Ilúvatar the Fairy: the Ainur’s Vision as Faërian Drama

I have commented before on how the progression of the Ainulindale, moving from Music to Vision to Eä, “the World that Is,” allegorizes Tolkien’s claim in the epilogue of “On Fairy-Stories” that in the real-world, historical eucatastrophes of the Christian Gospel we see “the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation.” What I hadn’t noticed before, however, was just how fully the Ainulindale illustrates a related point Tolkien makes in his essay, namely the signficance of what he calls “Faërian Drama,” or the art that the fairies themselves exercise within the fairy-stories told by men:

Now “Faërian Drama”—those plays which according to abundant records the elves have often presented to men—can produce Fantasy with a realism and immediacy beyond the compass of any human mechanism. As a result their usual effect (upon a man) is to go beyond Secondary Belief. If you are present at a Faërian drama you yourself are, or think that you are, bodily inside its Secondary World. The experience may be very similar to Dreaming and has (it would seem) sometimes (by men) been confounded with it. But in Faërian drama you are in a dream that some other mind is weaving, and the knowledge of that alarming fact may slip from your grasp. To experience directly a Secondary World: the potion is too strong, and you give to it Primary Belief, however marvellous the events. You are deluded— whether that is the intention of the elves (always or at any time) is another question. They at any rate are not themselves deluded. This is for them a form of Art, and distinct from Wizardry or Magic, properly so called….

To the elvish craft, Enchantment, Fantasy aspires, and when it is successful of all forms of human art most nearly approaches. At the heart of many man-made stories of the elves lies, open or concealed, pure or alloyed, the desire for a living, realized sub-creative art… Of this desire the elves, in their better (but still perilous) part, are largely made; and it is from them that we may learn what is the central desire and aspiration of human Fantasy—even if the elves are, all the more in so far as they are, only a product of Fantasy itself…. In this world it [the creative desire] is for men unsatisfiable, and so imperishable. Uncorrupted, it does not seek delusion nor bewitchment and domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making and delight, not slaves.

Re-reading the Ainulindale, it occurs to me that this is precisely what the Vision of the Ainur is: Iluvatar’s own “Faërian Drama.” Ilúvatar leads the Ainur into the Void and, like a elvish bard about to begin his tale, tells them to “Behold your Music!” But instead of telling them a tale, “he showed to them a vision, giving to them sight where before was only hearing…” And the Ainur are enchanted by what they see, for “as they looked and wondered this World began to unfold its history, and it seemed to them that it lived and grew.” And as Faërian Drama does for its human audience, Ilúvatar tells the Ainur that in the vision they will see and learn everything to which their own music had (unbeknownst to them at the time) aspired: “each of you shall find contained herein, amid the design that I set before you, all those things which it may seem that he himself devised or added.” When the Vision is at last taken away, the Ainur are brought out of their enchanted condition back to their state of “primary belief,” for “in that moment they perceived a new thing, Darkness, which they had not known before except in thought. But they had become enamoured of the beauty of the vision and engrossed in the unfolding of the World which came there to being, and their minds were filled with it…” The result of this disenchantment is a certain discontentedness, an awakened desire to see the objects of this divine drama made real: “Then there was unrest among the Ainur; but Ilúvatar called to them, and said: ‘I know the desire of your minds that what ye have seen should verily be, not only in your thought, but even as ye yourselves are, and yet other.”

In summary, then: (1) Faërian Drama is the art that we–within our own art of fairy-stories–represent the fairies as exercising and to which we aspire ourselves; (2) the Silmarillion is one man’s artistic representation of the fairies’ own art of self-history, at the origins of which is (3) the resplendent Music of the Ainur, the “Ainurian Drama” to which the elves’ own art doubtlessly aspired; (4) however, within this story, finally, we witness the Ainur themselves being treated to the ars divina of Ilúvatar’s Vision, in which the Ainur behold the consummate beauty of being for which their own Music had unwittingly hoped. I said in yesterday’s post that the Ainur are the “elves’ elves.” Here Ilúvatar emerges as the “elves’ elves’ Elf”–the Fairy of Faërie.

Ok, so why Angelology also saves the Silmarillion

I wrote recently on how it is theology that “saves the Silmarillion,” providing its foregrounded history of the Elves with its own sense of “background,” the necessary lens for “viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist,” and hence the requisite “new unattainable vistas [being] again revealed.” Perhaps more immediate in this regard than the theology of the Silmarillion, however, would be its “angelology,” for lack of a better term (the Ainur/Valar are angelic, but they are not angels–they’re simply Ainur). This is brought out in many places, but this passage from the Ainulindale is perhaps the first:

For the Children of Iluvatar were conceived by him alone; and they came with the third theme, and were not in the theme which Iluvatar propounded at the beginning, and none of the Ainur had part in their making. Therefore when they beheld them, the more did they love them, being things other than themselves, strange and free, wherein they saw the mind of Iluvatar reflected anew, and learned yet a little more of his wisdom, which otherwise had been hidden even from the Ainur.

In other words, in the Ainur is embodied, among other things, the very same love of otherness that Tolkien in places associates particularly with his Elves, making the Ainur into the “Elves’ Elves.” To restate Tolkien’s own criticism, or at least concern, regarding the Silmarillion, therefore, it is that the fairies, the usual agents of Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, and Consolation, are themselves in need of undergoing these same operations. Who will be there to “enchant” the Elves when the Elves need to be enchanted? The Ainur.

Tolkien’s Romantic Eschatology

This passage from the Ainulindale captures well Tolkien’s ability to bring together and harmonize two otherwise very distinct literary and emotional themes:

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 Iluvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Iluvatar after the end of days.

On the one hand, in the unrepeatability of the original Music of the Ainur, we have the idea of a longed-for yet lost and irretrievable past that dominates much of Tolkien’s writing. On the other hand, in the very same sentence, Tolkien balances this nostalgic theme with the uniquely Christian hope and expectation that, within time, we will also see all things made new, every hurt mended, and every desire fulfilled. Call this Tolkien’s “romantic eschatology.”

“A Fearfully Good Romantic Drama”

Tolkien’s friend, schoolmate at King Edwards, and fellow T.C.B.S. member G.B. Smith wrote to Tolkien during the Great War: “It struck me last night that you might write a fearfully good romantic drama, with as much of the ‘supernatural’ as you cared to introduce. Have you ever thought of it?” (in Garth, Tolkien and the Great War, 105)

Gríma as Mask, “Bogey”

In his commentary on Beowulf Tolkien gives the following meaning of the word gríma:

The gríma was a mask or vizor (partly) covering the face. That the helmets of this company [of Beowulf] had such gríman is assured, since Wulfgar at the door of Heorot says so: grímhelmas *334, heregríman *396; ‘your masked helms’ 271, 320. That these were or might be of fierce or horrifying shape, designed (like more primitive war-paint) to frighten off assailants (and so act as life-guards) is shown by the frequent use of gríma for a bogey, or terrifying apparition…. But the gríma or mask probably more or less represented a face, human or animal… (Beowulf 203-4)

Rohirrim and the Danes

I’ve been reading through Tolkien’s translation of and commentary on Beowulf. Here’s the first of some random notes and observations, for what they’re worth.

In “The King of the Golden Hall,” Theoden’s door-warden, Háma, says to Gandalf: “The staff in the hand of a wizard may be more than a proper for age… Yet in doubt a man of worth will trust to his own wisdom. I believe you are friends and folk worthy of honour, who have no evil purpose. You may go in.” The scene, as someone has doubtlessly recognized before, was lifted by Tolkien from Beowulf. When the eponymous hero arrives on the Danish shores and tells the coast guard that he has come to “give counsel to Hrothgar how he, wise and good, will overcome his enemy,” the guard replies: “A man of keen wit who takes good heed will discern the truth in both words and deeds: my ears assure me that here is a company of friendly mind toward the Lord of the Scyldings. Go ye forward bearing your weapons and your armour!” (ll. 225-36, Tolkien’s trans.). (Beowulf and company will later lay aside their weapons and armor before entering Hrothgar’s actual hall, and of whose door warden Tolkien says that “It was his duty to assess the merit of strangers at the door and to advise whether they should be admitted.”) In his commentary on this passage, Tolkien observes how “The exchange of what we should call ‘platitudes’, received opinions about the way things go in the world, was more honoured in heroic circles than in (say) modern academic ones,” and interprets this particular platitude by the coast guard to mean: “a man of discernment will naturally be able to recognize a liar when he meets him” (“Commentary,” p. 200-1). It is much the same sentiment that Tolkien had placed earlier in Eomer’s mouth in his encounter with the “three hunters.” As he had told Aragorn, “All that you say is strange… Yet you speak the truth, that is plain: the Men of the Mark do not lie, and therefore they are not easily deceived…”

Making Things To Be What They are: Aristotle, Stoicism, and Tolkien

What do Aristotle’s theory of sense-perception, Stoic semiotics, and Tolkien’s views on fairy-stories all have in common? They each in their own way recognize the integral contribution that human beings make–whether in their acts of sense-perception, sign-making, or story-telling–in causing things to be what they are.

Our story begins with Aristotle, who explains the act of sense-perception this way:

The activity of the sensible object and that of the percipient sense is one and the same activity, and yet the distinction between their being remains. Take as illustration actual sound and actual hearing: a man may have hearing and yet not be hearing, and that which has a sound is not always sounding. But when that which can hear is actively hearing and which can sound is sounding, then the actual hearing and the actual sound are merged in one (these one might call respectively hearkening and sounding). (De anima 3.8)

According to Aristotle, for there to be an actual sound, you must have not only something “making” a sound, but you must also have an agent capable of “hearing” the sound. Without an perceiver to hear it, a sound is not a sound but merely a “potential” sound (so no, if a tree falls in the woods and there is no one to hear it, it does not make a sound–only a potential sound).

There is a related idea in the Stoic theory of signs. Umberto Eco, in his Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, writes how, for the Stoics,

in order to grasp, from a series of sensory data, the form ‘smoke’, I must already be directed by the belief that smoke is relevant to the making of further inferences. Otherwise, the smoke provided for me by the sensation remains a potential perception which I have not yet ma[d]e pertinent as smoke, but as mist, miasma, or as any exhalation which is not caused by combustion. Only if I already know the general rule which makes for ‘if smoke, then fire’ am I able to render the sensory datum meaningful, by seeing it as that smoke which can reveal fire. (33)

According to the Stoics, in other words, the physical phenomenon of smoke, by itself, is not yet a sign of fire. For smoke to signify fire, there must be a rational agent present who first visually senses the physical event of smoke, and who then interprets (though the process may be instantaneous) and so implicitly classifies what he sees as an instance of a more general type, namely of that which, when present, implies also the presence of fire. By this means, the mere visual sensation of the physical phenomenon of smoke becomes finally a legitimate perception of “smoke,” i.e., “that which signifies fire.” The important thing to note here is that it is the perceiver who makes the sign to be a sign, to be significant. As Eco puts it, it is the perceiver who “makes pertinent” the physical phenomenon as smoke rather than a mere “mist,” and the one who “render[s] the sensory datum meaningful.” 

In stressing the contribution that the rational agent makes to the sign-character of things, however, the Stoics were no proto-Kantians or anticipating postmodernism. For the Stoics, according to Eco, in the absence of a person both capable of and actually interpreting an event as significant, the event itself is not a sign, but only a “potential” sign. Under this circumstance, it is not as though there would be no perceptual or signifying reality whatsoever, but rather that we would have a “potential perception,” and hence what we might call a “potential signification.” Absent an actual act of rational inference, there is still, in the physical event of smoke, all the objective ingredients for an act of signification to take place. All that is missing is the human mind, the essential catalyst necessary to ignite those objective elements, moving them from their state of being potentially significant to being actually significant.

It is a similar view, finally, that Tolkien entertains of the power of fairy-stories. As he writes in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,”

Fantasy is made out of the Primary World, but a good craftsman loves his material, and has a knowledge and feeling for clay, stone and wood which only the art of making can give. By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and Moon root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory. (Tolkien Reader 78)

As Tolkien makes clear, sub-creation is just that–sub-creation, that is, an activity that human beings do under and in response to God’s prior act of creation. What is more, this existing reality created by God is no metaphysical wax nose, bendable at will, but has a determinate nature and order. As the above quote clearly implies, structures like iron, horses, trees, flowers, and fruit have a reality that is in one sense “independent” of what we make of them. However, much of the significance of these otherwise “independent” structures lies in their inchoate capacity to manifest themselves to us, not only in sense-perception and speech, as Aristotle and the Stoics recognized, but even more eminently for Tolkien, in our story-telling. There is a sense in which horses don’t achieve their actuality as horses for us until after at least some horses have had the chance to be a Pegasus. Nor does iron really become iron until after at least some iron has had a chance to be elevated and made into the substance of a mythical, heroic sword. Take away the human, story element, and things become mere elements. Or as Tolkien puts it in another passage, “When the fairy-tale ceased, there would be just thunder, which no human ear had yet heard” (51).