Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World. Verlyn Flieger. 2d ed. Kent, OH, and London: Kent State University Press, 2002. xxii + 196 pp., $19.00 (trade paperback). ISBN 0873387449.
Reviewed by Douglas C. Kane
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 47:9 (#338) in September 2010.]
Sometimes an author is able to provide the best description of her own work. In the Preface to the Second Edition of Splintered Light, Verlyn Flieger states that “Tolkien’s great essay ‘On Fairy-stories’ is the best and deepest consideration I have encountered of the nature, origin and value of myth and fantasy” (ix). I concur with that statement, but I would also apply it to Flieger’s own book: her great book Splintered Light is the best and deepest consideration I have encountered of the nature, origin and value of Tolkien’s myth and fantasy. In that Preface to the Second Edition, Flieger gives an updated answer to the question of why anyone should read Tolkien: “For refreshment and entertainment and, even more important for a deeper understanding of the ambiguities of good and evil and of ethical and moral dilemmas of a world constantly embroiled in wars with itself” (viii). Quite so.
Flieger demonstrates convincingly that “Tolkien’s work is more relevant to the world today than it appeared to be when The Lord of the Rings was published in the mid-1950s” (ibid). She does so by examining aspects of The Lord of the Rings itself, but in the context of the vast legendarium that has been revealed over the course of the posthumous publication of The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and The History of Middle-earth, as well as Tolkien’s two most important scholarly essays, “On Fairy-stories” and “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” Equally importantly, Flieger demonstrates the crucial influence that the work of another Inkling, Owen Barfield, had on Tolkien’s ideas and his literary output. As Flieger puts it: “Saving the Beowulf poet, Barfield’s theory of the interdependence of myth and language is the primary influence on Tolkien’s mythos. It is very much present in Tolkien’s fictive assumption, the very foundation and basis of his invented world, that language creates the reality it describes and that myth and language work reciprocally on each other. Moreover, Barfield’s theory is central to the theme of The Silmarillion, that the polarities of light and dark, perceived through, expressed in, and configuring language, define one another and the realities of Tolkien’s world” (xxi-xxii).
Before turning to Tolkien’s writings, Flieger observes an aspect of Tolkien’s personality that she identifies as being crucial to the development of those writings. Borrowing a phrase from Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, she calls Tolkien “A Man of Antitheses.” She correctly recognizes that Tolkien extreme oscillation between hope and despair is broadly reflected in his work, particularly in the theme of the polarities of light and dark mentioned above. This concept is further explored in Flieger’s discussion of the two great scholarly essays already mentioned, “On Fairy-stories” and “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” In discussing the influence and importance of these two essays, she notes “[a]lthough one speaks movingly of man’s defeat by ‘the offspring of the dark’ and the other celebrates ‘the job of deliverance,’ each essay acknowledges that both light and dark are elements held in interdependent tension. […] The change from one essay to the other resides in the emphasis. The balance shifts. In the Beowulf essay dark heavily outweighs light; heroes go from the circle of light into the surrounding dark and down to final defeat. In the fairy-story essay, light is victorious and joy triumphs over sorrow” (12-13).
Flieger then goes on to briefly describe Barfield’s theories of poetic diction, which Tolkien told C.S. Lewis “modified his whole outlook” (39). One illustration that she points to (and from which the title of her book is taken) is the poem Mythopoeia that Tolkien wrote for Lewis. In this poem, Tolkien emphasizes Man’s right of sub-creation. As Flieger states, “the poem contains the vivid image of Light splintered from the original White ‘to many hues’ as it is refracted through the prism of the sub-creative human mind” (43). She notes that his use of words and light as “agents of perception” show Tolkien to be invoking Barfield’s theories.
Flieger moves on to discuss the practical application of these theories to Tolkien’s work, particularly “The Silmarillion”. She pays particular attention to the role that Tolkien’s languages play in his fiction. She also examines how the motifs of light and dark are used throughout “The Silmarillion” in the context of different characters, including Melian and Thingol, and their daughter, Lúthien,, and her mortal lover, Beren; Fëanor, the creator of the Silmarils; Eol the dark Elf, and his son, Maeglin whose “function in the story is to be darkness hidden with in light, a darkness that eventually (albeit only in part) overcomes the light” (123). She also begins to explore the paradox of the interplay of fate and free will in Tolkien’s legendarium, a subject that she and others have continued to explore in the intervening years. Finally, she turns back to The Lord of the Rings and explores how “[v]iewed in the context of the Silmarillion, what happens in Frodo’s story of separation and dissolution is a logical part of the progression” (149). I will leave it to the reader to experience Flieger’s description of Frodo’s journeys from light to dark and back again. Suffice to say that she does as fine a job of contextualizing The Lord of the Rings within the broader themes of Tolkien’s legendarium as I have seen.
This bare summary hardly scratches the surface of the depth and value of Splintered Light. Verlyn Flieger has the rare gift of examining Tolkien’s writings and getting beneath the surface in a way that is unexceeded. And nowhere is that gift in greater evidence than in this book. Simply put, it is essential reading for anyone who would better understand Tolkien’s work. Nor is a single reading sufficient. Splintered Light is a rare scholarly work that reveals as much, if not more, in a second reading as it does in the first, and yet more in the third. I can think of no greater praise than that. ≡