J. R. R. Tolkien created myths that strike with their beauty and depth. Aiming to make them the stories that could be believed in and that looked natural in his created world Tolkien surpassed most fantasy writers. The myth concerning the creation of Arda is among the most beautiful in the whole Legendarium.
Instructed and taught by Eru Ilúvatar Ainur performed the Great Music and thus brought the world to life. However, Arda still had to be worked on. With that a group of Ainur descended into the world to make it the place they had seen in the vision following their Music, and thus they became known as the Valar – the Powers of the World.
One of the primary tasks for the Valar to deal with was illumination of the new domain. First the need of light arose out of necessity for the seeds planted by Yavanna to grow:
Aulë at the prayer of Yavanna wrought two mighty lamps for the lighting of the Middle-earth which he had built amid the encircling seas. Then Varda filled the lamps and Manwë hallowed them, and the Valar set them upon high pillars, more lofty far than are any mountains of the later days. One lamp they raised near to the north of Middle-earth, and it was named Illuin; and the other was raised in the south, and it was named Ormal; and 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.
(Silmarillion, p. 27)
As the names suggest the light of Illuin was bluish and the light of Ormal – golden. The Lamps became the earliest precursors of the Sun and Moon which were to appear much later. While there still were places where the light did not reach, like far North where the light of Illuin was dim and Melkor built his fortress Utumno, the illumination was constant and it was always broad daylight. Unsurprisingly, Yavanna’s seeds started to grow swiftly and the face of Middle-earth changed significantly: there appeared plants, forests and animals came to live among the trees.
In her book «Splintered Light» Verlyn Flieger compares this first light with enlightenment. The Lamps both – gave physical light as opposed to the darkness and facilitated the development of new life. Just as the light, the enlightenment was ever present and available for anyone who might desire it (1).
The first light was physical in the proper sense of the word. It presented a tangible, liquid substance which spilled on the Lamps’ destruction. As Melkor cast them down, their light damaged the lands. Thus the light of the Lamps was not only tangible, but also dangerous, destructive and scorching. It was very bright, like unshielded flame, and something as fearsome as it was vital.
The second source of light the Valar created was with a very limited scope of illumination. After they withdrew into Aman Yavanna sang to life the Two Trees of Valinor:
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 earth 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 Malinalda, and Culúrien, and many names in song beside.
(SIilmarillion, p. 31)
There were similarities as well as differences between the Lamps and the Trees. The differences were great and stemmed from the nature of the illumination sources. The Lamps were filled with the substance made by Varda, so they were chiefly of astral origin. As opposed to the fierce light of the Lamps, the Two Trees were the offsprings of the natural world and thus more delicate than their fierce predecessors. The glowing light coming from the Trees was softer and cast only in Valinor while Middle-earth lay in shadows. It was the trees that started measuring time, as belonging to the natural world they had their cycles of waning and waxing.
The similarities between the two luminaries are much scarcer. Just like with the Lamps the Trees’ light was tangible and liquid – a gentle, refreshing, glowing dew which «Varda hoarded in great vats like shining lakes, that were to all the land of the Valar as wells of water and of light» (Silmarillion, p. 32). There was also no darkness in Valinor except for the hour when the lights of the Trees mingled to produce beautiful gentle illumination.
The Trees also signified enlightenment but of a different sort. It had to be sought after and was not for everyone (2). Those Elves who wished to travelled to Valinor from Middle-earth and had a long way to go before they could come to that enlightenment. Being taught by and always in the company of the Valar, the Elves prospered and gained new knowledge in Valinor. Later in Middle-earth those Elves who had seen the light of the Two Trees – and thus had been to Valinor – were deemed wiser and more knowledgeable than those who had not.
When the Trees were destroyed by Melkor their deaths brought physical as well as spiritual darkness. On the one hand their destruction caused the elimination of physical light in Valinor. But on the other hand it was a serious blow to the sense of safety and confidence that the Blessed Realm embodied. Everyone was dismayed and downcast, the sense of vulnerability filled the air and that dark moment was the hour when Fëanor rebelled and left Valinor worsening the situation even further: the loss of the Trees’ light caused temporary chaos.
With the deaths of the Trees the Valar made the final source of illumination for the world. With the light of the Trees remaining in the Silmarils alone, new celestial bodies came from the sullied light which was different from the unearthly glow of the Two Trees (3) and were more like a copy of the original light. At first the new light was constant just like its predecessors but at the prayer of Lórien and Estë «Varda changed her counsel, and allowed a time wherein the world should still have shadow and half-light» (Silmarillion, p. 111).
It is interesting how the Valar combined their powers when creating the Sun and the Moon. The Lamps were made by Aulë, Varda and Manwë, the Trees were created by Yavanna and Nienna and all of these five Valar contributed to making the Sun and Moon. This joint effort resulted in the best qualities of the Lamps and the Trees coming to life in the Sun and Moon. These luminaries had a wide scope of illumination and their light covered the whole Arda with radiance – the scorching light of the Lamps softened by the delicate light of the Trees.
While the Moon was the celestial body associated with Elves, the Sun marked the awakening of Men. For the Younger Children of Ilúvatar the Sun, which first rose from the West, became a guiding light and in was westwards that the Men’s feet were bound. They followed the light, thus coming to their enlightenment when they met Elves and learnt from them.
It was the design of the Valar to send such bright light to Arda in order to help Men on their awakening. Another reason was Melkor:
…and they resolved now to illumine Middle-earth and with light to hinder the deeds of Melkor.
(Silmarillion, p. 109)
Unsurprisingly Melkor was not happy with the new light and tried to attack the Moon, but was defeated. With that he hid himself in the darkness of his fortress to avoid the light altogether. It is interesting how in his attempts to spite the Valar Melkor always chose light as his primal target for destruction. He did not try to ruin their dwellings or possessions, but the unique works of their hands some of which could not be remade and meaning much more that could be perceived at a first glance. Being dark himself, Melkor tried to get rid of the illumination that could cast light on his bad deeds and hinder his evil in Middle-earth. Besides with the light meaning much more than just physical illumination, but also standing for spirituality, his destroying the sources of light also meant severe blows to the morale and spirits of the Valar and later – the Elves who dwelt in Valinor.
The meaning of light in Tolkien’s works is hard to overestimate. It represents both – illumination and enlightenment. Being of physical as well as of spiritual importance, the ever-evolving light is a good example of both – how the illumination in Arda changed and also how the knowledge and the skills of the Valar improved with time.
(1) Verlyn Flieger – Splintered Light: Tolkien’s World, Revised Edition.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
- Verlyn Flieger – Splintered Light: Tolkien’s World, Revised Edition; The Kent State University Press; 2002 (Kindle Edition)
Featured image – Creative Common Licence found at Pixabay.