Tolkien’s response to Hastings: only God can create

Yesterday’s post looked at Tolkien’s correspondent Peter Hastings’s critique of Treebeard’s alleged claim that the Dark Lord had created the orcs. Here we’ll look at Tolkien’s response.

Far from being surprised by or dismissive of Hastings’s metaphysical concerns, Tolkien complacently responded that he had in fact “already considered all the points” raised by him, and pointed out that “[s]ince the whole matter from beginning to end is mainly concerned with the relation of Creation to making and sub-creation…, it must be clear that references to these things are not casual, but fundamental…” (L 188). As for the doctrine of creation presupposed in his mythology, Tolkien explains:

I think I agree about the “creation by evil.” But you are more free with the word “creation” than I am. Treebeard does not say that the Dark Lord “created” Trolls and Orcs. He says he “made” them in counterfeit of certain creatures pre-existing. There is, to me, a wide gulf between the two statements, so wide that Treebeard’s statement could (in my world) have possibly been true. It is not true actually of the Orcs—who are fundamentally a race of “rational incarnate” creatures, though horribly corrupted, if no more so than many Men to be met today. (L 190)

With Hastings, in other words, Tolkien agrees that evil is incapable of creating anything, but unlike Hastings his conviction stems from the much more basic, Thomistic conviction that no finite created being, whether evil or otherwise, can exercise the power of creation. As he informs Hastings, it is the latter who is too “free with the word ‘creation’.” At this point Tolkien adds in an explanatory footnote perhaps his most precise definition of creation: “Inside this mythical history (as its metaphysic is, not necessarily as a metaphysic of the real World) Creation, the act of Will of Eru the One that gives Reality to conceptions, is distinguished from Making, which is permissive” (L 190n). Creation, in short, is an act of the Creator alone, a point Tolkien reiterates in another letter similarly distinguishing the divine act of creation from the creaturely act of mere making: “they [the Valar] shared in [the World’s] ‘making’—but only on the same terms as we ‘make’ a work of art or story. The realization of it, the gift to it of a created reality of the same grade as their own, was the act of the One God” (L 235n). Again, Eru creates, the Valar make (or what is the same, sub-create), the same distinction that the early church Fathers made between God’s act of creation and the world-fashioning activity attributed to the gods of the pagan mythologies. What is more, Tolkien indicates in this passage that the demiurgic activity of the Valar is in fact something far closer ontologically to our own storytelling than it is to God’s act of creating. As Tolkien explains to Hastings, there is a “wide gulf” between the two actions of making and creating, “so wide that Treebeard’s statement could (in my world) have possibly been true” (L 190). In other words, while Tolkien holds it to have been metaphysically possible (even if in fact was not the case) that the Dark Lord had “made” the orcs, under no circumstances could it have been true that the Dark Lord had “created” the orcs, since creation involves the gift of being, existence, or “Reality” which the Creator alone can bestow. The power to create, Tolkien holds with Aquinas, is the exclusive prerogative of the Creator alone.

In tomorrow’s post I’ll look at how this conviction of Tolkien’s plays out in his own creation-myth, the Ainulindalë. 

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