Friday, May 12, 2017

Gems vs. Gold

At the end of class, we established that gems often represent or contain wisdom, and that perhaps people fear dragons because they fear the wisdom they possess. But was one substance we didn’t entirely address that it inextricably bound up with gems and dragon hoards -- gold. In Tolkien’s work, it seems that gold has a separate meaning from that of gems, which in turn function beyond symbolizing wisdom.

As we discussed in class, gems not only reflect but seem to contain light. In the Lord of the Rings, many of them literally do. The Silmarils, for example, appear like crystal, but are made of light: “[T]he inner fire of the Silmarils Feanor made of the blended light of the trees of Valinor” (Silmarillion 67). The crystal phial Galadriel gives to Frodo contains the light of the star Earendil, which is one of the Silmarils, so it contains that same light. (The gem set in the ring Nenya, as well, appears to Sam as a “star through [her] fingers” (LotR book II, chapter 8). But in these cases, that light is more than light -- it’s life. “Therefore, even in the deepest 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 light and received it and gave it back in hues more marvelous than before,” Tolkien writes (Silmarillion 67). Blessed with divine light, these gems contain life itself. Even the gems which don’t expressly have origins in the divine are described with language that connects them to light and, by extension, to life. For instance, the Elfstone which Galadriel gifts to Aragorn “flashed like the sun shining through the leaves of spring” as she held it up (LotR book II, chapter 8). The light within the gem is associated nature and, with “leaves of spring,” new life.

The forest of Lothlorien itself, where these gems are given, was associated in class discussion with the gem-filled heaven of the poem “Pearl,” represents living things described in gem-like terms. The grass is “studded with small golden flowers shaped like stars,” among others, which “[glimmer] as a mist amid the rich hue of the grass” (LotR book II, chapter 6). The whole of Lothlorien shines like a star -- “A light was upon it for which [Frodo’s] language had no name” (LotR book II, chapter 6).
So gems are more than just shiny rocks or even representations of wisdom -- they’re light and life given crystalline form. That’s what dragons hoard -- wisdom, light and life.

But they hoard gold, too! Which, while inextricably linked to gems, seems to be capable of something else entirely.

In the examples we studied in LotR of gems and gold, gold also at first seems to be representative of light, life, and the divine. There’s Laurelin, one of the Trees of Valinor, which has leaves edged in gold and spills a “golden rain” onto the ground (Silmarillion Chapter One, p. 38). Arien carries that golden light and becomes the Sun, arising in “glory” over the world (Silmarillion chapter 11, p. 100). Like the tree Laurelin, the mallorn-trees in Lothlorien are “arrayed in pale gold” (LotR book II, chapter 6). Galadriel gives Boromir a gold belt, and Merry and Pippin silver belts with gold accents (LotR book II, chapter 8). And there’s Galadriel’s hair, which Gimli describes as “surpass[ing] the gold of the earth as the stars surpass the gems of the mine” (LotR book II, chapter 8). (Gimli then goes on to preserve the hairs Galadriel gives him in crystal, making her hair the divine light within a gem.)

From this, gold too would seem to have the same positive powers and connotations as gems. But all of these examples of gold have roots in the divine, or in living things (and in some cases, divine living things). What of ordinary gold? When Galadriel gives her hair to Gimli, she says, “‘These words shall go with the gift... your hands shall flow with gold, and yet over you gold shall have no dominion” (LotR, book II, chapter 8). On the one hand, she’s blessing Gimli, saying that he will wealthy but not greedy or beholden to that wealth. On the other, she’s implying that in gold, there’s a power separate from that of the divine -- one that controls you, rather than you controlling it. And if that's the power of ordinary gold, what about that of the One Ring?

The One Ring is the only one of the rings that doesn’t have a gem, as someone pointed out in class. This renders it universal; it has none of the particular associations that each gem tends to have. But this also means that it’s free of the divine light and goodness that seems to be present in gems. It’s just gold -- pure power, and pure greed for power, too.

Not all the rings of power were made of gold. Galadriel’s ring, at least, was made of mithril. And I’m not sure if silver, another commonly referenced precious metal in Lord of the Rings, has the same connotations as gold; in all aspects it seems to be lesser, and less threatening, than gold can be. Gems also aren’t above a corrupting influence – one only has to look at the palantiri for an example of that. But mostly, gems seem to be crystallized divinity, and a force for good, while gold, without that divine influence, seems only to be a force of corrupting power itself.

And since dragons hoard gold as well as gems, I wonder if there’s really something to fear there after all.

-Annie N.

1 comment:

  1. Gold bears thinking about! One of the things that I think I mentioned in class is the way in which the golden streets of the Heavenly Jerusalem are described: "clear as glass." I think there is something in gold's reflective properties as well as its incorruptibility that needs including here. (Silver did not used to tarnish as much as it does now, thanks to the impurities in the air from fossil fuels, so it had this quality as well.) Both the precious metals and the gemstones seem not to change over time, to be incorruptible, which is another reason for them to be associated with heaven. But the fact that the One Ring has no gemstone clearly makes the fact that it is gold significant. RLFB