Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Silver and Gold...

The words of the LORD are pure words, even as the silver, which from the earth is tried, and purified seven times in the fire. Psalms 12:6.

I have always preferred silver to gold and all my friends are the same. Tolkien preferred silver too. This is seen throughout his legendarium, from the images wrought in the likeness of Telperion and cherished by the Númenóreans to the wealth of the Dwarves of Khazad-dûm being principally in mithril, sometimes called "true silver." Contrast the silver hair of the Sindarin royal house with the epithet "Golden," given to Ar-Pharazôn, the last King of Númenor, and to Smaug; or Galadriel's parting words with Gimli about his hands flowing with gold and his triumph over greed; and even her song lamenting the golden tree beyond the Sundering Seas. Gold, as opposed to silver, has many sinister characteristics. It is tyrannous in one sense and to be lamented in another as utterly bereft. But there is also the matter of the Ring, and the One Ring was made of gold. There are many descriptions of its likeness throughout The Lord of the Rings:

"It now appeared plain and smooth, without mark or device that he could see. The gold looked very fair and pure, and Frodo thought how rich and beautiful was its colour, how perfect was its roundness. It was an admirable thing and altogether precious." Book I, Chapter II.

Students of iconography will instantly recognise the significance of perfect roundness as a sign of holiness, hence the halo, the shape of Christ's head, &c. Of course, in Tolkien that is part of the perception (or deception) of the ring bearer. There is also Isildur's account of the Ring's burning as a glede, shrinking yet losing none of its shape or beauty, as told by Gandalf at the Council of Elrond, not to mention the fiery letters piercingly bright and yet remote as coming from the depths.

In one of the richest, most profound treatises in The History of Middle-earth, "Myths Transformed," Tolkien explores the relationship between Morgoth and Sauron, between Screwtape and Wormwood so to speak, between the Earth and the Ring. In part vii Tolkien propounds the notion of "Morgoth's Ring" (from which volume ten derives its title), elaborating on what Gandalf said of Sauron and the One Ring in The Shadow of the Past. I don't like block quotes anymore than you do but all of this is relevant, so [emphasis my own]:

"Melkor 'incarnated' himself (as Morgoth) permanently. He did this so as to control the hroa, the 'flesh' or physical matter, of Arda. He attempted to identify himself with it. A vaster, and more perilous, procedure, though of similar sort to the operations of Sauron with the Rings. Thus, outside the Blessed Realm, all 'matter' was likely to have a 'Melkor ingredient,' and those who had bodies, nourished by the hroa of Arda, had as it were a tendency, small or great, towards Melkor: they were none of them wholly free of him in their incarnate form, and their bodies had an effect upon their spirits.

"But in this way Morgoth lost (or exchanged, or transmuted) the greater part of his original 'angelic' powers, of mind and spirit, while gaining a terrible grip upon the physical world. For this reason he had to be fought, mainly by physical force, and enormous material ruin was a probable consequence of any direct combat with him, victorious or otherwise. This is the chief explanation of the constant reluctance of the Valar to come into open battle against Morgoth. Manwë's task and problem was much more difficult than Gandalf's. Sauron's, relatively smaller, power was concentrated; Morgoth's vast power was disseminated. The whole of 'Middle-earth' was Morgoth's Ring, though temporarily his attention was mainly upon the North-west. Unless swiftly successful, War against him might well end in reducing all Middle-earth to chaos, possibly even all Arda. It is easy to say: 'It was the task and function of the Elder King to govern Arda and make it possible for the Children of Eru to live in it unmolested.' But the dilemma of the Valar was this: Arda could only be liberated by a physical battle; but a probable result of such a battle was the irretrievable ruin of Arda. Moreover, the final eradication of Sauron (as a power directing evil) was achievable by the destruction of the Ring. No such eradication of Morgoth was possible, since this required the complete disintegration of the 'matter' of Arda. Sauron's power was not (for example) in gold as such, but in a particular form or shape made of a particular portion of total gold. Morgoth's power was disseminated throughout Gold, if nowhere absolute (for he did not create Gold) it was nowhere absent. (It was this Morgoth-element in matter, indeed, which was a prerequisite for such 'magic' and other evils as Sauron practised with it and upon it).

"It is quite possible, of course, that certain 'elements' or conditions of matter had attracted Morgoth's special attention (mainly, unless in the remote past, for reasons of his own plans). For example, all gold (in Middle-earth) seems to have had a specially 'evil' trend - but not silver. Water is represented as being almost entirely free of Morgoth. (This, of course, does not mean that any particular sea, stream, river, well, or even vessel of water could not be poisoned or defiled - as all things could)." The History of Middle-earth, Volume 10, Part V.

So, why gold? It's an interesting question especially if we consider that gold is nowhere condemned in the Bible as such, except peripherally in the golden calf, and since the wise men presented gold as one of their gifts at Christ's epiphany (Matthew 2:11), and silver was defiled as the blood money at His handing over to the Jews (Matthew 26:15), it presents a unique inversion. And this inversion is also seen in Tolkien as the subordinate nature of the Sun to the Moon, and the Tree of Gold to that of Silver. There was no likeness made of Laurelin! While the Sun outshines the Moon (which is said to cherish the Elder Days), the Sun is seen as the sign of a fallen world, a dislocated and imperfect vision (Letters no.131). Perhaps it's a question of the unsullied light from before the World? Or in Christian terms, that very light with which Christ was transfigured before the apostles?

Coming back to silver and gold, I'd be grateful if any readers have any insights into this matter.


  1. Perhaps it is significant that the first light to shine in Middle-earth came from neither the golden sun nor the silver moon: it was the silver light of the stars.

  2. 1549 Marriage service has this which is interesting as it's missing from the new Prayerbook (1662)

    Then shall they agayne looce theyr handes, and the manne shall geve unto the womanne a ring, and other tokens of spousage, as golde or silver, laying the same upon the boke: And the Priest taking the ring shall deliver it unto the man: to put it upon the fowerth finger of the womans left hande. And the man taught by the priest, shall say.

    ¶ With thys ring I thee wed: Thys golde and silver I thee geve: with my body I thee wurship: and withal my worldly Goodes I thee endowe. In the name of the father, and of the sonne, and of the holy goste. Amen.