Review: Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World (repost from GoodReads, 2018)

Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World by Verlyn Flieger
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It would probably be ideal to read this right after reading The Silmarillion. I would have, if I had known about it at the time. I decided to read it now because I’ve started following Jeff LaSala’s The Silmarillion Primer at Tor. (I’ve caught up to the Jan. 31 post, but there have been a couple of new ones since then.)

Splintered Light focuses on The Silmarillion, with chapters 18-20 examining the relationship between The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings. Flieger says that although critical opinion is weighted in favor of LotR, The Silmarillion “provides needed evidence that as a writer (and also as a Christian) Tolkien was distinct from both Lewis and Williams, far more unlike than he was like them… Tolkien’s theology was manifestly darker and tougher than Lewis’s, less occult than Williams’s, and less hopeful than either man’s. Tolkien’s belief is precarious, constantly renewed, yet always in jeopardy. It is this precariousness that gives his work its knife-edge excitement.”

In Chapter 2: “Dyscatastrophe” Flieger examines Tolkien’s view of tragedy in “The Monsters and the Critics” and in Chapter 3: “Eucatastrophe” examines his view of fairy tales in “On Fairy Stories.”

Several chapters after this focus on Owen Barfield’s linguistic theory of the fragmentation of meaning, that originally “myth, language and humanity’s perception of the world are interlocked and inseparable” but that these things become increasingly fragmented with time. Flieger ties this into her discussion of the Sundering of the Elves and the summons of the Valar. The summons of the Valar had mixed results, and Flieger thinks that it was a mistake; I think she’s probably right.

At one point, Flieger says that the Quenya/Sindarin distinction should not be seen as a value judgment, and that we should not assume “because one is ‘brighter’ than the other that Quenya is therefore ‘good’ and Sindarin less good. Sindarin is farther from the light but closer to the activities and concerns of Middle-earth.” I’m not sure that I buy it (that is, I’m not convinced that the narrative isn’t making a value judgment for one over the other). (see this post & this one)

The Silmarillion presents mortals as having the unique capability (withheld from Elves) to go beyond the Music of the Ainur, “which is as fate to all things else” (The Silmarillion). Flieger has an interesting explanation of how to reconcile this with the apparent importance of choices made by the Elves:
“A possible distinction may be that Men are given the power to act beyond the Music (that is, to alter external events or circumstances) while Elves, though bound by the Music, have the power to make internal choices, to alter some attitude toward themselves of other creatures or Eru.)”

Chapters 12 & 13 focus on the Noldor, their quest for knowledge, and their inventiveness. Flieger writes that “Tolkien’s characterization of the Noldor could stand as a historian’s description of any of the great civilization builders of past ages; closer still to home, it is a telling depiction of our own Renaissance and post-Renaissance culture.”

Flieger has several chapters on the tale of Beren and Luthien. She says, comparing the Silmarils and the One Ring, “No bearer can escape the evil power of the Ring, but those who touch a Silmaril will be affected according to their motives — good or evil — for having it.” She compares Beren’s attitude toward the Silmaril with Thingol’s. Beren’s quest for the jewel is unselfish, and when his hand is bitten off he is not corrupted by it; and clearly there’s something more disturbing about Thingol’s attachment to the Silmaril. But The Silmarillion’s last word on Beren, Luthien & the Silmaril is: “the wise have said that the Silmaril hastened their deaths, for the flame of beauty of Luthien as she wore it was too bright for mortal lands” (“Ch. 22: Of the Ruin of Doriath”).

She doesn’t mention that passage at all, but I’m not sure how to reconcile it with a reading that says there was nothing wrong with Beren and Luthien’s attitude toward the Silmaril.

In one of the chapters on the connections between LotR and The Silmarillion, Flieger writes that there is no eucatastrophe in LotR: “This inadvertent victory, however, does not lessen the bleakness of Frodo’s defeat. Here is no eucatastrophe, no consolation giving a glimpse of joy. What happens to Frodo is katastrophe, the downward turn in the action, where the hero is overcome.”

I think it may be overstating things to say that the way things work out in LotR does nothing to “lessen the bleakness of Frodo’s defeat.” I really think that the end of The Lord of the Rings has a happier tone, despite a great deal of sorrow, than Flieger gives it credit for, especially compared to the end of The Silmarillion, where all the emotional emphasis in the last few pages is on the tragedy.

View all my reviews

Published by Beth @ Beth's Bookish Thoughts

This blog is for my thoughts on reading. A couple of my friends on GoodReads have blogs, so eventually I decided to start one myself. I hope to get involved in the book blogging community and become a better reader and writer! I am not accepting copies of new books for review, but I would be interested in new editions or new translations of classic authors. Find me on Upwork (as an editor) in the profile link. From September 2018 to October 2020 I blogged at Blogger.

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