When All Other Lights Go Out

Stars Above Haleakala, Haleakala National Park, Maui, HI

 

“Though here at journey’s end I lie
in darkness buried deep,
beyond all towers strong and high,
beyond all mountains steep,
above all shadows rides the Sun
and Stars for ever dwell:
I will not say the Day is done,
nor bid the stars farewell.”
-Samwise Gamgee (LOTR 909)

 

I am a chronic stargazer. Place me under an open evening sky and I will inevitably look up and try to spot as many celestial lights as I can. I’ve been known to hassle my family for weeks on end to go stargazing with me in the middle of winter.

The stars just never cease to amaze me. Whenever I look at them, I feel like I am peeking through the cracks of eternity into God’s workshop. The sight of them moves me in ways that no other work of nature or art can. There’s no other word to describe it – to me the stars are holy.

As it turns out, I am in good company in my love and admiration for the stars. Man has seemingly always looked to the stars and found them to be more than mere balls of gas burning billions of miles away.

Van Gogh found comfort in a starry night during his interim in an assylum.

Van Gogh found comfort in a starry night during his interim in an assylum.

The ancients saw in their placement and movements portents of things to come. Mystical monuments like the pyramids and stonehenge were built to match the positions of stars in the heavens above. Abraham looked to the stars and saw God’s promise written in the heavens. In following a star, the wise men found the Savior. Even in modern times, artists still look to the stars and find the fantastic.

But today, I want to talk about my friend Professor Tolkien once more. Anyone who reads Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or other writings will see that stars figure fairly prominently in his works. They are symbols marking the dwarven gates of Moria, gilding the banners of the King of Gondor, and infusing the songs of the elves. In fact, the elves are known as “the people of the stars”, and worship the goddess who created them – Varda (whom they call Elbereth).

There’s a reason for this. In Tolkien’s mythos, stars represent hope at its most pure. They are a force of protection and inspiration because they both figuratively and literally drive off darkness.

Take, for example, one of my favorite moments in the book (and the movie) that occurs in the Return of the King.

A group of faithful soldiers are trying to reach the safety of the city, but they are pursued by servants of the dark lord who ride flying beasts. Bringing with them darkness and terror, the evil dudes (Nazgûl) are dessimating the ranks of the fleeing soldiers. Men are being thrown around and trampled. They have no way to withstand their attackers. It looks like they are all going to die.

But then a miracle happens – and this is where it gets good. Gandalf, the wizard, rides out on the fastest horse to meet the men and their attackers. Described as “a small star down on the dusky fields,” he sends out a shaft of light that drives the evil things away, and everybody makes it to the city safe. And despite the ominous cloud-cover and smoke from the enemy, the passage ends saying “…it seemed for a while less dark.” (LOTR 809-810)

JNXAQiBThe very violent onslaught of darkness here is matched and outdone by the light of one “small star” (Gandalf) that comes out to meet it. It’s a humble light, described as being “dim”, but it’s enough to save the lives of many men and to quell their fear.

I guess what I love so much about this whole instance is the idea that light actively drives off darkness. Darkness, by definition, cannot exist where there is light; and light cannot coexist with darkness. Darkness cannot consume light, but light can push darkness away.

Is there a better example of this than the stars themselves? Embedded within the fabric of night skies, stars are surrounded by darkness. What makes them remarkable is that they push off the darkness so they can shine through to our vision. It may be a small light, nothing more than a pinpoint in the sky, but it is enough for us to see it. And there is that much less darkness in the sky because of it.

The implications of this thought are apparent in other instances in Tolkien’s work as well. In fact there is one star in particular that acts as a major force of good and hope in the grand narrative of middle earth.

donato giancola earendil elwing

Eärendil sailing towards the gods – by Donato Giancola

The story starts with a man named Eärendil (who is incidentally the son of that guy Tuor who I went on and on about). He was a sailor, and grew up in a time of war between elves and men and other evil forces. His family and friends had been attacked many times. When he’d finally had enough, he sailed west to meet the gods and plead for mercy for both his own people and their enemies. The gods were so impressed by this act of selfless love that they granted his request, made him immortal and sent him with his ship and shining-stone crown into the heavens. Eärendil thus became a new star in the sky.

When his ship rose into the sky, everyone was so inspired and heartened by the sight of it, they named Eärendil’s star “the Star of High Hope.” (The Silmarillion 250)

Fast forward an age or two. Frodo is on his way to Mount Doom to destroy the evil One Ring, and takes a pit stop in Lothlorien, the elven bastion headed by the Lady Galadriel. Before he leaves, Frodo receives a very important gift from Galadriel: the light of the star Eärendil itself enclosed in a glass phial.

phial“In this phial’ she said, ‘is caught the light of Eärendil’s star, set amid the waters of my fountain. It will shine brighter when night is about you. May it be a light for you in dark places, when all other lights go out.” (LOTR 376)

Frodo is very grateful for this gift but basically promptly forgets about it until he is on the very brink of the evil kingdom of Sauron. It isn’t until he encounters Shelob that Frodo uses the starlight.

Now, a little backstory on Shelob: she is a freaking huge, horrifically nasty spider so evil that she actually oozes darkness like a substance all around her. She stinks, she’s basically immortal, and she would love to eat you.

Those of you who have seen the movie know a little of what I am talking about. It’s no great party when Sam and Frodo find themselves in her midst, to say the least. What you don’t get the full effect from the film, however, is just how dark this journey is.

In the book, Sam is with Frodo as they pass through her tunnels and it’s so dark, they are completely blind. They even have to hold each other’s hands so they don’t get separated in the labyrinthine passages. For hours they walk in the suffocating air, unable to see a thing. And then, in the midst of their stumbling, they hear a noise from one of the tunnels. They start to run, but hear movement behind them and the distinctive steps of a giant creeping thing.

And then they hit a dead end. In that moment of sheer panic and despair, Sam in a flash of genius tells Frodo to break out the phial Galadriel had given him. Frodo pulls it out, says the magic words, and it lights up.

frodo phialIt is here in the book that Tolkien describes in detail the impact the light (starlight) has in that instant of illumination:

“For a moment it glimmered, faint as a rising star struggling in heavy earthward mists, and then as its power waxed, and hope grew in Frodo’s mind, it began to burn, and kindled to a silver flame, a minute heart of dazzling light, as though Eärendil had himself come down from the high sunset paths with the last Silmaril upon his brow. The darkness receded from it until it seemed to shine in the center of a globe of airy crystal, and the hand that held it sparkled with white fire.” (LOTR 720)

In the face of that white fire, power and hope, Shelob cannot stand the searing attack of the starlight upon her and she backs off. When she tries a second assault later on, the captured starlight has a similar effect –  “It flamed like a star that leaping from the firmament sears the dark air with intolerable light.”(LOTR 730)

That’s just it! Stars (and all light) is “intolerable” to darkness. Light is an actual force that works on darkness and lessens it. This foul creature Shelob, which exudes darkness itself, is a very very very huge, powerful monster. But the light of a single star is enough to make her go away, to overwhelm her.

Stars are symbolic of that idea that even the smallest light is potent guardian against dark and fear. When the night is darkest, the stars shine brightest.

One last example: As Sam and Frodo reach the last leg of their journey to destroy the ring and head towards the volcano Mount Doom, they are starving, dying of thirst, and far beyond the point of exhaustion. They have long surpassed what they believed to be their limits and are barely holding on. They lie down to sleep one night, and Sam cannot sleep. He and Frodo have been under a sickly cloud-cover for months, and haven’t seen the sky.

Star of Eärendil above Mordor.

Star of Eärendil above Mordor.

But that night, Sam looks up in the middle of the bleak desolation of Mordor and sees a star -Eärendil again – breaking through the clouds for only a moment. It brings an unlooked-for, but desperately needed, comfort to Sam’s heart.

“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”(LOTR 922)

Darkness often seems overwhelming and victorious. I know I’ve faced plenty of times when life seems pretty dark, and hope is in short supply. But, as Sam found when looking to Earendil, these shadows come for a time, and then they pass. Some take longer than others but they always pass. Regardless of what goes on in our lives, there is light that is shining and fighting off the dark. It may be small, but it burns. It may be forgotten, but it comes when we most need it. And it may be nothing more than a dim flicker of hope – but much like the stars, that hope is brightest and most meaningful in the dark.

 

 

 
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2 thoughts on “When All Other Lights Go Out

  1. This morning as I was practicing, two problems overwhelmed my thinking. One problem was something that I have been trying to work out for six months, the other for several years. As the frustration built, the rain stopped and there was a break in the clouds. At that point, in the eastern sky, I saw two stars that reminded me of the Star of Earendil photo you posted. (Yes, the clouds were dark gray not red, but that is a good thing.) I remembered what you wrote and after I finished, I started working on the six month problem again and actually made some progress. Perhaps the same will happen with the other problem as I keep trying to go forward. So, thank you for your post.

    • I am glad that what I wrote was of some help to you – congrats on the progress! Keep it up. I don’t doubt that you will find a way to work out both problems, and that you will make it to the other side (just like Sam and Frodo and the others). I wish you the best!

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