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Button Culture vs. Jewel Culture in Tolkien

Updated: Sep 4, 2023

Illustration of Aulë and Yavanna
Aulë and Yavanna - Miriam Ellis

There's a perilous rift that splits Tolkien's legendarium right down the middle from the Valar to the Ring, and it begins with a famous marital dispute between the celestial beings Aulë and Yavanna. Whether you see yourself more as a hobbit, an elf, a Man, or relate most to some other type of sub-creation, where you stand on either side of this split may have a lot to do with your relationship to what I think of as button culture vs. jewel culture in The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings.

This article may help you establish more a of kinship with certain folk and I hope it increases your enjoyment of the texts.

The Aulë/Yavanna Divide

Illustration of one of Tolkien's dwarves mining gems
Dwarf mining gems - Miriam Ellis

While Tolkien's sub-creation story is not a Christian allegory, it's been easiest for me to understand the Valar as angels, and the great sin of the Vala Aulë is that he becomes impatient and creates the seven dwarf fathers before the supreme being Eru Ilúvatar has awakened his own elves.

Out of love, Aulë begins to teach them speech and imparts to them his own love of craft and gems but, when reproved by Eru, Aulë weeps and is prepared to smite his children with his mighty hammer. Mercifully, Eru simply puts the dwarves to sleep until a later date. When the dwarves do awake, they love Aulë, and call him Mahal, and their fascination with jewels and metalwork becomes a defining characteristic of their folk.

By the time we first meet Thorin Oakenshield's company in the The Hobbit, their questing song proves their love of treasure and offers us a sparkling glimpse of better days in Erebor when the dwarves were free for a time to make beautiful things.

On silver necklaces they hung the flowering stars image
The flowering stars - Miriam Ellis

For ancient king and elvish lord There many a gleaming golden hoard They shaped and wrought, and light they caught To hide in gems on hilt of sword

On silver necklaces they strung The flowering stars on crowns they hung The dragon-fire in twisted wire They meshed the light of moon and sun

Aulë's sin isn't so devastating as the disharmony created by the enemy Melkor, but apart from being overhasty, he is secretive, and this wounds his wife, Yavanna, whose love belongs to plants and animals. When he finally shares with her what he has done, she replies,

"...because thou hiddest this thought from me until its achievement, thy children will have little love for the things of my love. They will love first the things made by their own hands, as doth their father. They will delve in the earth, and the things that grow and live upon the earth they will not heed. Many a tree shall feel the bite of their iron without pity."

To console Yavanna, the ents come into being to protect innocent, defenseless plants and when she returns to her husband's smithy in triumph and tells him his dwarven children had better be on their guard in the forests, Aulë is unmoved, replying in a manner that can only have exasperated his wife,

"Nonetheless they will have need of wood."

It is this disunity and tension between nature and craft, between things that grow and things that are made, which sets the stage for the bejeweled Silmarillion epic, explains Thorin's hostile greed over his treasure trove in The Hobbit, and dooms poor Frodo to try but fail to relinquish a golden ring. In J.R.R. Tolkien's stories, plants are not merely plants, and jewels are not merely adornments. They are life, culture, medicine, heritage, power, beauty, and temptation.

Of Elves, Gems and Jewelry

Image of the Teleri scattering the Noldor's jewels on beaches and in pools
"The yellow gold and jewels wan" - Miriam Ellis

When the elves at last awake at Cuiviénen and make their various ways to Valinor, it is the Noldor who apprentice themselves to Aulë and learn much of his wondrous craft. King Finwë's masons discover the earth-gems and learn to shape them, and at first, all is well because they freely share them with everyone. When the Teleri arrive, we are gifted with one of the most scintillating passages in all of The Silmarillion:

"Many jewels the Noldor gave them, opals and diamonds and pale crystals, which they strewed upon the shores and scattered in the pools; marvelous were the beaches of Elendë in those days."

Tolkien's device of the Silmarils
The Silmarils by J.R.R. Tolkien

Gems at this stage seem a part of nature, made by the Earth, and not a temptation to hoarding. The trouble arises when the Noldorin elf Fëanor takes the light of the Two Trees which illuminate Valinor and makes jewels of his own devising.

"Then he began a long and secret labour, and he summoned all his lore, and his power, and his subtle skill; and at the end of of all he made the Silmarils."

As in the Aulë episode, Fëanor hides what he is doing, and a cascade of absolute disaster follows. Many years later, the Vala Ulmo will issue the warning, "love not too well the work of thy hands and the devices of thy heart" but Fëanor would have ignored all such counsel because he becomes possessed by his possessions, resulting in the sundering and slaying of elf kindreds, the disastrous deaths of his sons, his own demise, and a saga full of dark deeds.

The spirit of Aulë takes his followers into a perilous realm within The Perilous Realm, where being crafty can be quite dangerous, especially if it's part of your name as in the cases of Feanor's desperate son Curufin and of Curunír/Saruman, and where an unreasoning love of sub-created objects imbues mere things with terrifying power. From Fëanor's gems, to Smaug's hoard, to Sauron's Ring of Power, J.R.R. Tolkien's Ulmo-like word to the wise is to be ever-wary of greed.

The author was absolutely serious about this and, in fact, refused to drink from a vessel on which fans had etched the horrific Ring inscription. He filled it with ashes, instead. Today, you can buy movie prop Rings at Walmart, and I'm fairly confident Tolkien would have been disturbed by people wearing them.

Picture of Glorfindel dropping an Elf-stone on the Last Bridge
"An Elf-stone" - Miriam Ellis

Yet gems and jewelry don't automatically equal evil in the legendarium. When they aren't objects of covetousness, they can signal lineage, nobility, hope, and high things. Strider is presented to us as the gold that doesn't glitter. As Aragorn, his ring of Barahir, his Elessar Elfstone and his crown promise peace for Middle-earth. It's an Elf-stone, too, that the magnificent elf Glorfindel drops on The Last Bridge as a token of hope for Aragorn and the beleaguered hobbits.

The beauty of Rivendell is increased by the gems Elrond's folk wear on their raiment, and the leaf brooches given by Galadriel to the hobbits in Lothlórien are emblems of cross-cultural friendship and love. The Three Rings of Narya, Vilya, and Nenya - untouched by Sauron - are deemed necessary to protect Middle-earth from his dominion, and when Frodo is left ailing from his long quest to destroy the Ring of Power, he has Arwen's gift of a white gem as a kind of medicine and as a forerunner of her bestowal of her berth on the ship that will bear him to ultimate healing.

In these contexts, gems and jewelry left and given with good intention take on an inspirational splendor. Wisely used, they are blessings to the wearer. The jewel culture of the elves, noble Men, and doughty dwarves provides much of the mystery and majesty we associate with Tolkien's writings, but for the most part, it is confined to high people and places, and as readers know, there are humbler folk in Middle-earth to be considered.

Of Hobbits, Buttons and Bunnies

Gandalf and Bilbo image
"Not the wandering wizard" - Miriam Ellis

“To think I should have lived to be goodmorninged by Belladonna Took’s son, as if I was selling buttons at the door!”

In just this one line in the first chapter of The Hobbit, Gandalf tells us a great deal about the character of the Shire. Unlike Rivendell, or Lothlórien, or certainly Valinor, hobbits inhabit a setting in which folk might be selling buttons door-to-door. We have come down-to-earth in Middle-earth with the hobbits, and while Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin will journey amongst rarefied societies and bring home glittering treasures, they are the exceptions. Gandalf may once have given the Old Took a pair of magic diamond studs, but it's doubtful you'd find such objects in the wardrobes of most of the Little Folk.

regency brass buttons
Regency brass buttons - Metropolitan Museum

Hobbits do know of fancy baubles. They name some of their daughters after gemstones so that we hear of Pippin's spouse, Diamond of Long Cleeve, and of Sam's daughter, Ruby Gamgee. "Mad Baggins" is a local folklore figure reputed to appear with a bang and a flash and bags of gold and "jools".

But as we get to know the hobbits better, we realize that the brass buttons Bilbo wears and loses in the goblin caverns distinguish him from a poorer hobbit like Samwise who has to wear a bag on his head for want of a proper hat. Shire society is remarkably equitable, with distinctions of class being modest rather than extreme as they are in our own Age, but given the large amount of food it takes to sustain hobbits and the great number of hands it took to farm before mechanization, we can safely assume that the majority of halflings would have led highly agrarian lives. It's lovely to spend time thinking about the lifestyle of what we might call "garden variety hobbits".

image of a hobbit in a garden, gardening
A hobbit gardener - Miriam Ellis

Considering the button culture of the hobbits, we can guess at which families might have secured their garb with mined metals like brass. We never hear of hobbit miners, so we can wonder where wealthy families like the Bagginses or the Brandybucks of Brandy Hall might have gotten such goods. Did door-to-door buttons salesmen import them from the dwaves of the Blue Mountains, or did wagonloads of fancy notions start coming from Dale, like Bilbo's birthday crackers?

Whatever the case, farmers and gardeners like the Gamgees and the Cottons would most likely have relied on simpler garment closures. The earliest known buttons date to 7000 BC, and humble folk have made them out of wood, shell, and deeply natural sources like acorn caps. It's easy to picture the Gaffer or old Tol Cotton wearing nutshell buttons on their "weskits" as they plant taters and consult about root lore.

As we discussed in a previous column, Tolkien and Austen: Better Together, the professor's own illustration of Bilbo Baggins shows him in Regency-era breeches, and brass buttons were a common feature of men's fashions of that period, but they would likely have been out of reach for most garden variety hobbits. Bilbo's finery would have put him on the Aulë side of the rift, while Jolly Cotton gleaning in a walnut wood for something to close his tunic with would make him more of a child of Yavanna.

My copy of my favorite Beatrix Potter illustration

And now that we're speaking of nature and gardens and hobbits, we shall consider some of the "famousest" bunnies the world has ever known. I'm deeply grateful to a kind Facebook friend, Ian Gunn, who acquainted me with Dr. Holly Ordway's Tolkien's Modern Reading research which points out the correspondences between Beatrix Potter's rabbits and J.R.R. Tolkien's hobbits.

These include the practice of living in comfortable holes, the prime role of pocket handkerchiefs, the presence of tobacco, and significantly, the fact that Peter Rabbit's brass buttons get caught in a gooseberry net, compelling him to leave his Regency-style coat behind, while Bilbo's brass buttons get stuck in the goblin door, causing him to emerge from the mountains with his coat and waistcoat in tatters. While Tolkien denied that hobbits had anything to do with rabbits, characters like the trolls, the eagles, and Beorn seem to think otherwise. "Little bunny is getting nice and fat again on bread and honey" is just one of the remarks which liken burrowing hobbits to familiar rabbits.

My childhood bedroom had a feature wall of lovely Beatrix Potter wallpaper my parents kindly hung for me and she is one of my favorite illustrators of all time, but it was only recently that I learned how much Professor Tolkien admired her work and how he shared this enjoyment with his children. The correspondences between Potter and Tolkien's tales may be completely accidental, or flow from the deep roots of the subconscious, but for me, the whole spectrum of the hobbit button culture feels more accessible and immediate because of spending time in Mister McGregor's garden.

The hobbits, in fact, may feel like such comfortable friends because, like animals, they are rather "creaturely", closer to nature than Men, more on the side of Yavanna. Their rustic charm invites, inspires, and endures.

Yet, like Men and elves and dwarves, the Shire-folk have to be wary about the Aulë/Yavanna problem. While Bilbo simply can't relate to Thorin's madness over the Arkenstone and refusal to share the recovered dragon hoard with impoverished folk, he does return to The Hill with his lost brass buttons replaced by gold ones. And he has acquired/stolen the Ring which will ruin the peace and health of his beloved cousin, Frodo, for all its destruction rescues Middle-earth from Melkor's metal-forging servant, Sauron.

For everyday use, the hobbits (and we, if we class ourselves amongst them) would do better to heed the words of the Gaffer who doesn't "hold with wearing ironmongery." If it can cause such problems even amongst the high beings whom Sam describes as "a bit above my likes and dislikes", then we should have a care not to be consumed by shiny, worldly things made by hands. Remember what Treebeard, the consolation of Yavanna, says we must spend time learning first: the lore of living creatures.

image of acorns
Gifts of nature

It's truly splendid to read tales of the gem-spangled elves and dwarves and Men glittering and gleaming along the Aulë road, but as for me, I would rather pin my traveling cloak with a rustic button made out of an acorn or a hazelnut shell and live ordinary days in a hobbit garden under the protection of Yavanna. I'd rather be more creaturely and less self-important, especially given our modern disharmony with our own environment. I suppose there's never been a better time to learn to walk nimbly and lightly like a hobbit, full of gratitude for the gifts of nature and ready to share almost everything other than secret mushroom patches. This must put me on the green side of the Valar divide. How about you?


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