Atheism in Middle-earth: “The Sea has no shore. There is no Light in the West.”

“The Sea has no shore. There is no Light in the West.” These are the words spoken by one of Melkor’s spies, disguised as Amlach, son of Imlach, at the council of Men convened in the First Age to decide what to do about the perils facing them in Middle-earth (Silmarillion, “Of the Coming of Men into the West,” 145). The literal significance of these words, of course, is their denial of Valinor, of the Valar, of their light, by implication, a denial of Ilúvatar himself, and therefore also a denial of Men’s own dignified status as the Children of Ilúvatar.

More symbolically, pseudo-Amlach’s words are an expression of philosophical atheism: they constitute a rejection of transcendence, of a future hope and resurrection, of a reconciliation of the world to God and the restoration of all things, of a final judgment upon evil and the righting of all wrongs. In exchange for these things, pseudo-Amlach’s words offer (again, symbolically) a worldview that is reductionistic, wholly immanentized, materialistic, anti-supernatural, and hence anti-humane and therefore anti-humanistic. It is the counsel of despair under the guise of an urbane but (in reality) enervating cynicism.

Against such philosophical reductionism, accordingly, Tolkien’s entire legendarium sounds a clarion reminder that the seemingly endless Sea does have a shore, and that however dark things may seem, there is indeed a “Light in the West.” (This is The Lord of the Rings as counter-atheism.) A couple of familiar passages reinforce the point. The first is from Frodo’s peculiar dream while at Crick-Hollow:

Then he heard a noise in the distance. At first he thought it was a great wind coming over the leaves of the forest. Then he knew that it was not leaves, but the sound of the Sea far-off; a sound he had never heard in waking life, though it had often troubled his dreams. Suddenly he found he was out in the open. There were no trees after all. He was on a dark heath, and there was a strange salt smell in the air. Looking up he saw before him a tall white tower, standing alone on a high ridge. A great desire came over him to climb the tower and see the Sea. He started to struggle up the ridge towards the tower: but suddenly a light came in the sky, and there was a noise of thunder.

As Verlyn Flieger comments in her fine analysis of this passage in Splintered Light, 

The episode invites comparison with the final line of the allegory in the Beowulf essay. In both instances, the effect comes less from the images of tower and sea than from the stated or implied desire to climb up and look outward to the immense unknown. Tolkien’s use of this idea in both the [Beowulf] essay and The Lord of the Rings suggests that for him it transcended allegory to express an indefinable but very real attribute of the human psyche: the desire to seek something without knowing what it is.” (Flieger, Splintered Light, 16)

As St. Thomas would put it, man seeks God as an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason. The second passage is one I cited recently (Tolkien’s last voyage), when Frodo himself finally comes to the shore and Light beyond the Sea:

Then Frodo kissed Merry and Pippin, and last of all Sam, and went aboard; and the sails were drawn up, and the wind blew, and slowly the ship slipped away down the long grey firth; and the light of the glass of Galadriel that Frodo bore glimmered and was lost. And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.

This scene answers to and is the fulfillment of Frodo’s earlier dream: no longer in a state of mere anticipation of that which he has most deeply longed for, he has come to that place where his desire can at last be satiated and his joy made full. For this reason the passage really stands as the climactic and consummating eucatastrophe of the entire Lord of the Rings, when the work is at its most theological–reminding us, as Augustine so memorably put it, that “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee”–as Frodo is ushered into a vision of divine light, not as an oblique “ray of light through the very chinks of the universe” (as Tolkien describes eucatastrophe in one place), but now (as St. Paul put it) “face to face.”

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