Generous creation

“God brought things into being, not because He was in any way obliged to do so, but out of pure generosity” (Deus ex nullo debito, sed ex mera liberalitate res in esse produxit). Aquinas, SCG 2.44.15.

Tolkien’s Demiurges

In his conception of angelic beings with the power and freedom to fashion a world according to their choosing, Tolkien’s purpose was to capture, as he puts it, something of the “beauty, power, and majesty” of the gods of the ancient mythologies. One of these ancient myths he seems particularly to have had in mind is the creation-story of Plato’s Timaeus dialogue, a work that was tremendously influential in both early Jewish and Christian patristic and later medieval thought.[1] In a number of places, Tolkien describes the sub-creative work of the Valar as “demiurgic” (MR 330, 370, 387, and 401), an evident allusion to the divine demiurge of the Timaeus who fashions the changing, visible world by looking to the order, intelligibility, and beauty of the unchanging, invisible, yet eternal and “living model,” and reproducing as much as possible that order within the realm of a pre-existing yet hitherto unorganized matter.

Surprisingly, given the interest of Tolkien’s readers in his Platonic inheritance noted in the Introduction, the extent of the parallels—to say nothing yet of the equally remarkable differences—between the Ainulindalë and Plato’s Timaeus has yet to receive a thorough investigation. The most comprehensive comparison to date must be John Cox’s study mentioned in previous posts, which draws attention to the fact that, like Plato’s demiurge, “everything else [besides the Ainur] that Ilúvatar makes, he makes by the agency of the Ainur,” a pattern Cox finds paralleled in the Timaeus’s account of the divine demiurge, “a benevolent and eternal maker, who first creates what Plato calls ‘gods’ and then charges them with the task of carrying on the creation.”[2] Cox finds in both narratives, moreover, the same “progression from the Creator, to intermediate creating powers, to the visible creation.”[3] Both creation-myths, accordingly, present worlds of “stark contrasts” between the invisible, eternal, and unchanging divine realm of being on the one hand and the visible, temporal, and changeable realm of becoming on the other.[4] Cox further points to the resulting themes of emanation and imitation associated with these structures as they manifest themselves in both Plato and Tolkien.[5]

[1] Plato’s Timaeus, Meno, and Phaedo, for example, were the only three of his dialogues known throughout the medieval period. On early Jewish, Roman, and Christian readings of Plato’s Timaeus, see Jaroslav Pelikan, What Has Athens to Do with Jerusalem? On the reception of Plato’s Timaeus in the later Middle Ages, particularly in the 12th century, see Dutton, “The Uncovering of the Glosae Super Platonem of Bernard of Chartres” and “Medieval Approaches to Calcidius”; Chenu, “The Platonisms of the Twelfth Century”; Gregory, “The Platonic Inheritance”; and Gibson, “The Study of the Timaeus in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries.” On Aquinas’s own knowledge of Plato’s Timaeus, see Hankey, “Aquinas and the Platonists.”

[2] Cox, “Tolkien’s Platonic Fantasy,” 57.

[3] Ibid., 57.

[4] Ibid., 58.

[5] Ibid., 58-9.

Serious play

“to labor for the sake of play seems foolish and too childish. But to play in order that one might be serious… seems to be right…” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 10.6.1176b32-3)

The Humanism of Orthodoxy

In the second part of the Summa Contra Gentiles, devoted to the subject of creation, Thomas makes the point that the present consideration of creatures is necessary “not only for the building up of truth” (the constructive role of this work), “but also for the destruction of errors” (the polemical role). A couple of such errors that he mentions are that “angels are the creators of souls, that human souls are mortal, and generally … any similar views derogatory to the dignity of man.” For Thomas, man has a dignity, a dignity that the Christian faith preserves and from which heresy and other forms of error detract. We might call this Thomas’s “humanism of orthodoxy.”

In a volume titled “A Tolkien Compass,” this author has clearly lost his

* Scheps, Walter. “The Fairy-tale Morality of The Lord of the Rings.” In A Tolkien Compass, ed. Jared Lobdell. Open Court, 2003. This article was nothing short of an interpretative travesty. Schep, to his credit, draws some useful observations about the moral realism of Tolkien’s fictional world, but unfortunately he is entirely unable to appreciate (or understand, for that matter) the moral outlook of that world: “If we attempt to transfer the moral values inherent in [The Lord of the Rings] to the ‘real world’, we find that they may be called paternalistic, reactionary, anti-intellectual, racist, fascistic and, perhaps worst of all in contemporary terms, irrelevant.” He concludes by claiming that “the moral system which governs [the hobbits’] world cannot, without serious consequences, be applied to our own.” On the contrary, Mr. Schep, “serious consequences” are exactly what we are getting precisely because we will not apply the moral outlook of The Lord of the Rings to our world.

The scope of Valaric sub-creation

Notwithstanding Tolkien’s and Thomas’s agreement where the doctrine of creation proper is concerned, on the subject of the creaturely power of mere making, particularly of angelic making, it has to be said that Tolkien departs boldly from the more conservative path tread by his great theological forbear. Whereas Tolkien in his fiction accords phenomenally vast sub-creative powers to the Valar, attributing to them the formation of such important and complex structures as the world’s geological formations, plant, and animal life, Thomas expressly denies, for example, that even the substantial forms of corporeal bodies are or can be communicated by angels (ST 1.65.4). Here, at least, Tolkien’s inspiration would indeed seem to have been more directly pre-Thomistic.

Although Eru is the one who first brings the world into being, the world he creates is, for the most part, entirely unformed, consisting of “wastes unmeasured and unexplored” (S 20). The primary responsibility Ilúvatar gives to the Valar, accordingly, is that they should labor to make the world inhabitable for the coming of the Children of Ilúvatar, whom Eru will create himself, and all in fulfillment of what the Valar had seen in the Vision. Thus, at the conclusion of the Ainulindalë it is said that the Valar delved valleys, carved mountains, and hollowed seas, indicating that much of the initial geography of the world is to be attributed to their handiwork. Even more remarkable is that the Valar are also made responsible for the introduction of plant and animal life in the world. It is Yavanna, for example, the spouse of Aulë, who

planted at last the seeds that she had long devised… and there arose a multitude of growing things great and small, mosses and grasses and great ferns, and trees whose tops were crowned with cloud as they were living mountains, but whose feet were wrapped in a green twilight. And beasts came forth and dwelt in the grassy plains, or in the rivers and the lakes, or walked in the shadows of the woods. As yet no flower had bloomed nor any bird had sung, for these things waited still their time in the bosom of Yavanna… (S 35)

The most renowned of Yavanna’s works are the Two Trees of Valinor, Telperion and Laurelin, from whose golden fruit and silver leaf the Valar later fashion the sun and the moon themselves.[1] As for the rest of the celestial bodies, many of the stars are also accounted as having been “wrought” by Varda, the “Lady of the Stars” and spouse of Manwë (S 26, 39).

It is the story of Aulë’s foolish and futile attempt at making the dwarves, however, that best illustrates both the tremendous magnitude of and the intrinsic limits imposed upon the Valar’s sub-creative power. The Silmarillion tells how Aulë, out of an otherwise noble desire for there to be “things other” than himself who might enjoy the beauty of the world, yet in his impatience for the coming of the Children of Ilúvatar, made the dwarves out of earth and stone. Rebuking Aulë afterwards for his presumption, Ilúvatar inquired of him:

Why hast thou done this? Why dost thou attempt a thing which thou knowest is beyond thy power and thy authority? For thou hast from me as a gift thy own being only, and no more; and therefore the creatures of thy hand and mind can live only by that being, moving when thou thinkest to move them, and if thy thought be elsewhere, standing idle. Is that thy desire? (S 43)

Although Eru alone can give being, Aulë is nevertheless able to turn the earth and stone which Eru had created into, if not free, rational beings, as Aulë had intended, then at least into living yet witless organisms. It is only as a supernatural gift from Ilúvatar, graciously bestowed in response to Aulë’s humble repentance, that the dwarves come to have “a life of their own, and speak with their own voices” (S 44). Thus, while in his letter to Hastings Tolkien wanted to leave open the possibility that the Orcs could have been “made” by the dark powers, he also denies the “making of souls or spirits, things of an equal order if not an equal power to the Valar, as a possible ‘delegation’…” (L 195).[2] Related to Aulë’s production of the dwarvish bodies is the idea, later entertained by Tolkien, that the spirits of deceased Elves, instead of becoming reincarnate through a second, physical rebirth, might have their new bodies prepared for them by the Valar (MR 339, 362, and 364).

[1] The sun and the moon are actually fashioned long after Ilúvatar’s creation of the Elves, a sequence of events Tolkien later came to regret. As he put it in one commentary, “you can make up stories of that kind when you live among people who have the same general background of imagination, when the Sun ‘really’ rises in the East and goes down in the West, etc. When however (no matter how little most people know or think about astronomy) it is the general belief that we live upon a ‘spherical’ island in ‘Space’ you cannot do this any more” (MR 370).

[2] Thus, as Tolkien himself concludes in his letter to Hastings, the question of whether the Orcs were “made” or not is a “different question” from whether or not the Orcs had “souls” or “spirits” (L 195).

The Dwarves, Tolkien’s Ishmael

In an interesting twist to the story, the Dwarves play not only the part of Ishmael, but briefly, the role of Isaac as well: “Then Aulë took up a great hammer to smite the Dwarves; and he wept. But Ilúvatar had compassion upon Aulë and his desire, because of his humility… And the voice of Ilúvatar said to Aulë: ‘Thy offer I accepted even as it was made…’” As Verlyn Flieger comments in her Splintered Light, “Aulë’s unquestioning acceptance of Eru’s chastisement and his willingness to destroy his creatures recalls the unquestioning obedience of biblical Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac at his God’s command.”[1] That it is only after Aulë has offered—and in a symbolic sense might be said even—to destroy the Dwarves that Ilúvatar accepts them as part of his plan, might be further compared to the institution of circumcision which Yahweh establishes with Abraham between the births of Ishmael and Isaac, an act in which some commentators have seen a form of ritual castration whereby Abraham was led to renounce in faith his own efforts at accomplishing God’s purposes by the works of the flesh. In the end, of course, Aulë no more literally destroys the Dwarves than Abraham literally cuts off or kills either of his two sons, yet Aulë does have to witness his Dwarves subjected to a kind of death when they are buried “in darkness and under stone,” all the while trusting in Ilúvatar’s promise of their future “resurrection,” much as Abraham is required to receive Isaac from the “deadness,” first, of the womb of Sarah (Rom. 4:19) and later, of the altar and “tomb” that was Mt. Moriah (Heb. 11:11-12).

After Ilúvatar’s acceptance of Aulë’s sacrifice and his granting the Dwarves the gift of life, freedom, and speech, the Dwarves revert to their status as the Ishmaelites of the story. Despite Ishmael being technically Abraham’s firstborn son, it is Isaac whom Yahweh elects as the son of promise and the one with whom he would establish his covenant. In like manner, Ilúvatar decrees that Aulë’s Dwarves, although the first to be brought into being, nevertheless must not “come before the Firstborn of my design… They shall sleep now in the darkness under stone and shall not come forth until the Firstborn have awakened upon Earth.” At the same time, Yahweh’s election of Isaac and his seed does not altogether exclude the possibility of blessing for Ishmael, as Yahweh also promises Hagar to “multiply thy seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for multitude” (Gen. 16:10). This relationship finds its parallel in Ilúvatar’s statement to Aulë that, “Even as I gave being to the thoughts of the Ainur at the beginning of the World, so now I have taken up thy desire and given to it a place therein… But when the time comes I will awaken them, and they shall be to thee as children…” Yet in both cases this blessing also comes with a foreshadowing of future conflict. As Ilúvatar does with Aulë’s Dwarves, Yahweh will give Ishmael a “place” in his “design,” but Ishmael will still be a “wild man” whose “hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him” (Gen. 16:12). Similarly, Ilúvatar tells Aulë that, notwithstanding his accommodation of the Dwarves within his plan, “in no other way will I amend thy handiwork, and as thou hast made it, so shall it be.” Thus, because “they were to come in the days of the power of Melkor, Aulë made the Dwarves strong to endure. Therefore they are stone-hard, stubborn, fast in friendship and in enmity, and they suffer toil and hanger and hurt of body more hardily than all other speaking peoples…” More than this, Ilúvatar warns Aulë how “often strife shall arise between thine and mine, the children of my adoption and the children of my choice.”

[1] Verlyn Flieger, Splintered Light: Language and Logos in Tolkien’s World, 100.