The earliest conflicts between the Valar and Melkor were fought in darkness beneath the stars, but when Tulkas forced Melkor to withdraw from the World, Yavanna planted seeds that needed light to bring them to growth. Aulë the Smith thus raised two vast Lamps, and with the aid of Varda and Manwë he raised them up on two immense pillars like mountains, so that light shone across the World for the first time.
One of the Lamps was placed in the North of the World, and the other in the South, to cover the whole of Middle-earth with constant bright light. The northern Lamp was named Illuin, and the southern Ormal (these Elvish names imply that Illuin shone with a blue light, while Ormal shone gold, but this is not explicitly stated.)
||The northern Lamp, whose beams shone southward (though not explicitly stated, Illuin's name implies that it shone with a blue light). Even further to the north than Illuin, Melkor founded his fortress of Utumno, choosing the distant north because Illuin's light was faint in those far regions, and it was from Utumno that he would eventually issue to bring down both the Lamps of the Valar. After Illuin's destruction, in the place where its roots had been, the Inland Sea of Helcar was formed.
||The southern Lamp, whose light shone out northward to meet the beams of Illuin and illuminate Middle-earth. The name Ormal suggests a golden light, so Illuin and Ormal together perhaps prefigure the Trees of Silver and Gold, Telperion and Laurelin. When Melkor invaded the World from the north and threw down Illuin, he also broke the pillar of Ormal, causing it to fall to its destruction and spill flame across the World.
These were the first great lights to shine on the World of Arda, and in their new light the living things set by Yavanna began to stir. This time was thus known as the Spring of Arda. Though the light of the two Lamps covered the entire World, it was at its strongest in the central regions where the light of the Lamps mixed together. It was there that the Valar made their first dwelling in Arda, on the island of Almaren within the Great Lake.
The Fall of the Lamps
Illuin and Ormal shone down on the lands of Arda for some fifteen thousand years,1 as the Valar lived in peace on Almaren amid the great Spring. As time passed, however, the brilliance of the northern Lamp Illuin would prove as much a curse as a blessing.
In the dim and distant north of the World, where Illuin's light was faint on the dark mountains, Melkor returned from the Void. In secret, shrouded from the Valar by the brightness of Illuin that stood between them, he was able to excavate a great underground stronghold named Utumno. There he built up his forces, and plotted his revenge against those who had driven him from the World.
From his hidden northern fortress, Melkor launched a sudden and devastating attack. He plunged the World into darkness by breaking down the pillars that held both of the Lamps aloft. The Lamps themselves fell, spilling fire on the World beneath and ruining the shape of its lands. The great inland sea known as the Sea of Helcar was formed in the place where Illuin had once stood upon its great pillar.
The Valar did what they could to repair the destruction, but ultimately they abandoned Middle-earth to Melkor and his darkness, and departed for Aman in the distant West of the World. Those living things that had stirred in the Spring of Arda were placed beneath the Sleep of Yavanna, to await the time when light would come again to the lands east of the Sea. Thus the Long Night began in Middle-earth, a time of darkness that would not end until the first rising of the Moon, nearly fifteen thousand years later.2
The time of the Lamps was relatively uneventful compared with the later history of Arda, and so the Silmarillion passes over it rather briefly. This might give the impression that Lamps did not stand for long, but in fact they lit the World for some fifteen thousand years, closely comparable with the time of the Two Trees of Valinor that would follow them.
Precise dating of the Lamps is difficult, but we do have some records in the Annals of Aman (in volume 10 of The History of Middle-earth) to guide us. The notion of building the Lamps is first mentioned in Valian Year 1500, and they are recorded as being finally raised in 1900. The continued to shine for 1,600 Valian Years until their destruction by Melkor.
It's important to note that these Valian Years were rather longer than solar years - nearly ten times as long. Calculating out the figures from the Annals of Aman, the Lamps stood for a period of precisely 15,342 solar years. Given the heavily rounded dates used in these annals, however, they're probably not reliable to quite this degree of accuracy. Indeed, taking the annals absolutely literally, it would have taken the Valar nearly four thousand (solar) years to construct the Lamps, even before they started to shed any light. This barely seems plausible, and the dating from the Annals of Aman is probably best taken in general terms rather than as definitive dating, especially in relation to such an ancient period.
The figure of fifteen thousand years given here is based on similar calculations to those in Note 1 above. The Lamps were destroyed 1,550 Valian Years before the Moon first rose over Middle-earth, which works out as 14,854 solar years. As mentioned in the previous note, numbers this precise should be treated with due caution.
Almaren, Aman, Balrogs, Great Gulf, Great Lake, Illuin, Kindler, Long Night, Melkor, Middle-earth, Ormal, Outer Lands, Powers of Arda, Ringil, Sleep of Yavanna, [See the full list...]
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