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.