A Journey in the Dark
“It cannot be seen, cannot be felt,
Cannot be heard, cannot be smelt,
It lies behind stars and under hills,
And empty holes it fills,
It comes first and follows after,
Ends life, kills laughter.”
The answer to this enigma of the Riddle Game in Tolkien’s The Hobbit? Darkness.
It is not uncommon for a child to fear the dark: of monsters hidden under beds or behind doors, of impenetrable shadow and unshakable quiet lurking beyond the window or down the hall. Within darkness dwells a mystery, the unknown, the unascertainable. Yet there is deep nuance to the idea of darkness, a complexity experienced traversing the Mines of Moria.
The Fellowship’s journey under the Misty Mountains is dark because darkness, as most famously attributed to Albert Einstein, is the absence of light. Darkness does not exist in its own right: it is an opposite, a lack of, a condition without, a void. There is a danger to this natural darkness, but not an evil about it: with respect, many in Middle earth (such as the dwarves) can work wonders out of the depths beyond the light, alighting the world with the beauty of mithril. In our own society, there are many who enjoy darkness for its peace and tranquility, and work for good during its still hours. The darkness offers perspective and pause to appreciate the things of the light, and even within the darkness, one can find wonderful puzzles of creation.
Yet there is something beyond natural darkness, something that Milton perceived when he described in Paradise Lost, “no light, rather darkness visible.” There is a darkness that one disturbs when one delves “too greedily and too deep.” There is a darkness Glorfindel foresees that “in the end, if all else is conquered, Bombadil will fall, Last as he was First, and then Night will come.” There is a darkness, as written in the Gospel of John, when “the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light.” This darkness is still a void and a nothingness, but paradoxically fashioned out of void and nothingness. It is a lack but also an empty filling; it is a dearth and yet a cornucopia of naught. For this darkness derives from existence – it flows out of choice and will.
And so, in a way, we rehabilitate darkness: for Moria’s evil comes not from its lack of light but its abundance of vain shade. Often willed darkness reigns in natural darkness for its sinister purposes: often the paucity of light serves the paucity of good and truth. Yet the dark alliance might be broken by those in league with the light. For as John wrote, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” When the light illuminates the darkness, the lurking monsters of darkness are driven off. Yet when those with the light look into the darkness, the beautiful mysteries of the dark are revealed.