To look across the wide seas of water and of time to Tirion the Fair and perceive the unimaginable hand and mind of Feanor at their work, while both the White Tree and the Golden were in flower.Gandalf, The Two Towers
If you’ve read only the Lord of the Rings trilogy and not explored Tolkien’s wider legendarium, this quote is one of your only encounters with the Two Trees of Valinor. Summon the patience to read The Silmarillion, however, and you’ll soon discover how they and the concepts they represent lie at the center of Arda’s long history…and indeed, the events that preceded its creation.
Long, long before the adventures of Bilbo and Frodo, the Valar1Technically angelic beings created by Iluvatar, the one god of Tolkien’s world, the Valar and their hosts of lesser spirits (called the Maiar) nevertheless fulfill the role of pagan gods, land spirits, and other figures out of older mythologies. settled in Valinor, westernmost of all lands. There was no sun or moon in that time, nor any source of light except the stars, so they created the Two Trees: Telperion the White (or silver), and Laurelin, the Golden. They shone with their own internal light, waxing and waning in strength so that when one was at its zenith, the other grew dim. Both were eventually destroyed by Morgoth2The devil of Tolkien’s mythology. , but before that happened, Feanor, the greatest elven craftsman who ever lived, captured some of their light, blended it, and poured it into three jewels, the titular Silmarils. After his assault on the Trees, Morgoth steals them and flees Valinor, with two great hosts of elves led by Feanor and his half-brother Fingolfin in pursuit. This sparks the conflict around which the book revolves: the war of the Noldorin3One of the three major elven kindreds in Valinor, the Noldor were (to put it very crudely) like natural philosophers, seeking knowledge both for its own sake and its practical value. Feanor was the greatest of them. elves to retrieve the Silmarils. The Valar warned them against this rash course of action, as any war of lesser beings against the most powerful god in Arda was doomed from the start, but to no avail. Indeed, Feanor and his sons swore an oath of vengeance against anyone else (be they elf or god) who attempted to claim the Silmarils.
What was so special about these jewels that they could drive such a wedge between elves and gods, and the Noldor into so ruinous a war? Partially, it was Feanor’s own hubris and possessiveness: he was the greatest craftsman of all the elves, and the Silmarils were his magnum opus. His fiery spirit4In fact, his name literally means “spirit of fire,” and legend says that he drained so much life-essence from his mother in the womb that she became the first and (as far as we know) only elf to die in childbirth. and narcissism rival those of Achilles or Gilgamesh, so he naturally believed that the Silmarils belonged to him and his progeny alone, even though he had no part in creating the Light that gave them their power and beauty.
But that isn’t quite enough to explain it. Throughout the story, we hear that “the Light of Aman” shines in the eyes of those who live (or have lived) in Valinor, that they are wiser, stronger, and more skillful that other peoples. For instance, when Feanor’s army reaches the shores of Beleriand5By the time of Lord of the Rings, Beleriand has been destroyed and now lies at the bottom of the sea. It used to lie directly west of the Shire, over the Blue Mountains. after departing Valinor, orcs descend upon them almost immediately, yet,
The Noldor, outnumbered and taken at unawares, were yet swiftly victorious; for the light of Aman was not yet dimmed in their eyes, and they were strong and swift, and deadly in anger, and their swords were long and terrible.
This light bestows something akin to divinely inspired strength and resolve among the elves. The desire to look upon it was, in fact, the reason so many of them traveled to Valinor in the first place: the Valar led three elven representatives to their home6The elves having first originated far, far to the east next to a lake called Cuivienen., and these representatives (who later became the original kings of the elves) returned and persuaded their people to make the long journey westward, awed as they were by the Valar and the light of the Trees. Clearly, something more than beauty is at work here.
Tolkien himself provides some excellent commentary on what that “something” is. In a famous letter to Milton Waldman, he says,
As far as all of this has symbolical or allegorical significance, Light is such a primeval symbol in the nature of the universe that it can hardly be analyzed. The Light of Valinor (derived from light before any fall) is the light of art undivorced from reason, that sees things both scientifically (or philosophically) and imaginatively (or subcreatively) and “says that they are good”—as beautiful.
While so clear a theme is difficult to derive solely from the text of The Silmarillion (arguably one symptom of its famous incompleteness), it fits neatly with all the evidence. In The Ainulindale8Literally “The Music of the Ainur,” Tolkien’s creation myth, published in the same volume as The Silmarillion., for example, Morgoth rebels against Iluvatar not out of envy for His authority (as in Paradise Lost), but because he covets The Secret Fire9Or “Flame Imperishable.”, the name given to His power of Creation. Since he can’t steal this power, he seeks to dominate and corrupt everything created with it. The Silmarils, a synthesis of elven and Valaran craftsmanship, shining with the light of philosophical and subcreative mastery, thus become objects of his all-consuming obsession: he (like Feanor) wants them for himself alone.
Alas, he is all too successful. With the Simarils, the Valar could have restored Telperion and Laurelin to health, their blended light powerful enough to heal even the wounds Morgoth inflicted on them. He deprives them of that chance, and all the Valar can do to restore some sort of light to the world is pluck a single fruit from each dying tree and place them in the sky. The first rising of the moon, born from Telperion, occurs just as Feanor’s army reaches Beleriand, beginning their tragic and doomed war against the Morgoth. This is the mythic birth of moon and sun in Tolkien’s mythology: not a triumph, but a sad, even ominous moment in which the lights of rational thought and artistic beauty are sundered from one another forever.
Tolkien, a devout Roman Catholic, believed that we live in a Fallen world, one forever marred by Satan’s great Fall in Heaven, compounded by man’s Fall from grace in Eden. This story gives us some idea what that meant to him, what some of its worst consequences were, so it’s interesting that, of all the possible dualities he could have chosen to represent, he associated the Two Trees with the Artistic and Scientific impulses.
Whether or not you subscribe to the same religious doctrines as he did10Which, for the record, I emphatically don’t., the wisdom of that decision is clear. Consider the times in which he lived: a period of rapid industrialization during which our keenest scientific minds devoted themselves to the development of fearsome weaponry, while poetic appeals to patriotism, glory, and justice drove millions to use them in the most destructive wars in human history. Propaganda exists to bypass reason and inflame a population, while under the cold light of pure reason, appeals to something as abstract and ill-defined as morality seem ludicrous. In our present day, its excesses can be seen in Silicon Valley’s amoral drive for “progress,” and (at a meaner, pettier level) in “debate bro” culture. The opposite, of course, is also true: watch the footage of right-wingers marching through Charlottesville, and you’ll feel, on some level, that dark undercurrent of rage that makes them so dangerous.
Already, we can see how potent this theme becomes when applied to matters beyond Tolkien’s legendarium, but how can we make use of it as artists? What does it look like when we use it as a lens through which to view storytelling, or poetry?
Look no further than Lord of the Rings itself. Tolkien obsessed over every detail in the story, from the languages to hobbit genealogies to geography. Part and parcel of this obsession is the success with which the book keeps us oriented in both space and time. When Sam and Frodo begin their grueling trek through Mordor, for example, we know that their road runs north, with mountains on their left, a stream running parallel, and Mount Doom far off to the right. As the hobbits trudge onward, Tolkien continuously refers back to these and other, more transient landmarks, their changing relationships giving us a firm grasp of how far we’ve come and in which direction. Thereto, Tolkien shows us through the reactions of the Ringwraiths that patrol the skies over Mordor exactly where Frodo and Sam are when the Witch King falls to Merry and Eowyn. We also learn from the orcs (as well as the narration) when Aragorn’s army has begun its march to the Morannon.
More generally, Lord of the Rings is built upon the body of legend Tolkien laid down in The Silmarillion and other mythical works created long before, references to which abound in the book, giving his masterpiece that feeling of historicity that its imitators lack. His fictional frame for the novel, that he is merely one in a long line of scholars translating a preexisting text, also contributes to that sense of verisimilitude. Tolkien, in fact, imitated these features of real-world mythological texts so successfully that, as Michael D.C. Drout discusses in an excellent lecture called “Lord of the Rings: How to Read J.R.R. Tolkien,” he actually creates a “textual ruin”—that is, a story in which references to other tales, events, and characters exist but go unexplained, as though the “original author” knew their audience would already be familiar with them.
You’ve probably noticed the common theme here: all of these effects require and absurd amount of intellectual power, achievable only by a someone with a deep understanding of how languages and stories arise and mutate over thousands of years. Without that insight, Lord of the Rings would be as two-dimensional as all the imitations that came after, but which details he chose to include matter just as much. Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, George R.R. Martin: all have a similar obsession with fine detail, but an indiscriminate one. They essentially dump the appendices for their invented worlds into their narratives, pulling readers out of the story and destroying the pacing.
Neither do they possess his gift for poetry, musicality, or description, and this is where the other impulse comes into play. Not only does Tolkien convey by way of these landmarks the grueling distances involved, but paints many pictures in words of the two hobbits that can be downright painful to look at. From “Mount Doom,”
There came at last a dreadful nightfall; and even as the Captains of the West drew near to the end of the living lands, the two wanderers came to an hour of blank despair. Four days had passed since they had escaped from the orcs, but the time lay behind them like an ever-darkening dream. All this last day Frodo had not spoken, but had walked half-bowed, often stumbling, as if his eyes no longer saw the way before his feet. Sam guessed that among all their pains he bore the worst, the growing weight of the Ring, a burden on the body and a torment to his mind. Anxiously Sam had noted how his master’s left hand would be raised as if to ward off a blow, or screen his shrinking eyes from a dreadful Eye that sought to look in them. And sometimes his right hand would creep to his breast [where the Ring lay hidden], clutching, and then slowly, as the will recovered mastery, it would be withdrawn.
You can find passages like this throughout their journey in Mordor, passages that, except for their (slightly) plainer language, could be ripped from the pages of some heretofore lost manuscript of ancient legends.
Other sections draw more overtly from mythic texts. A few pages after the quote above, as Sam hauls an exhausted Frodo up the slopes of Orodruin itself, Gollum catches up to them for the last time. Frodo, in a final surge of strength that seems miraculous after the (literally) soul crushing ordeal we just witnessed, overpowers Gollum and,
Then suddenly, as before under the eaves of the Emyn Muil, Sam saw these two rivals with other vision. A crouching shape, scarcely more than the shadow of a living thing, a creature now wholly ruined and defeated, yet filled with a hideous lust and rage; and before it stood stern, untouchable now by pity, a figure robed in white, but at its breast it held a wheel of fire. Out of the fire there spoke a commanding voice.
“Begone, and trouble me no more! If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom.”
Transparently Biblical. How could it not be? Sam is perceiving in a vision that the strength and voice here belong not to Frodo, but the Ring—which is to say, the manifested will of a fallen angel.
Again, you can find countless other examples throughout the book where Tolkien shifts styles to fit the situation. The Battle of the Pelennor Fields, for instance, makes liberal use of parataxis11In this case, characterized by the use of coordinating conjunctions. to convey a sense of breathless momentum and sudden reversals appropriate to a sustained engagement of this kind. It also (as in the passage from The Silmarillion quoted above) serves to “elevate” the the narrative, abandoning the plainer language that characterizes much of the book for a more Biblical, mythic style worthy of the grand events playing out on the page. The song at the end, as well as the poetry Eomer recites at a couple points throughout the battle, conform to the conventions of Old English alliterative verse—fitting, since Rohan’s culture and language were heavily based on the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia.
There’s a good reason why Tolkien’s style has its own Wikipedia page.
Only an ear for cadence, tone, and the subtle impressions they leave in the mind can weave together such varied styles without the whole thing collapsing into a haphazard mess. But Lord of the Rings does far more than simply hold together as a piece of narrative art: it resounds with the power of mythic language and symbols, and uses them to convey a deeply humane12With the few widely known exceptions: the racist motifs that occur throughout the book, as well as the kind of sexism that transforms characters like Eowyn and Melian into docile maidens. moral and spiritual vision that stands deliberately opposed to the monstrous cruelties of modern (and, indeed, historical) civilization. More than that, Tolkien’s legendarium triumphantly unites the intellect of the scholar with the passion of the artist, neglecting neither the mythic symbols nor the analytical work necessary to contain and focus their power.
Needless to say, none of us are J.R.R. Tolkien, and we have little hope of equaling his success, but the elves didn’t give up and declared the art of jewel-making at an end after Feanor created the Silmarils. Falling short of genius is no failure, and if there’s any other moral to the story, it’s this: the intellectual, scientific impulse and the artistic, imaginative one are not in conflict. Much though our culture pays lip service to that fact using crude frameworks such as Left Brain/Right Brain, Yin/Yang13Or rather, our heavily Westernized version of it., and other such complementary dualities, in truth it fetishizes analytical thought to the point of derangement14See again the amorality of Silicon Valley and the travesty of “debate bro” culture.. It’s why Cornell West, in most of his public talks, propounds some version of, “Let the phones be smart. You’ve got to be courageous and wise.”
Consider this an exhortation to bring both qualities to our art, whether or not we can expect to equal Tolkien’s commercial, critical, or technical success. To repurpose a quote from his essay “On Fairy Stories,”
Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.
So please, attempt them, and show us what the world can look like, illuminated by the blended light of the Two Trees of Valinor.