Splintered Light

Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World is an admired[1] 1983 book of literary criticism by the Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger, in which she argues that light is a central theme of Tolkien's Middle-earth mythology, in particular in The Silmarillion.

Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World
Splintered Light.jpg
AuthorVerlyn Flieger
SubjectThe Silmarillion
GenreLiterary criticism
PublisherWm. B. Eerdmans
Publication date
Media typePrint


Verlyn Flieger argues in the book that a central symbol in The Silmarillion is light, diminishing from the first creation as it is progressively splintered. Early in the history of Arda, the world is lit by two great lamps created by Eru Iluvatar. These are destroyed, and replaced by the Two Trees of Valinor, and so on.

Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World was published by Wm. B. Eerdmans in 1983. A revised edition was issued in 2002. The work is not illustrated.

The book begins with a chapter on J. R. R. Tolkien as "a man of antitheses", of faith and doubt. It then compares and contrasts two of Tolkien's best-known essays, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" and "On Fairy Stories", the one essentially dark and fateful, the other bright, embracing the possibility of good fortune. The next pair of chapters examine Owen Barfield's philosophy of mythology and Tolkien's view of fantasy as sub-creation, and then their view of language, with the idea that it was once whole, and is now fragmented.

Three chapters then examine the symbolism of light in Middle-earth as divine creation, showing with close analysis of the text of The Silmarillion that the created light is successively fragmented by interaction with the forces of darkness and the choices of the free peoples, Elves and Men. The story of The Lord of the Rings is covered in "One Fragment", in which, after the many disasters of The Silmarillion, the small remnant of the light survives to combat the remaining darkness.

A final chapter reviews the book's findings, noting two necessities, change and language, which is an agent of change.


In A Companion to J. R. R. Tolkien, the Tolkien scholar Bradford Lee Eden describes Splintered Light as "the most important and influential book on both language and music in Tolkien's works", discussing how the two are interwoven as "central themes" throughout The Silmarillion.[1]

In the Rocky Mountain Review, Brian Attebery notes that Flieger shows how Tolkien followed Owen Barfield's views on myth-making, including the idea of a gradual fall from grace over the course of history. In Attebery's view, Flieger successfully links Tolkien's Middle-earth writings to his scholarship, with a "well researched and sympathetic reading of The Silmarillion, a work whose importance she goes far towards demonstrating",[2] showing that even though it contains numerous short tales written decades apart, it is "a unified whole with a deeply felt meaning".[2]

Janice Neuleib, reviewing the work in Christianity & Literature, writes that it both illuminates Tolkien's philosophy and analyses his "creative genius",[3] much of it in territory unexplored by other scholars. The forces of light and dark might, she writes, have been the subject of doubt to the man, but in his writing they are "equal forces held in tension by their opposition to and dependence upon one another ... at once literal, metaphoric, and symbolic".[3] She comments that where his celebrated essay "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" showed the certainty of fated disaster, his other famous essay "On Fairy Stories" considers eucatastrophe, the happy turn of fate in a story. In her view, "the tension of these two opposing forces produced the action of The Silmarillion."[3] However, the core of the book for Neuleib is in the 3 chapters on The Silmarillion itself, in which Flieger traces the progressive splintering of the light created by Eru Iluvatar through the music of the Valar and on down to the Elves, Men, and Hobbits who people Middle-earth. The Elves too are sundered into peoples with differing languages as they agree to approach the light of the Two Lamps or the Two Trees, or reject this. Their languages, too, represent the light, and the original and higher language, Quenya, is spoken only by the Elves who have seen the light of Valinor. The most prized artefacts of the Elves, the Silmarils, capture a little of the splintered light; their maker, Fëanor, is therefore for both Flieger and Tolkien the most significant of the Elves; and he is destroyed by his creation.[3]

Ralph C. Wood, reviewing the book for VII, writes that it is "an indispensable work for any serious study of the great fantasist, especially of The Silmarillion".[4]


  1. ^ a b Eden, Bradford Lee (2013). "Music". In Lee, Stuart D. (ed.). A Companion to J. R. R. Tolkien. Wiley Blackwells. pp. 501–513. ISBN 978-1-119-65602-9.
  2. ^ a b Attebery, Brian (1985). "Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World by Verlyn Flieger". Rocky Mountain Review. 39 (1): 71–72. doi:10.1353/rmr.1985.0065. ISSN 1948-2833.
  3. ^ a b c d Neuleib, Janice (1984). "Review: Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World". Christianity & Literature. 34 (1): 59–61. doi:10.1177/014833318403400114. ISSN 0148-3331.
  4. ^ Wood, Ralph C. (1999). "Review: A Question of Time: J.R.R. Tolkien's Road to Faërie by Verlyn Flieger". VII: Journal of the Marion E. Wade Center. 16: 115–117. JSTOR 45296758.