Monday, March 3, 2008

Visualizing the Silmarils

In another of John Rateliff’s exegetic essays in The History of The Hobbit, he takes on the appealing, but controversial, idea that the Arkenstone of Thráin could be, literally or figuratively, a Silmaril of Fëanor [1]. This is a question that has come up many times online, but not very often in the scholarly literature — it seems to have been enough to acknowledge the similarity without mining that particular lode any more deeply. Tom Shippey, for example, reminds us that “Thorin Oakenshield’s disastrous fascination with the Arkenstone parallels the disastrous quests for the Silmarils” [2]; Verlyn Flieger says the Arkenstone is “a shimmering crystal gem whose likeness to the Silmarils is unmistakable” [3]; and of course, several scholars have noted Tolkien’s use of the Old English word eorclanstánas (“Holy Stones” > *Arkenstones) for the Silmarils, foremost among them, Christopher Tolkien in the History of Middle-earth series, passim.

I found Rateliff’s essay particularly interesting for two reasons. First, its specificity: his is the most detailed treatment of the subject of which I am aware. Second, its directness: Rateliff really considers the possibility that Tolkien may have seriously considered making the Arkenstone a Silmaril. Most discussions consider only the account in The Silmarillion — published more than forty years later and posthumously edited — overlooking the fact that these legends were still very much in flux (not to mention unpublished) at the time Tolkien was writing The Hobbit during the early 1930’s. Rateliff dissects the evidence from The Book of Lost Tales, the 1926 “Sketch of the Mythology”, the 1930 Quenta, and the 1937 Quenta (written after The Hobbit had been completed), and concludes that while Tolkien’s later view of the disposition of the three Silmarils is pretty clear, at the time he was writing The Hobbit, this was hardly a foregone conclusion.

Which brings me to the point of today’s post: visualizing the Silmarils. To decide how similar the Arkenstone may have been to them, one would naturally want to consider the physical descriptions of these gems. “Unfortunately,” Rateliff writes, “we cannot compare them in detail, because [...] Tolkien only rarely describes the Silmarils themselves, and then more in terms of their effect on the viewer than in appearance” [4]. Rateliff considers such descriptions are there are, concluding that some make the Silmarils out to be smooth, others faceted, and still others are noncommittal. However, one important point Rateliff appears to have overlooked is that Tolkien himself illustrated the Silmarils, not just once, but at least four times.

All four are emblems or heraldic devices. Specifically, the three devices representing Fëanor, Beren, and Eärendil each seem to depict a Silmaril; and there is also an emblem for the Silmarils themselves, perhaps the best representation we have of Tolkien’s own idea of their appearance. All four are reproduced on Plate 47 of Pictures by J.R.R. Tolkien [5] — you can see them for yourself above (click to enlarge). One of them, the heraldic device for The House of Eärendil, is also reproduced in Hammond and Scull’s Artist & Illustrator [6], with a relatively late date of 1960. If the other emblems are roughly contemporary, then we should be able to say that this was probably Tolkien’s final conception of the Silmarils. How he pictured them in 1930, however, may be another matter. Be that as it may, it would have been nice to see Rateliff mention these illustrations, which clearly show faceted Silmarils reflecting and refracting multicolored light. Perhaps they’ll make it into the softcover edition.

By the way, is it just me, or are Tolkien’s Silmarils reminiscent of the life-clocks in the film version of Logan’s Run (1976)? :)

Maedhros, Maglor, and Eärendil showing off their Silmarils

[1] Rateliff, John. The History of The Hobbit. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007, 603–9.

[2] Shippey, T.A. J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001, p. 241.

[3] Flieger, Verlyn. Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World. Rev. ed. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2002, p. 110.

[4] Rateliff, 606–7.

[5] Tolkien, J.R.R. Pictures by J.R.R. Tolkien. Foreword and notes by Christopher Tolkien. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1979, [not paginated].

[6] Hammond, Wayne G. and Christina Scull. J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1995, p. 193 (Figure 190).

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