Beleriand Light & Power: Or Musings on the Silmarils, Capital-L Light, and the Hoarding of Resources in The Silmarillion
[This post was written in response to a conversation on Tumblr, when I realized that after a decade of thinking about and researching this issue, I had never committed my ideas to any public space. It is crossposted to Tumblr here. Reactions in both places are welcome.]
“‘power’ is an ominous and sinister word in all these tales”
~Letter 131 to Milton Waldman
The idea that Light-with-a-capital-L–the Light that went into making first the Lamps, then the Trees, and was eventually collected into the Silmarils–was a created versus subcreated1 entity was suggested in Tolkien’s earliest works. In The Chaining of Melko, found in the Book of Lost Tales 1, Light is a primal entity, flowing freely available “about the airs”:
Light and beautiful is Valinor, but there is a deep twilight upon the world, for the Gods have gathered so much of that light that had before flowed about the airs. Seldom now falls the shimmering rain as it was used, and there reigns a gloom lit with pale streaks or shot with red where Melko spouts to heaven from a fire-torn hill.
BoLT1 is a very old text. The Chaining of Melko, according to Christopher’s commentary, was followed by a poem that JRRT composed in 1915. Much of BoLT1 was rejected when JRRT pared the Silmarillion story down to the bone with the “Sketch of the Mythology” and rebuilt it from there into the Silmarillion, so this passage is not in and of itself strong evidence. (Nor is it entirely clear that Light is created by Eru versus subcreated by the Ainur.) However, in conjunction with later texts, it is interesting, I think, in its suggestion that Light was primal, not brought into being by the Valar with the building of the Lamps.
Those later texts are much later, appearing in the Myths Transformed section of Morgoth’s Ring, and make explicit the idea of Light as a created entity. These texts were written after the publication of LotR and contain some of JRRT’s last works on The Silmarillion. MT contains some radical reimaginings of The Silmarillion–the revision of the flat-world mythology chief among them–but this particular excerpt dovetails easily with contemporaneous texts used to construct the published Silmarillion:
As a shadow Melkor did not then conceive himself. For in his beginning he loved and desired light, and the form that he took was exceedingly bright; and he said in his heart: ‘On sch brightness as I am the Children shall hardly endure to look; therefore to know of aught else or beyond or even to strain their small minds to conceive of it would not be for their good.’ But the lesser brightness that stands before the greater becomes a darkness. And Melkor was jealous, therefore, of all other brightnesses, and wish to take all light unto himself. Therefore Ilúvatar, at the entering in of the Valar into Eä, added a theme to the Great Song which was not in it at the first Singing, and he called one of the Ainur to him. Now this that Spirit which afterwards became Varda (and taking female form became the spouse of Manwë). To Varda Ilúvatar said: ‘I will give unto thee a parting gift. Thou shalt take into Eä a light that is holy, coming new from Me, unsullied by the thought and lust of Melkor, and with thee it shall enter into Eä, and be in Eä, but not of Eä.’ Wherefore Varda is the most holy and revered of all the Valar, and those that name the light of Varda name the love of Eä that Eru has, and they are afraid, less only to name the One. Nonetheless this gift of Ilúvatar to the Valar has its own peril, as have all his free gifts: which is in the end no more than to say that they play a part in the Great Tale so that it may be complete; for without peril they would be without power, and the giving would be void. (Myths Transformed, “Text II,” emphasis mine)
In this version of the story, which attempts to deal with what JRRT came to see as problems in the original version, Varda uses some of the Light she is given to kindle the Sun, “that it should give light all that Realm, unceasingly and without wearying or diminution” (”Text II”). However, taken together with the earlier BoLT version, in which the Valar find a world in which Light “flowed about the airs,” it has always seemed to me that JRRT visualized this Light not as something of the Valar but from beyond them, clarified in Myths Transformed as from Eru himself.
As noted above, other texts used to construct the published Silmarillion contain language that suggests this was not a new idea in Myths Transformed. In “Of the Beginning of Days,” “Varda filled the lamps” that Aulë had built, implying that Light was put into her keeping in accordance with JRRT’s elucidation in MT. Furthermore, this portion of The Silmarillion comes from Ainulindalë Version D (found in Morgoth’s Ring, §31), which is dated2 to around 1951, after Tolkien began playing around with radical changes to his cosmogony, although before the date Christopher gives for Myths Transformed. (See the introductory material to the Ainulindalë in Morgoth’s Ring for a fuller explanation of this.) Dating the Silmarillion material is ridiculously complex, but as will be seen, JRRT was working on major revisions to the Silmarillion throughout much of the 1950s. It is impossible to date which idea came first, second, and so on, but the connections between the different texts at this time is nonetheless interesting and suggest that he had these ideas in mind as he was putting various revisions onto paper.
Also interesting in this passage from “Of the Beginning of Days” in the published Silmarillion:
… the light of the Lamps of the Valar flowed out over the Earth, so that all was lit as it were in a changeless day.
This will be more relevant later, but it shows that, even without the light flowing upon the air, light was originally available to all of Arda. Melkor’s destruction of the Lamps ended that; the decision of the Valar to invest their energies in the Pelóri and the Two Trees allowed that deprivation to continue to thousands of years more (until, ironically, another destructive act by Melkor resulted in a sort of corrective in forcing the construction of the Sun and Moon).
After the destruction of the Lamps, in the published Silmarillion, “the Valar gathered great store of light …” (”Of the Beginning of Days”). This section of the text comes from the Annals of Aman, also printed in Morgoth’s Ring, which Christopher Tolkien dates to 1958 (introduction to the Annals of Aman). The early idea of the Ainur “gathering” and storing light is here, and by now, Tolkien was almost definitely also working on the ideas that would be published as part of Myths Transformed.
In The Book of Lost Tales 1, the watering of the Trees with Light collected from the fallen Lamps is explicit (”watered [the mound] with great streams of that golden light that Ulmo had brought from the spilled lakes,” The Coming of the Valar). One could, of course, argue that JRRT abandoned that idea and intended for Yavanna to subcreate both the Trees and their Light anew and that the light recovered from the Lamps did not aid her endeavor. At the risk that my finding appeal in the idea of continuity of Light–primal Light to Lamps to Trees to Silmarils to Sun and Moon to the rekindling of the Trees in Arda Healed–is clouding my judgment on this question, I think this connection between the Lamps and Trees explicitly written in BoLT1 but lost in the reduction of the text in the writing of the Silmarillion is nonetheless essential, especially in light (sorry) of JRRT’s later writings about Light existing as a gift from Eru rather than as a subcreated entity.
I have now spent a lot of words showing, I hope, that a number of different sources suggest the idea of Light as something primal and creative (versus subcreative) was present through JRRT’s work on the legendarium, even if it is not directly stated in the published Silmarillion.
This presents intriguing implications. As a creation of Eru, Light is not something possessed (or possessable) by anyone on Arda, including the Valar. Yet we see increasing efforts in The Silmarillion to contain that Light into vessels that make it available to ever smaller groups of people, leaving growing populations deprived. Throughout JRRT’s various drafts of The Silmarillion, it is gathered into cauldrons, the Lamps, the Two Trees, the Sun and Moon, and of course the Silmarils. In the published Silmarillion, those vessels make it ever more contained. The Lamps light the world; the Trees do not. By the time that error is remedied with the Sun and Moon, most of that Light has been lost to Ungoliant.
The Silmarils themselves represent something of a remedy of the situation by making portable the vessel containing that Light; it can be brought into the places of the world left shadowed by the consolidation of Light not only into a single realm but behind the Pelóri, which allow only a small amount to escape. I think it is significant that the Light is reclaimed by one of the children of Eru. It is a return of power to the people.
Because Light is power in this scenario. For one, it is a basic need, and withholding it is akin to withholding food or water: guaranteed to stunt the potential and progress of any left without it, especially a creative people like the Elves. Furthermore, in giving Light as a gift to Varda, as something unsullied by Melkor, with the instruction that that Light should “be in Eä,” there seems to be an obligation that that Light should be available and protective of all of the Children, not just those with the greatest power to consolidate and keep it. In limiting Light to Valinor, the Valar are abusing their power. They are also making a statement with that power: After the humiliation of the destruction of the Lamps, their repurposing that Light into the Two Trees, behind the Pelóri, is both a statement to Melkor of their ability to hold such a power and a possessiveness that, in withholding Light from Melkor, also withholds it from much of the world–and the part of the world, I should add, most vulnerable to harm from Melkor. They seem to miss that point. It really shouldn’t come as a surprise when those who hold that Light in the form of the Silmarils after tend to react with possessiveness. It is a desire for the benefits of that power and a fear that to share it might result in it being taken away.
In making the Silmarils, Fëanor offered a reminder that the Light was not subject to the mastery of the Valar alone. As an Eruhín, that Light was a gift intended for him as well. As I noted above, the Silmarils could have been a return of power to the people. Had Fëanor returned pre-Darkening to Valinor with his Silmarils in tow, for example, he could have offered protection and progress to the people the Valar had forsaken. But this isn’t how the story unfolds. Melkor destroys the Trees, Ungoliant devours most of their Light, and the Silmarils become the only means of restoring that Light to the people of Arda, triggering terror in Fëanor that he is about to be mortally robbed of his power (“’if I must break them, I shall break my heart, and I shall be slain’” The Silmarillion, “Of the Flight of the Noldor”). But the Silmarils can be viewed another way too: They consolidate Light small enough to be possessed by one person. The represent a gift intended to “be in Eä” to its smallest reduction. At that point, that Light has also been reduced to the point where it can be stolen.
The concept the Light in the legendarium represents an ultimate form of power: an entity created by Eru and free of Melkor’s contamination. Over and over again in the published Silmarillion, we hear how places allowed greatest access to that light thrive. How do people react to that power? From the great to the small, the story shows that people who get their hands on power tend to hoard it. They are more interested in how it will enrich themselves than how it could benefit the world. After bringing the Elves willing to obey them to Valinor, most of the Valar are content to forget about those left behind, robbed of light and vulnerable, in that darkness, to the ravages of Melkor. Furthermore, Light is a finite resource on Arda the way it is not in our world, but it can easily stand for the hoarding of resources in our world too, or what I call the Baltimore effect: people in hip, gentrified neighbors squat like a series of Smaugs upon seven-plus figures in wealth while, mere blocks away, children live in boarded-up, roach-infested houses and share Cups-o-Noodles for supper. And no one thinks to question the former group; they have, after all, “earned it”; they are, after all, “deserving.” (@angelica-ramses?’ essay on the othering of the “Moriquendi” seems relevant to mention here.) And as they alleviate their tax burden share their wealth by becoming patrons of the arts, they rarely seem to give thought if concentrating beauty upon the already privileged while others live in squalor in fact honors beauty in any meaningful way.
There’s also the sense of fear in possessing something finite: that it might be lost utterly if it is shared.
Even listening to the ever-ongoing fandom arguments about the Silmarils reveal this. So much of the debate of the Silmarils concerns who “deserves” or has the right to them. The Valar? The Fëanorians? Lúthien, Beren, and their descendants? In thirteen years of regularly reading meta on The Silmarillion, I have heard all manner of arguments for these cases, from basic appeals to emotion and logic to the citing of Anglo-Saxon law. It is perhaps telling that I’ve yet to hear someone make the case that no one deserves to possess them, that consolidating and possessing that Light, that gift to everyone from Eru himself, a gift given to “be in Eä,” was the original error.
1. The concept of subcreation comes from Tolkien’s essay On Fairy-stories. In essence, Tolkien–being a Catholic–believed that the only creation could come from God and that all other efforts were what he termed subcreation: being ourselves (in his belief) creations of God, “we make still by the law in which we’re made,” creating art and story in imitation of God (“On Fairy-stories,” p. 18 at the link above). In this meta, when I use the term “creation,” I use it with the sense that Tolkien meant: a creation of God or Eru.
2. I’m relying on Douglas Charles Kane’s Arda Reconstructed for sources and dates for texts in the published Silmarillion unless identified otherwise.