Sovereignty and evil in the Ainulindale

The Ainulindalë contains what is undoubtedly one of the best literary treatments of the relationship of divine sovereignty, providence, or predestination on the one hand, and creaturely freedom and the so-called “problem of evil” on the other (indeed, even measured as a philosophical statement of these issues, the Ainulindalë doesn’t fare too badly). In the early version from The Book of Lost Tales, the Creator Ilúvatar’s explanation to the diabolus Melko(r) concerning the former’s supremacy and purpose over all that transpires is even more explicit and expanded (even if somewhat less poetical). In addition to the logos and pathos of the passage, it is remarkable also to bear in mind it’s author’s ethos. The following was penned sometime between 1918 and 1920 (during Tolkien’s stint working on the Oxford English Dictionary), and hence within a couple of years of when Tolkien had directly experienced the horrors of the Great War and in which, as he himself would later observe, all but one of his closest friends had been killed:

“Thou Melko shalt see that no theme can be played save it come in the end of Ilúvatar’s self, nor can any alter the music in Ilúvatar’s despite. He that attempts this finds himself in the end but aiding me in devising a thing of still greater grandeur and more complex wonder: –for lo! through Melko have terror as fire, and sorrow like dark waters, wrath like thunder, and evil as far from my light as the depths of the uttermost of the dark places, come into the design that I laid before you. Through him has pain and misery been made in the clash of overwhleming musics; and with confusion of sound have cruelty, and ravening, and darkness, loathly mire and all putrescence of thought or thing, foul mists and violent flame, cold without mercy, been born, and death without hope. Yet is this through him and not by him; and he shall see, and ye all likewise, and even shall those beings, who must now dwell among his evil and endure through Melko misery and sorrow, terror and wickedness, declare in the end that it redoundeth only to my great glory, and doth but make the theme more worth the hearing, Life more worth the living, and the World so much the more wonderful and marvellous, that of all the deeds of Ilúvatar it shall be called his mightiest and his loveliest.” (LT 55, emphasis added)

Sam Gamgee as The Silmarillion’s ideal reader

In a 1963 letter Tolkien confessed that he was “doubtful” about his undertaking to write The Silmarillion. What did he mean by this? According to his son Christopher in the foreword to The Book of Lost Tales, his father was “emphatically not” referring to any doubts he had about the intrinsic merits of the work itself: “what was in question for him …was its presentation, in a publication, after the appearance of The Lord of the Rings…” As Tolkien himself wrote, the earlier legends were in dire need of “some progressive shape,” and yet, to his mind, “[n]o simple device, like a journey and a quest, is available.” As noted in the previous post, in The Lord of the Rings the device Tolkien employed to remarkable effect was the “the impression of depth… created by songs and digressions,” by which was achieved (in Christopher’s words) a “backward movement in imagined time to dimly apprehended events, whose attraction lies in their very dimness…” What would be similarly needed in The Silmarillion, accordingly, was “a point of vantage, in the imagined time from which to look back, the extreme oldness of the extremely old can be made apparent and made to be felt continuously.” Christopher confesses that at the time of preparing The Silmarillion for its posthumous publication in 1977, however, he unfortunately “attached no importance to this doubt” of his father’s regarding his legends ability to stand on their own. Tolkien himself had allowed his own initial forays into providing a framework to his legendarium to drop-out (namely the Eriol/Aelfwine saga), presumably on account of some perceived literary inadequacy. The result was that Christopher published The Silmarillion without any such framework that might explain what The Silmarillion is and “how (within the imagined world) it came to be,” an editorial lacuna Christopher now “think[s] to have been an error.” In the absence of said framework, Christopher office the reader this advice: “To read The Silmarillion one must place oneself imaginatively at the time of the ending of the Third Age—within Middle-earth, looking back: at the temporal point of Sam Gamgee’s ‘I Like that!’—adding, ‘I should like to know more about it’.” There it is: Sam Gamgee as The Silmarillion’s ideal reader.

Hobbits: non-mediating mediators

Christopher Tolkien opens The Book of Lost Tales: Part 1 with the well-known and intractable problem of The Silmarillion, namely what many readers have discovered to be its comparative impenetrability. To Tolkien’s credit, two of the main challenges with The Silmarillion noted by Christopher were ones already anticipated by his father. The first problem is, as Christopher puts it, that there “is in The Silmarillion no ‘mediation’ of the kind provided by the hobbits.” With no comic, familiar creatures to lighten the levity and seriousness of mood and theme, in other words, the “draught” of The Silmarillion is “pure and unmixed.” A second source of The Silmarillion’s comparative lack of appeal is that The Lord of the Rings, similar to the Beowulf poem (at least as Tolkien interprets it), gives us a profound “impression of depth” through its subtle allusions to a vast backcloth of “untold stories,” whereas The Silmarillion inevitably must spoil this effect or break the spell somewhat by telling the untold stories themselves, of making the implicit explicit. As Tolkien posed the problem in his own words,

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)

Although Christopher doesn’t make the point expressly, his discussion points to a sense in which these two “problems” with The Silmarillion are really one and the same problem. Just as the hobbits help “mediate” for the reader the epic, mythical, and faerie dimensions of Middle-earth at large, referencing them to the more familiar, prosaic framework of the Shire, so likewise does The Lord of the Rings as a whole, through its narrative immediacy, function as a kind of “hobbitization” of the remote yet expansive, mythical backcloth of Tolkien’s legendarium. We see the coincidence of these two themes, I think, in a passage which Christopher himself discusses. After Gimli’s song about Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring, Sam responds with “I like that! … I should like to learn it. In Moria, in Khazad-dûm. But it makes the darkness seem heavier, thinking of all those lamps.” Christopher comments that by means of “his enthusiastic ‘I like that!’ Sam not only ‘mediates’ (and engagingly ‘Gamgifies’) the ‘high’, the mighty kings of Nargothrond and Gondolin, Durin on his carven throne, but places them at once at an even remoter distance, a magical distance that it might well seem (at that moment) destructive to traverse.”

Part of the irony of the hobbits, accordingly, is that their “mediation” is in fact a kind of non-mediation: in providing the reader with a way of access into the remote (to us) realities they experience, the hobbits at the same time draw attention to and thus accentuate that very remoteness, and in that very process (paradoxically) serve to further displace or distance the reader from the world they are helping to mediate. Put more succinctly, in pulling the reader into the wide realm of Middle-earth, the hobbits also help ensure (to the great aesthetic satisfaction of the reader) that that realm never becomes entirely immanentized, realized, or experienced. (To adapt Wittgenstein’s famous distinction, the hobbits help “say” what Middle-earth is without ever really “showing” it.) In this way the hobbits serve to elicit in the reader a profound desire for the world into which they themselves have been thrust, and yet by always intervening between the reader and that world, they also help sustain that desire by ensuring that it remains perpetually unsatiated.

The theologization of Ungoliant

In the published Silmarillion the spider-demon Ungoliant, ancestor to The Lord of the Rings‘ Shelob, is represented as a Maiar (i.e., a subordinate angelic deity) who had once been in the service of Melkor:

The Eldar knew not whence she came; but some 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. But she had disowned her Master, desiring to be mistress of her own lust, taking all things to herself to feed her emptiness…

While the Elves generally are said not to know from “whence she came,” some of them (presumably the “wise”) believe her to be an originally created even if an erstwhile grossly corrupted being. This “mature” understanding of Ungoliant, however, seems to represent something of a pious theologization of Tolkien’s original conception of this malevolent force. In her first appearance, found in The Book of Lost Tales, Ungoliant is “Wirilóme,” or “Gloomweaver,” a creature (as John Garth puts it) whose “provenance is a mystery even to the Valar,” and of whom Tolkien writes:

Mayhap 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, cited in Garth 258)

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.