Aulë, Babel, and Pentecost

The previous post drew a comparison between Aulë’s fashioning of the dwarves and the building of the Tower of Babel on the plain of Shinar, while noting the dissimilarity between the failure and futility of Aulë’s attempt at fashioning the Dwarves as free, independent, rational beings, and the comparative success (according to Yahweh) of the builders of the Tower of Babel in their purpose. Indeed, in some ways Aulë’s motivation is the mirror-opposite to that of the men in the plain of Shinar. It is commonplace to see the purpose behind the building of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, namely the desire not to be “scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth,” as an act of rebellion against Yahweh’s dominion mandate in Genesis 1 that man should “be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it” (1:28). In any event, Aulë’s purpose in fashioning the Dwarves seems broadly in keeping with Yahweh’s original dominion plan, as he explains his actions to Ilúvatar that “it seemed to me that there is great room in Arda for many things that might rejoice in it, yet it is for the most part empty still, and dumb.” Aulë, like Yahweh, is concerned to see that the world be filled.

Aulë’s allusion here to speech and language, or rather to their relative absence, is surely also significant in this context. Immediately after fashioning the Dwarves, Aulë “began to instruct the Dwarves in the speech that he had devised for them.” Aulë, in a word, is an inventor of languages, a role we see him carrying out in the previous chapter’s account of Aulë’s as-yet future (relative to his making of the Dwarves) relationship with the Noldorin Elves: “Aulë it is who is named the Friend of the Noldor, for of him they learned much in after days… [T]hey added much to his teaching, delighting in tongues and in scripts…” In his fondness for inventing languages, culminating in his attempt to fashion an entire species capable of speaking those languages, Aulë represents one of if not Tolkien’s most auto-biographical characters,[1] and hence a fascinating self-reflection and cautionary tale to himself on the potential excesses of such an obsession. What is presented as a positive source of great beauty and delight in its own right in The Silmarillion, however, namely the proliferation of speech and language, in Genesis is presented not so much as something good in of itself, as it is judgment or curse on man’s hubris and an impediment to further impious cooperation. As Yahweh declares, “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth” (11:7-9). As is well known, however, Tolkien’s own interpretation of this event was to see it as a felix peccatum (or “fortunate fall”), a veritable eucatastrophe, linguistically speaking, a point that would again commend the story of Aulë and the Dwarves as a sort of commentary on Tolkien’s part on the story of the Tower of Babel. It is perhaps some corroboration of Tolkien’s perspective that when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the Christians at Pentecost in the Book of Acts, an event that, again, commentators have seen as hearkening back to and reversing the Babel incident, the result is not an undoing of the multiplicity and disparity of languages, but the gift of understanding and speaking them. Connected with this is Tolkien’s use of the iconic imagery of Pentecost in the closing lines of his poem “Mythopoeia” to capture his vision of the eschatological role that human sub-creators will play in the consumation of all things:

Be sure they still will make, not being dead,

and poets shall have flames upon their head,

and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:

there each shall choose for ever from the All.


[1] Verlyn Flieger may, if memory serves, make this point in her Splintered Light: Language and Logos in Tolkien’s World. 

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