Angelic bodies as “machines”

In Tolkien’s fictional world, despite the attachment of the angelic spirits to the physical world, their relationship to their bodies, and thus to the physical world as a whole, still remains a fundamentally dualistic one. Tolkien likens the relationship between the Valar and their bodies to that between human beings and their clothes, a metaphor Plato also used in his account of the human soul’s relationship to the body (see, for example, Phaedo 87b). For Tolkien, however, one interesting implication of the dualism of angelic incarnation is their apparent systemic temptation towards the domination of other beings. As Tolkien writes in one place:

But since in the view of this tale & mythology Power—when it dominates or seeks to dominate other wills and minds (except by the assent of their reason)—is evil, these “wizards” were incarnated in the life-forms of Middle-earth, and so suffered the pains both of mind and body. They were also, for the same reason, thus involved in the peril of the incarnate: the possibility of “fall,” of sin, if you will. The chief form this would take with them would be impatience, leading to the desire to force others to their own good ends, and so inevitably at last to mere desire to make their own wills effective by any means. To this evil Saruman succumbed. Gandalf did not. (Letters 237, emphasis added)

In another letter Tolkien writes of the wizards Saruman and Gandalf that, although angelic, spiritual beings in themselves, “being incarnate [they] were more likely to stray, or err,” and that it was because of his “far greater inner power” in comparison to his companions that Gandalf’s self-sacrifice on the Bridge of Kazad-dum was a true “humbling and abnegation” (Letters 202, emphasis added). A little later in the same letter Tolkien again writes of the “temptation” of Gandalf’s incarnate being:

But if it is ‘cheating’ to treat [Gandalf’s] ‘death’ as making no difference, embodiment must not be ignored. Gandalf may be enhanced in power (that is, under the forms of this fable, in sanctity), but if still embodied he must still suffer care and anxiety, and the needs of flesh. He has no more (if no less) certitudes, or freedoms, than say a living theologian. In any case none of my ‘angelic’ persons are represented as knowing the future completely, or indeed at all where other wills are concerned. Hence their constant temptation to do, or try to do, what is for them wrong (and disastrous): to force lesser wills by power: by awe if not by actual fear, or physical constraint. (Letters 203)

Similar to the physical matter which they do not and cannot control directly, other free rational beings are not—or at least ought not to be—subjected to the dominating will of the angelic spirit. Rather, the latter’s influence over others must involve the same kind of sub-creative patience that moves their subordinates to action, not by coercion but by persuasion, a responsibility they share with Thomas’s angels who are said not to be able to directly or violently move another creature’s will, but can nevertheless “incline the will to the love of the creature or of God, by way of persuasion” (ST 1.106.2). And of the Istari or Wizards Tolkien similarly writes that the mission they were “primarily sent for” was to “train, advise, instruct, arouse the hearts and minds of those threatened by Sauron to a resistance with their own strengths; and not just to do the job for them” (Letters 202).

Nevertheless, because their embodiment is not natural but voluntary and therefore provisional or conditional, requiring that they lay aside some of their own native powers, Tolkien seems to implicitly recognize that their relationship to their bodies will be, as a consequence, much more artificial, extrinsic and utilitarian or pragmatic than is the case for Men and Elves. In short, the angelic body is, for the angelic spirits, ultimately a kind of “machine,” a form of technology and therefore a mere tool to be used rather than part of their fundamental nature and identity. We perhaps see something of the artificial nature of angelic incarnation, incidentally, in the immediate degeneration of the “angel” Saruman’s body after he is “killed” at the end of The Return of the King. As Tom Shippey writes, “[t]he body that is left once the ‘mist’ and the ‘smoke’ have departed seems in fact to have died many years before, becoming only ‘rags of skin upon a hideous skull’” (Shippey, J.R.R.Tolkien: Author of the Century, 127). With the departure of Saruman’s spirit, in other words, his body is revealed for the tool or instrument that it was and had become.

In conclusion, as the demiurgic sub-creators and masters of their own bodies to which they do not belong by nature, the temptation for the Valar and Maiar, Tolkien almost seems to suggest, will be for them to adopt the same attitude of mastery and domination towards others and towards the physical world they are supposed to shepherd.


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