The Light Shines in the Darkness
Part 1 – Fr. Ed. Fride
Ed. This article appeared in The Hebrew Catholic, #77, pp. 14,18. Fr. Fride is pastor of Christ the King Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
One of the most popular book series of all times, the Lord of the Rings, is fast becoming one of the most popular movies of all times. Would it surprise you to learn that part of that story, in fact the foundation of the whole world of the trilogy, may have its roots in an even older Jewish story? While there is no direct evidence that J.R.R. Tolkien knew of this particular Jewish story, when the parallels are explored between the two, to say that those parallels are simply coincidence stretches credulity. This article is the first in a two part series exploring the impact of Jewish literature on Christian literature. In this article, I will deal with what I personally believe to be the significant Jewish impact on this classic Christian story, the Lord of the Rings. The next article will deal with the impact of Jewish literature on the Christian Scripture, specifically, the impact of a section of Pirke Aboth on the Gospel of St. Matthew.
J.R.R. Tolkien was a very devout Roman Catholic, and his Catholic faith permeates his worldview. That worldview is expressed in five major books that comprise his essential story of Middle Earth: the Silmarillion, the Hobbit, the Fellowship of the Ring, the Two Towers, and the Return of the King. It is primarily in the Silmarillion that we find what I believe to be the clear echoes of this ancient Jewish story.
First, as to the Jewish story, it is the story of the Tzohar. According to the Jewish understanding, the first creative words spoken by God in the creating of the world were: “Let there be light.” And, in response to the Divine Command, there was light. But what was that light? The light of the First Day was not the light of the sun, moon, or stars, since they were created later. According to the Jewish perspective, this was a special light, a supernatural light, and it shone by the act of God. That light was shining at the creation of Adam and Eve. According to Jewish stories, that light continued to shine until the moment of Adam’s sin, when, at the tragic moment of his fall, that wondrous light of the First Day was extinguished, in consequence of the tragic sin that had now entered the world. But, according to the legend of the Tzohar, God, in order to provide a concrete witness of hope and comfort to Adam and Eve, took some of the light of the First Day, and before it was extinguished encased it in a white crystal jewel, where it continued to shine. He gave that jewel, called the Tzohar, to them as they were being expelled from Eden. Subsequent Jewish stories trace the Tzohar’s history: it was passed down to Noah and so was aboard the Ark; it came to Abraham and was given to his son Isaac; it eventually came to Solomon, and was placed by him in the great Temple he built. After the fall of the Temple, the Tzohar was lost to history.
What is the story in the Silmarillion that I believe runs so parallel to this story of the Tzohar? The story is the one from which the work itself takes its name—the story of the creation of the Silmarills. In the creation narrative of the Silmarillion, the angels (called Valar in the book) are sent by the One God to actively participate in the work of creation, that it might be adorned with great beauty and splendor as a fitting home for the two races of beings that were to share it with the Valar: the race of elves and the race of men. In this work of creation, there was a constant struggle between the Valar and one of their members, who had rebelled and wanted to make creation in his image and not according to the great vision that the One God had given all the angels in the beginning. The first way that the Valar had chosen to light this new creation was through the erection of two giant lamps, whose radiance touched all the world. This fallen angel, Melkor, succeeded in casting down these two lamps, and much was lost in the cataclysm of that fall. The Valar then created a special paradise, Valinor, surrounded by high mountains, which was to be their home. In the center of that paradise there was a garden of great beauty. At the center of that garden was a holy mound on which grew two great Trees. The wondrous gift of these Trees was that each shown with a radiant light: Laurelin, that shone with a light of gold, and Telperion, that shone with the light of silver; this light fell in luminous drops from their leaves, and was the source of great wonder and beauty.
The race of elves eventually awakens in the outer darkness and is conducted by the Valar to this paradise where they are invited to live, to learn the wisdom of the Valar, and grow in wisdom in this place of great beauty, rejoicing in the wondrous light of the Two Trees. One of these elves, Feanor, a craftsman of great skill, captures the light of the Two Trees in three crystal jewels, which he names the Silmarills. They blaze with the blended light of the Two Trees that shines from the heart of these jewels. Later, Melkor, and an evil spider beast in his service attack the Two Trees and kill them, and all the land is plunged into darkness. Before the Trees completely die, two of the mighty of the Valar coax from them one more fruit each, a burning golden one, which is made into the Sun, and a lesser burning silver one, which is made into the Moon.
Much of the rest of the Silmarillion is concerned with the attempts by certain of the elves to regain those jewels. Eventually one of the jewels is lost in the sea, one is lost in a lava flow, and one finds its way into the heavens, where it forms the bright star, the star of Earendil, whose light is captured in Galadriel’s Mirror, some of which she gives to Frodo, as recounted in the Fellowship of the Ring.
Parallels between Silmarillion and Tzohar
What are the parallels that I see between this story in the Silmarillion and the Jewish story of the Tzohar? First, the light that they are both made from: the Tzohar is made by the Holy One from the very light of the First Day. The Silmarills are made from the light of the Two Trees, i.e. light made to fill the earth, light that, like the light of the First Day, preceded the sun itself. Second, how that original light dies: the Light of the First Day dies when sin is born in the world, with Adam’s fall. The light of the Two Trees dies when they are struck by the fallen angel and poisoned by his spider companion. In both cases, the purity and beauty of that initial light are extinguished by evil. Third, that that light is contained in a jewel: this is, of course, the most striking parallel, that both the light of the First Day and the light of the Two Trees should be placed in the heart of a gem, from which it would continue to shine forth. Fourth, that the light of both jewels is connected to a promise of hope for the bearer. God gives Adam the Tzohar as a sign of hope and a promise of God’s continued presence in his life. The ultimate recipient of the light of the Silmarills is Frodo himself, who is given that light from that jewel, captured in a flask. The same notion of hope is given by Galadriel to Frodo as she gives him the flask: “In this phial is caught the light of Earendil’s star …it will shine still brighter when night is upon you. May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.” So, in both cases, a holy jewel, containing the Light before the sun, and ultimately shining as a sign of hope.
So, what is the possibility that Tolkien knew of the story of the Tzohar and used it as a basis for the Silmarills? It is hard to say. He was extremely well versed in myths and legends of various peoples. He also leans heavily upon the Biblical narrative for the basis of his stories, e.g. Valinor, i.e. paradise, having at its heart a beautiful garden with two great trees at its center is simply lifted out of the creation narrative in Genesis, so he was clearly familiar with the most fundamental of Jewish stories, the Creation narrative itself. What is the likelihood that he simply created out of whole cloth the story of a gem that contains the First Light, which was destroyed by evil, and which continues to shine as a sign of hope? An accident, perhaps? Or, if he did not directly know the story of the Tzohar, was he simply inspired by the One Who may well have inspired that very story? A question to put to him, perhaps when we are taking a break, as we worship the Holy One, standing in the blazing glory of the Light that truly shines in the darkness.