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.

“Evil labours with vast powers and perpetual success—in vain”

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 22

For Aquinas, then, the presence of evil in the world is necessary to make possible certain kinds of good, such as avenging justice. Some, however, have found such rational theorizing cold and unfeeling towards the cruel realities of human suffering in the world.[1] Yet for Tolkien this truth was the source of deep personal comfort, as may be seen in the following, unflinching encouragement he offered his son Christopher while the latter was in South Africa training as a pilot during the Second World War:

I sometimes feel appalled at the thought of the sum total of human misery all over the world at the present moment: the millions parted, fretting, wasting in unprofitable days—quite apart from torture, pain, death, bereavement, injustice. If anguish were visible, almost the whole of this benighted planet would be enveloped in a dense dark vapour, shrouded from the amazed vision of the heavens! And the products of it all will be mainly evil—historically considered. But the historical version is, of course, not the only one. All things and deeds have a value in themselves, apart from their “causes” and “effects.” All we do know, and that to a large extent by direct experience, is that evil labours with vast powers and perpetual success—in vain: preparing always only the soil for unexpected good to sprout in. So it is in general, so it is in our own lives… (Letters 76)

Like St. Thomas, then, Tolkien too held to a kind of greater-good theodicy, though it was one that he affirmed in the face of seemingly overwhelming evidence to the contrary, namely the “vast powers and perpetual success” of evil which nevertheless, in the final analysis, will be seen as having labored “in vain.” So important is this promise that evil will indeed result in greater good that it is given expression in the Ainulindalë by none other than Ilúvatar himself, who, after bringing the Ainur’s Music to its climactic, triumphant resolution, declares:

‘Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined… And thou, Melkor, wilt discover all the secret thoughts of thy mind, and will perceive that they are but as part of the whole and tributary to its glory.’ (S 17)[2]

As Ilúvatar explains to Melkor, the ultimate meaning of his rebellion will prove to be entirely different from the one intended by him. Not only is Ilúvatar the only one who can create and therefore give being to the sub-creative designs of his creatures, but for this very reason he is also the one who determines the ultimate meaning and outcome of the sub-creative choices of his creatures, whether they be good or evil. [3] It is this peculiar power of turning evil inexorably to good, in short, that distinguishes Ilúvatar as the one and only true Creator, allowing Melkor and all the Ainur to “know” that he is Ilúvatar. In addition to Melkor’s rebellious music succeeding by Ilúvatar’s design in making the Music more beautiful, and similar to what we saw in St. Thomas, there is a respect in which the beauty achieved in the Music through Melkor’s evil could not have been realized in any other way. As it is described in the Ainulindalë, Ilúvatar’s musical response to Melkor’s discord was “deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came.” It is this idea, moreover, of the necessity of sorrow for the possibility of a certain kind of joy that lies at the heart of Tolkien’s concept of eucatastrophe, “the joy of the happy ending” or “sudden joyous ‘turn’” which “does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure,” inasmuch as “the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance” (Tolkien Reader, 85-6).

To return to the Ainur’s Music, inasmuch as it contains within itself a preview of subsequent world history, we also find in Tolkien something of the Thomistic thesis that the eventual existence of evil in the world was not only a possibility, but in some sense an inevitability. “In this Myth,” as Tolkien explains in one letter,


the rebellion of created free-will precedes creation of the World (Eä); and Eä has in it, subcreatively introduced, evil, rebellions, discordant elements of its own nature already when the Let it Be was spoken. The Fall or corruption, therefore, of all things in it and all inhabitants of it, was a possibility if not inevitable” (Letters 286-7).


In holding that, given free will, the existence of evil was probable if not inevitable, Tolkien was in basic agreement with his good friend C.S. Lewis, who in his Problem of Pain, as Elizabeth Whittingham points out, argues that if God creates people with free will, suffering and evil will probably exist, but their existence does not contradict God’s existence” (“The Mythology of the “Ainulindalë: Tolkien’s Creation of Hope,” 218).

[1] See, for example, Hart’s critique in The Doors of the Sea (although I think Hart fails to see how Aquinas likewise falls under his indictment of such Leibnizian, greater-good theodicies).

[2] See also Morgoth’s Ring 383.

[3] Ilúvatar’s speech is referred to later on in The Silmarillion in the Valar Manwë’s response to the Elf-lord Fëanor’s declaration that the Noldor Elves would leave their refuge in Valinor and return to Middle-earth to wage war against Melkor: “But at that last word of Fëanor: that at the least the Noldor should do deeds to live in song for ever, [Manwë] raised his head, as one that hears a voice far off, and he said: ‘So shall it be! Dear-bought those songs shall be accounted, and yet shall be well-bought. For the price could be no other. Thus even as Eru spoke to us shall beauty not before conceived be brought into Eä, and evil yet be good to have been.’ But Mandos said: ‘And yet remain evil. To me shall Fëanor come soon’” (S 98). Robert Collins has also touched on the necessity of evil for the achievement of certain kinds of goods in Tolkien’s writings: “Tolkien has embedded not only an analog of the ‘progressive’ Hegelian dialectic, but also an aesthetic analog of the Christian paradox of the ‘fortunate fall.’ Unopposed, the forces of concord may not conceive the beauty of the snowflake. Untempted, unfallen, man may not achieve the glory of sainthood.” Collins, “’Ainulindalë‘: Tolkien’s Commitment to an Aesthetic Ontology,” 260.


Could God have willed that there be no evil while still leaving the human will to be free?

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 21

In the previous post I made the claim that for Aquinas, God could have willed that there be no evil in the world while still leaving the human will to be free. This is a point, however, upon which not all Thomist scholars appear to agree. Jean Oesterle, for example, in her translation of Aquinas’s On Evil, writes:

a position often advanced by contemporary authors is that there was an option for God to effect the better possibility of making human beings who in choosing freely would always choose what is right and hence never sin, and that this is what an omnipotent and wholly good God would do. But such a position seems in fact to be inconsistent and even implicitly contradictory. For it is not naturally possible for God to create human beings having a rational nature and a free will who always choose what is right and never commit a fault or a sin. Indeed, Aquinas says in effect that no rational nature can always perform actions that never depart from what is good. This is possible only for a being in whom is found in a natural and immutable manner the universal and perfect nature of good. This is possible only for God Who alone has a free will which is naturally incapable of sin and confirmed in good, which is not possible for a creature. Human nature is naturally fallible. Although the ability to sin is not a necessary property of free will, still it does follow de facto upon free will as it exists in a created and finite nature. One is therefore inclined to say that to be what a human being is, is to be capable of committing sin, and at times to do so because of the finite, fallible nature man has; and this follows from the way free judgment and choice functions, given that nature. (Jean Oesterle, “Preface,” in Thomas Aquinas, On Evil, trans. Oesterle, xvii, emphasis added)

According to Oesterle, in short, in creating free, rational beings, not only is God unable to guarantee that none of them will sin, their freedom virtually ensures that they will in fact sin.

But here Oesterle seems to conflate two issues that are in fact distinct: the question of the intrinsic possibility of the human nature to sin and the question of God’s ability to ordain a world in which the always present possibility of sin nevertheless goes forever unrealized. According to Herbert McCabe, not only are these two issues distinct for St. Thomas, but keeping them distinct is essential to preserving a sense of the mystery of God’s purpose for allowing evil in the world, that is to say, his purpose for allowing something that is in fact not necessary for human beings to be free. As McCabe inquires,

must we not admit that although God did not, of course, bring about my failure he could, instead, have brought about my success? In fact it was the fact that God did not cause me freely to succeed that brought it about that I freely failed. There can be no doubt, then, that had he wished to do so God could always have prevented me from sinning—without, of course, in any way interfering with my freedom. For freedom does not mean independence of God. It means independence of other creatures. Thus although God does not cause me to fail of choosing the good, he could easily have caused me to choose the good… It remains of course, that I have not the faintest idea why God permits moral evil… This is an unfathomable mystery but it is not a contradiction. (McCabe, God Matters, 38)

McCabe’s student Brian Davies makes the same argument with respect to Aquinas over against the kind of free will theodicies advanced by contemporary philosophers of religion Richard Swinburne and John Hick (Davies, “Introduction,” in Aquinas, On Evil, trans. Regan, 50-1). As for McCabe, while I agree with him that the question of why God allows evil is indeed ultimately an unfathomable mystery, as I suggested in the previous post (on God’s ability to bring a different–if not a “greater”–good out of evil), I do think Thomas and Tolkien have a little more than this to say on the subject.

Evil and a greater good

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 20

For St. Thomas, then, God is not in any way the cause of evil, yet he does permit and even “preserve” (Thomas’s word) or “guarantee” (Tolkien’s word) the actions of evil wills, much as the source of light preserves or guarantees the broken light emitted through a cracked prism or piece of glass, yet without becoming on that account morally or metaphysically responsible for or causative of the light’s brokenness. But the question still remains as to why God should choose to preserve or guarantee such broken wills and actions. One important answer for both Thomas and Tolkien is that the Creator desires that there should be such a thing as free will, even if what those free wills choose should turn out to be evil.

This, however, is only a partial explanation, for even the free choices of creatures fall under the providence of God as things in some sense willed, or better, “permitted” or “tolerated” by him, so that for Aquinas, at least, God could have willed that there be no evil in the world while still leaving the human will to be free (about which more anon). For both Thomas and Tolkien, a further explanation for God’s permission of evil concerns our next proposition in Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, which is that evil makes possible the realization of even greater good. Thomas makes this point in response to the objection that evil cannot reside in those things made by God because, just as “white unmixed with black is the most white,” as Aristotle says, so “the good unmixed with evil is the greater good. But God makes always what is best, much more than nature does” (ST 1.48.2 obj. 3).[1] While Thomas agrees that God, like nature, makes “what is best in the whole,” that is, in the “universe of creatures,” as with nature this does not necessarily mean that God makes “what is best in every single part” of the whole. According to Thomas, rather, the universe of creatures is in fact “better and more perfect if some things in it can fail and do sometimes fail, God not preventing this” (ST 1.48.2 ad 3).[2] The greater good of the universe, or at least of this particular universe as it has been divinely ordered, requires not only the possibility of evil, but even its actuality, suggesting that, for the sake of the greater perfection of the world as a whole, the emergence of evil in the world was in some sense inevitable. As Thomas concludes his response, quoting Augustine’s Enchiridion,

“God is so powerful that He can even make good out of evil.” Hence many good things would be taken away if God permitted no evil to exist; for fire would not be generated if air was not corrupted, nor would the life of a lion be preserved unless the ass were killed. Neither would avenging justice nor the patience of a sufferer be praised if there were no injustice. (ST 1.48.2 ad 3)[3]

[1] “[A]lbius est quod est nigro impermixtius… Ergo et melius est quod est malo impermixtius. Sed Deus facit semper quod melius est, multo magis quam natura.”

[2] “Ipsum autem totum quod est universitas creaturarum, melius et perfectius est, si in eo sint quaedam quae a bono deficere possunt, quae interdum deficient, Deo hoc non impediente.”

[3] “Deus est adeo potens, quod etiam potest bene facere de malis. Unde multa bona tolerentur, si Deus nullum malum permitteret esse. Non enim generaretur ignis, nisi corrumperetur aer; neque conservaretur vita leonis, nisi occideretur asinus; neque etiam lauderetur iustitia vindicans, et patientia sufferens, si non esset iniquitas.”

Divine “unshatterable” action and human “shatterable” activations

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 19

The previous post saw Tolkien’s raising the problem of God’s causality with respect to evil, and suggested that his depiction of the problem in his fiction, such as it is, is broadly consistent with St. Thomas’s solution. In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas explains that, in voluntary things, whenever there is an evil effect, it is always the result of some pre-existing evil in the agent, specifically, some pre-existing defect in the will of the agent, so that when the agent acts, “it does not actually subject itself to its proper rule” (ST 1.49.1 ad 3).[1] Thus, Thomas implicitly distinguishes two dimensions to every evil action: first, there is the action itself, caused by the will itself, both of which, taken by themselves, are good (as created, existing things); second, there is the specific defect in the action, which is the result of a corresponding defect in the will causing the action. Now God in no way, says Aquinas, is the cause of the defects in the will of voluntary agents, since God is altogether perfect and thus incapable of actively producing an imperfection in the will (ST 1.49.1). Having parsed out the evil action in this manner, Thomas is able similarly to parse out the responsibility for it: “whatever there is of being and action in a bad action is reduced to God as the cause, whereas whatever defect is in it is not caused by God, but by the deficient secondary cause” (ST 1.49.2 ad 2).[2] In an oft-cited illustration Thomas compares God’s creative power by which he gives being to an otherwise evil action with the “moving power” of a lame leg: while the moving power is the cause of the leg’s motion, it is not the cause of the leg’s motion being a limping motion. What causes the limp is not the leg’s native moving power but rather the defective curvature of the lame leg. In this illustration, the lameness of the leg is analogous to the “curvature” or defect of the sinning agent’s will. In a passage that could almost double as a commentary on Tolkien’s statement to Hastings that God “guarantees” even “sinful acts” with the “reality of Creation,” Leo Elders explains Thomas’s argument this way:

It is true that God is the cause of the content of being in any human act, just as all beings exist by participating in the First Being. But a human act is not God’s action and a human choice is not God’s choice. God gives only the entitative content and occurrence of an action without being the cause which does something through this action. Hence God is [in] no way, not even per accidens, the cause who commits this action and so he is in no way the cause of the moral evil. He permits sin to take place in that he grants his causal support to the will to enable it to perform an act, despite its deviation from the rule of reason. The person who performs the evil action is per accidens the cause of the privation of subordination to moral law. To clarify this St. Thomas gives an example: if a cripple walks, the cause of his crippled gait is not his power to move, but his leg which is too stiff or too short. Therefore all of the entity in an evil action goes back to God as to its First Cause whereas the privation which renders it evil, comes from the acting person who does not conform himself to moral law.[3]

Jacques Maritain explains this same argument, albeit in terms of a distinction between what e calls the “unshatterable divine action” of creation and the “shatterable activations” of the individual human will, a metaphor evocative of the images of kindling fire and splintering light at the heart of Tolkien’s mythology. According to Maritain, the creative “activations or motions” given by the First Cause to his individual free agents

contain within themselves, in advance, the permission or possibility of being rendered sterile if the free existent [agent] which receives them takes the first initiative of evading them, of not-acting and not-considering, or nihilating under their touch… [B]efore the unshatterable divine action, by which the will to good of creative Liberty infallibly produces its effect in the created will, the divine activations received by the free existent must first be shatterable activations.

            It depends solely upon ourselves to shatter them by making, upon our own deficient initiative, that thing called nothing (or by nihilating).[4]

The soul or will, in short, is like a window pane or, to use another image shared by Tolkien and Maritain, a “prism”: the light it receives is God’s creative, activating, “moving” power; the light it admits or which shines through the window is the actions of the soul. Should the light it admits become shattered (as distinguished, say, from its being beautifully refracted through the sub-creative act), it is the fault, not of the light it receives, but of the cracked or shattered soul or will that receives it.

[1] “Sed in rebus voluntariis defectus actionis a voluntate actu deficienti procedit, inquantum non subiicit se actu suae regulae.”

[2] “Et similiter quidquid est entitatis et actionis in actione mala, reducitur in Deum sicut in causam: sed quod est ibi defectus, non causatur a Deo, sed ex causa secunda deficient.”

[3] Elders, The Metaphysics of Being, 135.

[4] Maritain, Existence and the Existent, trans. Galantiere and Phelan, 100-1.

Tolkien and the problem of God’s causality with respect to evil

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 18

That it is and always remains God’s deliberate act of creation that underlies sub-creation, even in its corrupted forms, reminds us that even in the very act of evil itself it is God who sustains the malefactor and his action in existence. As Tolkien puts it in his letter to Peter Hastings, the sub-creative free will is

derivative, and is [therefore] only operative within provided circumstances; but in order that it may exist, it is necessary that the Author should guarantee it, whatever betides: sc. when it is “against His Will,” as we say, at any rate as it appears on a finite view. He does not stop or make “unreal” sinful acts and their consequences. So in this myth, it is “feigned” (legitimately whether that is a feature of the real world or not) that He gave special ‘sub-creative’ powers to certain of His highest created beings: that is a guarantee that what they devised and made should be given the reality of Creation. Of course within limits, and of course subject to certain commands or prohibitions. But if they “fell,” as the Diabolus Morgoth did, and started making things “for himself, to be their Lord,” these would then “be”… (Letters 195)

Here in particular we can see the importance of Tolkien’s Thomistic doctrine of creation for his metaphysical understanding, not only of sub-creation and free will, but also of those circumstances in which they become corrupted by evil. Although a privation of being in itself, for Tolkien evil is very much real, having as the very source of its possibility and power the provisional “guarantee” of created being made by the infinite Creator himself.

This naturally gives rise to the question: how is it that God, if he is responsible for “bankrolling” metaphysically the evil, sub-creative investments of his creatures in this way, is not himself the “cause” of evil? Although Tolkien himself (so far as I am aware) does not directly answer this question, as we see in his letter to Hastings, he is certainly aware of the problem. As he states matters even more expressly in another letter, “the problem of evil, and its apparent toleration, is a permanent one for all who concern themselves with our world” (Letters 280).

Although Tolkien doesn’t directly answer the question, as I will (predictably) suggest in the posts that follow, the general picture implied in Tolkien’s fiction as to the question of God’s causality with respect to evil bears a certain affinity with St. Thomas’s position on the matter.

“Thoughts of his own unlike those of his brethren”: Melkor’s Second Fall

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 17

If Melkor’s first fall (as we might distinguish it) involves him in the futile and unnatural desire for the Imperishable Flame of Eru, his subsequent, sub-creative fall, in which he makes music in conflict with the original theme propounded by Eru, is at least more modest or realistic in its aspirations, involving the exercise of powers that are natural to him as a free, rational, yet finite being. This leads us, accordingly, to what I am identifying as the second level in Tolkien’s “lower-archy” of evil, the “evil” of defective sub-creation. I say “evil,” for not all sub-creative deficiencies of course necessarily involve moral negligence or culpability. They may simply be the result of non-culpable ignorance, as is arguably the case in Aulë’s attempt at sub-creating the Dwarves (a comparatively innocent failure on his part to discern rightly his natural powers of sub-creation), or for that matter might even have been the case in Melkor’s search for the Flame Imperishable (a failure to discern rightly a power that was in fact unnatural to him). Nevertheless, as I have argued elsewhere, because all possibility for Tolkien, including all sub-creative possibility, is rooted in the “infinite variety” of the divine being, so that all sub-creation has the abiding task of paying homage or “tribute” to the wisdom, goodness, and beauty of the Creator’s own infinite being, all sub-creative failures, whether morally culpable or not, are nevertheless ultimately theological in their origin and significance.

If so, there would seem to be a meaningful sense in which the artistic failure to refer one’s sub-creations back to the Creator is, in however a small way, a kind of grasping after the Creator’s own exclusive power over being and its modalities. This much, at any rate, is implied in the Ainulindalë, for it is only after Melkor goes into the Void to find the Imperishable Fire that, “being alone, he had begun to conceive thoughts of his own unlike those of his brethren,” and from his self-imposed isolation it first “came into the heart of Melkor to interweave [into the Music] matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar…” (Silmarillion 16). Melkor’s sub-creative deviations, in other words, are not unrelated to, but are the next manifestation of, his original lust for the Flame Imperishable. And although sub-creation presupposes an already existing reality, we perhaps see something of the Melkorian hunger for the power of giving being in Aulë’s comparatively more innocent attempt, not at creating, but at merely sub-creating the Dwarves, inasmuch as Aulë’s attempt at giving free, rational life to beings other than himself is, in effect, an attempt to create being from nothing. In a letter generalizing on this relationship between sub-creation and creation, Tolkien writes how the sub-creative desire “has various opportunities of ‘Fall’. It may become possessive, clinging to the things made as ‘its own’, the sub-creator wishes to be the Lord and God of his private creation. He will rebel against the laws of the Creator…” (Letters 145, emphasis added). Although Aulë expressly disclaims the desire (or at least the conscious desire) for any such lordship, the suggestion remains that even in our sub-creative excesses the desire to be God over one’s “private creation” is already inchoately present. For Thomas and Tolkien, sub-creation presupposes, is guaranteed by, and so is dependent upon a prior divine act of creation. Consistent with this premise, Tolkien recognizes that, should the sub-creative impulse become rebellious or aberrant, implicit in its corruption is the primeval desire for the kind of creational power that makes sub-creation possible in the first place.

“To Bring into Being Things of His Own”: The Primal Sin of Satan and Melkor

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 16

As I suggested recently, an important departure Tolkien takes from the classical and medieval Neoplatonism of Plotinus, Avicenna, and Peter Lombard, is in his Thomistic conviction that only the Creator can create, that is, give or “emanate” being directly. In view of this distinction, it is surely not insignificant that the first instance of evil in Tolkien’s mythical history occurs when the Ainur Melkor presumes to be able to exercise for himself the exclusively divine power of creation. Despite having “been given the greatest gifts of power and knowledge” and having “a share in all the gifts of his brethren,” Melkor is reported to have “gone often alone into the void places seeking the Imperishable Flame; for desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own…” (Silmarillion 16). In terms of at least the narrative sequence of Tolkien’s mythology, then, the very first thing we learn about evil is that it begins with the creaturely presumption of the Creator’s own power to create. As we shall see, there is a significant respect for Tolkien in which this is all that evil ever is.

In making the desire for creative power the primeval sin, Tolkien again strikes a familiar chord with St. Thomas, who argues in the Summa’s discussion of the angels that the latter fell by seeking in an “unnatural” way to be like God (Summa Theologiae 1.63.3). Although Thomas is cautious, in the absence of any clear teaching from Scripture on the topic, not to assert with certainty the exact circumstances of the angelic fall, the one example he gives of an “unnatural” angelic desire to be like God is the “desire to create heaven and earth, which is proper to God; in which desire there would be sin. It was in this way that the devil desired to be as God.”[1] In the conclusion to his argument in the Summa Contra Gentiles that the power of creation is proper to God alone, moreover, Thomas cites without censure or qualification John Damascene’s caustic remark that “[a]ll those who say that the angels are creators of any substance whatever have the devil as their father, for no creatures in existence are creators.”[2] For Thomas, it would seem, it is not only the desire for, but even the very doctrine that a creature can share in God’s own power to create, that is in a sense “demonic.” James Collins likewise observes that Thomas’s example of the unnatural desire to create is not without special significance: “to wish to create heaven and earth… The strategic import of this example must not be overlooked, since it neatly characterizes as encroachments upon God’s unique power all theories which in any way admit that the creative act can be shared by lesser agents.”[3] Clearly, the questions of the power of creation and the primal fall of the angels were closely linked in Thomas’s mind.

At the same time, unnatural though it may be for a finite being to desire the infinite Creator’s power of creation, taken by itself the power of creation is of course infinitely good. Moreover, the end for which Melkor desires this power, namely that there should exist things other than himself, is a desire noble in itself and very much a virtue according to Tolkien’s Thomistic realism. In these two examples from Tolkien’s Ainulindalë we have illustrated a recurring theme in Tolkien’s presentation of evil and an important principle in Thomas’s metaphysics of evil as well, which is that evil always involves the (misdirected) desire for some good. According to St. Thomas, because what we desire is by definition something desirable, and because what is desirable is, taken by itself, by definition good, it is impossible for the will to desire something evil because it is evil. Evil on this view, as we have seen, is nothing and therefore cannot in and of itself be the cause of anything, including desire. To return to Aquinas’s Aristotelian distinction introduced earlier, evil is sought after only “accidentally, so far as it accompanies a good.” The examples Thomas gives of this in the Summa are that of the lion who kills the stag, not because it desires to kill simply, but because it desires food, to which the killing of the stag is accidentally joined, and second, the example of the fornicator who sins not because he desires the sin per se, but because he desires the otherwise God-given sexual pleasure or enjoyment to which the sin of fornication is accidentally related (Summa Theologiae 1.19.9; see also 1.5.1). As for those aforementioned, diabolical cases of radical evil where the evil-doer would seem intent on acting wickedly for its own sake and in deliberate opposition to God, Frederick Copleston explains that even here “it is some apparent good, complete independence, for example, which is the object of the will: the evil defiance of God appears as a good and is willed sub specie boni. No will, therefore, can desire evil precisely as such.”[4] As we shall see, not even Melkor at his most nihilistic extreme completely succeeds in escaping this truth—indeed, one might almost say that it is precisely the inescapability of this truth that drives the reckless ressentiment of his nihilism.

[1] “Alio vero modo potest aliquis appetere similis esse Deo, quantum ad hoc in quo non natus est assimilari; sicut si quis appeteret creare caelum et terram, quod est proprium Dei; in quo appetitu esset peccatum. Et hoc modo diabolus appetiit esse ut Deus.” ST 1.63.3.

[2] Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles 2.21, trans. Anderson.

[3] Collins, The Thomistic Philosophy of the Angels, 261.

[4] Copleston, Medieval Philosophy, 91. Steel makes a similar observation of Augustine: “In this wish to do evil for no reason Augustine recognizes a perverted imitation of divine omnipotence, nothing but the freedom of a slave in the absence of his master.” Steel, “Does Evil Have a Cause,” 268, citing Augustine, Confessions 2.13.

Easter, the Eucatastrophe of Eucatastrophes

A couple of passages from Tolkien on Easter, the first from “On Fairy-Stories”:

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this [story-telling] aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairystory, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: ‘mythical’ in their perfect, selfcontained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the ‘inner consistency of reality.’ There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.

And the second from a 1944 letter to his son Christopher (in which he alludes to the above passage from his essay):

the Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Fairy Story – and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love. Of course I do not mean that the Gospels tell what is only a fairy-story; but I do mean very strongly that they do tell a fairy-story: the greatest. Man the story-teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story. But since the author if it is the supreme Artist and the Author of Reality, this one was also made to Be, to be true on the Primary Plane. So that in the Primary Miracle (the Resurrection) and the lesser Christian miracles too though less, you have not only that sudden glimpse of the truth behind the apparent Anankê [Greek: necessity, constraint] of our world, but a glimpse that is actually a ray of light through the very chinks of the universe about us.

From Creation to Annihilation: the beginning and end of evil

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 15

The previous post concluded by noting the relentless consistency with which Tolkien juxtaposes each created species in his fictional world with its corrupted counterpart. My present purpose, however, is not to take stock of all the ways in which each of the race of rational beings in Tolkien’s mythical world can or might fail to fulfill their nature. Instead, I want to draw attention to five classes or kinds of evil that are implicitly or explicitly distinguished by Tolkien in his fiction, five classes that at once stratify or diversify evil according to a scale of sorts while at the same time unifying his presentation of evil around a common theme. The first class or manifestation of evil, first both in terms of the order of Tolkien’s narrative but also in terms of it being implicit (or so I shall argue) in every instance of evil, centers on the theme of creation. I speak here of the case of a creature’s illicit and, as Thomas puts it, “unnatural” aspiration for what is really the Creator’s own exclusive power to create, that is, to bring things into being. The second motive in Tolkien’s “hierarchy” of evil involves the corruption of the creature’s legitimate or natural powers of sub-creation. Third, an important subdivision of this sub-creative “evil” in Tolkien’s world concerns the whole issue of preservation, or the keeping of one’s legitimate sub-creations from fading into oblivion, a motive embodied by both the Valar and especially the Elves. Fourth, we will see that the sub-creation/preservation motive corrupts into a new depth of evil which Tolkien identifies under the heading of domination. At this juncture in the argument we may also want to take a moment to consider the metaphysics of Tolkien’s polemic against technology or “the Machine” as one of the key instruments by which domination is exercised. Fifth and finally, even more extreme and desperate in Tolkien’s hierarchy of evil, and yet a topic that (to my knowledge) has hitherto received little attention in discussions of Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, is the flip-side of creation, namely the impulse of annihilation: that is, failing the power to give being, the desire for what (paradoxically) turns out to be the same thing, the power to obliterate it.

“Every Creature Must Have Some Weakness”: Tolkien’s Hierarchy of Evil

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 14

The first point of comparison I want to make between Tolkien’s and St. Thomas’s respective doctrines of evil, one that will furnish us with the organizing principle for much of the analysis to follow, has to do with the hierarchical nature of reality as a whole, a point that St. Thomas himself raises toward the beginning of his discussion of evil in the Summa. For St. Thomas the hierarchical structure of creation is necessitated by the fact that God’s only “motive” (so to speak) in creating is to communicate his own goodness, meaning that the created order, if it is at all to emulate adequately God’s goodness towards creation, must itself consist in a hierarchy of diverse and unequal beings. Only in this way can the divine drama of a higher reality ministering to and bringing to perfection a lower order of being be carried out on a finite scale. It is much this same drama that Tolkien illustrates through the Valar Aulë who, impatient with the relative emptiness and lack of diversity and inequality at that point in the world, attempts to make the Dwarves, and who justifies his action by saying that he merely desired beings upon whom he could exercise something of Ilúvatar’s own fatherly care. As I have also suggested recently, one way of viewing Tolkien’s invented races, the Elves and the Valar in particular, is to appreciate them as refinements upon or further iterations within an otherwise Thomistic hierarchy of being. Because the perfection of the universe requires that there should be, as Thomas puts it, “inequality in things, so that every grade of goodness may be realized,” and because one “grade of goodness” consists in things that can nevertheless fail to achieve the level of goodness intended for it, it follows for St. Thomas that the perfection of the universe “requires that there should be some which can fail in goodness, and thence it follows that sometimes they do fail” (ST 1.48. 2).[1] As Thomas goes on to conclude, it is in this failure of a thing to achieve its goodness that evil consists.

Because evil does not have its own nature (and thus no proper “place” in the hierarchy of being), but “exists” only as a privation of the perfection proper to those natures within the hierarchy, we might expect evil itself to reflect a kind of hierarchical structure corresponding to the hierarchy of goods which it corrupts. True to this expectation, Tolkien often depicts his characters as tending towards a form of evil unique to the nature of the particular species to which the character belongs, and therefore to the particular ways in which that species can fail to realize its true being. As Tolkien writes in one place, “[e]very finite creature must have some weakness: that is some inadequacy to deal with some situations. It is not sinful when not willed, and when the creature does his best (even if it is not what should be done) as he sees it—with the conscious intent of serving Eru” (Morgoth’s Ring 392n). Thus, the Ainur and Valar have their Melkor, the Maiar their Sauron, the Wizards their Saruman, the Elves their Orcs, Men their Wormtongues, Boromirs, and Denethors, the Ents their Old Man Willow, and the Hobbits their Gollum. The almost perfect symmetry with which Tolkien counterpoises each good being with its corresponding form of evil, far from suggesting a kind of Manichaean dualism and equipotency between good and evil, ought to remind us rather that evil owes even its otherwise extraordinary variety and subtlety to that authentic variety and subtlety that creation has by virtue of its participation in the “infinite variety” of the Creator.

[1] “[I]ta perfectio universi requirit ut sint quaedam quae a bonitate deficere possint; ad quod sequitur ea interdum deficere.”

Non-egalitarian Eden

Had it not been for the Fall, would all men have remained equal in the Garden of Eden? Thomas, in an article on “whether men were in the state of innocence” (Summa Theologiae 1.96.3, thinks not:

We must needs admit that in the primitive state there would have been some
inequality, at least as regards sex, because generation depends upon diversity of sex: and likewise as regards age; for some would have been born of others; nor would sexual union have been sterile.

Moreover, as regards the soul, there would have been inequality as to righteousness and knowledge. For man worked not of necessity, but of his own free-will, by virtue of which man can apply himself, more or less, to action, desire, or knowledge; hence some would have made a greater advance in virtue and knowledge than others.

There might also have been bodily disparity. For the human body was not entirely exempt from the laws of nature, so as not to receive from exterior sources more or less advantage and help: since indeed it was dependent on food wherewith to sustain life.

So we may say that, according to the climate, or the movement of the stars, some would have been born more robust in body than others, and also greater, and more beautiful, and all ways better disposed; so that, however, in those who were thus surpassed, there would have been no defect or fault either in soul or body.

In sum, men would have been dissimilar, and hence unequal, in sex, age, soul, body, and environment, yet all would have been without “defect or fault.” Thomas presses the point in the following article on “whether in the state of innocence man would have had dominion over man” (Summa Theologiae 1.96.4):

a man is the master of a free subject, by directing him either towards his proper welfare, or to the common good. Such a kind of mastership would have existed in the state of innocence between man and man, for two reasons. First, because man is naturally a social being, and so in the state of innocence he would have led a social life. Now a social life cannot exist among a number of people unless under the presidency of one to look after the common good; for many, as such, seek many things, whereas one attends only to one. Wherefore the Philosopher says, in the beginning of the Politics, that wherever many things are directed to one, we shall always find one at the head directing them. Secondly, if one man surpassed another in knowledge and virtue, this would not have been fitting unless these gifts conduced to the benefit of others, according to 1 Pet. 4:10, “As every man hath received grace, ministering the same one to another.” Wherefore Augustine says (De Civ. Dei xix, 14): “Just men command not by the love of domineering, but by the service of counsel”: and (De Civ. Dei xix, 15): “The natural order of things requires this; and thus did God make man.”

The inequality of men in the state of innocence leads to the dominion of some men over others even in a state of innocence.

“That will settle the Manichees!”: Thomas’s doctrine of evil in context

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 13

The previous post in this series considered the claims of some that, in contrast to the allegedly more dualistic approach to evil found in either Scripture or Tolkien’s fiction, the tendency of St. Thomas’s metaphysical thought is to rationalize evil either by reducing it to a nullity (i.e., the Augustinian privation theory of evil) or by completely accounting for it within the “economy of the good” (i.e., by making evil a mere “accidental” effect of the good). Before I proceed with a more particular consideration of Tolkien’s own depiction of evil, accordingly, it is well that we consider for a moment the extent to which Thomas’s own theory of evil is in fact indebted to his Christian metaphysics of creation. According to Brian Davies, who has written at length on Thomas’s theory of evil,[1] Thomas’s Christianity is in fact of central importance to his ponerology. Thomas, it may be recalled here, was a deeply committed friar of the Dominican order which had been founded earlier in the thirteenth century partly in response to the Manichaeism of the Albigensian or Catharist heresy.[2] For his own part, Thomas’s preoccupation with the Manichaean error seems to have been both personal and profound, as famously and humorously illustrated in his legendary outburst at the banquet hall of King Louis of France. Apparently lost in his thoughts and oblivious to his surroundings (Thomas’s abstractio mentis is legendary), Thomas stunned his host and fellow guests when he brought his fist crashing down on the table and triumphantly shouted, “And that will settle the Manichees!”[3] Testifying to Thomas’s interest in the question of evil in particular, moreover, is the fact that he convened an entire disputatio on the subject and had its lengthy proceedings published under the succinct title De malo, “On Evil.” Commenting on the significance of this work, Bonnie Kent observes: “Later medieval thinkers, as a rule, did not write treatises or conduct disputations dedicated to a topic so diffuse as evil. There is, however, one notable exception: Aquinas’s disputed questions De Malo (On Evil)…”[4]

As for his general orientation regarding the question of evil, Davies writes how for St. Thomas

the world is created and governed by a perfectly good God who is also omnipotent and omniscient. And he writes about evil in the light of this belief. In the De malo he is not concerned with scientific descriptions and scientific accounts of the causes of particular instances of evil (though he has things to say about them). Rather, he is out to focus on badness or evil in general. And he seeks to understand it as part of a world made by God. Hence, for example, he asks if God can be thought of as causing evil. And his account of human wrongdoing treats it chiefly as sin and as fallings short with respect to God. Hence, too, he touches on specifically Christian notions such as the doctrine of original sin.

            In other words, the De malo is very much a work of Christian theology.[5]

Further indication of the fundamentally Christian and creational perspective of Thomas’s ponerology may be found in the less occasional, more systematic (if less comprehensive) treatment of evil Thomas provides in the Summa Theologiae, where he broaches the topic of evil within the context of his broader address on the subject of creation (ST 1.48-9). When approaching evil in the context of the system of Christian doctrine as a whole, in other words, Thomas views it first and foremost as a distinction within creation, reinforcing the point that the being of which evil is a privation is not some bland, theologically neutral concept of being, much less the necessary, mediated, and impersonal emanation of the Neoplatonic One who is “beyond being,” but the voluntary, personal, and immediate gift shared by the One who is Being himself.[6] Evil, in sum, is first and foremost a privation of created being, an insight that, as I plan to show in the posts to immediately follow, is crucial for understanding  some of the subtleties of Tolkien’s own depiction of evil.

[1] See, for example, Davies, The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil, which treats the problem of evil from a Thomistic perspective.

[2] Lambert, The Cathars, 1.

[3] Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas: “The Dumb Ox,” 100-1.

[4] Kent, “Evil in Later Medieval Philosophy,” 182.

[5] Davies, “Introduction,” in Aquinas, On Evil, trans. Regan, 14-15.

[6] Davies indicates a further Christian dimension to Thomas’s theory of evil, especially vis-à-vis the comparatively more Neoplatonic, Arabic, emanationist, and necessitarian views of some of his contemporary intellectual opponents. Explaining Thomas’s belabored attempt in the sixth question of De malo to show that people do in fact act freely and not from necessity, Davies speculates that the angelic doctor’s purpose here “might possibly have been designed as an attempt to defend the position adopted by Stephen Tempier, bishop of Paris, who in 1270 condemned a number of propositions thought to be assented to by certain Parisian Aristotelians. Tempier denied that people act of necessity, and most of De malo’s Question VI is devoted to arguing at length that people do, indeed, act freely and not from necessity.” Davies, “Introduction,” 13. As I have shown elsewhere, for both Thomas and Tolkien, the reason human beings can act freely (and by implication, can thus be guilty of committing evil or rewarded for resisting it) is ultimately owing to the fact that the Creator himself gives or “guarantees” being freely to the will of finite agents.

“You Read Too Much”: Tolkien to Lewis on the Critic vs. the Writer

Tolkien’s theology of forgiveness, part 3 (part 1) (part 2)

Before getting to his fullest expression of his peculiar theory of forgiveness, Tolkien first seeks to explain to Lewis and put into context his caustic remarks on the latter’s English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. Lewis had, in his reply to Tolkien’s initial letter of apology, referred to him as a “critic,” a title that Tolkien is adamant to disclaim: “I am not a critic. I do not want to be one. I am capable on occasion (after long pondering) of ‘criticism’, but I am not naturally a critical man” (Letters 126, emphasis Tolkien’s). In a note on this passage, Tolkien elaborates further on his view that formal literary criticism actually “get[s] in the way of a writer who has anything personal to say,” and compares the critic-qua-writer to a tightrope walker whose in-the-act theorizing about equilibrium may cost him his grace, if not his balance. He goes on hesitatingly to suggest that this is in fact one of Lewis’s shortcomings—that he is too much the critic and that it “gets in your way, as a writer. You read too much, and too much of that analytically. But then you are also a born critic. I am not. You are also a born reader.”

In contrast (and in part due) to Lewis’s native analytic and critical bent, Tolkien says of himself that he has “been partly and in a sense unnaturally galvanized into it by the strongly ‘critical’ tendency of the brotherhood” (i.e., the Inklings). He again denies that he is “really ‘hyper-critical’” (presumably another term Lewis had used in his letter to describe him); instead, he writes,

I am usually only trying to express ‘liking’ not universally valid criticism. As a result I am in fact merely lost in a chartless alien sea. I need food of particular kinds, not exercise for my analytical wits (which are normally employed in other fields). For I have something that I deeply desire to make, and which it is the (largely frustrated) bent of my nature to make.

For Tolkien, his judgments are no mere academic exercise of the trained literary critic, but the stomach-rumbling (as it were) of a peculiar, even idiosyncratic literary taste and need for a certain kind of aesthetic and intellectual nourishment. Critics have palates that want teasing and pleasing; Tolkien, by contrast, admits simply to an intense spiritual hunger in need of satiation.

As he implies in the above passage, it is partly his failing to find adequate sustenance elsewhere, and partly his own artistic compulsion, that has fueled his own literary expression. His statement, moreover, that he has “something I deeply desire to make” should particularly call to mind the Vala Aulë from The Silmarillion, who, after Niggle, is perhaps Tolkien’s most autobiographical and self-parodying character (for more on Aulë, see here). Much like the author of the present letter, for example, in both Aulë and Niggle we have sub-creators whose preoccupation with the works of their own hands lead them (even if unintentionally) to neglect their duties toward, and to fall short in their love for, their nearest neighbors and friends. As for Aulë in particular, when caught by Ilúvatar in his misguided and hubristic attempt to make the Dwarves, he is asked if what he seeks is a lifeless corpse to dominate and manipulate at will—a perhaps not wholly inaccurate representation, it occurs to me, of Tolkien’s above views on the literary critic. In response to this chastisement Aulë humbly, penitently, yet boldly and not without some justification informs and reminds Ilúvatar that “I did not desire such lordship. I desired things other than I am… Yet the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee.” For Tolkien as much as for Aristotle and St. Thomas, nature (because ultimately the Creator) does nothing in vain, meaning in this case that the compulsory (because ultimately divine) call of the sub-creative must be answered.

(To be continued….)