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.

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