Saturday, May 13, 2017

Gems and Life

Today when we look at gems we see pretty, shiny things that are worth a lot of money. There is an entire market based around convincing people that an expensive ring is necessary for happy matrimony and the diamond market is purposely throttled so as to keep prices high. There are no more tanzanites left to be mined in the world and so their price is also very high. In general these gems can be used as social status markers and are seen as nothing other than beautiful (expensive) adornments that have little value other than in their beauty.

But that wasn't always the case. Marbode of Rennes describes the various properties of many jewels in De Lapidus. Each of these gems had special meanings and there are many images of fire and water related to them. A large number of the jewels were also thought to have powers such as alleviating anger or causing immediate conception. Here, jewels seem to have power over medicine and certain aspects of life.

Many of the images that Marbode assigns to the gems have religious overtones, which is not surprising considering how Christianity treats gems. They were thought to have a holiness and were often used in reliquaries or other such important items and descriptions of Heaven are filled with jewels. Genesis also describes the Garden of Eden having a river filled with jewels. Here, jewels are related to the Afterlife, to Heaven, and to Paradise.

Now let us take a look at how Tolkien describes the Silmarils:
"As three great jewels they were in form... Like the crystal of diamonds it appeared, and yet was more strong than adamant, so that no violence could mar it or break it within the Kingdom of Arda. Yet that crystal was to the Silmarils but as is the body to the Children of Ilúvatar: the house of its inner fire, that is within it and yet in all parts of it, and is its life. And the inner fire of the Silmarils Fëanor made of the blended light of the Trees of Valinor.. Therefore even in the darkness of the deepest treasury the Silmarils of their own radiance shone like the stars of Varda; and yet, as were they indeed living things, they rejoiced in the light and received it and gave it back in hues more marvelous than before... And Varda hallowed the Silmarils, so that thereafter no mortal flesh, nor hands unclean, nor anything of evil will might touch them, but it was scorched and withered."
There are many things happening in this passage. First, we have repeated imagery of fire. The jewels are described as having an 'inner fire' which is the light from the Two Trees. It's also worth remembering that their creator, Curufinwë was later given the name Fëanor because it means 'Spirit of Fire.' Fire is also the metaphor used to describe life, knowledge, and power in the Silmarillion - most notably represented as the Imperishable Flame of Ilúvatar that becomes the sort of lifeforce of his Children.

Next, we have many holy overtones. We can draw this directly from the fire imagery and how it's related to Ilúvatar's Fire and the line that the "crystal was to the Silmarils but as is the body to the Children of Ilúvatar: the house of its inner fire." But the other notable line comes at the end of the quoted passage where it says that Varda hallowed the Silmarils. Not only do they have qualities of holiness due to their relation to Ilúvatar's creations, Varda herself gives them official status and makes them Holy with a capital H. From this point on they are able to burn anything unpure that touches them and we see this in action many times such as when Morgoth steals them and when the final two sons of Fëanor steal away the gems. They have a power, even a life, of their own.

There are a couple points that allude to the Silmarils having life. First, again, is the comparison to the bodies of the living Children of Ilúvatar. Second is their ability to burn the unholy and to put forth light even greater than what is given to them. There is even a line that describes them by saying "as were they indeed living things." But we can trace this 'life' even a bit further back to their source - the Two Trees.

The Silmarils gain their fire / life from the Two Trees of Valinor. If we go back to Tolkien's description of them, we can see that he lavishes detail upon them and treats them not just as living trees, but as actual characters. Indeed he gives much more description on them than he does for many of the human / elf characters later on. Here's the original passage from the Silmarillion:
"Of all things which Yavnna made they have most renown, and about their fate all the tales of the Elder Days are woven. The one had leaves of dark green that beneath were as shining silver, and from each of his countless flowers a dew of silver light was ever falling, and the arth beneath was dappled with the shadows of his fluttering leaves. The other bore leaves of a young green like the new-opened beech; their edges were of glittering gold. Flowers swung upon her branches in clusters of yellow flame, formed each to a glowing horn that spilled a golden rain upon the ground; and from the blossom of that tree there came forth warmth and a great light. Telperion the one was called in Valinor, and Silpion, and Ninquelótë, and many other names; but Laurelin the other was, and Mlinalda, and Culúrien, and many names in song beside."
We see many elements repeated from our discussion on the Silmarils (fire and water imagery, they were grown from a mound which is hallowed) but there is a remarkable amount of life imagery here as well. Tolkien personifies the Trees to an incredible extent - he gives each of them a gender and multiple names, which is something he tends to reserve for the more important characters in his mythology. We can see the personification pushed even further after the Trees are killed (a passage which also gives a great deal of personification; it reads like two people are being murdered rather than two trees being killed) and Maia are assigned to watch after the Sun and Moon. Their caretakers have personalities that seem to resonate greatly with the original description of the trees (the Maia who takes care of the Sun is fiery and golden and frightens even Morgoth). The Trees have a life far beyond what is normally assigned to plants, and this life is at the center of the Silmarils.

So while we can look at gems today and see them as pretty rocks, the Silmarils in Tolkien's mythology are holy, powerful, and full of Life itself.

- V. Pressler


  1. Nice close reading of Tolkien's descriptions of the Silmarils and the Trees. Could you tie their life-bearing properties more closely to the descriptions of the gemstones in the other sources that we read? How like or unlike the gemstones in "Pearl," for example, are Tolkien's gems? RLFB

  2. I like the way that you describe the extraordinary properties of the gems here, and I'm particularly interested in your claim that gems, in a sense, are representative of life in Tolkien's work. I believe that this claim can be extended to gems in the primary world as well, even if they do not have the same supernatural properties as the Silmarils or other gems in Tolkien's works. I've always been fascinated with the reflective qualities of gems, and as you have described here, there is no shortage of life imagery in Tolkien's depictions of the Silmarils and other such gems. The connection between gems and spirituality is also interesting to me. As there are religious undertones in Tolkien's descriptions of the Silmarils, gems have been used in worship for hundreds of years as well back in our primary world. Additionally, gems and crystals have fascinated people with some believing that certain gems have the power to absorb and direct certain kinds of energy. I don't know if I buy that, but I certainly believe that gems fascinate humans so deeply for a reason, and perhaps that reason is that the light that they reflect reminds us of the effervescence of life in a figurative sense, whereas Tolkien's gems physically embody this quality.


  3. One of the questions raised by the importance of the Jewels is why Morgoth wants to steal them in the first place. Why does he want the Silmarils so badly, and it seems to connected to his desire in the Ainulindale to destroy whatever the Valar create. But part of his motivation seems to be, over time, not to destroy, but to mock. This may be due to the fact that he can't completely destroy, at first at least, the Elves. Therefore, he decides to pervert them, thus mocking the creation of Iluvatar. With the silmarils, which he could theoretically destroy by feeding them to Ungoliant, it seems like the perfect way to mock and "troll" the elves. He is drawn to things of great value and beauty, it seems, not to possess them because they are valuable but simply because they are precious to the things they hate
    -Harry O'Neil