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.

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