In Review: Splintered Light

Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World by Verlyn Flieger is probably one of the best books of Tolkien analysis I have ever read. I highly recommend it. The problem with reviewing this book, therefore, is to narrow what I discuss, as otherwise I’d be retelling the entire book. My copy stands testament as practically half the pages are marked, annotated or highlighted.

Flieger’s primary focus traces the theme of light and dark and its fragmentation and dimunition through time in Tolkien’s Legendarium.  It is particularly engrossing with regards to Tolkien’s development of Quenya and Sindarin in conjunction with his mythology. Here, she describes the theory of Owen Barfield and the unity of myth and language, a philosophy espoused by him and Tolkien. To paraphrase Tolkien, Language is the disease of Mythology.

Flieger begins the book by discussing the nature of philological thought as it developed during the nineteenth and twentieth century. Her main focus is on Barfield and Tolkien and how they shifted the paradigm away from the theories of Max Müller, who claimed myth was a byproduct of semantic misapprehension. Words are applied to nature and grow into metaphor, rather than exhibiting the semantic unity and subsequent splintering of Barfield and Tolkien.

As an introduction to philological thought and mythology, Flieger’s book is an excellent starting point. She gives the basic premise of the theory, but enough tantalizing detail that I greatly look forward to the chance to read Barfield’s Poetic Diction.

Most of Flieger’s analysis focuses on the nature of Light and Dark in the Silmarllion and the extent to which the inhabitants of Arda are either of the light or of the dark.  In his use of Quenya and Sindarin, Tolkien demonstrates Barfield’s theory through example. He also demonstrates his own belief that language is the disease of mythology. In his languages and his legendarium language as we know it is wholly changed. What is metaphor is made fact, and what is many words may become one.

The most complete example is simply what the elves call themselves.  When awoken on the shores of Cuivienen, the elves first exclaim “ela!” behold! at the sight of the stars above,  irrevocably tying their tongue to perception of light. They name themselves Quendi: ‘those that speak with voices.’

From here they are split between the Calaquendi and the Moriquendi, the Light Speakers and the Dark Speakers, those who follow the Valar and those who remain in the darkness of Middle Earth. Not only do the names describe their relation to the light, ie. that of Valinor and the trees, but they also take on metaphoric meaning in “enlightenment and obfuscation.” The names tell a story, particularly when acknowledged that the second, the Moriquendi, is the name given to the Avari by the Calaquendi, therefore adding a layer of judgement. But in the literal sense the names are also true, as the first see the light, while the second refuse it.

Upon arrival in Valinor, the elves split again; and again their natures and names relate directly to their proximity and affinity for the Light. “They are the Vanyar (the Fair Elves), the Noldor (the Deep Elves), and the Teleri (the Lastcomers).” The Vanyar have golden hair and remain always in the Light. The Noldor are the wise, but they are only “wise in the sense of possessing knowledge, not in the sense of possessing sagacity, sound judgement” (Silmarillion 344). As with the Moriquendi, here again there is a sense of judgment in the name. And the Teleri, the last, are those who hesitate in the face of the Light and cannot fully embrace it. In each sense, Tolkien is referring to Light in all its conotations: physical light, goodness, enlightenment and knowledge. Through his use of Quenya and later Sindarin (which itself exhibits the same qualities of dimunition as it is the language of M. E. and removed from the light of Valinor), Tolkien expresses this experience of the encounter with the Light, particularly in the use of names.

Ultimately, it is a fascinating study of how Tolkien used his language in his mythology, not just to be tacked on as seasoning but to be a mythology of its own in parallel and supporting the narrative myth.

Verlyn Flieger makes an astute statement with regards to language and myth, which I will let speak for itself:

“To hear or speak a new language is to be, for the moment, in a new and strange world created by unfamiliar words expressing different perceptions and a different imaginative vision – in effect a Secondary World whose colors are refracted through the prism of language. We may say, then, that any world in which human beings live and speak is sub-created by their words and is thus a Secondary World. We can never experience directly what was spoken into being with the first Word-the Logos-only what humanity speaks and makes with splintered light. (95)”

In this we are subject to the fall; unable to fully experience the Light as much of our perception is also governed by our speech. However, in sub-creation, making by the law in which we are made, language may approach they unity it once held.

Splintered Light’s main focus is The Silmarillion; following the persistent metaphor of splintered light throughout the history of Middle Earth. Flieger ends the book, though, by applying the same theories to the decision of Frodo on Mount Doom.

According to Flieger, Frodo exemplifies the duality of light and dark as he journeys to Mordor. He travels “against the light for the light’s sake” by going into the darkness of both Mordor and within himself. His battle with the Ring and it’s power over him are largely internal, and thrive off the darkness already within. This all makes sense and lends itself to a deeper and nuanced understanding of the tale. However, I take issue with Flieger’s analysis of the final moments at the Cracks of Doom. She states:

“In a final, shattering reversal, Frodo’s defeat in Mordor, his utter surrender to the Ring, is transformed by Gollum, who here if ever must do what he most wants to do. He repossesses the Ring and falls into the Cracks of Doom. This inadvertent victory, however, does not lessen the bleakness of Frodo’s defeat. Here is no eucatastrophe, no consolation giving a glimpse of joy. What happens to Frodo is katastrophe, the downward turn in the action, when the hero is overcome. (152)”

I have to say I categorically reject this notion. I can understand it and the apparent logic behind it, but I do not think it takes other key factors into account. As I see it, Frodo’s final surrender to the power of the Ring is a moment of discatastrophe, as Flieger states. However, it is simultaneously a moment of great Joy. For in this moment, the Ring is wrested from him and destroyed, through apparent chance, the quintessential definition of eucatastrophe and the work of Grace. On a macro scale, this is the eucatastrophic moment of the tale, bringing about the victory for the peoples of the West. But as Flieger points out, at first glance it appears to be a moment of utter darkness for Frodo.

However, as seen in my previous post on eucatastrophe and discatastrophe, Frodo could never have succeed in the letter of the quest. And to take the Ring from him  would break his mind, a fact stated multiple times. But it is seen that in the destruction of the Ring, even though taken by force, Frodo is immediately at peace. The weight has been lifted and the darkness banished. This is not to say he is unchanged, but for Frodo to return to the Light the Ring had to be destroyed, and the only way for that to occur is through Frodo’s surrender to it. The true eucatastrophe and heroism of Frodo is not bound in this moment at the edge of the Cracks of Doom but along the entire journey to them. One thing I’ve noticed lately is that Frodo almost never refers to the quest in light of the Ring’s destruction, but almost always in terms of getting it to Mordor. This trend only becomes more obvious the closer they get to Orodruin. His heroic deed is the journey and the mercy he showed to others along the way.

As we cannot fully perceive the Light without the aid of Providence, Frodo cannot cast off the darkness within, strengthened and hardened by the Ring, without Providential aid. To say this moment is a catastrophe is too limited. Yes it is a failure of will on Frodo’s part, but it is not unexpected shackled to the Ring. Following the destruction of the Ring, Sam observes Frodo beside him, using these words,

“And there was Frodo, pale and worn, and yet himself again; and in his eyes there was peace now, neither strain of will, nor madness, nor any fear. His burden was taken away. There was the dear master of the sweet days in the Shire. (926)”

Frodo is not healed, nor can he ever be fully in Middle Earth, but he is spared madness and grief; he is made free of the darkness in his soul, and if this is not eucatastrophe, I do not know what is. For here, at the micro scale, the deepest darkness to which Frodo sank, without hope of return, has turned to light.

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3 thoughts on “In Review: Splintered Light

  1. Pingback: Finding Wandering Paths « The Grey Havens Group

  2. This is a great review, thank you so much. Flieger’s book had a major impact on me when I first read it and you have captured well the beautiful themes she explored. I particularly appreciated though the part in your review in which you disagreed with Flieger’s analysis, the moment of Frodo on Mount Doom. Like you I believe this is the great moment of eucatastrophe in Tolkien’s tale, not just for Middle-Earth but for Frodo as well. He has reached the nadir of his true descent into darkness and succeeds not through resistance but surrender, an utter transformation of the self by submitting to the alchemical process of transmutation, of transforming his darkest act into the act of most light. Your mention of chance in this moment is also significant; Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey points out that when chance is mentioned throughout the mythology, especially by Gandalf, it always appears like a subtle divine intervention, but with never too strong a hand to be a deus ex machina. Evil always bears its mark but the good has no need to proclaim its actions. 

    Thank you for your analysis, I look forward to exploring more of your work!

    • Becca, Thank you for the great comment. I love the way you’ve described the nature of Grace and Chance in Tolkien’s work.

      I think part of the issue with finding evidence of the Divine in Tolkien is due to a basic truism, which defines humanity: it is easy to notice misfortune and place blame, but the blessings in life, large or small, are ignored as a matter of course. We look for large a grandiose miracles, the flash of light, the “elven magic” and fail to realize the miracle in every breath we take. Tolkien takes this notion of the miraculous nature of life and the inner journey of the soul and makes it visible in a way no other fantasy author ever has.

      Welcome to WP. I hope to hear from you again…it seems I get some of my best ideas through comments!

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