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Splintered Light: Tolkien's World, Revised Edition: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World Kindle Edition
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"Splintered Light" is relatively easy to read, but its subject matter might be to narrow for the general audience (including most fantasy buffs).
I was struck by two things when reading it. One was Tolkien's strong pessimism. Middle Earth is the product of a cosmic fall in several steps, each new step making the world even darker and more evil. Death is a "gift", and the only way to Light is through Death and Darkness. This almost morbid pessimism was apparently connected to Tolkien's depressive private personality.
The other thing that struck me was the strong "paganism" of Tolkien's works. While Tolkien claimed that he was hiding Christianity for some kind of tactical reasons, and that his work was Christian in spirit, it does seem to differ even from the spirit of Christianity on several important points. Thus, humans are created in an already fallen and mortal state in Tolkien's universe. Evil isn't a privation, but seems to be a real substance, dualistically confronting the Light. The outcome of the cosmic struggle is always in doubt, and Flieger perceptively points out that Frodo actually *failed* in "Lord of the Rings", succumbing to the evil powers of the Ring.
Perhaps Tolkien didn't see any contradiction between this and his Christian faith, but it's a common criticism of "Lord of the Rings" that the evil characters (and evil itself) is somehow more convincingly described - and more potent - than the forces of good. (As a side point, Swedish TV once interviewed a Satanist to claimed that his view of Heaven resembled Middle-Earth!) On a more trivial level, there is the implicit polytheism of the creation story in "The Silmarillion", with God (Ilúvatar) showing a kind of Platonic forms to a host of lesser deities (Ainur), who then creates Middle Earth. Some of the creators, the Valar, eventually descend and find a place of habitation on Middle Earth as a kind of Olympic deities.
Flieger believes that Tolkien was to some extent influenced by Owen Barfield's book "Poetic Diction" and more broadly by Barfield's view of language and myth. Perhaps, but personally I find the differences more striking. Tolkien did regard the poet as a sub-creator, but the world created by the poet seems to be an illusion, a kind of faint memory of our existence before the Fall. It's difficult not to view Tolkien as a hopeless escapist. Redemption is a matter of faith, and awaits us in a very distant future. By contrast, Barfield believed in an ongoing cosmic evolution, so in his scenario the sub-creators are quite literal. By changing the consciousness of humanity, poets can change reality itself, since reality is a "collective representation" of our cultural consciousness. Like his mentor Rudolf Steiner, Barfield believed that the "fall" of humanity was a necessary part of the cosmic process. Indeed, we couldn't exist as fully-developed, self-conscious individuals without an initial estrangement from Nature and the spirit-world. This state is quasi-dialectically transcended at a later stage of evolution, when we return back to Nature and Spirit, but with our self-consciousness intact. In Tolkien's scenario, there doesn't seem to be anything positive about the Fall at all. It seems to be a never-ending descensus into darkness, with a supernatural solution only at the very bitter end.
Although both Barfield and Tolkien were anti-modernist and retro-romantic, Barfield's perspective is nevertheless a strange form of optimism, rooted in Steiner's occult teachings of Anthroposophy with its upward-moving cosmic cycles, while Tolkien's perspective is a traditional Christianity with a strong pessimistic and "pagan" spin á la Ragnarök. Perhaps Tolkien did read "Poetic Diction", but he clearly never understood where Barfield was coming from...
Finally, a disclosure. I've read LOTR, but I haven't read all of "The Silmarillion". Frankly, have you? However, I read sufficiently much to catch the main lines of Flieger's arguments. As already indicated, "Splintered Light" is probably too narrow for the general reader, but as a closer analysis of Tolkien's mythology, it does deserve four stars.
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Many of the essays in this work deal with Flieger's analysis of the influence on Tolkien of his fellow Inkling, Owen Barfield. Barfield had developed a linguistic theory of the fragmentation (or splintering) of meaning, which caused Tolkien to rethink many of his own ideas on philology. Flieger demonstrates that Tolkien used Barfield's concept throughout his writings, but most especially in the stories and tales which became The Silmarillion. Flieger's masterly retelling and analyses of many of those tales, especially those dealing with Feanor's creation of the Silmarils, their theft by Morgoth after his destruction of the Two Trees of Valinor, and the ensuing rebellion of the Noldor breathe fresh life into words that I have dearly loved ever since first reading them in 1977.
Splintered Light, like the rest of Flieger's work, is a highly scholarly but accessible and fascinating work. All lovers of the worlds created by J.R.R. Tolkien owe it to themselves to read and savor Flieger's fascinating analyses.
It has also in the later chapters much of interest to say about Frodo and how he was "broken by a burden of fear and horror - broken down, and in the end made into something quite different," as the Professor wrote in one of his letters. "Filled with clear light" he was to become, though we see but the beginning of that transformation and can only guess that it continued after he went West. There is also an analysis of "The Sea-Bell" poem which is my favorite of mine due to its association with Frodo. Another very interesting book from Flieger and my favorite of hers. If you only read one of hers, read this one!