“Sub-creation”: the elevation or the degradation of human making?

For Tolkien, art and human making is fundamentally an act of “sub-creation,” and for Aquinas, human art does not so much create new forms as it at most “con-creates” them in and through God’s prior and exclusive act of creation, an act which the operation of art is said to “presuppose.” To the minds of those of a more humanist bent, this subordination of the human act of making to God’s own making seems to denigrate and marginalize the metaphysical significance of man’s works of artistry. For those Aquinas scholars who have reflected on the implications of his remarks for the enterprise of human making, his teaching on the matter has been seen to have quite the opposite tendency. For Armand Maurer, for example, the consequence of St. Thomas’s teaching on the con-creative dependence of art on God’s own act of creation is not the deprivation but the investment of the former with a great deal of ontological seriousness and dignity:

Having supplied mankind with intelligence, God left nature in his keeping, to guard it, cultivate it, make it fruitful and fill it with his offspring. The art of man was meant to serve nature, to make up what was lacking in it, and to continue its creative activity. Man, by his art, was intended to be a co-creator with God, continuing nature’s creative activity in the world.[1]

Peter Candler, moreover, in his article situating Tolkien at the “intersection of Aquinas and Nietzsche,” likewise suggests that in dealing with St. Thomas “one can speak of the human agent as ‘concreating’ with God in any human making. Any act of human poiesis, then, is a participation [in] the creative agency of God—an act which is nevertheless ‘creation’ by analogy…”[2] And Jacques Maritain, without using the language of con-creation directly, nevertheless evokes the image when he describes the artist as “an associate of God in the making of beautiful works… he create[s], so to speak, at a second remove… Artistic creation does not copy God’s creation, it continues it.”[3] Finally, Robert Miner has made the case that Thomas’s account of human making as participating in the divine making is precisely what preserves for art the ontological depth and significance of which it has been stripped in more modern, secularized accounts:

Because Aquinas does not imagine human making to occur within a desacralized, sheerly human territory, but understands it rather as a mode of participation in the divine, it may be said that human construction acquires a significance that is difficult for modern secular perspectives to appreciate. It becomes a privileged site where God speaks through the creature, the agent of divine providence.[4]

For both Tolkien and St. Thomas, then, our acts of sub-creation, far from being a matter of metaphysical irrelevance or indifference, exist precisely because they have received the Creator’s own immediate, validating blessing or “guarantee” of creation. They have, as it were, been paid the highest compliment, namely the dignity of gaining a purchase on or place within the Creator’s own creative activity. In our acts of sub-creation God has chosen to create through us, as it were, not in the sense that we are made the intermediate agents or instruments of his creation, but in the sense of our sub-creative activity becoming the locus at which God carries on or continues his own work of creation.

[1] Maurer, About Beauty: A Thomistic Interpretation, 84. Cf. also Delfino, “The Beauty of Wisdom: A Tribute to Armand Maurer,” 41.

[2] Candler, “Tolkien or Nietzsche, Philology and Nihilism,” 10.

[3] Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 60-1.

[4] Miner, Truth in the Making, 18.

Primary matter: “created” or “con-created”?

The foregoing post on the subject notwithstanding, it is not entirely clear to me that Aquinas is entirely consistent or systematic in his use of the terms creation and concreation. In ST 1.7.2 ad 3, for example, Thomas makes the same claim on behalf of primary matter as he does in ST 1.45.8 with regard to form, namely that because it “does not exist by itself in nature, since it is not being in act, but in potency only,” therefore “it is something concreated rather than created.” Yet in ST 1.44.2 Thomas argues, and without any comparable qualification, that “thus it is necessary to say that also primary matter,” which never exists apart from some form, “is created by the universal cause of being” (“Et sic oportet ponere etiam materiam primam creatam ab universali causa entium”). On Thomas’s own admission, however, prime matter (i.e., matter considered in abstraction from its form) cannot be created, but only concreated.

(For Dante’s own application of Thomas’s notion of con-creation, incidentally, see Paradiso 29.22-30, where Beatrice instructs the pilgrim poet how, when the world was first made, the three elements of form, matter, and their union were together “concreate.”)

Rupert of Deutz: a monk’s critique of scholasticism

R. W. Southern. “Rupert of Deutz: A Voice of the Past.” Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe, Vol. II: The Heroic Age

From its very inception the scholastic project had its antagonists, and one of the first and most vocal was the Belgian monk Rupert of Deutz (born ca. 1075). According to Southern, Rupert represented those concerned “men who had been brought up to believe that the pursuit of truth was essentially a religious enterprise, and that the monastic life provided the most suitable environment for those who aimed at understanding the mysteries of God and the universe. They thought that the mysterious operations of God were not suitable for analytical treatment, and that the secular atmosphere of the new schools … was totally inappropriate for the sacred area of the ways of God, which required long exercise of prayer and discipline in the religious–and that meant the monastic–life.” Rupert saw the cathedral school of Laon in particular (for Southern the effective birthplace of the scholastic movement) as a “threat to the ancient modes of learning and spirituality,” and attacked it and its master Anselm accordingly.

Rupert himself was no meager writer, his work on the Trinity having aimed at “nothing less than to described the works of the three Persons of the Trinity from the Creation to the end of the world,” and which Southern estimates to have probably been the “longest single work of the twelfth century.” The sheer volubility of the work Southern finds representative of the monastic milieu that produced it: “it was certainly not a work for itinerant students who needed to have materials which they could carry back to their own countries,” as would be necessitated by the nascent scholastic culture; rather, “it was a work for men who were irremovably settled in their monastic communities.”

Indeed, in Southern’s account Rupert becomes almost a parody of monastic literary practice: “if the old biblical commentaries were very long, his were gigantic.” And in opposition to the newfangled dialetical argumentation and distinctions of his scholastic counterparts, Rupert re-asserted, almost in exaggerated form, the traditional symbolic interpretation of not only biblical texts, but of the world in general, of the monastic liturgical routines, and even of the events of his own life in particular. Southern gives as nice a statement as any of the monastic evaluation of the significance and even superiority of its peculiar form of life: “in the monastic day, these symbolic activities brought an intense experience of the supreme world-embracing reality in which the monastic community lived. Every item in the daily routine of the monastery was a declaration of the presence of God and of the whole company of heaven: it was theology in action. To take part in these actions and rituals, and to handle the symbolic objects, was to live through the historical process of redemption; it was to in time, and yet to transcend time in a perpetual re-enactment of the greatest even between Creation and the End of the world: the redemption of mankind…. For Rupert… theology was not an intellectual study; it was a succession of daily experiences which brought every monk into physical contact with the eternal truths of Christianity.”

The rhetorical and hermeneutical implications of such a life lived in the presence of God was that Rupert, for example, felt “he could never find enough words to express all the richness and variety of the truths contained in the symbols of his daily life. To him logical ambiguities were an almost necessary part of our understanding the essential truths conveyed by symbols deeper than any words can fully express.” But where ambiguity might be tolerable in the safe confines of the monastery, the scholars of the schools “who had to deal with the doubts of the world and with the persistent questions of puzzled people, saw ambiguities as breeding grounds of error.” The irony was that it was precisely the imprecision and, as a consequence and in some instances, even borderline heterodoxy of the interpretative, allegorical excesses of a Rupert that partly drove the scholastic penchant for accuracy in analysis. “To men with a more modern outlook this kind of theology needed to be supplemented–some might say replaced–by a more rigorous intellectual system…. it was precisely such blemishes as the see that rigorous theological enquiry was designed to uncover and correct.”

Southern illustrates this general confrontation between monastic and scholastic ideals by means of Rupert’s critique of Master Anselm’s teaching concerning the divine will. In a formula that would become incontrovertible among the schoolmen, Anselm distinguished between the sense in which God is said to will the good (approbens) and the sense in which he is said to will evil (permittens). To Anselm, such distinctions were necessary to understand Scripture; to Rupert, they represented an intrusion of human logic into the divine mystery of the undivided will of God.

The resistance of traditionalist and conservatives like Rupert, of course, utterly failed to stem the rising tide of the scholastic movement, which would prove to be, in Southern’s estimation, “the greatest organizing force that western Europe had experienced since the death of Gregory the Great.” At the same time, Southern hints that the source of scholasticism’s strength would also be the source of its own dissolution: “the process of development led to over-elaboration and then to progressive abandonment after the mid fourteenth century,” a theme he promises to develop in his third volume of Scholastic Humanism, alas, never to be finished.

The birth of medieval scholasticism

In his second of what was originally projected to be a three-volume series on “Scholastic Humanism,” R.W. Southern characterizes the period from about 1080 to 1160 as the “heroic age” of medieval scholasticism, the “period of essential innovation … when the main principles of … scholastic humanism were formulated.” Although he characterizes scholasticism in typical fashion in terms of its “method of absorbing, elaborating, Christianizing and systematizing the whole intellectual deposit of the Greco-Roman past to produce a complete body of doctrine about both the natural and supernatural worlds,” and as an effort “to embrace all knowledge and every kind of activity in a single world-view,” of particular interest to Southern is the influence scholasticism exerted on the governance and structure of medieval society.

In Southern’s narrative, scholasticism’s proximate origins are properly to be traced to the school of (the other) Anselm, of Laon, in the final decades of the eleventh century, before shifting its center to the schools of Paris at the beginning of the twelfth century. While the more familiar names of Albert, Bonaventure, Aquinas, Scotus, and Ockham belong to those who “gave the scholastic enterprise its fullest expression,” they were the masters of the two generations prior to 1160 that first set the project on its course. Of particular importance to Southern’s telling of the story is the unprecedented and, for the trajectory of subsequent European history, pregnant and promising union that was forged between the schools and the governing institutions (namely church and state) of medieval society, the effects of which we are still experiencing today: “the period of scholastic history from about 1090 to 1200 changed the whole future of Europe, partly by the work of the masters in the schools and even more by bringing into existence a new class of scholastically educated men who inserted themselves in the middle ranges of government.” By contrast, Southern avers, the “intellectual refinements” after this formative period, while perhaps significant in their own right, had “only marginal and often conspicuously deleterious effects on the conduct of government.”

Aquinas on art as “con-creation”

The eighth and final article of question 45 of Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, on the nature of creation as the “emanation of all being from the universal cause,” inquires into the relationship between creating and making, and asks “whether creation is mingled with works of nature and art” (utum creatio admiscetur in operibus naturae et artis). One of the concerns Thomas gives expression to in his set of objections is that if creation is defined as the bringing into being something from nothing, then art and nature—inasmuch as they produce new forms in things, forms which, taken by themselves, are not made from any previously existing material—would seem to involve a kind of “creation.” In his response Thomas draws upon a number of the arguments he made earlier in the course of question 45. Forms, not being subsisting, existing things in themselves (contra Plato), cannot therefore be the proper objects of creation (ST 1.45.4). Instead, the proper objects of creation are individual substances which are composed of both form and matter (excepting angels, of course, which according to Thomas have no matter). Citing Aristotle’s argument from book seven of the Metaphysics that forms, not being subsistent, do not so much exist (in the proper sense of the term) as co-exist in the substances they inform, Thomas argues in an analogous fashion that neither should it be said that forms are created, but are rather “con-created” (Sicut igitur accidentia et formae, et huiusmodi, quae non subsistent, magis sunt coexistentia quam entia; ita magis debent dici concreata quam creata). The forms produced by art and nature, therefore, are not a creation, but a con-creation, a designation that points to the radical contingency and dependence of art and nature upon the divine act of creation, inasmuch as their forms cannot exist by themselves but only in substances, the absolute being of which is directly caused by the Creator alone. The conclusion of the matter in ST 1.45.8 is that creation is therefore not “mingled with” art and nature but is rather “presupposed” by them.

The Provincialism of Relativism

“Where in fact do we find, outside certain circles of present-day Western society, any value position which does not rest on theoretical premises of one kind or another–premises which claim to be simply, absolutely, universally true, and which as such are legitimately exposed to rational criticism? I fear that the field within which relativists can practice sympathetic understanding is restricted to the community of relativists who understand each other with great sympathy because they are united by identically the same fundamental commitment, or rather by identically the same rational insight into the truth of relativism. What claims to be the final triumph over provincialism reveals itself as the most amazing manifestation of provincialism.” — Leo Struass, “Social Science and Humanism”

The self-contradiction of relativism

“[Relativism’s] so-called sympathetic understanding necessarily and legitimately ends when rational criticism reveals the untruth of the position which we are attempting to understand sympathetically; and the possibility of such rational criticism is necessarily admitted by relativism, since it claims to reject absolutism on rational grounds.” –Leo Strauss, “Social Science and Humanism”

The truth of myth

Another point of contrast between Plato and Tolkien concerns the conflicting evaluations of the truth-capacity of myth implied in their respective metaphysics.  Gergely Nagy has observed that “Plato, like Tolkien, draws heavily on traditional myths, also including his own ‘myths’ (nowhere else attested and probably written by him) in his dialogues,” and says that this parallels Tolkien’s “mythopoeic enterprise” in its ultimate aim of “show[ing] ‘truth,’ in Plato always expressed in mythic scenes and language…” (“Plato,” in Drout, ed.,J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, 513). Similarly, Frank Weinreich emphasizes Tolkien’s debt to Plato for his “metaphysics of myth” when he writes how the “quintessence of Tolkien’s ontology” behind his theory of myth is “at the core a Platonic one” (“Metaphysics of Myth: The Platonic Ontololgy of ‘Mythopoeia’,” 325). For Plato, however, the philosopher uses myths not out of choice, but of necessity. As the principle is stated in the Timaeus, “the accounts we give of things have the same character as the subjects they set forth” (29b), meaning that just as the world (on account of the ananke or constraint of its pre-existing matter) only ever achieves a tragically partial and thus never fully-realized participation in the divine, so the “likely story” (eikos mythos) that Timaeus has to tell about the origins of the cosmos achieves at best a tragic likeness to the ideal logos or rational account that the philosopher would prefer.

In Tolkien’s creation-myth, by contrast, and following the Christian doctrine of creation, while the world’s participation in the divine is limited by its finitude, because creation is nevertheless from nothing, the world—including its matter—has its entire existence through a participation in and likeness of the divine without remainder. For Tolkien, in short, the world in its entirety is a story about the divine, a metaphysical reality that at least in principle allows the stories or myths we tell about the world a much greater participation in the truth that remains to be told about that world. As Tolkien puts it in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” myth is no mere “disease of language” (TR 48), but given the inherent and irreducibly storied structure of reality itself, is a uniquely privileged way of communicating the truth of that reality. Indeed, for Tolkien it is through such myth-telling that reality for the first time comes into its own, accomplishing by God’s own ordination the “effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation” (TR 89).

Two Atlantis myths, two morality tales

Yet another dimension to Tolkien’s and Plato’s differing views on the relation between divine providence and Necessity. Although a number of Timaeus scholars have failed to see any intrinsic connection between Critias’s introductory speech about ancient Athens’s epic victory over Atlantis at the beginning of the dialogue, and the creation-myth Timaeus tells in the remainder of the dialogue (see, for example, Welliver,Character, Plot, and Thought in Plato’s “Timaeus-Critias,” 2-3; Taylor, Plato, 440; and Cornford, Plato’s Cosmology, 20), the two stories in an important respect are concerned with the same fundamental problem, namely the ineradicable limits the gods face in realizing their benevolent purposes in the physical realm of becoming. Thus, although in the defeat of the despotic power of Atlantis by the ideal, virtuous city of Athens we have an historic example of divine Nous triumphing over the chaos of Necessity, we see the limits of divine power in the fact that not even the patronage of Athena is able to save Athens from being destroyed by the same natural disasters that engulf Atlantis.

In Tolkien’s retelling of the story at the end of the Silmarillion, however, Atlantis is destroyed for a much different purpose, one in keeping with his metaphysical differences with Plato outlined earlier. In Tolkien’s tale, Atlantis is Númenor (Atalantë in the Elvish tongue of Quenya, from which the Greek name Atlantis is supposed to have derived), an island-kingdom inhabited by a noble but proud race of men who are eventually seduced by Sauron into outright Melkor-worship. When the Númenoreans in their rebellious quest for personal immortality break the ban laid upon them by the Valar and travel to the forbidden land of Valinor, Ilúvatar intervenes directly and destroys both their fleet and the island of Númenor with a flood.

Thus, whereas in the Timaeus Atlantis simultaneously symbolizes and is obliterated by an impersonal and indiscriminate Necessity that cannot be completely controlled by the gods because it is not created by them, Tolkien has Atlantis destroyed as an act of divine judgment by a personal, omnipotent God for its worship of Melkor, the one who first sought the power of creation for himself, and for its imitation of his presumption by seeking immortality on Man’s own terms.

Eucatastrophe and Ananke

Yet another difference between Tolkien and Plato I would point out concerns their respective concepts or uses of ananke (necessity or constraint). Similar to Plato’s Timaeus, Tolkien characterizes the operation of divine providence in his mythology in terms of a benevolent, “eucatastrophic” disruption of Necessity’s otherwise tragic course of “material cause and effect.” Unlike the Timaeus, however—according to which this material, causal determinism comprises an external limit on divine power, originating in an independently existing reality that is co-eternal with the demiurge—for Tolkien the “chain of death” which binds creation is not only a chain that the Creator shatters, but more paradoxically still, is a chain that he himself has forged. As I have argued previously, the seemingly impersonal inevitability of causal and historical necessity in Tolkien’s fiction is an artifice, a kind of divine subterfuge, used by an eminently personal God in order to escalate dramatically the impression of divine absence, only so that he might then destroy that impression through an even more radical disclosure of his unwavering, abiding, saving presence.[1] Thus, while it is true that, on the one hand, Tolkien ties his concept of eucatastrophe dialectically to Plato’s metaphysically tragic concept of ananke, on the other hand he makes it clear, as he puts it in his letter to Christopher, that this impression of the ananke behind the world is not so much real as it is “apparent,” that behind this apparent reality there is a greater reality still, namely the divine light which shines “through the very chinks of the universe about us.” In this way Tolkien may be seen as attempting to “save the appearances” of Plato’s concept of ananke, all the while sublating it within his otherwise Christian metaphysics of creation (much as St. Thomas, for example, does when in his own discussion of divine providence he does not so much disallow the existence of chance as he affirms it at its own proper level while subordinating it at a higher level to the divine governance[2]).

[1] As Stratford Caldecott aptly describes the basic conflict in Tolkien’s fiction, it is “a triumph of Providence over Fate.” Caldecott, “Over the Chasm of Fire,” 32.

[2] ST 1, 103, 5, ad 1. Thomas goes so far as to suggest that chance depends for its very possibility or efficacy on its subjection to divine government: “For unless corruptible things of this kind were governed by a higher being, they would tend to nothing definite, especially those which possess no kind of knowledge. So nothing in them would happen unintentionally, which constitutes the nature of chance.” In the closely related article of ST 1, 103, 7, “Whether anything can happen outside the order of the divine government?”, Thomas again writes: “Things are said to be fortuitous as regards some particular cause from the order of which they escape. But as to the order of Divine providence, ‘nothing in the world happens by chance,’ as Augustine declares.”

The beauty of matter

In the Ainulindalë, the inherent order and beauty enjoyed by matter from its first creation makes for an altogether different motivation for Tolkien’s demiurges from what we see in Plato’s Timaeus. In the first place, the existence of the matter out of which the world is made, far from representing an externally imposed and metaphysically tragic constraint (as per the Timaeus), is instead graciously brought into being by Ilúvatar in response to the Ainur’s desire that the world they had seen in the Vision should be given its own, mind-independent existence. In fact, as Tolkien indicates in one letters, it is on account of their “love” for the physical world, not despite but precisely because of its materiality, that some of the Ainur choose, as a condition of their demiurgic power laid upon them by Ilúvatar, to become physically “incarnate” within the world (L 286). Later in the same letter Tolkien refers in particular to Aulë’s “great love of the materials of which the world is made” (L 287). In this Tolkien seems to have intended his Valar to embody yet another principle of his theory of fairy-stories. As he writes in his essay, “Fantasy is made out of the Primary World, but a good craftsman loves his material, and has a knowledge and feeling for clay, stone and wood which only the art of making can give. By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and Moon root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory…. It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine” (TR 78, emphasis added).

As for the character of the matter itself, whereas in the Timaeus it is indifferent at best and outright resistant at worst to the ordering activity of the divine mind, Tolkien’s tale, by contrast, stresses the beauty and order of matter from its very inception. As in the Timaeus, an at least rudimentary division of matter into the four basic elements appears to precede the sub-creative work of the Valar, but instead of seeing a chaos of conflicting elements calling for demiurgic intervention and harmonization, the Valar’s sub-creative work is inspired by an altogether different first impression:

But the other Ainur looked upon this habitation set within the vast spaces of the World, which the Elves call Arda, the Earth; and their hearts rejoiced in light, and their eyes beholding many colours were filled with gladness; but because of the roaring of the sea they felt a great unquiet. And they observed the winds and the air, and the matters of which Arda was made, of iron and stone and silver and gold and many substances: but of all these water they most greatly praised. And it is said by the Eldar that in water there lives yet the echo of the Music of the Ainur more than in any substance else that is in the Earth… (S 19)

When the Ainur first see the world in the Vision, accordingly, many of its basic elements appear already to be in place prior to their demiurgic labor. The three chief Valar—Ulmo, Manwë, and Aulë—come to be particularly linked with the three elements of water, air, and earth, respectively, not because they were responsible for bringing them into being, but because they were the ones who took a special interest in them:

Now to water had that Ainu whom the Elves call Ulmo turned his thought, and of all most deeply was he instructed by Ilúvatar in music. But of the airs and winds Manwë most had pondered, who is the noblest of the Ainur. Of the fabric of Earth had Aulë thought, to whom Ilúvatar had given skill and knowledge scarce less than to Melkor; but the delight and pride of Aulë is in the deed of making, and in the thing made and, either in possession nor in his own mastery; wherefore he gives and hoards not, and is free from care, passing ever on to some new work. (S 19)

So the world is not entirely formless and devoid of beauty when the Valar first enter it, but is from its beginning already marked by its own intrinsic being and corresponding beauty, a beauty which serves not as an obstacle or impediment (ananke), but a positive incentive or inducement to the Valar’s demiurgic labors. Tolkien thus embodies in his myth a much more Christian metaphysical attitude toward material reality as good and therefore desirable because created.

Plato’s primeval matter

I’ve noted a number of parallels between Tolkien’s and Plato’s respective creation-myths, and many more might doubtlessly be enumerated. At the same time, Tolkien’s creation-myth makes a number of significant departures from Plato’s, to the point that the Ainulindalë might be said to define itself over against Plato as much it borrows from him. Implied in Tolkien’s association of his Valar with Plato’s demiurge, after all, is the claim that the closest approximation to Plato’s world-craftsman in Christian theology is not the God of orthodox belief, but the created, finite angels with whom Tolkien also identifies the Valar. And while both Plato’s demiurge and Tolkien’s Valar fashion the world out of pre-existing matter, both the nature of this matter and, as a consequence, the motivation behind the world-making of their respective demiurges, differ in significant ways. In the Timaeus, because matter is entirely uncreated and hence eternal, it has no intrinsic, intelligible relation to either the divine mind or eternal model from which the order and beauty of the cosmos originates. On the contrary, the original state of the uncreated matter is one of disorder (Timaeus refers to it as the “straying cause”), and it is this external condition of primordial chaos that prompts–even necessitates–the demiurge’s benevolent program of communicating to the material world something of his own goodness and order, while at the same time ensuring that this process of beautification remains always partial and incomplete. As I’ve noted before and will explore more fully in a follow-up post, in the Aindulindalë Tolkien has a very different story to tell about primeval matter.

From Creation to Atlantis

Another, more literary parallel between the Timaeus and the Ainulindalë: Like Plato’s Timaeus, which was to be followed by the Critias’s much fuller account (left unfinished at Plato’s death) of ancient Athens’s defeat of imperial Atlantis and the subsequent destruction of both nations through earthquake and flood—theAinulindalë forms with the rest of The Silmarillion an equally ambitious, all-encompassing mythology (also incomplete at Tolkien’s death) beginning with the creation of the world and climaxing in Tolkien’s own retelling of the fate of ancient Atlantis in the tragic history of Númenor.

Tolkien’s use of interlace, sorta

*** West, Richard C. “The Interlace Structure of The Lord of the Rings.” In A Tolkien Compass, ed. Jared Lobdell. Open Court, 2003. An early study of Tolkien’s now well-known use of the “interlace” technique. In West’s lengthy definition,

Interlace … seeks to mirror the perception of the flux of events in the world around us, where everything is happening at once. Its narrative line is digressive and cluttered, dividing our attention among an indefinite number of events, characters, and themes, any one of which may dominate at any given time, and it is often indifferent to cause and effect relationships. The paths of the characters cross, diverge, and recross, and the story passes from one to another and then another but does not follow a single line. Also, the narrator implies that there are innumerable events that he has not had time to tell us about; moreover, no attempt is made to provide a clear-cut beginning or end to the story. We feel that we have interrupted the chaotic activity of the world at a certain point and followed a selection from it for a time, and that after we leave, it continues on it its own random path.

West identifies Tolkien’s use of the interlace structure as a characteristically medieval literary technique, although he suggests that Tolkien’s use of it may have been due less to direct influence than to the inherent exigencies of his fiction: “He may simply have reinvented the interlace to accommodate the story he had to tell: the nature of his material requires just such a form.” (I especially appreciated West’s rehearsal of Tolkien’s own remark that, although “medieval studies fertilized his imagination,… his typical response upon reading a medieval work was to desire not so much to make a philological or critical study of it as to write a modern work in the same tradition.” Would that more scholarship were conducted so!) Perhaps the clearest example of interlace cited by West is Frodo’s dream in the house of Bombadil of Gandalf’s rescue by Gwaihir from Saruman’s imprisonment of him on the top of Tower of Isengard.

West’s definition of interlace is perhaps over-broad, as he comes to include under its rubric virtually any technique used by Tolkien to lend unity and coherence to his narrative. Thus, the complex causal chain leading up to crucial events in the LOTR, the numerous prophecies fulfilled in the course of the story, the mythological background and “untold stories” giving Tolkien’s world its depth, the use of thematic interweave, repetition, foreshadowing, typology, and what West calls narrative “open-endedness”; all of these are hailed as so many instances and varieties of the interlace technique. As a study of the interlace structure in the LOTR, consequently, West’s treatment is somewhat blunted or distracted, but otherwise his analysis of the work is quite accurate and insightful. As Tom Shippey puts it in his foreword to the 2003 reprint of this collection, in terms of the presence of interlace in the LOTR, subsequent scholarship has proven West to be more right than he knows, noting in particular “Tolkien’s deliberate cross-referencing from one area of plot to another, indicated by careful remarks about dates, times, and the phases of the moon, but West’s work is a good place to start.”

Divine hierarchy

To Aquinas’s mind, distinction and hierarchy within creation is a necessary consequence of the Creator-creature distinction, of the distinction and hierarchy, that is, obtaining without creation. He writes:

a thing approaches to God’s likeness the more perfectly as it resembles Him in more things. Now, goodness is in God, and the outpouring of goodness into other things. Hence the creature approaches more perfectly to God’s likeness if it is not only good, but can also act for the good of other things, than if it were good only in itself; that which both shines and casts light is more like the sun than that which only shines. But no creature could act for the benefit of another creature unless plurality and inequality existed in created things. For the agent is distinct from the patient and superior to it. In order that there might be in created things a perfect representation of God, the existence of diverse grades among them was therefore necessary. (SCG 2.45.4)

The good of creation, in other words, is to reflect the divine likeness; God’s own likeness, however, is revealed in his “outpouring of goodness” into those things other than and below himself. This means that the created order, if it is at all to emulate adequately God’s goodness towards creation, must itself consist in a hierarchy of diverse and unequal beings. Only in this way can the divine drama of a higher reality ministering to and bringing to perfection a lower order of being be carried out on a finite scale.

And if so, then a denial of the consequent (hierarchy within creation) for Aquinas would therefore seem to entail a denial of the antecedent–the hierarchy between Creator and creature. An egalitarian ontology of creatures is veritable atheism.

“The Foreknowledge of Death”

Consuming Sons: The Nihilism of Fëanor and Denethor, part 5

The previous post ended on the seemingly inevitable doom and futility involved in the oath of Fëanor and his sons. So long as there is the possibility, however, that the quest to which Fëanor and his sons swear themselves may yet be achieved, it may seem uncertain that Fëanor has purposely or knowingly committed himself and his sons to their own utter destruction. All doubt, however, is removed when Fëanor, in his final moments,

beheld far off the peaks of Thangorodrim, mightiest of the towers of Middle-earth, and knew with the foreknowledge of death that no power of the Noldor would ever overthrow them; but he cursed the name of Morgoth thrice, and laid it upon his sons to hold to their oath, and to avenge their father. Then he died…

On his death bed Fëanor now knows that his war on Morgoth is vain. Instead of having them repent of their oath (itself one of the consuming consequences of their oath?), however, Fëanor demands that his sons continue to carry out their hopeless task anyway. In doing so, Fëanor is virtually guaranteeing their destruction, yet for the madness of Fëanor, his own sons’ lives is none too high a price to pay that they might “avenge their father.”

The Oath of Fëanor

Consuming Sons: The Nihilism of Fëanor and Denethor, part 4

To return to the theme of this series, a less obvious and even counter-intuitive, but for all that, perhaps the most tragic example of Fëanor’s many consumptive relationships, is the one between himself and his seven sons. Fëanor doubtlessly loves his sons, but as with the Silmarils, by the end we see this love corrupting into something that has less to do with his sons than it does with himself and his own selfish desires. The clearest illustration of this is the dreadful oath sworn by Fëanor, an oath which “none shall break, and none should take,” and yet which he allows his sons to make with him. Their penalty of the oath is that they should be cursed with “the Everlasting Dark” should they fail to “pursue with vengeance and hatred to the ends of the World” anyone who should withhold a Silmaril from their possession. In encouraging his sons to bind themselves, upon pain of eternal damnation, to the pursuit of his Silmarils, and the punishment of any who might resist them, Fëanor of course is putting his sons at the very great risk (if not the certainty) of forever losing their own souls—a devouring fire indeed. That they further name in witness to their oath not only Manwë (interesting in light of Fëanor’s previous curse upon Manwë’s summons), Varda, and their mountain home of Taniquetil (the Valar’s “Olympus”), but even Ilúvatar himself, is also noteworthy in this context. In calling upon the Absolute and Unconditioned One to bind themselves to an otherwise rebellious and essentially self-serving oath, we see what is in some ways the perverse extreme of Fëanor’s pragmatism. In the classical theological terms of St. Augustine, God, the one who is the ultimate end of all things and therefore the only proper object of true “enjoyment” (frui), Fëanor and his sons are effectively exploiting as a mere means for their “use” (uti). A consuming “spirit of fire” Fëanor may be, but when the fire one “plays” with is none other than the Flame Imperishableit will not be Ilúvatar, but Fëanor who will find himself burned.

Fëanor, “Spirit of Fire”

Consuming Sons: The Nihilism of Fëanor and Denethor, part 3

More obvious examples of Fëanor’s devouring spirit, of course, are to be found in his demagogic manipulation and exploitation of his fellow Noldorin Elves, persuading them to return to Middle-earth and take up the war against Melkor, a war which is really on his own behalf and for his own benefit; his Melkorish theft of the Teleri’s ships and his instigation of the kin-slaying when the Teleri attempt to withstand him; his abandoning his half-brother Fingolfin and the greater part of the Noldorin people on the northern shores of Aman when he deems them no longer useful to himself, and leaving them to cross over to Middle-earth via the treacherous “grinding ice” of the Helcaraxë; his wanton and wasteful destruction of the Teleri’s beautiful ships upon his own debarkation on the shores of Middle-earth (in this Tolkien may be seen, through his arguably most Dionysian character, to expose Nietzsche’s übermensch as no protection against, but as precariously vulnerable to, the very petty spirit of ressentiment and nihilism that Nietzsche so feared); and finally, the manner in which Fëanor’s spirit destroys his own flesh upon his death after being mortally wounded by Balrogs in his charge upon Angband: “Then he died; but he had neither burial nor tomb, for so fiery was his spirit that as it sped his body fell to ash, and was borne away like smoke…” As Fëanor lived, so he died, consuming even his own self.

Hoarded Silmarils

Consuming Sons: The Nihilism of Fëanor and Denethor, part 2

The statement that Fëanor loved his father even more than the “peerless works of his hands”—an oblique and hence, again, possibly ironic reference to the Silmarils—leads us to the next great exploitative relationship of Fëanor. Although not exactly “consumed” by Fëanor, the Silmarils are nonetheless by him “locked in the deep chambers of his hoard.” In this we have echoed the almost identical expression Tolkien uses in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” to describe the effect familiarity and possessiveness have in stifling the otherwise marvelousness and wondrousness of the things of our everyday experience. As Tolkien describes them, things have been made to suffer the “drab blur of triteness” that is “really the penalty of ‘appropriation.’” They are “things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them” (emphasis added). Through Fëanor’s possessive love and admiration for “these things that he himself had made,” accordingly, Tolkien’s purpose in part seems to be to symbolize the kind of greedy, “consuming” mentality that must eventually suffocate or suppress the very beauty and allure that the Silmarils represent and embody.

That Fëanor’s attitude towards the light of the Silmarils is, finally, (like Ungoliant’s) ultimately a devouring rather than ennobling and freeing one may be seen in his refusal, after the attack of Melkor and Ungoliant, to sacrifice the Silmarils so that the Trees of Valinor, the source of the Silmarils’ own light, might be healed and their light restored. For Fëanor, what is of value in the Silmarils is apparently not their light per se (otherwise he presumably would be more solicitous for the good of the Trees from which their light came), but the fact that the Silmarils are his. Thus, in his very possessiveness Fëanor himself has effectively denied them their fantastical “otherness” and independence from himself and so reduced the Silmarils to something less than what they truly are and meant to be.

Consuming Sons: The Nihilism of Fëanor and Denethor, part 1

Denethor and Fëanor are two of Tolkien’s more tragic characters. I’ve mentioned before Denethor’s Hegelian-like statement admiring Sauron for his use of “others as his weapons” in the manner of “all great lords.” That Denethor proudly numbers himself among such company is evident from his follow-up, rhetorical question to Pippin: “Or why should I sit here in my tower and think, and watch, and wait, spending even my sons?” Though it is the most explicit—albeit ironic—statement of the crassly utilitarian approach to one’s own progeny, Denethor is not the first instance in Tolkien’s legendarium of a father wasting his sons to accomplish his own desired (and futile) ends.  

Fëanor, to be sure, is better known for his use and abuse, not of his sons, but of those less directly connected with him, as by the end of his story he leaves worse off virtually everyone with whom he comes into contact. From his very beginning, his mother Míriel “was consumed in spirit and body” in delivering her son into the world, and eventually died from her weariness, but not before bequeathing to Fëanor his ominous name, meaning “Spirit of Fire.” And despite his remarriage and begetting two more sons by his second wife, we are told of Finwë that “All his love he gave thereafter to his son [Fëanor],” foreshadowing that it will not be only the mother who will be consumed by her son’s overweening spirit. In keeping with this premonition, when Fëanor is banished for a time by the Valar from the Noldorin city of Tirion for threatening his half-brother Fingolfin’s life at the point of sword, Finwë (showing a remarkable lack of sympathy for his younger son’s life) goes into voluntary exile with Fëanor. Even when Fëanor, after a period of twelve years, is temporarily summoned back to Tirion by Manwë for a festival, his father, for his part, refuses to attend, declaring that, “While the ban lasts upon Fëanor my son, that he may not go to Tirion, I hold myself unkinged, and I will not meet my people.” It is this Fëanor-fixation, moreover, that indirectly leads to Finwë’s death, for it is while Fëanor is away that he, protecting his sons Silmarils, is killed by Melkor. When he hears of his father’s fate, Fëanor blames and curses the summons of Manwë, an irrational and unfair response revealing perhaps a tinge of guilt and suppressed self-reproach on Fëanor’s part for the death of his father. To Fëanor’s credit, we are told that Finwë “was dearer to him than the Light of Valinor or the peerless works of his hands,” yet it is precisely the love of Fëanor that was Finwë’s doom, and we are perhaps invited to see a touch of tragic irony when the narrator rhetorically asks, “and who among sons, of Elves or of Men, have held their fathers of greater worth?” Inordinate love inevitably proves to be a devouring love.