The Metaphysics of Coercion in Tolkien’s Angelology

Despite their status as fictional and mythical beings, there is a certain metaphysical seriousness and consistency with which Tolkien treats angelic or spiritual creatures in his Middle-earth legendarium. For example, although the “Valar” and their subordinates, the “Maiar,” are very much attached to and involved in the physical world, their relationship to their bodies, and thus to the physical world as a whole, still remains a fundamentally dualistic one. Tolkien likens the relationship in one place between the Valar and their bodies to that between human beings and their clothes, a metaphor Plato also used in his account of the human soul’s relationship to the body.  For Tolkien, however, one interesting implication of the dualism of angelic incarnation is the resultant temptation or proclivity they have towards the domination of other beings. As Tolkien writes in one place:

“But since in the view of this tale & mythology Power—when it dominates or seeks to dominate other wills and minds (except by the assent of their reason)—is evil, these “wizards” were incarnated in the life-forms of Middle-earth, and so suffered the pains both of mind and body. They were also, for the same reason, thus involved in the peril of the incarnate: the possibility of “fall,” of sin, if you will. The chief form this would take with them would be impatience, leading to the desire to force others to their own good ends, and so inevitably at last to mere desire to make their own wills effective by any means. To this evil Saruman succumbed. Gandalf did not.” (L 237, emphasis added)

In another letter Tolkien writes of the wizards Saruman and Gandalf that, although angelic, spiritual beings in themselves, “being incarnate [they] were more likely to stray, or err,” and that it was because of his “far greater inner power” in comparison to his companions that Gandalf’s self-sacrifice on the Bridge of Kazad-dum was a true “humbling and abnegation” (L 202, emphasis added).  Similar to the physical matter which they do not and cannot control directly, other free rational beings are not—or at least ought not to be—subjected to the dominating will of the angelic spirit. Rather, the latter’s influence over others must involve the same kind of sub-creative patience that moves their subordinates to action, not by coercion but by persuasion, a responsibility they share with Thomas’s angels whom he says cannot directly or violently move another creature’s will, but can nevertheless “incline the will to the love of the creature or of God, by way of persuasion” (ST 1.106.2).  Nevertheless, because their embodiment is not natural but voluntary and therefore provisional or conditional, requiring that they lay aside some of their own native powers, it is possible to see Tolkien as recognizing a sense in which the incarnate angels as a consequence necessarily have a much more artificial, extrinsic and utilitarian or pragmatic relationship to their bodies than is the case for Men and Elves. In short, the angelic body is, for the angelic spirits, ultimately a kind of “machine,” a form of technology and therefore a mere tool to be used rather than part of their fundamental nature and identity.  As the demiurgic sub-creators and masters of their own bodies to which they do not belong by nature, the temptation for the Valar and Maiar, Tolkien almost seems to suggest, will be for them to adopt the same attitude of mastery and domination towards others and towards the physical world they are supposed to shepherd.

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4 thoughts on “The Metaphysics of Coercion in Tolkien’s Angelology

  1. On the subject of domination of other wills and minds, and of the bodies of the Valar, have you read Tolkien’s “Ósanwe-kenta” (published in Vinyar Tengwar 39)? If not, I highly recommend it. ;)

  2. I’ve just been made acquainted with your blog by a comment by Nilrik at Bruce Charlton’s blog, Tolkien’s The Notion Club Papers, and have now read everything here which Angelology as search term turned up – so, please excuse me if I go over old ground as yet unknown to me!

    I have come to wonder how much a debt Tolkien may have to the book of Tobias (or, Tobit) and the appearance there as “Azarias the son of the great Ananias” (5:18) of “the holy angel of the Lord, Raphael” (3:25)., the most sustained and detailed Scriptural example of how “some, being not aware of it, have entertained angels” (Hebrews 13:2).

    But (it seems to me) various of the Maiar have bound themselves to being “incarnated in the life-forms of Middle-earth” not only more protractedly than St. Raphael, but more – what best to say? – intimately, deeply, as well. Yet, at their best, in Gandalf, they are not unlike positive analogues of heretical Christologies – there is no “factus est”, no taking of “the life-forms of Middle-earth” into their Maiaritas, and were there, they could not, however pure, Save.

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