I've been thinking a lot lately about the story of Elwing. For those who don't know the story, she's an elf in Tolkien's book The Silmarillion, essentially the ancient history in the same world as The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. That story is built around the fate of several jewels called the silmarils. In a certain sense the silmarils are religious relics but they're also great works of craftsmanship, and you have different groups of elves with varying claims to them - some because they originally made the jewels, others because their heroes rescued them from the metaphorical bowels of hell. Add in an ill-advised oath and a long history of genocide and murder, and you get the basic idea.
Elwing comes into the story late, at the tail end. She's inherited one of the silmarils from the aforementioned heroes (her grandparents), and the other group has demanded that she hand over the jewel to them. To her mind the jewel is rightly hers. More to the point, the Feanorians are some seriously bad dudes, or so she would have heard all her life. Her city is surrounded, the barbarians are at the gates as it were, and Elwing has a rather severe decision to make. She obviously feels that handing the jewel over to the Feanorians would be majorly the wrong move, because she was willing to go to war not to do that. Faced with having the silmarils captured, Elwing throws herself from a cliff with the silmaril bound to her forehead. And in a miracle she's turned into a bird and flies away, and the silmaril is kept safe and all that. It's what Tolkien called a eucatastrophe, and it's really a beautiful moment - or it would be, if that was all there was to the story.
See, Elwing isn't just entrusted with the silmaril. She's also the mother of two small children. Lord of the Rings fans will recognize one of them as Elrond, the lord of Rivendell; the other becomes the first king of Numenor. When Elwing throws herself off the cliffs of Sirion she has no realistic hope of escaping alive and even if she does, she will be escaping - leaving her sons to be captured by a genocidal army. People who haven't read the Silmarillion may have a hard time grasping the situation, and I don't want to go into a long analysis of that book. But imagine a Jewish woman fleeing the Nazis and leaving her small children behind. I don't think the Feanorians are like Nazis, but Elwing definitely would have viewed them that way.
This story baffles me. I keep going over it in my head, looking for some way to make sense of Elwing's actions. I know they are required by the story. I know I am supposed to feel relief at her escape. But really, I can't get past what she left behind.
I've been thinking about this story since I reread them back in March, so long before this month's synchroblog topic was announced. Maybe it is a sign that I am obsessing, how easily my mind turned the topic to Elwing. But it's not like I'm thinking about Elwing non-stop and it was literally the first thing that popped into my mind when I read the topic. This month synchrobloggers were asked, among other things, to write about some of the things we’ve let go of along the way in our spiritual journeys. And Elwing's story seems naturally suited to that topic, because what has preoccupied me so much is that she left behind so much - too much, to my mind.
The silmarils, viewed as an artefact, are just a thing. Elwing is willing to leave her sons to the Feanorians but not the silmaril. To borrow Martin Buber's terminology it seems like Elwing is substituting an I/thou relationship for an I/it. That isn't the whole story, because I think the silmarils can really be viewed as a holy relic. They contain something pure from a world that has fallen away. But still, so much of the Silmarillion is the story of people doing too much to reclaim or protect those jewels. Ungoliant's all-consuming anger. The Kinslayings, and the politics that lead to that on both sides. And of course the Feanorians' Oath itself.
The tricky thing of course is that the silmarils aren't just a thing. They are in a very real sense a revelation. They are light locked up from before the world's dimming, and part of Elwing's victory is that the silmaril becomes a star in the sky: a guiding light, forever removed from our ability to tarnish it. And read in that way, Elwing made the right choice to sacrifice herself for something so rare. Still, I can't help getting upset about how easily Elwing ran away from her sons.
I have to remind myself (and keep reminding myself) that there is a real difference between sacrifice and liberation. The latter is part of growing up, like a hermit crab leaving its shell behind so it can make a bigger one that gives itself room to grow. And it seems unavoidable that we would outgrow old crutches and leave them behind. Some things really are only good up to a point, and old beliefs can become hindrances after a while. I've definitely seen that in my own life as I've tried to reconcile the things I were taught as a child but that as an adult I really don't think the Bible teaches. (That only Christians go to heaven, for example.) I know why I believed those things at one time and why some people still do, but I also know that part of becoming an adult is abandoning old beliefs in favor of the truth I am discovering as an adult. Setting aside childish things, to use St. Paul's phrase.
But what should rightly be left behind, and what should we hold on to? I don't want to be like Elwing, leaving the truly precious things behind; but neither do I want to turn treasures into burdens. It can be such a real tightrope-walk, figuring that distinction out. If there even is an answer to be had. Some days I'm not so sure.