Necessity of the Incarnation in Tolkien’s Ainulindalë

Tolkien really was an astute theologian, my latest example of which is the following, theologically suggestive passage from his creation-myth, the Ainulindalë. In it, Tolkien may be interpreted as pointing in the direction of a theistic actualism, the thesis that God creates his own possibilities rather than creating from a set of possibilities already given to or for him. After the world of Eä was created, it is recorded that some of the angelic Ainur

took leave of Ilúvatar and descended into it. But this condition Ilúvatar made, or it is the necessity of their love, that their power should thenceforward be contained and bounded in the World, to be within it for ever, until it is complete, so that  they are its life and it is theirs. And therefore they are named the Valar, the Powers of the World.

When the Ainur choose to enter into this world, they have to take upon themselves something of its own nature. Consistent with the literary mode of myth, however, Tolkien is deliberately ambiguous as to the source of this “necessity of the (Ainur’s) incarnation.” Is it because Ilúvatar, for inscrutable reasons of his own, simply and autocratically stipulated physical embodiment as a condition for the Ainur’s habitation within Eä (i.e., divine-command theory, theological voluntarism)? Or was the origin of this necessity something more immanent and intrinsic to the natural order, the “way things are”? The answer, of course, is both: Ilúvatar is the sovereign Creator of the natural order, including its possibilities and necessities, and as such he has made it a necessity of Ainuric love that should they choose to enter the world that he has made, they must kenotically take upon themselves its limitations and conditions. In this Tolkien arrives at much the same conclusion St. Anselm does with regard to Christ’s Incarnation in Cur Deus Homo, namely that in order for God to save the human race, it was necessary that he himself become a man, and yet this necessity was not a constraint imposed upon God from the outside, but was a condition he laid upon both creation and himself in making creation to be what it is.

2 thoughts on “Necessity of the Incarnation in Tolkien’s Ainulindalë

  1. I’m not sure that it ultimately affects the main conclusions here — the parallel may still be valid, but the Ainur were not incarnate within Eä. They might at times choose to clothe themselves in the matter of Arda and appear as figures to the Children of Ilúvatar (usually appearing as the Firstborn, but of greater stature, but occasionally also in other forms: Ulmo appeared, if memory serves, often as a wave, while Yavanna would often appear as a tree), but usually they would walk ‘unclad’ — i.e. as discarnate spirits, eälar.

    The constraints on the Ainur upon their entering into Eä seem to me to be more fundamental: they and their power is constrained within Time and space. Charles Noad suggested to me that the Ainur, even the Valar, within Eä were bound in the same way as the Elves and all other non-Mannish inhabitants of Arda to the Music (which they had themselves been a part of creating) as fate (Eru’s gift to men is that “they should have a virtue to shape their life, amid the powers and chances of the world, beyond the Music of the Ainur, which is as fate to all things else; and of their operation everything should be, in form and deed, completed, and the world fulfilled unto the last and smallest.” — §39 of Ainulindalë D, ‘Morgoth’s Ring’ p.36)

    • A valid point, Troels, though it puts me in mind of an even more radical sense in which the Ainur’s “Eä-fication” is a kind of “incarnation.” I hope to post on this soon. Regards.

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