Tolkien and Čiurlionis : Visionaries of Ancient Times

Vilnius - September 2005

Mercredi 18 novembre 2009, par Charles RIDOUX // 3. Tolkien - Čiurlionis

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Tolkien and Ciurlionis : at first it may seem strange to link those two names. They come from different epochs and cultures and had different disciplines (painting and literature). The link between their works has been made because we have discovered a profound spiritual connection between the two visionaries ; both have been deemed unclassifiable in their respective areas of work and each created an imaginary universe of profound originality and singular beauty.

What is certain is that Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis, a painter and composer from Lithuania, who was born in 1875 and died in 1911, did not know the works of English writer J.R.R. Tolkien, who was born in 1892 and died in 1973. It is also almost certain that Tolkien never saw any of Ciurlionis’ work despite his keen interest in Norse mythology. This is due to historical circumstances, which kept Ciurlionis’ work from the great cultural trends of the 20th century. If there is a true spiritual connection between those two visionaries it is not one which historians of art and literature are accustomed to making. The connection arises from something which was in the atmosphere at the time and which can manifest itself in diverse ways and in different places.

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Both Tolkien and Ciurlionis display a first special peculiarity, albeit of a superficial nature, in that each of them explored and were active in at least two artistic domains. It is known that Ciurlionis was both a musician and a painter. His true calling seems to have been painting rather than music even though, coming from a musical family, he started music when he was young and continued to compose until the end of his life. As for Tolkien (and this is generally not well known), he was, as well as a philologist and writer, a talented painter and illustrator from a young age until his death, though, first and foremost, his true genius came from his love of words, languages and poems. However, what unites Tolkien and Ciurlionis is of a much more profound nature : the breadth of their vision enables them to create a universe in appearance completely alien from our own but which strikes us with its splendour and majesty. What gives the universes they created such magnificence and depth ? It is their ability to awaken within us age-old memories that transport us directly to an ancient world of legends and great, central myths. Certain of Tolkien’s and Ciurlionis’ works share themes of striking similarity and, more generally, they share an inspiration drawn apparently from similar sources : the notion that the cosmos emerged from chaos, a cyclic and involutive vision of history, and the foreknowledge of cataclysmic upheavals. With both of them we are struck by their shared concept of the fragility of civilisation and of the menace of disintegration into chaos. Ciurlionis was likely to have had a premonition about the coming war, whereas Tolkien experienced himself the cruelty of World War I in the trenches of the Somme in 1916.

It is this convergence of themes between Tolkien’s Legendarium and Ciurlionis’ pictorial works to which we will dedicate this lecture at this symposium in Vilnius. We will pursue this parallel in a few days’ time in Kaunas by examining the relations between the works of Tolkien as an artist and illustrator and those of Ciurlionis.

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Čiurlionis – Sonate de la Mer – Finale

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Tolkien was always deeply affected by a vision he had of an enormous wave swallowing an entire continent - a vision that naturally makes us think of Plato’s myth of Atlantis. He was plagued by a recurring nightmare about Atlantis from early childhood and one of his sons, Michael, inherited this nightmare from Tolkien, which Tolkien himself considered to be a sort of ancestral memory. [1] This theme of a big wave appears several times in his work, particularly at the end of the Second Age which ends in the deluge of Númenor, the prestigious island between Middle-earth and the Blessed Kingdom of the Valar in the far west. Tolkien’s imaginary world incorporated invented languages such as Quenya and Sindarin, the languages of the Elves, and Adûnaic, the language of the Númenorians. In The Silmarillion the story of the engulfing of Númenor is entitled Akallabêth. In Adûnaic, the language of the Númenorians, this means ’downfall’ or ’engulfing’. In his letters Tolkien further emphasises the closeness of the Quenyan (Elvish) word Atalante to the word ’Atlantis’. [2]

At the end of the Second Age the story of the flooding of Númenor in The Silmarillion closes with the description of a gigantic wave :

And last of all the mounting wave, green and cold and plumed with foam, climbing over the land, took to its bosom Tar-Míriel the Queen, fairer than silver or ivory or pearls. Too late she strove to ascend the steep ways of the Meneltarma to the holy place ; for the waters overtook her, and her cry was lost in the roaring of the wind. (The Silmarillion, p. 336)

This ’mounting wave, green and cold and plumed with foam’ immediately suggests the comparison with the Finale of Ciurlionis’ Sonata of the Sea, the impressive power of which Marc Etkind has emphasised ’the wild dynamics of the terrible, towering diagonal, shaped like a monstrous hand with fingers of foam’. [3]One of Tolkien’s drawings, Water, Wind & Sand, illustrates a poem from 1917 : the Horns of Ylmir. It evokes the fall of an Elven Kingdom, the hidden city of Gondolin :

While the thunder of great battles shook the Worldbeneath my rock,

And the land wall crashed in Chaos ; and Earth totteredat the shock

Where a Dome of shouting waters smote a drippingblack façade,

And its catastrophic fountains smashed in deafeningcascade (Hammond, pp. 45-46)

One finds the same motif at the end of the Third Age in The Lord of the Rings. From the top of the walls of Minas Tirith, besieged by the armies of the Dark Lord, Faramir contemplates the spectacle of the Fall of Sauron :

Then presently it seemed to them that above the ridges of the distant mountains another vast mountain of darkness rose, towering up like a wave that should engulf the world, and about it lightnings flickered ; and then a tremor ran through the earth, and they felt the walls of the City quiver. A sound like a sigh went up from all the lands about them ; and their hearts beat suddenly again.. ’It reminds me of Numenor,’ said Faramir… (The Lord of the Rings, p. 941)

The description of the fall of Barad-dûr, the gloomy fortress of Sauron, reprises this image of a breaking wave :

Towers fell and mountains slid ; walls crumbled and melted, crashing down ; vast spires of smoke and spouting steams went billowing up, up, until they toppled like an overwhelming wave, and its wild crest curled and came foaming down upon the land. (Lord of the Rings, pp. 925-926)

The sea and the forest occupy a privileged place in the fiction of Tolkien and Ciurlionis. The Sea and The Forest are, of course, the two symphonic poems of Ciurlionis, who became acquainted with the sea in Palanga on the golden, sandy dunes of the Baltic coast. Tolkien too was fascinated by those two elements of nature, in particular trees, for which he felt much love. Tolkien’s literary and pictorial work contains eloquent evidence for his closeness to these two elements which Victor Hugo variously described as ’promontories of a dream’.

The cosmic dimension is significant in the work of Tolkien as in that of Ciurlionis and goes as far back as Creation itself. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, which was published after his death by his son Christopher in 1977, opens with a magnificent story of the creation. It presents the moment of conception of the universe as Great Music played by divine spirits, the Ainur, from themes they received from Eru, the only God. The act of creation, however, remains the supreme prerogative of Eru, who alone has access to the Eternal Flame, and who pronounces the creative word , the equivalent of Fiat lux in Genesis.

Čiurlionis – Cycle de la Création - 1 et 2

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Now, this story of creation, which Tolkien named Ainulindalë, the great Song of the Ainur, resonates with two of Ciurlionis’ works. The second and third paintings of Ciurlionis’ Cycle of Creation develop the motif of the creative word by presenting in the first painting the hierarchic face of the Creator and on the second the creative word Stan sie ! with a hand hanging over it, symbolising the power of the divinity.

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The motif of the Eternal Flame, source of life and creative force, seems to be present in the painting Rex, which dates back to 1909. This painting bears witness, through its greater than usual dimensions, to a possible evolution of Ciurlionis’ genius, a revitalisation of his artistic expression. [4] In the bottom part of the painting we can see a globe, made up of two hemispheres, which are a mirror reflection of each other and which appear to represent the terrestrial world and from a pyramid in the centre a white flame rises. We think immediately of this painting when reading the story of the Creation in Ainulindalë by Tolkien - even if the theme of the Eternal Flame contained therein far from summarises by itself all the symbolic richness contained in this masterpiece of Ciurlionis.

One of the most remarkable works of the Anglo-Saxon critics of Tolkien is by Verlyn Flieger. The book Splintered Light explores Tolkien’s universe through the theme of the diffraction of light which fragments and splinters, creating the world, a similar concept to that expounded in the philosophy of Plato and in the theology of Pseudo-Denys the Areopagite. In Tolkien’s work the lowest extremity in the hierarchy of beings is the Dark Lord. The Dark Lord first incarnated in the form of Morgoth, who represents, so to speak, the presence of Evil engraved in the physical world (in the extreme manifestations of heat or cold - volcanoes and eternal ice) and in the form of Sauron whose objective is to pervert divine Creation by dominating the sprits of its inhabitants, particularly those of Elves and Humans.

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Čiurlionis - Démon

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A shadow spreading over the world is a dominant theme in The Lord of the Rings and it is in order to resist the invasion of this Shadow that the Fellowship of the Ring is formed under the high protection of guardians who can resist the attraction of its corruptive power. Two works by Ciurlionis conjure up a world that is susceptible to domination by the powers of Darkness. The Ballad of the Black Sun describes a sinister, crenellated fortress, which reminds us of Sauron’s citadel Barad-dûr, and Demon portrays an angel with black wings standing arrogantly between two structures, one pagan and one Christian, which recalls the Dark Lord’s act of defiance towards the Valar who live in the Blessed Kingdom of Valinor.

This representation of different epochs through architecture is characteristic of the true genius of Ciurlionis. [5] The portrayal of flooded cities and lost civilisations was a favourite theme in the art and literature of the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, to which, for example, the work of Ridder Haggart bears testament. In Tolkien, The Silmarillion tells the tragic story of the Elven kingdoms of Doriath, Gondolin and Nargothrond, all of which end up being destroyed, victims of the hatred of Morgoth and of divisions between the Elven princes. The conjuring up of a mythical era of great civilisations, of which only legends remain, opens the mind to the distant past. There is a memory, which a painter or a poet carries in his heart and which strikes a peculiar chord in the heart of those who contemplate Ciurlionis’ paintings or read Tolkien’s stories. The journey into the distant past happens by way of legends.

Čiurlionis – Le Voyage du Prince

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Here again, some of Ciurlionis’ paintings remind us of specific passages in Tolkien’s work. Thus, Journey of the Prince, about a prince who floats in a boat in the sky cannot but evoke the image of Tolkien’s starship of Eärendil and the poem The Voyage of Eärendil, the Evening Star. Eärendil, the Evening Star was inspired by a verse in Crist by Cynewulf, which is the origin of Tolkien’s mythology : ’He speeded the strife of one battle when the archers send a shower of darts, a flashing flight of arrows over the shield‘s defence’.

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Another one of Ciurlionis’ paintings and one of the most beautiful, The Kings, has a sacred atmosphere filled with silence and benevolence and immersed deeply in the distant past. We find at least two passages in Tolkien’s work which resonate with this painting and breathe in the same sacred and meditative ambience of subjects grave and remote. Firstly, in The Silmarillion, one scene shows the Valar - likened by Tolkien himself first to ancient gods then to archangels - assembled in silence, forming a circle to hear the song of the Yavanna. The song will bring new life to the Trees of light of Valinor, which were stained by the malice of Morgoth. The Valar ’sat silent upon their thrones of council in the Mánahaxar, the Ring of Doom near to the golden gates of Valmar’ (The Silmarillion, p. 43). Secondly, in The Lord of the Rings, we find a curious and moving passage on the sages who have led the Fellowship of the Ring to victory - Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel. They are talking silently under the stars one silvery night in September :

If any wanderer had chanced to pass, little would he have seen or heard, and it would have seemed to him only that he saw grey figures, carved in stone, memorials of forgotten things now lost in unpeopled lands. For they did not move or speak with mouth, looking from mind to mind ; and only their shining eyes stirred and kindled as their thoughts went to and fro. (The Lord of the Rings, p. 963)

The same ’silvery night of September’ can be found in Ciurlionis’ The Kings with those hieratic characters, remarkably good and steadfast, in the middle of a forest under a midnight blue sky filled with twinkling stars.

Amongst Ciurlionis’ musical works are several traditional Lithuanian songs which resonate with his conjuring up of legends from the distant past. In Tolkien, song is ever present. In The Lord of the Rings, at least it constitutes one of the preferred means - alongside dreaming and time-travel - of returning to the distant past. This attraction to traditional song is undoubtedly an influence from the romantic period. We may recall that the great poet Adam Mickiewicz eulogised traditional song :

Folk songs ! Bridges between the ancient world and the new ; it is to you a nation entrusts the trophies of its heroes, its hopes and beliefs (…) Oh Folk Song ! You are the guardian at the temple of a nation’s memories. [6]

Tolkien was deeply influenced by the Kalevala, composed by Elias Lönnrot, and based on the songs of the Finnish villagers of eastern Karelia sung in the 1830s. It is the Kalevala that inspired one of Tolkien’s darkest and most dramatic epic stories, ’Túrin Turambar’.

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Without doubt, we could find other correspondences if we prolonged this simultaneous exploration of the works of Tolkien and of Ciurlionis. The ones we have evoked are sufficient, it seems, to establish a spiritual connection between the two visionaries in spite of there being no question of them influencing each other directly. How can we explain the mystery of this spiritual connection ? We could perhaps explore further those influences that helped forge the spirits of a Lithuanian painter and an English novelist. Certain authors have revealed Ciurlionis’ attraction to oriental doctrines. We can imagine how this could be fertile ground, the same terrain in the middle of which we would find a group like the World of Art. If you think that an important figure like Nicholas Roerich knew and appreciated the work of Ciurlionis… As far as Tolkien goes, his passion for Norse mythologies stems from his childhood and led him, later on in life, to learn such difficult languages as Welsh and Finnish.

Whatever reasons there might be for this spiritual connection between Tolkien and Ciurlionis, the relevance of their work endures even today in the first decade of the 21st century and one can only hope that the influence of these two visionaries contributes to the much needed ’reenchantment of the world’.

Charles Ridoux
Amfroipret, 11th June 2005


[1] Letters, p. 213 - Letter to W. H. Auden, 7th June 1955.

[2] Letters, p. 347 - Letter to Christopher Bretherton, July 1964.

[3] Etkind Marc, Mir kak boljsaïa simfonia, Izdatelstbo Iskusstvo, Leningrad, 1970, pp. 100-101.

[4] Mstislav Doboujinski mentions in relation to this the perspective of a “monumental art”. The members of the group Mir iskusstva (World of Art) recommended this to Ciurlionis. Cf. Ciurlionis : Painter and Composer, ed. Stasys Goštautas, Vaga, Vilnius, 1994, p. 164.

[5] Cf. Valerian Chudovsky’s article in Ciurlionis : Painter and Composer, p. 137.

[6] Translated from French. Original quoted in GOURVIL Francis, Theodore-Claude-Henri Hersat de la Villemarqué (1815-1895) et le “Barzaz-Breiz” (1839-1845-1867). Origines. Editions. Critique. Influences, Rennes, Oberthur, 1960, p. 82.