Tolkien’s Eru: Plotinian One or Thomistic Esse? (part 2)

The question raised in yesterday’s post is whether Eru is the wholly ineffable and inaccessible “beyond-being” of Plotinus, as Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger maintains, “the Monad beyond human knowing or naming” who, contrary to the God of the Bible, is “a strikingly remote and disengaged figure” with “little or no direct interaction in his world”; or whether Tolkien’s fictional theology perhaps displays a more positive and even personal picture of the divine being, one more in keeping with the revealed theology of the Bible and the knowable and nameable pure being of Augustine and St. Thomas. A partial answer to this question is implicit in my earlier posts on the issue of faith and reason and God’s existence in Tolkien’s writings: unlike Plotinus’s One yet similar to Thomas’s First Being, Tolkien’s Eru is more than merely the distant, creative or “emanative” source of the world’s existence, but is the one who has self-knowingly “designed” the world in such a way as to permit his creatures to learn something of his own mind through the study of his effects. This point is made clear enough, moreover, in the Ainulindalë when it is reported how the Ainur, through the glimpse they catch of the Children of Ilúvatar in their Vision, were able to see “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).

Perhaps the most vivid and valuable theological image Tolkien treats us to in the Ainulindalë, however, is the “Flame Imperishable,” and through which Tolkien achieves I think a profound affinity with and illustration of St. Thomas’s teaching concerning the divine existence. The exact identity or meaning of the Flame Imperishable, including its alternate appellation of the “Secret Fire,” has been the subject of some perplexity among Tolkien’s readers. One reader, for example, has written that “the Flame Imperishable is that spark which exists within all sentient beings—the flame of creativity”;[1] another reader describes it as “perhaps a metaphor for the pursuit of unattainable knowledge”;[2] while another interpretation identifies its principal effect with Ilúvatar’s gift of the power of free, sub-creative choice or will.[3] While its effect certainly includes the creation of the sub-creative will, these descriptions fall short of the wider, more metaphysical and theological significance of the Flame Imperishable.  In the early draft of the Ainulindalë from The Book of Lost Tales, the Flame Imperishable is described as the “Secret Fire that giveth Life and Reality” (BLT 53, emphasis added), and in The Silmarillion edition of the Ainulindalë, after the Ainur’s Vision of the world has been taken away, but before the world has actually been brought into being, Ilúvatar tells them:

‘…And I will send forth into the Void the Flame Imperishable, and it shall be at the heart of the World, and the World shall Be; and those of you that will may go down into it.’ And suddenly the Ainur saw afar off a light, as it were a cloud with a living heart of flame; and they knew that this was no vision only, but that Ilúvatar had made a new thing: Eä, the World that Is. (S 20)

In this passage, the fire being kindled by the Imperishable Flame, more than the mere gift of life and sub-creative freedom, involves the very gift of being or existence itself, in this case the existence of the physical world. This suggests that the Imperishable Flame is nothing less than the creative force or power of the Creator whereby he gives the gift of being—whether it be the gift of material existence, in the case of the physical world, or the gift of free, spiritual, sub-creative existence bestowed on rational yet finite beings. This interpretation of the Imperishable Flame is confirmed earlier on in the Ainulindalë when the as-yet unfallen Melkor is said to have “gone often alone into the void places seeking the Imperishable Flame; for desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own, and it seemed to him that Ilúvatar took no thought for the Void, and he was impatient of its emptiness. Yet he found not the Fire, for it is with Ilúvatar” (S 16). The Imperishable Flame, in short, is the power whereby Ilúvatar brings things “into Being.” Finally, Tolkien offers his own interpretation in his commentary on the Athrabeth when he writes that the Flame Imperishable

appears to mean the Creative activity of Eru (in some sense distinct from or within Him), by which things could be given a “real” and independent (though derivative and created) existence. The Flame Imperishable is sent out from Eru, to dwell in the heart of the world, and the world then Is, on the same plane as the Ainur, and they can enter into it. (MR 345)

The preceding passage from the Ainulindalë  gave as the reason for Melkor’s not finding the Imperishable Flame the fact that it was “with Ilúvatar.” Here Tolkien expressly identifies it as the “Creative activity of Eru” which is “in some sense distinct from” him, possibly implying an already presupposed sense in which the Flame Imperishable is not distinct from but is in fact identical with Ilúvatar, a point I will return to in a later post. The Flame Imperishable is not only “with” Ilúvatar, but as Tolkien puts it here, it is also “within Him.”

Thus, while Eru is initially introduced to us in the Ainulindalë simply as “the One,” he is afterward revealed in his creative capacity and activity as the sovereign wielder of the Flame Imperishable by which he “kindles” or bestows the being of his creatures, a characterization of the divine being that, as I will suggest in a follow-up post, would seem to suggest a much stronger influence of the Bible and the Christian intellectual tradition on Tolkien’s theological imagination than some of his commentators have allowed.

[1] Harvey, The Song of Middle-earth, 26.

[2] Don N. Anger, “Knowledge,” in Drout, ed., J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, 322.

[3] This is the definition given at the Wikopedia Middle-earth portal: the Secret Fire is the “divine ‘spark’ of life” and “that Gift which makes sentient beings capable of independent will.” Secret_fire .

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

  1. Ugh. This is just ridiculous. Could the monad create? Could the monad raise his hand? Could the monad show anything to anyone? Could the monad create “children”? Could the monad create “children” who have bodies–indeed as a natural part of them? Could the monad rebuke Aule? Could the monad forgive Aule? Could the monad give life directly to the Dwarves? Could the monad intervene to destroy the Numenoreans? Could the monad come into creation (as seems to be prophesied in the Akallabeth)? Could the monad resurrect, as the overarching hope is?

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