Enhanced Perception, Sentient Water, and Fluid Time in LOTR

by Delphinium Took

I have had these musings floating around my head for some time, and finally found the time to organize them somewhat loosely in writing. Anyway, I've been wondering about the connections in LOTR between the symbols of eyes, water, and time.

There are two kinds of eyes in Tolkien's Middle Earth: eyes of clarity and purity, lakes reflecting beauty and/or truth, and eyes that open to a dark void, black eyes of the night mind. Middle Earth is replete with these "doors of perception." I noticed that often water runs through the imagery of perception in LOTR, and the One Ring also makes time fluid. The Elven rings also seem to have the power to slow time.

The One Ring is like an eye. It is an empty circle rimmed with gold, a seductive version of the Eye of Sauron, whose black slit is rimmed with fire and whose gaze draws one to the perception of annihilation: death. One of the powers granted by the One Ring is the power of increasing perception; it gives the bearer access to the underpinnings of the world's workings, it's skeleton. It also changes the bearer's perception of time. The Ringbearer loses visual acuity of the real world, and the world is distorted, but vast realms open to his understanding. The Ringbearer becomes invisible to us in the ordinary world; he has passed into the wraithworld and sees with new eyes. Galadriel says to Frodo, "...as Ringbearer and as one that had borne it on finger and seen that which is hidden, your sight is grown keener. You have perceived my thought more clearly than many that are accounted wise. You saw the Eye of him..."

Sam gives us a good account of what it is like to wear the ring of power:

"The world changed, and a single moment of time was filled with an hour of thought. At once he was aware that hearing sharpened while sight was dimmed...All things about him now were not dark but vague; while he himself was there in a grey hazy world, alone, like a small black solid rock, and the ring, weighing down his left hand, was like an orb of hot gold. He did not feel invisible at all, but horribly and uniquely visible; and he knew that somewhere an Eye was searching for him."

Sam became a small black pupil in an eye of hot gold, knowing far more of what was happening around him than he could perceive before he put on the ring. "Perhaps the Ring gave understanding of tongues, or simply understanding..." Eyes can see other eyes.

He sees, perhaps, as the Nazgul (who are also Ringbearers) see. As Aragorn explains on Weathertop, "They themselves do not see the world of light as we do, but our shapes cast shadows in their minds, which only the noon sun destroys; and in the dark they perceive many signs and forms that are hidden from us: then they are most to be feared." In The Hobbit, Tolkien tells us how Bilbo's shadow gives his presence away to the goblins. A ring wearer's shadow is visible in strong sunlight, even though the rest of the ring wearer is invisible, as a visible person who is invisible to the ringwraiths casts a shadow in their world. The Nazgul are black holes surrounded by hoods, emissaries and another image of the black Eye of Sauron, predatory eyes with legs.

And what is Gollum but a repulsive incubus, whose enormous pallid eyes are a tearful invitation to a nightmare? Gollum lived for years in the roots of the mountains, a place of despair; his island is the center of a dark lake, a black eye reflecting blackness in infinite regression.

Gollum leads the hobbits to the foul waters of the Dead Marshes, where dead corpses rot forever, (a comment on the moral corruption of war?). In the movie, the eye that opens to Frodo's everlasting horror is an eye that radiates total fear, a scream in visual form, as when horses show the whites of their eyes or our eyes roll back as we faint. Frodo’s eyes do this as he is pulled from the weedy waters. He does this when the hobbits hide from the Black Rider in the Shire, in Ithilien, and in Osgilath; whenever Frodo falls under the ringspell.

PJ is very sensitive in his use of Elijah Wood's eyes as a powerful emotional presence. Frodo’s eyes connect the lyrical power of the waters of Middle Earth through their color, depth, and tears. Frodo's eyes are an upwelling of pure feeling. The water god of Middle Earth, Ulmo, who knows (perceives) all news that runs through Arda, the news and music carried by every spring, stream, rill, river, the great ocean, and perhaps even the tears of living things. The waters in the book and in the movie give such great lyrical feeling to the story, or a sense of aesthetic movement through time and space, and emotional power. Ulmo is also a god closely associated with music "...out of all of these [substances of Arda] water they most greatly praised. And it is said by the Eldar that in water there lives yet the echo of the music of Ainur...In the deep places he gives thought to music great and terrible." (The Silmarillion).

The enigmatic Tom Bombadil startled Frodo with a layered eye image, when he peered through the gold band so that his blue eye was ringed with gold. Tom Bombadil is related to water and music (lyricism) as well. He sings to communicate, and the hobbits find themselves singing instead of talking in his house. Water is everywhere in this section of LOTR; Tolkien uses water metaphors constantly with both Goldberry and Tom Bombadil. About Goldberry, he writes, "The sound of her footsteps was like a stream falling gently away downhill over cool stones in the quiet of the night." Tom Bombadil appears from the down the mysterious Withywindle valley, carrying water lilies, and singing with the water-music of Middle Earth. Perhaps he is connected to the god Ulmo; the ring has no meaning for him and he is the master of all, but tied to the river valley. When Frodo puts on the Ring, Tom can still see him and says, "I’m not as blind as that yet." Tom is a great perceptive presence in LOTR, and a being that lives outside the bonds of mortal time.

Another very perceptive presence, a fount of wisdom, and ancient beings that draw health and power from the water, are Ents. The Ent eyes have the feeling of deep watery wells of time, where unknown depths lie beneath the present, where sun filters through the top layers. When the Ents battle Saruman at Isengard, they use the free the clean waters of the Isen. When the ringed stronghold is flooded, Isengard is another eye.

The Mirror of Galadriel lets us see across time and space, showing things both beautiful and terrifying. It is a round vessel filled with water, giving visionary power to those strong enough to use it. The mirror is an eye. When we see Frodo's eyes staring at the Eye of Sauron as it appears in Galadriel's mirror, we see another wonderfully layered image of terrible perception. It is scary to know the truth, perilous to act on what we think we know...a lesson hard-learned by those who use the Seeing Stones, the Palantiri, which are eyes, too.

There are other evil waters in Middle Earth. A pool guards the gate of Moria, whose greasy waters hide the Watcher-in-the-Water, a monstrous representation of a nightmare eye. In Beowulf, (a text very familiar to Tolkien) a monster lives in the depths of a lake: Grendel's mother and other foul things. "The water was infested with all kinds of reptiles. There were writhing sea-dragons and monsters slouching on the slopes by the cliffs, serpents and wild things..." There is so much sentience in the waters of Middle Earth; some fell, some fair, but all so alive. There are other waters that come to mind, such as Mirrormere, Henneth Annun, and Sam's near-drowning.

The streams fail in Mordor, where constant thirst makes the unbearable even worse for Frodo and Sam. The eye of Sauron is made of flames, which is more a process than a thing, a process of consumption and destruction. Here we approach the event horizon of a black hole, close to the breaking of the world, a place where the laws of nature fail and time ends. Mordor has fountains of lava. Set against Mordor are the eyes of Gandalf, which in the movie hold visions of endless, beautiful space.

From Beowulf: "He who wields power over time and tide: he is the true lord."

Tolkien writes, in discussing the ancient origins of fairy stories in his essay, On Fairy-Stories, "Such stories have now a mythical or total (unanalysable) effect, an effect quite independent of the findings of Comparative Folklore, and one which it cannot spoil or explain; they open a door on Other Time, and if we pass through, though only for a moment, we stand outside our own time, outside Time itself, maybe."

In LOTR, Tolkien creates a Fairy-Story that opens the door to Other Time: the doors of perception.