Tolkien’s Valar: A Love Affair with Matter

In Tolkien’s creation-story, when the angelic Ainur first perceive the material reality of the physical universe, they see it as “a light, as it were a cloud with a living heart of flame” (in the Valaquenta it is described as a “light in the darkness”). This perspective on matter stands in marked contrast with the intellectualism of much ancient thought. For both Plato and Aristotle, it is form that is the principle of actuality and hence of intelligibility, or what we might here refer to as “intellectual luminosity.” Matter, by contrast, as the principle of potentiality, in and of itself was held to be unintelligible and, as later Neoplatonists such as Plotinus would deem it, a principle of “non being” and therefore “evil.”

Tolkien’s cosmogony, by comparison, reflects a much more biblical and Christian evaluation of matter, even in its original, primordial, and comparatively formless state. The potentiality of matter, as we see in his account of creation, is not an original, uncreated darkness to which the “form” of light, as it were, must be added, but is itself a created and therefore an existing, good, and hence actual, albeit undifferentiated light that may then be “refracted” (as Tolkien puts it in his poem “Mythopoeia”) and so made more determinant through the subordinate act of sub-creation. This is not Platonism, but Christian creationism.

This divergent evaluation of matter, moreover, may be further related to the Valar’s love for and desire to enter into Eä in the first place. In Plato’s creation-myth found in the Timaeus, the creator deity, the “demiurge” or world-craftsman, is first moved to “create” (it’s not ex nihilo) out of a sense of pity and distaste for the otherwise chaotic conditions of original matter. In Tolkien’s creation-myth, by contrast, the “demiurgic” Valar (as he describes them in various places) are drawn to intervene in the material world, not out of disgust, but out of love and desire for the beauty already exhibited in the primal elements themselves:

And they observed the winds and the air, and the matters of which Arda was made, of iron and stone and silver and gold and many substances: but of all these water they most greatly praised… Now to water had that Ainu whom the Elves call Ulmo turned his thought, and of all most deeply was he instructed by Ilúvatar in music. But of the airs and winds Manwë most had pondered, who is the noblest of the Ainur. Of the fabric of Earth had Aulë thought… (Ainulindalë, emphasis added)

Through the Valar’s love affair with matter, of course, Tolkien dramatizes what he argues must be the case for any true sub-creator worthy of the name:

Fantasy is made out of the Primary World, but a good craftsman loves his material, and has a knowledge and feeling for clay, stone and wood which only the art of making can give. By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and Moon root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory.

And actually fairy-stories deal largely, or (the better ones) mainly, with simple or fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting. For the story-maker who allows himself to be “free with” Nature can be her lover not her slave. It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine. (“On Fairy-Stories”)

Being, the source and soil of Myth and Faerie

One place where Tolkien makes explicit the metaphysical foundation of myth and fairy-story is his unfinished and little-known time-travel fantasy, The Notion Club Papers, in which an allusion is made to a broadly Aristotelian and hierarchical understanding of reality and hence of the different sciences responsible for studying that reality. When one character asks what is the source or soil of “ancient accounts, legends, myths, about the far Past, about the origins of kings, laws, and the fundamental crafts” if these accounts are to be something more than “wholly inventions” or “mere fiction,” another character gives the following, sober reply: “In Being, I think I should say… and in human Being; and coming down the scale, in the springs of History and in the designs of Geography—I mean, well, in the pattern of our world as it uniquely is, and of the events in it as seen from a distance” (Sauron Defeated 227).[1] Again, mythology has its roots in the fertile soil of metaphysics, in a certain intuition of the being of things, and the same certainly holds true of Tolkien’s own mythology. As Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger has observed, from one vantage point the whole of Tolkien’s Silmarillion represents an “exploration of the implications and ramifications of the one word ,” the Elvish word meaning either the indicative “It is” or the imperative “Let it be,” the word Ilúvatar the Creator speaks when he at last brings the physical world into being.[2] To the question, then, as to the relevance of metaphysics to Tolkien’s mythology, we may say that mythology is concerned with reality, and the question of reality for Tolkien is in its turn a question of being, of what exists and how it exists.

[1] Tolkien alludes to this same hierarchy or “scale” of being and its “patterns” of being in a letter to Camilla Unwin, the daughter of his publisher Rayner, answering Camilla’s question as to the purpose of life: “As for ‘other things’ their value resides in themselves: they ARE, they would exist even if we did not… 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 since recognizable ‘pattern’ suggests design, [human curiosity] may proceed to WHY? But WHY in this sense, implying reasons and motives, can only refer to a MIND” (L 399).

[2] Flieger, Splintered Light: Language and Logos in Tolkien’s World, 59.

Tolkien on the relationship between art and Creation

I wrote in an earlier post that, for Tolkien, part of the aim in sub-creating secondary worlds is imitating something of the consistency of the primary world’s own reality. But it also has the further aim of reflecting or revealing something of the truth of that reality. An alternative, secondary reality, after all, is still part of our own world and as such has the duty of “recovering” the truth of that reality, as Tolkien argues in his essay “On Fairy-Stories”: “Creative fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it” (TR 74-5). Thus, beyond his regional (“a mythology for England”), linguistic, moral, narrowly theological, and aesthetic or artistic concerns, a further motive behind Tolkien’s fiction involves the exploration of the real-world relationship between the divine “art” of creation on the one hand and, subordinate to it, the human art of “sub-creation” on the other, a fascination Tolkien shared with Thomist Jacques Maritain and the many Catholic lay artists of the early to mid-twentieth century who were influenced by him. In his long letter to potential publisher Milton Waldman, Tolkien writes of his legendarium: “It is, I suppose, fundamentally concerned with the problem of the relation of Art (and Sub-creation) and Primary Reality” (L 145n). Here we see a further dimension to the metaphysical thrust of Tolkien’s literary project coming into focus, inasmuch as at the core of his mythology lies a concern with the being of “Primary Reality” and the basis this reality provides for the secondary worlds or realities of human imagining. In another letter written to acquaintance Peter Hastings, Tolkien reiterates this point when he says that “the whole matter” of his mythology “from beginning to end is mainly concerned with the relation of Creation to making and sub-creation,” and therefore “references to these things are not casual, but fundamental” (L 188). Thus, much of Tolkien’s genius lay not only in his view that all human sub-creation presupposes or is made possible and meaningful by virtue of a prior, divine act of creation, but in his express purpose of foregrounding this relationship within his own mythology by making it one of the central themes of his fiction.

Mythos and Logos in Tolkien’s Legendarium

One significant factor in the shaping of Tolkien’s Middle-earth legendarium, and one that begins to address more fully the role of metaphysics in his fiction, was Tolkien’s desire to do what he believed all fairy-stories must do, namely fashion a coherent “secondary world” into which the reader can imaginatively enter and even “escape.” As Tolkien argues in his programmatic essay “On Fairy-Stories,” one of the fundamental criteria of any sub-created, secondary world is that it must possess what he calls the “inner consistency of reality.” Fantasy on Tolkien’s definition involves the “making or glimpsing of Other-worlds” which, like our own world, must have a logic or order of their own, so that

a successful ‘sub-creator’… 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. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside. (TR 60)

This particular criterion was so important for Tolkien that, in first developing and then afterward explaining and revising his own extended fairy-story, he was often preoccupied—one might almost say obsessed—with ensuring and defending the rational coherence of his mythical world. Aware of his own compulsive tendencies in this regard, and after having momentarily indulged them while writing to one correspondent, Tolkien concluded his letter with this apology: “I am sorry if this all seems dreary and ‘pompose’. But so do all attempts to ‘explain’ the images and events of a mythology. Naturally the stories come first. But it is, I suppose, some test of the consistency of a mythology as such, if it is capable of some sort of rational or rationalized explanation” (L 260).[1] In Tolkien’s mind, the artistic success of his fiction hinged on his ability to demonstrate the rational coherence of his mythology. It was thus an authentic unity of artistic and mythic imagination (mythos) on the one hand and philosophical rationality (logos) on the other that Tolkien sought to achieve in his own mythology and which he even represented symbolically in one of the central images of his legendarium, the Light of the Two Trees of Valinor, from which the primary sources of light in Tolkien’s fictional world—the sun, moon, stars, Silmaril jewels, and even the phial of Galadrial which Frodo takes with him into Mordor—have their origin. As Tolkien writes, “The Light of Valinor (derived from light before any fall) is the light of art undivorced from reason, that sees things both scientifically (or philosophically) and imaginatively (or subcreatively) and says that they are good—as beautiful” (L 148n). For Tolkien, good fairy-stories may be as much a matter of reason as they are of the imagination, so that good fantasy necessitates good philosophy, and good mythology requires a good metaphysics.

[1] After waxing metaphysical in another letter, Tolkien similarly confessed to his correspondent: “Now (you will reasonably say) I am taking myself even more seriously than you did, and making a great song and oration about a good tale, which admittedly owes its similitude to mere craft. It is so. But the things I have scribbled about, arise in some form or another from all writing (or art) that is not careful to dwell within the walls of ‘observed fact’” (L 196). Even Tolkien had second thoughts about his own metaphysical digressions, as the letter ultimately went unfinished and unsent. He wrote in explanation at the top of the draft, “It seemed to be taking myself too importantly” (L 196).

Tolkien’s Ainulindalë and Bernardus Silvestris’s Cosmographia

Winthrop Wetherbee calls the twelfth-century Bernardus Silvestris’s Cosmographia an “anthology of major motifs from the authors in the Chartrian canon” (Wetherbee, “Introduction” in Cosmographia, 31). (Silvestris’s Cosmographia, by the way, is where C.S. Lewis got his Oyarsa from the Space Trilogy.) The Cosmographia, in any event, is a largely Platonic and pagan cosmology. The similarities amid the profound differences between Tolkien’s Ainulindalë and Bernardus’s Cosmographia suggest the former as a remarkable engagement with, borrowing from, and yet orthodox and even specifically Thomistic critique of the latter. I hope someday to write a comparison of the two works. John Houghton’s comment in “Augustine in the Cottage of Lost Play” is pertinent here, namely that, along with Genesis and Plato’s Timaeus, the Ainulindalë would have constituted for the medievals a “third” creation-account. Bernardus’s Cosmographia would make a fourth.

Ainulindalë and the philosophy of history

In the Ainulindalë the reader is treated to what might be described as two simultaneous, but not independent perspectives on history:

it seemed [emphasis mine] at last that there were two musics progressing at one time before the seat of Ilúvatar, and they were utterly at variance. The one was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came. The other had now achieved a unity of its own; but it was loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated; and it had little harmony, but rather a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes. And it essayed to drown the other music by the violence of its voice, but it seemed that its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern. (17)

On one level this passage is of course talking about the basic conflict between good and evil: good does one thing, evil does another, and if possible, even the opposite. But more particularly, I think it also provides a helpful perspective on the history, but also the historiography, if you will, of this conflict. What we have here, after all, is not merely two sides of the conflict, the “City of God” and the “Earthly City,” as Augustine would have it, disagreeing with each other in substance but at least agreeing with each other, after a fashion, in viewing their respective histories as taking place on parallel or even divergent paths. But what the above passage helps illustrate, I think, is the way in which the conflict between good and evil runs all the way down, to include even their respective interpretations of the history of that conflict. Thus, Melkor, more than merely establishing his own music, seeks to drown out or subdue the music of the other Ainur. He wants to make his music not just an alternative music, but the primary music: other music is allowed only if it is derivative of his. Melkor is the first secularist (secularism being defined here as an order sought to be had independent of theology), and his music the first secular interpretation of history. This is not to say that, as secular, his take on history is completely meaningless. As Tolkien concedes, it has a certain “unity of its own.” The significance of his music, however, is a parasitic significance: it derives its meaning and its modicum of order from the music of the Ainur that it nonetheless seeks to negate. Cut off from the true source of beauty, his music, and its corresponding take on history, is likewise cut off from the true source of all ingenuity and novelty: “it was loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated; and it had little harmony, but rather a clamourous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes.” Embodied in Melkor’s music is a competing interpretation of history, one that aspire to a true objectivity and independence, but as John Milbank has aptly observed in one place, “evil as independent is evil’s own fondest illusion.” The true history of the world will be the one told in the Ainur’s music, a music in which Melkor’s own music, to the extent that it has any reality at all, must inevitably take its (subordinate) place. And his contribution, despite himself, is to make the Ainur’s music more beautiful. Thus the history of the City of God and the history of the Earthly City are not two independent even if at various points intersecting histories, for this dualistic myth belongs to the Earthly City’s own self-narrative. Rather, the history of the Earthly City, the City of Man, the City of Babylon, is one chapter, or if you will, sub-theme (and a cacophonous one at that) of the City of God’s own history, its own “music,” its own score and story.

Audacity of the Ainulindalë:

The Ainulindalë is a sub-creation about creation itself. For Tolkien, human sub-creation is possible because of God’s prior, divine act of creation. In the Ainulindalë, however, Tolkien isn’t just sub-creating: he’s sub-creating about God’s own act of creation. According to Tolkien, our sub-creations, properly understood, are responses to what God himself does in creation. The audacity of the Ainulindalë lies in that Tolkien is going back and re-writing or re-telling the original, creation event that all of our sub-creations are supposed to be responses to. This is a paradoxical and perilous venture: the Ainulindalë is a fundamentally outrageous work.