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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s