Flame Imperishable as Incarnation

I’ve discussed before how Tolkien’s image of the Flame Imperishable refers to God’s creative power over the world, by which he, first, gives existence ex nihilo to his creatures generally, and second, by which he bestows the power of free will and (sub-)creativity upon his rational creatures in particular. Upon review of his explanation of the Flame Imperishable in his commentary on the Athrabath Finrod ah Andreth (Morgoth’s Ring), however, I think the interconnection between these two effects (created being and free, creative will) is a deeper one than the mere genus-species relationship suggested above. As Tolkien explains, the Flame Imperishable

appears to mean the Creative activity of Eru (in some sense distinct from or within Him), by which things could be given a ‘real’ and independent (though derivative and created) existence. The Flame Imperishable is sent out from Eru, to dwell in the heart of the world, and the world then Is, on the same plane as the Ainur, and they can enter into it. But this is not, of course, the same as the re-entry of Eru to defeat Melkor. It refers rather to the mystery of ‘authorship’, by which the author, while remaining ‘outside’ and independent of his work, also ‘indwells’ in it, on its derivative plane, below that of his own being, as the source and guarantee of its being. (Morgoth’s Ring 345)

As Tolkien makes clear, the act of Creation, in which Eru sends the Flame Imperishable into the heart of the world to cause it to be, is a distinct act from the act of Incarnation by which, as Finrod conjectures in the dialogue of the Athrabeth, Eru himself would personally enter into his creation in order to purge it of Melkor’s corruptions. That having been said, it is equally evident that Tolkien still very much conceives of Eru’s creative presence within his creation (and hence of the sub-creator’s presence within his art) in incarnational terms. Creation itself, according to Tolkien’s theology of the Flame Imperishable, involves the Creator being both “‘outside’ and independent of his work” as well as “‘indwell[ing]‘ in it, on its derivative plane, below that of his own being…” In this manner, Tolkien may be seen to re-interpret God’s act of Creation as a type of proto-Incarnation.

A few observations. The first is the way this normalizes and naturalizes the idea of Incarnation: if Creation is a kind of Incarnation, it is little wonder that Finrod is able to infer (partly from what he knows of the Flame Imperishable) the possibility of Eru’s future condescension to enter into Arda. Eru will at some point and time enter into the world to give it new being because, in a very real sense, this is what Eru has always been doing. A second observation is how this logic complements but reverses the line of reasoning Tolkien uses in “On Fairy-Stories” in explaining how, in the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has given the fairy-story structure of eucatastrophe the reality of history and creation itself: “this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation.” The Incarnation, in other words, is God giving our fairy-stories the gift of created being, of sending the Flame Imperishable, as it were, into the heart of our own sub-creative imaginings (themselves the product of God’s creative inspiration), and causing them to become real. Thirdly, and as I’ve also pointed out before, the latter is of course precisely the same drama we find in the Ainulindale, when Iluvatar takes the “fairy-story” that is the Ainur’s Music and Vision and gives it the same being that they themselves enjoy, making the Ainulindale not only a retelling of the story of the world’s creation, but also an allegory for its re-creation in Christ.

Athrabeth as Sub-Creative Theology

So I’ve been characterizing Anselm’s understanding of his own philosophical theology as a kind of “sub-creative theology,” a theology, that is, that at once seeks to provide an internally consistent, logically cohesive, and to that extent “necessary” account of the otherwise objective, universal truth about God and salvation, all the while recognizing the finitude of the sub-creative theologian’s own perspective and the fallibility of human reason, no matter how carefully conducted. I’ve also made some vague gestures that somehow Tolkien’s Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth might also be seen to belong to this theological sub-genre. What do I mean by this?

Set in the “Elder Days” of the history of Middle-earth, the Athrabeth is a dialogue and at times debate between the Elf-lord Finrod and the mortal woman Andreth. As Tolkien summarizes the conversation in his commentary on the work, the Athrabeth represents “the attempt of a generous Elvish mind to fathom the relations of Elves and Men, and the part they were designed to play in what he would have called the Oienkarmë Eruo (The One’s perpetual production), which might be rendered by ‘God’s management of the Drama’” (Morgoth’s Ring 329). He explains that it is

not presented as an argument of any cogency for Men in their present situation (or the one in which they believe themselves to be), though it may have some interest for Men who start with similar beliefs or assumptions to those held by the Elvish king Finrod…. There are certain things in this world that have to be accepted as ‘facts.’

In Anselmian terms, we might say that the argument of the Athrabeth involves an exercise of fides quaerens intellectum, or “faith seeking understanding.” Beginning with certain “beliefs or assumptions,” in other words, Finrod is attempting to discern and understand the inter-connectedness and internal consistency of these beliefs. Tolkien allows that the resulting argument may very well be without “any cogency for Men in their present situation (or the one [i.e., situation] in which they believe themselves to be),” though “it may have some interest”–and hence some cogency–for Men who start with similar belief or assumption to those held by the Elvish king Finrod….” As Tolkien views it, the argument of the Athrabeth does not involve the Enlightenment myth of a pure and autonomous reason, but presents a case of rationality operating on the basis of certain pre-rational commitments. Somewhat like Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, therefore, the Athrabeth offers us not a neutral, “unbiased” argument, but a kind of “possible necessity,” a necessity that is real but which is only going to be fully accessible to and appreciable by a mind that humbly accepts those deliverances which are prior to and the foundation of the proper operation of reason.

(To be continued….)

Dialogue as Sub-Creation and Revelation in Anselm and Tolkien

At New Saint Andrews College where I teach, one of our pedagogical distinctives is our small group recitations: at the end of the week, each class breaks up into groups of six to eight students for hour-long meetings with the instructor to discuss the assigned reading. Although time-intensive, in addition to the obvious benefit to students, I’ve personally appreciated the small group recitations for the opportunity they provide me, not so much now as a teacher, but as a fellow inquirer with my students. For me, the most enjoyable (and I suspect effective) recitations are the ones in which I’m able most fully to participate in (as opposed to merely observing and directing) the process of purposeful discovery. Without taking anything away from the importance of the orienting lectures that typically begin our class week, in such moments of more formal, prepared instruction, the teacher, for his part, is largely limited to imparting existing knowledge and already achieved insights. It is in the more unpredictable, personal setting of the small group recitations, by contrast, when I find my ability to creatively adapt, marshal, improvise, and apply what I know to be truly put to the test; which is to say, it’s often in these recitations that I often learn what (if anything) it is that I really know.

It’s something like this process of discovery-through-dialogue that is the theme of yet another parallel that might be drawn between Tolkien and Anselm. In his Cur Deus Homo (“Why God Became Man”), Anselm stages a dialogue between himself and his friend and student Boso, in which Anselm attempts to show “by what logic or necessity did God become man, and by his death, as we believe and profess, restore life to the world.” As Anselm implies, however, his choice of the dialogue format is no mere literary artifice contrived for the purpose of expounding beliefs already held by him. Rather, for Anselm there is a sense in which his fictional dialogue, like the real-world conversation or conversations upon which it was no doubt based, is even for its author a heuristic device of authentic discovery. When Anselm remarks in his preface, for example, that he will “undertake to make plain to enquirers what God shall see fit to reveal to me about this subject,” there is a discernible air of genuine inquiry and innovation to the proposed project. Anselm hopes to make clear not just what God has revealed to him, but what he hopes and anticipates God will reveal to him in the course of crafting the dialogue itself. (It occurs to me that Tolkien’s distinction between allegory, in which elements of a story have a fixed, premeditated meaning, and fairy-story, in which the “application” for both the reader and the author are more free and unpredictable, might have some corollary here.)   Boso’s encouragement, moreover, is in keeping with this theme: “it often comes about in discussions of some issue that God reveals what was previously hidden” (1.1). A little later, Anselm once again tells Boso that their discourse will have “the form not so much of a demonstration as of an enquiry undertaken jointly with you…” (1.2). Finally, and bringing the discussion around to what I argued the other day to be the “sub-creative theology” implied in the Monologion’s method of a “possible necessity,” Anselm emphasizes how “even if I seem to be proving it [i.e., the "necessity" of the Incarnation] by means of logic–it is to be accepted with only this degree of certainty: that it seems to be so provisionally, until God shall in some way reveal to me something better” (1.2). The explanation Anselm gives for this tentativeness or sense of provisionality is illuminating: “whatever a human being may say on this subject, there remain deeper reasons, as yet hidden from us…” (1.2).

In a forthcoming post I hope to examine some of the ways in which Tolkien’s own version of the Cur Deus Homo, his dialogue Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, reflects a related, Anselmian appreciation of the sub-creative and revelatory dimensions of theological discourse.   

A Possible Necessity: Sub-Creative Theology in Anselm and Tolkien

In his Monologion, in which he attempts to demonstrate by reason the things that Christians otherwise hold to be true about God through revelation, Anselm advises his readers that

if I say something along the way that greater authority does not teach, then I wish it to be taken in the following way: it is, indeed, reached as a necessary conclusion from reasoning which seems right to me. Nevertheless, it is not thereby asserted as necessary without qualification. Rather I assert it as possible–for the present at least. (Harrison trans.)

This is curious: Anselm believes that his philosophical, rational, logical arguments for the truth of the Christian doctrine of God possess a certain “necessity,” but he admits that it is a qualified, provisional necessity. What qualifications to his rational theology does Anselm seem to have in mind? I’m not entirely sure, but his phrase “reasoning which seems right to me” may contain at least a partial answer. Although Anselm intends and believes his arguments to be persuasive for an unbeliever, and that they formally do not rely on any revealed premises accessible only by faith, it would be wrong to suppose that Anselm sees himself as operating under the Enlightenment myth of a “pure reason,” i.e., reason without any pre-rational commitments whatsoever. Rather, and as he puts it in his later Proslogion, his philosophical project is a matter of “faith seeking understanding” and an uncovering of the rationes fidei, the “reason” or “rationality” of faith, but which we might with equal justification also identify as the fides rationionis, the “faith of reason” or “reason’s faith.”

More than this, however, because he knows that the rational arguments he is putting forward are not themselves revealed in Scripture, Anselm seems to recognize a sense in which his demonstrations, for all their aspirations to universality and objectivity, are still very much his demonstrations, and should be understood as such, and not just by unbelievers, but especially by his fellow Christians. Anselm hopes and believes his arguments to be rational and true, but this does not absolve his readers of the responsibility of scrutinizing the consistency of his proofs with the authority of revelation (and if and when they should be found to be out of conformity with Scripture, neither should his readers naively criticize Anselm as though he were not acutely aware of that distinct possibility). Thus, while on the one hand excluding any kind of skepticism or relativism in his quest for “necessary” demonstrations, on the other hand Anselm seems to recognize the equally necessary provisionality of reason the moment it ventures (and that by divine permission) from the safe shores of what has been expressly revealed in Scripture.

Another way of characterizing the “possible necessity” of Anselm’s rational theology, I submit, is to see it as an instance of what I have elsewhere referred to as a “sub-creative theology.” In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien argues that human art in general and fairy-stories in particular are “sub-creative” in the sense that, like God in his act of primary creation, they strive to produce “secondary worlds” that nevertheless possess the “inner consistency of reality.” He writes:

What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside.

Similar to Tolkien’s sub-creator, Anselm’s goal in his philosophical theology–whether rationally demonstrating the existence and nature of God in his Monologion and Proslogion, or showing the “necessity” of the Incarnation in his Cur Deus Homo–is to provide an internally consistent and compelling account of Christian truth that at the same time truthfully approximates (if not in fact coincides with) the logic of reality itself as God has made and revealed it. It is in this sense that his theology achieves a “possible necessity”: “necessary” because its own internal, narrative logic leads–with an inexorability that is as much aesthetic as it is “rational”–to the denouement of a Q.E.D.; “possible” because it recognizes reason’s own contingency and fallibility to speak where Scripture itself is silent or at best suggestive.

(It is, incidentally, this recognition of and commitment to a reality that we may asymptotically approach if not exactly capture and reproduce that I suspect differentiates my understanding of “sub-creative theology” from the anti-realist tendencies Francesca Aran Murphy has identified in the 20th and 21st century narrative theologies of “grammatical Thomistis” such as Fergus Kerr and David Burrell and the “story Barthianism” of Robert Jenson and George Lindbeck. See God is Not a Story: Realism Revisited.)

Embodied Immortality in Tolkien and Anselm

Another similarity between Tolkien’s Athrabeth and Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo to add to the list: the identity of man as a unity of body and soul in their respective arguments concerning the destiny of humankind. In the preface of Cur Deus Homo, Anselm writes:

human nature was instituted with the specific aim that at some stage the whole human being should enjoy blessed immortality, ‘whole’ meaning ‘with both body and soul’…

As Anselm observes, man was created for “blessed immortality,” a state transcending and surpassing his mortal experience here on earth. At the same time, whatever this immortality was, it was not something had by the soul only apart from or at the expense of his body. “Blessed immortality” was and is to be an embodied immortality.

In the conversation of the Athrabeth, Tolkien similarly strives to strike a balance between the alleged other-worldly orientation of Man’s soul and the this-worldly orientation of his body. On the one hand is Finrod’s characterization of the difference between Elves and Men on this wise:

the Eldar say of Men that they look at no thing for itself; that if they study it, it is to discover something else; that if they love it, it is only (so it seems) because it reminds them of some other dearer thing? Yet with what is this comparison? Where are these other things? ‘We are both, Elves and Men, in Arda and of Arda; and such knowledge as Men have is derived from Arda (or so it would appear). Whence then comes this memory that ye have with you, even before ye begin to learn?

As Tolkien argues in “On Fairy-Stories,” they are the Fairies who are “natural,” whereas they are the Men who are, by comparison, “supernatural.” If Men are ordered away from Arda/Earth in this way, however, it raises a question as to the unity of the human person. Finrod asks:

‘But what then shall we think of the union in Man: of an Indweller, who is but a guest here in Arda and not here at home, with a House that is built of the matter of Arda and must therefore (one would suppose) here remain? ‘At least one would not hope for this House a life longer than Arda of which it is part. Yet you claim that the House too was immortal, do you not? I would rather believe that such a feä of its own nature would at some time of its own will have abandoned the house of its sojourn here, even though the sojourn might have been longer than is now permitted. Then “death” would (as I said) have sounded otherwise to you: as a release, or return, nay! as going home! But this you do not believe, it seems?’

Andreth’s response is emphatic and unequivocal:

‘Nay, I do not believe this,’ said Andreth. ‘For that would be contempt of the body, and is a thought of the Darkness unnatural in any of the Incarnate whose life uncorrupted is a union of mutual love. But the body is not an inn to keep a traveller warm for a night, ere he goes on his way, and then to receive another. It is a house made for one dweller only, indeed not only house but raiment also; and it is not clear to me that we should in this case speak only of the raiment being fitted to the wearer rather than of the wearer being fitted to the raiment.

‘I hold then that it is not to be thought that the severance of these two could be according to the true nature of Men. For were it “natural” for the body to be abandoned and die, but “natural” for the feä [soul, spirit] to live on, then there would indeed be a disharmony in Man, and his parts would not be united by love. His body would be a hindrance at best, or a chain. An imposition indeed, not a gift. But there is one who imposes, and who devises chains, and if such were our nature in the beginning, then we should derive it from him – but that you say should not be spoken.

‘… I hold that in this we are as ye are, truly Incarnates, and that we do not live in our right being and its fullness save in a union of love and peace between the House and the Dweller. Wherefore death, which divides them, is a disaster to both.’

So according to Finrod Men are spiritually ordered away from this world towards a reality they-know-not-what, and yet the equally belong to the bodies which are a part of this world. What’s the solution to this conundrum? The solution is what I’ve referred to earlier as Tolkien’s and Anselm’s shared “metaphysics of Mary” (something I hope to address more fully at a later date). Finrod responds:

‘Ever more you amaze my thought, Andreth,’ said Finrod. ‘For if your claim is true, then lo! a feä which is here but a traveller is wedded indissolubly to a hroa [body] of Arda; to divide them is a grievous hurt, and yet each must fulfil its right nature without tyranny of the other. Then this must surely follow: the feä when it departs must take with it the hroa. And what can this mean unless it be that the feä shall have the power to uplift the hroa, as its eternal spouse and companion, into an endurance everlasting beyond Ea, and beyond Time? Thus would Arda, or part thereof, be healed not only of the taint of Melkor, but released even from the limits that were set for it in the “Vision of Eru” of which the Valar speak.’

In his commentary on the Athrabeth, Tolkien expressly refers to this conjectured process by which the human soul would have “taken with it” its soul as an act of “assumption,” a clear allusion to the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Assumption of Mary, according to which the Blessed Virgin, at the end of her earthly life, was taken up into heaven both body and soul into a state of glory. In Tolkien’s fictional eschatology, accordingly, the original fate of all Men was to have been that enjoyed by the Virgin Mary. Or to return to Anselm’s own argument for why God became a man, man’s destiny was and still remains that of an embodied immortality.

“The Hollow of His Hand”: Tolkien and Peter Damian’s Dialectic of Divine Presence

The issue of divine transcendence and immanence is an important one, I have argued before, for understanding appreciating the theology of Tolkien’s fiction. I’m fond of citing Tolkien’s claim, made in reply to W.H. Auden’s review of The Lord of the Rings, that the central conflict of the story is “about God, and his sole right to divine honour” (Letters no. 183). How is it that a story–in which its author deliberately and studiously avoids ever explicitly or unequivocally referring to God–be basically “about God”? At least part of the answer, I contend, has to do with Tolkien’s assumed metaphysical theology of divine presence: God’s supreme transcendence over creation and creation history isn’t in tension with his immanence, but is precisely the basis for his profound and universal ubiquity. Tolkien’s story doesn’t need to refer to God because, after its own fashion, it is always referring to God. As Tolkien writes in another letter, quoting favorably from one of his agnostic readers, his achievement was to “create a world in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like light from an invisible lamp” (Letters no. 328).

It is in the above spirit that I want to list a few passages comparing Tolkien and the eleventh-century theologian Peter Damian (1007-1072) on the issue of divine presence. The first passage is from Manwë’s vision at the end of the chapter “Of Aulë and Yavanna” from The Silmarillion, in which Manwë sees “that all was upheld by the hand of Ilúvatatar; and the hand entered in, and from it came forth many wonders that had until then been hidden from him [Manwë] in the hearts of the Ainur.” In this image, Ilúvatatar’s “hand” symbolizes both his transcendence over creation, sustaining it from without, as well as his immanence within creation, his ability, that is, to enter into it and miraculously, supernaturally intervene on its behalf.

A second, series of passages comes from the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, the “Debate of Finrod and Andreth” from Morgoth’s Ring (vol. 10 in The History of Middle-earth). In it the mortal woman Andreth reports a “rumour” among those men of the “old hope” that someday the Creator “will himself enter into Arda [the Earth], and heal Men and all the Marring from the beginning to the end.” Andreth doesn’t believe the rumour, however, asking the Elf-lord Finrod,

‘…How could Eru enter into the thing that He has made, and than which He is beyond measure greater? Can the singer enter into his tale or the designer into his picture?’
‘He is already in it, as well as outside,’ said Finrod. ‘But indeed the “in-dwelling” and the “out-living” are not in the same mode.’
‘Truly,’ said Andreth. ‘So may Eru in that mode be present in Ea that proceeded from Him. But they speak of Eru Himself entering into Arda, and that is a thing wholly different. How could He the greater do this? Would it not shatter Arda, or
indeed all Ea? ‘
‘Ask me not,’ said Finrod. ‘These things are beyond the compass of the wisdom of the Eldar, or of the Valar maybe. But I doubt that our words may mislead us, and that when you say “greater” you think of the dimensions of Arda, in which the greater vessel may not be contained in the less.
‘But such words may not be used of the Measureless. If Eru wished to do this, I do not doubt that He would find a way, though I cannot foresee it. For, as it seems to me, even if He in Himself were to enter in, He must still remain also as He is: the Author without.’

In his commentary on the Athrabeth, Tolkien elaborates further:

Eru Himself must at some time come to oppose Melkor. But Eru could not enter wholly into the world and its history, which is, however great, only a finite Drama. He must as Author always remain ‘outside’ the Drama, even
though that Drama depends on His design and His will for its beginning and continuance, in every detail and moment. Finrod therefore thinks that He will, when He comes, have to be both ‘outside’ and inside; and so he glimpses the possibility of complexity or of distinctions in the nature of Eru, which nonetheless leaves Him ‘The One’.  

And finally, in his note on the above commentary, Tolkien writes how the above dialectic of divine transcendence and immanence is

actually already glimpsed in the Ainulindalë, in which reference is made to the ‘Flame Imperishable’. This appears to mean the Creative activity of Eru (in some sense distinct from or within Him), by which things could be given a ‘real’ and
independent (though derivative and created) existence. The Flame Imperishable is sent out from Eru, to dwell in the heart of the world, and the world then Is, on the same plane as the Ainur, and they can enter into it. But this is not, of course, the same as the re-entry of Eru to defeat Melkor. It refers rather to the mystery of ‘authorship’, by which the author, while remaining ‘outside’ and independent of his work, also ‘indwells’ in it, on its derivative plane, below that of his own being, as the source and guarantee of its being.

To turn, finally, to Peter Damian, the similarities of note between the following discussion of divine omnipresence and the above passages by Tolkien are his image of the “divine hand” and his container-metaphor for describing God’s presence both within and without creation. Damian writes:

he remains immanent and transcendent in relation to the throne on which he presides, for, by measuring the heavens with a span and gathering the earth in the hollow of his hand he demonstrates that on every side he is external to all the things that he has created. Whatever, in fact, is enclosed inside remains external to the container; hence, relative to the throne on which he sits, he is considered to be within and above; by the hollow of the hand in which he is enclosed, however, it is indicated that he is external and beneath. And since he remains within all, external to all, above all, and beyond all things, he is superior through his power, inferior by reason of his support, external relative to his greatness, and internal because of his subtle penetration.” (Peter Damian: Letters 91-120, 358-9)

Tolkien’s “Athrabeth” and Anselm’s “Cur Deus Homo”

I’ve almost finished reading through Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, and here are some (rough) notes and questions that I’ve jotted down so far in connection with Tolkien’s Athrabeth. 

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo is a philosophical argument for the necessity of the Incarnation, or “why God became man.” Tolkien’s Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth is a similarly philosophical dialogue between an Elf and a mortal woman addressing the Creator’s purpose in making these two distinct races of rational yet embodied beings, a purpose, we learn, which also has to do with God’s redemptive designs for the world of Middle-earth.

Some possible comparisons and related questions:

  1. Anselm’s and Tolkien’s respective arguments for the “necessity” of the Incarnation; how both Anselm and Tolkien construct (Anselm on behalf of the “real” world, Tolkien for his “fictional” world) a logic of God, creation, fall, and redemption that necessitate, in different yet related ways, the same conclusion, namely God becoming a man.
  2. According to Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories,” one of the primary functions of fairy-stories is that of “Recovery,” of using fantasy to regain a clear view of the primary world. If so, given their similarities, Tolkien’s Athrabeth might be seen to function as a “Recovery” of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (much as Tolkien’s Ainulindalë is a “Recovery” of Genesis, and the Silmarillion of the Old Testament as a whole). But to what end? For what purpose? Part of the answer might be to see Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, not merely as a quaint yet antiquated work of early medieval theology, but as itself a scholastic exercise of “Recovery,” that is, of uncovering in a fresh way truths that were becoming stale in Anselm’s day (just as Tolkien—through his fairy-story—was ostensibly trying to uncover the enduring relevance of the Incarnation in his own day). And if so, how might this “hermeneutic of Recovery” affect our reading of Anselm?
  3. At many points in his argument for the “necessity” of the Incarnation, Anselm makes an appeal to what is “fitting” and what is “beautiful,” and he likens his argument in places to that of a picture he is painting. All of this suggests that the “validity” of Anselm’s argument has as much to do with aesthetics and poiesis as it does with logic and demonstration. For Tolkien, art and poiesis are ultimately a matter of what he calls “sub-creation” whereby the artist or story-teller crafts a “secondary world” having the “inner consistency of reality.” Is there a meaningful sense in which Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo is a case of “theology as sub-creation,” of crafting a coherent world or intellectual framework into which one must “enter,” “suspend disbelief” (or rather exercise “secondary belief”), and accept on its own internally consistent terms? And if so, is the argument of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo no less “fictional” than Tolkien’s Athrabeth, and Tolkien’s Athrabeth no less “real” than Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo?
  4. Related to the above is the shared concern for and awareness of the problem of “plausibility structures” within Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo and in Tolkien’s prefatory remarks to the Athrabeth. Both authors, in addition to presenting the arguments of their respective dialogues, in their own way touch on the issue of what is believable and why. How are their treatments similar and yet different?
  5. Tolkien’s Athrabeth focuses on the two species of Elves and Men; Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo on the two species of Men and Angels.
  6. Both works compare the world in its fallen (“marred” in the Athrabeth) to its restored (“unmarred”) state.
  7. Both works portray man as having a divinely assigned redemptive purpose for creation prior to the fall of man; in both works the secondary character (Anselm’s Boso and Tolkien’s Andreth) despair over man’s post-fall inability to carry out this redemptive purpose.
  8. Both works address the issue of human mortality.
  9. There is a “metaphysics of Mary” operative in both dialogues, explicitly in Anselm but implicit in Tolkien (note the references to bodily “assumption” in both the Athrabeth, Tolkien’s notes thereon, and in his Letters, and all references to the Virgin in Anselm).
  10. Something like Chalcedonian Christology is presupposed in both dialogues (hypostatic union: Christ being both God and man, in Tolkien, simultaneously transcendent and immanent).
  11. Similar argumentative structure in both Finrod and Anselm: both characters presuppose the purposefulness and non-vanity of God’s creative plans.

Hopefully I’ll get the chance to explore and develop these further at some point.

“Athrabeth”: Tolkien’s “Cur Deus Homo”

I’m presently working through Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (“Why God Became Man”) as part of my “theology of the possible” project. One of the things, however, that I’ve wanted to do for some time is a study comparing Anselm’s work with Tolkien’s own Middle earth version of Cur Deus Homo, the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth (in Morgoth’s Ring, vol. 10 in The History of Middle earth). Both texts make the case for the “necessity” of the Incarnation as the divine means for dealing with evil in the world. David Herlihy gives this summary of the central argument of Anselm’s dialogue:

Anselm attempted with with still greater boldness to show the logical relationships linking three fundamental Christian beliefs: the infinite nature of God, the fact of original sin, and the incarnation of Christ. Anselm argued that the degree of an offense was measured by the dignity of the one offended. Original sin was therefore an act of infinite evil, as it offended God himself. But the worth of an apology or act of atonement was measured by the dignity of the one conferring the apology. Man, therefore, while capable of a sin of infinite magnitude, could not as a finite creature offer equal atonement. Only a man of infinite worth could do this, i.e., a man who was also God. If God wished to save man, argued Anselm, the only suitable way for him to do so was to allow his son to become one of them, to offer atonement for the human race. (Medieval Society and Culture 162)

“Day Shall Come Again!”: The Book of Samuel in “The Silmarillion”

One of my interests is in the presence not just of general Christian and theological themes in Tolkien’s fiction, but of specifically biblical types and patterns in particular. As I am fond of saying to Christians who have enjoyed The Lord of the Rings but not yet discovered (or at least not yet been able to appreciate) the riches of The Silmarillion, if you think of the former as Tolkien’s “New Testament,” the latter is his “Old Testament”: while you can certainly profit knowing the one without the other, you won’t be able to fully understand it.

I’m reading through the Book of Samuel at the moment and I’m reminded of one such incidental parallel that I’ve observed for a while but whose relevance (if any) has escaped me. When Jonathan is killed along with his father, King Saul, in battle with the Philistines, David composes a lament for his slain friend, the so-called “Song of the Bow” (2 Sam. 1:17-27). In like manner, and in one of the most tragically poignant scenes in The Silmarillion, after mistakenly killing his friend Beleg Strongbow, Túrin Turumbar composes in his honor and memory the Laer Cú Beleg, the “Song of the Great Bow.”

The value of this comparison, I suspect, lies in the other connections between The Silmarillion and the Book of Samuel it may lead us to. Although Jonathan is not killed by David as Beleg is by Túrin, earlier in the story Jonathan is nearly killed by his father on David’s behalf when he foils Saul’s plot to assassinate David (1 Sam. 20). And when Jonathan finally is killed, it is by the Philistines with whom David had earlier entered into an alliance (1 Sam. 27, 29), and with whom David had also purposed to join in their war against Israel.

Related to this is the parallel irony involved in the swords that Túrin and David both wield. Doubtlessly the most famous sword in the Bible is the one that David took from Goliath when he cut off the Philistine Giant’s head. When he later requests of the priests of Nob a sword and they offer him Goliath’s for his own use (and for which assistance they are afterward killed by Saul), David responds by saying that “There is none like that; give it me” (1 Sam. 21:9). Again, David doesn’t kill Jonathan, but in bearing a Philistine sword, there is a sense in which the same sword that kills Jonathan is also the one that David wields. In similar manner, when King Thingol offers Beleg any sword of his choosing to help him in his service to and protection of Túrin, Beleg asks for Anglachel, “a sword of great worth because it was made of iron that fell from heaven as a blazing star; it would cleave all earth-delved iron,” and later described as a weapon that “was heavy and strong and had a great power” and “a strange blade, and unlike any that [has been] seen in Middle-earth.” Yet as Melian warns Beleg, it is also a weapon with both a dubious history and an uncertain future: ” ‘There is malice in this sword. The dark heart of the smith still dwells in it. It will not love the hand it serves; neither will it abide with you long.’ ‘Nonetheless I will wield it while I may,’ said Beleg.” Even after Melian’s prophecy proves true and the sword betrays its owner to his death, Túrin is unwilling to cast aside the accursed, black blade, using it later to slay (as no other sword could) the dragon Glaurung, and at last to take even his own troubled life.

Other, more tangential but still interesting connections include Beleg’s chancing upon and rescue of Gwindor, an escapee from Angband, while pursuing the Orcs who had taken Túrin captive, a scene somewhat reminiscent of David and company’s rescue of the Egyptian slave while pursuing the Amalekites who had taken their wives and children captive in their raid on Ziklag. Beleg, we might note here, is also a secondary character in the Beren-Luthien-Thingol saga, which involves a replay of the David-Michal-Saul episode from 1 Sam. 18: father despises daughter’s would-be-suitor and tries (unsuccessfully) to kill him by giving him a seemingly impossible and fatal mission as a bride-price.

Knowing something of the origin and prior history of Anglachel also serves to reinforce the David-Túrin connection. As alluded to in Melian’s warning, the sword had been forged by Eöl the dark Elf who had  captured and seduced Aredhel of Gondolin, and from which union Maeglin was begotten. When Maeglin and Aredhel finally escape from Eöl, Maeglin steals his father’s sword, taking it with them to Gondolin, whither Eöl also follows them and, like Saul (but compare also Denethor), after insulting his wife, tried to kill his own son. It is also while in Gondolin that Maeglin falls in love with his cousin Idril, but “without hope,” for, as it is told,

[t]he Eldar wedded not with kin so near, nor ever before had any desired to do so. And however that might be, Idril loved Maeglin not at all; and knowing his thought of her she loved him the less. For it seemed to her a thing strange and crooked in him, as indeed the Eldar ever since have deemed it: an evil fruit of the Kinslaying, whereby the shadow of the curse of Mandos fell upon the last hope of the Noldor. But as the years passed still Maeglin watched Idril, and waited, and his love turned to darkness in his heart. And he sought the more to have his will in other matters, shirking no toil or burden, if he might thereby have power.

It is due in part to his frustrated, incestuous, and in any case unrequited love for Idril that leads Maeglin to betray his uncle and adopted father Turgon in an attempt to usurp his throne.

Here it is possible and reasonable to see Tolkien interweaving or overlapping a number of episodes from the Book of Samuel. In particular I have in mind David’s seduction and impregnation of Bathsheba and conspiracy to kill her husband Uriah the Hittite, sins which bring the Lord’s curse that the sword would “never depart from thine house” (2 Sam. 10-11). This prophecy first begins to be filled in David’s son Amnon’s “crooked” love for and rape of his half-sister Tamar, his subsequent murder by his half-brother Absalom, and Absalom’s later usurpation of David’s throne. In the story of David, or so it would seem, we have an important biblical antecedent not only for the doom laid upon the Children of Húrin by Morgoth, but also of the Noldor’s slaying of their kin at Alqualondë: the curse laid upon the father will be visited upon his children.

Yet the story of David in the Bible is not ultimately about the curse as it is about Yahweh’s ability to bring about blessing and lasting faithfulness despite the curse and the unfaithfulness of his people. And perhaps it is here we might find some broader significance to the above parallels. David is told that the sword will not depart from his house, but he is also told that Yahweh himself will build David a house that will know no end. In like manner, as relentlessly tragic as Túrin’s story is, it is for all that a story contextualized by an overriding promise of hope. In the Fifth Battle between the Elves and Morgoth, the “Nirnaeth Arnoediad” or battle of “Unnumbered Tears,” when Turgon unexpectedly leads his army from Gondolin to join the forces against Morgoth, his brother Fingon shouts aloud, “Utúlie’n aurë! Aiya Eldalië ar Atanatári, utúlie’n aurë! The day has come!,” to which “all those who heard his great voice echo in the hills answered crying: ‘Auta i lómë! The night is passing!’” This particular hope, however, proves precipitous: betrayed by the Men of Uldor the Accursed, the allied forces of Men and Elves suffer a great defeat. Yet even as Turgon predicts in defeat that “Not long now can Gondolin be hidden, and being discovered it must fall,” the dying Huor is able to reply:

“Yet if it stands but a little while, then out of your house shall come the hope of Elves and Men. This I say to you, lord, with the eyes of death: though we part here for ever, and I shall not look on your white walls again, from you and from me a new star shall arise. Farewell!”

Like David, Turgon’s “house” will fall, yet “out of [his] house shall come the hope of Elves and Men,” a hope that receives its most immediate fulfillment in the union of Huor’s son Tuor and Turgon’s daughter Idril and their son Eärendil, but more remotely in their distant descendant (and one Tolkien’s most christological and hence davidic characters), Aragorn. Thus, while it may have proved too soon for Fingon naively and definitively to declare that “Day has come,” and to be answered that “Night is passing,” it is Húrin’s (repeated) expression of indomitable hope in the face of imminent and certain defeat that is given the “last word,” as it were: “each time that he slew Húrin cried: ‘Aurë entuluva! Day shall come again!’ Seventy times he uttered that cry; but they took him at last alive…” (Thanks to this lecture by Corey “The Tolkien Professor” Olsen for drawing my attention to these passages).

To return to the story of Beleg and Túrin, although neither of them witness the dawn of the “Day” spoken of by Húrin, their friendship, as tragic as it may be, nevertheless foreshadows not only the prophesied union of Elf and Man through the line of Tuor and Idril, but another crucial dimension of Tolkien’s eschatology as well, namely the Elves’ eventual succession and supplanting by Men in the historical-redemptive purposes of Ilúvatar to restore all of Arda. In the noble Elf Beleg’s sacrificial service and loyalty to Túrin, after all, we have a type of Jonathan’s own great love, humility, and willing acquiescence as the crown-prince to his divinely destined replacement by David in the line to the throne (1 Sam. 23:17). Fittingly, it is Finrod–whose own profound service to Beren to the point of death may have helped inspire Beleg’s similar service to Túrin–that Tolkien gives the fullest expression of this biblical, Johannine philosophy of “He must increase, and I must decrease.” In the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth–a dialogue which Tolkien describes in terms of “an attempt of a generous Elvish mind to fathom the relations of Elves and Men, and the part they were designed to play in what he would have called the Oienkarme Eruo (The One’s perpetual production), which might be rendered by ‘God’s management of the Drama’ “–the conversation reaches to its zenith when Finrod tells the mortal Andreth:

‘This then, I propound, was the errand of Men, not the followers, but the heirs and fulfillers of all: to heal the Marring of Arda, already foreshadowed before their devising; and to do more, as agents of the magnificence of Eru: to enlarge the Music and surpass the Vision of the World!’… I beheld as a vision Arda Remade; and there the Eldar completed but not ended could abide in the present for ever, and there walk, maybe, with the Children of Men, their deliverers, and sing to them such songs as, even in the Bliss beyond bliss, should make the green valleys ring and the everlasting mountain-tops to throb like harps…. Yes, Wise-woman, maybe it was ordained that we Quendi, and ye Atani, ere the world grows old, should meet and bring news one to another, and so we should learn of the Hope from you: ordained, indeed, that thou and I, Andreth, should sit here and speak together, across the gulf that divides our kindreds, so that while the Shadow still broods in the North we should not be wholly afraid.’ (Morgoth’s Ring)

In conclusion, then, while nothing can or should take away the inherently tragic character of the tale of Túrin Turambar turun ambartanen, the “master of doom by doom mastered,” it’s apparent parallels with the biblical Book of Samuel may nonetheless remind us that it is not an instance of “tragedy for its own sake,” but rather of that kind of “dyscatastrophe” that Tolkien says is not so much denied as it is presupposed by the possibility of eucatastrophe. The latter, he says at the end of his essay “On Fairy-Stories,”  “does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” This, we might say, is the “Gospel according to Túrin.”

Tolkien’s “Manichaeism”

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 37

In this series of posts I have been examining Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, the discussion surrounding which has been greatly influenced by Tom Shippey’s provocative and challenging claim that Tolkien’s fiction does not in fact contain a consistent or coherent presentation of evil, but involves rather a “running ambivalence,” tension, or contradiction between two ancient and antagonistic accounts of evil: the Augustinian privation theory of evil on the one hand, according to which everything that exists is good to the extent that it exists, meaning that evil is only an absence, lack, negation, and corruption of that existing good; and on the other hand, the Manichaean doctrine (once espoused by Augustine himself but later abandoned as he turned first to the Platonists and later to Christianity) that evil is a real force, presence, and power in its own right, equal to and equipotent with the good with which it is eternally at war. My purpose, by contrast, in this series of posts has been to show that Tolkien’s literary representation of evil is actually more coherent than Shippey allows, but that, contrary perhaps to some of Shippey’s critics, it is a coherence that is achieved not through an outright rejection of Manichaeism, but (paradoxically) through the deliberate inclusion of and even dalliance with Manichaean elements within his fiction. As I hope to show, Tolkien’s is not an Augustinianism in the face of Manichaeism (an opposition that itself inconsistently implies a kind of Manichaean dualism–Manichaeism as Augustinianism’s “outside,” its intractable, unassimilatable “other”), but an Augustinianism that at some level self-consciously recognizes and exposes the “falsehood” and “evil” of Manichaeism as itself a kind of “privation”–but for that reason also a (distorted) preservation and presupposition of–Augustinian truth.

It should be said, however, that part of Tolkien’s subtle and subversive sublation of Manichaeism is his overt representation of it as evil within his fiction. Thus, in the last post we considered some of the dualistic elements implicit in Sauron’s Ring. Shippey himself takes the Ring’s characterization as something inherently evil and incapable of any proper use as evidence of Tolkien-as-author’s more Manichaean moments, a point I hope to come back to later. Yet as we saw previously, perhaps more significant than the Manichaean metaphysics the Ring allegedly and unwittingly embodies is the Manichaean reality the Ring deliberately and malevolently seeks to enact, particularly by suppressing its wearer’s materiality and physicality by rendering him invisible. It is not Tolkien, in other words, but Sauron who is the Manichee. Consistent with this is the fact that, as Birzer points out, it is something like a Manichaean Gnosticism that Sauron converts the Númenorians to in their worship of Morgoth as the prince of darkness. More significant still is what we learn in the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, namely that it was just this seduction into a Manichaean deification of darkness that comprised the Original Sin of Men as a whole. As Andreth reports to Finrod, “still many Men perceive the world only as a war between Light and Dark equipotent. But you will say: nay, that is Manwë and Melkor; Eru is above them…” (Morgoth’s Ring 321). The Elves are the Augustinians, and corrupted Men are the Manichees.

Thus, it would seem that Shippey is more correct than he realizes when he discovers a certain Manichaeism in Tolkien’s representation of evil, for it is not an implicit but an explicit Manichaeism that Tolkien embodies in his fiction. Yet surely it weighs heavily against Shippey’s claim that Tolkien’s own views on evil were Manichaean when the principal representatives of the Manichaean outlook within his fiction are themselves the greatest agents of evil, as well as the ones standing to gain the most from the proliferation of its doctrine. Instead, and as we shall see more fully later, Tolkien’s purpose seems rather to have been to illustrate the point John Milbank makes in his account of the privation theory of St. Thomas and Augustine: “For evil to be at all, it must still deploy and invoke some good, yet it would like to forget this: evil as positive is evil’s own fondest illusion” (Milbank, “Evil: Darkness and Silence,” in Being Reconciled, 22). And so, while Tolkien was indeed expressly interested in the question of Manichaeism, what we see here is that much of his concern seems to have been the genealogical, etiological, psychological, and ultimately critical one of giving to Manichaeism a mythic and even demonic origin behind its teaching. If so, moreover, it’s possible to see here Tolkien as undertaking a reversal and subversion of what Peter Candler observes to have been Nietzsche’s own “implicit suggestion” in Thus Spake Zarathustra, namely that “Judaism and Christianity are themselves corruptions of an originally pure [pre-Christian and proto-Gnostic] Zoroastrianism which can be redeemed by more forcefully saying ‘yes’ to that particular past, while negating its false images…” (Candler, “Tolkien or Nietzsche, Philology and Nihilism,” 27). As we will see later, then, Tolkien was deeply interested, as Shippey rightly observes, in the seeming independence and autonomy of evil recognized by the Manichees, yet in a way that (as I shall argue) led him to give this seeming independence and autonomy of evil a very different and arguably even more powerful source than what ancient Manichaeism was able to account for.

Elves: Nostalgic Progressives or “Bad Conservatives”?

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 27

The previous post suggested that Tolkien flecks his characterization of the Elves with an element of the bad kind of escapism he discusses in his essay “On Fairy-Stories.” It should be said, however, that in the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth (“Debate of Finrod and Andreth,” Morgoth’s Ring), Tolkien allows Finrod to articulate a more balanced, considered Elvish perspective on the matter:

“Other creatures also in Middle-earth we [the Elves] love in their measure and kind: the beasts and birds who are our friends, the trees, and even the fair flowers that pass more swiftly than Men. Their passing we regret; but believe it to be a part of their nature, as much as are their shapes or their hues.” (Morgoth’s Ring 308)

Verlyn Flieger, in an excellent discussion of the necessity of change in Tolkien’s philosophy and fiction, indicates something of the complexity and even self-critical nature of Tolkien’s emphasis on this point. While Tolkien was himself an Elf of sorts, and his “psychological and emotional yearning was nostalgia for aspects of his world that had vanished or were vanishing in his lifetime, still, his philosophical and religious position was that change is necessary” (Splintered Light 170). Flieger also makes my earlier point about “evil” in this regard involving the desire for some good when she writes: “Desire to preserve a present good inevitably becomes desire to keep it from passing, but this leads to stagnation. The process of change is part of the design, and must continue if the design is to be fulfilled” (170). Finally, Peter Kreeft has also written perceptibly (if not slightly hyperbolically) on the problem of Elves and change, describing them as “bad conservatives: they want to embalm the present. Seeing the downward slant of the present, they try to preserve the past. They are not evil like Sauron, who always wants to sing ‘I Did It My Way’, but they are foolish because they sing ‘I Believe in Yesterday’” (The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind the Lord of the Rings, 80).

Trinity and Eschatology in Middle-earth

In addition to the divine, Trinitarian-like difference within Eru being a condition for the possibility of creation in Tolkien’s world, it also turns out to be a condition for the possibility of the world’s future re-creation. For as Finrod also confesses in the Athrabeth, unless Eru should indeed specially “enter in” and take upon himself the hurts of the world wrought by Melkor, all the while remaining “the Author without”—the simultaneity of which is made possible by this difference within the divine being—Finrod says he cannot at all “conceive how else this healing could be achieved” (MR 322). Equally inconceivable to the faith or estel of Finrod, however, is the thought that Eru should leave the world he loves forever unredeemed. As Tolkien thus concludes the matter in his commentary, “[s]ince Finrod had already guessed that the redemptive function was originally specially assigned to Men, he probably proceeded to the expectation that ‘the coming of Eru’, if it took place, would be specially and primarily concerned with Men: that is to an imaginative guess or vision that Eru would come incarnated in human form” (335). In Tolkien’s mythology, then, it is the Creator’s own difference, whereby he is “other” even to himself, that allows and leads him first to produce the “other” that is the created order, and consequent to that created order’s fall and corruption, to restore it eventually to an even greater state of perfection. Beneath the creaturely otherness which so transfixed Tolkien’s attention, lies the infinite depths of the divine “otherness” in which all things participate for their being, and therefore from whom they must one day receive it back again.

Trinity in Middle-earth, part 2

The primary instance where the Trinity receives an at-once calculated and yet ambiguous treatment by Tolkien appears in the Ainulindalë’s image of the Flame Imperishable. As the “Creative activity” or power of Ilúvatar that is simultaneously “with” and “within” him and yet “sent forth” from him, the Flame Imperishable is, as Tolkien writes in his commentary on the Athrabeth, “in some sense distinct from” Ilúvatar (MR 335, 345). This comment is of interest as it states that there is indeed the presence of “distinction” or difference within the Creator, while at the same time implying another “sense” in which the Flame Imperishable is in fact not distinct from but is the same as or identical with Ilúvatar, making them together both Eru “the One.” This analysis is dimly indicated in the Athrabeth itself, when at one point in their conversation Andreth tells Finrod about a “rumour” reported amongst those Men of the “Old Hope” that one day “the One will himself enter into Arda, and heal Men and all the Marring [of the world] from the beginning to the end” (321). Andreth, who for her part does not believe the rumor of the Men of the Old Hope, as “all wisdom is against them,” raises the following, reasonable objection: “Eru is One, alone without peer, and He made Eä, and is beyond it; and the Valar are greater than we, but yet no nearer to His majesty … How could Eru enter into the thing that He has made, and than which He is beyond measure greater? Can the singer enter into his tale or the designer into his picture?” (321-2). Finrod replies by reminding Andreth of the simultaneity of Eru’s immanence and transcendence, stating how Eru is in fact “already in it, as well as outside,” to which Andreth agrees but replies that the saying speaks rather of Eru “entering into Arda, and that is a thing wholly different.” When Andreth asks how such a thing could be possible without the Earth—indeed, without created reality itself—being “shattered,” Finrod pleads ignorance, though he does not doubt that, should Eru wish to do this thing, “he would find a way,” but that if “he were to enter in, He must still remain also as He is: the Author without.” In his commentary on this exchange, finally, Tolkien says that in recognizing the possibility of Eru being both “‘outside’ and inside,” Finrod further “glimpses the possibility of complexity or of distinctions in the nature of Eru, which nonetheless leaves Him ‘The One’” (335), something Tolkien further claims to be “actually already glimpsed in the Ainulindalë, in which reference is made to the ‘Flame Imperishable’” (345), not unlike St. Thomas’s discovery, for example, of evidence of the Trinity in the opening words of Genesis.[1] For Tolkien, in other words, Eru’s ability to be simultaneously immanent within while transcendent to his creation, as his metaphysics of eucatastrophe requires, is directly connected with a kind of Trinitarian complexity or distinction within Eru’s own being.


[1] According to St. Thomas, “In the beginning God created heaven and earth” is to be expounded to mean that God created heaven and earth “in the Son. For as the efficient principle is appropriated to the Father by reason of power, so the exemplary principle is appropriated to the Son by reason of wisdom, in order that, as it is said (Ps. 103:24), Thou hast made all things in wisdom, it may be understood that God made all things in the beginning—that is, in the Son; according to the word of the Apostle (Col. 1. 16), In Him—namely, the Son—were created all things” (ST 1.46.3).

Tolkien on Divine Presence, part 2

(Tolkien on Divine Presence, part 1)

For Tolkien as much as for St. Thomas, then, God is most immanent to his creatures, even closer, as Augustine would say, to creatures than they are to themselves. Not surprisingly, given this common emphasis, Tolkien shares with Thomas something of his concern to distinguish at the same time the divine intimacy with creation from any form of pantheistic heterodoxy. Thomas, for example, opens his discussion of the being of God in things in the Summa with the clarification that “God is in all things; not, indeed, as part of their essence, nor as an accident, but as an agent is present to that upon which it works. For an agent must be joined to that wherein it acts immediately, and touch it by its power; hence it is proved in the Physics that the thing moved and the mover must be together” (ST 1.8.1).[1] Although things participate in God for their being, creatures are not at all on that account “made out of” or composed of God’s own substance. God is in things, instead, not as the material but as the efficient cause of their being (ST 1.44.1-2). Wherever things exist, God is there, on site, not as the raw resource of their being, but as the agent or effecting cause of their existence.

Working within the same Platonic logic of participation as St. Thomas, we find in Tolkien, too, a similar concern to differentiate unambiguously the Platonic participation of things in God for their reality from the pantheistic identification of things with God’s own reality. In his commentary on the Athrabeth, for example, Tolkien describes the Elvish “basic belief” in Eru in these words: he is the “One God Creator, who made (or more strictly designed) the World, but is not Himself the World” (MR 330). In the Athrabeth itself, moreover, Andreth acknowledges, despite her doubts, that Eru is the “One, alone without peer,” who “made Eä, and is beyond it,” yet is nevertheless “already in it, as well as outside,” a statement Finrod further clarifies by adding, in good, scholastic fashion, that “indeed the ‘in-dwelling’ and the ‘out-living’ are not in the same mode” (321-2). Andreth, comprehending Finrod’s meaning, responds by saying: “Truly… So may Eru in that mode be present in Eä that proceeded from Him.” In his commentary on the Athrabeth, Tolkien offers his fullest explanation of the subject, wherein he introduces the metaphor of divine-authorship noted previously: Eru “must as Author always remain ‘outside’ the Drama, even though that Drama depends on His design and His will for its beginning and continuance, in every detail and moment” (335). And again, in the passage cited earlier explaining the Flame Imperishable, Tolkien writes: “It refers rather to the mystery of ‘authorship’, by which the author, while remaining ‘outside’ and independent of his work, also ‘indwells’ in it, on its derivate plane, below that of his own being, as the source and guarantee of its being” (345). For Tolkien, in summary, Eru is indeed “inside” creation, not in the sense that creation is made out of God, which, contrary to Tolkien’s express claim, would effectively raise it to the same “plane” of being as himself, but in the sense that an author is “inside” his story. As author, he is immediately present to and causative of the being of every creature, while his own being is identifiable with the being of none of them.


[1] “Deus est in omnibus rebus, non quidem sicut pars essentiae, vel sicut accidens, sed sicut agens adest ei in quod agit. Oportet enim omne agens coniungi ei in quod immediate agit, et sua virtute illud contingere: unde in VII Physic. probatur quod motum et movens oportet esse simul.”

Tolkien on God’s existence, part 2: Teleological reasoning of the Elves

(Tolkien on God’s existence, part 1)

In part 1 of this thread I concluded with Tolkien’s assertion found in his commentary on the Athrabeth (Morgoth’s Ring, vol. 10 in The History of Middle-earth) that God’s existence was a “basic belief” and hence foundational tenet in the Elvish worldview. As to how these creatures arrived at this conviction, Tolkien’s reference to the presence of a “natural theology” within his fictional world by itself suggests that belief in God’s existence in Middle-earth was not a matter of fideism but is best understood, at least in the case of the Elves, as having a certain rationally reflective or philosophical character to it. Of the faithful men who escaped the destruction of Númenor, by contrast, Tolkien indicates in one place that their belief in God was instead more a matter of “religion as divine worship” than it was—as apparently was the case amongst the more speculative Elves—a matter of “philosophy and metaphysics” (L 194n). Of the Athrabeth as a whole, moreover, we may recall here Tolkien’s summary of the dialogue as an exchange between two “enquiring minds” attempting to understand—through a critical reflection upon evidence ranging from oral legends to the most fundamental structures of reality—something of the Creator’s perplexing purpose in creating two distinct yet closely related races of rationally incarnate beings. One of the persistent assumptions throughout Finrod’s remarks in particular is a kind of Thomistic confidence, first, that if Eru has done something (in this case, create the closely similar yet significantly differing species of Elves and Men), it was done for a purpose, otherwise Men “would have been simply Elves, and their separate introduction later into the Drama by Eru would have no function” (MR 333); and second, that the purpose of God in question is one that a finite, created mind can, in principle, discover and comprehend. Again, as Tolkien summarizes the dialogue, it is an attempt to “to fathom the relations of Elves and Men, and the part they were designed to play” in the divine “Drama” of creation (329, emphasis added). For Finrod, the world of Middle-earth was the kind of cosmos in which means and causes have been divinely ordered towards their ends and effects “so as to obtain,” as Thomas, for example, puts it in his fifth way, “the best result.”

Although God’s existence itself is presupposed rather than proved in the Athrabeth, it is this same, Elvish teleological reasoning which Tolkien applies in his response to his publisher Rayner Unwin’s daughter, Camilla, who had written him as part of a grade-school assignment asking his “opinion” on the “purpose of life.” In the closest thing we have from him to an argument for God’s existence, Tolkien gives the following, rather Thomistic reply:

I do not think “opinions,” no matter whose, are of much use without some explanation of how they are arrived at… I think that questions about “purpose” are only really useful when they refer to the conscious purposes or objects of human beings, or to the uses of things they design and make… If we go up the scale of being to “other living things,” such as, say, some small plant, it presents shape and organization: a “pattern” recognizable (with variation) in its kin and offspring; and that is deeply interesting, because these things are “other” and we did not make them, and they seem to proceed from a fountain of invention incalculably richer than our own.

            Human curiosity soon asks the question HOW: in what way did this come to be? And since recognizable ‘pattern’ suggests design, may proceed to WHY? But WHY in this sense, implying reasons and motives, can only refer to a MIND. Only a Mind can have purposes in any way or degree akin to human purposes. So at once any question: “Why did life, the community of living things, appear in the physical Universe?” introduces the Question: Is there a God, a Creator-Designer, a Mind to which our minds are akin (being derived from it) so that It is intelligible to us in part. (L 399, emphasis original)

For Tolkien, the question of the purpose of life naturally leads into the question of God’s existence. He also takes for granted that we experience things in terms of, and that therefore there exist in the world independent of ourselves, “recognizable patterns,” patterns that imply “design,” design which implies “reasons and motives.” These motives, however, in their turn imply a “MIND,” or what St. Thomas describes in his fifth way as “some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence.” Or as Chesterton imaginatively reformulated the same argument in his discussion of the whole philosophical purpose of fairy-stories—a discussion that had some influence on Tolkien[1]—“this world… is magic, … magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have some one to mean it.”[2] Like Thomas in his five ways, then, we find Tolkien moving confidently from the sensible experience of nature to the character of the first cause that must exist if such experience is to be both possible and meaningful. The world is magic, so there must be a divine magician. As Tolkien goes on to explain toward the end of his letter to Camilla, expressing in his own way the Thomistic principle that “from the effect we proceed to the knowledge of the cause,” as well as alluding to the principle that there are some things about God known only by revelation,

our ideas of God and ways of expressing them will be largely derived from contemplating the world about us. (Though there is also revelation both addressed to all men and to particular persons.)

            So it may be said that the chief purpose of life, for any one of us, is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks. (400)


[1] On Chesterton’s influence on Tolkien, see Alison Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians.

[2] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 70. On Chesterton’s natural theology or “religion” of fairyland, see Alison Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 9-11.

Tolkien on God’s existence, part 1: an Elvish “basic belief”

His desire to reconstruct a pre-scientific and pre-philosophical vision of reality notwithstanding, Tolkien’s mythical world is–quite deliberately–almost entirely devoid of any explicit religious or cultic expression or sentiment. Instead, Tolkien describes the world of The Lord of the Rings in one place as a “monotheistic world of ‘natural theology’” (220), suggesting the presence of a little old-fashioned, scholastic, rational theology in Tolkien’s history of Earth’s primeval past after all. One of the very first questions in any philosophical or natural theology, of course, is the question of God’s existence, of whether it can be known, and if so, how. Consistent with this, in his commentary on the Athrabeth, the first of the aforementioned “basic beliefs” of the Elves listed by Tolkien is their conviction that “[t]here exists Eru (The One); that is, One God Creator, who made (or more strictly designed) the World, but is not Himself the World” (MR 330).

Once again, moreover, the manner in which the Elves knew God to exist, as I hope to show in later posts, bears a certain likeness to the kind of rational, natural theology represented and developed by St. Thomas Aquinas. Although Thomas gives five distinct, albeit related arguments for God’s existence in the Summa, it is his celebrated fifth way, the so-called “teleological argument” or argument from design, that has the greatest bearing on our present interest in Tolkien and which I will accordingly focus on here. According to Thomas,

We see that things which lack knowledge, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that they achieve their end not by chance, but by design. Now whatever lacks knowledge cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence, as the arrow is directed by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are ordered to their end; and this being we call God. (ST 1.2.3)[1]

In short, we experience in nature non-intelligent things acting purposefully, for an end, and if there is a purpose, there must be, if you will, a “purposer.”

As for the natural theology of Tolkien’s fiction, although inhabited, shaped, and governed by powerful beings whom he refers to as “gods,” he regards his fictional cosmos, as we have just seen, as a strictly monotheistic world. More than it merely being a monotheistic world in principle, and the relative lack of religious observance notwithstanding, he further indicates that it was also known and experienced to be a monotheistic world by its chief inhabitants. Of the ancient Númenórean race of men, for example, from whose lineage Aragorn and his fellow Dúnedain of The Lord of the Rings are descended, Tolkien writes: “They thus escaped from ‘religion’ in a pagan sense, into a pure monotheist world, in which all things and beings and powers that might seem worshipful were not to be worshipped, not even the gods (the Valar), being only creature of the One” (L 204). Of the Elves Tolkien similarly writes in his commentary on the Athrabeth that, even amongst the most rebellious of their race, “not one had ever entered the service or allegiance of Melkor himself, nor ever denied the existence and absolute supremacy of Eru” (MR 334). As noted above, that God existed and that he was the supreme authority over all things, in short, was a foundational tenet of the Elvish worldview.


[1] “Videmus enim quod aliquae quae cognitione carent, scilicet corpora naturalia, operantur propter finem: quod apparet ex hoc quod semper aut frequentius eodem modo operantur, ut consequantur id quod est optimum; unde patet quod non a casu, sed ex intentione perveniunt ad finem. Ea autem quae non habent cognitionem, non tendunt in finem nisi directa ab aliquo cognoscente et intelligente, sicut sagitta a sagittant. Ergo est aliquid intelligens, a quo omnes res naturales ordinantur ad finem: et hoc dicimus Deum.”

Faith and Reason in Middle-earth, part 2

[Faith and Reason in Middle-earth, part 1]

The theme of faith and reason makes perhaps its most express appearance in Tolkien’s fiction in the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth (“The Debate of Finrod and Andreth”), a dialogue Tolkien wrote after the publication of The Lord of the Rings, addressing many of the philosophical and theological principles underlying his mythology.[1] According to his son Christopher, the dialogue held some “authority” for his father as to how his mythical history as a whole was to be interpreted, and Tolkien’s (unfulfilled) wish was that it should be published as an appendix to The Silmarillion (Morgoth’s Ring 303 and 328-9). A record of an exchange between the Elf-lord Finrod and a mortal woman named Andreth, the Athrabeth represents one of the earliest conversations in the history of Middle-earth between two representatives of their respective races, in which the two participants attempt “to fathom the relations of Elves and Men, and the part they were designed to play in… the Oinekarmë Eruo (The One’s perpetual production), which might be rendered by ‘God’s management of the Drama’” (329). In a separate commentary he wrote on the dialogue, Tolkien spells out at even greater length many of the Elvish “basic beliefs” presupposed by Finrod in the course of his conversation with Andreth, beliefs which the Elves had acquired from their “created nature; angelic instruction; thought; and experience” (330). Of particular relevance here is the reference to “angelic instruction,” which indicates that part of the foundation of Elvish knowledge consisted in truths known neither intuitively, discursively, nor experientially, but simply on authority, specifically, the authority of a higher, spiritual being. Thus, despite the absence of any formally recognized divine revelation in Tolkien’s mythical history, this portrayal of the Elves as existing in a relationship of trusting subordination to the angelic Valar resembles the New Testament’s characterization of the Old Testament as a time when God’s people were under the tutelage of angelic administration and revelation, but which was afterward surpassed by God’s direct revelation through his Son (Acts 7:53, Gal. 3:19, Heb. 2:2-3). As I may address in a later post, it is a similar logic and progression of history which the Athrabeth anticipates as well.

Of the aforementioned sources of Elvish basic beliefs, possibly of even greater import than “angelic instruction” is Tolkien’s reference to the Elvish “created nature,” which he implicitly distinguishes from both Elvish “thought” and “experience.” What exactly he means by “created nature” is not made clear in his commentary, but in the Athrabeth itself Finrod credits the Elvish nature as the source of their faith or estel, which he defines as “trust,” a condition that is “not defeated by the ways of the world, for it does not come from experience, but from our nature and first being” (320, emphasis added). This is interesting as it implies that, for the Elves at least, the exercise of faith or trust is not “supernatural” in the sense of it being something adventitious or superfluous to the Elvish nature, but instead emerges from, is rooted in, and is thus necessary for the completion or perfection of the Elvish “nature and first being.” And while Tolkien here emphasizes the naturalness of faith as far as its origins in the individual are concerned, the orientation of this faith has an unmistakably supernatural dimension, as may be seen when Finrod, in his response to Andreth’s despair in thinking that the Creator has abandoned Men and the world, identifies as the “last foundation” of this faith the fact that Elves and Men are indeed the “Children of the One” and that the fatherly Eru will therefore “not suffer Himself to be deprived of His own, not by any Enemy, not even by ourselves” (320). In this way Tolkien may be seen to challenge an overly facile and modern division between the natural and the supernatural, inasmuch as hope and trust in God and his ability to intervene supernaturally in human (or Elvish) history is something eminently natural and not merely extraneous to us as “children” of God.


[1] Christopher Tolkien places the Athrabeth’s composition sometime in 1959 (MR 304).