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).

From Music to Vision, from Vision to Eä

Metaphysics of the Music, part 43

To review my argument thus far about the “metaphysics of the Music,” we have seen that, in contradiction with the metaphysically tragic reading of Tolkien’s creation-myth, the Ainulindalë outlines a much more positive and eschatological movement. As I have further argued, it is a movement intended to dramatize, in part, a progression between what Tolkien distinguishes in his essay, on the one hand, as the mere contented, dream-like disinterest in the possibility of a mind-independent reality, and on the other hand, the awakening of the fairy-desire for real, mind-independent existence. Yet while Tolkien in his essay is hesitant to insist that our “primal desire” for the existence of things other than ourselves is any necessary indication of the way things actually are, as the Aristotelian tradition of Aquinas would maintain, the arousal of this “primal desire” would nevertheless be in vain if there were no means or hope of its existence being realized or fulfilled. As Tolkien in a related fashion writes of the Elves in his commentary on the Athrabeth, they “insisted that ‘desires’, especially such fundamental desires as are here dealt with, were to be taken as indications of the true natures of the Incarnates, and of the direction in which their unmarred fulfillment must lie” (Morgoth’s Ring 343). Thus, even more fundamental to the logic of the Ainulindalë, I contend, than the contrast between the Music and the Vision is the even more basic distinction, also found, as we shall see, in Tolkien’s essay, that this story dramatizes between the world as it exists in mere thought and the real, extra-mental existence the world comes to enjoy as a gift from the Creator himself.

It is this dialectic of mental versus extra-mental existence, for example, that we meet already on the opening page of Tolkien’s entire legendarium, where it is anticipated that “after the end of days… the themes of Ilúvatar shall be played aright, and take Being in the moment of their utterance, for all shall then understand fully his intent in their part, and each shall know the comprehension of each, and Ilúvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased” (Silmarillion 15-16, emphasis added). Behind and prior to the subversive music of Melkor, moreover, is his earlier idolatrous quest into the Void to find the “Flame Imperishable” of Ilúvatar whereby he might “bring into Being” the thoughts of his own mind (16). The antithesis between thought and reality receives further expression when Ilúvatar first informs the Ainur of his intention to create the world of Eä: “I know the desire of your minds that what ye have seen should verily be, not only in your thought, but even as ye yourselves are, and yet other” (20).[1] Ilúvatar even speaks somewhat diminishingly of both the Music and Vision together when he says how the Music had “been but the growth and flowering of thought in the Timeless Halls, and the Vision only a foreshowing,” whereas the task of the Valar, after the physical world has actually been created, is to “achieve it” (20, emphasis added). In the Athrabeth, finally—and almost in express contradiction of the claim reviewed earlier that there is an “unconscious decay of cosmological theory written into The Silmarillion” beginning with the Great Music and ending with Men and Elves—Finrod clearly presupposes the physical world’s metaphysical superiority over the Music and Vision when he tells Andreth that the “errand of Men” in history is “to enlarge the Music and surpass the Vision of the World!” (Morgoth’s Ring 318, emphasis added).

[1] Later on in The Silmarillion Ilúvatar repeats this point, reminding the Ainur how he “gave being to the thoughts of the Ainur at the beginning of the World…” (S 44). And a few pages later the contrast between the Music and Vision on the one hand and the actual history of the world is drawn in these terms: “Thus it was that the Valar found at last, as it were by chance, those whom they had so long awaited. And Oromë looking upon the Elves was filled with wonder, as though they were beings sudden and marvelous and unforeseen; for so it shall ever be with the Valar. From without the World, though all things may be forethought in music or foreshown in vision from afar, to those who enter verily into Eä each in its time shall be met at unawares as something new and unforetold” (S 49).

Embodied Immortality in Tolkien and Anselm

Another similarity between Tolkien’s Athrabeth and Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo to add to the list: the identity of man as a unity of body and soul in their respective arguments concerning the destiny of humankind. In the preface of Cur Deus Homo, Anselm writes:

human nature was instituted with the specific aim that at some stage the whole human being should enjoy blessed immortality, ‘whole’ meaning ‘with both body and soul’…

As Anselm observes, man was created for “blessed immortality,” a state transcending and surpassing his mortal experience here on earth. At the same time, whatever this immortality was, it was not something had by the soul only apart from or at the expense of his body. “Blessed immortality” was and is to be an embodied immortality.

In the conversation of the Athrabeth, Tolkien similarly strives to strike a balance between the alleged other-worldly orientation of Man’s soul and the this-worldly orientation of his body. On the one hand is Finrod’s characterization of the difference between Elves and Men on this wise:

the Eldar say of Men that they look at no thing for itself; that if they study it, it is to discover something else; that if they love it, it is only (so it seems) because it reminds them of some other dearer thing? Yet with what is this comparison? Where are these other things? ‘We are both, Elves and Men, in Arda and of Arda; and such knowledge as Men have is derived from Arda (or so it would appear). Whence then comes this memory that ye have with you, even before ye begin to learn?

As Tolkien argues in “On Fairy-Stories,” they are the Fairies who are “natural,” whereas they are the Men who are, by comparison, “supernatural.” If Men are ordered away from Arda/Earth in this way, however, it raises a question as to the unity of the human person. Finrod asks:

‘But what then shall we think of the union in Man: of an Indweller, who is but a guest here in Arda and not here at home, with a House that is built of the matter of Arda and must therefore (one would suppose) here remain? ‘At least one would not hope for this House a life longer than Arda of which it is part. Yet you claim that the House too was immortal, do you not? I would rather believe that such a feä of its own nature would at some time of its own will have abandoned the house of its sojourn here, even though the sojourn might have been longer than is now permitted. Then “death” would (as I said) have sounded otherwise to you: as a release, or return, nay! as going home! But this you do not believe, it seems?’

Andreth’s response is emphatic and unequivocal:

‘Nay, I do not believe this,’ said Andreth. ‘For that would be contempt of the body, and is a thought of the Darkness unnatural in any of the Incarnate whose life uncorrupted is a union of mutual love. But the body is not an inn to keep a traveller warm for a night, ere he goes on his way, and then to receive another. It is a house made for one dweller only, indeed not only house but raiment also; and it is not clear to me that we should in this case speak only of the raiment being fitted to the wearer rather than of the wearer being fitted to the raiment.

‘I hold then that it is not to be thought that the severance of these two could be according to the true nature of Men. For were it “natural” for the body to be abandoned and die, but “natural” for the feä [soul, spirit] to live on, then there would indeed be a disharmony in Man, and his parts would not be united by love. His body would be a hindrance at best, or a chain. An imposition indeed, not a gift. But there is one who imposes, and who devises chains, and if such were our nature in the beginning, then we should derive it from him – but that you say should not be spoken.

‘… I hold that in this we are as ye are, truly Incarnates, and that we do not live in our right being and its fullness save in a union of love and peace between the House and the Dweller. Wherefore death, which divides them, is a disaster to both.’

So according to Finrod Men are spiritually ordered away from this world towards a reality they-know-not-what, and yet the equally belong to the bodies which are a part of this world. What’s the solution to this conundrum? The solution is what I’ve referred to earlier as Tolkien’s and Anselm’s shared “metaphysics of Mary” (something I hope to address more fully at a later date). Finrod responds:

‘Ever more you amaze my thought, Andreth,’ said Finrod. ‘For if your claim is true, then lo! a feä which is here but a traveller is wedded indissolubly to a hroa [body] of Arda; to divide them is a grievous hurt, and yet each must fulfil its right nature without tyranny of the other. Then this must surely follow: the feä when it departs must take with it the hroa. And what can this mean unless it be that the feä shall have the power to uplift the hroa, as its eternal spouse and companion, into an endurance everlasting beyond Ea, and beyond Time? Thus would Arda, or part thereof, be healed not only of the taint of Melkor, but released even from the limits that were set for it in the “Vision of Eru” of which the Valar speak.’

In his commentary on the Athrabeth, Tolkien expressly refers to this conjectured process by which the human soul would have “taken with it” its soul as an act of “assumption,” a clear allusion to the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Assumption of Mary, according to which the Blessed Virgin, at the end of her earthly life, was taken up into heaven both body and soul into a state of glory. In Tolkien’s fictional eschatology, accordingly, the original fate of all Men was to have been that enjoyed by the Virgin Mary. Or to return to Anselm’s own argument for why God became a man, man’s destiny was and still remains that of an embodied immortality.

“The Hollow of His Hand”: Tolkien and Peter Damian’s Dialectic of Divine Presence

The issue of divine transcendence and immanence is an important one, I have argued before, for understanding appreciating the theology of Tolkien’s fiction. I’m fond of citing Tolkien’s claim, made in reply to W.H. Auden’s review of The Lord of the Rings, that the central conflict of the story is “about God, and his sole right to divine honour” (Letters no. 183). How is it that a story–in which its author deliberately and studiously avoids ever explicitly or unequivocally referring to God–be basically “about God”? At least part of the answer, I contend, has to do with Tolkien’s assumed metaphysical theology of divine presence: God’s supreme transcendence over creation and creation history isn’t in tension with his immanence, but is precisely the basis for his profound and universal ubiquity. Tolkien’s story doesn’t need to refer to God because, after its own fashion, it is always referring to God. As Tolkien writes in another letter, quoting favorably from one of his agnostic readers, his achievement was to “create a world in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like light from an invisible lamp” (Letters no. 328).

It is in the above spirit that I want to list a few passages comparing Tolkien and the eleventh-century theologian Peter Damian (1007-1072) on the issue of divine presence. The first passage is from Manwë’s vision at the end of the chapter “Of Aulë and Yavanna” from The Silmarillion, in which Manwë sees “that all was upheld by the hand of Ilúvatatar; and the hand entered in, and from it came forth many wonders that had until then been hidden from him [Manwë] in the hearts of the Ainur.” In this image, Ilúvatatar’s “hand” symbolizes both his transcendence over creation, sustaining it from without, as well as his immanence within creation, his ability, that is, to enter into it and miraculously, supernaturally intervene on its behalf.

A second, series of passages comes from the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, the “Debate of Finrod and Andreth” from Morgoth’s Ring (vol. 10 in The History of Middle-earth). In it the mortal woman Andreth reports a “rumour” among those men of the “old hope” that someday the Creator “will himself enter into Arda [the Earth], and heal Men and all the Marring from the beginning to the end.” Andreth doesn’t believe the rumour, however, asking the Elf-lord Finrod,

‘…How could Eru enter into the thing that He has made, and than which He is beyond measure greater? Can the singer enter into his tale or the designer into his picture?’
‘He is already in it, as well as outside,’ said Finrod. ‘But indeed the “in-dwelling” and the “out-living” are not in the same mode.’
‘Truly,’ said Andreth. ‘So may Eru in that mode be present in Ea that proceeded from Him. But they speak of Eru Himself entering into Arda, and that is a thing wholly different. How could He the greater do this? Would it not shatter Arda, or
indeed all Ea? ‘
‘Ask me not,’ said Finrod. ‘These things are beyond the compass of the wisdom of the Eldar, or of the Valar maybe. But I doubt that our words may mislead us, and that when you say “greater” you think of the dimensions of Arda, in which the greater vessel may not be contained in the less.
‘But such words may not be used of the Measureless. If Eru wished to do this, I do not doubt that He would find a way, though I cannot foresee it. For, as it seems to me, even if He in Himself were to enter in, He must still remain also as He is: the Author without.’

In his commentary on the Athrabeth, Tolkien elaborates further:

Eru Himself must at some time come to oppose Melkor. But Eru could not enter wholly into the world and its history, which is, however great, only a finite Drama. He must as Author always remain ‘outside’ the Drama, even
though that Drama depends on His design and His will for its beginning and continuance, in every detail and moment. Finrod therefore thinks that He will, when He comes, have to be both ‘outside’ and inside; and so he glimpses the possibility of complexity or of distinctions in the nature of Eru, which nonetheless leaves Him ‘The One’.  

And finally, in his note on the above commentary, Tolkien writes how the above dialectic of divine transcendence and immanence is

actually already glimpsed in the Ainulindalë, in which reference is made to the ‘Flame Imperishable’. This 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.

To turn, finally, to Peter Damian, the similarities of note between the following discussion of divine omnipresence and the above passages by Tolkien are his image of the “divine hand” and his container-metaphor for describing God’s presence both within and without creation. Damian writes:

he remains immanent and transcendent in relation to the throne on which he presides, for, by measuring the heavens with a span and gathering the earth in the hollow of his hand he demonstrates that on every side he is external to all the things that he has created. Whatever, in fact, is enclosed inside remains external to the container; hence, relative to the throne on which he sits, he is considered to be within and above; by the hollow of the hand in which he is enclosed, however, it is indicated that he is external and beneath. And since he remains within all, external to all, above all, and beyond all things, he is superior through his power, inferior by reason of his support, external relative to his greatness, and internal because of his subtle penetration.” (Peter Damian: Letters 91-120, 358-9)

Tolkien’s “Athrabeth” and Anselm’s “Cur Deus Homo”

I’ve almost finished reading through Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, and here are some (rough) notes and questions that I’ve jotted down so far in connection with Tolkien’s Athrabeth. 

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo is a philosophical argument for the necessity of the Incarnation, or “why God became man.” Tolkien’s Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth is a similarly philosophical dialogue between an Elf and a mortal woman addressing the Creator’s purpose in making these two distinct races of rational yet embodied beings, a purpose, we learn, which also has to do with God’s redemptive designs for the world of Middle-earth.

Some possible comparisons and related questions:

  1. Anselm’s and Tolkien’s respective arguments for the “necessity” of the Incarnation; how both Anselm and Tolkien construct (Anselm on behalf of the “real” world, Tolkien for his “fictional” world) a logic of God, creation, fall, and redemption that necessitate, in different yet related ways, the same conclusion, namely God becoming a man.
  2. According to Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories,” one of the primary functions of fairy-stories is that of “Recovery,” of using fantasy to regain a clear view of the primary world. If so, given their similarities, Tolkien’s Athrabeth might be seen to function as a “Recovery” of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (much as Tolkien’s Ainulindalë is a “Recovery” of Genesis, and the Silmarillion of the Old Testament as a whole). But to what end? For what purpose? Part of the answer might be to see Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, not merely as a quaint yet antiquated work of early medieval theology, but as itself a scholastic exercise of “Recovery,” that is, of uncovering in a fresh way truths that were becoming stale in Anselm’s day (just as Tolkien—through his fairy-story—was ostensibly trying to uncover the enduring relevance of the Incarnation in his own day). And if so, how might this “hermeneutic of Recovery” affect our reading of Anselm?
  3. At many points in his argument for the “necessity” of the Incarnation, Anselm makes an appeal to what is “fitting” and what is “beautiful,” and he likens his argument in places to that of a picture he is painting. All of this suggests that the “validity” of Anselm’s argument has as much to do with aesthetics and poiesis as it does with logic and demonstration. For Tolkien, art and poiesis are ultimately a matter of what he calls “sub-creation” whereby the artist or story-teller crafts a “secondary world” having the “inner consistency of reality.” Is there a meaningful sense in which Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo is a case of “theology as sub-creation,” of crafting a coherent world or intellectual framework into which one must “enter,” “suspend disbelief” (or rather exercise “secondary belief”), and accept on its own internally consistent terms? And if so, is the argument of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo no less “fictional” than Tolkien’s Athrabeth, and Tolkien’s Athrabeth no less “real” than Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo?
  4. Related to the above is the shared concern for and awareness of the problem of “plausibility structures” within Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo and in Tolkien’s prefatory remarks to the Athrabeth. Both authors, in addition to presenting the arguments of their respective dialogues, in their own way touch on the issue of what is believable and why. How are their treatments similar and yet different?
  5. Tolkien’s Athrabeth focuses on the two species of Elves and Men; Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo on the two species of Men and Angels.
  6. Both works compare the world in its fallen (“marred” in the Athrabeth) to its restored (“unmarred”) state.
  7. Both works portray man as having a divinely assigned redemptive purpose for creation prior to the fall of man; in both works the secondary character (Anselm’s Boso and Tolkien’s Andreth) despair over man’s post-fall inability to carry out this redemptive purpose.
  8. Both works address the issue of human mortality.
  9. There is a “metaphysics of Mary” operative in both dialogues, explicitly in Anselm but implicit in Tolkien (note the references to bodily “assumption” in both the Athrabeth, Tolkien’s notes thereon, and in his Letters, and all references to the Virgin in Anselm).
  10. Something like Chalcedonian Christology is presupposed in both dialogues (hypostatic union: Christ being both God and man, in Tolkien, simultaneously transcendent and immanent).
  11. Similar argumentative structure in both Finrod and Anselm: both characters presuppose the purposefulness and non-vanity of God’s creative plans.

Hopefully I’ll get the chance to explore and develop these further at some point.

“Athrabeth”: Tolkien’s “Cur Deus Homo”

I’m presently working through Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (“Why God Became Man”) as part of my “theology of the possible” project. One of the things, however, that I’ve wanted to do for some time is a study comparing Anselm’s work with Tolkien’s own Middle earth version of Cur Deus Homo, the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth (in Morgoth’s Ring, vol. 10 in The History of Middle earth). Both texts make the case for the “necessity” of the Incarnation as the divine means for dealing with evil in the world. David Herlihy gives this summary of the central argument of Anselm’s dialogue:

Anselm attempted with with still greater boldness to show the logical relationships linking three fundamental Christian beliefs: the infinite nature of God, the fact of original sin, and the incarnation of Christ. Anselm argued that the degree of an offense was measured by the dignity of the one offended. Original sin was therefore an act of infinite evil, as it offended God himself. But the worth of an apology or act of atonement was measured by the dignity of the one conferring the apology. Man, therefore, while capable of a sin of infinite magnitude, could not as a finite creature offer equal atonement. Only a man of infinite worth could do this, i.e., a man who was also God. If God wished to save man, argued Anselm, the only suitable way for him to do so was to allow his son to become one of them, to offer atonement for the human race. (Medieval Society and Culture 162)

Qualifying “Splintered Light”

Metaphysics of the Music, part 13

In the previous post I mentioned that there were some qualifications I would make to Verlyn Flieger’s characterization of the tragic nature of the linguistic, perceptual, and social change embodied in Tolkien’s splintered-light imagery. The qualifications I have in mind are these. First, the main cause behind the succession of lights in Middle-earth in the first place, of course, is not due to any tragic flaw within the light itself, but owing to the aberrant interference of the evil of Melkor. Second, to the extent that in Tolkien’s mythical history there is a regrettable loss of light each time the previous source of light is replaced, I submit that this has less to do with some kind of metaphysical entropy at work in Tolkien’s world than it does with the gratuitous and sacrificial nature of Tolkien’s metaphysics. When the Valar Yavanna, for example, laments her inability to remake the Two Trees after Melkor and Ungoliant’s attack on them, she says that “[e]ven for those who are mightiest under Ilúvatar there is some work that they may accomplish once, and once only. The Light of the Trees I brought into being, and within Eä I can do so never again” (Silmarillion 78). However, as the later, parallel speech by Feänor, maker of the Silmarills, indicates, the reason for this inability has less to do with the tragic unrepeatability of certain deeds than it does with the inherent sacrifice and love that such deeds require of their agent. In sum, then, if there is a diminution of light in Middle-earth, the difficulty is not the tragic loss of being, but the self-sacrificing gift of being for which there is no assurance, at least in this lifetime, of it ever being received back again in full. Yet the promise is already given on the opening page of The Silmarillion that, however much our sub-creative desires or intentions may find themselves frustrated or unfulfilled in this life, at the glorious consummation of all things at “end of days,” the themes of all shall be once again “played aright, and take Being in the moment of their utterance, for all shall then understand fully his intent in their part, and each shall know the comprehension of each, and Ilúvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased.” Finally, a third consideration is the felix culpa dimension to the splintering of light addressed by Tolkien and discussed by Flieger, for without the possibility of the splintering of the light of language and human perception, there would be no place for the kind of sub-creative “refracting” of light that Tolkien celebrates in his “Mythopoeia” poem and which he practices in his own mythology and language formation. “Splintered light,” in other words, isn’t so much tragic as it is eucatastrophic. 

Tragic Being, Splintered Light

Metaphysics of the Music, part 11

In this series of posts I have been examining (what I suggest to be) the somewhat exaggerated interpretation of the Music of the Ainur offered by some readers, and the resulting “tragic metaphysics” they have implicitly attribute to Tolkien’s creation-myth as a consequence. There is, to be sure, much tragedy present in Tolkien’s mythology, tragedy which may at times even seem to spill over into his mythology’s underlying philosophy of being. Verlyn Flieger touches on this in her study of Tolkien’s image of “splintered light,” a metaphor illustrating his and Owen Barfield’s theory (discussed here and here) of the fragmentation human language, stories, and perception inevitably undergo over time. Similar to Bradford Eden—who in addition to finding a Boethian pattern of cosmic, human, and instrumental music in the history of Middle-earth, also reads this sequence according to a Neoplatonic pattern of decay—Flieger likewise stresses the sense of tragic loss accompanying the phenomenon of splintering light present in Tolkien’s legendarium. Of the original source of illumination in the world, for example, the two Lamps established by the Valar on twin mountain-pillars of stone, Flieger observes that the light “is brilliant and constant,” but that when the “first light is quenched” by Melkor, it “cannot be renewed,” and so in the Two Trees of Valinor “new light is brought into being, but the quality is changed and the brightness is diminished… The differences between the Lamps and the Trees are multiple and striking and conform to the pattern of fragmentation and diminution that underlies the whole mythology… [T]he Trees give light in waxing and waning cycles of flower and fruit” (Splintered Light, 63). As Flieger interprets Tolkien’s imagery of light, “[f]rom ancient unity to the fragmentation and splintering of light, of perception, of society, and of self, Tolkien’s sub-created world mirrors our own. And through its people, their wars and turmoils, their triumphs and disasters, we come gradually to recognize our world, to see and hear it as Tolkien saw and heard it” (65).

Mimetic Desire as Self-Annihilation

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 49

In the previous post I argued that, despite St. Thomas’s denial of its possibility, it nevertheless seems consistent with what he says elsewhere that Satan could have fallen by desiring (suicidally) equality with God. This, in any event, is how Satan’s fall has been interpreted by René Girard, whose theory of mimetic desire Hayden Head has applied to Tolkien’s portrayal of evil. According to Girard, the suicidal desire for the essence of an “other” is implicitly involved in all such imitative desire: when we desire objects, things, people, status, or the like, we do not desire them so much for themselves as we do for the much more sordid, envious reason that they are possessed by an “Other.” This means that desire for the object is in essence a desire for or towards the rival possessor of the object, meaning further that it is in fact the possessor who is the true object of desire. Entailed in this desire is an awareness that the rival, as the desired object, also stands in a position of superiority over the desirer. This acute awareness of one’s own inferiority Girard refers to as the “ontological sickness”: in coveting what the other desires, a person is in fact coveting the other’s own “essence,” and so in doing so sacrifices something of his own being. In his application of Girard’s analysis of mimetic desire to Tolkien’s fiction, Head writes of Melkor in particular that he

is driven by a desire to imitate Ilúvatar and wishes to claim the ultimate prerogative of Eru, which is the capacity to create. And though he possesses as much “being” as a contingent creature can possess, though he is more powerful than his fellow Ainur, nevertheless, Melkor is not content with any “being” less than Eru’s ultimate being. Like Satan’s doomed attempt to rival God, however, Melkor’s attempt to emulate Eru only serves to bring about his fall… Having failed to acquire the light of Ilúvatar, Melkor… is left with the bitter consolation of “fire and wrath,” dim parodies of Ilúvatar’s creative fire. (Head, “Imitative Desire,” 141-2)

Implicit in Melkor’s desire for the Flame Imperishable, in short, is the desire to supplant and to become his rival, Eru. His desire is the “ontologically sick” and self-annihilating one of having an essence and existence other than one’s own. As Thomas points out, however, such a desire is in effect a desire for the annihilation of one’s own being. As Tolkien himself puts it, the envy and “hatred of God… must end in nihilism” (Morgoth’s Ring)

Tolkien and Aquinas on the divine power of annihilation

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 45

Given my earlier point about evil always involving the desire for some good, it may well be wondered how the Melkorish will to annihilation is even psychologically possible. How can someone will nothing, that is, find the utter absence of anything desirable, given that the proper object of the will is always some real or perceived good, and that what is good is always something that has being? Nothing, in short, cannot be a cause, even of desire. (As Umberto Eco has remarked in the different but not unrelated case of the modern affirmation of non-being or nothingness over being or existence as the simpler or primary metaphysical explanation of things, “if we aspire to nothingness, by this act of aspiration we are already in being.” Eco, “On Being,” 16.)

To answer this question, we may recall how the Sauronic desire to suppress the alterity of things is in fact a desire for something of the aseity of God, and even the express desire to rebel against God is a desire for an apparent good, namely independence. In the same way, the desire to annihilate, like the desire to create, is a desire for a power that God alone has, and therefore, taken by itself, is something good. Indeed, the power to create is identical with the power to annihilate, the power to give existence being one with the power also to take it away. In his discussion of divine government in the Summa, in an article on “whether God can annihilate anything,” Thomas explains that just as God is free to create and preserve things in their being in the first place, “so after they have been made, He is free not to give them being, and thus they would cease to exist; and this would be to annihilate them” (ST 1.104.3). (Were God in fact to annihilate things in this way, of course, Thomas argues that God wouldn’t exactly be “causing” it to cease to exist, inasmuch as “[n]on-being has no cause per se,” and God as pure being can only cause something like himself, namely being. Rather, by virtue of their being created from nothing, creatures already have a constitutional “tendency” toward non-being, so that if they were annihilated, it would not be because God actively “caused” it to be,  but “by withdrawing His [creative] action from them” [ST 1.104.3 ad 1]. As Thomas explains further, “[i]f God were to annihilate anything, this would not imply an action on God’s part, but a mere cessation of His action” [ST 1.104.3 ad 3].) And although Thomas does not make the point expressly, because things exist as a result of God immediately and “continually pouring out being into them” (ST 1.104.3), it stands to reason that nothing but God could ever bring it about that they altogether cease to exist (ST 1.104.4). (Even so, as Thomas argues in this same article, God in fact does not and will not annihilate anything, for in the order of nature things may become corrupted, but then the matter out of which things are made would still exist. Nor does annihilation occur according to the supernatural order of the “manifestation of grace, since rather the power and goodness of God are manifested by the preservation of things in being. Therefore we must conclude by denying absolutely that anything at all will be annihilated.”)

It is to this same realization that Melkor is forcibly brought, for as Tolkien further explains in his “Notes on motives in the Silmarillion,” for all his efforts at obliterating the being of things, Melkor “was aware, at any rate originally when still capable of rational thought, that he could not ‘annihilate’ them: that is, destroy their being… Melkor could not, of course, ‘annihilate’ anything of matter, he could only ruin or destroy or corrupt the forms given to matter by other minds in their sub-creative activities” (Morgoth’s Ring 395 and note). Continuing on, Tolkien writes that Melkor nevertheless “became so far advanced in Lying that he lied even to himself, and pretended that he could destroy them and rid Arda of them altogether. Hence his endeavour always to break wills and subordinate them to or absorb them into his own will and being, before destroying their bodies. This was sheer nihilism, and negation its one ultimate object…” (396). Thus, even in Melkor’s rage to level all “into a formless chaos” Tolkien suggests there is a glimmer of hope, for “even so he would have been defeated, because it [i.e., the world] would still have ‘existed’, independent of his own mind, and a world in potential.” As to the reason why the ultimate “destruction and reduction to nil” must be impossible, the closest Tolkien comes to explaining this directly is his statement that it was “a world in which [Melkor] had only a share” (397), a reference that may remind us of Ilúvatar’s speech to the Ainur in the Book of Lost Tales version of the Ainulindalë that he has made all things to “share in the reality of Ilúvatar myself” (Book of Lost Tales 55). That the will to annihilate is ultimately in rivalry with God may be further seen in Tolkien’s equivalence, quoted earlier, between Melkor’s “lust for destruction” on the one hand and “his hatred of God (which must end in nihilism)” on the other (Morgoth’s Ring 397). Things have their being by participating in God, by having God, as Thomas puts it, “continually pouring out being into them.” Creaturely existence is a font that, having the divine being and power itself as its infinite reservoir, only God can “turn off.” The same power to “send forth” the Flame Imperishable that Melkor seeks at the beginning of creation is also one with the power to withdraw it, so that Melkor can no more prevent the Creator from communicating being to his creatures through annihilation than Melkor could successfully replace the Creator as the source of their being through their domination. Again we find that evil in Tolkien’s fictional world not only begins with but also returns to and climaxes in a futile defiance of the kind of theological metaphysics of creation articulated by St. Thomas.

From Domination to Annihilation

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 44

The fifth and final stage in Tolkien’s “lowerarchy” of evil, already anticipated in his account of domination and thus revealing the latent motive within it, is that of outright annihilation, the will not simply to control and subordinate the being of others, but to destroy them all together. In the Ainulindalë, accordingly, although Melkor is initially satisfied, when the Vision of the world is first given, with making himself the lord and master over it, when he fails (as he must) to achieve this, he falls into utter nihilism in his efforts simply to undo all the demiurgic work of the other Valar. In a commentary titled “Notes on motives in the Silmarillion” (a variant manuscript refers to it as “Some notes on the ‘philosophy‘ of the Silmarillion–Morgoth’s Ring 394), Tolkien distinguishes the domination of Sauron from the later annihilationism of Melkor in this way:

when Melkor was confronted by the existence of other inhabitants of Arda, with other wills and intelligences, he was enraged by the mere fact of their existence… Hence his endeavor always to break wills and subordinate them to or absorb them into his own will and being, before destroying their bodies. This was sheer nihilism, and negation its one ultimate object: Morgoth would no doubt, if he had been victorious, have ultimately destroyed even his own “creatures,” such as the Orcs, when they had served his sole purpose in using them: the destruction of Elves and Men… [L]eft alone, he could only have gone raging on till all was leveled again into a formless chaos…

            Sauron had never reached this stage of nihilistic madness. He did not object to the existence of the world, so long as he could do what he liked with it. He still had the relics of positive purposes, that descended from the good of the nature in which he began: it had been his virtue (and therefore also the cause of his fall, and of his relapse) that he loved order and coordination, and disliked all confusion and wasteful friction…

            Morgoth had no “plan”: unless destruction and reduction to nil of a world in which he had only a share can be called a “plan.” But this is, of course, a simplification of the situation. Sauron had not served Morgoth, even in his last stages, without becoming infected by his lust for destruction, and his hatred of God (which must end in nihilism). (MR 395-7)

The will to dominate, as typified by Sauron, still at least admits the existence and therefore at some level the desirableness of other things, provided they can be made to enlarge oneself. This ambition, however, is never wholly achievable, inasmuch as the otherness of things is ultimately an irreducible, transcendental prerogative and gift of all being, and so the unwavering pursuit of absolute domination invariably devolves into annihilationism, the will to power, in other words, into the will to obliterate. In his suggestion that, following the success of his own domination, Melkor “could only have gone raging on till all was leveled again into a formless chaos,” Tolkien articulates the same logical progression of evil that he may have observed in Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism, wherein Maritain alludes to Thomas’s discussion in the Summa on the potentially infinite hunger of the concupiscible appetite (ST 1-2, 30, 4):

Material progress may contribute [to the production of art], to the extent that it allows man leisure of soul. But if such progress is employed only to serve the will to power and to gratify a cupidity which opens infinite jaws—concupiscentia est infinita—it leads the world back to chaos at an accelerated speed; that is its way of tending toward the principle. (Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 75)

In summary, in Melkor we see the misguided, primeval attempt at making things other than himself, after passing through the Sauronic desire to assimilate all other things to his own self, devolve finally into its complete antithesis in the desire to unmake those things other than himself, the feeling of one’s own being as threatened by and impinged upon by the mere fact of their existence. The contemporary application of this fact, finally, is a stinging indictment of where modern, industrial and mechanized culture is headed. The Sauronic “will to mere power” (Letters160), according to Tolkien (and in contrast to Nietzsche), is not the solution to, but the presaging of, the Melkorish will to nothingness.

Morgoth’s Ring

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 43

The idea that Melkor had “disseminated” part of his own, evil self into the very material being of the Earth is a peculiar one and may again seem to lend support to Tom Shippey’s identification of a Manichaean-dualistic strain in Tolkien’s thought. While there are a number of different levels at which Tolkien’s notion of Morgoth’s Ring might be evaluated, for the present we may simply note Tolkien’s emphatic denial, and in overt contradiction with one of the central tenets of Manichaean thought, that matter in his fiction is by any means inherently evil. On the contrary, in good Augustinian fashion Tolkien writes: “‘Matter’ is not regarded as evil or opposed to ‘Spirit’. Matter was wholly good in origin. It remained a ‘creature of Eru’ and still largely good, and indeed self-healing, when not interfered with: that is, when the latent evil intruded by Melkor was not deliberately roused and used by evil minds” (Morgoth’s Ring 344). One statement Tolkien would appear to be making through his concept of Morgoth’s Ring, accordingly, is that if material being should at least seem to have an inherent tendency towards evil, as per the Manichaean explanation, this tendency is in fact not inherent in matter at all, but is adventitious, the result of a Fall of which all creation, and not just its free, spiritual or moral beings, has partaken. If so, then the dualism we find in Tolkien might perhaps best be compared with the “provisional dualism” David Bentley Hart has suggested is to be found in the New Testament: matter “stained” by a “Melkor ingredient” would be comparable to the stoicheia the Apostle Paul speaks of (Gal. 4:3), the “rudimentary elements” of an otherwise good world subject for a time to futility, groaning for its redemption, and awaiting the “manifestation of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:19-23)—a world, that is, (and as Tolkien put it in his letter to his son Christopher), in which “evil labours with vast powers and perpetual success—in vain…” (Letters 76). The Morgoth’s Ring concept, accordingly, might be viewed as a concession to the appearance of a kind of Manichaean dualism on the one hand while at the same time attempting to give an orthodox cause or explanation of the reality behind this appearance, much as Tolkien, as I have argued previously, affirms an “apparent Anankê” of “nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death,” all the while positing the existence of an absolute divine providence working behind this “apparent Anankê” and governing all things towards their own higher, “eucatastrophic” purpose. I’ll want to come back to this idea in a future post.

Sauron’s Ring, Parody of the Incarnation

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 42

The previous post commented on Tolkien’s use of the Ring to make the point, similar to Hegel and Marx, of how we become dependent upon or slaves to our technology or artifacts. More than mere psychological dependence, however, Tolkien implies that there is a sense in which, in the process, we have surrendered to these things something of our own being. Thus, in transferring much of his power and purposes into the One Ring, the instrument of his domination, Sauron is also mythically depicted–and in what might be described as a kind of parody of the Incarnation–as placing part of his own self in the Ring, so that when the Ring is destroyed, that part of Sauron tied to the Ring is destroyed along with it: “if the One Ring was actually unmade, annihilated, then its power would be dissolved, Sauron’s own being would be diminished to vanishing point, and he would be reduced to a shadow, a mere memory of malicious will” (Letters 153, emphasis original). In Sauron’s mythic identity of subjective self and external, objective instrument or commodity, Tolkien makes the serious, real-world metaphysical point that, in the process of aggrandizing ourselves through materialistic acquisitiveness and the scientific mastery of nature, we have in fact emptied ourselves, denied our own nature, and sacrificed something of our own inherent and authentic being. As Peter Kreeft writes, in the “idolatry and fetishism” of modern Sauronism, the self has been

‘unselfed’—not filled but emptied, not enhanced but devastated. The object grew into a god, and we shrank into slaves. We exchanged places: we became the objects, the its, and it became the subject, the I. We found our identity in what was less than ourselves, in what we could possess. We were possessed by our possession, or by our possessiveness. We who began as the Adam (Man) became the golem, the ‘Un-man.’ (Kreeft, The Philosophy of Tolkien, 110)

Domination comes at a price, for in reducing the other to oneself, one is required to reduce his self to his other.

An even more extreme example of this phenomenon is Tolkien’s notion of “Morgoth’s Ring,” the idea that

[t]o gain domination over Arda, Morgoth had let most of his being pass into the physical constituents of the Earth—hence all things that were born on Earth and lived on and by it, beasts or plants or incarnate spirits, were liable to be “stained”… Melkor “incarnated” himself (as Morgoth) permanently. He did this so as to control the hröa, the “flesh” or physical matter of Arda. He attempted to identify himself with it. A vaster, and more perilous, procedure, though of similar sort to the operations of Sauron with the Rings. Thus, outside the Blessed Realm, all “matter” was likely to have a “Melkor ingredient,” and those who had bodies, nourished by the hröa of Arda, had as it were a tendency, small or great, towards Melkor: they were none of them wholly free of him in their incarnate form, and their bodies had an effect upon their spirits… Sauron’s, relatively smaller, power was concentrated; Morgoth’s vast power was disseminated. The whole of “Middle-earth” was Morgoth’s Ring…. (Morgoth’s Ring 394-5, 400, emphasis original)

If Sauron’s Ring is a parody of the Incarnation, Melkor’s “Ring” might be said to be a parody of the creation act itself: in dispersing his own being throughout the material creation, Melkor attempts to make the world participate not in Ilúvatar but in himself for its being, a point that would again seem to reveal the subliminal aspirations to divinity behind the modern impetus for the mastery of nature.

“Day Shall Come Again!”: The Book of Samuel in “The Silmarillion”

One of my interests is in the presence not just of general Christian and theological themes in Tolkien’s fiction, but of specifically biblical types and patterns in particular. As I am fond of saying to Christians who have enjoyed The Lord of the Rings but not yet discovered (or at least not yet been able to appreciate) the riches of The Silmarillion, if you think of the former as Tolkien’s “New Testament,” the latter is his “Old Testament”: while you can certainly profit knowing the one without the other, you won’t be able to fully understand it.

I’m reading through the Book of Samuel at the moment and I’m reminded of one such incidental parallel that I’ve observed for a while but whose relevance (if any) has escaped me. When Jonathan is killed along with his father, King Saul, in battle with the Philistines, David composes a lament for his slain friend, the so-called “Song of the Bow” (2 Sam. 1:17-27). In like manner, and in one of the most tragically poignant scenes in The Silmarillion, after mistakenly killing his friend Beleg Strongbow, Túrin Turumbar composes in his honor and memory the Laer Cú Beleg, the “Song of the Great Bow.”

The value of this comparison, I suspect, lies in the other connections between The Silmarillion and the Book of Samuel it may lead us to. Although Jonathan is not killed by David as Beleg is by Túrin, earlier in the story Jonathan is nearly killed by his father on David’s behalf when he foils Saul’s plot to assassinate David (1 Sam. 20). And when Jonathan finally is killed, it is by the Philistines with whom David had earlier entered into an alliance (1 Sam. 27, 29), and with whom David had also purposed to join in their war against Israel.

Related to this is the parallel irony involved in the swords that Túrin and David both wield. Doubtlessly the most famous sword in the Bible is the one that David took from Goliath when he cut off the Philistine Giant’s head. When he later requests of the priests of Nob a sword and they offer him Goliath’s for his own use (and for which assistance they are afterward killed by Saul), David responds by saying that “There is none like that; give it me” (1 Sam. 21:9). Again, David doesn’t kill Jonathan, but in bearing a Philistine sword, there is a sense in which the same sword that kills Jonathan is also the one that David wields. In similar manner, when King Thingol offers Beleg any sword of his choosing to help him in his service to and protection of Túrin, Beleg asks for Anglachel, “a sword of great worth because it was made of iron that fell from heaven as a blazing star; it would cleave all earth-delved iron,” and later described as a weapon that “was heavy and strong and had a great power” and “a strange blade, and unlike any that [has been] seen in Middle-earth.” Yet as Melian warns Beleg, it is also a weapon with both a dubious history and an uncertain future: ” ‘There is malice in this sword. The dark heart of the smith still dwells in it. It will not love the hand it serves; neither will it abide with you long.’ ‘Nonetheless I will wield it while I may,’ said Beleg.” Even after Melian’s prophecy proves true and the sword betrays its owner to his death, Túrin is unwilling to cast aside the accursed, black blade, using it later to slay (as no other sword could) the dragon Glaurung, and at last to take even his own troubled life.

Other, more tangential but still interesting connections include Beleg’s chancing upon and rescue of Gwindor, an escapee from Angband, while pursuing the Orcs who had taken Túrin captive, a scene somewhat reminiscent of David and company’s rescue of the Egyptian slave while pursuing the Amalekites who had taken their wives and children captive in their raid on Ziklag. Beleg, we might note here, is also a secondary character in the Beren-Luthien-Thingol saga, which involves a replay of the David-Michal-Saul episode from 1 Sam. 18: father despises daughter’s would-be-suitor and tries (unsuccessfully) to kill him by giving him a seemingly impossible and fatal mission as a bride-price.

Knowing something of the origin and prior history of Anglachel also serves to reinforce the David-Túrin connection. As alluded to in Melian’s warning, the sword had been forged by Eöl the dark Elf who had  captured and seduced Aredhel of Gondolin, and from which union Maeglin was begotten. When Maeglin and Aredhel finally escape from Eöl, Maeglin steals his father’s sword, taking it with them to Gondolin, whither Eöl also follows them and, like Saul (but compare also Denethor), after insulting his wife, tried to kill his own son. It is also while in Gondolin that Maeglin falls in love with his cousin Idril, but “without hope,” for, as it is told,

[t]he Eldar wedded not with kin so near, nor ever before had any desired to do so. And however that might be, Idril loved Maeglin not at all; and knowing his thought of her she loved him the less. For it seemed to her a thing strange and crooked in him, as indeed the Eldar ever since have deemed it: an evil fruit of the Kinslaying, whereby the shadow of the curse of Mandos fell upon the last hope of the Noldor. But as the years passed still Maeglin watched Idril, and waited, and his love turned to darkness in his heart. And he sought the more to have his will in other matters, shirking no toil or burden, if he might thereby have power.

It is due in part to his frustrated, incestuous, and in any case unrequited love for Idril that leads Maeglin to betray his uncle and adopted father Turgon in an attempt to usurp his throne.

Here it is possible and reasonable to see Tolkien interweaving or overlapping a number of episodes from the Book of Samuel. In particular I have in mind David’s seduction and impregnation of Bathsheba and conspiracy to kill her husband Uriah the Hittite, sins which bring the Lord’s curse that the sword would “never depart from thine house” (2 Sam. 10-11). This prophecy first begins to be filled in David’s son Amnon’s “crooked” love for and rape of his half-sister Tamar, his subsequent murder by his half-brother Absalom, and Absalom’s later usurpation of David’s throne. In the story of David, or so it would seem, we have an important biblical antecedent not only for the doom laid upon the Children of Húrin by Morgoth, but also of the Noldor’s slaying of their kin at Alqualondë: the curse laid upon the father will be visited upon his children.

Yet the story of David in the Bible is not ultimately about the curse as it is about Yahweh’s ability to bring about blessing and lasting faithfulness despite the curse and the unfaithfulness of his people. And perhaps it is here we might find some broader significance to the above parallels. David is told that the sword will not depart from his house, but he is also told that Yahweh himself will build David a house that will know no end. In like manner, as relentlessly tragic as Túrin’s story is, it is for all that a story contextualized by an overriding promise of hope. In the Fifth Battle between the Elves and Morgoth, the “Nirnaeth Arnoediad” or battle of “Unnumbered Tears,” when Turgon unexpectedly leads his army from Gondolin to join the forces against Morgoth, his brother Fingon shouts aloud, “Utúlie’n aurë! Aiya Eldalië ar Atanatári, utúlie’n aurë! The day has come!,” to which “all those who heard his great voice echo in the hills answered crying: ‘Auta i lómë! The night is passing!'” This particular hope, however, proves precipitous: betrayed by the Men of Uldor the Accursed, the allied forces of Men and Elves suffer a great defeat. Yet even as Turgon predicts in defeat that “Not long now can Gondolin be hidden, and being discovered it must fall,” the dying Huor is able to reply:

“Yet if it stands but a little while, then out of your house shall come the hope of Elves and Men. This I say to you, lord, with the eyes of death: though we part here for ever, and I shall not look on your white walls again, from you and from me a new star shall arise. Farewell!”

Like David, Turgon’s “house” will fall, yet “out of [his] house shall come the hope of Elves and Men,” a hope that receives its most immediate fulfillment in the union of Huor’s son Tuor and Turgon’s daughter Idril and their son Eärendil, but more remotely in their distant descendant (and one Tolkien’s most christological and hence davidic characters), Aragorn. Thus, while it may have proved too soon for Fingon naively and definitively to declare that “Day has come,” and to be answered that “Night is passing,” it is Húrin’s (repeated) expression of indomitable hope in the face of imminent and certain defeat that is given the “last word,” as it were: “each time that he slew Húrin cried: ‘Aurë entuluva! Day shall come again!’ Seventy times he uttered that cry; but they took him at last alive…” (Thanks to this lecture by Corey “The Tolkien Professor” Olsen for drawing my attention to these passages).

To return to the story of Beleg and Túrin, although neither of them witness the dawn of the “Day” spoken of by Húrin, their friendship, as tragic as it may be, nevertheless foreshadows not only the prophesied union of Elf and Man through the line of Tuor and Idril, but another crucial dimension of Tolkien’s eschatology as well, namely the Elves’ eventual succession and supplanting by Men in the historical-redemptive purposes of Ilúvatar to restore all of Arda. In the noble Elf Beleg’s sacrificial service and loyalty to Túrin, after all, we have a type of Jonathan’s own great love, humility, and willing acquiescence as the crown-prince to his divinely destined replacement by David in the line to the throne (1 Sam. 23:17). Fittingly, it is Finrod–whose own profound service to Beren to the point of death may have helped inspire Beleg’s similar service to Túrin–that Tolkien gives the fullest expression of this biblical, Johannine philosophy of “He must increase, and I must decrease.” In the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth–a dialogue which Tolkien describes in terms of “an 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 Oienkarme Eruo (The One’s perpetual production), which might be rendered by ‘God’s management of the Drama’ “–the conversation reaches to its zenith when Finrod tells the mortal Andreth:

‘This then, I propound, was the errand of Men, not the followers, but the heirs and fulfillers of all: to heal the Marring of Arda, already foreshadowed before their devising; and to do more, as agents of the magnificence of Eru: to enlarge the Music and surpass the Vision of the World!’… I beheld as a vision Arda Remade; and there the Eldar completed but not ended could abide in the present for ever, and there walk, maybe, with the Children of Men, their deliverers, and sing to them such songs as, even in the Bliss beyond bliss, should make the green valleys ring and the everlasting mountain-tops to throb like harps…. Yes, Wise-woman, maybe it was ordained that we Quendi, and ye Atani, ere the world grows old, should meet and bring news one to another, and so we should learn of the Hope from you: ordained, indeed, that thou and I, Andreth, should sit here and speak together, across the gulf that divides our kindreds, so that while the Shadow still broods in the North we should not be wholly afraid.’ (Morgoth’s Ring)

In conclusion, then, while nothing can or should take away the inherently tragic character of the tale of Túrin Turambar turun ambartanen, the “master of doom by doom mastered,” it’s apparent parallels with the biblical Book of Samuel may nonetheless remind us that it is not an instance of “tragedy for its own sake,” but rather of that kind of “dyscatastrophe” that Tolkien says is not so much denied as it is presupposed by the possibility of eucatastrophe. The latter, he says at the end of his essay “On Fairy-Stories,”  “does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” This, we might say, is the “Gospel according to Túrin.”

Tolkien’s “Manichaeism”

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 37

In this series of posts I have been examining Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, the discussion surrounding which has been greatly influenced by Tom Shippey’s provocative and challenging claim that Tolkien’s fiction does not in fact contain a consistent or coherent presentation of evil, but involves rather a “running ambivalence,” tension, or contradiction between two ancient and antagonistic accounts of evil: the Augustinian privation theory of evil on the one hand, according to which everything that exists is good to the extent that it exists, meaning that evil is only an absence, lack, negation, and corruption of that existing good; and on the other hand, the Manichaean doctrine (once espoused by Augustine himself but later abandoned as he turned first to the Platonists and later to Christianity) that evil is a real force, presence, and power in its own right, equal to and equipotent with the good with which it is eternally at war. My purpose, by contrast, in this series of posts has been to show that Tolkien’s literary representation of evil is actually more coherent than Shippey allows, but that, contrary perhaps to some of Shippey’s critics, it is a coherence that is achieved not through an outright rejection of Manichaeism, but (paradoxically) through the deliberate inclusion of and even dalliance with Manichaean elements within his fiction. As I hope to show, Tolkien’s is not an Augustinianism in the face of Manichaeism (an opposition that itself inconsistently implies a kind of Manichaean dualism–Manichaeism as Augustinianism’s “outside,” its intractable, unassimilatable “other”), but an Augustinianism that at some level self-consciously recognizes and exposes the “falsehood” and “evil” of Manichaeism as itself a kind of “privation”–but for that reason also a (distorted) preservation and presupposition of–Augustinian truth.

It should be said, however, that part of Tolkien’s subtle and subversive sublation of Manichaeism is his overt representation of it as evil within his fiction. Thus, in the last post we considered some of the dualistic elements implicit in Sauron’s Ring. Shippey himself takes the Ring’s characterization as something inherently evil and incapable of any proper use as evidence of Tolkien-as-author’s more Manichaean moments, a point I hope to come back to later. Yet as we saw previously, perhaps more significant than the Manichaean metaphysics the Ring allegedly and unwittingly embodies is the Manichaean reality the Ring deliberately and malevolently seeks to enact, particularly by suppressing its wearer’s materiality and physicality by rendering him invisible. It is not Tolkien, in other words, but Sauron who is the Manichee. Consistent with this is the fact that, as Birzer points out, it is something like a Manichaean Gnosticism that Sauron converts the Númenorians to in their worship of Morgoth as the prince of darkness. More significant still is what we learn in the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, namely that it was just this seduction into a Manichaean deification of darkness that comprised the Original Sin of Men as a whole. As Andreth reports to Finrod, “still many Men perceive the world only as a war between Light and Dark equipotent. But you will say: nay, that is Manwë and Melkor; Eru is above them…” (Morgoth’s Ring 321). The Elves are the Augustinians, and corrupted Men are the Manichees.

Thus, it would seem that Shippey is more correct than he realizes when he discovers a certain Manichaeism in Tolkien’s representation of evil, for it is not an implicit but an explicit Manichaeism that Tolkien embodies in his fiction. Yet surely it weighs heavily against Shippey’s claim that Tolkien’s own views on evil were Manichaean when the principal representatives of the Manichaean outlook within his fiction are themselves the greatest agents of evil, as well as the ones standing to gain the most from the proliferation of its doctrine. Instead, and as we shall see more fully later, Tolkien’s purpose seems rather to have been to illustrate the point John Milbank makes in his account of the privation theory of St. Thomas and Augustine: “For evil to be at all, it must still deploy and invoke some good, yet it would like to forget this: evil as positive is evil’s own fondest illusion” (Milbank, “Evil: Darkness and Silence,” in Being Reconciled, 22). And so, while Tolkien was indeed expressly interested in the question of Manichaeism, what we see here is that much of his concern seems to have been the genealogical, etiological, psychological, and ultimately critical one of giving to Manichaeism a mythic and even demonic origin behind its teaching. If so, moreover, it’s possible to see here Tolkien as undertaking a reversal and subversion of what Peter Candler observes to have been Nietzsche’s own “implicit suggestion” in Thus Spake Zarathustra, namely that “Judaism and Christianity are themselves corruptions of an originally pure [pre-Christian and proto-Gnostic] Zoroastrianism which can be redeemed by more forcefully saying ‘yes’ to that particular past, while negating its false images…” (Candler, “Tolkien or Nietzsche, Philology and Nihilism,” 27). As we will see later, then, Tolkien was deeply interested, as Shippey rightly observes, in the seeming independence and autonomy of evil recognized by the Manichees, yet in a way that (as I shall argue) led him to give this seeming independence and autonomy of evil a very different and arguably even more powerful source than what ancient Manichaeism was able to account for.