Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Burial of Light

In the hierarchy that we created last class, the first principle of being in Tolkien’s cosmos is light. Our schema emphasized the role of light as the source of life that is made incarnate throughout the Legendarium in living stones, living trees, and living creatures that altogether constitute a world that itself can be said to shine with a life of its own. As jewels, trees, and all living things incorporate light into themselves, they become objects of fascination and greatest importance for the characters in our adventures. This participation in light brought to my mind – as it should – Christian imagery, in particular the burial of Christ. The burial of Christ, in the following reflection, will serve to organize the life of stone, tree, and creature in both Christianity and Tolkien’s created world as Jesus’ death brings each to participate in His uncreated light.

Jewels were the first kind of embodied light that we discussed in class, yet the notion of living stone manifests really at the end of the Christ’s life. Admittedly, the trees in Valinor were created before the Silmarils were crafted, so there is a sense in which the trees might be described as primary, but if we look again to the hierarchy of being stone fell lower than natural plants, so we begin our consideration with jewels. These jewels – whether the Silmarils of Feanor, the stones of a reliquary, or the jewelry of countless other characters – serve to reflect and in their own way “sub-create” forms and impressions of light. As such, understanding jewels as light inflectors continues the theme that has persisted in our discussions from the beginning of the quarter, that the highest form of participation in the transcendent is sub-creation. Now, linking this to its parallels in Christ’s burial, when we see that the Light of the world enters into stone then Christianity presents itself even more clearly as the theological basis of Tolkien’s utilization of jewels. There are at least two senses in which Christ is buried into stone – a more literal sense, and an allegorical one. Firstly, Scripture recounts the placement of Jesus’s body in the unused tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a crypt of stone to which Christians still make pilgrimage. Two millennia after the event, the stone that held the Light of God is a unifying and ordering feature for all Christians. The second, more allegorical, sense in which Christ, the Light, enters stone is as He takes on the Church as His body. In 1 Peter, the Christian Scriptures describe the Church as “living stones”, and extra-Biblical texts such as the Shepherd of Hermas reinforce the conviction that seeing Christ in the Church is the same as seeing the Light of Christ in stone made alive by His indwelling. Here, then, are two senses in which stone is vivified by Christ, and with this in mind Tolkien’s light-filled jewels are all the more deeply appreciated.

While our discussion around trees focused on the relationship between nature and civilization – especially when there exists an order to nature itself – I want to draw attention to the ways that living trees play off of Christian themes. In John’s Gospel, Jesus describes Himself as a vine – a living tree. When the Scriptures describe Christ as “emptying Himself” to take a place among humanity, this burial of his divinity into the imagery of a vineyard strengthens the case that Christ is buried into nature through the Incarnation. We also explicitly brought up the Tree in the Book of Revelation, which is understood as the source of life in the Kingdom of God. This Tree of Life is only available through a redemption purchased by Christ’s hanging on the Cross. The Cross itself, as we read in the Dream of the Rood, is a tree from nature by which the Light of the World is buried into darkness. These and the many other connections between Christ’s burial and His life imagined in nature should heighten our awareness of Christ’s incarnation as it is “given flesh” by Tolkien.

Lastly, Christ is “buried” into living creatures, and in this way the light in Tolkien’s men and elves is explicitly an inflection of Christianity. As I already referenced, “emptying” Himself of His place in the heavens, Christianity asserts that Jesus gave Himself up in the incarnation – that in becoming a creature, He accepted death. Quoting from John again, “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world,” and this entrance into the world is realized when the true light took on flesh. Jesus’ burial into humanity is the theological root of Tolkien’s constant refrain that creatures participate in the light that is the life of Ea. When Frodo bears the light of Earendil, for example, and carries it by his breast, we readers should appreciate the way that these gestures refer back to the Christian story of light entering the hearts of men.

One question that was left lingering by the conclusion of our conversation was the way that monsters might factor into this scheme. Or, for that matter, trees that do not reflect light – the trees of Mirkwood, for example. One explanation is that such beings exist – foends, and dragons, and trolls and all – as a further testimony to Tolkien’s insistence on the freedom of created things. Although all one must do to be full of light is reflect it, there is the option to say no the light and not allow it to shine. This might present a further challenge, on account of the fact that no orc decided to be an orc nor troll a troll, but these puzzles were for Tolkien to work out even as we can yet appreciate the penetrating use of Christ’s burial into the world as the basis for the beauty of these stories.


  1. Lovely reflection of the Scriptural parallels to Tolkien's light, stone, and tree imagery. A few more: in the Heavenly Jerusalem, the Christ-Lamb is the source of Light, the city as giant gemstone filled with the Light of the Lamb. And in the psalms, the psalmist regularly calls out, "Let your face shine upon us!" It is this light with which the faces of the saints shine, when they gaze on the Lamb and reflect the light, but are also filled with the light into which they have been transformed, as Paul says they will be. RLFB