Christ’s Harrowing of Hell in “Fog on the Barrow-Downs”

Tom Bombadil’s rescue of the hobbits from the Barrow-wights contains a great image (and somewhat humorous interpretation) of a classic scene in Christian history and theology, Christ’s “harrowing of hell” of his saints (as well as of the future resurrection of the dead):

There was a loud rumbling sound, as of stones rolling and falling, and suddenly light streamed in, real light, the plain light of day. A low door-like opening appeared at the end of the chamber beyond Frodo’s feet; and there was Tom’s head (hat, feather, and all) framed against the light of the sun rising red behind him. The light fell upon the floor, and upon the faces of the three hobbits lying beside Frodo. They did not stir, but the sickly hue had left them. They looked now as if they were only very deeply asleep.

Get out, you old Wight! Vanish in the sunlight!

Shrivel like the cold mist, like the winds go wailing,

Out into the barren lands far beyond the mountains!

Come never here again! Leave your barrow empty!

Lost and forgotten be, darker than the darkness,

Where gates stand for ever shut, till the world is mended.

At these words there was a cry and part of the inner end of the chamber fell in with a crash. Then there was a long trailing shriek, fading away into an unguessable distance; and after that silence.

‘Come, friend Frodo!’ said Tom. ‘Let us get out on to clean grass! You must help me bear them.’

The Metaphysics of Coercion in Tolkien’s Angelology

Despite their status as fictional and mythical beings, there is a certain metaphysical seriousness and consistency with which Tolkien treats angelic or spiritual creatures in his Middle-earth legendarium. For example, although the “Valar” and their subordinates, the “Maiar,” are very much attached to and involved in the physical world, their relationship to their bodies, and thus to the physical world as a whole, still remains a fundamentally dualistic one. Tolkien likens the relationship in one place between the Valar and their bodies to that between human beings and their clothes, a metaphor Plato also used in his account of the human soul’s relationship to the body.  For Tolkien, however, one interesting implication of the dualism of angelic incarnation is the resultant temptation or proclivity they have towards the domination of other beings. As Tolkien writes in one place:

“But since in the view of this tale & mythology Power—when it dominates or seeks to dominate other wills and minds (except by the assent of their reason)—is evil, these “wizards” were incarnated in the life-forms of Middle-earth, and so suffered the pains both of mind and body. They were also, for the same reason, thus involved in the peril of the incarnate: the possibility of “fall,” of sin, if you will. The chief form this would take with them would be impatience, leading to the desire to force others to their own good ends, and so inevitably at last to mere desire to make their own wills effective by any means. To this evil Saruman succumbed. Gandalf did not.” (L 237, emphasis added)

In another letter Tolkien writes of the wizards Saruman and Gandalf that, although angelic, spiritual beings in themselves, “being incarnate [they] were more likely to stray, or err,” and that it was because of his “far greater inner power” in comparison to his companions that Gandalf’s self-sacrifice on the Bridge of Kazad-dum was a true “humbling and abnegation” (L 202, emphasis added).  Similar to the physical matter which they do not and cannot control directly, other free rational beings are not—or at least ought not to be—subjected to the dominating will of the angelic spirit. Rather, the latter’s influence over others must involve the same kind of sub-creative patience that moves their subordinates to action, not by coercion but by persuasion, a responsibility they share with Thomas’s angels whom he says cannot directly or violently move another creature’s will, but can nevertheless “incline the will to the love of the creature or of God, by way of persuasion” (ST 1.106.2).  Nevertheless, because their embodiment is not natural but voluntary and therefore provisional or conditional, requiring that they lay aside some of their own native powers, it is possible to see Tolkien as recognizing a sense in which the incarnate angels as a consequence necessarily have a much more artificial, extrinsic and utilitarian or pragmatic relationship to their bodies than is the case for Men and Elves. In short, the angelic body is, for the angelic spirits, ultimately a kind of “machine,” a form of technology and therefore a mere tool to be used rather than part of their fundamental nature and identity.  As the demiurgic sub-creators and masters of their own bodies to which they do not belong by nature, the temptation for the Valar and Maiar, Tolkien almost seems to suggest, will be for them to adopt the same attitude of mastery and domination towards others and towards the physical world they are supposed to shepherd.

Entrepreneurship vs. Labor in Middle-earth

Tolkien’s episode on the Elvish lord Thingol’s hiring of the dwarves to build his cave-dwelling at Menegroth contains an implicit reflection on an application to the relationship between the role of the entrepreneur on the one hand and labor on the other:

Now Melian had much foresight, after the manner of the Maiar; and when the second age of the captivity of Melkor had passed, she counseled Thingol that the Peace of Arda would not last for ever. He took thought therefore how he should make for himself a kingly dwelling, and a place that should be strong, if evil were to awake again in Middle-earth; and he sought aid and counsel of the Dwarves of Belegost. They gave it willingly, for they were unwearied in those days and eager for new works; and though the Dwarves ever demanded a price for all that they did, whether with delight or with toil, at this time they held themselves paid. –Silmarillion, “Of the Sindar,”p. 92.

(For more posts on Tolkien’s social or political philosophy, see here.)

Tolkien on Weapons Proliferation

“And when Melkor saw that these lies were smouldering, and that pride and anger were awake among the Noldor, he spoke to them concerning weapons; and in that time the Noldor began the smithying of swords and axes and spears. Shields also they made displaying the tokens of many houses and kindreds that vied one with another; and these only they wore abroad, and of other weapons they did not speak, for each believed that he alone had received the warning.” Silm., “Of the Silmarils and the Unrest of the Noldor,” 69.

For other posts on Tolkien’s social or political philosophy, see here.

Ilúvatar’s critique of socialism

Ilúvatar’s interrogation of Aulë after the latter’s misguided fashioning of the dwarves could equally double as a critique of socialist central planning:

“Why hast thou done this? Why dost thou attempt a thing which thou knowest is beyond thy power and thy authority? For thou has from me as a gift thy own being only, and no more; and therefore the creatures of thy hand and mind can live only by that being, moving when thou thinkest to move them, and if thy thought be elsewhere, standing idle. Is that thy desire?” (Silm. 43)

In his penitent reply, moreover, in which he denies having any such desire for domination, Aulë can be heard instead re-affirming the comparatively “libertarian” values of the Valar expressed earlier in the Silmarillion. For it was said that when the Valar first beheld the Children of Ilúvatar, “the more did they love them, being things other than themselves, strange and free, and learned yet a little more of his wisdom, which otherwise had been hidden even from the Ainur” (Silm. 18). As Aulë similarly confesses to Ilúvatar:

“I did not desire such lordship, I desired things other than I am, to love and to teach them, so that they too might perceive the beauty of Eä, which thou has caused to be.” (Silm. 43)


Christ’s death not commanded by God, yet willed by him–not necessary, but free

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, part 11.

For Anselm, then, Christ’s suffering and death were not commanded by God, but this does not mean that they were not willed by him. As has been said previously, because of his perfect obedience as a human being, there was nothing in Christ’s specifically human nature that required his sacrificial death for the human race, yet the latter was nevertheless something which Christ willed to undertake as an act that went “above and beyond,” as it were, his mere human obedience. And like all proper acts of will, Christ’s will to suffer and to die came from God. God gave Christ the will to suffer and to die, in other words, not in satisfaction of his created human nature per se (for his human nature needed no such will for its perfection or completion), but simply as an act of Christ’s free will unnecessitated or uncompelled by his or any other created nature. The resulting paradox is that only as a free, uncoerced choice, absent of all moral duty or divine command, could Christ’s suffering and death be (as Anselm shall explain more fully later) a sufficient or suitable repayment of humankind’s debt of sin, and so fulfill God’s own uncommanded wish that the human race should be saved.

Intending the Necessary

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, part 10.

If Anselm’s account of the merely hypothetical or conditional necessity of Christ’s death for his exaltation gets us a step closer to the much more comprehensive and unconditional necessity at the heart of the Christian account of salvation, it is only a step. For as Anselm’s further explanation of this conditional necessity reveals, an important and illuminating difference remains between it and the kind of necessity he will go on to identify with the Incarnation itself. Summarizing the general principle involved in Christ’s post-mortem exaltation, Anselm asks us to “Suppose that we intend to perform some action (intendimus facere aliquid) but that we decide to do beforehand another action by means of which the intended action will be done.” Under such a circumstance, Anselm avers, “the intended action (fit quod intendimus) is rightly said to be done because of the fact that the preceding action, on account of which the intended action was delayed, has occurred…” The situation, then, is one in which an agent, in a two-step process of deliberation, first decides to perform a particular action (in God’s case, the act of exalting Christ), and afterwards chooses a second, preceding action (for God, the death of Christ) by which, or at least after which, the originally intended action will be achieved. Anselm further illustrates the point with the example of a man who wants to cross a river, but who also decides that he will only cross it by boat, even though he could also cross it by horse. Thus, the man may truly be said to have crossed the river “because” a boat was made available, even though there were other means for crossing it at his disposal. What is important to note is that in none of these cases is it the originally intended action itself—the end—that necessitates or requires the means or occasion upon which the end is brought about, but merely the fact that the agent in question happened to decide that the end should be brought about by this means and no other. This is important because this is basically the situation Boso—mistakenly, it will turn out—believes to be the case with the Incarnation. As we have seen, the question raised by Boso, in effect, is why God, given his first-order intention of saving or forgiving the human race of their sin, did not choose a more economical or felicitous means for doing so, implying that, for Boso, the end of human salvation did not, in and of itself, require or necessitate the means of Christ’s Incarnation and death. Anselm’s initial response, as we saw, was to counter by saying that the Incarnation is not so much inefficient as it is costly, precious, and fitting. From this point forward, however, Anselm’s larger purpose in the Cur Deus Homo will effectively be to argue that the end of human salvation, properly understood, while temporally and conceptually distinct from the means of the Incarnation, is nevertheless so logically and metaphysically bound up with the Incarnation that there really is or was no other possible means for accomplishing it. It is as though the original intention of the man in Anselm’s above illustration was not merely the generic goal of crossing-the-river, only to be followed later by a subsequent intention to cross the river in a particular way, but from the very beginning comprehended the more determinate and complex action of crossing-the-river-by-boat, making the specific action of using a boat not incidental, or even a mere condition of, but in fact essential to the particular action or end in view. Anselm’s strategy in the remainder of the dialogue, accordingly, will be to show that, however differentiable and hence separable the Incarnation and human salvation may seem to the finite, human mind, careful attention to and exegesis of the inner logic and “hidden necessities” of the whole problem of human sin and condemnation reveal a different story: that the entire means-end structure of human salvation comprises on God’s part an inherently undivided, organically interconnected, complex and con-created divine intention in which the very meaning and possibility of the end is lies precisely in its means.