I recently had the pleasure of reading Verlyn Flieger’s scholarly book Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World. Well-written and thoroughly-argued, the book is a stellar example of sound literary scholarship and is necessary reading for anyone looking for a more nuanced understanding of Tolkien’s work and fantastic philosophy.
In essence, Fliger argues that, for Tolkien, the power of language and the power of light remain inextricably intertwined, with the former providing access to the latter. However, Tolkien’s acts of subcreation, especially as represented in his invented English languages, also suggest that language undergoes a never-ending process of (de)volution. While it comes to provide a more nuanced understanding of the world, it also becomes more distanced from the original light from which it originated. Given that in Tolkien’s view language constructs and springs from reality, this has far-reaching consequences.
Most compellingly, in my view, Flieger suggests that Tolkien’s work does not unambiguously elevate light over darkness. Instead, she suggests, Tolkien’s various polarities that exist within the mythos rely upon each other for their construction. Motivated by his Christian (and specifically Catholic) worldview, however, Tolkien also argues that while life, and history, is a long defeat (a Fall), it is humankind’s lot and duty to persevere and retain faith even in the certainty of that defeat.
She traces this motif through much of The Silmarillion. She has a clear, strong grasp of the nuances both of Tolkien’s invented languages (she focuses primarily on Quena and Sindarin), as well as the many branches of the Elves that emerged after their emergence in Middle-earth. She traces a number of interesting features among the most important figures in Tolkien’s most difficult yet ambitious work, including Feanor, Thingol, Beren, and Luthien.
Much of the book remains focused on The Silmarillion. It is only toward the end that Flieger shifts gears slightly and moves into a discussion of the ways in which the characters of The Lord of the Rings, pointing out how Frodo’s sacrifice is so powerful precisely because he journeys, willingly, away from the light of the West and into the encroaching dark of the East. Frodo’s fate, like so many tragic heroes, is to give up everything that he values so that others may possess them. He has given up and gone away from the light, yet there is hope, never entirely guaranteed, that he may regain it.
If there is one quibble I have with the book, it is the lack of a broader sense of the historical context in which Tolkien was writing. Admittedly, this sense may be due more to my own scholarly inclinations (I am an unashamed historicist), but to my mind it goes a long way toward explaining how Tolkien was not an escapist, but rather a writer struggling to come to terms with the world in which he lived.
For the most part, however, Flieger’s is an accessible yet nuanced exploration of Tolkien’s work. Her writing, clear and lucid throughout, makes her an ideal gateway for those non-academics seeking a richer understanding of the works of Tolkien. However, it is advisable to read The Silmarillion in its entirety before tackling Splintered Light.
There is something profoundly satisfying in reading a solid piece of scholarship. As one of those responsible for elevating Tolkien into the ranks of “legitimate” literature, Flieger’s work deserves especial praise. Rather than seeing Tolkien’s work as mere escapist fantasy, or indeed as mere fiction, Flieger allows us to see the way(s) in which it they work as a profoundly subtle and nuanced explorations of the deepest and most troubling philosophical questions haunting the 20th (and now the 21st) Century.