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Tolkien's Middle-earth:

Lesson Plans for Secondary School Educators

Unit Four: One Ring to Rule Them All


"The Light Before the Sun"

Late in 1951 Milton Waldman, an editor with the London publisher Collins, invited J.R.R. Tolkien to articulate his case that The Lord of the Rings should be published simultaneously with The Silmarillion. The result was astonishing: a letter of some ten thousand words — including this excerpt, Tolkien's fascinating account of the Ancient Age of Middle-earth.

The main body of the tale, The Silmarillion proper, is about the fall of the most gifted kindred of the Elves, their exile from Valinor (a kind of Paradise, the home of the gods) in the furthest West, their re-entry into Middle-earth, the land of their birth but long under the rule of the Enemy, and their strife with him, the power of Evil still visibly incarnate. It receives its name because the events are all threaded upon the fate and significance of the Silmarilli ("radiance of pure light") or Primeval Jewels. By the making of gems the sub-creative function of the Elves is chiefly symbolized, but the Silmarilli were more than just beautiful things as such. There was Light. There was the Light of Valinor made visible in the Two Trees of Silver and Gold. These were slain by the Enemy out of malice, and Valinor was darkened, though from them, ere they died utterly, were derived the lights of Sun and Moon . . .

But the chief artificer of the Elves (Fëanor) had imprisoned the light of Valinor in the three supreme jewels, the Silmarilli, before the trees were sullied or slain. This Light thus lived thereafter only in these gems. The Fall of the Elves comes about through the possessive attitude of Fëanor and his seven sons to these gems. They are captured by the Enemy, set in his Iron Crown, and guarded in his impenetrable stronghold. The sons of Fëanor take a terrible and blasphemous oath of enmity and vengeance against all or any, even the gods, who dares to claim any part or right in the Silmarilli. They pervert the greater part of their kindred, who rebel against the gods, and depart from Paradise, and go to make hopeless war upon the Enemy. The first fruit of their fall is war in Paradise, the slaying of Elves by Elves, and this and their oath dogs all their later heroism, generating treacheries and undoing all victories. The Silmarillion is the history of the War of the Exiled Elves against the Enemy, which all takes place in the North-west of the world (Middle-earth). Several tales of victory and tragedy are caught up in it; but it ends with catastrophe, and the passing of the Ancient World, the world of the long First Age. The jewels are recovered (by the final intervention of the gods) only to be lost forever to the Elves, one in the sea, one in the deeps of earth, and one as a star of heaven. This legendarium ends with a vision of the end of the world, its breaking and remaking, and the recovery of the Silmarilli and the "light before the Sun" — after a final battle which owes, I suppose, more to the Norse vision of Ragnarök than to anything else, though it is not much like it . . .

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(from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter, Houghton Mifflin, 1981, pages 148 – 149)

Unit Four Content

Comments for Teachers
Preliminary Quiz
Key Terms
Discussion Topics
Suggested Activities

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