Why Only Theology Can Save “The Silmarillion”

Reading The Silmarillion, as Tolkien enthusiasts have long realized, is a very different, difficult, and for many, even disappointing experience compared to reading The Lord of the Rings. In a letter addressing the difference between the two works, Tolkien writes:

Part of the attraction of The L.R. is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist. To go there is to destroy the magic, unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed. (L 333)

The problem with The Silmarillion, in other words, is that it tells the untold stories and visits the unvisited islands of The Lord of the Rings, thereby foreshortening the sense of depth of the latter work and so (at least potentially) “destroy[ing] the magic.” In The Silmarillion, to put the matter differently, what is left remote and in that sense transcendent in The Lord of the Rings is rendered immanently present–one might almost say “familiar” and “appropriated,” to use a couple of important terms from Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories.” This effect must be inevitable, Tolkien goes on to admit, “unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed,” unless, that is, there is some even deeper or more distant reality that can play The Silmarillion to The Silmarillion’The Lord of the Rings, as it were.

Although Tolkien doesn’t go into this in his letter, I submit that, for the perceptive reader, The Silmarillion does in fact offer or reveal such “new unattainable vistas,” namely in the form of the expressly theological vision with which the work opens and then almost immediately (though never wholly) leaves behind. Far from suggesting a form of Enlightenment deism, according to which a divine watchmaker is supposed to have established the world and the left it to run itself of its own accord, as I have argued elsewhere, what Tolkien does in his opening creation-myth, the Ainulindalë, is preface his legendarium with the necessary theological prolegomena for properly interpreting the subsequent, less theologically explicit portions of his Middle-earth mythology. As Tolkien makes clear in a number of places, every instance of eucatastrophe–a device he identifies as a sine qua non of the fairy-story genre–in his own writings is an instance of special divine intervention and deliverance whereby the Creator reveals himself as “that one ever-present Person who is never absent and never named” (Letters no. 192). Of course, there are many other qualities in The Silmarillion which make it a great piece of literature in its own right, yet in Tolkien’s own mind there simply was no substitute for that elusive and allusive “impression of depth,” as he put it, whereby something greater–an unreduced and ultimately irreducible surplus of meaning and mystery–might be “glimpsed in the background.”

It is for reasons such as these that The Silmarillion‘s editor, Tolkien’s son Christopher, later regretted his decision not to include his father’s original framing device telling how the early medieval adventurer Eriol discovered fairy-land (the isle of modern day England) and learned the tales contained in The Silmarillion. Had he done so, The Silmarillion would have provided its own means of at once mediating itself to its modern audience while creating the desired sense of an unbridgeable historical distance between the reader and this “book of lost tales.” While I, too, share this regret with Christopher, it should not go unnoticed the way in which the published Silmarillion, beginning (like the Book of Genesis) as it does with the story of God’s loving act of creation and providential ordering of the world, does provide its own form of framing device. It is the divine realities and verities revealed in the opening mythology of the Silmarillion that ultimately provides the work with its own set of “new unattainable vistas” and what, as a consequence, helps “save” its “magic.”

(For a related post, see “Hobbits: Non-Mediating Mediators.”)

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Elvish modal metaphysics: no possible worlds?

“they [the elves] hold that all Creation of any sort must be in Eä [the actual, existing universe], proceeding from Eru in the same way, and therefore being of the same Order. They do not believe in contemporaneous non-contiguous worlds except as an amusing fantasy of the mind. They are (say they) either altogether unknowable, even as to whether they are or are not, or else if there are any intersections (however rare) they are only provinces of one Eä” (Morgoth’s Ring 252)

Does this mean that there are no possible, alternate worlds at all, or just that there are no actual worlds that are not already “contiguous” with, and hence part of, this world? Compare this with St. Thomas:

The very order of things created by God shows the unity of the world. For this world is called one by the unity of order, whereby some things are ordered to others. But whatever things come from God, have relation of order to each other, and to God Himself, as shown above (Q[11], A[3]; Q[21], A[1]). Hence it must be that all things should belong to one world. Therefore those only can assert that many worlds exist who do not acknowledge any ordaining wisdom, but rather believe in chance, as Democritus, who said that this world, besides an infinite number of other worlds, was made from a casual concourse of atoms. (ST 1.47.3)

Flame Imperishable as Incarnation

I’ve discussed before how Tolkien’s image of the Flame Imperishable refers to God’s creative power over the world, by which he, first, gives existence ex nihilo to his creatures generally, and second, by which he bestows the power of free will and (sub-)creativity upon his rational creatures in particular. Upon review of his explanation of the Flame Imperishable in his commentary on the Athrabath Finrod ah Andreth (Morgoth’s Ring), however, I think the interconnection between these two effects (created being and free, creative will) is a deeper one than the mere genus-species relationship suggested above. As Tolkien explains, the Flame Imperishable

appears to mean the Creative activity of Eru (in some sense distinct from or within Him), by which things could be given a ‘real’ and independent (though derivative and created) existence. The Flame Imperishable is sent out from Eru, to dwell in the heart of the world, and the world then Is, on the same plane as the Ainur, and they can enter into it. But this is not, of course, the same as the re-entry of Eru to defeat Melkor. It refers rather to the mystery of ‘authorship’, by which the author, while remaining ‘outside’ and independent of his work, also ‘indwells’ in it, on its derivative plane, below that of his own being, as the source and guarantee of its being. (Morgoth’s Ring 345)

As Tolkien makes clear, the act of Creation, in which Eru sends the Flame Imperishable into the heart of the world to cause it to be, is a distinct act from the act of Incarnation by which, as Finrod conjectures in the dialogue of the Athrabeth, Eru himself would personally enter into his creation in order to purge it of Melkor’s corruptions. That having been said, it is equally evident that Tolkien still very much conceives of Eru’s creative presence within his creation (and hence of the sub-creator’s presence within his art) in incarnational terms. Creation itself, according to Tolkien’s theology of the Flame Imperishable, involves the Creator being both “‘outside’ and independent of his work” as well as “‘indwell[ing]’ in it, on its derivative plane, below that of his own being…” In this manner, Tolkien may be seen to re-interpret God’s act of Creation as a type of proto-Incarnation.

A few observations. The first is the way this normalizes and naturalizes the idea of Incarnation: if Creation is a kind of Incarnation, it is little wonder that Finrod is able to infer (partly from what he knows of the Flame Imperishable) the possibility of Eru’s future condescension to enter into Arda. Eru will at some point and time enter into the world to give it new being because, in a very real sense, this is what Eru has always been doing. A second observation is how this logic complements but reverses the line of reasoning Tolkien uses in “On Fairy-Stories” in explaining how, in the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has given the fairy-story structure of eucatastrophe the reality of history and creation itself: “this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation.” The Incarnation, in other words, is God giving our fairy-stories the gift of created being, of sending the Flame Imperishable, as it were, into the heart of our own sub-creative imaginings (themselves the product of God’s creative inspiration), and causing them to become real. Thirdly, and as I’ve also pointed out before, the latter is of course precisely the same drama we find in the Ainulindale, when Iluvatar takes the “fairy-story” that is the Ainur’s Music and Vision and gives it the same being that they themselves enjoy, making the Ainulindale not only a retelling of the story of the world’s creation, but also an allegory for its re-creation in Christ.

Athrabeth as Sub-Creative Theology

So I’ve been characterizing Anselm’s understanding of his own philosophical theology as a kind of “sub-creative theology,” a theology, that is, that at once seeks to provide an internally consistent, logically cohesive, and to that extent “necessary” account of the otherwise objective, universal truth about God and salvation, all the while recognizing the finitude of the sub-creative theologian’s own perspective and the fallibility of human reason, no matter how carefully conducted. I’ve also made some vague gestures that somehow Tolkien’s Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth might also be seen to belong to this theological sub-genre. What do I mean by this?

Set in the “Elder Days” of the history of Middle-earth, the Athrabeth is a dialogue and at times debate between the Elf-lord Finrod and the mortal woman Andreth. As Tolkien summarizes the conversation in his commentary on the work, the Athrabeth represents “the attempt of a generous Elvish mind to fathom the relations of Elves and Men, and the part they were designed to play in what he would have called the Oienkarmë Eruo (The One’s perpetual production), which might be rendered by ‘God’s management of the Drama'” (Morgoth’s Ring 329). He explains that it is

not presented as an argument of any cogency for Men in their present situation (or the one in which they believe themselves to be), though it may have some interest for Men who start with similar beliefs or assumptions to those held by the Elvish king Finrod…. There are certain things in this world that have to be accepted as ‘facts.’

In Anselmian terms, we might say that the argument of the Athrabeth involves an exercise of fides quaerens intellectum, or “faith seeking understanding.” Beginning with certain “beliefs or assumptions,” in other words, Finrod is attempting to discern and understand the inter-connectedness and internal consistency of these beliefs. Tolkien allows that the resulting argument may very well be without “any cogency for Men in their present situation (or the one [i.e., situation] in which they believe themselves to be),” though “it may have some interest”–and hence some cogency–for Men who start with similar belief or assumption to those held by the Elvish king Finrod….” As Tolkien views it, the argument of the Athrabeth does not involve the Enlightenment myth of a pure and autonomous reason, but presents a case of rationality operating on the basis of certain pre-rational commitments. Somewhat like Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, therefore, the Athrabeth offers us not a neutral, “unbiased” argument, but a kind of “possible necessity,” a necessity that is real but which is only going to be fully accessible to and appreciable by a mind that humbly accepts those deliverances which are prior to and the foundation of the proper operation of reason.

(To be continued….)

Dialogue as Sub-Creation and Revelation in Anselm and Tolkien

At New Saint Andrews College where I teach, one of our pedagogical distinctives is our small group recitations: at the end of the week, each class breaks up into groups of six to eight students for hour-long meetings with the instructor to discuss the assigned reading. Although time-intensive, in addition to the obvious benefit to students, I’ve personally appreciated the small group recitations for the opportunity they provide me, not so much now as a teacher, but as a fellow inquirer with my students. For me, the most enjoyable (and I suspect effective) recitations are the ones in which I’m able most fully to participate in (as opposed to merely observing and directing) the process of purposeful discovery. Without taking anything away from the importance of the orienting lectures that typically begin our class week, in such moments of more formal, prepared instruction, the teacher, for his part, is largely limited to imparting existing knowledge and already achieved insights. It is in the more unpredictable, personal setting of the small group recitations, by contrast, when I find my ability to creatively adapt, marshal, improvise, and apply what I know to be truly put to the test; which is to say, it’s often in these recitations that I often learn what (if anything) it is that I really know.

It’s something like this process of discovery-through-dialogue that is the theme of yet another parallel that might be drawn between Tolkien and Anselm. In his Cur Deus Homo (“Why God Became Man”), Anselm stages a dialogue between himself and his friend and student Boso, in which Anselm attempts to show “by what logic or necessity did God become man, and by his death, as we believe and profess, restore life to the world.” As Anselm implies, however, his choice of the dialogue format is no mere literary artifice contrived for the purpose of expounding beliefs already held by him. Rather, for Anselm there is a sense in which his fictional dialogue, like the real-world conversation or conversations upon which it was no doubt based, is even for its author a heuristic device of authentic discovery. When Anselm remarks in his preface, for example, that he will “undertake to make plain to enquirers what God shall see fit to reveal to me about this subject,” there is a discernible air of genuine inquiry and innovation to the proposed project. Anselm hopes to make clear not just what God has revealed to him, but what he hopes and anticipates God will reveal to him in the course of crafting the dialogue itself. (It occurs to me that Tolkien’s distinction between allegory, in which elements of a story have a fixed, premeditated meaning, and fairy-story, in which the “application” for both the reader and the author are more free and unpredictable, might have some corollary here.)   Boso’s encouragement, moreover, is in keeping with this theme: “it often comes about in discussions of some issue that God reveals what was previously hidden” (1.1). A little later, Anselm once again tells Boso that their discourse will have “the form not so much of a demonstration as of an enquiry undertaken jointly with you…” (1.2). Finally, and bringing the discussion around to what I argued the other day to be the “sub-creative theology” implied in the Monologion’s method of a “possible necessity,” Anselm emphasizes how “even if I seem to be proving it [i.e., the “necessity” of the Incarnation] by means of logic–it is to be accepted with only this degree of certainty: that it seems to be so provisionally, until God shall in some way reveal to me something better” (1.2). The explanation Anselm gives for this tentativeness or sense of provisionality is illuminating: “whatever a human being may say on this subject, there remain deeper reasons, as yet hidden from us…” (1.2).

In a forthcoming post I hope to examine some of the ways in which Tolkien’s own version of the Cur Deus Homo, his dialogue Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, reflects a related, Anselmian appreciation of the sub-creative and revelatory dimensions of theological discourse.   

A Possible Necessity: Sub-Creative Theology in Anselm and Tolkien

In his Monologion, in which he attempts to demonstrate by reason the things that Christians otherwise hold to be true about God through revelation, Anselm advises his readers that

if I say something along the way that greater authority does not teach, then I wish it to be taken in the following way: it is, indeed, reached as a necessary conclusion from reasoning which seems right to me. Nevertheless, it is not thereby asserted as necessary without qualification. Rather I assert it as possible–for the present at least. (Harrison trans.)

This is curious: Anselm believes that his philosophical, rational, logical arguments for the truth of the Christian doctrine of God possess a certain “necessity,” but he admits that it is a qualified, provisional necessity. What qualifications to his rational theology does Anselm seem to have in mind? I’m not entirely sure, but his phrase “reasoning which seems right to me” may contain at least a partial answer. Although Anselm intends and believes his arguments to be persuasive for an unbeliever, and that they formally do not rely on any revealed premises accessible only by faith, it would be wrong to suppose that Anselm sees himself as operating under the Enlightenment myth of a “pure reason,” i.e., reason without any pre-rational commitments whatsoever. Rather, and as he puts it in his later Proslogion, his philosophical project is a matter of “faith seeking understanding” and an uncovering of the rationes fidei, the “reason” or “rationality” of faith, but which we might with equal justification also identify as the fides rationionis, the “faith of reason” or “reason’s faith.”

More than this, however, because he knows that the rational arguments he is putting forward are not themselves revealed in Scripture, Anselm seems to recognize a sense in which his demonstrations, for all their aspirations to universality and objectivity, are still very much his demonstrations, and should be understood as such, and not just by unbelievers, but especially by his fellow Christians. Anselm hopes and believes his arguments to be rational and true, but this does not absolve his readers of the responsibility of scrutinizing the consistency of his proofs with the authority of revelation (and if and when they should be found to be out of conformity with Scripture, neither should his readers naively criticize Anselm as though he were not acutely aware of that distinct possibility). Thus, while on the one hand excluding any kind of skepticism or relativism in his quest for “necessary” demonstrations, on the other hand Anselm seems to recognize the equally necessary provisionality of reason the moment it ventures (and that by divine permission) from the safe shores of what has been expressly revealed in Scripture.

Another way of characterizing the “possible necessity” of Anselm’s rational theology, I submit, is to see it as an instance of what I have elsewhere referred to as a “sub-creative theology.” In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien argues that human art in general and fairy-stories in particular are “sub-creative” in the sense that, like God in his act of primary creation, they strive to produce “secondary worlds” that nevertheless possess the “inner consistency of reality.” He writes:

What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside.

Similar to Tolkien’s sub-creator, Anselm’s goal in his philosophical theology–whether rationally demonstrating the existence and nature of God in his Monologion and Proslogion, or showing the “necessity” of the Incarnation in his Cur Deus Homo–is to provide an internally consistent and compelling account of Christian truth that at the same time truthfully approximates (if not in fact coincides with) the logic of reality itself as God has made and revealed it. It is in this sense that his theology achieves a “possible necessity”: “necessary” because its own internal, narrative logic leads–with an inexorability that is as much aesthetic as it is “rational”–to the denouement of a Q.E.D.; “possible” because it recognizes reason’s own contingency and fallibility to speak where Scripture itself is silent or at best suggestive.

(It is, incidentally, this recognition of and commitment to a reality that we may asymptotically approach if not exactly capture and reproduce that I suspect differentiates my understanding of “sub-creative theology” from the anti-realist tendencies Francesca Aran Murphy has identified in the 20th and 21st century narrative theologies of “grammatical Thomistis” such as Fergus Kerr and David Burrell and the “story Barthianism” of Robert Jenson and George Lindbeck. See God is Not a Story: Realism Revisited.)

Story vs. Reality

Metaphysics of the Music, part 44

In his various commentaries on or summaries of the Ainulindalë found in his letters and elsewhere Tolkien repeatedly emphasizes the dialectic between the merely mental existence of the Music and Vision taken together, and the later, real existence enjoyed by the created physical world. In one letter, for example, Tolkien analyzes his creation narrative in terms of the “story” of the world as contained in the Music and the Vision on the one hand, and the story as it later becomes “realized” in the creation of the physical world (Letters 235-6). In another letter he similarly speaks of the Music and Vision together as a “cosmogonical drama” which is “perceived… as in a fashion we perceive a story composed by some-one else,” to which he contrasts the world we see “later as a ‘reality’” (146). In yet another letter, Tolkien passes over the Vision entirely to speak of the Ainur’s Music as their

work of Art, as it was in the first instance, [and the Valar] became so engrossed with it, that when the Creator made it real (that is, gave it the secondary reality, subordinate to his own, which we call primary reality, and so in that hierarchy on the same plane with themselves) they desired to enter into it, from the beginning of its “realization.” (259)

Here Tolkien goes so far as to suggest—again, contrary to the metaphysically tragic reading—that the independent existence of the physical world actually makes it more like the spiritual being of the Ainur than the purely mental and hence derivative being of the Music: the physical world enjoys the same kind of “primary reality” which places it on “on the same plane” as the Ainur. The same point is made in another letter which describes the Music and Vision as a “Design” communicated to and then “interpreted” by the Ainur, “propounded first in musical or abstract form, and then in an ‘historical vision,’” after which “the One (the Teller [of the story]) said Let it Be, then the Tale became History, on the same plane as the hearers…” (284). Tolkien goes on to contrast the story of the Music as “it ‘exists’ in the mind of the teller, and derivatively in the minds of hearers, but not on the same plane as the hearers,” with the realized world which the hearers “could, if they desired, enter into” (emphasis original). And in his commentary on the Athrabeth, Tolkien likewise juxtaposes the “Great Music, which was as it were a rehearsal, and remained in the stage of thought or imagination,” with the “Achievement” it receives in the fifth and final act of the creation drama when it is at last made real (Morgoth’s Ring 336).


[1] “According to the fable Elves and Men were the first of these [divine] intrusions, made indeed while the ‘story’ was still only a story and not ‘realized’; they were not therefore in any sense conceived or made by the gods, the Valar, and were called the Eruhíni or ‘Children of God’…” (L 235-6).