'Light' as a concept seems confusing, since it can possibly encompass (or just be supplied in varying amounts by) Eru's Flame Imperishable, the Lamps of the Valar, the Two Trees, the Silmarils, the sun and moon themselves (only literal light?), the high elves (particularly the amount they're said to have absorbed from the Trees), and possibly even have something to do with the Rings of Power (as surmised from their superficial conceptual similarity to the Silmarils).

Do you think it's possible these concepts (except maybe literal visible light?) are therefore unified as forms/derivations/grades of the Flame Imperishable?

P.S. To further complicate matters, why does Tolkien insist on their being 2 "flavors" of light always on prominent display for the entirety of Arda, as noted by the duality of the Lamps, the Trees, and the sun and moon? The latter of course corresponds to day cycles, which are intuitively familiar, but still technically unaccounted for (particularly for the "magical light" context).

Edit: Some clarification of this matter can be found here: If the Lamps of Valinor enabled the Spring of Arda, is their light derived from the Flame Imperishable (Secret Fire)?

  • 23
    Men thought it was a particle. Elves thought it was a wave. Although they wouldn’t have put it in those terms, Hobbits intuitively understood it was both, which is why they could become invisible. Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 11:56
  • 2
    Would you clarify the "superficial conceptual similarity" of the Rings of Power to the Silmarils.
    – Eugene
    Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 11:57
  • 1
  • 4
    @OrangeDog not so: the light of the Trees is liquid and collected in vats. In the Book of Lost Tales it's even more unlike ordinary light. Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 4:49
  • 7
    I think that you would get different answers if you interrogate Tolkien's works at different periods of his life. The concept of light in the original Book of Lost Tales is vastly different from his ideas from the much later Round World era, when the sun existed from the beginning of Arda. Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 7:50

1 Answer 1


To give Tolkien's own words about this:

As far as all this has symbolical or allegorical significance. Light is such a primeval symbol in the nature of the Universe, that it can hardly be analysed. The Light of Valinor (derived from light before any fall) is the light of art undivorced from reason, that sees things both scientifically (or philosophically) and imaginatively (or subcreatively) and says that they are good' – as beautiful. The Light of Sun (or Moon) is derived from the Trees only after they were sullied by Evil.
Footnote to a 1951 Letter to Milton Waldman (Letters of JRR Tolkien #131)

For more discussion of the usage of the theme of light in Tolkien's writings see the corresponding entry in Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull's J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, and see Verlyn Flieger's Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien World.

  • 7
    @hamstar - I quoted it because it's Tolkien's exact words. If I were to try rewriting it it would just be me speaking about the significance of the theme in Tolkien's work, which is the type of openended thing that I think doesn't really fit the nature of this website. (Literature SE might be a better fit. ) But my main takeaway from the quote is that Tolkien is acknowledging there is some allegorical significance to his usage of light.
    – ibid
    Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 0:29
  • So my takeaway is he says it is symbolic/allegorical, but as it's a 'primeval' concept, I guess it gets to be a somehow-intuitive concept who's nature is not meant to be spelled out, or may even vary per circumstance by implicit interpretation. My point, however, is this doesn't seem to actually be the case, as 'light' is all too often represented as a substance, albeit lacking a clear identity. I think the best concept Tolkien provides to infer a possible identity is the Flame Imperishable, due to its properties and rarity.
    – hamstar
    Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 6:17
  • 2
    I can try to interpret here as I understand it: The Light of Valinor does not just allow one to physically see something, it is the light that allows to "see" both physically and spiritually. To understand and see the beauty of things. After it is sullied with Evil, the light can only illuminate physically. Also he says light as a symbol is so omnipresent in the history of mankind, trying to really analyze it is kind of futile. There is also a biblical aspect here - he seems to allude to the light that was there before the fall, which was there when the creator said the creation was good.
    – kutschkem
    Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 9:30
  • @kutschkem After the trees were destroyed, their light was destroyed (with possible exception for the Silmarils). Though you'd think a fruit from those trees could make a new tree, instead of simply make the sun. That said, is the sun merely only a 'physical illumination'? Many earth cultures think otherwise, so maybe Tolkien does as well. Also, would the idea of 'seeing spiritually' have something to do with the unseen realm?
    – hamstar
    Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 13:10
  • 4
    For some context, this is a footnote connected to this portion of the letter, talking about the Fall of the Elves and the plot/title of The Silmarillion: "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.*"
    – V2Blast
    Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 17:30

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.