Some interpretations of Tolkien on Angelic Creation

Notwithstanding Thomas’s historic critique, for most of Tolkien’s commentators, the account of creation reflected in the Ainulindalë is the pre-Thomistic, classical and early medieval doctrine of angelic, mediated creation. Verlyn Flieger’s Neoplatonic reading of the theology of the Ainulindalë, for example, is in evidence when she writes:

It is the Ainur, not Eru, who actually create Tolkien’s world. They sing its plan in the Great Music which they make from the themes Eru propounds to them, and from that plan fabricate the material world. The rest of Tolkien’s vast mythology is enacted without Eru, involving chiefly the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar. Father of All he may be, but he has no further role in the action.[1]

In previous posts I’ve considered Flieger’s Neoplatonic interpretation of Eru’s remoteness or aloofness from the created world. Related to this, as the above passage illustrates, is Flieger’s similarly Neoplatonic interpretation of the doctrine of creation displayed in the Ainulindalë: as the supposed intermediate “creators” of the world, the Valar’s creative operation or agency is seen as introducing a causal space or distance between Eru and the created world, so that their agency comes only at the expense of his absence. Flieger again makes the alleged pagan philosophical context of Tolkien’s Valar explicit in her Splintered Light, in which she contrasts the biblical account of creation with what she argues to be the much more Platonic account given by Tolkien:

The adjective Tolkien used to describe the labors of the Valar in making the world is demiurgic. It recalls Plato’s use of “demiurge” to describe the deity who fashions the material world and, as well, the Gnostic use of the word for the same purpose. Tolkien’s Valar do, indeed, create the material world of Arda, action that puts them closer to the God of Genesis than to the angels. But Eru of The Silmarillion is not the God of Genesis, and the clear distinction between Eru and the Valar is essential to Tolkien’s design. There is only one Prime Mover—Eru, the One. The Ainur, and more particularly the Valar, are sub-creators. They participate in the physical making of the world but could not have done so had not Eru first given them the theme.[2]

According to Flieger, in summary, the Valar are the true creators in Tolkien’s tale.[3]

Nor is Flieger alone in her interpretation, as I’ve noted before. John Cox’s Platonic reading of Tolkien likewise stresses the Valar’s over Eru’s role in the act of creation. According to Cox, in the Ainulindalë

the pattern of creation is very different from that in the book of Genesis. Its pattern, in fact, is Platonic rather than Hebraic. Ilúvatar begins by creating what Tolkien calls the Ainur… Almost everything else that Ilúvatar makes, he makes by the agency of the Ainur. That is, the creative force always emanates from one source, Ilúvatar, but it operates by the intermediate actions of the first creatures it made, who therefore become “sub-creators” (the phrase is Tolkien’s) in their own right. This principle of intermediate creation—or “sub-creation”—is extremely important for Tolkien,… and while it has no Hebraic counterpart, it has a very close parallel in Plato’s account of creation in the Timaeus. Here, as in the Silmarillion, the creative impulse derives from one source, a benevolent and eternal maker, who first creates what Plato calls “gods” and then charges them with the task of carrying on the creation.[4]

Similarly, Protestant theologian and literary critic Ralph Wood, while refuting the kind of deistic reading of Tolkien exhibited in Flieger in favor of a more biblical interpretation, also uses creation-language to describe the Valar’s activity, as when he connects them with the pre-Nicea interpretation of Genesis’s “Let us make”:

Ilúvatar in fact creates his own special Children—men and elves, who are two members of the same species—directly and not by mediation. That Ilúvatar uses the angelic valar as lieutenants in his other creative acts puts him in full accord … with the declaration of Yahweh in Genesis: “Let us make.” The ancient Hebrew author of Genesis probably alluded to the heavenly court surrounding Yahweh, and it is such a notion that Tolkien perhaps has in mind.[5]

Even Thomist philosopher Peter Kreeft sees Tolkien’s Valar as hearkening back to the pre-Thomistic, Lombardian and patristic conception of angelic power when he writes: “in The Silmarillion [the Creator] then uses the angels as instruments in creating the material world. This idea, which is not part of the mainline Christian tradition, is not heretical. It is a theologoumenon (a possible theological opinion) that is found in some of the Church Fathers.”[6]

[1] Flieger, “Naming the Unnameable: The Neoplatonic ‘One’ in Tolkien’s Silmarillion,” 132.

[2] Flieger, Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World, 55.

[3] To be sure, Flieger does identify the Valar as “sub-creators,” but the context would seem to suggest that by this she means not that they do not create, but that their act of creation simply takes place after or in response to Eru’s first having created them. Flieger stresses this point later on in her book when she implies that, after giving the Ainur their initial theme in the second stage of the creation-drama, Eru had virtually no other contribution to make: “We must remember the differing relationships that Eru and the Valar have with the world. Having provided the theme, Eru knows and understands the Music; yet he takes no further action, leaving the fulfillment and orchestration of the theme to the Valar.” Ibid., 77. However, even within the context of the Ainur’s Music alone it is not true that Eru “takes no further action,” for as the Ainulindalë makes clear, Eru continually interjects new themes into the Music, contributions, moreover, that correspond to Eru’s later direct intervention within the history of the world itself (S 16).

[4] John Cox, “Tolkien’s Platonic Fantasy,” 57. A few pages later Cox reiterates the point, referring to the Valar’s act of sub-creation as the “fictional means by which [Tolkien’s] cosmos comes into being” (ibid., 59, emphasis added) and again writes of Melkor in particular that he “was created with sufficient power to create a universe in his own turn…” (ibid., 62, emphasis added). (For a reading of Genesis, however, according to which God does in fact delegate the power of “creation” to his creatures, see Watson, “Language, God and Creation,” 142.)

[5] Wood, “Tolkien’s Orthodoxy: A Response to Berit Kjos.” Elsewhere Wood further writes that “Ilúvatar employs his valar as ancillaries in the act of creation.” Wood, The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-earth, 12. Nevertheless, Wood does draw the following parallels with traditional theologians such as Aquinas: “Even in his pre-Christian world, Tolkien suggests that Ilúvatar is no autonomous monarch. Tolkien even hints at a trinitarian understanding of God in having Ilúvatar act communally rather than solitarily. Here again Tolkien is in accord with the central Christian tradition. Two of the church’s greatest theologians, Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth, regarded angels as the invisible mediators of divine action in the world. Tolkien agrees. That he specifies the particular powers of all fifteen maiar is his way of helping us reverence God’s constant angelic sustenance of all the good gifts of creation – fresh water, clean air, hot baths, nourishing food, broad daylight, the night sky, plus all the wonders of human making.” Wood, “Tolkien’s Orthodoxy.”

[6] Kreeft, The Philosophy of Tolkien, 72-3. Another author to have imputed a doctrine of mediated creation to Tolkien is Elizabeth A. Whittingham, who writes how, “[i]n giving the Ainur power to create, Ilúvatar has not reduced his own creative force; he has simply extended it, including their efforts within his own.” Whittingham, “The Mythology of the ‘Ainulindalë’: Tolkien’s Creation of Hope,” 216. Later, however, Whittingham comes very near to attributing to Tolkien the Thomistic doctrine of the exclusively divine activity of creation when she says that, in speaking the word Eä!, “[i]n this moment, Ilúvatar has done what no Ainur—neither Manwë nor even Melkor—could have done. Ilúvatar takes the Great Music, which he has revealed through the Vision, and gives it form, brings it into being…” Ibid., 17.

1 thought on “Some interpretations of Tolkien on Angelic Creation

  1. Pingback: Peter Hastings’s critique of Tolkien on creation | The Flame Imperishable

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