Heidegger and Tolkien on Art vs. Technology

Yesterday’s post looked briefly at the presence of the Augustinian doctrine of divine exemplarism in Tolkien’s creation-myth, the Ainulindalë. According to the influential critique advanced in the last century by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, such traditional and orthodox views of God and reality, ironically, far from avoiding the kind of technological approach to nature which Tolkien, for example, so deplored and from which he sought to provide some escape in his fiction, instead unwittingly enfranchised the technological outlook at the deepest metaphysical and theological level. In his famous essay “The Question Concerning Technology,” Heidegger makes the case that the commonplace definition of technology in terms of an instrumental alignment of causes and effects or means and ends—a definition implicit, perhaps, in Tolkien’s account of the modern “Machine” as an instrument designed for “making the will more quickly effective” (L 145)—fails to get at the essence of technology, inasmuch as causal thinking itself has presupposed since ancient Greek times the technological or instrumental paradigm of techne. And yet it is precisely in terms of this technological, causal framework, according to Heidegger, that theology has traditionally articulated God’s relation to creation, with the result that, as Heidegger puts it, “even God can, for representational thinking, lose all that is exalted and holy, the mysteriousness of his distance. In the light of causality, God can sink to the level of a cause, of causa efficiens. He then becomes, even in theology, the god of the philosophers, namely, of those who define the unconcealed and the concealed in terms of the causality of making, without ever considering the essential origin of this causality.”[1] While Heidegger in his essay is resigned to the inevitability of technological thinking, he hopes modern man might nonetheless find his “saving power” by “confronting” and “questioning” the technological paradigm through the cultivation of an alternative mode of thinking and “revealing,” namely that of poeisis or art.[2]

In other respects, of course, Tolkien’s analysis of the problem of modern technology is very much of apiece with Heidegger’s. Like Heidegger, for example, Tolkien links modern technological with representational thinking, and contrasts both of these with an alternative model of true, authentic art. In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien argues that one of the purposes of such fantasy is the “recovery” of the strangeness or mystery of things from the “dreary” or “trite” “familiarity” into which they fall through our “appropriation” of them. By “appropriation,” Tolkien does not necessarily limit himself to the kind of practical or technological mastery or domination of things that he criticizes elsewhere, though it would certainly include this. Rather, “appropriation” would seem to include an even more subtle, intellectual, and even aesthetic and artistic form of possessiveness, the kind of thing, for example, Tolkien thematizes in his legendarium, most notably in the character of the Elves. On the one hand, while the Elves symbolize “a devoted love of the physical world, and a desire to observe and understand it for its own sake and as ‘other’,” as well as embody a “‘subcreational’ or artistic faculty of great excellence,” on the other hand Tolkien sees them as for that reason being peculiarly susceptible to what he refers to as the “will to preservation,” i.e., the desire “to arrest change, and keep things always fresh and fair…” (L 236). Thus, Tolkien too recognizes the ease and sometimes imperceptibility with which the true, selfless artistic impulse—which ideally seeks only communion with and knowledge of things through a sub-creative process that simultaneously brings things to their own completion or fulfillment—can slide into the self-interested imposition of one’s own purposes or plans; the ease, that is, one might say, with which “art” or “poetry” can devolve into mere “craft” or “technological making,” and hence the necessity for the one to be distinguished from the other. Here I submit we also gain a further perspective into Tolkien’s well-known preference of myth or fairy-story over allegory. In allegory’s “purposed domination of the author,” as Tolkien puts it in the foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, we seem to have exactly the kind of “bad exemplarism” associated with the craft-model of making criticized by Heidegger, in which the act of making is preceded and almost wholly predetermined by a prior act of knowing. In contrast to the “domination” of allegory Tolkien juxtaposes the “discovery” and “applicability” of fairy-story and myth, a form of knowing, in other words, that takes place only in and through the act of making.

[1] Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. Lovitt, 26.

[2] Ibid., 34-5.

Tolkien’s Augustinian Exemplarism

Exemplarism is the theological idea, typically traced back to the Christianized Platonism of Augustine, according to which every creature, and hence all human knowledge of creation, has its originating archetype or “exemplar” in the divine mind of God. Things are what they are, in short, because they are patterned after God’s own thought or ideas, and thus human beings are able to know these things insofar as their own minds conform to or are even “illuminated” by these “divine ideas.”

As a number of commentators have observed, Augustine’s theological exemplarism plays an important role in Tolkien’s own retelling of God’s creation of the world. In the Ainulindalë, the Ainur, for example, are first introduced as the “offspring of [Eru’s] thought” who thus initially “comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came…” Through their music-making, however, the Ainur come into increasing contact and communion with each other—creatures like and yet different from each other who have also been modeled after the Creator—and so come into an increasing knowledge of the mind of Ilúvatar in which each of them originally had a unique share. Having their origin in the mind of Ilúvatar, what the Ainur represent, not only in their own being and essence, but also in the music they perform, are so many dim, finite, yet authentic reflections of the otherwise infinite brightness of the Creator’s own thought and being.[1]

It is not only in and through each other, however, that the Ainur are able to “divinize” or reveal the creative purposes or possibilities of the Creator. When the Ainur receive in the Vision their first glimpse of the coming of the “Children of Ilúvatar,” the race of Elves and Men, the astonishment of the Ainur is captured in these words: “Therefore when [the Ainur] beheld them, the more did they love them, being things other than themselves, strange and free, wherein they saw the mind of Ilúvatar reflected anew, and learned yet a little more of his wisdom, which otherwise had been hidden even from the Ainur” (S 18). As further “reflections” of Ilúvatar’s mind yet differing from that of the Ainur, the Children of Ilúvatar in their very being and essence embody a new perspective or insight into the divine nature and “wisdom” after which both the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar have been patterned. It is also worth noting here that this identity-in-difference—a property I suggested in some earlier posts to have its ultimately theological ground for Tolkien in his Trinitarian conception of the divine being—is also the basis for the Ainur’s affection or “love” for the Children of Ilúvatar. It is for love of the Creator that the Ainur love their fellow creatures.

[1] Verlyn Flieger captures this understanding of the Ainulindalë well—despite her otherwise Plotinian, apophatic reading of Tolkien’s theology—when she writes: “As ‘offspring’ of Eru’s thought, the Ainur are aspects of whole mind, differentiations of Eru’s undifferentiated nature. They are divided parts of that which is undivided, thoughts springing outward from the mind, assuming life of their own. As parts, they express, but cannot encompass, the whole…” Flieger, “Naming the Unnameable,” 131. Robert Collins likewise points out how, as the “offspring” of Ilúvatar’s thought, the Ainur also represent so many “interpretations of the mind of the One,” something Collins connects further with the apparent etymological inspiration behind the name ofIlúvatar itself: “Indeed, the Creator’s name among the denizens of Middle Earth—Ilúvatar—obviously incorporates not only the Indo-European ‘father’ (Sindarin atar/Sanskrit pitar) but also the Latin “vates”—poet/seer—emphasizing the character of the Creator as artist, and that of his creation as art object, the substantive image in time and space of the artist’s thought. His symphonists, the Ainur, are clearly individual avatars of the various aspects of his own aesthetic fecundity.” Collins, “‘Ainulindalë’: Tolkien’s Commitment to an Aesthetic Ontology,” 257. On the etymology of Ilúvatar, see also Flieger, Splintered Light, 50. As Maritain similarly observes, “the Latin vates was both a poet and a diviner,” a point he relates back to his Thomistic claim that human art, like divine art, involves a kind of self-knowledge, and hence represents a “kind of divination.” Maritain, Creative Intuition, 3.

Tolkien’s “Fairy-Exemplarism”

Tolkien’s Augustinian exemplarism is not confined to the Ainur or the Ainulindalë generally, but extends to his view of Fairies as well. In their critical edition of Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Verlyn Flieger and Douglas Anderson quote Tolkien as writing:

a tree-fairy (or a dryad) is, or was, a minor spirit in the process of creation who aided as ‘agent’ in the making effective of the divine Tree-idea or some part of it, or … even of some one particular example: some tree. He is therefore now bound by use and love to Trees (or a tree), immortal while the world (and trees) last—never to escape, until the End. [cited in Michael Milburn, “Colderidge’s Definition of Imagination and Tolkien’s Definition(s) of Faery,” Tolkien Studies 7 (2010): 57]

According to Tolkien, in other words, part of the metaphysical function of fairies is to serve as intermediary agents by which the patterns of the natural order as they exist in the divine mind might be instantiated or made efficacious in the physical world. In this, as Milburn goes on to observe, “Such fairies are rather like the Valar, the sub-creative ‘gods’ of Tolkien’s mythology, and their lesser kin, the Maiar.”

“Creative-concept formation” in Tolkien and Maritain

            The following are some thoughts comparing Tolkien’s notion of sub-creative “discovery” and Jacques Maritain’s psychology of creative-concept formation. As I noted in an earlier post, Maritain’s Thomistic theory of art influenced many lay Catholic artists and writers in the early to mid-twentieth century, including possibly Tolkien. As Robert Miner (Truth in the Making, Routledge) notes in his summary of Maritain, while God’s knowledge of his creative exemplars through an act of perfect self-knowledge must remain essentially different from a human maker’s knowledge of the forms he makes, the “creative intuition” of the poet, like God’s knowledge of the exemplars but unlike the form apprehended by the mere craftsman, does involve a kind of “obscure grasping of his own Self and of things in a knowledge through union or through connaturality which is born in the spiritual conscious, and which fructifies only in the work.”[1] Thus, there is, in Maritain’s expression, a kind of “free creativity of the spirit” on the part of the poet which makes him like a god, albeit a “‘poor god’ because he does not know himself,” and, of course, because his creative insight “depends on the external world,” whereas “God’s creative Idea, from the very fact that it is creative, does not receive anything from things…”[2] As to how the poet first comes by this knowledge of the artistic form, for the medieval Schoolmen, at least, it could not have been by mere abstraction since, in Maritain’s words, the form in question is “in no way a concept, for it is neither cognitive nor representative.”[3] Instead, the “creative idea is an intellectual form, or a spiritual matrix, containing implicitly, in its complex unity, the thing which, perhaps for the first time, will be brought into actual existence.”[4] The result is that for neither God nor man is the Thomist exemplar a mere “ideal model sitting for the artist in his own brain, the work supposedly being a copy or portrait of it. This would make of art a cemetery of imitations.” Rather, “the work is an original, not a copy.”[5] Miner finds particular support for this reading of Thomas in question 44, article 3 of the Summa in which the angelic doctor illustrates his point concerning God’s exemplar causality of all things with the example of the human craftsman who “produces a determinate form in matter by reason of the exemplar before him, whether it is the exemplar beheld externally, or the exemplar interiorly conceived in the mind.”[6] In Thomas’s notion of a human artificer producing form in matter through an “exemplar interiorly conceived in the mind,” Miner sees the suggestion of an analogy between a particular kind of human making on the one hand and the act of generation within the divine mind on the other:

The conception of an exemplar in the mind is like the utterance of an inner word, a verbum which proceeds from the mind, but is not distinct from the mind. Maritain notes the importance of the verbum mentis doctrine for Aquinas’s account of making: “before the work of art passes from art into the matter, by a transitive action, the very conception of the art has had to emerge from within the soul, by an immanent and vital action, like the emergence of the mental word.” He quotes a pertinent text from Aquinas’s commentary on the Sentences: “the procession of art is twofold, that is, from the soul of the artificer to his art, and from his art to his artifacts.”[7]

In summary, then, in Thomas’s divine psychology, including his doctrine of divine ideas and his theory of creation as determined by that doctrine, Thomas makes possible an alternative way of thinking about human making which rescues it from the banal nihilism towards which the technological model has been alleged to lead, by dignifying it with real metaphysical significance in its participation in and mirroring of the profundity of God’s own Triune life.

According to Maritain, then, and taking his cue from St. Thomas, the “creative intuition” of the poet is the result of a kind of god-like “free creativity” on the part of the poet (made in the image of God) as he draws from the “spiritual matrix” produced by his knowing at once “his own Self and of things in a knowledge through union or connaturality,” and so, as Miner put it, the “conception of the art… emerge[s] from within the soul, by an immanent and vital action, like the emergence of the mental word.” Here one may also be reminded of the words Ilúvatar first speaks to the Ainur when he enjoins them to develop the musical themes he has taught them: “And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will. But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song” (S 15). As I have noted perviously, the Flame Imperishable refers to God’s creative power whereby he “kindles” his creatures with their very act of being or existence, but that this fire of existence is meant to include rather than exclude the gift of sub-creative freedom which Ilúvatar has granted to his rational creatures. Creatures, in sum, are able to sub-create because they have been kindled with and by the Creator’s own creativity.

A more obvious application of Maritain’s notion of creative intuition, however, is perhaps to be found in Tolkien’s account of the sub-creative imagination in his essay “On Fairy-Stories.” As Tolkien writes there:

The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval. The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faërie is more potent. And that is not surprising: such incantations might indeed be said to be only another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythical grammar. The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey led into yellow gold, and the still rock into swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power—upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well upon any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such “fantasy,” as it is called, new form is made; Faërie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator. (TR 48-9)[8]

As Tolkien observes, by “the power of generalization and abstraction” the mind is able to see not only green grass, but green as distinct from grass. Abstraction, however, is not invention, or as Tolkien implies, it is not “incantation.”[9] Creative intuition is no mere passive, speculative beholding of form, but is a kind of “magic,” an “enchanter’s power” similar to God’s which can—if not literally (and thus unlike God’s power), then at least imaginatively—“make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey led into yellow gold, and the still rock into swift water.” As Tolkien further observes, the fact that we have this power does not mean that “we shall use that power well”; as Maritain has it, we can be very “poor gods.” What accounts for the difference is the use one makes of the faculty of Imagination, or what we found Tolkien in the last chapter define as “the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality.” It is something like this capacity to grasp the manifold “implications” of a given image that Maritain seems to have at least partially in view in his account of the kind of occult sympathy or intuition of things that the artist must have in the development of the creative form or concept.

[1] Maritain, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, 115.

[2] Ibid., 112-13.

[3] Ibid., 135-6. As Miner comments, “with respect to res artificiales, for which there is no counterpart in nature, the abstractive model would be lacking.” Miner, Truth in the Making, 8.

[4] Maritain, Creative Intuition, 136.

[5] Ibid., 136 (emphasis original). For a related discussion as it applies to Tolkien directly, see also Candler, “Tolkien or Nietzsche, Philology and Nihilism,” 16.

[6] “[A]rtifex enim producit determinatam formam in materia, propter exemplar ad quod inspicit, sive illud sit exemplar ad quod extra intueter, sive sit exemplar interius mente conceptum.”

[7] Miner, Truth in the Making, 8-9. As Maritain himself summarizes the resulting analogy between human and divine making in Thomas’s account, “[i]n a way similar to that in which divine creation presupposes the knowledge God has of His own essence, poetic creation presupposes, as a primary requirement, a grasping, by the poet, of his own subjectivity, in order to create.” Maritain, Creative Intuition, 113.

[8] On this passage, see also Candler, “Tolkien or Nietzsche, Philology and Nihilism,” 14-16.

[9] As Maritain puts it, “in the spiritual unconscious the life of the intellect is not entirely engrossed by the preparation and engendering of its instruments of rational knowledge and by the process of production of concepts and ideas… which winds up at the level of the conceptualized externals of reason. There is still for the intellect another kind of life, which makes use of other resources and another reserve of vitality, and which is free, I mean free from the engendering of abstract concepts and ideas, free from the workings of rational knowledge and the disciplines of logical thought, free from the human actions to regulate and the human life to guide, and free from the laws of objective reality as to be known and acknowledged by science and discursive reason.” Maritain, Creative Intuition, 110.

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 4

While Tolkien deliberately mutes—much as he does the fact of God’s presence—the Trinitarian character of the Creator in his mythology, in this series of posts we have also seen that, again, similar to the point concerning the divine presence, far from this representing a departure from the Christian and biblical traditions, Tolkien has both profound Scriptural and theological reasons for doing so. Tolkien’s relative silence on the question of this “possibility of complexity or of distinctions in the nature of Eru,” therefore, is no reason for thinking it unimportant for a right understanding of the theology and metaphysics of his fiction. While such complexity or distinction may not be properly knowable by unaided, natural reason, like St. Thomas Tolkien clearly ties God’s status as Creator with his identity as divine difference. Eru creates, in short, by sending to burn at the heart of the world the Flame Imperishable that both is and is not himself.[1] Eru thus may be the “One alone,” but this is not to say that he is therefore alone in his aloneness, and as the case of Melkor in his self-imposed isolation confirms, complete solitude is as much a metaphysical vice as it is an ethical one.[2] For Tolkien following Aquinas, God creates a world other than himself because he is the God who is other than himself, meaning that the difference or “otherness” that constitutes creation in its very being receives its own significance and ground in the deepest possible source, the God who is being.[3]

[1] As Devaux puts it, in the Ainulindalë the Holy Spirit is “distinct from God but also in Him.” Devaux, “The Origins of the Ainulindalë,” 106.

[2] Peter Candler writes: “It is not enough simply to say that the world is created ex nihilo by an eternal ‘simplicity,’ but by a Holy Trinity who in its primordial fecundity is not threatened by any kind of ‘original’ violence, strife, or chaos. For this reason Tolkien’s ‘creation myth’ in The Silmarillion depicts a prior, though learned, harmony among the Ainur.” Candler, “Tolkien or Nietzsche, Philology and Nihilism,” 23.

[3] Again, as Candler observes, for Tolkien the “appearances” and “surfaces” of created beings “can therefore be like one another but truly different from one another because they are created by the One God, who in His eternal tri-unity, creates the world from nothing.” Ibid., 37.

Tom Bombadil: Franciscan, Pacifist, Botanist

Tolkien on Bombadil:

“Tom Bombadil is not an important person—to the narrative. I suppose he has some importance as a ‘comment’… [H]e represents something that I felt important, though I would not be prepared to analyze the feeling precisely. I would not, however, have left him in, if he did not have some kind of function. I might put it this way. The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power, and so on; but both sides in some degree, conservative or destructive, want a measure of control. But if you have taken ‘a vow of poverty,’ renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless. It is a natural pacifist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war. But the view of Rivendell seems to be that it is an excellent thing to have represented, but that there are in fact things with which it cannot cope; and upon which its existence nonetheless depends. Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even to survive. Nothing would be left for him in the world of Sauron… He is … Botany and Zoology (as sciences) and Poetry as opposed to Cattle-breeding and Agriculture and practicality.” (Letters 179)

Trinity in Middle-earth, part 3

Corroborating Tolkien’s claim that the distinction within Eru is already to be discerned in the Ainulindalë is the interpretation Paul Kocher gave in 1985, eight years before the publication of the Athrabeth and its commentary in Morgoth’s Ring. As Kocher argued then, in calling the One “Ilúvatar,” or “Sky-father,”

Tolkien is suggesting that Ilúvatar, as Father, is merely the most active member of a more complex deity known as Eru, who is the only Lord of all… [T]he description of the Flame as “Imperishable” gives it divinity in its own right. Only God is eternal and cannot die. The Flame is not a possession of Ilúvatar but is co-equal with him in the Being of Eru the One… God the Father is the maker of the universe, but the Flame Imperishable, his coadjutor, infused it with life. Surely the “Secret Fire” or “Flame Imperishable” which “giveth Life and Reality” is very much like the Holy Spirit which works in the New Testament miracles underlying the whole Christian faith?[1]

As it turns out, Tolkien himself answered Kocher’s rhetorical question in an interview he gave with Clyde Kilby, in which he divulged that the Secret Fire was none other than the Holy Spirit.[2] Thus, while there is certainly no explicit awareness of or (again, consistent with St. Thomas) rational inference to the triunity of God in Tolkien’s fiction, what we do see, especially in the case of Finrod, is an instance of philosophical reasoning—ever so dimly illumined by the conceptual possibilities opened up by the “revelation” or rather “rumour” of those of the “Old Hope”—arriving at some “trace” of this divine mystery.[3] As Tolkien himself describes the similar kind of deliberate yet significant ambiguity surrounding the identity of the wizards in The Lord of the Rings, “I have thought it best in this Tale to leave the question a ‘mystery’, not without pointers to the solution” (L 190).

[For another passage in which Tolkien connects the Holy Spirit and the Secret Fire, see here.]

[1] Kocher, “Ilúvatar and the Secret Fire,” 36-7.

[2] Kilby, Tolkien and the Silmarillion, 59.

[3] While I have focused on the image of the Flame Imperishable, Zimmer has seen a possible allusion to the Word of God, the second person of the Trinity, in Eru’s speaking the word Eä! that brings the world into being: “While in non-Christian-Neoplatonic thought the eternal act that constitutes the divine mind is termed the ‘nous,’ in the Christian tradition the nous is reformulated as the Word. Like the nous, the Word contains within itself all of creation as it exists eternally in the form of archetypal ideas… This double quality of the Word as both the intelligible structure and the willed act of creation is expressed in the Silmarillion by the single word ‘Eä,’ which means both ‘It is’ and ‘Let it be’…” Zimmer, “Creation and Re-creating Worlds with Words,” 53.

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).

Trinity in Middle-earth, part 1

The theology of Tolkien’s mythical world is a decidedly “pre-Christian” and “natural theology.” As such, it might seem a world in which the explicitly Christian and divinely revealed idea of God as a community of three equal, co-eternal, and “consubstantial” persons would have little place or relevance. As Tolkien wrote of his mythical Valar, however, they were “meant to provide beings of the same order of beauty, power, and majesty as the ‘gods’ of higher mythology, which can yet be accepted—well, shall we say baldly, by a mind that believes in the Blessed Trinity” (L 146). The point to be made here is that if Tolkien saw it as important that his fictional gods be consistent with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, surely he must have understood his fictional representation of the Creator as meeting the same criterion, and so we are invited to inquire as to what significance, if any, this theological fact might hold for our understanding of Tolkien’s broader outlook on reality.[1]

For St. Thomas, as is well known, although the doctrine of the Trinity was not liable to philosophical demonstration, with the knowledge of the Trinity in hand by means of special revelation, “traces” of its effect were nonetheless to be clearly discerned not only in creation, but within the Old Testament itself. As Fergus Kerr, for example, points out, for Thomas, “given the historical dispensation of the New Covenant and thus the revelation of God as Trinity… [w]e can discover prefigurings in the Old Testament and elsewhere.”[2] It is something like this idea of there being traces of the Trinity that Tolkien gives us in his legendarium. As Ralph Wood has observed, like the Old Testament,

Tolkien’s pre-Christian world does not know God as Trinity, but rather as the One. Just as the Old Testament is monotheistic, so is there but one God of Middle-earth. Yet in Genesis we hear God somewhat strangely declaring, “Let us make man in our image” (1:26). The pronoun may point to the heavenly court, as if God employed intermediate beings to assist him in his action. Christians have rightly seen this plural reference as a foreshadowing of the Trinity, as a sign that God is never alone but that he always exists in triune community.[3]

However, while Wood recognizes that “Tolkien has a similar conception of God as acting communally,” he downplays somewhat a Trinitarian interpretation of the Ainulindalë when he writes that “unlike the Son and Holy Spirit, who are co-creators with the Father, Ilúvatar employs his valar as ancillaries in the act of creation.”[4] As I will show in some follow-up posts, however, Tolkien is more deliberate than this in imbuing his portrayal of the divine being with just the kind of Old Testament ambiguity which would allow for—if not in fact positively require—a later Trinitarian interpretation.

[1] As Michaël Devaux has suggested, “Tolkien speaks of the Ainur as gods that can be accepted ‘by a mind that believes in the Blessed Trinity.’ This notion of acceptability can no doubt be extended to the Ainulindalë.” Devaux, “The Origins of the Ainulindalë: The Present State of Research,” 98.

[2] Kerr, After Aquinas, 194.

[3] Wood, The Gospel According to Tolkien, 12.

[4] Ibid. As Wood himself goes on to admit, in seeming contradiction with this claim, the Flame Imperishable by which Ilúvatar creates the world is none other than “his own Spirit” with which he has “imbued the entire cosmos.” Ibid., 12-13.

The Theology of Eucatastrophe

Tolkien’s passing remark that his realization of this profound truth concerning angelic causality (see yesterday’s post) produced in him a “great sense of joy,” is itself not without significance, as it links his dialectic of divine presence to another central theme in his writing. In another earlier post I argued that Eru’s temporary absence from the narrative is what later makes possible an even more violent or striking manifestation of his ever-abiding presence. This divine “intrusion” into the story, undertaken for a specifically redemptive or salvific purpose, is the metaphysical and theological framework behind Tolkien’s well-known concept of eucatastrophe (literally “good catastrophe”), a neologism Tolkien coined in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” to describe the literary device of the “happy ending,” the “sudden joyous ‘turn’” that is the “mark of a good fairy-story” (TR 86-7). Tolkien describes the existential experience of eucatastrophe in this way: “however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures… when the ‘turn’ comes, [there is] a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart…” (TR 86). More than a mere literary device, however, Tolkien believes eucatastrophe, along with the seemingly universal hold it wields over the human imagination, points to a profound metaphysical truth, namely the possibility and even reality of the “sudden miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur.” As Tolkien described the same phenomenon in a letter to his son Christopher, eucatastrophe is “that sudden glimpse of the truth behind the apparent Anankê [Greek for necessity, constraint, or what Tolkien refers to immediately before as “nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death”] of our world, but a glimpse that is actually a ray of light through the very chinks of the universe about us” (L 100-1). The identity of this “ray of light” shining “through the very chinks of the universe” Tolkien indicates further in another letter defining the role of divine presence and providence in The Lord of the Rings generally:

I have purposely kept all allusions to the highest matters down to mere hints, perceptible only by the most attentive, or kept them under unexplained symbolic forms. So God and the “angelic” gods, the Lords or Powers of the West, only peep through in such places as Gandalf’s conversation with Frodo: “behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker’s” or in Faramir’s Númenórean grace at dinner. (L 201)

Tolkien expresses the same principle in his account of the eucatastrophe that occurs at the end of The Lord of the Rings when Frodo fails to destroy the Ring of his own free will. Of the Creator’s personal involvement at that moment Tolkien writes: “Few others, possibly no others of his time, would have got so far [as Frodo did]. The Other Power then took over: the Writer of the Story (by which I do not mean myself), ‘that one ever-present Person who is never absent and never named’ (as one critic has said)” (253, emphasis added).[1] For Tolkien, in summary, fairy-stories represent one of the highest of human art forms; one of the essential devices of “a good fairy-story” is the eucatastrophic turn; and at the heart of Tolkien’s understanding of the eucatastrophic turn is his Thomistic recognition of an eminently personal, involved God who nonetheless deliberately hides himself under the veil of natural, secondary, and even angelic causality, so that he might then tear aside the veil of his own devising—like a child in a cosmic game of peek-a-boo—and show himself present, strong, and faithful to those who know and serve him.

[1] Here we might contrast Tolkien’s own self-understanding with Catherine Madsen’s deistic, secularized reading of the eucatastrophes of Tolkien’s fiction: “Tolkien never forces cosmology into these moments of attention… For that moment, the unexpected presence of beauty in the midst of desolation is enough to assure that beauty will endure forever—because of the otherness of the other, because of its very distance, perhaps (could one see it as beauty) because of the very distance of God.” Ibid., 44. Christopher Garbowski, however, I think gives a more accurate account of the ultimately divine pattern behind Tolkien’s concept of eucatastrophe: “the concept becomes closely associated with his concept of ‘sub-creation,’ which is introduced in the same essay [“On Fairy-Stories”]. In subcreation, by telling stories or inventing worlds the artist effectively imitates the ‘Primary Creator.’ … Consequently, since the Primary Creator ultimately intends humans to be happy, the artist that evokes eucatastrophe is creating in consonance with God. Moreover, if the deepest sense of story is consonant with revelation, the concept approaches natural theology with a Christian humanist perspective.” Christopher Garbowski, “Eucatastrophe,” in Drout, ed., J.R.R.T. Encyclopedia, 176.

Gimli’s Silmaril, Gimli the Silmaril

When Galadriel is first introduced in The Silmarillion, attention is drawn especially to her hair, “lit with gold as though it had caught in a mesh the radiance of Laurelin,” one of the Two Trees of Valinor. This parallel between Galadriel’s hair on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the Silmaril jewels in which Fëanor literally captures the light of the Two Trees, is quite striking, and yet, according to an idea entertained at one point by Tolkien, may not be wholly coincidental. In The Silmarillion, the reason given for Fëanor’s fashioning of the Silmarils is his premonition of the coming destruction of the Two Trees and the loss of their light. In a passage found in Unfinished Tales (230)however, Tolkien considered adding a back-story in which Fëanor, having thrice asked and been thrice denied by Galadriel for a “tress” of her beautiful hair, found a substitute in the making of the Silmarils.

This Fëanor-Galadriel back-story, of course, and its alternative account of the origin of the Silmarils, lends a great deal of significance to Gimli’s own, much later request of Galadriel for a strand of her hair. It is interesting, for example, to read in the astonishment of the Lorien Elves, besides their general annoyance at Gimli’s seeming impertinence, a particular recollection of the terrible consequences resulting from the last time someone asked Galadriel for a strand of her hair. At the same time, Galadriel does say that no one has ever made a request of her quite like Gimli’s, which, if taken together with the Fëanor-Galadriel back-story, might be taken to imply that Gimli’s request is, in another respect, not at all like Fëanor’s.

In some ways, rather, his request may be compared to the making of the Dwarves by Aulë, who, we may recall, was also the patron Vala of the Noldor and possibly one of the master craftsman under whom Fëanor apprenticed. When Ilúvatar asks Aulë if his desire was for creatures whom he could dominate and command, Aulë penitently responds, “I did not desire such lordship,” and explains instead that “the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee; and the child of little understanding that makes a play of the deeds of his father may do so without thought of mocerky, but because he is the son of his father.” Imitating his own “father,” Gimli may be heard echoing Aulë’s words when he responds to Galadriel’s insistence that he ask of her a gift: “ ‘There is nothing, Lady Galadriel,’ said Gimli, bowing low and stammering. ‘Nothing, unless it might be – unless it is permitted to ask, nay, to name a single strand of your hair, which surpasses the gold of the earth as the stars surpass the gems of the mine. I do not ask for such a gift. But you commanded me to name my desire” (emphasis added). Understanding the dismay of her onlookers, Galadriel’s characterization of Gimli’s request could almost equally describe the simultaneous audacity and yet humility of Aulë: “For none have ever made to me a request so bold and yet so courteous.” Her reply also exhibits something of the mercy and understanding that Aulë receives from Ilúvatar: “And how shall I refuse, since I commanded him to speak?”

And it is well that she does, for Galadriel herself has just been the beneficiary of the kind of mercy Aulë had received from Ilúvatar. In a letter that invites us to see the exchange between Galadriel and Gimli against the back-drop of the earlier encounter between Galadriel and Frodo, Tolkien indicates that until Frodo’s arrival in Lothlórien, Galadriel had actually believed her own exile from Valinor to be not temporary but “perennial, as long as the Earth endured.” It was only after her intercessory prayer on Frodo’s behalf—that he should be allowed the grace Galadriel believed to be forever denied to herself, namely of returning to the West—as well as a reward for her refusal of the Ring and her part in the war against Sauron, that Galadriel discovered the ban placed upon her return to the West to be eucatastrophically and miraculously lifted (Unfinished Tales 229). Thus, with Yavanna Galadriel can say that Eru is not only “merciful,” but even “bountiful.” Having been the recipient of bounty in her dealings with Frodo, it is fitting that she be the bestower of great bounty in her dealings with Gimli. Freely she has received, freely she gives.

When Galadriel asks Gimli what he would do with such a gift, “ ‘Treasure it, Lady,’ he answered, ‘in memory of your words to me at our first meeting. And if ever I return to the smithies of my home, it shall be set in imperishable crystal to be an heirloom of my house, and a pledge of good will between the Mountain and the Wood until the end of days.” Significantly, the last time the word imperishable appeared in Tolkien’s legendarium—with the exception of the “song of Lúthien,” which is said still to be sung “unchanged” in Valinor—occurs in the story of Fëanor’s attempt to “preserve imperishable” the light of the Two Trees. With this word, then, Gimli unwittingly yet expressly links his request to that of Fëanor’s (and beyond that, perhaps to Melkor’s own original quest for the Flame Imperishable). Gimli’s purpose, in a word, is to make for himself a new Silmaril.

Yet in marked contrast to Fëanor (and Melkor), Gimli’s purpose is not to make the proposed Silmaril “for himself” at all, but to consecrate it as a public sign and symbol of the newfound fellowship between Dwarf and Elf. In this gesture of Gimli’s, enshrining the “good will between the Mountain and the Wood,” we see something of a gospel-resolution to the strife Ilúvatar predicts to Aulë will obtain “between thine and mine, the children of my adoption and the children of my choice,” and thus a foreshadowing of the eschatological role the Dwarves themselves are appointed to play in the final consummation of all things when “Ilúvatar will hallow them and give them a place among the Children in the End. Then their part shall be to serve Aulë and to aid him in the remaking of Arda after the Last Battle.”

Again, it is tempting to read into Galadriel’s response to Gimli’s intentions an Ilúvatar-like awareness and anticipation of these things, and so with her gift—not of one but three strands—of her golden hair, she also imparts a word of blessing: “if hope should not fail, then I say to you, Gimli son of Glóin, that your hands shall flow with gold, and yet over you gold shall have no dominion.” In Gimli, therefore, we are to see embodied the reversal and redemption of his own people’s tragically greedy history. More than this, however, Galadriel’s words point to Gimli (paradoxically) as the reversal and redemption of her own people’s tragic history (much as in Galadriel’s dealings with Gimli, as I have suggested, we see the outworking of the eucatastrophe in her own personal history). In her prediction of Gimli’s future, after all, we also see a return to the original, prelapsarian generosity of the Noldor before Fëanor’s making of the Silmarils, when they first “devised tools for the cutting of gems, and carved them in many forms,” and they “hoarded them not, but gave them freely, and by their labour enriched all Valinor.” Gimli has made Fëanor’s request of Galadriel, but he is not just a another Fëanor, but a new Fëanor, what Fëanor, should have been or possibly even once was.

Another perspective on Galadriel’s words, however, suggests itself, which is that not only will Gimli make a new Silmaril (or possibly three), but he himself will be a Silmaril. The Silmarils’ symbolism of the harmony of the sub-creative body and soul is made plain when they are first introduced in The Silmarillion. Of the substance of which the Silmarils were made it is said “that crystal was to the Silmarils but as is the body to the Children of Ilúvatar: the house of its inner fire, that is within it and yet in all parts of it, and is its life,” and the Silmarils as a whole are described as “living things [which] rejoiced in light and received it and gave it back in hues more marvellous than before,” an account evidently intended to depict what Tolkien represents in his poem “Mythopoeia” as the prism-like activity of the human sub-creator: “Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light / through whom is splintered from a single White / to many hues, and endlessly combined / in living shapes that move from mind to mind.” Thus, for Gimli’s hands to “flow with gold” without gold thereby having “dominion” over him, is for him to be or become a Silmaril, for him, that is, to take in the “light” that is the goodness and beauty of creation, not to hoard it, but to “refract” it by adorning and enriching it and so passing it on to others. Like Fëanor, Gimli too will be a “spirit of fire,” yet one who will not be “consumed” by the fire of his desire (as Fëanor figuratively was in his life and literally was in his death), but who will put his sub-creative fire to the service of others, and resulting in (what Tolkien describes in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” as) the “effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.”

Tolkien on angelic secondary causality

For Tolkien, as for Aquinas, the delegated, secondary, or intermediate agency of angels and Valar does not displace the Creator’s immediate causality by intervening between him and his effects in such a way as to place his agency at a further level of remove (as per Cox’s suggestion of a Platonic “third entity” acting as “a kind of buffer, so to speak, between the two extremes” would imply). For Tolkien following St. Thomas, the interaction of divine and creaturely causality is not a “zero-sum game,”[1] as though God’s line of action operated on the same plane and therefore in competition with his creatures, even if his causal power should always infinitely “outweigh” theirs. As St. Thomas explains in his commentary on the Liber de Causis (the Proclean, Neoplatonic text of anonymous authorship), in a hierarchy of causes, every higher cause is more rather than less the cause of a given effect than any intermediate, secondary cause, inasmuch as the higher, primary cause is the cause of both the effect and the secondary cause together.[2] The higher cause, in other words, does not cause the intermediate secondary cause in isolation from the latter’s effects, but causes the secondary causes along with its effects: in causing the secondary cause, in other words, it also causes the entire causal order, or the very causality, of the secondary cause.

Thus, whereas Verlyn Flieger, for example, finds in the highly mediated character of Tolkien’s universe evidence of a divine indifference towards and absence from the world, Tolkien’s implicit Thomism permits him to represent this same mediating framework as a sign of a divine presence and personalism.[3] Of particular significance here is Tolkien’s habit in his letters of referring to the Valar and their vassals, the Maiar, as “angels” or “angelic beings,” as well as his reference to the Istari or “wizards” (e.g., Gandalf and Saruman) as “guardian angels” (L 159n). In a letter written to his son Michael, an epistle as notable for its sentiments of fatherly concern as for its creative theological speculation, Tolkien articulates his personal philosophy of angelic mediation which I suggest is to be brought to bear on his fiction:

Your reference to the care of your guardian angel… reminded me of a sudden vision (or perhaps apperception which at once turned itself into pictorial form in my mind) I had not long ago when spending half an hour in St Gregory’s before the Blessed Sacrament when the Quarant’ Ore was being held there. I perceived or thought of the Light of God and in it suspended one small mote (or millions of motes to only one of which was my small mind directed), glittering white because of the individual ray from the Light which both held and lit it. (Not that there were individual rays issuing from the Light, but the mere existence of the mote and its position in relation to the Light was in itself a line, and the line was Light). And the ray was the Guardian Angel of the mote: not a thing interposed between God and the creature, but God’s very attention itself, personalized. And I do not mean “personified,” by a mere figure of speech according to the tendencies of human language, but a real (finite) person. Thinking of it since—for the whole thing was very unmediated, and not recapturable in clumsy language, certainly not the great sense of joy that accompanied it and the realization that the shining poised mote was myself (or any other human person that I might think of with love)—it has occurred to me that (I speak diffidently and have no idea whether such a notion is legitimate: it is at any rate quite separate from the vision of the Light and the poised mote) this is a finite parallel to the Infinite. As the love of the Father and Son (who are infinite and equal) is a Person, so the love and attention of the Light to the Mote is a person (that is both with us and in Heaven): finite but divine: i.e. angelic. Anyway, dearest, I received comfort, part of which took this curious form, which I have (I fear) failed to convey: except that I have with me now a definite awareness of you poised and shining in the Light—though your face (as all our faces) is turned from it. But we might see the glimmer in the faces (and persons as apprehended in love) of others… (L 99, emphasis added)

To Tolkien’s Proclean and Thomistic way of thinking, the highly mediated universe of his fiction constitutes not a substitute or displacement of the divine presence in the world, but is precisely a form and evidence of that presence. The mediating role of the Ainur, the Valar, the Maiar, and the Istari in Tolkien’s fictional world are not in competition with or a threat to the Creator’s involvement, but are a guarantee of that involvement. As Tolkien puts it, they represent “God’s very attention itself, personalized.”

[1] Milbank, The Suspended Middle, 91.

[2] Aquinas, Commentary on the Book of Causes, trans. Guagliardo, et al., prop. 1.

[3] Similar to Flieger, Catherine Madsen also (wrongly) sees creaturely agency as displacing divine agency: “without the possibility of direct supernatural intervention it is the natural beings, incapable of being entirely good, who must bring everything about. Therefore all triumphs are mixed; every victory over evil is also a depletion of the good.” Madsen, “Light from an Invisible Lamp,” 41.

Authority, rebellion, and submission

Another choice passage from Tolkien on the subject of political authority, this time from The Silmarillion, the chapter “Of Feänor and the Princes of the Eldalië”:

“…those who will defend authority against rebellion must not themselves rebel.”

Metaphysics of Eucatastrophe, part 2

(Metaphysics of Eucatastrophe, part 1)

The previous post suggested that the comparative absence of the Creator throughout Tolkien’s mythical history in some ways is consistent rather than contrary to how Yahweh is portrayed throughout Scripture. Even so, on the narrative and historical level of Tolkien’s mythology Eru is not nearly as aloof as some readers seem to have assumed. In the Ainulindalë, for example, after promulgating the first theme to the Ainur and inviting them to develop it as they see fit, Ilúvatar continues to contribute a great deal to the Music, especially in redirecting it in response to the corruptions introduced by Melkor, contributions which anticipate and correspond to Ilúvatar’s later direct involvement in human history. As Tolkien explains in one place the significance of this involvement of Ilúvatar,

The Creator did not hold himself aloof. He introduced new themes into the original design, which might therefore be unforeseen by many of the spirits in realization; there were also unforeseeable events (that is happenings which not even a complete knowledge of the past could predict).

            Of the first kind and the chief was the theme of the incarnate intelligences, Elves and Men… Beings other than the Spirits, of less “stature,” and yet of the same order. (L 260)

Corresponding to the “second theme” introduced by Ilúvatar in the Music is the part of world-history containing the creation and consequent free choices of the “incarnate intelligences” of Elves and Men, beings in whose making the Valar had no part. In addition to this, however, Tolkien alludes to other “unforeseeable events (that is happenings which not even a complete knowledge of the past could predict),” an apparent reference to those miraculous events in Middle-earth’s history which transcend the natural order, events which Tolkien says elsewhere that not even the Valar, for all their magnificent power, are able to perform. As Tolkien clarifies in another place, although the Valar may be the “immediate authorities” in the world,

the One retains all ultimate authority, and (or so it seems as viewed in serial time) reserves the right to intrude the finger of God into the story: that is to produce realities which could not be deduced even from a complete knowledge of the previous past, but which being real become part of the effective past for all subsequent time (a possible definition of a “miracle”). According to the fable Elves and Men were the first of these intrusions, made indeed while the “story” was still only a story and not “realized”; they were not therefore in any sense conceived or made by the gods, the Valar, and were called the Eruhíni or “Children of God,” and were for the Valar an incalculable element: that is they were rational creatures of free will in regard to God, of the same historical rank as the Valar, though of far smaller spiritual and intellectual power and status. (235-6)

The image of Eru “intrud[ing] the finger of God in to the story” is alluded to in The Silmarillion itself when it said how, in a vision, the Valar Manwë “saw that all was upheld by the hand of Ilúvatar; and the hand entered in, and from it came forth many wonders that had until then been hidden from him in the hearts of the Ainur” (S 46). The “hand” of Eru, in other words, is always immanently present (at the “metaphysical level,” as I have termed it), “upholding” the world in its very being and in every particular, while the “finger” of Ilúvatar, we might say, signifies those moments (at the “historical” or “narrative level”) when Eru further deigns to make his unfailing presence manifest in an unmistakable way, by specially “intruding” into the story and interrupting or redirecting the natural course of events.[1] What Tolkien refers to as Eru’s “absence,” therefore, is in fact a feigned absence whereby he and Tolkien as author create the historical and literary conditions for an even more radical display of his immanent presence. Providing as he does this scene toward the beginning of his legendarium (which also, by my reckoning, is the last time we see Ilúvatar give a direct address in The Silmarillion), I submit that part of what Tolkien is doing here is providing his reader with the necessary metaphysical framework and hermeneutic for rightly interpreting the subsequent, less theologically explicit yet still theologically significant portions of his mythology.

[1] As Thomas Fornet-Ponse describes this passage, it is an expression of “Eru’s sovereignty and his creatio continua…” Fornet-Ponse, “Freedom and Providence as Anti-Modern Elements,” 181.

Denethor’s Hegelianism

Yesterday I posted on Denethor’s Machiavellianism. He is also Hegelian (not coincidentally: the notion of conflict or strife lies at the heart of both Machiavelli’s and Hegel’s thought), describing (admiringly) Sauron’s policies this way: “He will not come save only to triumph over me when all is won. He uses others as his weapons. So do all great lords, if they are wise, Master Halfling. Or why should I sit here in my tower and think, and watch, and wait, spending even my sons? For I can still wield a brand.”  Compare this instrumental outlook to Hegel’s characterization of the “world-historical individual”:

“It is not the universal Idea which involves itself in antithesis and struggle, exposing itself to danger; it remains in the background and is preserved against attack or injury. This may be called the Cunning of Reason, that it allows the passions to work for it, while what it brings into existence suffers loss and injury… Compared to the universal, the particular is for the most part too slight in importance: individuals are surrendered and sacrificed. The Idea pays the ransom of existence and transience—not out of its own pocket, but with the passions of individuals.” (Introduction to the Philosophy of History, 35)

Metaphysics of Eucatastrophe, part 1

If Tolkien’s representation of the divine immanence or presence should turn out to be more Christian and orthodox than some of his commentators have recognized, this is not to say that the way in which he employs the doctrine of divine immanence in his fiction is at all unoriginal. On the contrary, it is precisely his radical conception of divine presence that I want to suggest enables Tolkien—for his own literary and theological purposes which we will turn to shortly—to suppress references to Eru’s presence throughout much of the narrative. As Tolkien himself relates in one letter, the Creator in his mythology is “immensely remote” (L 204), and in another letter he stresses that Eru is “outside the World, and only directly accessible to the Valar or Rulers” (235). Instead, they are the Valar and not Ilúvatar who are the “immediate ‘authorities’” of the world (193). Yet I think there is an important distinction to be made (and which some of Tolkien’s readers have not made) between Eru’s unquestionable presence in Tolkien’s fictional world at the metaphysical level, that is to say, at the level of the world’s being or existence, and Eru’s comparative absence at the narrative or historical level. Tolkien himself implies such a distinction when he explains in another letter that in his mythology “[w]e are in a time when the One God, Eru, is known to exist by the wise, but is not approachable save by or through the Valar, though He is still remembered in (unspoken) prayer by those of Númenórean descent” (387, emphasis added). In other words, while creation’s dependence upon the immediate, creative presence of Eru is a matter of constant, metaphysical necessity, Tolkien’s legendarium is nevertheless dealing with a particular historical epoch or dispensation in which Eru, for his and for the author’s good reasons, has deigned not to reveal or relate himself to his creatures in a direct or personal way.

Tolkien’s motivation for portraying the divine being in this way may be considered at a number different levels. The one I’ll mention here is that, contrary to Flieger’s claim that Eru’s remoteness necessarily sets him apart from the biblical God, in one sense it actually makes them quite similar, inasmuch as the Bible itself represents the vast majority of human beings (the “Gentiles”) as having been without any direct knowledge of or access to God until the Christian era, when the “good news” of the gospel, “hidden from ages and generations” (Col. 1:26), was at last to be preached to all peoples and nations without distinction. Inasmuch as Tolkien conceived of his mythical history as taking place prior to the sacred history recorded in Scripture, the relative silence of his mythology concerning the Creator actually achieves a certain profound agreement with the historical record found in Sacred Scripture.

Denethor’s Machiavellianism

Denethor’s statement to Faramir could have come straight out of Machiavelli’s The Prince: “Ever your desire is to appear lordly and generous as a king of old, gracious, gentle. That may well befit one of high race, if he sits in power and peace. But in desperate hours gentleness may be repaid with death.” Faramir’s response is equally classic, the response of an unflinching faith: “So be it.”

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 Divine Presence, part 1

Consistent with much of traditional, orthodox theology, Tolkien’s fictional theology labors to provide a dialectical balance and simultaneity of divine transcendence and immanence. We see this, for example, in his image of the Flame Imperishable which is presented as not only hidden “with Ilúvatar” (and hence undiscoverable by Melkor), but also as “sent forth” into the Void to burn “at the heart of the World.” As Tolkien writes in his commentary on the Athrabeth, the Flame Imperishable “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” (MR 345). Tolkien even went so far as to coin an Elvish expression for the principle of divine concurrence–described, for example, by St. Thomas as God causing the being in things “not only when they first begin to be, but as long as they are preserved in being”–calling it the “Oienkarmë Eruo,” “[t]he One’s perpetual production” and “management of the Drama” (MR 329). As twentieth-century Thomist Herbert McCabe explains this point in imagery notably similar to the Ainulindalë’s: “This God cannot be a Top Person summoned to fill the gaps in the natural order; this God must be at the heart of every being, acting in every action (whether determined or free), continually sustaining her creation over against nothing as a singer sustains her song over against silence—and that too is only a feeble metaphor, for even silence presupposes being.” [1]

If God is in all things, in another sense this is because all things are rather in God, a point which. One of the ways this has been traditionally expressed is in the Platonic notion of “participation,” an idea for which Tolkien too seems to have had some affinity.[2] Thus, for Aquinas, God is “essential being” whereas everything else has merely “participated being,” a distinction that is further related to Thomas’s famous doctrine of analogy: because God and creatures exist in these fundamentally divergent manners, we can only ever predicate being of God and creatures in an analogous fashion (ST 1.13.5).[3] It is the same idea of creation participating in the Creator, not only for their form, but for their existence itself, that Tolkien represents in his creation-myth. In the earlier, Book of Lost Tales version of the Ainulindalë, for example, Eru informs the Ainur that, in creating the world first sung by the Ainur in their Music and then seen by them in the Vision, he has in fact “caused [the world] to be—not in the musics that ye make in the heavenly regions, as a joy to me and a play unto yourselves, alone, but rather to have shape and reality even as have ye Ainur, whom I have made to share in the reality of Ilúvatar myself” (BLT 54-5, emphasis added). In creating things, Ilúvatar causes them to have a “share” or participation in his own reality, yet this does not mean that creation has the same, univocal kind of reality as Ilúvatar. It does mean, however, that its reality, by virtue of its participation in Ilúvatar, is analogous to his. As Tolkien differentiates these matters in one letter, the reality enjoyed by creation is a “secondary reality, subordinate to his [God’s] own, which we call primary reality…” (L 259).

[1] McCabe, God Matters, 59-60.

[2] On the notion of participation in St. Thomas’s thought, see Velde, Participation and Substantiality in Thomas Aquinas.

[3] For a recent discussion of and introduction to Thomas’s doctrine of the analogy of being and its historical interpretation and criticisms, see Miner, Truth in the Making, 11-18.