Tolkien’s Augustinian Exemplarism

Exemplarism is the theological idea, typically traced back to the Christianized Platonism of Augustine, according to which every creature, and hence all human knowledge of creation, has its originating archetype or “exemplar” in the divine mind of God. Things are what they are, in short, because they are patterned after God’s own thought or ideas, and thus human beings are able to know these things insofar as their own minds conform to or are even “illuminated” by these “divine ideas.”

As a number of commentators have observed, Augustine’s theological exemplarism plays an important role in Tolkien’s own retelling of God’s creation of the world. In the Ainulindalë, the Ainur, for example, are first introduced as the “offspring of [Eru’s] thought” who thus initially “comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came…” Through their music-making, however, the Ainur come into increasing contact and communion with each other—creatures like and yet different from each other who have also been modeled after the Creator—and so come into an increasing knowledge of the mind of Ilúvatar in which each of them originally had a unique share. Having their origin in the mind of Ilúvatar, what the Ainur represent, not only in their own being and essence, but also in the music they perform, are so many dim, finite, yet authentic reflections of the otherwise infinite brightness of the Creator’s own thought and being.[1]

It is not only in and through each other, however, that the Ainur are able to “divinize” or reveal the creative purposes or possibilities of the Creator. When the Ainur receive in the Vision their first glimpse of the coming of the “Children of Ilúvatar,” the race of Elves and Men, the astonishment of the Ainur is captured in these words: “Therefore when [the Ainur] beheld them, the more did they love them, being things other than themselves, strange and free, wherein they saw 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). As further “reflections” of Ilúvatar’s mind yet differing from that of the Ainur, the Children of Ilúvatar in their very being and essence embody a new perspective or insight into the divine nature and “wisdom” after which both the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar have been patterned. It is also worth noting here that this identity-in-difference—a property I suggested in some earlier posts to have its ultimately theological ground for Tolkien in his Trinitarian conception of the divine being—is also the basis for the Ainur’s affection or “love” for the Children of Ilúvatar. It is for love of the Creator that the Ainur love their fellow creatures.


[1] Verlyn Flieger captures this understanding of the Ainulindalë well—despite her otherwise Plotinian, apophatic reading of Tolkien’s theology—when she writes: “As ‘offspring’ of Eru’s thought, the Ainur are aspects of whole mind, differentiations of Eru’s undifferentiated nature. They are divided parts of that which is undivided, thoughts springing outward from the mind, assuming life of their own. As parts, they express, but cannot encompass, the whole…” Flieger, “Naming the Unnameable,” 131. Robert Collins likewise points out how, as the “offspring” of Ilúvatar’s thought, the Ainur also represent so many “interpretations of the mind of the One,” something Collins connects further with the apparent etymological inspiration behind the name ofIlúvatar itself: “Indeed, the Creator’s name among the denizens of Middle Earth—Ilúvatar—obviously incorporates not only the Indo-European ‘father’ (Sindarin atar/Sanskrit pitar) but also the Latin “vates”—poet/seer—emphasizing the character of the Creator as artist, and that of his creation as art object, the substantive image in time and space of the artist’s thought. His symphonists, the Ainur, are clearly individual avatars of the various aspects of his own aesthetic fecundity.” Collins, “‘Ainulindalë’: Tolkien’s Commitment to an Aesthetic Ontology,” 257. On the etymology of Ilúvatar, see also Flieger, Splintered Light, 50. As Maritain similarly observes, “the Latin vates was both a poet and a diviner,” a point he relates back to his Thomistic claim that human art, like divine art, involves a kind of self-knowledge, and hence represents a “kind of divination.” Maritain, Creative Intuition, 3.

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