Delving into Tolkien’s Dark Sides (Part 1)
by John Pletcher

Fall season has arrived in my Shire. Along with the splash of my favorite leaf colors—burnt orange, apple red, and golden yellow—there’s a crisp chill in the air. Most mornings and evenings now call for a sweatshirt while walking my fine canine, Musti the Hound. And with all such autumn feels, I behold thick darkness descending earlier each evening. I must confess, walking the tree-line at the end of our road, I have slight twinges of fear. That stretch of field has been visited by rogue critters, and neighbors have even sighted a fox or two. Consequently, I grab a high-beam flashlight or headlamp for use on the walk. Bright light dispels the darkness.

During life’s wild seasons, fear can descend in a variety of devilish incarnations. Ugly darkness threatens us with daily political turmoil. Shadows of economic uncertainty loom with the market’s fickle volatility. Friends or family might be facing a bleak diagnosis. How do we cope? Can we find hope?

Even the most casual of Tolkien readers and movie fans readily observe the Professor’s strategic use of darkness and light. Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf’s pick for burglar, wanted no part in an adventure. He was a play-it-safe, stay-at-home hobbit. After dinner at the unexpected party, the dwarves began to play their viols. Thorin struck his golden harp, and “Bilbo forgot everything else, and was swept away into dark lands under strange moons . . . The dark came into the room from the little window . . . they played on, while the shadow of Gandalf’s beard wagged against the wall. The dark filled all the room . . .”

Cloaked in magical, musical darkness, the dwarves sang their enchanting song with the result that

. . . the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and a jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick. He looked out of the window. The stars were out in a dark sky above the trees.1

Such interplay of stars, moons, and darkness had a distinct effect upon Bilbo. From these early scenes of popular Middle-earth material, we readily see Tolkien’s use of the darkness-light motif. And we might conclude the author’s tonal purpose is convincingly classic, simply additional accoutrement to the scenery or a method for delineating the bad guys versus good guys.

  1. The Hobbit, 21-24.
  2. The Hobbit, 291-92.
  3. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 119. 
  4. The Fellowship, 75-76.
  5. The Silmarillion, 9.
  6. Ibid., 182.
  7. The Fellowship, 159.
  8. David Rowe, The Proverbs of Middle-earth, 37.
  9. The Return of the King, 139.
  10. Ibid., 169.
  11. Matthew Dickerson, Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victory in The Lord of the Rings, 193-94.
  12. The Return of the King, 280.
  13. Dickerson, 137-38.
  14. The Return of the King, 89.
  15. This darkness-light motif plays a dominate role in Genesis, chapter 1 and the Gospel of John, chapter 1.

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