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In the Silmarillion, the Silmarils were described as being very powerful, holy jewels.

What form did this power take exactly?

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Gathered all the displays of power in canon in my answer. –  user8252 Dec 19 '12 at 0:54
    
The simarils had the power to make you want them –  Sam I am Dec 21 '12 at 17:52
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The silmarils contained the combined blessings of the Valars, in addition to a significant part of Feanor's strength. Displays of power in canon: helping Luthien when she put Morgoth to sleep, breaking the Girdle of Melian, opening the path to Valinor, enhancing Dior's beauty beyond anyone in Middle-Earth, killing Luthien, bringing prosperity to Doriath. The light of the Trees was no mere light, it was the physical manifestation of the blessing of the Valar upon the world, bringing beauty, knowledge and power.

Indirect manifestation in LotR, when Sam uses some of it via Galadriel: chasing a spawn of Ungoliant, breaking an invisible barrier.

Speculative powers: it's widely believed by fans that each of the Silmaril is linked to one of the elements of Arda due to: Mandos saying that the Silmarils were linked to the Fate of Arda, the Three rings of power being linked to the three elements, and their eventual fate: one into the sky, one into the sea, one into lava.

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The Silmarils had no power in and of themselves. What was contained within them was the Light of the Two Trees, which had been killed by the spider Ungoliant at the behest of Melkor near the end of the First Age.

In J. R. R. Tolkien's legendarium, the Two Trees of Valinor are Telperion and Laurelin, the Silver Tree and the Gold that brought light to the Land of the Valar in ancient times. They were destroyed by Ungoliant at Melkor's behest, but their last flower and fruit were made by the Valar into the Moon and the Sun.

Made by the Noldor, Fëanor, it was the light from the Two Trees that made them significant, no other construct could ever replicate the light from the Two Trees, once they died. The Sun and Moon were sung into existence from the last fruit of the two dying Trees.

What made them worthy of song were the struggles to claim them by all parties involved.

  • The Valar could have potentially returned the Two trees to life since the Silmarils contained their Light, but Fëanor refused to give them up.

  • Morgorth wanted them because they were the last, best creation of the First Age and holding the Light of the Two Trees was a treasure of incalculable wealth.

  • Fëanor's pride in the unmatched quality of his craftsmanship made him unable to part with what was arguably the most famous artifact ever made.

  • Even the combined skills and ability of all the Valar were unable to replicate their creation. Fëanor's work was unable to be duplicated. Thus the value of the Silmarils was their unique craftsmanship and the primal Light held within.

  • They would eventually burn Morgorth if he touched them unprotected as he became more corrupt in his nature. Morgorth would eventually lay claim to them and the War of the Valar would be to reclaim them.

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They seem to have some powers. Morgoth's hands are burned when he touches them for example... –  WOPR Nov 20 '12 at 23:57
    
That wasn't a power of the Silmarils; that was because "Varda hallowed the Silmarils so that thereafter no mortal flesh, nor hands unclean, nor anything of evil will might touch them, but it was scorched and withered." As for why Beren wasn't burned - well, I guess if it's Eru's design then Eru overrules Varda any day. –  Jimmy Shelter Nov 21 '12 at 1:09
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I'm still not convinced they had no intrinsic power cf "Of all the terrors that came ever into Beleriand ere Angband's fall the madness of Carcharoth was the most dreadful; for the power of the Silmaril was hidden within him." –  WOPR Nov 21 '12 at 6:50
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Think of Carcharoth as a mad dog whose insides were being burned away by the inherent holiness of the Silmaril. It did not make him more dangerous, except in the way an animal crazed with pain might be to us. It gave him no special abilities, only kept him enraged until he could be put down. –  Thaddeus Nov 21 '12 at 6:58
    
Even if "power of the Silmaril" is taken at face value, it's still evident that the Silmarils had no intrinsic power when initially created (surely Tolkien would have mentioned that); any "power" they may have had would have come from Varda's hallowing, and possibly Mandos' foretelling that the fates of the world were locked in them. But Feanor's intent in creating them was explicitly to capture the light of the Trees (possibly - according to UT IIRC - inspired by Galadriel's hair). –  Jimmy Shelter Nov 22 '12 at 2:01
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Thaddeus has the right answer.

I will add, though, that power (especially magical power) is a very nebulous thing in Tolkien's world. Gandalf does a remarkable job (for a wizard) in using hardly any magic at all; he lights up his staff and makes fireworks. Galadriel, arguably the most powerful or second most powerful non-Ainur in the Third Age, doesn't really exhibit any powers (other than a little fortune-telling). But they both had power to stir people to do great deeds.

And so it was with many things like the Silmarils. They had Power, but they didn't have "powers". Power was an intangible, ethereal device in Tolkien's World (IMHO), and should not be taken too literally.

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Who's the first most powerful non-Ainur in the third age, if not Galadriel? –  vivaldi7 Dec 1 '12 at 2:14
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Elrond, Cirdan or Glorfindel could rank up there. Personally, I would put them Glorfindel (assuming he's the same Glorfindel that fought the Balrog), Galadriel, Elrond, Cirdan, Celeborn. Aragorn could possibly be in there before Celeborn, but then we get into what defines "power". –  Joe Casadonte Dec 2 '12 at 16:59
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I agree with this answer so much it hurts :) I think magic in Middle Earth is intentionally nebulous. It is not described precisely; its boundaries aren't detailed as in a Dungeons & Dragons rulebook. This also applies to expressions such as "Darkness", "Shadow", etc; I think they are meant to be emotional terms, more than literal. –  Andres F. Dec 19 '12 at 4:12
    
It's nebulous, that doesn't mean that we know nothing. The silmarils are immensely powerful, with numerous displays of power in canon. –  user8252 Dec 19 '12 at 8:43
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First of all the power was in them to revive the Two Trees, if they were to be broken so the light would "return to its source" so to speak and second:

Then Elwing and the people of Sirion would not yield the jewel which Beren had won and Luthien had worn, and for which Dior the fair was slain; and least of all while Earendil their lord was on the sea, for it seemed to them that in the Silmaril lay the healing and the blessing that had come upon their houses and their ships. And so there came to pass the last and cruellest of the slayings of Elf by Elf; and that was the third of the great wrongs achieved by the accursed oath. (Silm, Chapter 24, Of the Voyage of Eärendil and the War of Wrath).

The light of Two Trees is in itself great power, each elf who have seen it is stronger and more powerful than others of his kind who do not:

The Noldor, outnumbered and taken at unawares, were yet swiftly victorious; for the light of Aman was not yet dimmed in their eyes, and they were strong and swift, and deadly in anger, and their swords were long and terrible. The Orcs fled before them, and they were driven forth from Mithrim with great slaughter, and hunted over the Mountains of Shadow into the great plain of Ard-galen, that lay northward of Dorthonion.

So maybe Silmarils could somehow enhance natural traits of beings who had them (sort of like the Rings of Power, but in their case through the holy light which the jewels contained), we know that Luthien's beauty was increased (and I doubt that it was only the matter of stylish jewellery:)

But the wise have said that the flame of Luthien wearing the necklace was so great that it was too bright for mortal lands.

This would also explain Carcharoth's passing through Girdle of Melian, also unstoppable rage caused by unbearable pain from holy light and enhancing native power, added significantly to his might, enough to fulfill the prophecy and kill Huan.

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Indeed. There is also a reference in Feanor's speech about the power of the jewels. –  user8252 Dec 24 '12 at 23:33
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As far as I know, the "white star" Sam saw in Mordor was a Silmaril, and the sight of it made him feel hope, and caused him to become fearless enough to sleep.

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