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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The Metaphysics of the Vision

Metaphysics of the Music, part 27

In addition to this progressive, eschatological element within the Music, and again, notwithstanding the exceeding level of beauty already accomplished within it, Tolkien depicts a similar transformation from glory to greater glory as taking place in the transition from the Music to the Ainur’s Vision of the world’s history following after it. In comparison with the attention that has been given to the Music, the Ainur’s Vision has been a much neglected subject in discussions of the Ainulindalë, yet it is not at all apparent that the Vision is any less important than the Music where the underlying metaphysics of Tolkien’s mythology is concerned. In the earliest editions of the Ainulindalë Eru had created the world, unbeknownst to the Ainur at the time, simultaneously with their playing and singing of the Music, with the Vision of the world’s history being given only after the fact. In the revised edition published in The Silmarillion, Tolkien heightens the dramatic role of the Vision by placing it between the Music and the actual creation of the world. On the one hand, the Vision represents simply a visual counterpart to the Music, as when Ilúvatar tells the Ainur that in the Vision he has merely given them “sight where before was only hearing,” and a little later, when he further explains that “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” (Silmarillion 17, emphasis added). As the Ainur quickly realize, however, the Vision is no mere superfluous repetition of the Music, but goes radically beyond the Music in its representation of a reality not at all anticipated by the Music. We see this, for example, in the Ainur’s differing responses to these two stages of the creation-process. Contrary to the nascent avarice and presumption of Melkor, who alone during the Music foresees the possibility of his thoughts being given their own existence, the humility of the rest of the Ainur is reflected in their utter astonishment at the Vision:

And so it was that as this vision of the World was played before them, the Ainur saw that it contained things which they had not thought. And they saw with amazement the coming of the Children of Ilúvatar, and the habitation that was prepared for them; and they perceived that they themselves in the labour of their music had been busy with the preparation of this dwelling, and yet knew not that it had any purpose beyond its own beauty. (18)

Not only does the Vision, then, contain “all those things” which the Ainur “devised or added” in the Music, it also contains “things which they had not thought” in the Music.

Why Ilúvatar Doesn’t Sing

In yesterday’s post I noted how the early, Book of Lost Tales version of the Ainulindalë, unlike the published Silmarillion account, has Ilúvatar
actually “singing” the Ainur “into being” before then instructing them to produce their own music in their turn. Michael Devaux attributes the omission to Ilúvatar’s singing in the later version to Tolkien’s alleged concern to distinguish Ilúvatar’s act of creation from the Ainur’s act of sub-creation:

The difference between a sung creation and a spoken creation of the Ainur by Ilúvatar is not negligible in its theological consequences. In fact, as Carla Giannone has shown, in the 1977 Ainulindale… Tolkien distinguishes two hierarchical levels, God and the gods (Eru Ilúvatar and the Ainur) as a function of this difference between speech and song. Strictly speaking, there is no music played by Eru. God’s prerogative (and his act of creation) resides in the Λογος (‘In the beginning was the Word,’ says the prologue to St. John’s Gospel), which is also thought.” (Devaux, “The Origins of the Ainulindalë: The Present State of Research,” 94)

As Devaux explains again a little later, “the difference between Ilúvatar and the Ainur” may be seen in the fact that, “[f]irst, as Tolkien says, strictly speaking the creation is the work of God while the making is given over to the Valar… Ilúvatar speaks and the Ainur sing…” (101).

Tolkien’s “Divine Comedy”: Purgatory as Faërie-land

Furthering the Tolkien-Dante connection I’ve been entertaining lately are some passages from Tolkien’s early writings which re-cast the Middle-earth mythology as a kind of Tolkienian “Divine Comedy.” Summarizing an episode from his father’s account of the Valar’s arrival in Arda and their settlement in Valinor as originally told in The Book of Lost Tales, Christopher Tolkien writes:

Nienna is the judge of Men in her halls named Fui after her own name; and some she keeps in the region of Mando (where is her hall), while the greater number board the black ship Mornië–which does no more than ferry these dead down the coast to Arvalin, where they wander in the dusk until the end of the world. But yet others are driven forth to be seized by Melko and taken to endure ‘evil day’ in Angamandi (in what sense are they dead, or mortal?); and (most extraordinary of all) there are a very few who go to dwell among the Gods in Valinor. (Book of Lost Tales 90)

An early name for Arvalin, the purgatorial region where the souls of the deceased men go who are neither “seized by Melko” nor “who go to dwell among the Gods in Valinor,” is Habbanan, which also happens to have been the subject of a poem written even earlier by Tolkien while he was in camp during the Great War. Much like Dante’s Purgatory, the star-imagery in Habbanon beneath the Stars is pervasive and determinative; both regions are also places of song, of desire, and of new and clear celestial vision.

One key difference between the two, however, is that in comparison to Dante and other traditional accounts, already at this early stage Purgatory in Tolkien’s imagination is less a place of penitence for and purgation of sin than it is a place of healing, rest, and the satiation of restless desire, a distinctive that we see preserved, for example, as late as the characterization of Frodo’s anticipated convalescence in Valinor at the end of The Lord of the Rings. (Tolkien does give, it should be noted, a slightly more conventional, though still highly original and imaginative portrayal of Purgatory in Leaf by Niggle.) Many readers have no doubt been tempted to see Frodo’s departure from Middle-earth into the West as an iconic image of Christian death and the soul’s departure to Heaven at the end of its mortal life. Yet such an interpretation overlooks an important intermediary stage in Tolkien’s Catholic understanding of the afterlife, to say nothing of his Faërie-fascination with the perpetual mediation of desire and the postponement of its satisfaction (a postponement that is itself intensely and strangely desirable). Tolkien’s more typical treatment of such mediation, of course, is through his mythopoetic creation of a longed for but now lost and irretrievable past, yet in cases such as Frodo’s we may see Tolkien as working in the opposite temporal direction, eliciting and sustaining desire through an indefinitely delayed consummation of all things (a deliberately “non-immanentized” eschatology, as it were). As Tolkien writes in one letter of the circumstances surrounding Frodo’s fate:

‘Alas! there are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured’, said Gandalf … – not in Middle-earth. Frodo was sent or allowed to pass over Sea to heal him – if that could be done, before he died. He would have eventually to ‘pass away’: no mortal could, or can, abide for ever on earth, or within Time. So he went both to a purgatory and to a reward, for a while: a period of reflection and peace and a gaining of a truer understanding of his position in littleness and in greatness, spent still in Time amid the natural beauty of ‘Arda Unmarred’, the Earth unspoiled by evil. (Letters 328)

Thus, much as Tolkien, for example, in his apologetic poem “Mythopoeia,” profoundly reinterprets the traditional, Thomistic account of heavenly beatitude, exchanging theoria for poiesis–the beatific vision for beatific sub-creation–as the pinnacle of human potential (“In Paradise perchance the eye may stray / from gazing upon everlasting Day / … 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), so we also find him remaking that other region of the Christian after-life in his own image. In Tolkien’s hands, Purgatory becomes nothing less than Faërie-land, a realm

wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost. (“On Fairy-Stories”)

Returning, in conclusion, to Tolkien’s purgatorial poem Habbanan beneath the Stars, I find Christopher’s following analysis to be on point:

This poem … offer[s] a rare and very suggestive glimpse of the mythic conception in its earliest phase; for here ideas that are drawn from Christian theology are explicitly present…. [and] they are still present in this tale [of The Coming of the Valinor]. For in the tale there is an account of the fates of dead Men after judgement in the black hall of Fui Nienna. Some (‘and these are the many’) are ferried by the death-ship to (Habbanan) Eruman, where they wander in the dusk and wait in patience till the Great End; some are seized by Melko and tormented in Angamandi ‘the Hells of Iron’; and some few go to dwell with the Gods in Valinor. Taken with the poem and the evidence of the early ‘dictionaries’, can this be other than a reflection of Purgatory, Hell, and Heaven? (Lost Tales 92)

As I say, Tolkien’s Middle-earth mythology as a kind of modern, fantasy “Divine Comedy.”

Grendel and the “un-theologizing” of Ungoliant

I commented a couple of months ago on the “theologization” of Ungoliant that seems to take place between her first appearance in The Book of Lost Tales as “Wirilóme” the “Gloomweaver” and the final formation of her character in the published Silmarillion. Having just re-read Tolkien’s essay on Beowulf for a class, however, I want to retract or at least revise my earlier conclusion.

To briefly review: In her early form, Ungoliant’s origins are much more mysterious, mythical, and pagan, it being allowed that “[m]ayhap she was bred of mists and darkness on the confines of the Shadowy Seas, in that utter dark that came between the overthrow of the Lamps and the kindling of the Trees… but more like she has always been” (Lost Tales 152). In The Silmarillion, by contrast, while the Elves are said to have not know from “whence she came,” nevertheless some of them “have said that in ages long before she descended from the darkness that lies about Arda, when Melkor first looked down in envy upon the Kingdom of Manwë, and that in the beginning she was one of those that he corrupted to his service.” From this difference in presentation between the early and late Ungoliant, I concluded in my earlier post that “from her origin as a putatively timeless and authentically evil force, to her re-conception as a horribly fallen yet primevally created and therefore presumably good being, we witness the character of Ungoliant in Tolkien’s legendarium undergoing a development from Hesiodic mythos to Augustinian theo-logos.”

In a footnote to his essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” however, Tolkien makes a statement that may have some bearing on this issue. Commenting on the complex question of the Christianity of the poem, Tolkien writes:

It must be observed that there is a difference between the comments of the author and the things said in reported speech by his characters. The two chief of these, Hrothgar and Beowulf, are again differentiated. Thus, the only definitely Scriptural references, to Abel ([lines] 108) and to Cain (108, 1261), occur where the poet is speaking as commentator. The theory of Grendel’s origin is not known to the actors: Hrothgar denies all knowledge of the ancestry of Grendel (1355).

With this discussion of Grendel in mind, it seems that, if we are to be precise, the question of Ungoliant may be less an issue of Tolkien’s changing portrayal of Ungoliant and her origins (is or isn’t she a primordial force co-equal with the good, à la Hesiod and other pagan cosmogonies?), as it is an (admittedly much more recognizably Tolkienian) preoccupation with what the Elves may or may not have understood to be Ungoliant’s origins. Put differently, instead of saying that Tolkien brought Ungoliant as a character into increasing conformity with his own Augustinian creation-metaphysics as a Catholic author, we should perhaps rather understand that this ambiguity surrounding Ungoliant’s nature and origin has always been and continues to be there for the majority of the inhabitants of Tolkien’s fictional world, and that what has changed between versions of the story, therefore, is that Tolkien has merely become more explicit in allowing some of his characters (in this case, the wise among the Elves) a greater share or participation in his Augustinian insight into Ungoliant’s true provenance. So the mythical, pagan ambiguity surrounding Ungoliant’s origins in the early version may really need to remain as part of her identity or character, even if in the later version the “third-person omniscience” of the narrator is, first, made more explicit than it had been and, second, more of the characters themselves are allowed the benefit of sharing in this “omniscience.”

Through, not by

In a recent post I quoted the passage from The Book of Lost Tales version of the Ainulindalë in which Ilúvatar states that it is “through” Melkor and “not by him” that much good will be brought about as a consequence of his evil. This logic of “through, not by” is something of a motif in the opening books of Augustine’s Confessions as the Bishop of Hippo tries to understand God’s mysterious agency and working of grace in his pre-converted life. Thus, in book one, speaking of the nourishing milk he received from his nurses, observes that “the good which came to me from them was a good for them; yet it was not from them but through them” (bonum erat eis bonum meum ex eis, quod ex eis non sed per eas erat–1.6.7).

Unsplintered Light

Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger has written incisively on the theme of “splintered light” in Tolkien’s work, which she interprets in terms of the occasional Inkling Owen Barfield’s thesis that language, meaning, and human perception change over time from a more authentic, mythic, unified state to a more fragmented, differentiated, and profuse state. As Tolkien himself writes in one letter, the Light of the Two Trees of Valinor, “derived from light before any fall,” symbolizes the “light of art undivorced from reason, that sees things both scientifically (or philosophically) and imaginatively (or subcreatively) and says that they are good–as beautiful” (L 148n). Part of Tolkien’s goal in his legendarium, as I’ve suggested previously, was to recover a lost vision of these now-divergent perspectives in their supposedly original, mythic unity.

As I’ve also noted before, however, there is a tendency in some readers to interpret such Tolkienian images in terms of a Neoplatonic, tragic metaphysics of emanation, according to which reality and meaning become more and more diminished or diluted the further they get from their originating source. In this context, accordingly, it is interesting to note that the light of the Two Trees, which Tolkien identifies as an authentic, unified, “undivorced” light of scientific or philosophical reason and sub-creative imagination, is in another sense not a primordial unity at all, but is itself the result of a sub-creative “blending” of two different light sources (in this case, the golden rain of Laurelin and the silver dew of Telperion). Put differently, the Light of Valinor is not just an authentically pre-splintered light, but already an unsplintering (if you will) of post-splintered light. The blended light of the Two Trees, in other words, is a symbol not of an original or natural–but of a sub-created (and in that sense “artificial”) and achieved–unity.

When we realize this, we may fairly see that in his image Tolkien treats us to a wonderful metaphor for understanding the import of his own legendarium, namely the harmonious and complementary synthesis of myth and fantasy on the one hand and analytical, scholastic reasoning on the other. If so, more than merely dramatizing Barfield’s  thesis about the tendency of human thought to self-differentiate and fragment over time, the aim of Tolkien’s own fiction is to help heal this modern perceptual breach by re-envisioning the world in a way that satisfies at once the human powers of both imagination and reason. Tolkien’s entire legendarium, in short, simply is the Light of Valinor, the powerfully fruitful and mutually fructifying mingling of the twin lights of reason and imagination.

As Tolkien well knew, such light can be and in fact has been “splintered,” “fractured,” and hence diminished and lost. When Saruman boasts that “white light can be broken,” Gandalf doesn’t contest the achievement so much as he questions its prudence and desirability: “In which case it is no longer white… And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.” But as a Christian Tolkien also believed that there was a way of changing the original light of God’s creation–and that by God’s own design and ordination–that resulted in more, not less, light. In his poem “Mythopoeia” he puts it in terms that, at first glance, may seem curiously Sarumanian: “Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light / through whom is splintered from a single White / to many hues, and endlessly combined / in living shapes that move from mind to mind.” Man the Sub-creator does indeed “refract” and “splinter” God’s “White light” of creation, but he does so (properly) only in order that he might then re-“combine” that light into even more “living shapes” that may “move from mind to mind.” Tolkien gives us a profound, positive, even comic image, finally, of this paradoxical, anti-entropic tendency of sub-creative light to escalate and multiply itself in an early account of the Two Trees of Valinor, in which it said that “of their growth and being did they ever make light in great abundance still over and beyond that which their roots sucked in…” This cross-pollination of sub-creative light is hardly a Neoplatonic outlook of a tragic, ever-diminishing reality, truth, and meaning–the metaphysical and semantic equivalent of Bilbo’s “butter scraped over too much bread”–but is more akin to the prophet Ezekiel’s eucatastrophic vision of the Gospel as a living stream flowing from the Temple: the further it gets from its source, the wider and deeper the water becomes.