One of the most fascinating developments in Tolkien's legendarium is the changing role played by the Silmarils in the fates of Arda. In the First Age from the death of the Two Trees onward the Silmarils are almost exclusively a curse upon the Elves and their allies. The theft of the jewels, the murder of Finwë, the oath of Fëanor, the three kinslayings, the Doom of Mandos, and the suffering and death that end not even with the overthrow of Morgoth -- all of these the rising of Eärendil's star casts into stark relief. That star of course is the Silmaril Beren and Lúthien set free from Morgoth, and not even the oath-sick sons of Fëanor fail to see it as a sign of hope:
Now when first Vingilot was set to sail in the seas of heaven, it rose unlooked for, glittering and bright; and the people of Middle-earth beheld it from afar and wondered, and they took it for a sign, and called it Gil-Estel, the Star of High Hope. And when this new star was seen at evening, Maedhros spoke to Maglor his brother, and he said: 'Surely that is a Silmaril that shines now in the West?'
And Maglor answered: 'If it be truly the Silmaril which we saw cast into the sea that rises again by the power of the Valar, then let us be glad; for its glory is seen now by many, and is yet secure from all evil.' Then the Elves looked up, and despaired no longer; but Morgoth was filled with doubt.
This is the image of the Silmaril with which we are most familiar from The Lord of the Rings. For in the Third Age the evils that once swirled around the Silmarils are long past, and the one remaining jewel is a sign of hope, even for the Elves who remember the sorrows of the First Age.
Far above the Ephel Dúath in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master's, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo's side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.(RK 6.ii.922)
Though more than six thousand years separate them, both Maglor and Sam understand that this Silmaril is 'secure from evil' and 'far beyond [the Shadow's] reach.' It is this removal that allows its transformation into so potent a symbol of hope, as the evils attendant upon the continuing attempts of the sons of Fëanor to fulfill their oath amply demonstrate. Moreover, the loss of the other two Silmarils in the sea and the earth balance the elevation of the first into the heavens, an outcome which in its context has more than a hint about it of something that was meant to be: 'And thus it came to pass that the Silmarils found their long homes: one in the airs of heaven, and one in the fires of the heart of the world, and one in the deep waters' (Silm 254).
Tolkien's wording here is of interest, as it so often is. He calls the sky, the earth, and the sea, the 'long homes' of the jewels. 'Homes' of course tell us that they belong there, but the phrase 'long homes' evokes an image of the grave: 'because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets' (Ecclesiastes 12:5 KJV). But this phrase, especially as Tolkien uses it in The Silmarillion, alludes not just to the grave, but to a home removed forever from the evils of this world in which 'all is vanity,' as the final, far more famous summation of Ecclesiastes 12 proclaims.
For the Silmarils were from their creation like the stars themselves -- 'even in the darkness of the deepest treasury the Silmarils of their own radiance shone like the stars of Varda' (Silm. 67) -- and 'Mandos foretold that the fates of Arda, earth, sea, and air, lay locked within them' (Silm. 67). Note the corresponding references to earth, sea, and air here and in the 'long homes' of the Silmarils quoted above. Indeed The Silmarillion even suggests that 'some shadow of foreknowledge came to [Fëanor] of the doom that drew near; and he pondered how the light of the Trees, the glory of the Blessed Realm, might be preserved imperishable' (Silm. 67).
Yet it is also true that no sooner were they made than they became objects of destructive interest. The heart of Fëanor, their maker, was 'fast bound' to them, and the terms in which he thought of them changed. What had been meant to preserve 'the glory of the Blessed Realm' now seems more about the glory of possession and the glory of Fëanor:
for though at great feasts Fëanor would wear them, blazing on his brow, at other times they were guarded close, locked in the deep chambers of his hoard in Tirion. For Fëanor began to love the Silmarils with a greedy love, and grudged the sight of them to all save to his father and his seven sons; he seldom remembered now that the light within them was not his own.(Silm. 69).
The reaction of Melkor to the Silmarils was not dissimilar. He lusted for them, 'and the very memory of their radiance was a gnawing fire in his heart' (67). Just as he had once wished to possess the Light 'for himself alone' (31), and fell when he could not have it, so now, once he has succeeded in stealing them with Ungoliant's aid, he refuses to let her even see them, and 'name[s] them to [him]self for ever' (80). We need only recall that he, too, wore them, 'blazing on his brow', in the 'deep chambers' of Angband, which he never left but once before his final overthrow. In Melkor's hands, as in Fëanor's, the situation of the Silmarils is precisely the opposite of what Sam and Maglor witness: the glory of the Silmarils is seen by only a few. Yet it is the evil of Fëanor's greedy love and Melkor's lust that make it possible for the Silmarils to become the greatest symbols of hope in Middle-earth. The evil is a felix culpa, through which Ilúvatar brings into being 'things more wonderful' and 'beauty not before conceived' (Silm. 17, 98).
Three passages, all of which recount similar moments, illuminate this transformation. In the first Fingon has come to Thangorodrim to rescue Maedhros. Though the sight of Morgoth's realm leaves Fingon 'in despair', 'in defiance of the Orcs...he...sang a song of Valinor that the Noldor made of old' (Silm. 110). But Maedhros, whom Morgoth has hung from an inaccessible precipice far above, hears Fingon and sings back to him, revealing his location. Yet he remains in the grasp of evil beyond Fingon's reach. '[B]eing in anguish without hope' Maedhros asks Fingon to kill him with his bow; Fingon, 'seeing no better hope' prays to Manwë to guide his arrow. That Manwë responds by dispatching one of his eagles to help Fingon to rescue Maedhros -- though not without the sacrifice of his hand -- is inspiring and gratifying to reader and characters alike, but it also underscores the hopelessness of the Elves' unaided struggle to regain possession of the Silmarils. For the strength of Morgoth is such that 'no power of the Noldor would ever overthrow' it, as Fëanor himself saw 'with the foreknowledge of death' when he looked upon the towers of Thangorodrim (Silm. 107).
Ulmo's later words to Turgon, moreover, may be seen to offer commentary on the truth of this scene, if not on the scene itself. They allude to the lessons history offered -- the Silmarils, Fëanor's 'greedy love' for them, and the reckless, vengeful oath -- as well as prophesying that 'true hope' was something from beyond Middle-earth: 'love not too well the work of thy hands and the devices of thy heart; and remember that the true hope of the Noldor lieth in the West and cometh from the Sea' (Silm. 125). And, of course, the hope to which Ulmo alludes is the hope with which we began this essay, that embodied by Eärendil and his Silmaril.
In the second passage Beren lies imprisoned in Sauron's dungeon. Finrod has lost his contest of song against Sauron, and died saving Beren from a wolf.
In that hour Lúthien came, and standing upon the bridge that led to Sauron's isle she sang a song that no walls of stone could hinder. Beren heard, and he thought that he dreamed; for the stars shone above him, and in the trees nightingales were singing. And in answer he sang a song of challenge that he had made in praise of the Seven Stars, the Sickle of the Valar that Varda hung above the North as a sign for the fall of Morgoth. Then all strength left him and he fell down into darkness.
But Lúthien heard his answering voice, and she sang then a song of greater power. The wolves howled, and the isle trembled....
Finrod's defeat and death show once again that the solitary power of the Elves is insufficient to defeat the evil they face. Yet Sauron, who defeated Finrod by turning his song against him, does not contest the strength of Lúthien in songs of enchantment. Indeed the effect of her first song should remind us of Finrod's: hers leads Beren to see the stars shining and hear birds singing in the darkness of his prison cell, just as his conjured the sounds of birdsong in Nargothrond and of the sea sighing in Elvenhome (Silm. 171). Beren then defiantly sings a song of his own that invokes the promise of the Sickle of the Valar, a constellation set in the heavens by Varda as 'a sign of doom' for Morgoth (Silm. 48). But Lúthien's second song shakes the entire island Sauron's tower stands upon. It also makes clear to Sauron that he is facing Lúthien, who is 'the daughter of Melian', and the power of whose song is famous, and he adopts a different strategy. Yet this also fails because Huan, the Hound of Valinor, is superior to all his strengths, whether gross or subtle (Silm. 175). Sauron is vanquished and Lúthien's third song brings down the tower and sets Beren free. Almost every factor that gives hope against evil points beyond the sea to Valinor, to the Valar and Maiar rather than to the Elves.
But with Beren, the mortal, new elements are introduced. For 'a great doom lay upon him' (Silm. 165), which leads him and Lúthien first to confront Sauron here and then Morgoth himself in Angband, where they win the Silmaril that their grand-daughter, Elwing gives to her husband, Eärendil. Until then, his attempts to reach Valinor to plead for help have been in vain, despite the fact he can speak for both Elves and Men, for those whose fate lies entirely within Arda and those whose fate lies beyond it. With it, he can pierce the veils that prevent anyone from reaching Valinor, to find that the Valar have been waiting for him. He is 'the looked for that cometh at unawares, the longed for that cometh beyond hope' (Silm. 248-49), to which Ulmo adds: 'for this he was born into the world' (249).
Just as Beren's doom allowed him to enter enchantment shrouded Doriath and then to achieve his quest to win a Silmaril, so Eärendil's fate drives him, by means of that same Silmaril, to reach hidden Valinor and achieve the hopes of Elves, Men, and Valar. Equally both of them must also pay a price: Beren loses his hand and his life, and Eärendil any possibility of ever returning to mortal lands. And the price they pay exceeds that which Maedhros paid because they are buying something far more precious, the hope that jealous possession of the Silmarils denies, whether it is moved by Melkor's lust or Fëanor's greedy love.
In the final passage Sam discovers the captive Frodo by singing in the tower of Cirith Ungol, just as Fingon had found Maedhros (RK 6.i.908-909). We have already seen this moment alluded to by Sam when a glimpse of Eärendil's star revealed to him that '[h]is song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself.'** In this he was like Fingon at Thangorodrim, who sang in defiance of the orcs with no other purpose. Unlike Fingon, however, the song Sam sings is not one he knows of old or one that was written by another. Rather 'words of his own came unbidden to fit the simple tune' (RK 6.1.908). Yet, while Sam's defiant singing recalls Fingon's within the larger context of the legendarium, within the context of that part of the tale in which he finds himself his sudden inspiration recalls and contrasts his and Frodo's experiences crying out to Eärendil and Elbereth in their struggle against Shelob.
Seldom had he remembered it on the road, until they came to Morgul Vale, and never had he used it for fear of its revealing light. Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima! he cried, and knew not what he had spoken; for it seemed that another voice spoke through his, clear, untroubled by the foul air of the pit.
(TT 4. ix.720)
Gilthoniel A Elbereth!
And then his tongue was loosed and his voice cried in a language which he did not know:
A Elbereth Gilthoniel
o menel palan-diriel,
le nallon si di'nguruthos!
A tiro nin, Fanuilos!
Sam's words and language in the tower are by contrast his own, and yet they come 'unbidden' by him. Given the inspired invocations of Elbereth and Eärendil we have just seen, some kind of external inspiration seems at work here, too. The light of the Silmaril, both in the star of Eärendil and captured in the phial of Galadriel, is indeed 'a light when all other lights go out'. It illuminates this part of Frodo and Sam's tale, from the moment on the stairs when they discuss the Tale of Beren and Lúthien and Sam makes the connection between it and the light of the star in the glass (TT 4.viii.712) until the moment when Sam sees the star itself (RK 6.ii.922). It repeatedly aids and inspires them to see beyond the darkness in which they find themselves otherwise nearly helpless. It is, as it were, a physical manifestation of that Power which speaks through them in a voice not their own and a language unknown to them, bringing them essential help from a world beyond their own.
The juxtaposition of the return of hope to Sam with his realization that his song had been defiance because 'then he was thinking of himself' (RK 6.ii.922) is also noteworthy. For it tells us something about the difference between the two in Tolkien's thought. Defiance, his explanation seems to say, thinks no farther than the self, but hope does. Which should perhaps remind us of Fëanor and his greedy, grudging 'love' of the Jewels: 'he seldom remembered now that the light within them was not his own' (Silm. 69). With Sam's epiphany in Mordor as he sees the star we may profitably compare the dying sight of Fëanor:
And looking out from the slopes of Ered Wethrin with his last sight he beheld far off the peaks of Thangorodrim, mightiest of the towers of Middle-earth, and knew with the foreknowledge of death that no power of the Noldor would ever overthrow them; but he cursed the name of Morgoth thrice, and laid it upon his sons to hold to their oath, and to avenge their father.(Silm. 107)
The Silmaril risen into the heavens reflects what Fëanor could have been, 'like' -- to borrow a phrase not without relevance -- 'a glass filled with a clear light for eyes to see that can' (FR 2.i.223). A remark made by the narrator of The Silmarillion is also of the greatest significance here: 'it may be that [Fëanor's] after deeds would have been other than they were', had he agreed to unlock the Silmarils so that Yavanna might thereby resuscitate the Two Trees (Silm. 79). For Fëanor would have had to renounce selfish possession of the Jewels, abandoning his 'greedy love' of them for ever, for the good of others. As a result, we might almost describe them with the words of Maglor upon seeing the star rise for the first time and recognizing it for what it must be: 'its glory is seen now by many, and is yet secure from all evil' (Silm. 250). The same, of course, could be argued for Morgoth.
As we saw above, Mandos had prophesied that 'the fates of Arda ... lay locked' within the Jewels. The plural points to multiple possibilities, to good as well as evil, and here we have seen that the Silmarils, possessed or lusted after, led both Elves and Valar on to evil, but, once removed, led on to hope and the promise of deliverance from an evil that is ultimately transitory. Ilúvatar has brought forth still greater wonders, transforming the beauty of the Silmarils, terrible in its consequences when viewed selfishly, into the single most outstanding symbol of hope in Middle-earth.
Moreover, given Tolkien's identification of his Eärendil with Earendel in the poem Christ, whom Anglo-Saxons identified with John the Baptist,*** we may also see Eärendil as one who 'prepares the way of the Lord', though at a far greater remove than John the Baptist or any prophetic figure of the Old Testament. The salvation that Eärendil makes possible because, having two natures, he can speak for both Elves and Men, is by no means the same as the redemption that Christ, with his two natures, can enact. But the two resonate with each other, and thereby Tolkien evokes the intervention of the One in the woes of this world, an intervention necessarily foreseen since Middle-earth is our world.
** The citation of this passage at RK App. A 1035 n. 5 shows that the star Sam sees is in fact the star of Eärendil.
*** I refer of course to the famous lines 'Éala Éarendel, engla beorhtast / ofer middangeard monnum sended' (Christ 1.104-05). The Blicking Homilies refer to John the Baptist as 'se níwa éorendel', 'the new Earendel.' One wonders how much influence that word 'new' had on Tolkien's thinking.