Friday, May 12, 2017

Tolkien's Biblical Ties to Gemstones

In Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, jewels are holy in much the same way they were in Middle Ages, Christian Europe. There are three components to this holiness, which each build their importance upon the previous component. It is difficult to separate Tolkien’s mythology from the Christian mythology, and on these three components they are in agreement once again. Their first agreement is that gemstones are made of some special substance. The second agreement is that, despite their unique physical structure, jewels’ substance is nothing more than a shell. They have a life of their own which is the true source of their holiness. The third agreement is that the internal life which gems possess is rooted in the realm of God, and therefore indirectly rooted in God himself. This origin in paradise and God gives rise to the conception that jewels contain not just holy beauty and vitality, but wisdom as well. It is because of these three factors that jewels are unique among objects and are attributed a holy status.
            We can see the importance of jewels in the medieval artifacts and reliquaries, which are encrusted in precious stones. The significance of these jewels is more than just their monetary or status-conveying value. In the Bible, jewels are said to be made from “moisture and fire,” they are said to have a life of their own, and Eden is said to be filled with them. In the Silmarillion, we can see these three important elements in the Silmarils themselves. Although there are some subtle differences, which we will examine, the parallels with the biblical conception of gems are striking. Most basically, the physical form of jewels is important. Even if a physical gem is nothing more than a case for something more important inside, that casing must still be worthy and is therefore special in its own right. Tolkien starts his description of the Silmarils by stating, “As three great jewels they were in form. But not until the End… shall it be known of what substance they were made…” Even though the Silmarils are so much more important than their mere physical forms, those physical forms are mighty indeed. They cannot be marred or broken by any art in Arda, which makes further sense in the medieval Christianity in which Tolkien frames his work. Jewels were too hard to cut in the middle ages. No tools were great enough to shape them in the modern sense, so it is logical that these people would regard gems as virtually indestructible. This mighty physical form is only a vessel for an inner fire, a life which gems possess, which separates them from other mere stones.
            The significance of the substance from which gems are made, be it moisture and fire, or something else, is small compared the significance of their internal workings. Gems are alive. Tolkien continues his description of the Silmarils saying, “… Yet that crystal was to the Silmarils but as is the body to the Children of Illuvatar: the house of its inner fire, that is within it and yet in all parts of it, and is its life…” The life of gems comes from God, in a similar way to the life of God’s children (although, obviously lesser, as nothing could be as close to God as his children). The life which jewels possess is holy in itself because that life is of God, but jewels are special for another reason as well. They are remnants of Eden itself (or in Tolkien’s case, of Valinor).
            Part of jewels’ beauty is that they come directly from paradise, and are therefore a sort of window into the past, in which a mortal can glimpse the hallowed existence which once was.
In the Bible, this is shown through the description of paradise, that jewels lie in every river, and the grass is of pearls. Additionally, Adam was once arrayed with gems before his fall, which further reinforces jewels’ role as paradisiacal remnants. In the Bible, God rebuffs Adam saying, “You were the seal of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone adorned you.” This passage not only shows jewels’ origin in paradise, but also shows their final import: jewels are vessels of holy wisdom. Tolkien mirrors this by saying of the Silmarils, “The Silmarils Feanor made of the blended light of the Trees of Valinor, which lives in them yet, though the Trees have long withered and shine no more…” He shows that the jewels in his own mythology are also remnants of a paradise lost. Finally, the holiness of gems has a real impact on the world in both the Christian and Tolkienian mythologies.
            The Bible claims that Satan hates jewels because they come from Eden and hold the light of God, which burns him. Tolkien’s gems are the same. The Silmarillion says, “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…” It cannot be overlooked that gems are passively holy in the Christian mythology, and are actively hallowed in Tolkien’s, but that fact has little impact on the end result. Perhaps Tolkien actively hallowed his gems because they were also actively manufactured by the children of Illuvatar, as opposed to the Christian mythology, in which gems are merely part of the world which God made. The final thought that I would leave you with as you read the blog posts that will be posted in the coming days regarding trees, is to keep the idea of monsters in your mind. Dragons covet jewels only, but spiders are often villains who occupy the forest. What is the reason for this difference? Are jewels regarded as nobler, and therefore their respective monster nobler as well? But I doubt that this can be the difference because the Silmarils in Tolkien’s mythology come out of the light of the Trees, and are therefore derivative not nobler. It will be interesting to discuss on Monday.
N. Reuter

1 comment:

  1. Not everything that we looked at from Christian mythology is in the Bible! The description of jewels as made from "fire and moisture" was Hildegard's, and the description of heaven that I read came from Tolkien's translation of "Pearl." It is true both Hildegard and the "Pearl" poet were drawing on scripture, but the details come from their interpretations, not the text of the Bible. That said, yes! A further way in which jewels participate in the holy in medieval Christianity, which I mentioned but perhaps did not make clear: the bodies of the saints in heaven become gemlike, thus the Pearl of the poem. That is, living gemstones in a city of gemstones. RLFB