Tolkien’s Eru: Plotinian One or Thomistic Esse? (part 1)

In previous posts I commented on Tolkien’s claim that the world of The Lord of the Rings was a “monotheistic world of ‘natural theology’” (L 220), and looked at how his fictional Elves, but also Tolkien personally, exercised broadly the same kind of teleological reasoning about the world as we see assumed and exhibited in, for example, St. Thomas’s famous “Fifth Way,” the argument from divine governance, for demonstrating God’s existence. The question remains, at this point, as to what precisely this God is, the belief in whom Tolkien’s pre-Christian, pagan mythology is in some sense intent upon restoring us to.

The name Eru, as the opening line of The Silmarillion indicates, simply means “the One,” and the index to the book gives the additional rendering of “He that is alone” (S 329).[1] These associations have led Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger—in one of the only studies to date to focus exclusively on the question of the philosophical theology of Tolkien’s mythology—to identify Eru with the One of classic Neoplatonic thought. As Flieger observes, a “central idea, indeed a major element, in Neoplatonic thought is the concept of God as the One, the Monad beyond human knowing or naming.”[2] As explained by the third-century A.D. Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus, the whole of reality consists in a hierarchy of cascading or overflowing “emanations” from the One, which is so utterly transcendent that, following Plato’s famous suggestion in the Republic, it is said to be even “beyond being.”[3] As that which is beyond being, Plotinus further held the One to be beyond all thought or self-knowledge, to say nothing of its surpassing the comprehension of those orders of reality below it in the hierarchy of being. Even knowledge and thought, after all, imply a distinction and thus a duality between the knower and the object known, so that, according to Plotinus, “if anything is the simplest of all, it will not possess thought of itself: for if it is to possess it, it will possess it by being multiple. It is not therefore thought, nor is there any thinking about it.”[4] Unknowable to itself, the One is all the more wholly unknowable to, and therefore unnamable by, the individual human soul far below it: “But the One, as it is beyond Intellect, so is beyond knowledge… It is, therefore, truly ineffable… [W]e can say nothing of it.”[5]

It is the negative theology of Plotinus, as well as that of his sixth-century Christian counterpart, the Pseudo-Dionysius, to which Flieger particularly likens Tolkien’s Eru. Flieger, for example, suggests that, as in the case of the emanationist hierarchy of Plotinus, what gives unity to Tolkien’s “hodgepodge” of fictional creatures and races, organizing these “seemingly random elements into a coherent whole,” is the figure of Eru, “drawn not from any national or ethnic mythology, but from the arcane reaches of Plotinian and Dionysian explications of the nature of God.”[6] Also uniting Tolkien with this tradition is his alleged acknowledgement of the “unsolvable problem” of naming the One. All three thinkers find themselves

confined to the separable and limited vocabulary of human language to talk about inseparable, unlimited being. They must express the inexpressible. Plotinus acknowledges the problem explicitly, the other two implicitly. Plotinus cautions his reader that he is and must be speaking “incorrectly.” For even the statement that the One “is” embodies contradiction; the addition of the verb is an admission of duality to express singularity.

            This problem admitted, all three writers go on to affirm, each in his own way, the oneness of the One, its indivisibility and its incomprehensibility to the divided human mind. The One, says Plotinus, is self-constituted, perfect, the source of all yet separate from and beyond that which come from it. Dionysius, mystical rather than logical, describes a God beyond comprehension, of whom he says: “the boundless Super-Essence surpasses Essences, the Super-Intellectual Unity surpasses Intelligences, the One which is beyond thought surpasses the apprehension of thought, and the Good which is beyond utterance surpasses the reach of words. Yea, it is an Unity which is the unifying source of all unity and a Super-Essential Essence, a Mind beyond the reach of mind and a Word beyond all utterance, eluding Discourse, Intuition, Name, and every kind of being.”[7]

Turning to the Ainulindalë, Flieger argues that it is a similarly ineffable divine being which Tolkien portrays there:

The first three words are striking in their simplicity: “There was Eru,” a plain declarative in the past tense singular of the verb “to be,” coupled with no place and no time other than the indeterminate pre-present, plus a single noun with no modifier, no Dionysian superlative, no embellishment. Rather than try to explain the unexplainable, Tolkien presents his reader with subject and predicate, the minimum necessary to put his meaning into a literate sentence. And he adds, as his only explication, “the One.”[8]

Even Ilúvatar, the name by which Eru is known in Arda meaning “Father of All,” Flieger claims to designate “name, not essence… It is a name for the unnameable, and thus akin to Dionysius’ concept of Divine Names, which, he says, ‘refer in Symbolical Revelation to Its beneficent Emanations.’”[9] In other words, the name Father refers to the One, not as he is in himself, but only insofar as he relates to his “emanations” or creations. Flieger writes that, although the name of Father is common to Christian Trinitarianism and many other ancient mythologies, such designations are “of necessity built from human perception, derived from and reflecting a human model.”[10]

In her Splintered Light, Flieger casts into even sharper relief the antithesis she finds between the negative theology of Tolkien’s Neoplatonism and the comparatively more positive theology of Christian revelation:

Unlike the biblical God, Tolkien’s Eru is a strikingly remote and disengaged figure. He had little or no direct interaction in his world but leaves it to those of the Ainur called the Valar, the Powers of the World, who choose to concern themselves specifically with the earth and its inhabitants… In that capacity, they seem in some ways more comparable to the creator God presented in Genesis than does Eru. Like Jahweh, as God is called in Genesis 2, the Valar are present in and (when they so will) manifest to the world they have fashioned. On the level of language, however, they have a greater resemblance to Elohim, as God is called in Genesis 1… As a plural, [Elohim] can suggest not many gods but God in all his aspects, God as multiplicity, a concept not unlike the multiplicity of Eru’s thought who are the Valar… But Eru of The Silmarillion is not the God of Genesis.[11]

Joining Flieger in her Platonic interpretation of Eru, John Cox similarly associates Tolkien with Plato and Plotinus over against the Hebrew tradition in what he suggests is the Ainulindalë’s assertion of a radical dualism between the supreme unity, eternality, and immutability of Eru on the one hand and the plurality, temporality, and changeability of the created order on the other. The difference is so great, according to Cox, that it necessitates on the part of the Ainur, and as the logic of Plato would dictate, an emanated, “third entity as a kind of buffer, so to speak, between the two extremes.”[12] The result, for Cox, is that “the pattern of creation [in the Ainulindalë] is very different from that in the book of Genesis. Its pattern, in fact, is Platonic rather than Hebraic.”[13]

Against this overly Platonic interpretation of his fictional theology, however, I will suggest in a couple of follow-up posts that the picture Tolkien presents of the divine nature owes much more to the biblically informed Christian Neoplatonism of such influential theologians as Augustine and Aquinas—with their comparative balance of positive and negative theology—than it does to the pre-Christian, pagan, and predominantly negative theology of Plato and Plotinus.


[1] Michaël Devaux observes that, absent in earlier editions of the Ainulindalë, “the inclusion of the name Eru is a unique feature of the 1977 Silmarillion.” Devaux, “The Origins of the Ainulindalë: The Present State of Research,” 91.

[2] Flieger, “Naming the Unnameable,” 127.

[3] Plotinus, Enneads 5.1.10, trans. Armstrong. On Plotinus’s doctrine of the One, see Bussanich, “Plotinus’s Metaphysics of the One.”

[4] Plotinus, Enneads 5.3.13.

[5] Ibid., 5.3.12-13.

[6] Flieger, “Naming the Unnameable,” 128.

[7] Ibid., 129.

[8] Ibid., 128-9.

[9] Ibid., 130.

[10] Ibid., 131.

[11] Flieger, Splintered Light, 53-5.

[12] Cox, “Tolkien’s Platonic Fantasy,” 58.

[13] Ibid., 57. John Houghton, by contrast, has made the claim that, in its similarities with Augustine’s Literal Commentary on Genesis, most notably in the role assumed by the Ainur, the Ainulindalë is in fact unlike the cosmogony of Plotinian Neoplatonism: “[T]ypically… those more directly Plotinian cosmogonies stress the role of three successively emanating hypostases (such as One, Intellect, and Soul) rather than the work of the angels, and thus the Ainulindalë by its nature resembles them less closely [than] it does De Genesi.” Houghton, “Augustine in the Cottage of Lost Play,” 180.

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2 thoughts on “Tolkien’s Eru: Plotinian One or Thomistic Esse? (part 1)

  1. I wish I had the book with me so I could look up the quote, but either in his introduction to his translation of “Sir Gawain” or in his essay on it (which I believe is in “The Monsters and the Critics and other essays”) Tolkien reacts to the claim that the Pearl Poet was a Lollard by saying that all it takes to refute this notion is a deeper knowledge of the Catholic faith. It seems the same could be said here. It would be quite the shock to Moses to learn he was only quoting Plotinus when he said “The Lord your God, the Lord is One”.

  2. Pingback: Some interpretations of Tolkien on Angelic Creation | The Flame Imperishable

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