Tolkien’s “Metaphysics of Exodus”

Eru: Plotinian One or Thomistic Esse? part 3

The previous post in this thread asserted that Eru’s identification 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, links him more directly with the biblical and Christian theological tradition than with the Platonic or Neoplatonic tradition by which a number of commentators have interpreted the theology of Tolkien’s fiction. Fire is an image frequently associated in Scripture with the divine presence, especially in those theophanic appearances in which God reveals himself to his people as their covenant Lord. The very first appearance of the word fire in the Old Testament, for example, occurs when the Lord covenants himself with Abraham (much as Ilúvatar does with the Ainur) in a vision, in which he manifests himself as a “burning lamp and a torch of fire” (Gen. 15:17).[1] During the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt, the Lord again appears as a “cloud of smoke” by day and a “pillar of fire” by night (Exod. 3:21). In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit descends upon the heads of the baptized believers at Pentecost as “tongues of fire” (Acts 2:3; for Tolkien’s own use of Pentecost imagery in his characterization of the act of sub-creation, see the end of his poem “Mythopoeia”), God is described as a “consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29; see also 10:27), and the Son of God’s eyes in the Book of Revelation are “as a flame of fire” (Rev. 1:14, 2:18, 19:12). Perhaps the most suggestive passage in connection with Tolkien’s image of the Imperishable Flame, however, especially given the Exodus imagery pervasive throughout The Silmarillion (Tolkien taught the Old English Exodus throughout the 1930s and 40s[3]), is the Prophet Moses’s famous encounter on the slopes of Mt. Horeb/Sinai, where the Lord appeared to him as a “flame of fire out of the midst of a bush” which “burned with fire” and yet “was not consumed” (Exod. 3.2).[4] It is difficult not to conjecture some line of influence between, on the one hand, this scene in which the Lord declared himself to Moses as “I am that am,” and on the other hand, Tolkien’s conception of Ilúvatar, in the guise of the Flame Imperishable, burning “at the heart of the World,” not consuming it, but kindling it to “Be.”[5] It is quite possible, in other words, that Tolkien’s image of the Flame Imperishable reflects something of his own inheritance in the Augustinian and Thomistic “Metaphysics of Exodus,” and thus providing a powerful image of Thomas’s understanding of God as that dynamic, fully actualized conflagration of existence—what Chesterton described as “the great Dominican’s exultation in the blaze of Being”[6]—on whom all creatures depend for their own being.

[1] Vine, Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 82. On the “dialectic of fire” in the Old Testament, see Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, vol. 6, Theology: The Old Covenant, 47-50. Stratford Caldecott also mentions this and a number of the other passages referenced below in his discussion of Tolkien’s image of the “Secret Fire” in The Power of the Ring, 105.

[2] In his poem “Mythopoiea” Tolkien describes the saints in their future state of glory as “poets” who will “have flames upon their head.”

[3] L.J. Swain, “Exodus, Edition of,” in Drout, ed., J.R.R.T. Encyclopedia, 180-1.

[4] In many ways The Silmarillion represents a retelling of the Old Testament narrative in general and of the Exodus story in particular. Beginning, like the Bible, with the creation of the world, The Silmarillion moves on to tell the story of the Elves’ migration out of Middle-earth where they were under constant threat of becoming enslaved to the tyrannical Pharaoh-figure of Melkor, and their journey to the utopic Valinor, a veritable “promised land” of milk and honey. The Elves entry into Valinor, moreover, is preceded by representatives from each of the heads of the different Elvish lines, an echo of the twelve spies from each of the twelve tribes of Israel who enter the land of Canaan in advance of the rest of the Israelite host. Leading the Elves in their journey, moreover, is the Moses-figure Oromë, messenger of the Valar. Once in Valinor, the Elves rebel, being persuaded that the hardships endured in Middle-earth were preferable to their current fortunes, much as the Israelites complain that the freedom they enjoyed in the wilderness was incomparable to the luxuries and securities they enjoyed back in Egypt. The Elves’ return to Middle-earth, accordingly, also becomes their “exile,” from which many of them do not return to Valinor except through violent death, comparable to the curse laid on the first generation of Israelites coming out of Egypt that they would all die before seeing the land of Canaan.

[5] As Stratford Caldecott comments on the “Secret Fire” of Iluvatar, “The fire that is of God burns without consuming. Lesser fires may give light, and they may be used to give life and form to other creatures, but at the same time they consume the fule on which they depend. Thus all lesser fires depend on God’s gift of being, of fuel, of substance, continually renewed.” Caldecott, The Power of the Ring, 104. In all of this we would seem to have a specifically theological example of the more general pattern identified by one scholar of how “Tolkien makes biblical metaphors literal and recombines biblical elements to be particular to Middle-earth.” Christian Ganong Walton, “Bible,” in Drout, ed., JR.R.T. Encyclopedia, 63.

[6] Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, 190.


One thought on “Tolkien’s “Metaphysics of Exodus”

  1. “Tolkien’s conception of Ilúvatar, in the guise of the Flame Imperishable, burning “at the heart of the World,” not consuming it, but kindling it to ‘Be'” – Good words

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