron (he or Morgoth attempt to block the Light, creating the Shadow), for him to put in his Ring of Power would be counterproductive. It's not magic—that is, it’s not just a technology that anyone can use at will. It’s the numen, in a sense, and so it would counter Sauron by its nature, maybe something like a metaphysical lodestone, repelling his own power.

    I don't recall whether the Rings of Men and Dwarves are said to have jewels or not. The Elves may have found a way to put some Light in their three Rings which may be the reason that they, however tenuously, can help keep Sauron at bay.

    So, I’d respectfully disagree that jewels aren’t inherently powerful—we don’t know every jewel, of course, just some particularly famous (and powerful) ones (like the Arkenstone, for example, which—as a counterexample—actually seems to have a profoundly negative effect on the Dwarves…one wonders if Tolkien didn’t incorporate his cosmology of Light & Song into The Hobbit as much).

  3. Very interesting post! It definitely seems significant that Narya, Nenya, and Vilya have jewels but One Ring does not. I agree with what Bill says about the Light in the Silmarils, and it seems that, to a lesser extent, that could be extended to jewels in general. We did say in class, after all, that one of the reasons that jewels were (and still are) loved so much is that they almost seem to emit light.

    I would also suggest that the jewels in general do not give the type of power that Sauron was looking for. As you pointed out in your post, the elves’ rings “ward off the decays of time and postpone the weariness of the world”. The jewels help to preserve and protect, not to dominate over others. This also seemed to be the general idea in medieval times. In Marbode of Rennes’ De Lapidibus we are told that different jewels will protect you from anything from lighting to the plague to enemies, ward off nightmares or snakes, cure lunacy, or give you the power to interpret visions (pages 122-124). This are all great powers to have if you wish to protect yourself, but in general I don’t think they would be that useful for world domination. Perhaps Sauron did not put a jewel in his ring because jewels do not bestow powers that he was interested in.

    Elaina Wood

  4. AGB,
    While you raise some interesting points, I'm not sure that I agree that jewels in Tolkien's world don't have inherent power. The three jewel-bearing Elven rings certainly have power that we are led to believe is centered in the rings themselves, not in their bearers as shown by Galadriel's admission that the destruction of the One Ring will destroy her ring's power as well. If the power were not localized to the ring, then the One Ring's destruction would have no effect on Lorien. It is very possible that the jewels themselves were not dug up with this power, but it was only added to them during the crafting of the stones and rings, but this is a question of origin, not of power: while they might not have been discovered with that power within them, they certainly come to carry it.
    You also raise questions about the 'power' of the Silmarils; you're correct in saying that any supernatural abilities they bestow on their bearers is never described, but I think saying that their powers are never described overlooks several points. We do, at least to some extent know the powers of the Silmarils. They contain the light of the trees, which is a fragment of the light of the lamps: they are carriers of divine light, and therefore those who possess them possess a fragment of divinity. In the Silmarils, we presumably can see a purer fragment of the light of God. While this might not give one super strength or the ability to turn invisible, I think we as readers are supposed to not only take them as valuable for their beauty, but also for their hallowed nature. To possess a silmaril is to have an object that brings you closer not only to Varda, but also to the Music of Creation. However, they are not only beautiful and holy, but they also are, in some ways, living: "as were they indeed living things, they rejoiced in light and received it and gave it back in hues more marvellous than before," (Silmarillion, 67). As anyone who's lived through a Chicago winter can testify, light is a wonderful, wonderful thing; and wouldn't it be incredible to interact with it in the way that Tolkien describes? I think it's this ability to interact with, as well as see, the light of Iluvatar that is the power of the Silmarils.
    Lastly, I think Sauron's ring had no jewels because as we've discussed in class, evil doesn't have the same ability to create that good does - Morgoth cannot create his own race, but corrupts the elves into orcs. The language of the orcs is also described as corrupted. I'm not sure it would have made sense for Sauron to wield a jeweled ring, because his role is to corrupt, not to create. You raised some really interesting points! Thanks.
    Murphy Spence