Verlyn Flieger, Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World (William B. Erdmans Publishing, 1983)
With the renewed popularity of The Lord of the Rings, it is important to remember that the work is only the final portion of a much larger cycle of myth that Tolkien developed. The Silmarillion provides the full dramatic sweep and backdrop of Tolkien's mythology, and understanding The Lord of the Rings is only fully possible in the light of a proper understanding of The Silmarillion.
Verlyn Flieger's book, Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World, focuses on The Silmarillion because of its primary significance to Tolkien's fictional world. For Tolkien, The Silmarillion was "the vehicle and depository of his profoundest reflections" (from the forward to The Silmarillion). Splintered Light is also a close study of Tolkien's discussion of light and dark imagery in his seminal essays, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" and "On Faerie Stories". Flieger shows how Tolkien's analysis in these two works is used as a framework for the structure of The Silmarillion. This background information leads to the discussion of several sets of contrasting ideas that play out in The Silmarillion -- man/elf, dark/light, nonbelief/belief, and (most intriguingly) free will/fate.
To support her study of Tolkien's fiction, Flieger explores an important influence on his linguistic philosophy (the work of Owen Barfield, a fellow philologist and Inkling). Barfield's belief that language and meaning have both become increasingly fragmented over time parallels the plot development in The Silmarillion, as the world, the light of the Two Trees, peoples, and languages all fragment over time. This is where the title of Flieger's book originates -- as languages fragment and separate in The Silmarillion, so does the light that originated with Iluvatar, following the changing and development of the people of Middle Earth.
Flieger sees The Silmarillion as a study in contrast -- light/dark, good/evil, belief/doubt, conflicts drawn from Tolkien's personality. The way these sets of opposites interact, both within and without the characters in his work, is crucial to understanding Tolkien's writing. Building on this initial analysis, Flieger develops and extends her observation to fully analyze the implication of Tolkien's worldview for The Silmarillion. Flieger reminds the reader that Middle Earth is not a simple good vs. evil world; actions of the Valar and the elves cause both good and evil (light and dark). The potential for both is embedded everywhere and in everyone. Flieger takes pains to stress that despite the light/dark imagery, characters are not entirely one or the other. Actions that seem entirely "light," like the bringing of the elves to Valinor, have both good and evil consequences. Even "dark" events like the fragmentation of the elves into separate peoples create new beauty through the diversity that develops.
The Elvish languages are tied to the concepts of light and dark, metaphorically and literally. The first things that the Elves relate to linguistically are the stars, and the separation between the Elves who go to Valinor and those who remain behind in Middle Earth creates a hierarchy of light in the Elvish languages. Words for light, star, brightness, shining -- all of these are used in the construction of Elvish names. This use emphasizes the importance of light to the Elves and to Tolkien, and the changing focus from the stars to the light of the Two Trees in Valinor shows the evolution of the Elvish perspective. Flieger also traces the etymology of names to show how Tolkien mixes good and evil elements. The conflict between opposing forces can be seen in the names of individual characters in The Silmarillion. Flieger analyzes the names of two of the most significant characters (Feanor and Thingol) and their linguistic development to show how the contrast between light and dark can be found at even the smallest level of detail. Tolkien digs deep into the meaning of words to describe his characters, and Flieger shows how each descriptive word is important and heavy with meaning. Feanor is also used to begin Flieger's more subtle analysis of the interplay of free will and fate in The Silmarillion.
The most intriguing of Flieger's observations is her expansion on Tolkien's description of elves' and mankind's capabilities as defined in the third theme of Iluvatar. Flieger explores the implications of the Music being "as fate" for the Elves, where only men have free will to define external events and grow beyond what was set out initially in the Music. Elves can define the purpose of their lives and their actions, but they can't actually control events. Flieger stresses that Tolkien's elves don't function as robots, though. Fate and free will are intertwined in Tolkien's writing; they overlap and combine so that each helps fulfill the potential of the other. Elves are bound by fate and can't let go as men can; Flieger likens them to the Struldbrugs of Gulliver's Travels to show the negative consequences of being locked in to a single state of being, unable to choose differently. Free will gives man the ability to die and leave the world; Flieger uses this to provide a sound explanation for how mortality was truly intended as a gift from Iluvatar, not a curse (light instead of dark).
The external events of the world are fate for the elves. With the history of the world in great part defined by the Music of Iluvatar, elves cannot act outside of the bounds of that Music. Man is free to act in ways and dictate events in such a fashion as to exceed the constraints that the Music places on all others. Likewise, the half-elven share in this free will when they choose which kindred to belong to. The one shortcoming of Flieger's book is that, being focused on The Silmarillion, there is no exploration of the impact of Elrond's decision to be counted as an elf and thus be bound by fate as the elves are. Elrond's inability to convince Ilsildur to destroy the One Ring could be seen as a manifestation of this Elvish limitation. Things aren't as simple -- the co-existence of fate and free will leave the two so intertwined that one can't clearly distinguish where fate ends and free will begins.
Contrasts abound in Tolkien's fiction. They are fundamentally significant in The Silmarillion, where the differences between the natures of elves and men are used to highlight a range of contrasting ideas (light/dark, good/evil, faith/disbelief, fate/free will). In Splintered Light, Verlyn Flieger traces the external influences on Tolkien's conception of these contrasts, down to the detail in individual character's names. The result is a penetrating and informative analysis of how language is used in The Silmarillion and the extents Tolkien reached to develop a detailed and complex cosmology.
Two other books on Tolkien edited by Flieger, Tolkien's Legendarium: Essays on The History of Middle Earth and A Question of Time: J.R.R. Tolkien's Road to Faerie were previously reviewed in Green Man.
More information on Verlyn Flieger's work and the courses she teaches at the University of Maryland can be found at her web site.