Book Review: Splintered Light: Tolkien’s World, Revised Edition by Verlyn Flieger
“Tolkien’s work is more relevant to the world today than it appeared to be when The Lord of the Rings was first published in the mid-1950s. Reader initially enchanted by its fantasy world return again and again to the story for its soberer reflection of the real one.”
Drawing from the entire corpus of J. R. R. Tolkien’s work and influencers such as Owen Barfield, Flieger opens the greater vista of Tolkien’s created universe, especially as it relates to his (and our) own world. First published in 1983 and heavily revised in 2012 as more posthumous works were published, Light analyzes Tolkien and his world.
While Flieger focuses on The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings, she delves into his letters, non-fiction essays, and relevant works of others. Some connections, like “The Sea-bell,” stretch the readers credulity. Those who stay with it will be rewarded.
“It would be tempting, at this point, to say to the reader, ‘If you are not interested in Tolkien’s languages, you may skip the next several chapters; they are short but dense, highly technical, complicated, and focused on minutiae.’ Unfortunately, I cannot in good conscience give such permission. Tolkien’s languages are both the bed-rock and the atmosphere of his world. If you stand in Tolkien’s world and breathe its air (and you do, or you wouldn’t have read this far), then you must be interested in his languages, whether you know it or not.”
Much is written about Tolkien’s invented languages. Not just the idle musings of a professional philologist, though he was that, but Flieger also investigates the reality and meaning of his created universe. And ours. For as light and language is splintered into every finer gradations of color and meaning it also departs farther from its originating wholeness. Tolkien used the elves to represent mankind’s journey away from the primal light and men the return.
“ ‘Actually I am a Christian,’ he wrote of himself, ‘and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’—though it contains (and in legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.’ The alteration between the vision of hope and the experience of despair—between light and dark—is the essence of both Tolkien and his work.” Flieger
Tolkien’s Christianity shapes and is shaped by his writings. Readers of other faith communities or of none will find Light reveals new depths to Tolkien’s works without forcing them into his mold.
“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn.’ … does not deny the existence of the dyscatatrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of the deliverance; it denies (in the face of evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” JRRT
For students of Tolkien’s works, this is a valuable companion. Yes, it’s dense and academic, but it is also accessible and enlightening. If you have read most of his works already; read this before re-reading them. If you haven’t, read Tolkien first. It’s not that this will spoil those stories so much as you may be distracted from the story into analysis.
“To have identified himself with Beren as he did, Tolkien must have known that, however flawed he might be as a human in a fallen world, however dark his vision of that world, he too had been allowed to bring a splinter of the light to Middle-earth.”
Do read the footnotes. Can’t do it justice in this review. Sorry this is so long.
“Mythopoeia” by JRRT (emphasis added)
Dear Sir,” I said—“although now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet not de-throned,
And keeps the fags of lordship once he owned:
Man, sub-creator, the refracted Light
Through whom is splintered from a single White
To many hues, and endlessly combined
In living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
With Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
And sowed the seeds of dragons—‘twas our right
(used or misused). That right has not decayed:
We make still by the law in which we’re made.”