Otherness of the Vision

Metaphysics of the Music, part 33

Tolkien’s measured agreement with Kant notwithstanding, it is exactly this initial stance of existential disinterest or indifference found in the Ainur’s Music that finds itself radically transcended in the surpassing beauty of the Vision. While it is through their Music that the Ainur gradually come into greater contact and communion with each other, it is only in the Vision that they are for the first time confronted with the startling awareness of the possibility of things “other than themselves, strange and free” (Silmarillion 18). This theme of otherness, touched on previously, is another central theme in Tolkien’s writings and one that has its roots in the metaphysical realism of St. Thomas, as Alison Milbank, for example, has pointed out.[1] Nor are the Ainur by any means the only species in Tolkien’s mythical world to be defined in terms of this fundamental orientation towards things other. As I have argued previously, the theme of otherness is embodied at the very deepest and highest level of Tolkien’s fictional reality in the proto-Trinitarian theology of Middle-earth: the reason God creates things other than himself is because the Creator in a very real sense is already an other to himself. And as St. Thomas argues, because the Creator is a lover of otherness by his own nature, it follows that those who have been specially created after his image will be similarly marked by this heavenly desire for the existence of things other than oneself. This principle is perhaps brought home most dramatically in Tolkien’s fiction through the Valar Aulë, in whose desire to fashion the Dwarves (notwithstanding its folly and futility) there is an excellent expression of the aforementioned, Thomistic principle that creaturely likeness to divine goodness requires a “plurality and inequality” of creatures in which higher beings, in imitation of God, might communicate to others the goodness they have received from him. As Aulë repentantly explains to Ilúvatar his motive in trying to fashion the Dwarves,

I did not desire such lordship. I desired things other than I am, to love and to teach them, so that they too might perceive the beauty of Eä, which thou has caused to be. For it seemed to me that there is great room in Arda for many things that might rejoice in it, yet it is for the most part empty still, and dumb. And in my impatience I have fallen into folly. Yet the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee; and the child of little understanding that makes a play of the deeds of his father may do so without thought of mockery, but because he is the son of his father. (S 43)


[1] “There is one further element in this metaphysics [of Chesterton and St. Thomas] that we need in order to understand Tolkien’s philosophy… [T]he element I would stress is the otherness or objectivity of things. Only through the reality of the world can the mind, according to Thomas, reach out to otherness and become the object. As Maritain writes, ‘it is in its totality reaching out towards the object, towards the other as other; it needs the dominating contact of the object, but only that it may be enriched by it… fertilized by being, rightly subjected to the real’. To sum up, Aquinas, according to Chesterton, teaches ‘the reality of things, the mutability of things, the diversity of things’… [T]his is a philosophy that can be found at every level of Tolkien’s fictional project… The world Tolkien invents is, of course, fictional, but it is famously realistic in its density and completeness of realization… To invent a world at all, as fantasy writers continue to do, is to commit to metaphysics… For the fantasy writer not only mimics the divine act of creation but he or she, by creating a self-consistent, independent world also witnesses to the existence of an Is: to Ens.” Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real, 17-18.

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