Elvish Escapism

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 26

In The Lord of the Rings, it is the idealization of unchanging timelessness and preservation that characterizes the idyllic yet somewhat static Elvish enclaves of Rivendell and LothlorienFor all their elusive beauty, epitomizing the land of Faërie’s depiction in “On Fairy-Stories” as a wide realm of enchantment, peril, and longing, Tolkien nevertheless would not have us take their goodness entirely for granted. Indeed, through the theme of Elvish preservationism, it may be instructive to see Tolkien as revisiting with renewed seriousness and subtlety the problem of “escapism” (in the negative sense of that term) that he briefly acknowledges but otherwise dismisses in his essay. As he writes of the Elves in a 1956 letter,

Mere change as such is not represented as ‘evil’: it is the unfolding of the story and to refuse this is of course against the design of God. But the Elvish weakness is in these terms naturally to regret the past, and to become unwilling to face change: as if a man were to hate a very long book still going on, and wished to settle down in a favorite chapter. Hence they fell in a measure to Sauron’s deceits: they desired some “power” over things as they are (which is quite distinct from art), to make their particular will to preservation effective: to arrest change, and keep things always fresh and fair… (Letters 236)

Much as Tolkien, as I’ve suggested before, satirizes himself as author in characters such as Aulë and Niggle, through his Elves Tolkien similarly holds up what we might call a kind of “mirror for readers,” reflecting back to them their own temptations to “escape” into his and other like stories, to “appropriate,” “possess,” and so “preserve” his story in such a way as to inoculate themselves against living in the real world, instead of peculiarly equipping them for it.

Material Elves Living in a Material World

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 25

In the previous post in this series I suggested that part of the Elvish temptation towards the sin of “preservationism” lies in what Tolkien characterizes as the much greater correspondence between the conceiving intellect and the executing will found in the Elves. This greater unity among their faculties of soul means that the Elves, like Thomas’s angels, approximate to a greater degree the perfect identity of intellect and will found in the divine nature. Yet the Elvish will and intellect are still distinct, meaning, in part, that their control over their artistic sub-creations cannot be complete or exhaustive, hence the impetus towards the sin of “preservationism,” the desire to see one’s ideal sub-creations continue in perpetuity.

Corresponding to the gap between will and intellect in created, rational beings is another point I’ve made previously: whereas, for Tolkien and Thomas, the Creator gives being or existence in its entirety, creaturely sub-creating or “making,” by contrast, always presupposes some already existing and therefore somewhat recalcitrant (from the finite point of view) external matter, what for Plato fell under the principle of anankê or necessity. This lack of total, divine control over one’s artistic medium and product becomes an issue, as Leo Elders points out in a passing but apropos comment relating Thomas’s doctrine of evil to the problem of art, inasmuch as “[i]n a world which consists of limited and perishable things it will never be possible to avoid all failure” in art because “the possibility of decay and passing away is imprinted in the essence of material things…” (The Metaphysics of Being, 134-5). Herbert McCabe makes a comparable point in his discussion of the necessity of “evil suffered”–Thomas’s malo poenae, the “evil of pain”–in a world composed of corruptible beings: “In general, it seems to me that you cannot make material things that develop in time without allowing for the fact that in perfecting themselves they will damage other material things” (God Matters, 31).

To return to Tolkien’s Elves, this in some sense is their dilemma and paradox: by nature undying and unchanging, trying to carry out their sub-creative task while consigned to live forever in—and if they die, to return to—an ever-changing world, the Elves, like the Valar, become obsessed with (as Tolkien puts it) “the prevention or slowing of decay (i.e., ‘change’ viewed as a regrettable thing), the preservation of what is desired or loved, or its semblance—this is more or less an Elvish motive” (Letters 152, emphasis original). To adapt the memorable words of Madonna, the Elvish compulsion (such as it is) is that they are material (albeit immortal) beings living in a material (and so mortal) world.

Tolkien’s “Divine Comedy”: Purgatory as Faërie-land

Furthering the Tolkien-Dante connection I’ve been entertaining lately are some passages from Tolkien’s early writings which re-cast the Middle-earth mythology as a kind of Tolkienian “Divine Comedy.” Summarizing an episode from his father’s account of the Valar’s arrival in Arda and their settlement in Valinor as originally told in The Book of Lost Tales, Christopher Tolkien writes:

Nienna is the judge of Men in her halls named Fui after her own name; and some she keeps in the region of Mando (where is her hall), while the greater number board the black ship Mornië–which does no more than ferry these dead down the coast to Arvalin, where they wander in the dusk until the end of the world. But yet others are driven forth to be seized by Melko and taken to endure ‘evil day’ in Angamandi (in what sense are they dead, or mortal?); and (most extraordinary of all) there are a very few who go to dwell among the Gods in Valinor. (Book of Lost Tales 90)

An early name for Arvalin, the purgatorial region where the souls of the deceased men go who are neither “seized by Melko” nor “who go to dwell among the Gods in Valinor,” is Habbanan, which also happens to have been the subject of a poem written even earlier by Tolkien while he was in camp during the Great War. Much like Dante’s Purgatory, the star-imagery in Habbanon beneath the Stars is pervasive and determinative; both regions are also places of song, of desire, and of new and clear celestial vision.

One key difference between the two, however, is that in comparison to Dante and other traditional accounts, already at this early stage Purgatory in Tolkien’s imagination is less a place of penitence for and purgation of sin than it is a place of healing, rest, and the satiation of restless desire, a distinctive that we see preserved, for example, as late as the characterization of Frodo’s anticipated convalescence in Valinor at the end of The Lord of the Rings. (Tolkien does give, it should be noted, a slightly more conventional, though still highly original and imaginative portrayal of Purgatory in Leaf by Niggle.) Many readers have no doubt been tempted to see Frodo’s departure from Middle-earth into the West as an iconic image of Christian death and the soul’s departure to Heaven at the end of its mortal life. Yet such an interpretation overlooks an important intermediary stage in Tolkien’s Catholic understanding of the afterlife, to say nothing of his Faërie-fascination with the perpetual mediation of desire and the postponement of its satisfaction (a postponement that is itself intensely and strangely desirable). Tolkien’s more typical treatment of such mediation, of course, is through his mythopoetic creation of a longed for but now lost and irretrievable past, yet in cases such as Frodo’s we may see Tolkien as working in the opposite temporal direction, eliciting and sustaining desire through an indefinitely delayed consummation of all things (a deliberately “non-immanentized” eschatology, as it were). As Tolkien writes in one letter of the circumstances surrounding Frodo’s fate:

‘Alas! there are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured’, said Gandalf … – not in Middle-earth. Frodo was sent or allowed to pass over Sea to heal him – if that could be done, before he died. He would have eventually to ‘pass away’: no mortal could, or can, abide for ever on earth, or within Time. So he went both to a purgatory and to a reward, for a while: a period of reflection and peace and a gaining of a truer understanding of his position in littleness and in greatness, spent still in Time amid the natural beauty of ‘Arda Unmarred’, the Earth unspoiled by evil. (Letters 328)

Thus, much as Tolkien, for example, in his apologetic poem “Mythopoeia,” profoundly reinterprets the traditional, Thomistic account of heavenly beatitude, exchanging theoria for poiesis–the beatific vision for beatific sub-creation–as the pinnacle of human potential (“In Paradise perchance the eye may stray / from gazing upon everlasting Day / … Be sure they still will make, not being dead, / and poets shall have flames upon their head, / and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall: / there each shall choose for ever from the All), so we also find him remaking that other region of the Christian after-life in his own image. In Tolkien’s hands, Purgatory becomes nothing less than Faërie-land, a realm

wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost. (“On Fairy-Stories”)

Returning, in conclusion, to Tolkien’s purgatorial poem Habbanan beneath the Stars, I find Christopher’s following analysis to be on point:

This poem … offer[s] a rare and very suggestive glimpse of the mythic conception in its earliest phase; for here ideas that are drawn from Christian theology are explicitly present…. [and] they are still present in this tale [of The Coming of the Valinor]. For in the tale there is an account of the fates of dead Men after judgement in the black hall of Fui Nienna. Some (‘and these are the many’) are ferried by the death-ship to (Habbanan) Eruman, where they wander in the dusk and wait in patience till the Great End; some are seized by Melko and tormented in Angamandi ‘the Hells of Iron’; and some few go to dwell with the Gods in Valinor. Taken with the poem and the evidence of the early ‘dictionaries’, can this be other than a reflection of Purgatory, Hell, and Heaven? (Lost Tales 92)

As I say, Tolkien’s Middle-earth mythology as a kind of modern, fantasy “Divine Comedy.”

Elvish Preservationism: The Correspondence of Sub-creative Intellect and Will

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 24

The species of being with whom the problematic motive of preservation is especially associated are the Elves, who, as exaggerated embodiments of otherwise human artistic and technical excellence, also find therein their peculiar temptation to go astray. Tolkien writes of the Elves in one place that their

“magic” is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete (product, and vision in unflawed correspondence). And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation. The “Elves” are “immortal,” at least as far as this world goes: and hence are concerned rather with the griefs and burdens of deathlessness in time and change, than with death. (Letters 146)

As I’ve suggested elsewhere, these two dimensions of the Elves—their artistic superiority and their immortality—are metaphysically and psychologically linked through Tolkien’s hylomorphic anthropology: the powerful Elvish soul, or fëa, that exerts so formative an influence over the Elvish body, or hröa, making it immortal or at least undying, is also what gives their art its heightened spiritual command over matter—in short, its “magic” (in the positive sense of “enchantment”). As with Tolkien’s incarnate angels, however, whose voluntary and extrinsic relation between spirit and body can tend towards a domineering stance in relation to physical reality in general, so also the Elvish relationship of soul and body is simultaneously its glory and its liability, its peculiar virtue when well-ordered and peculiar vice when not.

The reason this “unflawed correspondence” between “product and vision,” between the will executing the product and the intellect first envisioning it (elsewhere Tolkien refers to the sub-creative will as “the effective link between the indestructible mind and being and the realization of its imagination”–Letters 260), becomes a source of temptation for the Elves is that it can of course never approximate the absolute identity of will and intellect (and thus perfectartistic execution) enjoyed by the Creator by virtue of the divine will’s unrivaled capacity of giving being to things exactly as conceived in the divine mind. James Collins makes this point in a discussion of the inherent limitation on angelic causality that, mutatis mutandis, finds equal application to Tolkien’s Elves:

The limitation placed upon direct angelic causality is based ultimately on the finiteness of created separated substances. While they act through intellect and will, they can move other things only in a way proportioned to their natures. Unlike God, the angel is not its own will; it has will in a determinate nature, and the effect proceeds from this faculty according to the mode of the finite nature. Hence angelic power is subject to the conditions of categorical action and passion. As higher forms, separated substances possess supremely universal active powers to which the passive powers of lower substances are not sufficiently adapted to receive an actualization except through the mediation of natural agents. As pure act, God is determined neither in His being nor in His operation to any particular genus or species. His action is transcendental and His will can do indifferently anything that can be done by any created will or natural agent. Hence God requires no preliminary proportioning of His power to the receptive capacity of the material subject. Immediate formal transmutation or substantial change of material substances, then, is possible only for that immaterial substance Whose power is identical with His infinite act of being. (Collins, The Thomistic Philosophy of the Angels, 314-15)

The temptation inherent in the greater correspondence between will and intellect enjoyed by the Elves (and even more so by Thomas’s angels) is the increased possibility that they will covet the absolute identity of will and intellect that belongs to the Creator alone. As Hayden Head aptly puts it in his Girardian interpretation of Tolkien,

the mighty, those who apparently possess more substance, more ‘being,’ than the rest of us, are those most susceptible to the temptation to rise against God,” to give way to the “primeval impulse to appropriate the prerogatives of God… Gazing into the pure ontology of God, the strong man discovers anew his own contingency, and his pride of strength dissolves in the cauldron of envious desire… The fall is that sudden recognition of the incommensurability between God and man. (Head, “Imitative Desire,” 140-1)

Again, the corruption of the sub-creative motive involves the implicit coveting of God’s own power to create.

Minas Tirith and Dante’s Mnt. Purgatory

Was Dante’s Mnt. Purgatory any kind of inspiration for Tolkien’s Minas Tirith? I doubt it, but aside from both structures involving seven terraces or levels (profound, I know), the illustration of Purgatory from my copy of the Penguin Portable Dante always makes me think of Peter Jackson’s representation of Gondor’s white-walled city (which, speaking of things medieval, I understand to have been modeled on Mont Saint-Michel, also below).


Evil and “Preservation”: The Fainéance of the Valar

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 23

I’ve said that the first instance or occasion of evil in Tolkien’s fictional world is when the created spirit Melkor presumes to discover and exercise for himself the exclusively divine power of creation, and that it is as a consequence of this desire that we see the natural and proper power of sub-creation first become corrupted in a creature. One peculiar manifestation of the corruption of the sub-creative desire in Tolkien’s stories involves not only the sub-creation of things in overt conflict with the Creator and what he has made, but also the well-meaning but ill-judged attempt at “preserving” or “possessing” the things around us and produced by us in a way that is contrary to their ultimate nature and divine purpose. This motive is operative in the otherwise unfallen Valar, for example, when instead of pursuing their primary task after first giving shape to the world, namely the continued resistance of Melkor and the governance of the world according to the Music for the benefit of the Children of Ilúvatar, they fell rather into the practice of trying to preserve just one, isolated area of the world, Valinor, against the onslaughts of Melkor, but also against the otherwise natural processes of time and change themselves. Thus, Tolkien describes Manwë’s “own inherent fault (though not sin)” as a matter of having become “engrossed… in amendment, healing, re-ordering—even ‘keeping the status quo’—to the loss of all creative power and even to weakness in dealing with difficult and perilous situations” (Morgoth’s Ring 392). (Tolkien’s distinction between an “inherent fault” that has not yet become a “sin” might be compared to the important distinction Thomas draws in De Malo 1.3, where he argues that evil begins with a defect in the will that is voluntary but not yet morally culpable. For an explanation of Thomas’s argument and its historic significance in the debate over the question of the causality of evil, see Steel, “Does Evil Have a Cause?” 260-262.) Addressing the Valar more generally, Tolkien says of the Two Trees of Valinor that one of their objects

was the healing of the hurts of Melkor, but this could easily have a selfish aspect: the staying of history—not going on with the Tale. This effect it had on the Valar. They became more and more enamoured of Valinor, and went there more often and stayed there longer. Middle-earth was left too little tended, and too little protected against Melkor. (377, emphasis original)

In a letter Tolkien refers to the “fainéance” (i.e., inactivity, idleness, or indolence) of the Valar (Letters 202). Preoccupied with mere preservation, the Valar fail to apply and so lose the important sub-creative skill of adaptation, of adjusting to the conditions of growth, change, and hence of growing into maturity, qualities that are necessary in a material world that is ultimately not of one’s own creating.

Feänor, Tolkien’s (Dantean) Ulysses

I’ve commented before on the Nietzschean, Dionysian aspect to Feänor’s character. I’m re-reading Dante’s Divine Comedy at the moment and it occurs to me that the Florentine poet’s inventive depiction of Ulysses/Odysseus might be another noteworthy literary antecedent and parallel, if not outright influence. We learn something of Tolkien’s familiarity with and attitude toward Dante in a letter reviewing an interview in which he had said that Dante “doesn’t attract me. He’s full of spite and malice. I don’t care for his petty relations with petty people in petty cities.” In his review of the interview, Tolkien retracts his remarks, writing that his

reference to Dante was outrageous. I do not seriously dream of being measured against Dante, a supreme poet. At one time Lewis and I used to read him to one another. I was for a while a member of the Oxford Dante Society (I think at the proposal of Lewis, who overestimated greatly my scholarship in Dante or Italian generally). It remains true that I found the ‘pettiness’ that I spoke of a sad blemish in places.

One character who receives an ignoble if not exactly “petty” end at Dante’s hands, yet in a way that anticipates an important message in Tolkien’s fiction, is the Greek hero Ulysses, whom Dante places in the eighth circle of his Hell where the perpetrators of “simple” fraud are imprisoned, and in the eighth malebolgia (“evil pocket”) in particular, in which those guilty of deception, fraudulent advice, or “evil counsel” are punished. Not knowing Greek, Dante did not have a first-hand knowledge of Homer’s epics, and so was presumably unaware of the eventual fate of Odysseus as Homer foreshadows it. The Ithacan King, as we learn in the Odyssey, is told that, even after arriving home after a 20 year absence, must undertake one final journey (over land) to plant an oar in homage to and appeasement of Poseidon. Only then will he at last be allowed to settle down and live to the end of his days in relative peace.

In Dante’s recasting of his character, “Ulysses” is made instead into an incurable adventurer who apparently never makes it home at all, as he persuades his men to sail with him beyond the Straights of Gibraltar, going (as Captain Kirk so memorably put it) where no man has ever gone before. As Ulysses explains to Dante the pilgrim,

not sweetness of a son, not reverence / for an aging father, not the debt of love / I owed Penelope to make her happy, / could quench deep in myself the burning wish / to know the world and have experience / of all man’s vices, of all human worth. (Inferno 26.94-99, Musa trans.)

Ulysses goes on to recount the speech by which he persuaded his men to join him on his ludicrous journey, the speech, we are led to believe, that is also responsible for his present place in Hell:

‘Brothers,’ I said, ‘who through a hundred thousand / perils have made your way to reach the West, / during this so brief vigil of our senses / that is still reserved for us, do not deny / yourself experience of what there is beyond, / behind the sun, in the world they call unpeopled. / Consider what you came from: you are Greeks! / You were not born to live like mindless brutes / but to follow paths of excellence and knowledge. / With this brief exhortation I made my crew / so anxious for the way that lay ahead, / that then I hardly could have held them back…  (26.112-120)

As Ulysses explains the end of their “mad flight,” they sailed to the southernmost end of the Earth where they were just able to espy the shores and towering height of Mount Purgatory itself (atop of which Eden or Paradise lies) before, in an act of divine judgment (“as pleased Another’s will”–26.141), their ship was spun around three times and sunk into the sea with all her crew.

Thus, in exchange for Homer’s Odysseus, the “great tactician,” man of great cunning and “many turns” (polymetis) who overcomes enormous obstacles, including gods, giants, monsters, and suitors, Dante gives us a Ulysses whose lasting legacy is the deception he perpetrated, not on his enemies, but on his own men. In Dante’s hands, the story of Ulysses is a cautionary tale about the hubris, curiosity, and autonomy or independence that seeks knowledge, experience, and perhaps even power that lies beyond man’s proper boundaries, as well as the destructive interpersonal and social consequences of the kind of eloquence and demagoguery that deceives others for one’s own benefit.

While Tolkien reserves Ulysses and his men’s specific fate of drowning by divine intervention for the Númenóreans–themselves a cautionary tale warning man not transgress his appointed boundaries, to aspire to determine his own destiny, and to seize paradise by his own power–the theme of deceptively and self-interestedly playing to the prejudices and sense of superiority of one’s subordinates in persuading them to distinguish themselves through the pursuit of new lands and experiences is very much at the heart of Fëanor’s story. In The Silmarillion, after Melkor’s theft of the Silmarils, Fëanor, a “master of words” whose “tongue had great power over hearts when he would use it,” makes to his fellow Noldorin Elves a speech

which they ever remembered. Fierce and few were his words, and filled with anger and pride; and hearing them the Noldor were stirred to madness…. Long he spoke, and ever he urged the Noldor to follow him and by their own prowess to win freedom and great realms in the lands of the East… ‘Fair shall the end be,’ he cried, though long and hard shall be the road! Say farewell to bondage! But say farewell also to ease! Say farewell to the weak! Say farewell to your treasures! More still shall we make. Journey light: but bring with you your swords! For we will go further than Oromë, endure longer than Tulkas: we will never turn back from pursuit. After Morgoth to the ends of the Earth!… But when we have conquered and have regained the Silmarils, then we and we alone shall be lords of the unsullied Light, and masters of the bliss and beauty of Arda. No other race shall oust us!’

As I’ve suggested elsewhere, through his character of Fëanor, Tolkien honestly and sympathetically captures something of the tragic and epic greatness and nobility sought after, for example, by Nietzsche in his Dionysian neo-paganism. At the same time, however, a consideration of Fëanor’s Ulyssean aspect serves to remind us of something else I’ve written on previously, which is Tolkien’s Christian (and now Dantean) concern that in the final analysis such assertions of self-will are no ultimate answer to the human destructiveness and banality of nihilism, but are merely a more dramatic and pathetic (in both the etymological and colloquial senses of that word) form of it.