Of Darkness and Light: A Tale of Two Streams

Days grow shorter and the Night longer. Darkness clouds the earth, trees are bare, and the wind bites with cruel cold. Yet the light of Hope is kindled today with the First Sunday of Advent. Today we begin to look with hope to Christmas, when true Light was made incarnate.

In the Bible and the liturgy we hear of the Light of Faith, and sometimes refer to Christ as the Light which will illumine the earth. In the burning bush, we see an incarnation of God, a flame of holy light which does not consume. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends as tongues of flame, enflaming hearts and minds to the work of God. The idea of light as a physical and sacred object is nothing new, inspiring many religions based solely on worship of the sun. For ages, fire was even considered one of five elements. This desire for and love of light is ingrained in what it means to be human, otherwise why would so many suffer from SADD?

It is little wonder, therefore, that Tolkien takes the logical mythical step of making of light a workable raw material. He also describes light in reverent ways, as a sacred gift created and given by Ilúvatar, who in the moment of Creation “[sends] forth into the Void the Flame Imperishable…[to be]…the heart of the World” (S 20). However, the point is more explicitly made in Tolkien’s early drafts, where  Ilúvatar adds only “the fire that giveth Life and Reality…the secret fire [which burns] at the heart of the world” (TBoLT 53). This account echoes the descriptions of the Holy Spirit found in Acts (2:3-4), Isaiah  (4:4), Matthew (3:11-12), Luke 3:16-17 and the First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians (5:19). In Acts, the Holy Spirit is also often referred to as a gift from God.

It can be argued (and has been) endlessly whether Tolkien’s Flame Imperishable (and by extension light) is the equivalent of the Holy Spirit, and what his intent may have been. I think here it is critical to remember Tolkien’s espousal of the theory of applicability. The symbolism speaks to the reader from their station in life, suggesting meanings from their own deepest held beliefs and desires. Ultimately, it may be definitively stated though, that in Tolkien’s legendarium, light is a material and somewhat sacred in nature; notions implicit in the final drafts, yet beautifully explicit in the early tales.

Evil, in Tolkien’s world, is most often associated with darkness or shadow. Sauron is often referred to rather vaguely as the “Shadow” or the “Shadow in the East.” How fitting a description this is, when light is viewed as a sacred element and the embodiment of goodness! A shadow is produced by obstructing or blocking a source of light. The shadow itself is nothing. It is simply a visual sense of the lack of light. Further thought demonstrates how this simple description reveals the nature of evil. It skirts the arguments of the Boethian or Manichean conception of evil, by taking elements of both. Evil works to prevent the transmission of light; whether by obstruction or distortion. It consists of anything which keeps us from goodness or twists goodness beyond nature to produce an evil result.

In the Silmarillion Tolkien creates an example of a more Manichean conception of evil in the creature Ungoliant. She “[hungers] for light…[sucking] up all the light she [can] find, and [spinning] it forth again in dark nets of strangling gloom” (S73). She consumes light and emits darkness as webs, which  themselves also devour the surrounding light.

After the confrontation at Lammoth, Ungoliant flees the Balrogs of Morgoth, coming to dwell in Nan Dungortheb beneath Ered Gorgoroth. She lives there for a time, mating and consuming other spiders, leaving “her offspring [to abide] there and [weave] their hideous webs” (S 81). In chapter 14 of The Silmarillion, it is said that the ravines of Nan Dungotheb are “[filled] with her deadly gloom” and “the thin waters that [spill] from Ered Gorgoroth [are] defiled, and perilous to drink, for the hearts of those that [taste] them [are] filled with shadows of madness and despair” (S 121). It is inferred here that Ungoliant’s offspring continue her lust for light and production of darkness. Her future scion, Shelob, does the same, where even the “radiance of the [Phial of Galadriel] [does] not pierce and [does] not illuminate, as if [the webs are] a shadow being cast by no light” (LotR 706).

The streams of Ered Gorgoroth, however, are something else and yet the same. They consist of tainted waters, which may be drunk, thereby inducing madness. Closing the eyes creates a different sort of darkness. It separates a person from perceiving the outside world, while opening him or her to their interior being. At this point, the person is alone with their thoughts. In times of doubt and fear, closing our eyes can be difficult. Fears come to life, the subconscious frees our demons to wreak havoc. If we reject the light of goodness within, these fears cause a downward spiral into despair.

The waters of Ered Gorgoroth appear to work in the same way. Some rube willingly, knowingly or not, ingests it, and the darkness of evil infects him or her, gulping the light within, spewing darkness. It is a pointed vision of the nature of sin.

The darkness of the spiders continues in lesser state in the spiders of Mirkwood. The thought struck me, reading the passage with regards to Nan Dungortheb, that the Enchanted River of The Hobbit may be drawn, in part, from this mythical predecessor.

Some argue The Hobbit should be read on its own merits, which I applaud, however the tales of The Silmarillion have such a central part in Tolkien’s life they merit some part in analysis of The Hobbit. After all, Tolkien wrote the majority of the Silmarillion’s mythology in the fifteen years prior to the conception of The Hobbit. He was consumed with the idea of creating a mythology of England, for England; an ambition which would cause him to tinker with the tales for the rest of his life. He longed to publish The Silmarillion, and attempted such following the success of The Hobbit, but failed (both then and when attempting to publish simultaneously with the LotR) and moved on to write a “sequel or successor to The Hobbit” (Letter 19). Despairing of ever publishing this work of his heart, he worked to include as much as possible within the texts and appendices of The Lord of the Rings.

Knowing, therefore, that the tales were fairly complete at the time of The Hobbit, and knowing Tolkien’s great desire to share them with the world, it is fair to say some ideas may have found their way into The Hobbit (beyond those more explicitly seen). The Hobbit was at first conceived as a tale Tolkien told to his children, which “seemed to amuse his boys,” and told at about the same time as the composition of the early 1930’s Quenta Silmarillion draft and the Annals.

In the chapter, Queer Lodgings, Beorn warns the company of a stream which crosses the path, a stream that they “should neither drink of, nor bathe in; for [he has] heard that it carries an enchantment and a great drowsiness and forgetfulness” (TH 155). Entering the forest, they find that its name, Mirkwood, is well earned. By day, the company wanders in a “darkened green glimmer” and by night are trapped in a darkness “so black that you really could see nothing” (TH 164). Further enshrouding the forest, they see signs of spiders: “dark dense cobwebs with threads extraordinarily thick, often stretched from tree to tree, or tangled in the lower branches on either side of them” (TH 164). Looking further, perusal of the map of Wilderland reveals spider webs depicted on all sides of the stream at the heart of Mirkwood. Falling into the stream, Bombur falls into enchanted sleep where he dreams of feasting elves.

The effect is very different from the streams of Nan Dungortheb, yet similar. The elder streams yield a madness and despair brought on by contact. It leads to a losing internal battle for the mind and soul. The Enchanted Stream also creates an internal battle of sorts. There is no other victim by which to compare Bombur’s experience, so the nature of his plight and how it may compare to others is pure conjecture.

Bombur’s dreams dwell on his primary personal vice: gluttony. Upon waking, he cries, “Why ever did I wake up!” desiring the dream in place of reality (TH 174). In this is shown the perils of pure escapism and yielding blindly to temptation. Bombur sleeps for at least four days, with neither food nor water to sustain him, and wakes “weak and wobbly” (TH 174). Presumably, if he never wakes, or sleeps again, Bombur would slowly starve to death in blissful dreams of revelry. This stream is dangerous in a different way. If the enchantment stems from the vomited darkness of the spiders, then its risk appears to lie in fulfillment of desires or lusts to the point of forgetting to live.

Given Bilbo’s dream brought on by the enchantment of the Wood Elves, on the other hand, the origin of the magic of the Enchanted Stream is somewhat questionable. However, there is a singular difference; though “it [takes] a deal of shaking” Bilbo wakes up fairly easily (TH 178). Whether this is an indication of the relative strengths of the two enchantments or a sign of their distinct and opposing natures is up for grabs. The stream poses a conundrum: is it a byproduct of the evil that dwells in Mirkwood, some arcane protection of the Elves, or, even stranger, some combination of the two?

While no definite answer may be reached, contemplation of the two streams leads down strange pathways of thought, which may (or may not) inform the reader regarding the nature of Good and Evil, and Sin and Temptation in Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

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