The “Minor Melkorism” of the Elves

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 28

On a more philosophical level, then, Tolkien’s Elves may be seen to embody something of what my colleague Peter Leithart has described as the “tragic metaphysics” common to much ancient and modern philosophy, the tendency to “treat finitude, temporality, bodiliness, and limitation as philosophical and practical problems that must be either transcended or grudgingly accepted” (Deep Comedy: Trinity, Tragedy, and Hope in Western Literature, 38). At the theological level, moreover, the Elvish motive of preservation involves the primal sin of desiring God’s own power of creation resurfacing again, albeit in a highly muted form, in the context of Elvish art and immortality: instead of resting content in the Creator’s own power and “design” by limiting their art to cultivating and culling those properties already inherent in things by virtue of their createdness, the Elves were persuaded, as Tolkien puts it, to accept Sauron’s promise of godlike “‘power’ over things as they are (which is quite distinct from art)” (Letters 236). In desiring “to make their particular will to preservation effective” through art, the Elves were essentially coveting, like Melkor, Eru’s power of creation, that is, the total and immediate effectiveness of his will over created being. To cite a passage quoted earlier, the sub-creative desire having thus “become possessive, clinging to the things made as ‘its own’, the sub-creator wishes to be the Lord and God of his private creation” (Letters 145). As Tolkien puts it in another place, “[i]ndividual Elves might be seduced to a kind of minor ‘Melkorism’: desiring to be their own masters in Arda, and to have things their own way, leading in extreme cases to rebellion…” (Morgoth’s Ring 334). Even in the comparatively innocent Elvish motives of possessiveness and preservation we see the residue of the primeval lust of Melkor for the Creator’s power to give being.

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