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.

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