Tolkien’s Answer to Anselm on Why the Devil Fell

I’ve been commenting recently on the parallels between Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (“Why God Became Man”) and Tolkien’s Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth. Another set of texts deserving of comparison is Tolkien’s account of the rebellion of Melkor in the Ainulindalë and Anselm’s De Casu Diaboli (“On the Fall of the Devil”). According to “the Teacher” in Anselm’s dialogue, the devil fell because “he willed something that he did not have and that he ought not to have willed then, as Eve willed to be like a god before God willed it.” When he is asked by “the Student” what this “something” was that the “good angels justly renounced, thereby achieving perfection, and that the bad angels, by unjustly desiring, fell,” the Teacher pleads ignorance: “I do not know what it could have been, but whatever it was, it is sufficient to know that it was something that could have increased their greatness….”

In his Ainulindalë, Tolkien similarly portrays the devil as falling through his desire for something he (in Anselm’s words)  “did not have and that he ought not to have willed.” Yet instead of the Teacher’s confession of ignorance, Tolkien gives a very specific answer to the Student’s question, an answer, moreover, that is all Tolkien’s own. According to the Ainulindalë, the “something” that the devil desired and yet fell in pursuing was the “Imperishable Flame,” that is, the creative power of Ilúvatar by means of which he aspired to “bring into Being things of his own.”

Now, I used to assume that Melkor’s desire for Iluvatar’s own creative power was an act of blatant hubris and self-idolatry–the grasping after a power and dignity that Melkor would have–or at least should have–known to be proper and hence exclusive to Iluvatar alone. As Tolkien’s narrator (somewhat understatedly) put its, Melkor “found not the Fire, for it is with Ilúvatar.” Reading the Ainulindale in light of Anselm’s De Casu, however, I think a more subtle and sophisticated take on Melkor’s fall is possible. Although Anselm’s Teacher doesn’t know what it was that the devil and his cohort unjustly sought, he does believe that it was something that was ultimately necessary for the angel’s happiness, such that their eventual attainment of it would have indeed “increased their greatness.” The irony is that, by unjustly seeking their happiness before the proper time, the evil angels lost the very thing they sought, while the good angels, by remaining content with justice in the absence of their full happiness, were rewarded for their justice with the happiness they did not seek.

I suggest it is much the same story that Tolkien has to tell us in the Ainulindale. While Melkor’s purpose of discovering in the Void and wielding for himself the Flame Imperishable was certainly misguided and confused (to say the least), the ultimate objective of his quest, namely the external realization of those things imagined in his mind, was something Iluvatar presumably had planned from the very beginning. As we are told on almost the first page of the Ainulindale, the consummation of all things “after the end of days” would take the form of the “themes of Iluvatar” being at last

played aright, and take Being in the moment of their utterance, for all shall then understand fully his intent in their part, and each shall know the comprehension of each, and Iluvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased.

The eschatology (doctrine of last things) of Tolkien’s protology (doctrine of the first things), in other words, is the expectation that Iluvatar will one day lend his own creative power to the thoughts and imaginations of his creatures’ minds, bringing them into existence exactly (or at least nearly exactly) as they were conceived. The Ainur themselves are, of course, treated to a small foretaste of this consummation “after the end of days” within the Ainulindale itself when Iluvatar first gives the Vision to their Music, and then gives an otherwise unformed Eä (the “World that Is”) to their Vision. It is this same eschatological hope, of course, that Tolkien portrays in Leaf by Niggle when, in the scene I commented on a few days ago, Niggle in his post-purgatorial but pre-paradaisical state discovers the real-world version of the tree he had been painting. It’s the same hope, moreover, that Tolkien holds out to the pre-converted Lewis in his poem “Mythopoeia” when he writes: “In Paradise they look no more awry; / and though they make anew, they make no lie. / Be sure they still will make, not being dead, / and poets shall have flames upon their head, / and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall: / there each shall choose for ever from the All.” For Tolkien, in sum, the fulfillment of the sub-creative nature and desire is (and can be) nothing less than the real-world existence of our sub-created imaginings.

Reading the account of Melkor’s initial fall in light of the foregoing, accordingly, it is possible  to see the latter’s desire for the Flame Imperishable, at least at first, as nothing more than a confused and impatient desire for an otherwise creaturely good and divinely intended destiny. In the words of Anselm’s Teacher, “Then he willed something that he did not have and that he ought not to have willed at that time” (De Casu ch. 4). In the Ainulindale, in conclusion, we are treated to a display of Anselmian poetic justice with a distinctively Tolkienian and hence sub-creational and eschatological twist: what Melkor rebelliously sought, he lost, and what the faithful Ainur did not seek, they gain (cp. Romans 9:30). As I have said, in the place of Anselm’s uncertainty as to what that “happiness” was that the rebellious angels preferred over the “justice” of remaining content with what God had provisionally given them, Tolkien posits his own peculiar idea of an innate sub-creative desire to see the realization of those products of sub-created wonder. And instead of Anselm’s faithful angels, who immediately receive and are ever-after “confirmed” in this unknown happiness as a reward for their obedience, Tolkien’s fictional account of the fall of the devil has the angels more fully participating in–in the words of St. Peter, “desiring  to look into” (1 Pet. 1:12)–the drama of Man’s history. (Alternatively, one could, I suppose, locate the entirety of Tolkien’s “angelological epic” in that interval–infinitesimally momentary for an angel, for all we know–between the obedience of Anselm’s angels and their subsequent confirmation.) To repeat the relevant lines from the Ainulindale,

Never since have the Ainur made any music like to this music, though it has been said that a greater still shall be made before Ilúvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar after the end of days. Then the themes of Ilúvatar shall be played aright…


5 thoughts on “Tolkien’s Answer to Anselm on Why the Devil Fell

  1. I like this reading of Tolkien, and the theological underpinnings as well. The paradigm of an impatient Melkor fits nicely with the other “fall” narratives in the Bible: Adam and Eve seize the fruit from the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but the thrust of the biblical narrative strongly suggests that God always intended them to eat from that tree eventually (presumably after they demonstrated their full obedience to God). Likewise, I’m of the mind that God always intended Israel to have a king (Deut 17), but the people sinned in requesting one prematurely (before they had possessed the land). Thus, God “intended” David to be the first king, but the people demanded one early and therefore received Saul.

    I wonder if there’s a way to integrate this perspective on Satan’s fall with the one represented by Bonaventure: Satan fell out of envy, first of God and then of man. Isn’t that what envy is: unhappiness at the blessing and prosperity of another, an unhappiness rooted in the belief that God will not “freely give us all things” (Rom 8:32)? In other words, God intends to give us all good things; in the end, he will withhold nothing. However, in the interim, he distributes gifts as he wills, giving some things to one and other things to another. Our envious pining for the blessing of others is impatient: God will give us what we desire (and better), if we wait and trust him.

    • I suspect you’re right about the compatibility of Anselm and Bonaventure here, though my instinct is to see envy as a possibly second-order response. As I understand Anselm, the whole purpose of “De Casu Diaboli” is to account for the “possibility” of sin in a will that is created upright by God. The way Anselm accounts for this possibility is through the will’s double orientation: the will-to-justice and the will-to-happiness. Now, these things are not only compatible, but presuppose each other. The only way for the possibility of their misalignment to arise, accordingly, is through the “delayed gratification,” as we might say, of the will-to-happiness. The eschatological “not yet,” in other words, seems to be the logical and metaphysical prerequisite for the “possibility” of evil (Dabney gave us a “Soteriology of the Angels”; as I suggested at the end of the above post, Anselm gives us the makings of an “Eschatology of the Angels”). And insofar as we can only be tempted to evil by a good that is intended for but provisionally withheld from us, Anselm might be seen as offering a “necessary” account for the otherwise circumstantial and exegetical argument for why Adam and Eve would have eventually been permitted to eat of the Tree of Knowledge.

      But getting back to envy: the fall for Anselm seems to occur when the will chooses its immediate happiness at the expense of justice. Do you see this choice as itself involving envy, or does envy perhaps only enter in after happiness has actually been denied to a sinner because of his abandonment of justice?

  2. Not sure. Desiring something inordinately would be covetousness (envy’s twin?), and desiring to give our thoughts existence because God does seems a lot like envy. Thus, Anselm’s will-to-happiness and envy may be two ways of describing the same activity of the soul.

    One thought: Had Adam stood and been given the fruit of wisdom, he would have attained maturity. In grasping prematurely, he seeks autonomy. In other words, to seek autonomy is to seek maturity prematurely. Instead of seeking to be God-like (and thus waiting for God to give us the gift), we seek to be God himself. Likewise, God intends to give us sub-creative potency, the ability to make our thoughts real. Melkor grasping for this ability is not strictly speaking desiring to be a sub-creator, but is a desire to be a primary creator, to have the creative ability apart from divine bequest. This would fit with the idea that vices are just corrupted virtues.

  3. Or maybe envy is properly the SIGN of Satan’s fall, as opposed to the fall itself. It was fine for Satan to desire to give his thoughts existence (if God intended for him to do so eventually). However, the sign that this desire had grown inordinate was his frustration and unhappiness that he did not have this god-like power right this minute. Thus, his envy identifies and exposes the fundamental inordinate desire in his heart.

  4. Reblogged this on Eclectic Orthodoxy and commented:
    This is a remarkable blog! Dr. Jonathan S. McIntosh is both a scholar of Tolkien and a serious theologian and philosopher. There’s nothing else like it on the web. This particular article on the Fall of Melkor is just one of many I might have chosen to re-blog. If you love Tolkien, and maybe even if you don’t, visit this blog and begin reading through its many articles.

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