Tolkien’s incarnate angels

An important part of the angelic sacrifice of power, as Tolkien conceives it, is the necessity laid upon the Valar by Eru that they assume physical bodies within the world they are to fashion and rule, making their power “contained and bounded in the World.” In a number of his letters Tolkien refers to the Valar and their servants (the “Maiar” and “Istari,” or “wizards”) as “incarnate” angels, spirits, or intelligences (L 202, 259-60, 284-5, and 411), raising the possibility that it is as a consequence of their embodied state, whereby they acquire a limited kinship or proportionality with physical reality, that the Valar are able to exercise their profound, physically transformative, sub-creative power in the world. In this manner Tolkien echoes something of St. Thomas’s conviction that angelic sub-creative action is limited or conditioned by their natural immateriality and incorporeality. Whereas Thomas, however, at best recognizes the theoretical possibility of artistic and incarnate angels, leaving the hypothesis largely unexamined and unexplained, Tolkien’s Valar may perhaps be appreciated as an extended exercise or experiment in probing, stretching, and generally filling in this lacunae left open by St. Thomas. Thus, it is tempting to see in Tolkien’s Valar—whose own sub-creative powers arguably reach their climax in Aulë’s fashioning Dwarf-bodies out of earth and stone and in the Valar’s forming (under Eru’s permission) new bodies for reincarnate Elves—a playful exaggeration of Thomas’s much more tentative speculation about angels who could have acted “as ministers in the formation of the body of the first man” and who in any event will assist “at the last resurrection” by gathering the dust of the earth.

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