Aquinas’s Shepherd Angels

Now that my book on Tolkien’s Thomistic metaphysics is published, it’s of course time for me to start noticing all the things I (inevitably) failed to include. In this discussion, for example, of the power of Aquinas’s angels over the physical world, one of the passages that might be added is the following objection and Aquinas’s response to the role of the angels in bringing the animals before Adam to name (ST I, Q. 96, art. 1):

Objection 1: It would seem that in the state of innocence Adam had no mastership over the animals. For Augustine says (Gen. ad lit. ix, 14) that the animals were brought to Adam, under the direction of the angels, to receive their names from him. But the angels need not have intervened thus, if man himself were master over the animals. Therefore in the state of innocence man had no mastership of the animals.

Reply Obj. 1: A higher power can do many things that an inferior power cannot do to those which are subject to them. Now an angel is naturally higher than man. Therefore certain things in regard to animals could be done by angels, which could not be done by man; for instance, the rapid gathering together of all the animals.

To the angels’ many other powers, accordingly, Aquinas adds this: an (unexamined and unexplained) capacity to gather animals together in a short amount of time. Aquinas may not, unlike Tolkien, have sub-creative angels, but he does allow for shepherd ones.


Hobbitus Economicus

I think there is a tendency in many readers–myself included–to over-idealize the charming life and culture of the hobbits of the Shire. In this post from a while back, however, in which I contrast the socio-economic order of the Shire with that of Bree, I posed this question:

what role (if any) the apparent failure of her hobbits to achieve the Bree-lander’s delicate balance–a synthesis between spirited independence and a cooperative symbiosis of heterogeneous groups–may have played in the Shire’s eventual vulnerability, first, to the capitalist aggrandizement of Lotho Baggins, followed in turn and replaced by the socialist tyrannies of Saruman-cum-Sharkey.

Whatever the relevance of or answer to that question may be, in my latest reading of The Fellowship I’m struck by just how questionable some of the hobbits actually are in their economic orientation. Although the hobbits have made a practice of gift giving, as I’ve commented before, it is actually Bilbo who, among hobbits, is particularly distinguished by his generosity. At the Party we are told that, although he gave gifts to everyone, some individuals were so greedy that they shamelessly “went out again by a back way and came in again by the gate,” presumably to see if they could acquire yet another gift. And though he wasn’t a Shire hobbit himself, it’s hard not to see Smeagol’s ancient act of slaying his friend and relative Deagol over what he desired as a birthday gift as the hobbit’s own original sin and Cain-and-Abel narratives, in which all subsequent hobbits are, after a fashion, implicated. (If a hobbit could kill another hobbit over a present, then anyone can.) Back to the Shire, however, we read that “Frodo had a very trying time that afternoon,” for

A false rumour that the whole household was being distributed free spread like wildfire; and before long the place was packed with people who had no business there, but could not be kept out. Labels got torn off and mixed, and quarrels broke out. Some people tried to do swaps and deals in the hall; and others tried to make off with minor items not addressed to them, or with anything that seemed unwanted or unwatched. The road to the gate was blocked with barrows and handcarts.

Embarrassingly, the day after Bilbo’s generous feast, the road to Bag End looks like the aisles of Walmart only a couple of hours after the family Thanksgiving meal. The Sackeville-Baggins are, of course, the worst of the lot, being “rather offensive. They began by offering him [Frodo] bad bargain-prices (as between friends) for various valuable and unlabelled things. When Frodo replied that only the things specially directed by Bilbo were being given away, they said the whole affair was very fishy.” When they demand to see and are shown Bilbo’s will, they don’t even try to conceal their covetousness, contempt, and ingratitude: ” ‘Foiled again!’ he [Otho] said to his wife. ‘And after waiting sixty years. Spoons? Fiddlesticks!'” As for Lobelia, Frodo finds her “investigating nooks and corners and tapping the floors,” and he finds she has gone so far as to steal “several small (but rather valuable) articles that had somehow fallen inside her umbrella.” And these are the people who are Bilbo’s next of kin! The dragon-sickness, however, seems to have infected even some of the younger hobbits, as Frodo and Merry are forced to “evict three young hobbits (two Boffins and a Bolger) who were knocking holes in the walls of one of the cellars” and things even get physical when Frodo “also had a tussle with young Sancho Proudfoot (old Odo Proudfoot’s grandson), who had begun an excavation in the larger pantry, where he thought there was an echo. The legend of Bilbo’s gold excited both curiosity and hope; for legendary gold (mysteriously obtained, if not positively ill-gotten) is, as every one knows, any one’s for the finding–unless the search is interrupted.”

In sum, then, for all its virtues and charm, clearly not everything is alright with the hobbits so far as their desire for material possessions is concerned. Even before Saruman got there, accordingly, we see that the Shire was due for a “scouring.”

Bilbo Baggins, the Fairy of Hobbiton

            The Fellowship of the Ring begins as a fairy story, yet the first “fairy,” so to speak, that we actually meet with is, paradoxically, a hobbit. The Hobbit itself was a story of a very ordinary little man, Bilbo Baggins, going on an adventure into the perilous realm of Faërie where he became “enchanted.” What we see in the opening pages of The Lord of the Rings is that this same Bilbo has now returned to his home in the ordinary world of the Shire and has now himself become in the popular imagination the resident representative of the realm of Faërie, a source of mystery, rumor, legend, and enchantment for the rest of his fellow hobbits. He is described as unusually, even “unnaturally” ancient (eleventy-one years old!), and yet “unchanged. He is “very rich and very peculiar” and his hobbit hole is introduced as a veritable treasure mountain in its own right. Yet he is generous, even if a bit “odd,” though he has many “devoted admirers,” especially among the poor and the innocent youth. He “had no close friends,” however, indicating an Elf-like aloofness. For most of first part of the opening chapter, moreover, we see Bilbo, not as he is in himself or in his own words, but entirely through the mediation and testimony of others. Even when the third-person omniscient narrator describes Bilbo, he largely does so by telling us what other hobbits think of him. He enjoys “(apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth.” “ ‘It will have to be paid for,’ they said.” As was just noted, we are told who his admirers were, and we get the testimony of one in particular in his gardener, the Gaffer Gamgee: “A very nice well-spoken gentlehobbit is Mr. Biblo, as I’ve always said.” As with the Elves, those who come in contact with Bilbo become enlightened and elevated themselves, as the Gaffer reports that it was Bilbo who taught Sam how to read, “meaning no harm, mark you, and I hope no harm will of it.” In teaching Sam how to read, of course, he also taught him stories about the Elves. To the minds of other hobbits, Bilbo is no ordinary hobbit, as his home, Bag End, is described by Ted Sandyman as “a queer place, and its folk are queerer.” The Gaffer gives a different, though not contradictory testimony when he says that “they do things proper at Bag End” and that “everyone’s going to be invited to the party, and there’s going to be presents, mark you, presents for all.” In Tolkien’s stories, encounters with the Elves often involves tremendous feasts and gifts. Food and gifts are also a part of hobbit culture, and yet Bilbo’s own party and gifts are anticipated to be something extraordinary even by their own extraordinary standards. As “the Day” draws near, the mytique surrounding Bilbo becomes even more heightened as he grows even more aloof or distant. An “odd-looking wagong laden with odd-looking packages” appears in Hobbiton, headed for the Bage End, and “driven by outlandish folk, singing strange songs: dwarves with long beards and deep hoods.” Bilbo may technically be a hobbit, but he keeps very unhobbitic company. Yet Bilbo’s most mysterious associate is Gandalf, “whose fame in the Shire was due mainly to his skill with fires, smokes, and lights,” but “his real business was far more difficult and dangerous, but the Shire-folk knew nothing about it.” By this time, however, Gandalf’s own fireworks had “now belonged to a legendary past. When he appears at Bag End, he and Bilbo “disappear” together inside, leaving the young hobbits outside, uninitiated into the mysteries and secrets being kept within. At this point there is a break in the passage, and the narrative perspective changes and we are treated, for the first time, to a perspective of Bilbo that is not mediated through others, as we hear him speak for the first time in his voice. What we immediately learn is that not all is as well with this hobbit after all, as he confesses to Gandalf that he is in desperate need of a “holiday.” Bilbo may be the effective “fairy” of Hobbiton, one capable of enchanting others, yet he is only a very provisional fairy, one who is in need of being re-enchanted himself.

Frodo’s Dream Tower

I’ve written before on the theological significance of the sea in Tolkien’s writings, and hence of the tower of Frodo’s dream at Crickhollow which he wanted to climb so that he might look out upon the sea (an image that also occurs in Tolkien’s allegory about the Beowulf poem from his essay). I always assumed that the tower of Frodo’s dream, if it were real, would have been located at or near the Grey Havens. I’ve only just noticed, however, that the tower was in fact real, and that Tolkien references (or presumably does so) in his Prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring.

the Elves of the High Kindred had not yet forsaken Middle-earth, and they dwelt still at that time at the Grey Havens away to the west, and in other places within reach of the Shire. Three Elf-towers of immemorial age were still to be seen on the Tower Hills beyond the western marches. They shone far off in the moonlight. The tallest was furthest away, standing alone upon a green mound. The Hobbits of the Westfarthing said that one could see the Sea from the top of that tower; but no Hobbit had ever been known to climb it. Indeed, few Hobbits had ever seen or sailed upon the Sea, and fewer still had ever returned to report it. Most Hobbits regarded even rivers and small boats with deep misgivings, and not many of them could swim. And as the days of the Shire lengthened they spoke less and less with the Elves, and grew afraid of them, and distrustful of those that had dealings with them; and the Sea became a word of fear among them, and a token of death, and they turned their faces away from the hills in the west. (Fellowship 16)

We’re not told exactly that this is the same tower as in Frodo’s dream–Frodo’s tower is white, but no mention is made of its color here, and while the Grey Havens tower is “alone on a green mound,” Frodo’s tower is “standing alone on a high ridge.” The fact, however, that it is singled out by Tolkien as the one from which the Hobbits believed they could see the sea, and yet “no Hobbit had ever been known to climb it,” would seem to be pretty conclusive that this is one and the same tower.

Frodo dreams of the tower even though he’s never seen it, but he’s surely heard about it. Elsewhere in Tolkien’s stories, however, when someone dreams of a place or an experience they have not personally encountered, it’s because they’ve inherited the experience from either an ancestor or possibly from the immediate environment itself–see, for example, Faramir’s dream of the tidal wave destroying Numenor and Merry’s inherited memory at the Barrow-Downs. (For more on inherited memory, see this resource and this.) Is it possible Frodo is having his own, inherited-memory experience in his dream of the tower and desire to see the sea?


Actualism of Story-Growing

This tale grew in the telling (5). So Tolkien opens the forward to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, a reminder that stories do not emerge, like Athena from the head of Zeus, fully formed and complete, but come into being for the first time in and through the very process by which they are told. What Tolkien says here about his own story, moreover, is equally true of, and bears an analogy to, the fictional beings of his stories as well. It wasn’t just that Tolkien’s tale grew in the telling, but the very concept, for example, of what a hobbit is was something that grew and developed as Tolkien told the story about him. We sometimes think of stories or fictional beings such as hobbits as having a Platonic form, whether in the mind of God or not, that the author or sub-creator simply “discovers.” But this is not how the fictions of our minds work. In more technical terms, stories are “actualistic”: they are no mere actualization of already existing potentialities or possibilities. Rather, it is the very act of telling a story that, paradoxically, creates the conditions and possibilities for what the story is able to be.

“The Flame Imperishable” is now a book

At long last, my book The Flame Imperishable: Tolkien, St. Thomas, and the Metaphysics of Faërie is now in print, published by the good folks at Angelico Press. Paperback and hardcover versions are available at Amazon here.

Spring Online “Lord of the Rings” Class for High Schoolers

If you know any high schoolers who might be interested in a four-month Tolkien seminar with me this spring, send them to the link below. Dual enrollment for college credit is also an option.