The legendarium created by J.R.R. Tolkien is one of, if not, the most daunting fantasy world in history. Amidst a realm of elves, dwarves, dark lords, heavenly spirits, giant eagles, and walking trees are a number of marvelous works of craftsmanship, some of which greatly influenced the history of Tolkien’s epic fantasy. Most readers are only familiar with The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, with few other aware of The Silmarillion, yet the depth of Tolkien’s mythopoeia is vast. Not only does it include all previously mentioned works, but also the twelve volume Histories of Middle-Earth, which details Professor Tolkien’s creative process in some of the early drafts of The Silmarillion, The Lord of the Rings, and other relative works.
As a devout catholic, Tolkien understood the significance of sacred relics and the hallowed ground from which miracles took place. In addition, he was a linguist and literary scholar, analyzing modes of storytelling through language and history. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Tolkien would incorporate these devices into his epic fantasy. With that said, we are going to briefly examine the natures and histories of the most impactful artifacts of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth mythology. In doing so, I hope to entice many of you to begin or resume your deep dive into the world of J.R.R. Tolkien’s magnum opus.
The Two Lamps of Arda
“And since, when the fires were subdued or buried beneath the primeval hills, there was need of light, Aulë at the prayer of Yavanna wrought two mighty lamps for the lighting of Middle-Earth which he had built amid the encircling sea.” (Of the Beginning of Days, The Silmarillion)
Following the creation of the world, divine-beings known as the Valar gathered the veiling luminescence of Arda (the world) and created two great lamps. Named Illuim (“sky-blue”) and Ormal (“high-gold”), each Lamp was placed atop a tower at the northern and southern ends of the primeval world by Aulë the Smith. The Queen of the Valar, Varda, filled them with light as Manwë, her husband and king, hallowed them. The Two Lamps became the first sources of light in Arda. Thus, this period was known as the “Years of the Lamps”.
The hateful Melkor, however, disrupted the order of the world with a great catastrophe. He toppled the Two Lamps and, along with the ensuing war between him and the other Valar, utterly changed the world forever. As the destruction of the lamps scorched the world, whole continents were broken apart and land masses torn asunder, creating two inland seas. Cuiviénen, the shore from which the First Children of Ilúvatar (Elves) would awoken, was created at this time. Yet the original island home of the Valar, Almaren, was completely destroyed, forcing them to build their new home on a far island to the west (Valinor).
The destruction of Arda and its evil corruption by Melkor is known to the Elves as Arda Marred.
Arda Marred refers to the flawed, corrupted world created by Melkor’s arrival and influence. Its opposite, Arda Unmarred, refers to the perfect world produced by Eru Ilúvatar (God) during the creation of the universe (the Music of the Ainur).
The Two Trees of Valinor
“And as they watched, upon the mound there came forth two slender shoots; and silence was over all the world in that hour, nor was there any other sound save the chanting of Yavanna.” (Of the Beginning of Days, The Silmarillion)
With the destruction of the Two Lamps, the world was once-again made dim and the Valar scrambled to restore the light. As Nienna the Weeper water the soil with her tears, Yavanna the Gardener sang into existence two trees that sat atop a hill in Valinor–Telperion the Silver and Laurelin the Gold. The silver dew from Telperion became a source of water and of light in Arda, while Varda collected the golden dew from Laurelin and created the stars. Thus began the “Years of the Two Trees”.
Soon, the First Children of Ilúvatar awakened. With great eagerness, the Valar brought three ambassadors of the Elves from Cuiviénen to Valinor so that they might be convinced to live amongst them. The sight of the Two Trees had a profound effect on the ambassadors, who then returned to their kindred with the choice of leaving or remaining in Middle-Earth. Many Elves chose to leave the shores of Cuiviénen and live among the light of the Two Trees; others refused the call or were unable to complete their journey westward. This led to a fundamental distinction between the Elves: the Calaquendi (Elves of Light) were those who saw the light of the Trees; the Moriquendi (Elves of Darkness) were those who remained in Middle-Earth and never witness the light of the Trees. As the Calaquendi became exposed to the Light of Valinor through the Two Trees, they became far more superior to the Moriquendi in all manner of skill and knowledge.
There are many different divisions of Elves in Tolkien’s legendarium. The original clans of Cuiviénen were the Vanyar, the Noldor, and the Teleri. The Elves that refused to make the Great Journey were known as the Avari (“the Unwilling”). There were Elves of the Teleri that began their journey west, but were either left behind by their kindred or instead chose to turn southward and ignore the Valar. These groups became the Sindar (or Eglath “the Forsaken”) and the Nandor (“those who turn back”). The Sindar are also sometimes referred to as the “Elves of Twilight” as their King Thingol was among the ambassadors at Valinor.
Unbeknownst to everyone, Melkor, who was being kept under watch in Valinor following the First War, began sowing dissension amongst the Elves. He spread lies about the jealousy of the Valar and cryptic rumors concerning the Second Children of Ilúvatar (Men), leading many to question the powers of Valinor. Seething with hatred for the Elves and jealousy over Arda, Melkor allied himself with the Maiar-arachnomorph Ungoliant, who consumed light, to kill the Two Trees and destroy the peace of Valinor. The destruction of the Two Trees by Ungoliant and Melkor led to the Darkening of Valinor, an event which once again blacked the world. Yavanna and Nienna attempted to revive the Trees, but only one flower from Telperion and one fruit from Laurelin were salvaged.
The Maiar are an order of divine spirits (lesser Ainur) typically under the authority of the Valar (greater Ainur). Like the Valar, the Maiar can produce for themselves a physical form with which to interact with the world of Arda. Other Maiar include Melian, Sauron, the Balrogs, and the Istari (Wizards).
The silver flower and fiery fruit were later remade as the Moon and Sun of Arda, leading to the start of the First Age.
The Three Silmarils
“He stood now most often at the prow of Vingilot, and the Silmaril was bound upon his brow; and ever its light grew greater as they drew into the West.” (Of the Voyage of Eärendil and the War of Wrath, The Silmarillion)
The Silmarils were the most precious, most magnificent, and most hallowed jewels in all of Arda. They were crafted by Fëanor, the greatest of all the Elves, during the time of the Two Trees. It is believed that Fëanor was inspired to create the Silmarils after seeing the Light of Valinor caught in the hair of his niece Galadriel, which shone gold and silver. Thus, in their crafting, he managed to capture the Light within three gemstones. Varda hallowed them so that no mortal of evil intention or malicious force could hold them without being burned.
While the inhabitants of Valinor admired the Silmarils, Melkor lusted for them greatly and sought to disrupt the relationship between Fëanor and the Valar. Fëanor, growing increasingly jealous of the Silmarils, stored them from the world; but when Melkor and Ungoliant destroyed the Two Trees, it was only within the three jewels that the Light of Valinor remained. The Valar pleaded with Fëanor to allow the Silmarils to be destroyed in order to restore the Two Trees, but he refused, seeing their plight as signs of betrayal. Soon it was revealed that Melkor also raided Fëanor’s treasury and, having stolen the Silmarils, escaped to his fortress in Middle-Earth. Despite becoming afflicted with an incurable burn during the theft of the Silmarils, Melkor affixed them onto his iron crown. Fëanor, in wrath and hatred towards Melkor, cursed him with the name Morgoth and, along with his sons, swore a terrible oath to reclaim the Silmarils and throw down his enemy.
The Oath of Fëanor was an irrevocable swear, made in the name of Eru Ilúvatar, by Fëanor and his seven sons to never rest until they have reclaimed the Three Silmarils using whatever means necessary, be it from friend or foe. It precedes the Doom of Mandos which prophesied the evil deeds and sad fate of the Noldorin Elves supporting Fëanor.
The creation and theft of the Silmarils would eventually lead to another cataclysm in Arda, particularly in the Middle-Earth region of Beleriand. Fëanor led a host of Noldorin Elves to the shores of Valinor, where they butchered the Teleri in order to steal their ships and sail to back to Middle-Earth. This event is known as the First Kinslaying of the Elves. Morgoth, however, had anticipated Fëanor’s arrival and, soon thereafter, launched an assault on the Noldorin encampment. In his haste to retrieve the Silmarils, Fëanor, after having resisted Melkor for so long, callously launched a counter-attack on his enemy which ended in his own death. His seven sons, however, remained bound to the Oath of Fëanor.
As the First Age of Middle-Earth continued on, it happened that a mortal named Beren sought the hand of Luthien, daughter of Thingol, King of the Sindar. In order to obtain Lúthien’s hand in marriage, Beren was tasked with retrieving one of the Silmarils from the iron crown of Morgoth, although Thingol believed him too inferior to succeed. With the help of Huon, the Hound of Valinor, and Lúthien herself, Beren was able to complete his journey and presented Thingol with one of the reclaimed Silmarils. The Silmaril was placed on the dwarven pendant Nauglamír, but its presence stirred wickedness in the hearts of the dwarves. Thingol’s kingdom of Doriath was sacked by the dwarves of Nogrod, but Nauglamír was recovered by Beren and worn by Lúthien. Nauglamír was then passed to Dior, the son of Beren and Lúthien. He ruled as King of Doriath until the Second Kinslaying, where he was killed and Doriath was assaulted by Fëanor’s sons. Elwing, Dior’s daughter, escaped the ruins of Doriath, made her way to the Havens of Sirion. There she married Eärendil the Mariner.
The Quest for the Silmaril is among the greatest adventures of the First Age, alongside the Voyages of Eärendil, the details of the Quest are found in the elvish epic The Lay of Leithian. The epic substantially exists in English within volume III of The Histories of Middle-Earth titled The Lays of Beleriand.
Eärendil built a ship called Vingilótë and began to sail the seas west of Middle-Earth, leaving Elwing in the Havens. Fëanor’s remaining sons, however, learned of Elwing’s escape and razed the Havens of Sirion (the Third Kinslaying) to find and reclaim the Silmaril first stolen by Beren. With the Silmaril, Elwing jumped into the sea to escape, but she was rescued by the Valar Ulmo. The Lord of the Waters gave her the form of a white bird and placed the Silmaril within her breast. She flew towards Vingilótë and was reunited with Eärendil, who, after hearing of the Havens, sought the help of Valinor to end the reign of Morgoth.
Thus began the War of Wrath between Morgoth’s forces and the host of the Valar.
Eärendil, bearing the Silmaril on his brow, fought in the War of Wrath, sailing the newly-blessed Vingilótë through the skies and defeating Ancalagon the Black [dragon] in single combat. When Morgoth was finally defeated, the whole region of Beleriand was devastated and sunk under the sea. The two Silmarils that remained in his iron crown were collected by the Valar, but were promptly stolen by the last of Fëanor’s sons, having seized the opportunity. Their wickedness, however, incited the Silmarils to reject and burn them. Maedhros could not bear the burning of the Silmaril and cast himself, gripping the jewel, into the fiery pits of Middle-Earth; Maglor, equally incapable of bearing the pain, threw the another Silmaril into the Sea. The third Silmaril remained upon the brow of Eärendil as he continues to sail the skies over Valinor until the end of days.
It is said that after the Final Battle of the world the three Silmarils will be restored from land, sea, and sky. Fëanor will return from the Halls of Mandos (the Afterlife) to break open his three jewels, use the Light within them to restore the Two Trees of Valinor, and, in so doing, bring about a new start to the world.
The Road Goes Ever On . . .