Ainulindale as (Proto)Evangelion

Metaphysics of the Music, part 46 (conclusion)

In summary, then, we see that the fundamental movement of the Ainulindalë from the world as it exists in the Ainur’s Music and Vision to the world as it exists in its own created right, is hardly the Neoplatonic, emanationist story of a gradual, metaphysical decay or demise, but is the same comic, or rather “eucatstrophic” pattern which Tolkien, following St. Thomas, saw as constituting the being of our own world. In its representation of the Ainur’s own “fairy-story” being gifted with the “fulfillment of Creation,” as well as its prophecy of a day when Ilúvatar will give the thoughts of his children the “secret fire” so that they shall “take Being in the moment of their utterance,” we realize that for Tolkien the Ainulindalë is as much a mythical retelling and foreshadowing of the Christian story of salvation, or re-creation, as it is a rehearsal of the original story of creation itself. In Tolkien’s hands the creation event itself has become a kind of protoevangelion: if the Music is a beautiful, yet abstract, metaphysically disinterested “Dream,” and the Vision a desire-inducing “fairy-story,” then the sublime, concept-defying joy of the Ainur in response to the creation of the actual world reveals the latter as nothing less than an image of the Gospel. With the angelic doctor and over against the essentialism and idealism of much Greek and modern thought, Tolkien shares the metaphysical insight that a thing in its act of existence enjoys a higher status in the order of being—and as the Ainur exemplify, a consequent higher status in the order of desirability—than what a thing’s essence, form, or concept alone provides, precisely because the act of existence is what completes or perfects that essence. The move from Music to Vision to Reality, from intelligible or conceived essence to existing, mind-independent reality, is metaphysically speaking not a tragedy, but a eucatastrophe, not a Fall, but a Fulfillment. Through his Thomistic creation-myth Tolkien thus portrays the real existence or being of things as a surpassing and gratuitous gift, anticipated in but never necessitated by their forms or essences alone, hoped for in the promising and received with joy in the giving, a gift freely given by a good, all-powerful, personal God who himself must transcend all conceptuality because he is Being itself.

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From Fairy-Story to Evangelion

Metaphysics of the Music, part 45

As I think the passages cited in the previous post repeatedly demonstrate, the fundamental dialectic of Tolkien’s understanding of creation, at least as he depicts it in the Ainulindalë, consists in this progression from the mere mind-dependent, thought-existence the world enjoys in the Ainur’s Music and Vision, to the “realized” or “achieved” existence the world later receives in its own ontological right. In other words, through the Ainulindalë Tolkien dramatizes mythically much the same principle that some have identified as the heart of the existential realism of St. Thomas Aquinas. Because it is not the mere form, essence, or intelligibility of a thing, but its real-world existence that represents the “actuality of all acts and the perfection of all perfections,” there is a respect in which even for the divine mind things have something more in them and therefore exist “more truly” (esse verius habent) in themselves than they do in the mind alone.

As it turns out, however, this Thomistic, metaphysical dialectic at the center of the Ainulindalë is none other than the same tension Tolkien identifies in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” as being at play in our own world and history. I have commented at length before on Tolkien’s concept of eucatastrophe, the “sudden joyous ‘turn’” and “miraculous grace” of the happy ending which he holds to be essential to all “true fairy-stories.” Yet as Tolkien explains in the epilogue to his essay, the ultimate significance of these eucatastrophic moments is not limited to the highly desirable emotional or psychological effect it has on the reader, but in the fact that in them we are treated to a “sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth” of the world:

But in the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world… God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But 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 Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. (TR 88-9)

According to Tolkien, in the Christian Gospel of the Incarnation, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, what has happened is that the Creator has taken up the “essence of fairy-stories” in their otherwise “perfect, self-contained significance,” these stories about hope and the unlooked-for “sudden joyous turn,” and he has made them real by giving them the reality of “History and the primary world,” raising them “to the fulfillment of Creation.” The Gospel, in other words, is not merely a real-life story containing a eucatastrophe or happy ending, but precisely in being real it constitutes for Tolkien the eucatastrophe or happy ending of all other fairy-stories, for in it all other fairy-stories have, in a sense, become true, have been graced with the special dispensation of real, historical, physical, created being.

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).

How the Vision “Saves” the Music

Metaphysics of the Music, part 42

Tolkien’s characterization in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” of the literary device of the Dream as a piece of “machinery” is also of some note. In Tolkien’s bestiary, of course, the Machine is typically a symbol of the tyrannical domination of nature. Yet the technological or instrumental mastery and manipulation of nature is not the only way in which one can exercise a kind of tyranny over things, for as Tolkien explains elsewhere in his essay, it is also possible to “appropriate” and “possess” things “mentally” or even artistically and aesthetically (Tolkien Reader 77). It is in this sense, I think, that the Dream “cheats” the primal desire for otherness: by deliberately suspending the question of the story’s reality or truthfulness, the Dream becomes a kind of instrument of intellectual domination, suppressing the objectifying otherness of the things and the world its story serves to relate. In this way, and as John Betz for example has argued in the case of Kant, “disinterest” in the aesthetic object’s mind-independent existence is really an indirect form of self-interest, and the refusal to recognize and enjoy the existence of an “other” becomes the occasion for a form of self-enjoyment.[1] One of the questions implicitly raised by the Ainur’s Music, consequently, is whether the temptation or at least possibility towards the “interested” and self-idolatrous quest of Melkor for the power to give being to his thoughts might already be latent within the kind of pure conceptual or mental mastery the Ainur enjoy and exercise in their Music. For as Betz again points out, in a passage evocative of  Melkor’s retreat to the Void to seek the Imperishable Flame, or his refusal later in the legendarium to leave the endless halls of his subterranean kingdom, Angband, “once beauty no longer inspires a sense of transcendence, a love for an other, it can only conduct one more deeply and despairingly into the chambers of the modern subject and its ‘horizons’, i.e., into the bad infinite of its ‘mirror halls’.”[2] At the risk of overstatement, there would seem to be a very limited yet important respect in which the Ainur’s Vision of the physical world in all its desirable otherness not only fulfills and surpasses the disinterested conceptuality of their Music, but in doing so possibly even saves them from it.


[1] Betz, “Beyond the Sublime,” 379.

[2] Ibid.

Tolkien’s Thomistic realism vs. modern idealism

Metaphysics of the Music, part 41

In the previous post I compared Tolkien’s and Chesterton’s “metaphysics of the Dream.” Also of interest here is the way Tolkien develops in his essay the implicit realism of fairy-stories—as Chesterton does the metaphysical “vision” of St. Thomas—in juxtaposition with the idealism of modern philosophy, a passage that more than one commentator has related back to Tolkien’s own unspoken Thomism. In saying that fairy-stories accomplish a “regaining of a clear view” of things, Tolkien explains that he does not necessarily mean “‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’—as things apart from ourselves” (Tolkien Reader 77). Commenting on this passage, Paul Kocher has suggested that the “philosophers” Tolkien probably has in mind are “those of the idealist school from Berkeley down to our modern phenomenologists who, each in his own way, echo Coleridge’s dejection, ‘…we receive but what we give / And in our life alone does Nature live.’”[1] As Kocher goes on to argue, his assumed posture of reticence notwithstanding, Tolkien of course cannot and ultimately has no intention to “escape metaphysics,” and what is more, that the metaphysics behind Tolkien’s philosophy of fairy-stories is “best understood when viewed in the context of the natural theology of Thomas Aquinas…”[2] More recently, however, Alison Milbank has commented on this same passage from Tolkien’s essay, this time explicitly contrasting the realist metaphysics common to St. Thomas, Maritain, Chesterton, and Tolkien, with the idealism of Kant in particular, and in the process introducing a further dimension to the problem represented by idealist metaphysics and its corresponding aesthetics:

The “things in themselves” to which Tolkien alludes are those elements of phenomena to which Kant, a critical idealist, believes we have no access, and to which he gives the term, “noumena.” Despite his apologetic tone, Tolkien is actually saying something quite radical: that fiction in the form of fantastic recreation of the world can give us access to the real by freeing the world of objects from our appropriation of them. Maritain states that Kant’s mistake was in believing “that the act of knowing consists in creating the other, not in becoming the other, he foolishly reversed the order of dependence between the object of knowledge and the human intellect and made the human intellect the measure and law of the object.”[3]


[1] Kocher, Master of Middle-earth: the Fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien, 76-7.

[2] Ibid., 77.

[3] Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 19.

Chesterton on the “Dream” vs. the “Vision”

Metaphysics of the Music, part 40

In the last few posts I have been developing a possible parallel between the differences between the Music and the Vision of the Ainur, and the opposition Tolkien constructs between the Dream and the Fairy-Story in his essay. Like the Dream, the Ainur’s Music possessed a kind of “perfectly self-contained significance,” but did not clearly point to any reality beyond itself. Instead, the Ainur “knew not that it had any purpose beyond its own beauty.” The Ainur’s Vision, by contrast, is more redolent of Tolkien’s remarks about fairy-stories in their suggestion of and eliciting of a desire for realities, worlds, and realms outside or beyond oneself. I’ve noted, furthermore, this same opposition between the Dream and true Art in Tolkien’s fellow 20th century Thomists Jacques Maritain and, under his direct influence, American novelist Flannery O’Connor.

It is in another reader of Maritain, however, that the most suggestive reference to the dream-image for our consideration of Tolkien appears. In his biography of St. Thomas, Chesterton writes:

That strangeness of things, which is the light in all poetry, and indeed in all art, is really connected with their otherness; or what is called their objectivity. What is subjective must be stale; it is exactly what is objective that is in this imaginative manner strange. In this the great contemplative is the complete contrast of the false contemplative, the mystic who looks only into his own soul, the selfish artist who shrinks from the world and lives only in his own mind. According to St. Thomas, the mind acts freely of itself, but its freedom exactly consists in finding a way out to liberty and the light of day; to reality and the land of the living. In the subjectivist, the pressure of the world forces the imagination inwards. In the Thomist, the energy of the mind forces the imagination outwards, but because the images it seeks are real things. All their romance and glamour, so to speak, lies in the fact that they are real things; things not to be found by staring inwards at the mind. The flower is a vision because it is not only a vision. Or, if you will, it is a vision because it is not a dream.[1]

Whether Tolkien ever read Chesterton’s biography of St. Thomas is not known for sure, yet the antithesis Chesterton draws between the vision and the dream as metaphors for the opposition between the subjective idealism of much modern aesthetics and the metaphysical realism of Thomas’s aesthetics is certainly striking, and would seem to corroborate further my suggestion that behind the relationship between the Ainur’s Music and Vision is the Dream/fairy-story polarity of Tolkien’s essay.[2] In contrast to the Music, after all, the Ainur’s Vision illustrates Tolkien’s belief that fairy-stories tap into a “primal desire” inherent in human beings, namely that, whatever the reality might be, there at least should exist things other than ourselves. Where the question of desire is concerned, therefore, the Music would seem to be more akin to the Dream in the limited sense that in it the Ainur’s desire-for-the-other, if not exactly “cheated,” at least goes unrecognized, to say nothing of it being unrealized. The Music was certainly beautiful for its time, “unlocking strange powers” in the minds of the Ainur, yet the logic of the Ainulindalë is hard to mistake: had Ilúvatar followed the Vision, not with the creation of the actual, physical world, but instead with a repetition of the Music which had preceded it, the Ainur would have perceived its self-contained, disinterested beauty by comparison as a mere “figment or illusion,” i.e., as a dream.


[1] Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas: “The Dumb Ox,” 182-3.

[2] The sequencing of the publication of Chesterton’s biography of St. Thomas in 1933, Tolkien’s Andrew Lang address “On Fairy-Stories” at the University of St. Andrews in 1939, and his revision of the Ainulindalë in the early 1950s to give the Vision (now named for the first time as such) a much more prominent place in the narrative (MR 24-6), is consistent at any rate with the possibility of Tolkien having read and been influenced by Chesterton’s biography.