Ilúvatar the Fairy: the Ainur’s Vision as Faërian Drama

I have commented before on how the progression of the Ainulindale, moving from Music to Vision to Eä, “the World that Is,” allegorizes Tolkien’s claim in the epilogue of “On Fairy-Stories” that in the real-world, historical eucatastrophes of the Christian Gospel we see “the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation.” What I hadn’t noticed before, however, was just how fully the Ainulindale illustrates a related point Tolkien makes in his essay, namely the signficance of what he calls “Faërian Drama,” or the art that the fairies themselves exercise within the fairy-stories told by men:

Now “Faërian Drama”—those plays which according to abundant records the elves have often presented to men—can produce Fantasy with a realism and immediacy beyond the compass of any human mechanism. As a result their usual effect (upon a man) is to go beyond Secondary Belief. If you are present at a Faërian drama you yourself are, or think that you are, bodily inside its Secondary World. The experience may be very similar to Dreaming and has (it would seem) sometimes (by men) been confounded with it. But in Faërian drama you are in a dream that some other mind is weaving, and the knowledge of that alarming fact may slip from your grasp. To experience directly a Secondary World: the potion is too strong, and you give to it Primary Belief, however marvellous the events. You are deluded— whether that is the intention of the elves (always or at any time) is another question. They at any rate are not themselves deluded. This is for them a form of Art, and distinct from Wizardry or Magic, properly so called….

To the elvish craft, Enchantment, Fantasy aspires, and when it is successful of all forms of human art most nearly approaches. At the heart of many man-made stories of the elves lies, open or concealed, pure or alloyed, the desire for a living, realized sub-creative art… Of this desire the elves, in their better (but still perilous) part, are largely made; and it is from them that we may learn what is the central desire and aspiration of human Fantasy—even if the elves are, all the more in so far as they are, only a product of Fantasy itself…. In this world it [the creative desire] is for men unsatisfiable, and so imperishable. Uncorrupted, it does not seek delusion nor bewitchment and domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making and delight, not slaves.

Re-reading the Ainulindale, it occurs to me that this is precisely what the Vision of the Ainur is: Iluvatar’s own “Faërian Drama.” Ilúvatar leads the Ainur into the Void and, like a elvish bard about to begin his tale, tells them to “Behold your Music!” But instead of telling them a tale, “he showed to them a vision, giving to them sight where before was only hearing…” And the Ainur are enchanted by what they see, for “as they looked and wondered this World began to unfold its history, and it seemed to them that it lived and grew.” And as Faërian Drama does for its human audience, Ilúvatar tells the Ainur that in the vision they will see and learn everything to which their own music had (unbeknownst to them at the time) aspired: “each of you shall find contained herein, amid the design that I set before you, all those things which it may seem that he himself devised or added.” When the Vision is at last taken away, the Ainur are brought out of their enchanted condition back to their state of “primary belief,” for “in that moment they perceived a new thing, Darkness, which they had not known before except in thought. But they had become enamoured of the beauty of the vision and engrossed in the unfolding of the World which came there to being, and their minds were filled with it…” The result of this disenchantment is a certain discontentedness, an awakened desire to see the objects of this divine drama made real: “Then there was unrest among the Ainur; but Ilúvatar called to them, and said: ‘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.”

In summary, then: (1) Faërian Drama is the art that we–within our own art of fairy-stories–represent the fairies as exercising and to which we aspire ourselves; (2) the Silmarillion is one man’s artistic representation of the fairies’ own art of self-history, at the origins of which is (3) the resplendent Music of the Ainur, the “Ainurian Drama” to which the elves’ own art doubtlessly aspired; (4) however, within this story, finally, we witness the Ainur themselves being treated to the ars divina of Ilúvatar’s Vision, in which the Ainur behold the consummate beauty of being for which their own Music had unwittingly hoped. I said in yesterday’s post that the Ainur are the “elves’ elves.” Here Ilúvatar emerges as the “elves’ elves’ Elf”–the Fairy of Faërie.

Making Things To Be What They are: Aristotle, Stoicism, and Tolkien

What do Aristotle’s theory of sense-perception, Stoic semiotics, and Tolkien’s views on fairy-stories all have in common? They each in their own way recognize the integral contribution that human beings make–whether in their acts of sense-perception, sign-making, or story-telling–in causing things to be what they are.

Our story begins with Aristotle, who explains the act of sense-perception this way:

The activity of the sensible object and that of the percipient sense is one and the same activity, and yet the distinction between their being remains. Take as illustration actual sound and actual hearing: a man may have hearing and yet not be hearing, and that which has a sound is not always sounding. But when that which can hear is actively hearing and which can sound is sounding, then the actual hearing and the actual sound are merged in one (these one might call respectively hearkening and sounding). (De anima 3.8)

According to Aristotle, for there to be an actual sound, you must have not only something “making” a sound, but you must also have an agent capable of “hearing” the sound. Without an perceiver to hear it, a sound is not a sound but merely a “potential” sound (so no, if a tree falls in the woods and there is no one to hear it, it does not make a sound–only a potential sound).

There is a related idea in the Stoic theory of signs. Umberto Eco, in his Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, writes how, for the Stoics,

in order to grasp, from a series of sensory data, the form ‘smoke’, I must already be directed by the belief that smoke is relevant to the making of further inferences. Otherwise, the smoke provided for me by the sensation remains a potential perception which I have not yet ma[d]e pertinent as smoke, but as mist, miasma, or as any exhalation which is not caused by combustion. Only if I already know the general rule which makes for ‘if smoke, then fire’ am I able to render the sensory datum meaningful, by seeing it as that smoke which can reveal fire. (33)

According to the Stoics, in other words, the physical phenomenon of smoke, by itself, is not yet a sign of fire. For smoke to signify fire, there must be a rational agent present who first visually senses the physical event of smoke, and who then interprets (though the process may be instantaneous) and so implicitly classifies what he sees as an instance of a more general type, namely of that which, when present, implies also the presence of fire. By this means, the mere visual sensation of the physical phenomenon of smoke becomes finally a legitimate perception of “smoke,” i.e., “that which signifies fire.” The important thing to note here is that it is the perceiver who makes the sign to be a sign, to be significant. As Eco puts it, it is the perceiver who “makes pertinent” the physical phenomenon as smoke rather than a mere “mist,” and the one who “render[s] the sensory datum meaningful.” 

In stressing the contribution that the rational agent makes to the sign-character of things, however, the Stoics were no proto-Kantians or anticipating postmodernism. For the Stoics, according to Eco, in the absence of a person both capable of and actually interpreting an event as significant, the event itself is not a sign, but only a “potential” sign. Under this circumstance, it is not as though there would be no perceptual or signifying reality whatsoever, but rather that we would have a “potential perception,” and hence what we might call a “potential signification.” Absent an actual act of rational inference, there is still, in the physical event of smoke, all the objective ingredients for an act of signification to take place. All that is missing is the human mind, the essential catalyst necessary to ignite those objective elements, moving them from their state of being potentially significant to being actually significant.

It is a similar view, finally, that Tolkien entertains of the power of fairy-stories. As he writes in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,”

Fantasy is made out of the Primary World, but a good craftsman loves his material, and has a knowledge and feeling for clay, stone and wood which only the art of making can give. By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and Moon root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory. (Tolkien Reader 78)

As Tolkien makes clear, sub-creation is just that–sub-creation, that is, an activity that human beings do under and in response to God’s prior act of creation. What is more, this existing reality created by God is no metaphysical wax nose, bendable at will, but has a determinate nature and order. As the above quote clearly implies, structures like iron, horses, trees, flowers, and fruit have a reality that is in one sense “independent” of what we make of them. However, much of the significance of these otherwise “independent” structures lies in their inchoate capacity to manifest themselves to us, not only in sense-perception and speech, as Aristotle and the Stoics recognized, but even more eminently for Tolkien, in our story-telling. There is a sense in which horses don’t achieve their actuality as horses for us until after at least some horses have had the chance to be a Pegasus. Nor does iron really become iron until after at least some iron has had a chance to be elevated and made into the substance of a mythical, heroic sword. Take away the human, story element, and things become mere elements. Or as Tolkien puts it in another passage, “When the fairy-tale ceased, there would be just thunder, which no human ear had yet heard” (51).

Why Only Theology Can Save “The Silmarillion”

Reading The Silmarillion, as Tolkien enthusiasts have long realized, is a very different, difficult, and for many, even disappointing experience compared to reading The Lord of the Rings. In a letter addressing the difference between the two works, Tolkien writes:

Part of the attraction of The L.R. is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist. To go there is to destroy the magic, unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed. (L 333)

The problem with The Silmarillion, in other words, is that it tells the untold stories and visits the unvisited islands of The Lord of the Rings, thereby foreshortening the sense of depth of the latter work and so (at least potentially) “destroy[ing] the magic.” In The Silmarillion, to put the matter differently, what is left remote and in that sense transcendent in The Lord of the Rings is rendered immanently present–one might almost say “familiar” and “appropriated,” to use a couple of important terms from Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories.” This effect must be inevitable, Tolkien goes on to admit, “unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed,” unless, that is, there is some even deeper or more distant reality that can play The Silmarillion to The Silmarillion’The Lord of the Rings, as it were.

Although Tolkien doesn’t go into this in his letter, I submit that, for the perceptive reader, The Silmarillion does in fact offer or reveal such “new unattainable vistas,” namely in the form of the expressly theological vision with which the work opens and then almost immediately (though never wholly) leaves behind. Far from suggesting a form of Enlightenment deism, according to which a divine watchmaker is supposed to have established the world and the left it to run itself of its own accord, as I have argued elsewhere, what Tolkien does in his opening creation-myth, the Ainulindalë, is preface his legendarium with the necessary theological prolegomena for properly interpreting the subsequent, less theologically explicit portions of his Middle-earth mythology. As Tolkien makes clear in a number of places, every instance of eucatastrophe–a device he identifies as a sine qua non of the fairy-story genre–in his own writings is an instance of special divine intervention and deliverance whereby the Creator reveals himself as “that one ever-present Person who is never absent and never named” (Letters no. 192). Of course, there are many other qualities in The Silmarillion which make it a great piece of literature in its own right, yet in Tolkien’s own mind there simply was no substitute for that elusive and allusive “impression of depth,” as he put it, whereby something greater–an unreduced and ultimately irreducible surplus of meaning and mystery–might be “glimpsed in the background.”

It is for reasons such as these that The Silmarillion‘s editor, Tolkien’s son Christopher, later regretted his decision not to include his father’s original framing device telling how the early medieval adventurer Eriol discovered fairy-land (the isle of modern day England) and learned the tales contained in The Silmarillion. Had he done so, The Silmarillion would have provided its own means of at once mediating itself to its modern audience while creating the desired sense of an unbridgeable historical distance between the reader and this “book of lost tales.” While I, too, share this regret with Christopher, it should not go unnoticed the way in which the published Silmarillion, beginning (like the Book of Genesis) as it does with the story of God’s loving act of creation and providential ordering of the world, does provide its own form of framing device. It is the divine realities and verities revealed in the opening mythology of the Silmarillion that ultimately provides the work with its own set of “new unattainable vistas” and what, as a consequence, helps “save” its “magic.”

(For a related post, see “Hobbits: Non-Mediating Mediators.”)

Bilbo, Tolkien’s own eucatastrophe

In letter no. 15, on the virtual eve of the publication of The Hobbit, Tolkien laments to his publisher hi financial circumstances, and expresses his “hope [that Mr Baggins will eventually come to my rescue—in a moderate way (I do not expect pots of troll-gold).” Ironic, in that Mr. Baggins would come through in spades (Tolkien died a wealthy man). The little hobbit would turn out to be not only the unexpected eucatastrophe of Tolkien’s already existing Middle-earth legendarium: financially (to say nothing of all the other ways) he would turn out to be a very real eucatastrophe in Tolkien’s personal life.

“Lord of the Rings” as Narya, the Ring of Fire

Building on yesterday’s post, here are some more passages linking Tolkien’s youthful sense of responsibility that he and the TCBS were to help “rekindle an old light” of faith and “testify for God and Truth” in the world, and his literary representation of this same theme within his fiction. On the very final page of the Silmarillion, in the chapter “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age,” Cirdan the Shipwright gives to Gandalf Narya, the Ring of Fire, telling him:

“Take now this Ring,” he said; “for thy labours and thy cares will be heavy, but in all it will support thee and defend thee from weariness. For this is the Ring of Fire, and herewith, maybe, thou shalt rekindle hearts to the valour of old in a world that grows chill.”

Tolkien reiterates the association between Cirdan’s ring and Gandalf’s “kindling” mission in a letter in which he even implicates Gandalf’s fireworks in the symbolism, describing them as “part of the representation of Gandalf, bearer of the Ring of Fire, the Kindler” (Letters no. 301). The point I made in yesterday’s post was that the similar language used early by Tolkien to describe his literary ambitions, and later to describe Gandalf’s own policies in Middle-earth, reveal Tolkien to have been something of his own model and inspiration for what he means by being a “servant of the Secret Fire.” I’ve also commented before (“Gimli’s Silmaril, Gimli the Silmaril”) on how the Silmaril jewels themselves, in the way they take in the natural light of creation and refract it in many beautiful “hues,” are meant to symbolize both the sub-creative act and agent. Then there is Tolkien’s statement, in response to W.H. Auden’s review of the The Lord of the Rings, that the latter is “basically… about God, and His sole right to divine honour” (Letters no. 183), as well as his affirmation of one reader’s description of the work as “creat[ing] 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). Finally, there is Tolkien’s further statement, though meant in a slightly different, though not unrelated sense, to the one I will be giving it presently, that The Lord of the Rings “is not ‘about’ anything but itself” (Letters no. 165). Stringing all of these points together, I think we are led to the interpretation of Cirdan’s ring, offered to Gandalf as a support and encouragement in “rekindl[ing] hearts to the valour of old in a world that grows chill,” as an image of the purpose behind Tolkien’s own literary “labours and cares.” What is Narya, the Ring of Fire? It is The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien, Servant of the Secret Fire

Upon the death of their fellow T.C.B.S. (“Tea Club and Barrovian Society”) member Rob Gilson, Tolkien explains to G.B. Smith his own understanding of the “greatness” to which the group believed they as a whole had been destined by God:

The greatness I meant was that of a great instrument in God’s hands–a mover, a doer, even an achiever of great things, a beginner at the very least of large things. What I meant… was that the TCBS had been granted some spark of fire–certainly as a body if not singly–that was destined to kindle a new light, or, what is the same thing rekindle an old light in the world; that the TCBS was destined to testify for God and Truth… (Letters no. 5, p. 9-10)

This image of God “sparking a fire” whereby he achieves “great” ends through otherwise small and humble “instruments” was one that Tolkien would go on to employ within his own literary effort at “rekindling an old light” and “testifying for God and Truth” in the world. As I’ve noted here before, it’s the same imagery that Tolkien uses, for example, in interpreting the story of Beren and Luthien (in many ways the heart of the Silmarillion), to depict the agency of the “Secret Fire” of Iluvatar at work in the world, and finally how he depicts the mission and ministry of Gandalf (particularly as it pertains to hobbits), the self-identified “servant of the Secret Fire” (also deserving of mention here is Elrond’s programmatic statement at the end of the Council of Elrond: “such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere”). The point to be made here is how in each of these, or so it would seem, Tolkien gives us a literary depiction of the significance and responsibility he initially felt lay upon him and his friends as members of the T.C.B.S.. Tolkien himself, in short, was his own, original type of the “servant of the Secret Fire.”

The Aesthete vs the Ascetic: What St. Augustine Would Have Thought of Tolkien’s Middle-earth

In his classic study The Great Chain of Being, Arthur O. Lovejoy gives a brief summary of Augustine’s aesthetic treatise De pulchritudine simulacrorum, which contains a wonderful criterion for evaluating the sub-creative achievement of Tolkien’s Middle-earth legendarium, but also what would have been Augustine’s deep ambivalence and suspicion towards it as well. Lovejoy writes how for Augustine

“the supreme art of God” is manifested in the variety of the things that it has fashioned out of nothing, while the inferiority of human art is shown in its limited ability to reproduce this diversity, or numerositas, of natural objects, for example of human bodies. Augustine, then, seems on the point of deriving a species of aesthetic theory from the principle of plenitude; the function of art, he suggests, is to imitate or parallel this diversity of the created world as nearly exhaustively as possible; and this, the argument manifestly implies, is truly an imitatio dei, and therefore par excellence a religious exercise. (Lovejoy 85)

Only a couple of years before Lovejoy wrote the above, Tolkien, in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” similarly described how the art of fairy-story lay precisely in the human “sub-creator,” made in God’s image, being able to fashion a “secondary world” that evinced the kind of creaturely diversity, complexity, and “inner consistency” of God’s primary world. Alison Milbank describes well Tolkien’s own success in achieving a kind of literary “principle of plentitude” in his fiction when she writes:

Aquinas, according to Chesterton, teaches ‘the reality of things, the mutability of things, the diversity of things’… [T]his is a philosophy that can be found at every level of Tolkien’s fictional project… The world Tolkien invents is, of course, fictional, but it is famously realistic in its density and completeness of realization… To invent a world at all, as fantasy writers continue to do, is to commit to metaphysics… For the fantasy writer not only mimics the divine act of creation but he or she, by creating a self-consistent, independent world also witnesses to the existence of an Is: to Ens. (Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 17-18)

Yet as remarkable as such an achievement may be, for Augustine, it is in fact not to be attempted. Summarizing the Bishop’s reservations, Lovejoy continues:

But here the saint checks himself and reverts violently to the ascetic and otherworldly side of his doctrine: “Not that those who fashion such works [of art] are to be highly esteemed, nor those who take delight in them; for when the soul is thus intent upon the lesser things—things corporeal which it makes by corporeal means—it is the less fixed upon that supreme Wisdom from which it derives these very powers.” Thus Augustine is involved in the incongruous conclusion that God as creator is not to be imitated, that certain divine powers in which men in a measure participate are not to be employed by them, and that the creation in which alone the divine attribute of “goodness” is manifested is not to be enjoyed. (85-6)

As with other creational goods, the double liability of human sin and human finitude means that, for Augustine, the impetus towards a sub-creative imitatio dei is one that is safer suppressed than cultivated, lest it distract us from our primary duty of the worship and meditation of God.