On the possibility of picturing impossible things

What do Tolkien, Vitruvius, Alan of Lille, and Gothic gargoyles have in common? They all touch on the problem of representing impossible things. According to historian of modality Simo Knuuttila,

[Alan of Lille] found no difficulty in asserting the possibliity of picturing impossible things. People drawing or painting chimeras and other fancy objects actually illustrate such things… In his book on architecture written in the first century before Christ, Vitruvius had condemned the use of pictures of things which cannot be (De architectura VII, 5). In the twelfth century, strange figures were not unusual in the decoration of church buildings. It is not always easy to say whether they were meant to be pictures of real or of non-existent animals, but in both cases they were intended probably to demonstrate God’s power by showing the actual or possible plurality of what divine power could bring about. (Knuuttila, Modalities in Medieval Philosophy, 102)

As I have argued before, for Tolkien sub-creative fantasy ultimately serves much the same theological purpose as Knuuttila here attributes to fantastical medieval architectural forms, namely the artist’s participation in God’s own freedom from the “channels the creator is known to have used already,” thereby accomplishing “a tribute to the infinity of His potential variety” (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien no. 153). In a more Vitruvian moment, however, Tolkien cautions in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” that such fantasy is best achieved through literature than in the visual arts. In painting, for example, he says that “the visible presentation of the fantastic image is technically too easy; the hand tends to outrun the mind, even to overthrow it. Silliness or morbidity are frequent results.” As he suggests later, in such cases “disbelief [has] not so much to be suspended as hanged, drawn, and quartered.”


The Logic and Economy of Light

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 51

In a comment on my previous post, my friend Matt Peterson suggests that “darkness is not evil, but is good, but is, like snow, something that evil uncovers.” To this I think I would answer (as Matt himself often does), “It depends.” As usual, I find Aquinas helpful here, whom I might paraphrase as saying that evil isn’t simply “non-being”; rather, evil is non-being where there is supposed to be being (where the “supposed” indicates, ultimately, divine intention, purpose, desire, etc.). Similarly, we might say that in Tolkien, darkness by itself isn’t necessarily a metaphor or image of evil. The darkness following the Ainur’s Vision in the Ainulindale is a good case in point, where it serves an aesthetic function of setting in relief both the light of the Vision preceding it and the light of Eä to follow.

Darkness where there is supposed to be light, however, does seem to be straightforwardly associated with evil, and this, of course, is what we have with Ungoliant. The darkness of the Ainulidale is progressive and eschatological, preceding but also anticipating a later, greater disclosure of light. Ungoliant’s darkness, by contrast, is regressive, a deliberate turning back the clock of creation, moving from being to non-being. Both “darknesses” involve a privation of light, yet the intentions behind each are radically at variance: one is a privation, the other a deprivation. They both involve an absence of light, and yet they both retain (paradoxically) an ordering toward the light that they make absent, one positively, the other negatively. As such, neither darkness is truly light’s “other” or opposite, inasmuch as they are both dependent upon light for their very (non)being, identity, and definition. Darkness, in other words, belongs to the economy of light, just as evil, according to St. Augustine, as “disordered love,” does not establish its own economy but falls within–or involves a falling off, as the case may be–the economy of the good. So both forms of darkness represent not just light’s absence, but also its memory, the one recollecting light nostalgically and expectantly, the other resentfully and rebelliously. Darkness, in short, is a very peculiar form of absence in that it makes light present by way of its absence. It is this respect in which darkness-as-evil never achieves its desired independence, but remains forever parasitic on the light that it hates and strives to negate, that ultimately underlies the comic and indeed eucatastrophic metaphysics of Tolkien. Darkness-as-evil strives to negate light, yet in the end must be negated by it, making light darkness’s own night.

“The Darkness was More than Loss of Light”: the Case of Ungoliant

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 50

Even more poignant an example of evil’s nihilistic bent than Melkor, and perhaps the closest Tolkien could be said to come to a Manichaean affirmation of evil as an ontologically independent force, is the horrifying specter of the spider-demon Ungoliant, the former servant of Melkor and ancestor to Shelob of The Lord of the Rings. (For an excellent analysis of Shelob, incidentally, see Alison Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 71-80.)

Because the predominant imagery throughout the episode of Ungoliant is that of light and darkness, we should perhaps begin our analysis with the Ainulindalë’s account of how, after the Ainur’s Vision had been taken away, “in that moment they perceived a new thing, Darkness, which they had not known before, except in thought” (Silmarillion 19-20). Here at least,  we observe, Tolkien unequivocally identifies darkness’s status as a mere privation of light and hence its dependence upon the prior existence of light for its very potency. In this manner Tolkien aptly illustrates St. Thomas’s point in the Summa regarding the dependence of evil upon the good, not only for its “existence,” but also for its possibility of being known and experienced: as “darkness is known through light,” so evil “must be known from the notion of good” (unum oppositorum cognoscitur per alterum, sicut per lucem tenebra. Unde et quid sit malum, oportet ex ratione boni accipere, ST 1.48.1).

Later on in The Silmarillion, however, when the character of Ungoliant is first introduced, Tolkien almost seems to contradict this relationship of dependence. Her existence is described as one of “taking all things to herself to feed her emptiness” and of hiding in a cleft in the mountain where she “sucked up all light that she could find, and spun it forth again in dark nets of strangling gloom, until no light more could come to her abode; and she was famished” (Silmarillion 73). When solicited by Melkor to aid him in his assault on Valinor, home of the Valar, she veils the two of them in “a cloak of darkness” which was nothing less than “an Unlight, in which things seemed to be no more, and which eyes could not pierce, for it was void” (74). More perplexing still is Tolkien’s account of the aftermath of Melkor and Ungoliant’s attack on the Two Trees of Valinor, at that time the two primary sources of light in the world: “The Light failed; but the Darkness that followed was more than loss of light. In that hour was made a Darkness that seemed not lack but a thing with being of its own: for it was indeed made by malice out of Light, and it had power to pierce the eye, and to enter heart and mind, and strangle the very will” (76).

In portraying the darkness and evil of Ungoliant as “more” than a mere “loss” or negation of light, but as a “thing with being of its own,” Tolkien would appear to challenge deliberately the Augustinian doctrine of evil as mere non-being in favor of the more dualistic and Manichaean account of evil. Indeed, the whole scene, especially with its emphasis on the imagery of light and darkness, poignantly captures the basic metaphysical drama defined by the Manichees, who believed that evil “came from an invasion of the good—the ‘Kingdom of Light’—by a hostile force of evil, equal in power, eternal, totally separate—the ‘Kingdom of Darkness’” (Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 47). As Tolkien, moreover, bracingly puts it in his “Mythopoeia” poem written to C.S. Lewis, “of Evil this / alone is deadly certain: Evil is” (Tree and Leaf 99).

(To be continued…….)

Mimetic Desire as Self-Annihilation

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 49

In the previous post I argued that, despite St. Thomas’s denial of its possibility, it nevertheless seems consistent with what he says elsewhere that Satan could have fallen by desiring (suicidally) equality with God. This, in any event, is how Satan’s fall has been interpreted by René Girard, whose theory of mimetic desire Hayden Head has applied to Tolkien’s portrayal of evil. According to Girard, the suicidal desire for the essence of an “other” is implicitly involved in all such imitative desire: when we desire objects, things, people, status, or the like, we do not desire them so much for themselves as we do for the much more sordid, envious reason that they are possessed by an “Other.” This means that desire for the object is in essence a desire for or towards the rival possessor of the object, meaning further that it is in fact the possessor who is the true object of desire. Entailed in this desire is an awareness that the rival, as the desired object, also stands in a position of superiority over the desirer. This acute awareness of one’s own inferiority Girard refers to as the “ontological sickness”: in coveting what the other desires, a person is in fact coveting the other’s own “essence,” and so in doing so sacrifices something of his own being. In his application of Girard’s analysis of mimetic desire to Tolkien’s fiction, Head writes of Melkor in particular that he

is driven by a desire to imitate Ilúvatar and wishes to claim the ultimate prerogative of Eru, which is the capacity to create. And though he possesses as much “being” as a contingent creature can possess, though he is more powerful than his fellow Ainur, nevertheless, Melkor is not content with any “being” less than Eru’s ultimate being. Like Satan’s doomed attempt to rival God, however, Melkor’s attempt to emulate Eru only serves to bring about his fall… Having failed to acquire the light of Ilúvatar, Melkor… is left with the bitter consolation of “fire and wrath,” dim parodies of Ilúvatar’s creative fire. (Head, “Imitative Desire,” 141-2)

Implicit in Melkor’s desire for the Flame Imperishable, in short, is the desire to supplant and to become his rival, Eru. His desire is the “ontologically sick” and self-annihilating one of having an essence and existence other than one’s own. As Thomas points out, however, such a desire is in effect a desire for the annihilation of one’s own being. As Tolkien himself puts it, the envy and “hatred of God… must end in nihilism” (Morgoth’s Ring)

The Suicide of Self-Deification

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 48

In the previous two posts we saw how suicide in Tolkien’s fiction enacts a kind of world annihilation. To return our attention to the Ainulindalë and the question of creation, the suicidal division between self-and-self and self-and-God may already be observed in Melkor’s hubristic desire for the Flame Imperishable. In his discussion of how the devil first “sinned by seeking to be as God,” Aquinas carefully qualifies his meaning to avoid the suggestion that, in doing so, the devil sought to be “equal” with God. According to Thomas, the angels sought to be “as God” not by equality, but rather by likeness, the basis for this distinction being that, first, the angels would have known equality with God to be intrinsically impossible for any creature, and second, that even if such equality were possible (or at least thought to be possible), in desiring it the angels would have been desiring a nature or essence other than their own, and thus would have been effectively desiring the abolition of their own being, a desire contrary to every nature (ST 1.63.3). (See also On Evil 16.3, “Whether the Devil Sinned by Desiring Equality with God.” As Thomas puts it in his article in the Summa on why evil is not or has no nature, “good is everything desirable; and thus, since every nature desires its own being and its own perfection, it must be said also that the being and the perfection of any nature has the character of goodness” (ST 1.48.1).) “Consequently,” Thomas summarizes, “no thing of a lower order can ever desire the grade of a higher nature, just as an ass does not desire to be a horse; for were it to be so upraised, it would cease to be itself.” For Thomas, in short, the desire that the devil may have had for God’s own power to create nevertheless could not have involved a desire to be equal with God, inasmuch as he would have known such an eventuality to have entailed his own non-existence. The creaturely desire to be God–or any other creature, for that matter–is a form of suicide.

Yet Thomas does not seem to have been consistent himself in his claim that no being can desire the realization of circumstances that would entail its own destruction. As it is, Thomas goes on in the same passage to recognize that there are moments (not applicable to the angels, given their incorporeality) when the “imagination plays us false,” leading a man to believe that by acquiring a “higher grade as to accidentals, which can increase without the destruction of the subject, he can also seek a higher grade of nature, to which he could not attain without ceasing to be.” Toward the beginning of the Summa, however, in his discussion of “whether good is prior in idea to being,” Thomas entertains the objection that good must be prior to being because it is more universal, a point illustrated with the case of Judas, of whom Scripture says that it would have been better for him not to have been born. To this objection Thomas replies that it is not the non-being of a thing itself that is ever desired; rather, its non-being is desired for the sake of the removal of some other evil in something else, which is to say, for the sake of the being of something else, and so “even non-being can be spoken of as relatively good” (ST 1.5.2 ad 3). Thus, it would seem consistent with Thomas’s own principles to say that the devil, in desiring to create, desired to be equal with God, and thus in a sense desired his own non-being, not for its own sake, but as a perceived condition for his gaining something good in itself.

Gollum and Frodo, the Suicide and the Martyr

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 47

It’s possible that his link between suicide and world-annihilation is also behind an early, alternative climax Tolkien envisioned to The Lord of the Rings, in which Gollum, rather than falling accidentally into the fires of Mount Doom with the Ring (as the final, published version has it), instead “commits suicide” by leaping into the fires with the Ring of his own accord, but not before pronouncing to Frodo that, in doing so, “I will destroy you all” (Sauron Defeated 5). Gollum’s statement may merely be referring to the eventuality that, in destroying the Ring along with himself, he would also succeed in killing Frodo and Sam in the conflagration to follow. However, it’s not at all obvious that Gollum could or would have known that the destruction of the Ring would result in such a cataclysm. Another, more tantalizing possibility, accordingly, is that Gollum’s declaration has a more symbolic (though for him, very real) force. Throughout the passage, it is worth noting, Tolkien emphasizes the state of Gollum’s “wretchedness” (he mentions it twice), and it is perhaps significant that, although Frodo and Sam are the only other individuals present, Gollum does not say “I will destroy you both,” but “I will destroy you all.” If Gollum, therefore, in this alternative ending saw his own death as a kind of ritual world-annihilation, together he and Frodo, who by contrast saw his own likely death as the means for saving the world, together rather precisely embody the radical metaphysical difference that Chesterton draws between the martyr and the suicide in Orthodoxy (a work that Tolkien was familiar with). As Chesterton puts it:

a suicide is the opposite of a martyr. A martyr is a man who cares so much for something outside him, that he forgets his own personal life. A suicide is a man who cares so little for anything outside him, that he wants to see the last of everything. One wants something to begin: the other wants everything to end. In other words, the martyr is noble, exactly because (however he renounces the world or execrates all humanity) he confesses this ultimate link with life; he sets his heart outside himself: he dies that something may live. The suicide is ignoble because he has not this link with being: he is a mere destroyer; spiritually, he destroys the universe. (Orthodoxy 78-9)

And linking Chesterton’s view of suicide back to his Thomistic doctrine of creation, in a manner no less applicable to Tolkien, Mark Knight writes that “the unique threat of suicide lies in the way that it inverts the act of Creation through an individual’s choice to undo that act” (Knight, Chesterton and Evil, 51). Self-annihilation is an act of resentment towards the fact that God alone gives and ultimately controls being.

Annihilation and suicide

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 46

In the previous post in this series I suggested that, in its final manifestation as annihilation, evil makes a kind of return to its beginning: what began as a creaturely attempt to usurp the Creator’s power to give being ends in the equally futile attempt to altogether obliterate it. There is a way, however, in which one can, at least ritually, enact after a fashion, and with some efficacy, the annihilation of the world, and that is through suicide, through the “annihilation,” that is, of one’s own self. Evil may never be able to “corrupt the whole good,” as Thomas says, yet because evil is the privation of being, it follows that every act of evil succeeds in eroding something of the evil-doer’s own being, causing him to be less than what he is. For Aquinas, as Philipp Rosemann observes, “to do evil, or to sin, means to act against one’s own conscience, that is to say, against the innermost core of one’s own being. This split within the human being, this division of the self against itself, is at the same time a split outside the human being, that is to say, a division between the sinner and God” (Rosemann, Understanding Scholastic Thought with Foucault, 170). One way of striking out at God, accordingly, is to strike at oneself as his image-bearer, and one way of obliterating the world is, so to speak, to obliterate oneself. We have seen an aspect of this in Sauron and Melkor, who in their desire to dominate and destroy are willing and even required to do violence to their own selves, rending their own spirits in an act that for Tolkien mythically dramatizes the spiritual suicide of the modern self, and all in order that they might invest part of themselves in the instruments and objects of their domination. (This idea has been revisited recently in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories, in which the “Dark Lord” Voldemort, in an effort to make himself immortal and invincible, creates “horcruxes” by violently splitting his own soul into seven different parts and putting each part into some fetish-object held to be of great value or lineage in the wizarding-world.)

The link between the destruction of the world and the self-destruction of suicide is brought out in the grim nihilism of Denethor, Steward of Gondor, who when asked by Gandalf what he would have if his will could have its way, answers:

‘I would have things as they were in all the days of my life,’ answered Denethor, ‘and in the days of my longfathers before me: to be the Lord of this City in peace, and leave my chair to a son after me, who would be his own master and no wizard’s pupil. But if doom denies this to me, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honour abated.’ (ROTK 130, emphasis original)

When it becomes evident that he cannot have things as they once were, Denethor indeed chooses “naught” and sets himself on fire (like one of the “heathen kings,” as he puts it), thus revealing the will to annihilation or nihilism latent not only within the will to domination, but even within the will to mere preservation examined earlier.

One greater than Beowulf: Aragorn and Tolkien’s marginalization of the monstrous

A couple of passages to comment briefly on Aragorn vis-a-vis Beowulf today. The first is Aragorn’s speech to Boromir at the Council of Elrond:

`If Gondor, Boromir, has been a stalwart tower, we have played another part. Many evil things there are that your strong walls and bright swords do not stay. You know little of the lands beyond your bounds. Peace and freedom, do you say? The North would have known them little but for us. Fear would have destroyed them. But when dark things come from the houseless hills, or creep from sunless woods, they fly from us. What roads would any dare to tread, what safety would there be in quiet lands, or in the homes of simple men at night, if the Dúnedain were asleep, or were all gone into the grave?
           `And yet less thanks have we than you. Travellers scowl at us, and countrymen give us scornful names. “Strider” I am to one fat man who lives within a day’s march of foes that would freeze his heart or lay his little town in ruin, if he were not guarded ceaselessly. Yet we would not have it otherwise. If simple folk are free from care and fear, simple they will be, and we must be secret to keep them so. That has been the task of my kindred, while the years have lengthened and the grass has grown.’

The second is Aragorn’s exchange with Halbarad in the chapter “The Passing of the Grey Company” on the departure of Legolas, Gimli, and Merry:

‘There go three that I love, and the smallest not the least,’ he said. ‘He knows not to what end he rides; yet if he knew, he still would go on.’

     ‘A little people, but of great worth are the Shire-folk,’ said Halbarad. ‘Little do they know of our long labour for the safekeeping of their borders, and yet I grudge it not.’

     ‘And now our fates are woven together,’ said Aragorn. 

In his essay “The Monsters and the Critics,” Tolkien admires the way in which the Beowulf poet, unlike Homer, places the monsters and the hero’s conflict therewith at the center of the work, and yet at the same time he cautions that the “wages” of such “heroism is death.” In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien further has Faramir identify the kind of Northern, “martial heroism” of Beowulf with what he calls the “middle men,” namely the comparatively primitive, less civilized Rohirrim, but also the Gondorians of his day as they have diminished from their former Numenorean ancestry (Two Towers, “Window on the West”). In this context, it is possible to interpret Aragorn’s practice in the North as Tolkien’s own, post-Beowulf-ian, Christian re-marginalization of the monstrous, inasmuch as he has his hero fighting monsters, not for any kind of fame or honor (the lure that brings Beowulf to Denmark to fight Grendel), but in utter anonymity, and solely for the good of those directly benefited by his action. Aragorn is the image of the idealized medieval Christian king, the ruler whose sole purpose is not his own but the good of his subjects.

Wisdom’s Policy of Folly: Thucydides, Paul, and Tolkien

In the Melian dialogue from his History of the Peloponnesian War, the Greek Historian Thucydides has the Athenian embassy (infamously) declare that the “strong do what they can while the weak suffer what they must.”

Several hundred years later, the Apostle Paul characterized the gospel of Jesus Christ’s victory over death through his resurrection in very different terms: “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1.25).

The central conflict of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings might be fairly described as a conflict between just these two philosophies. As Elrond summarizes the task and hope of the Fellowship, “This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”

“How Awful Goodness Is”: Milton’s Satan and Tolkien’s Saruman

Saruman the Gollum, part 3

In a previous post I compared in passing Saruman’s mimetic rivalry with Radagast (and Gandalf) to Satan’s encounter with the angel Zephon in book four of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The passage, however, is too good not to republish in full here, as Zephon’s humble yet righteous put-down of Satan has got to be one of the best in the history of western literature. Apropos my comparison of Saruman to Gollum, it might also be worth noting that, in the following scene, Satan has just been caught, in the form of a toad, whispering into the ear of the sleeping Eve. (And Saruman, we may recall, will corrupt Theoden in the form, not of a toad exactly, but of a “Wormtongue,” whispering, as Gandalf later puts it, “poison … for Théoden’s ears.”) Even after he has been forcibly transformed back into his normal form, there is a great deal of irony and, I would submit, humor in Zephon’s continued difficulty in recognizing who Satan is.

Know ye not then said SATAN, filld with scorn,
Know ye not me? ye knew me once no mate
For you, there sitting where ye durst not soare;
Not to know mee argues your selves unknown,
The lowest of your throng; or if ye know,
Why ask ye, and superfluous begin
Your message, like to end as much in vain?
To whom thus ZEPHON, answering scorn with scorn.
Think not, revolted Spirit, thy shape the same,
Or undiminisht brightness, to be known
As when thou stoodst in Heav’n upright and pure;
That Glorie then, when thou no more wast good,
Departed from thee, and thou resembl’st now
Thy sin and place of doom obscure and foule.
But come, for thou, be sure, shalt give account
To him who sent us, whose charge is to keep
This place inviolable, and these from harm.

So spake the Cherube, and his grave rebuke
Severe in youthful beautie, added grace
Invincible: abasht the Devil stood,
And felt how awful goodness is, and saw
Vertue in her shape how lovly, saw, and pin’d
His loss; but chiefly to find here observd
His lustre visibly impar’d; yet seemd
Undaunted. If I must contend, said he,
Best with the best, the Sender not the sent,
Or all at once; more glorie will be wonn,
Or less be lost. Thy fear, said ZEPHON bold,
Will save us trial what the least can doe
Single against thee wicked, and thence weak.

I won’t develop these at any length, but the above scene calls to mind a number of related passages from Tolkien. The linking elements throughout the following episodes  are (1) an encounter or conflict between a hierarchically lower yet more virtuous being and a higher yet morally compromised being, (2) the rebuke of some formally great being and the latter’s resentful shame, (3) some commentary on the futility and self-dehumanization of the formally great being’s rebellion, or (4) some combination of the above. Without suggesting that Tolkien’s politics were those of Milton, so far as Paradise Lost itself is concerned, the following passages harmonize with Milton’s observations into the ultimately and tragically pathetic destiny of rebellion (however heroic, proud, and noble may be its beginnings) and, in contrast with it, the humble “awfulness” of an obedient goodness.

1. Iluvatar’s rebuke and Melkor’s humiliation after the contest of the Music in the Ainulindale:

Then Ilúvatar spoke, and he said: ‘Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.’

    Then the Ainur were afraid, and they did not yet comprehend the words that were said to them; and Melkor was filled with shame, of which came secret anger. 

2.   Fëanor’s humiliating and contemptuous dismissal of Morgoth from Formenos:

he came to Formenos, and spoke with Fëanor before his doors. Friendship he feigned with cunning argument, urging him to his former thought of flight from the trammels of the Valar… Fëanor looked upon Melkor with eyes that burned through his fair semblance and pierced the cloaks of his mind, perceiving there his fierce lust for the Silmarils. Then hate overcame Fëanor’s fear, and he cursed Melkor and bade him be gone, saying: ‘Get thee gone from my gate, thou jail-crow of Mandos!’ And he shut the doors of his house in the face of the mightiest of all the dwellers in Eä.
    Then Melkor departed in shame, for he was himself in peril, and he saw not his time yet for revenge; but his heart was black with anger. (Silmarillion, “Of the Silmarils and the Unrest of the Noldor”) 

3. Merry and Aragorn’s discussion of Saruman’s former greatness in comparison to his later degradation:

‘They [the Ents] pushed, pulled, tore, shook, and hammered; and clang-bang, crash-crack, in five minutes they had these huge gates just lying in ruin; and some were already beginning to eat into the walls, like rabbits in a sand-pit. I don’t know what Saruman thought was happening; but anyway he did not know how to deal with it. His wizardry may have been falling off lately, of course; but anyway I think he has not much grit, not much plain courage alone in a tight place without a lot of slaves and machines and things, if you know what I mean. Very different from old Gandalf. I wonder if his fame was not all along mainly due to his cleverness in settling at Isengard.’

            ‘No,’ said Aragorn. ‘Once he was as great as his fame made him. His knowledge was deep, his thought was subtle, and his hands marvellously skilled; and he had a power over the minds of others. The wise he could persuade, and the smaller folk he could daunt. That power he certainly still keeps. There are not many in Middle-earth that I should say were safe, if they were left alone to talk with him, even now when he has suffered a defeat. Gandalf, Elrond, and Galadriel, perhaps, now that his wickedness has been laid bare, but very few others.’ (The Two Towers, “Flotsam and Jetsam”)

4.  Saruman’s attempt to parley with Theoden, Theoden’s remonstration, and Saruman’s response:

‘I say, Theoden King: shall we have peace and friendship, you and I? It is ours to command.’

      ‘We will have peace,’ said Theoden at last thickly and with an effort…. Yes, we will have peace,’ he said, now in a clear voice, ‘we will have peace, when you and all your works have perished – and the works of your dark master to whom you would deliver us. You are a liar, Saruman, and a corrupter of men’s hearts. You hold out your hand to me, and I perceive only a finger of the claw of Mordor. Cruel and cold! Even if your war on me was just as it was not, for were you ten times as wise you would have no right to rule me and mine for your own profit as you desired – even so, what will you say of your torches in Westfold and the children that lie dead there? And they hewed Hama’s body before the gates of the Hornburg, after he was dead. When you hang from a gibbet at your window for the sport of your own crows, I will have peace with you and Orthanc. So much for the House of Eorl. A lesser son of great sires am I, but I do not need to lick your fingers. Turn elsewhither. But I fear your voice has lost its charm.’

    The Riders gazed up at Theoden like men startled out of a dream. Harsh as an old raven’s their master’s voice sounded in their ears after the music of Saruman. But Saruman for a while was beside himself with wrath. He leaned over the rail as if he would smite the King with his staff. To some suddenly it seemed that they saw a snake coiling itself to strike.
     ‘Gibbets and crows!’ he hissed, and they shuddered at the hideous change. ‘Dotard! What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among the dogs? Too long have they escaped the gibbet themselves. But the noose comes, slow in the drawing, tight and hard in the end. Hang if you will!’ Now his voice changed, as he slowly mastered himself. ‘I know not why I have had the patience to speak to you. For I need you not, nor your little band of gallopers, as swift to fly as to advance, Theoden Horsemaster. Long ago I offered you a state beyond your merit and your wit. I have offered it again, so that those whom you mislead may clearly see the choice of roads. You give me brag and abuse. So be it. Go back to your huts!

5. Saruman’s attempt to parley with Gandalf, and Gandalf’s mockery and control over Saruman (note once again Saruman’s Gollum-speak–“so condescending, and so very kind”–as well as Gandalf’s description of Saruman’s Gollum-like condition–“But you choose to stay and gnaw the ends of your old plots”):  

‘But you, Gandalf! For you at least I am grieved, feeling for your shame. How comes it that you can endure such company? For you are proud, Gandalf – and not without reason, having a noble mind and eyes that look both deep and far. Even now will you not listen to my counsel?’… Are we not both members of a high and ancient order, most excellent in Middle-earth? Our friendship would profit us both alike. Much we could still accomplish together, to heal the disorders of the world. Let us understand one another, and dismiss from thought these lesser folk! Let them wait on our decisions! For the common good I am willing to redress the past, and to receive you. Will you not consult with me? Will you not come up?’

       ….Then Gandalf laughed. The fantasy vanished like a puff of smoke. ‘Saruman, Saruman!’ said Gandalf still laughing. ‘Saruman, you missed your path in life. You should have been the king’s jester and earned your bread, and stripes too, by mimicking his counsellors. Ah me!’ he paused, getting the better of his mirth. ‘Understand one another? I fear I am beyond your comprehension. But you, Saruman, I understand now too well…. Nay, I do not think I will come up. But listen, Saruman, for the last time! Will you not come down? Isengard has proved less strong than your hope and fancy made it. So may other things in which you still have trust. Would it not be well to leave it for a while? To turn to new things, perhaps? Think well, Saruman! Will you not come down?’

        A shadow passed over Saruman’s face; then it went deathly white. Before he could conceal it, they saw through the mask the anguish of a mind in doubt, loathing to stay and dreading to leave its refuge. For a second he hesitated, and no one breathed. Then he spoke, and his voice was shrill and cold. Pride and hate were conquering him.

        ‘Will I come down?’ he mocked. ‘Does an unarmed man come down to speak with robbers out of doors? I can hear you well enough here. I am no fool, and I do not trust you, Gandalf. They do not stand openly on my stairs, but I know where the wild wood-demons are lurking, at your command.’

         ‘The treacherous are ever distrustful,’ answered Gandalf wearily. ‘But you need not fear for your skin. I do not wish to kill you, or hurt you, as you would know, if you really understood me. And I have the power to protect you. I am giving you a last chance. You can leave Orthanc, free – if you choose.’

      ‘That sounds well,’ sneered Saruman. ‘Very much in the manner of Gandalf the Grey: so condescending, and so very kind…. But why should I wish to leave?…’

      ‘Reasons for leaving you can see from your windows,’ answered Gandalf. ‘…But you will first surrender to me the Key of Orthanc, and your staff. They shall be pledges of your conduct, to be returned later, if you merit them.’

       Saruman’s face grew livid, twisted with rage, and a red light was kindled in his eyes. He laughed wildly. ‘Later!’ he cried, and his voice rose to a scream. ‘Later! Yes, when you also have the Keys of Barad-dur itself, I suppose; and the crowns of seven kings, and the rods of the Five Wizards, and have purchased yourself a pair of boots many sizes larger than those that you wear now. A modest plan. Hardly one in which my help is needed! I have other things to do. Do not be a fool. If you wish to treat with me, while you have a chance, go away, and come back when you are sober! And leave behind these cut-throats and small rag-tag that dangle at your tail! Good day!’ He turned and left the balcony.

      ‘Come back, Saruman!’ said Gandalf in a commanding voice. To the amazement of the others, Saruman turned again, and as if dragged against his will, he came slowly back to the iron rail, leaning on it, breathing hard. His face was lined and shrunken. His hand clutched his heavy black staff like a claw. ‘I did not give you leave to go,’ said Gandalf sternly. ‘I have not finished. You have become a fool, Saruman, and yet pitiable. You might still have turned away from folly and evil, and have been of service. But you choose to stay and gnaw the ends of your old plots…. Saruman!’ he cried, and his voice grew in power and authority. ‘Behold, I am not Gandalf the Grey, whom you betrayed. I am Gandalf the White, who has returned from death. You have no colour now, and I cast you from the order and from the Council.’ He raised his hand, and spoke slowly in a clear cold voice. ‘Saruman, your staff is broken.’ There was a crack, and the staff split asunder in Saruman’s hand, and the head of it fell down at Gandalf’s feet. ‘Go!’ said Gandalf. With a cry Saruman fell back and crawled away. (The Two Towers, “The Voice of Saruman”) 

6. The Fellowship’s encounter with Saruman while returning to Rivendell:

As they came out again into the open country at sundown they overtook an old man leaning on a staff, and he was clothed in rags of grey or dirty white, and at his heels went another beggar, slouching and whining. ‘Well Saruman!’ said Gandalf. ‘Where are you going?’

          ‘What is that to you?’ he answered. ‘Will you still order my goings, and are you not content with my ruin?’

         ‘You know the answers,’ said Gandalf, ‘no and no. But in any case the time of my labours now draws to an end. The King has taken on the burden. If you had waited at Orthanc, you would have seen him, and he would have shown you wisdom and mercy.’

     ‘Then all the more reason to have left sooner,’ said Saruman, ‘for I desire neither of him. Indeed if you wish for an answer to your first question, I am seeking a way out of his realm.’

       ‘Then once more you are going the wrong way,’ said Gandalf, ‘and I see no hope in your journey. But will you scorn our help? For we offer it to you.’

      ‘To me?’ said Saruman. ‘Nay, pray do not smile at me! I prefer your frowns. And as for the Lady here, I do not trust her: she always hated me, and schemed for your part. I do not doubt that she has brought you this way to have the pleasure of gloating over my poverty. Had I been warned of your pursuit, I would have denied you the pleasure.’

      ‘Saruman,’ said Galadriel, ‘we have other errands and other cares that seem to us more urgent than hunting for you. Say rather that you are overtaken by good fortune; for now you have a last chance.’

       ‘If it be truly the last, I am glad,’ said Saruman, ‘for I shall be spared the trouble of refusing it again. All my hopes are ruined, but I would not share yours. If you have any.’

     For a moment his eyes kindled. ‘Go!’ he said. ‘I did not spend long study on these matters for naught. You have doomed yourselves, and you know it. And it will afford me some comfort as I wander to think that you pulled down your own house when you destroyed mine. And now, what ship will bear you back across so wide a sea?’ he mocked. ‘It will be a grey ship, and full of ghosts.’ He laughed, but his voice was cracked and hideous…. As the wretched pair passed by the company they came to the hobbits, and Saruman stopped and stared at them; but they looked at him with pity.

        ‘So you have come to gloat too, have you, my urchins?’ he said. ‘You don’t care what a beggar lacks, do you? For you have all you want, food and fine clothes, and the best weed for your pipes. Oh yes, I know! I know where it comes from. You would not give a pipeful to a beggar, would you?’

      ‘I would, if I had any,’ said Frodo.

      ‘You can have what I have got left,’ said Merry, ‘if you will wait a moment.’ He got down and searched in the bag at his saddle. Then he handed to Saruman a leather pouch. ‘Take what there is,’ he said. ‘You are welcome to it; it came from the flotsam of Isengard.’

       ‘Mine, mine, yes and dearly bought!’ cried Saruman, clutching at the pouch. ‘This is only a repayment in token; for you took more, I’ll be bound. Still, a beggar must be grateful, if a thief returns him even a morsel of his own. Well, it will serve you right when you come home, if you find things less good in the Southfarthing than you would like. Long may your land be short of leaf!’

      ‘Thank you!’ said Merry. ‘In that case I will have my pouch back, which is not yours and has journeyed far with me. Wrap the weed in a rag of your own.’ ‘One thief deserves another,’ said Saruman, and turned his back on Merry, and kicked Wormtongue, and went away towards the wood. (The Return of the King, “Many Partings” 

7. Finally, Frodo’s encounter with Saruman-cum-Sharkey in the Shire:

‘[A]nd so I am able to welcome you home.’ There standing at the door was Saruman himself, looking well-fed and well-pleased; his eyes gleamed with malice and amusement.

         A sudden light broke on Frodo. ‘Sharkey!’ he cried.

        Saruman laughed. ‘So you have heard the name, have you? All my people used to call me that in Isengard, I believe. A sign of affection, possibly. But evidently you did not expect to see me here.’

      ‘I did not,’ said Frodo. ‘But I might have guessed. A little mischief in a mean way: Gandalf warned me that you were still capable of it.

        ‘Quite capable,’ said Saruman, ‘and more than a little. You made me laugh, you hobbit-lordlings, riding along with all those great people so secure and so pleased with your little selves. You thought you had done very well out of it all, and could now just amble back and have a nice quiet time in the country. Saruman’s home could be all wrecked, and he could be turned out, but no one could touch yours. Oh no! Gandalf would look after your affairs.’

       Saruman laughed again. ‘Not he! When his tools have done their task he drops them. But you must go dangling after him, dawdling and talking, and riding round twice as far as you needed. “Well,” thought I, “if they’re such fools, I will get ahead of them and teach them a lesson. One ill turn deserves another.” It would have been a sharper lesson, if only you had given me a little more time and more Men. Still I have already done much that you will find it hard to mend or undo in your lives. And it will be pleasant to think of that and set it against my injuries.’

         ‘Well, if that is what you find pleasure in,’ said Frodo, ‘I pity you. It will be a pleasure of memory only, I fear. Go at once and never return!’

       The hobbits of the villages had seen Saruman come out of one of the huts, and at once they came crowding up to the door of Bag End. When they heard Frodo’s command, they murmured angrily:

        ‘Don’t let him go! Kill him! He’s a villain and a murderer. Kill him!’

        Saruman looked round at their hostile faces and smiled. ‘Kill him!’ he mocked. ‘Kill him, if you think there are enough of you, my brave hobbits!’ He drew himself up and stared at them darkly with his black eyes. ‘But do not think that when I lost all my goods I lost all my power! Whoever strikes me shall be accursed. And if my blood stains the Shire, it shall wither and never again be healed.’

       The hobbits recoiled. But Frodo said: ‘Do not believe him! He has lost all power, save his voice that can still daunt you and deceive you, if you let it. But I will not have him slain. It is useless to meet revenge with revenge: it will heal nothing. Go, Saruman, by the speediest way!’…..

        Saruman turned to go, and Wormtongue shuffled after him. But even as Saruman passed close to Frodo a knife flashed in his hand, and he stabbed swiftly. The blade turned on the hidden mail-coat and snapped. A dozen hobbits, led by Sam, leaped forward with a cry and flung the villain to the ground. Sam drew his sword.

        ‘No, Sam!’ said Frodo. ‘Do not kill him even now. For he has not hurt me. And in any case I do not wish him to be slain in this evil mood. He was great once, of a noble kind that we should not dare to raise our hands against. He is fallen, and his cure is beyond us; but I would still spare him, in the hope that he may find it.’

        Saruman rose to his feet, and stared at Frodo. There was a strange look in his eyes of mingled wonder and respect and hatred. ‘You have grown, Halfling,’ he said. ‘Yes, you have grown very much. You are wise, and cruel. You have robbed my revenge of sweetness, and now I must go hence in bitterness, in debt to your mercy. I hate it and you!….’ (Return of the King, “The Scouring of the Shire”)  

Sub-creation and Augustine’s “seminal reasons”

John Houghton has pointed out a number of similarities between Augustine’s account of creation in his commentaries on Genesis and Tolkien’s depiction of creation in the Ainulindalë. One of the comparisons Houghton draws in particular is between Augustine’s doctrine of “seminal reasons,” according to which God in the beginning enfolded within the initial, created reality the potentialities for all the kinds of beings and processes that would later be realized, with Tolkien’s representation of the structure and history of the world as the outworking of the primeval Music sung by the angelic Ainur and Ilúvatar the Creator. As Simo Knuuttila summarizes Augustine’s doctrine of seminal reasons:

Augustine was very fond of associating the conception of simultaneous creation with the doctrine of seminal reasons (rationes seminales or rationes causales) which was found in slightly different forms in Stoic and Platonic philosophy. He was not the first to regard this as a theologically significant conception, but he systematized it more than his predecessors. According to Augustine, the members of the natural kinds which unfolded later on their own were created in seminal form at the beginning, but the seminal reasons also involved the seeds of all miraculous deviations from the common course of nature. In this way God remained the ultimate creator of every new being (De Gen. ad litt. 6.10.17-11.19, .14.25-15.26; De Trin. 3.8.13-9.16). (Knuuttila, “Time and Creation in Augustine,” in The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, 104)

In addition to providing a powerful, fictional representation of the Augustinian theory of cosmic history as the providential unfolding of an original plan embedded in creation from the beginning, Tolkien’s purpose in the Ainulindalë was, of course, to dramatize on a mythic and cosmic scale the profound metaphysical contribution of the human act of sub-creation in the fulfillment of the being of creation. If so, then it is reasonable to see Augustine’s theory of seminal reasons as standing behind not only the Ainulindalë, but also behind the theory of sub-creation which it so beautifully illustrates. In particular, and with this in mind, it is difficult not to see Augustine somewhere in the background of Tolkien’s statement in “On Fairy-Stories” that

[s]o great is the bounty with which [man] has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.

To adapt the Apostle Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 3, God the Creator has planted, Man the Sub-creator has watered, and it is God the Redeemer who gives the increase.

Saruman’s mimetic desire

Saruman the Gollum, part 2

For all his sophistication, a further indication of the corruption of Saruman’s mind and soul is the self-incriminating hypocrisy of his description of Gandalf as “wandering about the lands, and concerning himself in every business, whether it belongs to him or not,” for as Treebeard tells Merry and Pippen, “minding the affairs of Men and Elves” was precisely what the wizards were sent to Middle-earth to do, a task to which Gandalf remained faithful but which Saruman abandoned, instead “tak[ing] up with foul folk, with the Orcs,” creatures with whom he certainly ought to have had no “business.” Treebeard outlines the diminishment of Saruman in these further, incriminating words:

“There was a time when he was always walking about my woods. He was polite in those days, always asking my leave (at least when he met me); and always eager to listen. I told him many things that he would never have found out by himself; but he never repaid me in like kind. I cannot remember that he ever told me anything. And he got more and more like that; his face, as I remember it – I have not seen it for many a day – became like windows in a stone wall: windows with shutters inside.”

Saruman began as a “wizard,” which is to say, one of the “Wise,” but in his play to become a “Power,” we see him having to stoop to the level of a disgraceful liar. Saruman has become a Gollum.

Other comparisons between Saruman and Gollum might be made. I have already mentioned Saruman’s “scoffing” reference to Gandalf “the Grey,” and when Gandalf mentions Radagast, Saruman “no longer concealed his scorn”: ” ‘Radagast the Brown!’ laughed Saruman… ‘Radagast the Bird-tamer! Radagast the Simple! Radagast the Fool!'” This pointless, unprovoked, and out-of-all-proportion litany of insults is telling. On the one hand, through the powerful and learned Saruman’s derision of the wandering, poverty- and nature-loving Franciscan, Radagast, Tolkien might be seen unmasking the feigned, pragmatic, “beyond-good-and-evil” indifference of the technocratic, industrialist will-to-dominate, as something much more abject, namely a subliminal envy and resentment in the face of an aesthetically arresting and morally indicting created goodness. Like Milton’s Satan when confronted by the hierarchically subordinate yet unfallen cherub, Zephon (Paradise Lost, bk. 4), Saruman’s posture of superiority is really a front for a secretly and perhaps only half-consciously realized moral–and to that extent, metaphysical–inferiority.

Saruman the Gollum

Where some critics have faulted Tolkien’s treatment of evil as sentimental and simplistic (Edmund Wilson’s 1956 article “Ooh, Those Awful Orcs” is the classic example), his work has been admired by others precisely for the subtlety and even sympathy with which he treats the darker side of human nature. Sam alone is sufficient refutation of there being any partisan and bigoted “us-vs.-them” prejudices in Tolkien’s fiction, when, in his “first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much,” he has this reflection upon the fallen body of a Southron killed by Faramir’s party: “He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace…”

One dimension to Tolkien’s sophisticated portrayal of evil is his presentation of it in both its more grandiose and complex (e.g., Denethor) and in its more loathsome and de-personalized (e.g., the Mouth of Sauron) moments. Some of what I have written before on Fëanor’s heroic nihilism, moreover, might be taken as an exploration of Tolkien’s ability to harness these two extremes within a single character. Another character, I suggest, through whom Tolkien examines at once the noble heights and the pathetic depths of which his villains are capable, is that of Saruman, someone whose greatness we are continually reminded of throughout The Lord of the Rings, and yet in whom we see the pitiful process of “Gollumification” playing itself out from the very beginning.

The passage that first suggested to me a certain resemblance between the high Saruman and the low Gollum occurs in his speech (reported at the Council of Elrond) to Gandalf that the latter would remain a prisoner at Orthanc

“Until you reveal to me where the One may be found. I may find means to persuade you. Or until it is found in your despite, and the Ruler has time to turn to lighter matters: to devise, say, a fitting reward for the hindrance and insolence of Gandalf the Grey.”

    “That may not prove to be one of the lighter matters,” said I. He laughed at me, for my words were empty, and he knew it.

Although it is Saruman’s statement that we are principally interested in here, I include Gandalf’s reply and his diffident admission of its hollowness only to point out the irony the exchange attains in light of later events: dealing with Gandalf, of course, does prove not “to be one of the lighter matters” for the Enemy. In The Two Towers, accordingly, Tolkien will answer this scene with another encounter at Orthanc in which this time it will be Gandalf who will deploy laughter–not the sneering, self-important, cynicism of Saruman, but what Pippin later describes as “a great joy: a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth–to similarly shatter and deflate the deceptive pretensions of Saruman.

The ultimate smallness of Saruman’s threat to Gandalf, however, is seen not only in what transpires later, for this is not in fact the first time we have heard someone promise to enlist Sauron’s aid to punish his offenders. In “The Shadow of the Past,” Gandalf describes his encounter with Gollum in which the latter “muttered that he was going to get his own back. People would see if he would stand being kicked, and driven into a hole and then robbed. Gollum had good friends now, good friends and very strong.” As petty, sullen, vengeful, and pusilanimous as Gollum’s boast may sound–a mentality Nietzsche acutely diagnosed in his discussion of ressentiment–when stripped of its high rhetoric, it is edifying to observe that this is essentially what much of Saruman’s speech to Gandalf at Isengard reduces to. When Gandalf first arrives at Isengard seeking Saruman’s help, Saruman “scoffingly” addresses him as “Gandalf the Grey,” and the sarcastic, passive aggression of his address is remarkably Gollum-like: “For aid? It has seldom been heard of that Gandalf the Grey sought for aid, one so cunning and so wise, wandering about the lands, and concerning himself in every business, whether it belongs to him or not.” Gandalf says that he “looked at him and wondered,” and well he might have: Saruman is sounding like a learned Gollum.

(to be continued)

Tolkien and Aquinas on the divine power of annihilation

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 45

Given my earlier point about evil always involving the desire for some good, it may well be wondered how the Melkorish will to annihilation is even psychologically possible. How can someone will nothing, that is, find the utter absence of anything desirable, given that the proper object of the will is always some real or perceived good, and that what is good is always something that has being? Nothing, in short, cannot be a cause, even of desire. (As Umberto Eco has remarked in the different but not unrelated case of the modern affirmation of non-being or nothingness over being or existence as the simpler or primary metaphysical explanation of things, “if we aspire to nothingness, by this act of aspiration we are already in being.” Eco, “On Being,” 16.)

To answer this question, we may recall how the Sauronic desire to suppress the alterity of things is in fact a desire for something of the aseity of God, and even the express desire to rebel against God is a desire for an apparent good, namely independence. In the same way, the desire to annihilate, like the desire to create, is a desire for a power that God alone has, and therefore, taken by itself, is something good. Indeed, the power to create is identical with the power to annihilate, the power to give existence being one with the power also to take it away. In his discussion of divine government in the Summa, in an article on “whether God can annihilate anything,” Thomas explains that just as God is free to create and preserve things in their being in the first place, “so after they have been made, He is free not to give them being, and thus they would cease to exist; and this would be to annihilate them” (ST 1.104.3). (Were God in fact to annihilate things in this way, of course, Thomas argues that God wouldn’t exactly be “causing” it to cease to exist, inasmuch as “[n]on-being has no cause per se,” and God as pure being can only cause something like himself, namely being. Rather, by virtue of their being created from nothing, creatures already have a constitutional “tendency” toward non-being, so that if they were annihilated, it would not be because God actively “caused” it to be,  but “by withdrawing His [creative] action from them” [ST 1.104.3 ad 1]. As Thomas explains further, “[i]f God were to annihilate anything, this would not imply an action on God’s part, but a mere cessation of His action” [ST 1.104.3 ad 3].) And although Thomas does not make the point expressly, because things exist as a result of God immediately and “continually pouring out being into them” (ST 1.104.3), it stands to reason that nothing but God could ever bring it about that they altogether cease to exist (ST 1.104.4). (Even so, as Thomas argues in this same article, God in fact does not and will not annihilate anything, for in the order of nature things may become corrupted, but then the matter out of which things are made would still exist. Nor does annihilation occur according to the supernatural order of the “manifestation of grace, since rather the power and goodness of God are manifested by the preservation of things in being. Therefore we must conclude by denying absolutely that anything at all will be annihilated.”)

It is to this same realization that Melkor is forcibly brought, for as Tolkien further explains in his “Notes on motives in the Silmarillion,” for all his efforts at obliterating the being of things, Melkor “was aware, at any rate originally when still capable of rational thought, that he could not ‘annihilate’ them: that is, destroy their being… Melkor could not, of course, ‘annihilate’ anything of matter, he could only ruin or destroy or corrupt the forms given to matter by other minds in their sub-creative activities” (Morgoth’s Ring 395 and note). Continuing on, Tolkien writes that Melkor nevertheless “became so far advanced in Lying that he lied even to himself, and pretended that he could destroy them and rid Arda of them altogether. Hence his endeavour always to break wills and subordinate them to or absorb them into his own will and being, before destroying their bodies. This was sheer nihilism, and negation its one ultimate object…” (396). Thus, even in Melkor’s rage to level all “into a formless chaos” Tolkien suggests there is a glimmer of hope, for “even so he would have been defeated, because it [i.e., the world] would still have ‘existed’, independent of his own mind, and a world in potential.” As to the reason why the ultimate “destruction and reduction to nil” must be impossible, the closest Tolkien comes to explaining this directly is his statement that it was “a world in which [Melkor] had only a share” (397), a reference that may remind us of Ilúvatar’s speech to the Ainur in the Book of Lost Tales version of the Ainulindalë that he has made all things to “share in the reality of Ilúvatar myself” (Book of Lost Tales 55). That the will to annihilate is ultimately in rivalry with God may be further seen in Tolkien’s equivalence, quoted earlier, between Melkor’s “lust for destruction” on the one hand and “his hatred of God (which must end in nihilism)” on the other (Morgoth’s Ring 397). Things have their being by participating in God, by having God, as Thomas puts it, “continually pouring out being into them.” Creaturely existence is a font that, having the divine being and power itself as its infinite reservoir, only God can “turn off.” The same power to “send forth” the Flame Imperishable that Melkor seeks at the beginning of creation is also one with the power to withdraw it, so that Melkor can no more prevent the Creator from communicating being to his creatures through annihilation than Melkor could successfully replace the Creator as the source of their being through their domination. Again we find that evil in Tolkien’s fictional world not only begins with but also returns to and climaxes in a futile defiance of the kind of theological metaphysics of creation articulated by St. Thomas.

From Domination to Annihilation

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 44

The fifth and final stage in Tolkien’s “lowerarchy” of evil, already anticipated in his account of domination and thus revealing the latent motive within it, is that of outright annihilation, the will not simply to control and subordinate the being of others, but to destroy them all together. In the Ainulindalë, accordingly, although Melkor is initially satisfied, when the Vision of the world is first given, with making himself the lord and master over it, when he fails (as he must) to achieve this, he falls into utter nihilism in his efforts simply to undo all the demiurgic work of the other Valar. In a commentary titled “Notes on motives in the Silmarillion” (a variant manuscript refers to it as “Some notes on the ‘philosophy‘ of the Silmarillion–Morgoth’s Ring 394), Tolkien distinguishes the domination of Sauron from the later annihilationism of Melkor in this way:

when Melkor was confronted by the existence of other inhabitants of Arda, with other wills and intelligences, he was enraged by the mere fact of their existence… Hence his endeavor always to break wills and subordinate them to or absorb them into his own will and being, before destroying their bodies. This was sheer nihilism, and negation its one ultimate object: Morgoth would no doubt, if he had been victorious, have ultimately destroyed even his own “creatures,” such as the Orcs, when they had served his sole purpose in using them: the destruction of Elves and Men… [L]eft alone, he could only have gone raging on till all was leveled again into a formless chaos…

            Sauron had never reached this stage of nihilistic madness. He did not object to the existence of the world, so long as he could do what he liked with it. He still had the relics of positive purposes, that descended from the good of the nature in which he began: it had been his virtue (and therefore also the cause of his fall, and of his relapse) that he loved order and coordination, and disliked all confusion and wasteful friction…

            Morgoth had no “plan”: unless destruction and reduction to nil of a world in which he had only a share can be called a “plan.” But this is, of course, a simplification of the situation. Sauron had not served Morgoth, even in his last stages, without becoming infected by his lust for destruction, and his hatred of God (which must end in nihilism). (MR 395-7)

The will to dominate, as typified by Sauron, still at least admits the existence and therefore at some level the desirableness of other things, provided they can be made to enlarge oneself. This ambition, however, is never wholly achievable, inasmuch as the otherness of things is ultimately an irreducible, transcendental prerogative and gift of all being, and so the unwavering pursuit of absolute domination invariably devolves into annihilationism, the will to power, in other words, into the will to obliterate. In his suggestion that, following the success of his own domination, Melkor “could only have gone raging on till all was leveled again into a formless chaos,” Tolkien articulates the same logical progression of evil that he may have observed in Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism, wherein Maritain alludes to Thomas’s discussion in the Summa on the potentially infinite hunger of the concupiscible appetite (ST 1-2, 30, 4):

Material progress may contribute [to the production of art], to the extent that it allows man leisure of soul. But if such progress is employed only to serve the will to power and to gratify a cupidity which opens infinite jaws—concupiscentia est infinita—it leads the world back to chaos at an accelerated speed; that is its way of tending toward the principle. (Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 75)

In summary, in Melkor we see the misguided, primeval attempt at making things other than himself, after passing through the Sauronic desire to assimilate all other things to his own self, devolve finally into its complete antithesis in the desire to unmake those things other than himself, the feeling of one’s own being as threatened by and impinged upon by the mere fact of their existence. The contemporary application of this fact, finally, is a stinging indictment of where modern, industrial and mechanized culture is headed. The Sauronic “will to mere power” (Letters160), according to Tolkien (and in contrast to Nietzsche), is not the solution to, but the presaging of, the Melkorish will to nothingness.

Morgoth’s Ring

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 43

The idea that Melkor had “disseminated” part of his own, evil self into the very material being of the Earth is a peculiar one and may again seem to lend support to Tom Shippey’s identification of a Manichaean-dualistic strain in Tolkien’s thought. While there are a number of different levels at which Tolkien’s notion of Morgoth’s Ring might be evaluated, for the present we may simply note Tolkien’s emphatic denial, and in overt contradiction with one of the central tenets of Manichaean thought, that matter in his fiction is by any means inherently evil. On the contrary, in good Augustinian fashion Tolkien writes: “‘Matter’ is not regarded as evil or opposed to ‘Spirit’. Matter was wholly good in origin. It remained a ‘creature of Eru’ and still largely good, and indeed self-healing, when not interfered with: that is, when the latent evil intruded by Melkor was not deliberately roused and used by evil minds” (Morgoth’s Ring 344). One statement Tolkien would appear to be making through his concept of Morgoth’s Ring, accordingly, is that if material being should at least seem to have an inherent tendency towards evil, as per the Manichaean explanation, this tendency is in fact not inherent in matter at all, but is adventitious, the result of a Fall of which all creation, and not just its free, spiritual or moral beings, has partaken. If so, then the dualism we find in Tolkien might perhaps best be compared with the “provisional dualism” David Bentley Hart has suggested is to be found in the New Testament: matter “stained” by a “Melkor ingredient” would be comparable to the stoicheia the Apostle Paul speaks of (Gal. 4:3), the “rudimentary elements” of an otherwise good world subject for a time to futility, groaning for its redemption, and awaiting the “manifestation of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:19-23)—a world, that is, (and as Tolkien put it in his letter to his son Christopher), in which “evil labours with vast powers and perpetual success—in vain…” (Letters 76). The Morgoth’s Ring concept, accordingly, might be viewed as a concession to the appearance of a kind of Manichaean dualism on the one hand while at the same time attempting to give an orthodox cause or explanation of the reality behind this appearance, much as Tolkien, as I have argued previously, affirms an “apparent Anankê” of “nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death,” all the while positing the existence of an absolute divine providence working behind this “apparent Anankê” and governing all things towards their own higher, “eucatastrophic” purpose. I’ll want to come back to this idea in a future post.

Sauron’s Ring, Parody of the Incarnation

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 42

The previous post commented on Tolkien’s use of the Ring to make the point, similar to Hegel and Marx, of how we become dependent upon or slaves to our technology or artifacts. More than mere psychological dependence, however, Tolkien implies that there is a sense in which, in the process, we have surrendered to these things something of our own being. Thus, in transferring much of his power and purposes into the One Ring, the instrument of his domination, Sauron is also mythically depicted–and in what might be described as a kind of parody of the Incarnation–as placing part of his own self in the Ring, so that when the Ring is destroyed, that part of Sauron tied to the Ring is destroyed along with it: “if the One Ring was actually unmade, annihilated, then its power would be dissolved, Sauron’s own being would be diminished to vanishing point, and he would be reduced to a shadow, a mere memory of malicious will” (Letters 153, emphasis original). In Sauron’s mythic identity of subjective self and external, objective instrument or commodity, Tolkien makes the serious, real-world metaphysical point that, in the process of aggrandizing ourselves through materialistic acquisitiveness and the scientific mastery of nature, we have in fact emptied ourselves, denied our own nature, and sacrificed something of our own inherent and authentic being. As Peter Kreeft writes, in the “idolatry and fetishism” of modern Sauronism, the self has been

‘unselfed’—not filled but emptied, not enhanced but devastated. The object grew into a god, and we shrank into slaves. We exchanged places: we became the objects, the its, and it became the subject, the I. We found our identity in what was less than ourselves, in what we could possess. We were possessed by our possession, or by our possessiveness. We who began as the Adam (Man) became the golem, the ‘Un-man.’ (Kreeft, The Philosophy of Tolkien, 110)

Domination comes at a price, for in reducing the other to oneself, one is required to reduce his self to his other.

An even more extreme example of this phenomenon is Tolkien’s notion of “Morgoth’s Ring,” the idea that

[t]o gain domination over Arda, Morgoth had let most of his being pass into the physical constituents of the Earth—hence all things that were born on Earth and lived on and by it, beasts or plants or incarnate spirits, were liable to be “stained”… Melkor “incarnated” himself (as Morgoth) permanently. He did this so as to control the hröa, the “flesh” or physical matter of Arda. He attempted to identify himself with it. A vaster, and more perilous, procedure, though of similar sort to the operations of Sauron with the Rings. Thus, outside the Blessed Realm, all “matter” was likely to have a “Melkor ingredient,” and those who had bodies, nourished by the hröa of Arda, had as it were a tendency, small or great, towards Melkor: they were none of them wholly free of him in their incarnate form, and their bodies had an effect upon their spirits… Sauron’s, relatively smaller, power was concentrated; Morgoth’s vast power was disseminated. The whole of “Middle-earth” was Morgoth’s Ring…. (Morgoth’s Ring 394-5, 400, emphasis original)

If Sauron’s Ring is a parody of the Incarnation, Melkor’s “Ring” might be said to be a parody of the creation act itself: in dispersing his own being throughout the material creation, Melkor attempts to make the world participate not in Ilúvatar but in himself for its being, a point that would again seem to reveal the subliminal aspirations to divinity behind the modern impetus for the mastery of nature.

Hegel, Marx, and Sauron’s Ring

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 41

I have been examining Tolkien’s characterization of domination in terms of the attempted reduction or assimilation, by means of Magic or Machinery, of the being of others to the being of oneself. As Tolkien’s stories also aim to illustrate, and as a number of his commentators have noted, one of the great ironies of modern industrialization, technology, and its related consumerism is the way in which they have rendered human beings so helplessly dependent upon the very things that were supposed to set them free. This is certainly the case with Sauron, the objectification of whose power in the One Ring makes him simultaneously able to conquer Middle-earth and that much more vulnerable to eventual defeat. As Tolkien puts it:

The Ring of Sauron is only one of the various mythical treatments of the placing of one’s life, or power, in some external object, which is thus exposed to capture or destruction with disastrous results to oneself. If I were to “philosophize” this myth, or at least the Ring of Sauron, I should say it was a mythical way of representing the truth that potency (or perhaps rather potentiality) if it is to be exercised, and produce results, has to be externalized and so as it were passes, to a greater or less degree, out of one’s direct control. A man who wishes to exert “power” must have subjects, who are not himself. But he then depends on them. (Letters 279)

Tolkien’s reasoning here calls to mind Hegel’s famous master-slave dialectic, according to which it is the master who, in his dependence upon the slave, is in fact the slave to the slave. As Kreeft observes, if today we do not have slaves it is only

because we have substitutes for them: machines. The Industrial Revolution made slavery inefficient and unnecessary. But our addiction is the same whether the slaves are made of flesh, metal, or plastic. We have done exactly what Sauron did in forging the Ring. We have put our power into things in order to increase our power. And the result is, as everyone knows but no one admits, that we are now weak little wimps, Shelob’s slaves, unable to survive a blow to the great spider of our technological network. We tremble before a nationwide electrical blackout or a global computer virus… In our drive for power we have deceived ourselves into thinking that we have become more powerful when all the time we have been becoming less. We are miserable little Nietzsches dreaming we are supermen. For in gaining the world we have lost our selves. (Kreeft, The Philosophy of Tolkien, 187-8; for a similar analysis, see Caldecott, The Power of the Ring, 43-5)

Approaching Tolkien’s Ring from a related direction, Alison Milbank has compared Tolkien’s insight into the estrangement between agent and artifact with Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism (based in its turn on Hegel’s master-slave analysis). According to Marx, capitalist economies alienate the worker from his labor by treating the commodities he produces as having an independent life or existence of their own (Milbank, “‘My Precious’: Tolkien’s Fetishized Ring,” 36-7), a relationship which, at any rate, certainly obtains between Sauron and his Ring wherein we see the Manichaean aspirations of evil as the will-to-dominate seeking to make itself “objective” and so independent.