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.

Elves: Nostalgic Progressives or “Bad Conservatives”?

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 27

The previous post suggested that Tolkien flecks his characterization of the Elves with an element of the bad kind of escapism he discusses in his essay “On Fairy-Stories.” It should be said, however, that in the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth (“Debate of Finrod and Andreth,” Morgoth’s Ring), Tolkien allows Finrod to articulate a more balanced, considered Elvish perspective on the matter:

“Other creatures also in Middle-earth we [the Elves] love in their measure and kind: the beasts and birds who are our friends, the trees, and even the fair flowers that pass more swiftly than Men. Their passing we regret; but believe it to be a part of their nature, as much as are their shapes or their hues.” (Morgoth’s Ring 308)

Verlyn Flieger, in an excellent discussion of the necessity of change in Tolkien’s philosophy and fiction, indicates something of the complexity and even self-critical nature of Tolkien’s emphasis on this point. While Tolkien was himself an Elf of sorts, and his “psychological and emotional yearning was nostalgia for aspects of his world that had vanished or were vanishing in his lifetime, still, his philosophical and religious position was that change is necessary” (Splintered Light 170). Flieger also makes my earlier point about “evil” in this regard involving the desire for some good when she writes: “Desire to preserve a present good inevitably becomes desire to keep it from passing, but this leads to stagnation. The process of change is part of the design, and must continue if the design is to be fulfilled” (170). Finally, Peter Kreeft has also written perceptibly (if not slightly hyperbolically) on the problem of Elves and change, describing them as “bad conservatives: they want to embalm the present. Seeing the downward slant of the present, they try to preserve the past. They are not evil like Sauron, who always wants to sing ‘I Did It My Way’, but they are foolish because they sing ‘I Believe in Yesterday’” (The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind the Lord of the Rings, 80).