Tragic Being, Splintered Light

Metaphysics of the Music, part 11

In this series of posts I have been examining (what I suggest to be) the somewhat exaggerated interpretation of the Music of the Ainur offered by some readers, and the resulting “tragic metaphysics” they have implicitly attribute to Tolkien’s creation-myth as a consequence. There is, to be sure, much tragedy present in Tolkien’s mythology, tragedy which may at times even seem to spill over into his mythology’s underlying philosophy of being. Verlyn Flieger touches on this in her study of Tolkien’s image of “splintered light,” a metaphor illustrating his and Owen Barfield’s theory (discussed here and here) of the fragmentation human language, stories, and perception inevitably undergo over time. Similar to Bradford Eden—who in addition to finding a Boethian pattern of cosmic, human, and instrumental music in the history of Middle-earth, also reads this sequence according to a Neoplatonic pattern of decay—Flieger likewise stresses the sense of tragic loss accompanying the phenomenon of splintering light present in Tolkien’s legendarium. Of the original source of illumination in the world, for example, the two Lamps established by the Valar on twin mountain-pillars of stone, Flieger observes that the light “is brilliant and constant,” but that when the “first light is quenched” by Melkor, it “cannot be renewed,” and so in the Two Trees of Valinor “new light is brought into being, but the quality is changed and the brightness is diminished… The differences between the Lamps and the Trees are multiple and striking and conform to the pattern of fragmentation and diminution that underlies the whole mythology… [T]he Trees give light in waxing and waning cycles of flower and fruit” (Splintered Light, 63). As Flieger interprets Tolkien’s imagery of light, “[f]rom ancient unity to the fragmentation and splintering of light, of perception, of society, and of self, Tolkien’s sub-created world mirrors our own. And through its people, their wars and turmoils, their triumphs and disasters, we come gradually to recognize our world, to see and hear it as Tolkien saw and heard it” (65).

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