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.”

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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.