Faith and Reason in Middle-earth, part 3

[Faith and Reason in Middle-earth, part 1 and part 2]

The question of faith in Middle-earth does not occur only among Elves, for in The Silmarillion we see the matter of trusting both in “angelic instruction” and in the Creator’s good intentions brought to bear directly on human history in Tolkien’s retelling of the Atlantis myth, the Akallabeth. In this story, the men of Númenor, fearing death and coveting the immortality of the Elves, bitterly complain that “of us is required a blind trust, and a hope without assurance, knowing not what lies before us in a little while” (S 265). The theological context behind the complaint, as the Athrabeth helps to make clear, is the fact that the difference between human mortality and Elvish immortality is the result of a voluntary, albeit intelligent and purposeful choice of the Creator. Because the origin of this difference between Men and Elves lies ultimately in the freedom of the divine will, this means there is no discernable, rational necessity behind what turns out to be the contingent fact of human mortality. Indeed, from the perspective of the Elves, whose own nature is such that they must continue to endure forever in a world they love but cannot prevent from changing, human mortality—for men a tragedy—is in their view nothing less than a “gift” which the Creator has granted to Men alone. For the Men themselves, however, who know their own mortality by direct experience but are left in ignorance as to their fate after death, to accept their mortal nature as a gift requires an exercise of faith or trust in the good purposes of the Creator and that they have not in fact been cheated of the unending life that has been given to the Elves and so now belongs to them as a matter of created, natural right. Refusing to rest in such “hope without assurance,” and seduced into rebellion by Sauron, the Númenóreans at last break the ban laid upon them by the Valar and sail to Valinor to win from the Valar by force the immortality that only Ilúvatar can bestow. The outcome of their rebellion is that Númenor is destroyed in an act of direct, divine judgment.[1] In Tolkien’s re-writing of the legend, accordingly, it was a fundamental failure of both faith and reason that brought about the downfall of the ancient kingdom of Atlantis—of reason, because the Númenóreans neglected to discern rightly their own proper nature; of faith, because they failed to receive this God-given nature as a gift whose goodness and wisdom, if not perfectly evident at the present, might be made plain in the future.[2]


[1] Tolkien distinguishes several stages leading up to the Númenóreans’ eventual breaking of the ban: “They must not set foot on ‘immortal’ lands, and so become enamoured of an immortality (within the world), which was against their law, the special doom or gift of Ilúvatar (God), and which their nature could not in fact endure. There are three phases in their fall from grace. First acquiescence, obedience that is free and willing, though without complete understanding. Then for long they obey unwillingly, murmuring more and more openly. Finally they rebel—and a rift appears between the King’s men and rebels, and the small minority of persecuted Faithful” (L 154-5).

[2] As Verlyn Flieger summarizes the theme of mortality in its relationship to the question of faith in this episode, “[r]elease from bondage to the circles of the world comes not with immortality but with death, the Gift of Ilúvatar to Men. But it is release with no promise. Tolkien’s text gives no guarantees; what’s to come is still unsure. Indeed, Tolkien explicitly stated that he was concerned with death as belonging to the nature of humanity, and wanted to illustrate the necessity of accepting ‘hope without guarantees.’ There is in his story no assurance of any future beyond death. The unknown must be accepted in faith. This is exactly the point. The ability to let go, to trust, is the ability to rely on faith. To cling to the known, the tangible—even if it is a Silmaril—is to be bound.” Flieger, Splintered Light, 144. Flieger also sees the question of faith implicit in the Elves’ differing responses to the summons, issued by the Valar, that they should leave their home in Middle-earth and come to Valinor where they would be free from the threat of Melkor: “The Avari are those Elves who reject the light and choose to remain in Middle-earth, ‘preferring the starlight … to the rumour of the Trees’ (S 52). The word ‘rumour’ is important. The Avari are unwilling to predicate action on the basis of a rumour, of something they have not themselves experienced… [T]he three Elven kindreds who go to Valinor… represent the spectrum of human spirituality and response to the light.” Ibid., 78, 98.

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