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.”

Tolkien’s discovery of eucatastrophe as itself a eucatastrophe

I’ve made a couple of posts recently arguing that Tolkien’s theory of sub-creation can give us some insight into St. Anselm’s understanding of his philosophical theology as providing a “possible necessity.” In this and a follow-up post I’d like to suggest that Tolkien’s theory of eucatastrophe may provide a similar perspective into Anselm’s Proslogion.

In a 1944 letter J.R.R. Tolkien explains to his son Christopher his thesis–first developed in the epilogue to his essay “On Fairy-Stories”–that the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ were the “greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Fairy Story,” and his view that it was fitting that “Man the story-teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story.” As he defines it here, eucatastrophe is “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears.” Indicating at once the unexpected immediacy (note the recurrence of the word sudden) of his discovery and–in characteristic, Tolkienian fashion–his own, comparative passivity in arriving at the insight, he comments on how in his essay he was “led to the view that it [eucatastrophe]produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back.” More than this feeling of tearful relief and joy, Tolkien attributes to the experience of literary eucatastrophe a subliminal perception of or awareness into the nature of reality itself: “It perceives—if the story has literary ‘truth’ on the second plane (for which see the essay)—that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made.” Elaborating further on his metaphysical characterization of eucatastrophe as an unexpected deliverance from the dyscatastrophic chain of “material cause and effect, the chain of death,” Tolkien describes eucatastrophe as “a sudden glimpse of the truth behind the apparent Anankê [Greek for necessity or constraint—see Plato’s Timaeus]of our world… a glimpse that is actually a ray of light through the very chinks of the universe about us.”

As fascinating as Tolkien’s account of eucatastrophe is in its own right, of at least equal interest, perhaps, is his subtle insinuation that the way he came about this discovery (or more precisely, the way this discovery came about him) as to the connection between the Resurrection and fairy-stories was itself a kind of “eucatastrophe.” He recounts:

I was riding along on a bicycle one day, not so long ago, past the Radcliffe Infirmary, when I had one of those sudden clarities which sometimes come in dreams (even anaesthetic-produced ones). I remember saying aloud with absolute conviction: ‘But of course! Of course that’s how things really do work’. But I could not reproduce any argument that had led to this, though the sensation was the same as having been convinced by reason (if without reasoning). And I have since thought that one of the reasons why one can’t recapture the wonderful argument or secret when one wakes up is simply because there was not one: but there was (often maybe) a direct appreciation by the mind (sc. reason) but without the chain of argument we know in our time-serial life.

Like the eucatastrophe in a good fairy-story, Tolkien’s discovery of the “meta”-eucatastrophe of the Resurrection of the Son of God involved for him a “sudden” turn (in this case, of the mind), a break of thought that he was unable to trace causally back to any prior “chain of argument” or reasoning. In the “clarity” and “conviction,” moreover, of his conclusion concerning the Resurrection’s fulfillment of all fairy-stories, we discern a more explicit, self-conscious recognition of the real-world truth that Tolkien believed to be dimly “perceived” in all literary eucatastrophes. It’s hard not to suppose, finally, that this intellectual eucatastrophe had by Tolkien while riding his bicycle must have had some influence on the scene in Leaf by Niggle in which Niggle (Tolkien’s autobiographical self-portrait) rounds a corner while cycling and discovers the very tree he had been painting for so long: “Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive…” In any event, Niggle’s response to his real-life Tree seems to match well enough Tolkien’s response to the discovery that the Resurrection is the real-life eucatastrophe anticipated in every fairy-story: “ ‘It’s a gift!’ he said. He was referring to his art, and also to the result; but he was using the word quite literally.”

Death as Gift in Tolkien and Peter Damian

In the Bible, death is not natural, but is an alien intrusion into God’s created order, brought about by man’s sin and rebellion. In Tolkien’s legendarium, by contrast, human mortality is (as the Elves at least viewed it) the peculiar and even coveted “gift of Ilúvatar,” a blessed reprieve–granted to Men but withheld from the Elves–of being able to depart after a time from the wearying, confining circles of the world.

As Tolkien well knew, despite the obvious tension between his “fictional” representation of death and the Scriptural account (which he affirmed as a Christian), there was nevertheless a deeper, even purposeful harmony between the traditional perspective on death and that represented in his world of Middle-earth. One example of this understanding of “death as gift” may be found in the eleventh-century theologian Peter Damian (1007-1072) who, in his letter On Divine Omnipotence, explains that, although the introduction of death was an evil for man, it was nevertheless a good where the justice of God was concerned. He writes:

it was an evil that man, after the fall, should suffer the penalty of death even though this occurred by the just judgment of God; for God di dnot make death, since he is rather the death of death, as he says through the prophet Hosea, “O death, I will be your death.” Nevertheless, at least after the mystery of our redemption, it would certainly have been something good for man to have become immortal, if divine forbearance had annulled the sentence he had once pronounced. The omnipotent God cannot, in fact, be said to be unwilling or unable to do this for the reason that it is evil for a mere man to become immortal, but because, in his just judgment and for the greater assurance of our salvation, which was known to him, he wished death to remain merely as a penalty owed by man already redeemed. (Letters of Peter Damian 91-120, trans. Blum)

Irven Michael Resnick, in his book on Damian’s On Divine Omnipotence, even further bridges the gap between Tolkien’s innovative view of death and Damian’s traditionalism:

Damian explains [that] there are many things which are evils for us although they are not evils in themselves. Although immortality is a good, it would have been an evil after the Fall if man had obtained the immortality he sought, since then his condition would no longer admit of change. Death, on the other hand, although we regard it as an evil, is good insofar as it is our just punishment for sin. What is more, the anticipation of death may lead the sinner to return to God. In our post-lapsarian condition, then, immortality–which was previously a good–is an evil for us, while death–which seems to be evil–now works for our good. Thus, it is wrong to say that God is unable to bestow immortality upon man in his present condition; rather, He does not because it would be evil to do so. (Resnick, Divine Power and Possibility in St. Peter Damian’s De Divina Omnipotenia, 72)

Or, as Tolkien himself put it one letter,

A divine ‘punishment’ is also a divine ‘gift’, if accepted, since its object is ultimate blessing, and the supreme inventiveness of the Creator will make ‘punishments’ (that is changes of design) produce a good not otherwise to be attained: a ‘mortal’ Man has probably (an Elf would say) a higher if unrevealed destiny than a longeval one. To attempt by device or ‘magic’ to recover longevity is thus a supreme folly and wickedness of ‘mortals’. Longevity or counterfeit ‘immortality’ (true immortality is beyond Ea) is the chief bait of Sauron – it leads the small to a Gollum, and the great to a Ringwraith. (Letters no. 212)

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).

Bombadil contra Kant, Otherness vs. Disinterest

Metaphysics of the Music, part 34

The delight in the otherness of things which comes to the fore in the Vision of the Ainur is also identified as a defining feature of the Elves, the “Children of Ilúvatar,” as when Tolkien describes them in one place in terms of their “devoted love of the physical world, and a desire to observe and understand it for its own sake and as ‘other’—sc. as a reality derived from God in the same degree as themselves—not as a material for use or as a power-platform. They also possess a ‘subcreational’ or artistic faculty of great excellence” (Letters 236). As in the case of the Ainur and their Music, here too Tolkien recognizes the importance of appreciating the beauty of a thing for its own sake and without reference to one’s own needs, “purposes,” or “use,” yet for Tolkien the freedom or autonomy of the aesthetic object is achieved in a way quite distinct from and even opposed to the aesthetic disinterest demanded by Kant. For Tolkien’s Elves, like the Ainur, their love for things other than themselves is not in spite of their intractable otherness, but precisely on account of it, “as a reality derived from God in the same degree as themselves—not as a material for use or as a power-platform.”[1] The affirmation of the existence of one’s other is not a threat to the “disinterested” appreciation of the object, but is rather the necessary condition for such an appreciation. This point receives particular emphasis in our final illustration of the Tolkienian theme of the love of otherness, the character of Tom Bombadil, who is described by Tolkien as “an ‘allegory’, or an exemplar, a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science: the spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature, because they are ‘other’ and wholly independent of the enquiring mind, a spirit coeval with the rational mind, and entirely unconcerned with ‘doing’ anything with the knowledge” (Letters 192, emphasis original). Bombadil is an “allegory” of “pure (real) natural science,” by which Tolkien evidently does not mean the modern, Baconian and Kantian instrument for the domination or mastery of nature, but something more akin to the Aristotelian theoretical science of Boethius and Aquinas—a contemplative rather than utilitarian knowledge of the natural world for its own sake and thus “entirely unconcerned with ‘doing’ anything with the knowledge.”[2]

[1] Thomas Hibbs, incidentally, comes close to making the same point in a different context when contrasting Tolkien’s and Kant’s respective approaches to ethics: “For all his stress on freedom and duty, Tolkien does not operate with a Kantian dichotomy between autonomy and heteronomy; indeed, certain forms of autonomy signal the vice of pride. In place of Kant’s isolated individual will, which in order to be free must turn from God, nature, and society, Tolkien gives us characters who can only understand themselves and their duties by seeing themselves as parts of larger wholes, as members of nations and races, as participants in alliances and friendships for the good, and ultimately as part of a natural cosmos.” Hibbs, “Providence and the Dramatic Unity of The Lord of the Rings,” 173.

[2] Tolkien elaborates on the proximity of his childhood interest in fairy-stories on the one hand and nature on the other in the following endnote to his essay: “I was introduced to zoology and palaeontology (‘for children’) quite as early as to Faërie. I was keenly alive to the beauty of ‘Real’ things,’ but it seemed to me quibbling to confuse this with the wonder of ‘Other things.’ I was eager to study Nature, actually more eager than I was to read most fairy-stories; but I did not want to be quibbled into Science and cheated out of Faërie by people who seemed to assume that by some kind of original sin I should prefer fairy-tales, but according to some kind of new religion I ought to be induced to like science. Nature is no doubt a life-study, or a study for eternity (for those so gifted); but there is a part of man which is not ‘Nature,’ and which therefore is not obliged to study it, and is, in fact, wholly unsatisfied by it” (Tolkien Reader 94-5).

On the possibility of picturing impossible things

What do Tolkien, Vitruvius, Alan of Lille, and Gothic gargoyles have in common? They all touch on the problem of representing impossible things. According to historian of modality Simo Knuuttila,

[Alan of Lille] found no difficulty in asserting the possibliity of picturing impossible things. People drawing or painting chimeras and other fancy objects actually illustrate such things… In his book on architecture written in the first century before Christ, Vitruvius had condemned the use of pictures of things which cannot be (De architectura VII, 5). In the twelfth century, strange figures were not unusual in the decoration of church buildings. It is not always easy to say whether they were meant to be pictures of real or of non-existent animals, but in both cases they were intended probably to demonstrate God’s power by showing the actual or possible plurality of what divine power could bring about. (Knuuttila, Modalities in Medieval Philosophy, 102)

As I have argued before, for Tolkien sub-creative fantasy ultimately serves much the same theological purpose as Knuuttila here attributes to fantastical medieval architectural forms, namely the artist’s participation in God’s own freedom from the “channels the creator is known to have used already,” thereby accomplishing “a tribute to the infinity of His potential variety” (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien no. 153). In a more Vitruvian moment, however, Tolkien cautions in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” that such fantasy is best achieved through literature than in the visual arts. In painting, for example, he says that “the visible presentation of the fantastic image is technically too easy; the hand tends to outrun the mind, even to overthrow it. Silliness or morbidity are frequent results.” As he suggests later, in such cases “disbelief [has] not so much to be suspended as hanged, drawn, and quartered.”


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.

Hegel, Marx, and Sauron’s Ring

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 41

I have been examining Tolkien’s characterization of domination in terms of the attempted reduction or assimilation, by means of Magic or Machinery, of the being of others to the being of oneself. As Tolkien’s stories also aim to illustrate, and as a number of his commentators have noted, one of the great ironies of modern industrialization, technology, and its related consumerism is the way in which they have rendered human beings so helplessly dependent upon the very things that were supposed to set them free. This is certainly the case with Sauron, the objectification of whose power in the One Ring makes him simultaneously able to conquer Middle-earth and that much more vulnerable to eventual defeat. As Tolkien puts it:

The Ring of Sauron is only one of the various mythical treatments of the placing of one’s life, or power, in some external object, which is thus exposed to capture or destruction with disastrous results to oneself. If I were to “philosophize” this myth, or at least the Ring of Sauron, I should say it was a mythical way of representing the truth that potency (or perhaps rather potentiality) if it is to be exercised, and produce results, has to be externalized and so as it were passes, to a greater or less degree, out of one’s direct control. A man who wishes to exert “power” must have subjects, who are not himself. But he then depends on them. (Letters 279)

Tolkien’s reasoning here calls to mind Hegel’s famous master-slave dialectic, according to which it is the master who, in his dependence upon the slave, is in fact the slave to the slave. As Kreeft observes, if today we do not have slaves it is only

because we have substitutes for them: machines. The Industrial Revolution made slavery inefficient and unnecessary. But our addiction is the same whether the slaves are made of flesh, metal, or plastic. We have done exactly what Sauron did in forging the Ring. We have put our power into things in order to increase our power. And the result is, as everyone knows but no one admits, that we are now weak little wimps, Shelob’s slaves, unable to survive a blow to the great spider of our technological network. We tremble before a nationwide electrical blackout or a global computer virus… In our drive for power we have deceived ourselves into thinking that we have become more powerful when all the time we have been becoming less. We are miserable little Nietzsches dreaming we are supermen. For in gaining the world we have lost our selves. (Kreeft, The Philosophy of Tolkien, 187-8; for a similar analysis, see Caldecott, The Power of the Ring, 43-5)

Approaching Tolkien’s Ring from a related direction, Alison Milbank has compared Tolkien’s insight into the estrangement between agent and artifact with Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism (based in its turn on Hegel’s master-slave analysis). According to Marx, capitalist economies alienate the worker from his labor by treating the commodities he produces as having an independent life or existence of their own (Milbank, “‘My Precious’: Tolkien’s Fetishized Ring,” 36-7), a relationship which, at any rate, certainly obtains between Sauron and his Ring wherein we see the Manichaean aspirations of evil as the will-to-dominate seeking to make itself “objective” and so independent.

The Theology of Sauron’s Ring

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 39

As to the “physical force and mechanism” whereby the will to domination makes itself “objective,” Tolkien explains that what he means by this is

all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents—or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognized. (Letters 145-6)

The difference between true art and the tyranny of domination is that the one seeks to shepherd things as they are, cultivating and adorning those properties already inherent in them by virtue of their createdness, whereas the other imposes upon things one’s own godlike order and purposes. This is where the necessity of Magic or the Machine comes in, for by their instrumentality the natural limitations of both agent and things may be transcended: “enhanc[ing] the natural powers of a possessor” (152) and thus “making the will more quickly effective” in the world (145), Magic and Machines, by reducing “to a minimum (or vanishing point) of the gap between the idea or desire and the result or effect” (200), help the creature approximate the kind of absolute power and efficacy of will possessed by the Creator.

This, I submit, is the relevant mythological, theological, and metaphysical context for Tolkien’s whole polemic against modern industrialization: its lust for “devices” and “apparatuses” for the more efficient control of nature is nothing less than a continuation of what for both Tolkien and St. Thomas was the primeval and diabolical quest for the creational power of God whereby one might “bring into Being things of his own.” As Tolkien puts it in another letter, in contrast to “art which is content to create a new secondary world in the mind,” the Machine “attempts to actualize desire, and so to create power in this World; and that cannot really be done with any real satisfaction” (88). This theological subtext to Sauron’s Ring, which is in its own turn a symbol of all forms of tyrannous technology, also helps make further sense of Tolkien’s claim that the central conflict in The Lord of the Rings, a book that never mentions the Creator, is nevertheless “about God, and His sole right to divine honour” (243). The question posed by the Ring, in essence, is the question of who among creatures has the right to “play God,” to which the entire quest of the Fellowship to destroy the Ring is the implicit answer that only God has the right to play God.

Sauron’s Ring and the metaphysics of invisibility

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 34

Central to Tolkien’s representation of the evil of domination is the eponymous Ring of Sauron itself, about which there are three main points I would like to make in regard to its general symbolism of Tolkien’s metaphysics of domination.

The first point concerns the Ring’s mythic power to render its wearer invisible, a property Robert Eaglestone has analyzed in light of Emmanuel Levinas’s application of the Ring of Gyges from Plato’s Republic to the problem of the modern self. As Eaglestone points out, Levinas sees “in the gesture of seeing without being seen, both the phenomena of evil and one of the defining and unavoidable features of modernity” (Eaglestone, “Invisibility,” 75). For Levinas, Eaglestone explains, “our thought and daily lives are first in a relationship to the others that populate the world. Everything else is built on this fundamental relationship to the other, which ‘happens’ to us before we choose it.” This fundamental, mutual participation in the life of others “involves giving up one’s rights and acknowledging both the rights of the other and one’s own responsibility to them over and above yourself.” In modernity, however, Levinas argues a decidedly new attitude emerged, especially in Descartes’s methodical doubt which posited a radical theoretical distance between the thinking subject and the world , thus rendering the subject “invisible” to it. As Eaglestone summarizes Levinas’s argument, the modern isolation of the subject

creates the illusion that one’s subjectivity is, like Gyges, not derived from one’s relation with others but rather existing independently without society or recognition from others. Levinas continues and argues that the “myth of Gyges is the very myth of the I” which stands alone. “Seeing without being seen” is at the same time an illusion of radical separation and uprootedness from others, and the grounds of the possibility of “inner life”… Invisibility seems to turn the world into a world of spectacle, in which the observer is disengaged and free from bounds or restraint…(76)

As Eaglestone continues, in this illusion of separation at the heart of modernity, “others are turned from people into objects” (81). Like the modern conception of the subject, Sauron’s Ring, in making its wearer invisible to others and thus detaching him from his rootedness and participation in the world, in principle denies the claim that other beings have on him by virtue of their otherness. Invisible to all others while all others remain visible to him, the Ring-wearer assumes a quasi-transcendence in which their being effectively becomes an extension of his own.

In this Sauron’s Ring may be said to reverse the pattern of the Ainur’s Vision, the joyous eucatastrophe of which consists in its giving the appearance of “things other” that do not yet exist, the reality of which is later granted as a divine gift. The tragedy or dyscatastrophe of Sauron’s Ring, by contrast, is that it takes the reality of an already existing thing and belies that reality by denying its appearances. However, because things are what they are on account of their otherness, to deny a thing its appearance and its consequent relationship with those beings to whom it appears, is also to deny its reality, as we see in the case of the Ring-wraiths and all those who possess Sauron’s Ring for too long. As Gandalf explains to Frodo, if one “often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades: he becomes in the end invisible permanently, and walks in the twilight under the eye of the dark power that rules the Rings… Yes, sooner or later… the dark power will devour him” (FOTR 56). Related to this, of course, is Bilbo’s complaint to Gandalf in which he unwitting reveals the effect the Ring has had on him: “I am old Gandalf. I don’t look it, but I am beginning to feel it in my heart of hearts. Well-preserved indeed!’ he snorted. ‘Why, I feel all thing, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right. I need a change, or something” (41).

The only person over whom the Ring seems to have no power, even to render him invisible, is Tom Bombadil, one of the earthiest characters in Tolkien’s fiction and one whose whole identity is most tied to his love of and devotion to things other.  As Tolkien writes of Tom in one letter, “he is an ‘allegory’, or an exemplar, a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science: the spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature, because they are ‘other’ and wholly independent of the enquiring mind, a spirit coeval with the rational mind, and entirely unconcerned with ‘doing’ anything with the knowledge” (Letters 192, emphasis original).

From Elvish preservation to Sauronic domination

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 31

I ended the previous post by suggesting that latent within the Elvish motive of preservation is a subliminal, Melkorish desire for the Flame Imperishable by which one the more perfectly bring reality into accord with the thoughts of one’s own intellect. This, of course, is to state matters rather strongly, for however misguided and defective it may be or become, the Elvish and Valaric “will to preservation” is, for Tolkien, not yet necessarily evil in itself, inasmuch as it still has the good of another in view. Their peculiar tendency towards preservationism notwithstanding, Tolkien says in one place that the Elvish race, taken as a whole and in contrast with Men, is “unfallen” (Morgoth’s Ring 334). We begin to see preservation corrode into full-fledged evil when it devolves further into domination, when the plan or program one has for the good of the other ceases to be a means to an end and becomes an end and good in itself, even at the eventual expense of the object the plan was originally intended to benefit. The foremost representative of this next stage of evil is Sauron, “the Enemy” who

in successive forms is always “naturally” concerned with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines; but the problem: that this frightful evil can and does arise from an apparently good root, the desire to benefit the world and others—speedily and according to the benefactor’s own plans—is a recurrent motive. (Letters 146)

In another place, Tolkien writes of Sauron’s originally good intentions this way: he had “gone the way of all tyrants: beginning well, at least on the level that while desiring to order all things according to his own wisdom he still at first considered the (economic) well-being of other inhabitants of the Earth. But he went further than human tyrants in pride and the lust for domination, being in origin an immortal (angelic) spirit” (Letters 243). Similar to the Elvish motive of preservation, then, the Sauronic motive of domination has its origin in the desire for an otherwise good end, and like preservation, domination involves the desire to control other beings, to make their being more directly conformable to the desires of one’s own will. In this respect domination emerges as simply a more extreme form of coveting God’s own absolute unity of will and intellect that is his by virtue of his status as Creator.


Tolkien and Heidegger on the possessiveness of representation

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 29

In criticizing the Elvish motive of preservation and possessiveness, one of Tolkien’s purposes is to draw attention to and comment on what for him is a very real human temptation. I have noted how, through the Elvish quality of loving things for their “otherness,” Tolkien positively displays the role of “recovery” that all fairy-stories have, the “regaining of a clear view,” as Tolkien puts it in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” a “‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’—as things apart from ourselves” (Tolkien Reader 77). What we may also see is how the Elves, as “the artistic, aesthetic, and purely scientific aspects of the Humane nature raised to a higher level than is actually seen in Men” (Letters 236), at the same time represent some of the very human motives that these same fairy-stories are meant to deliver us from. For as Tolkien continues in the same passage from his essay,

We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness. Of all faces those of our familiars are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces. This triteness is really the penalty of “appropriation”: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them. (Tolkien Reader 77)

It is important to note that Tolkien is not yet critiquing here the kind of practical, technological mastery and “appropriation” of things that, as we shall see in later post, he warns us against elsewhere. His target in this passage, rather, is the much more subtle, intellectual, and even aesthetic and artistic form of possessiveness that, left unchecked, can lead (and in modern times arguably has led) to the outright domination and tyranny of nature. Nevertheless, the two forms of “appropriation,” however dissimilar, are closely related in Tolkien’s mind, as when he refers in his essay to the dissimulating dream-device in fairy-stories as a “machine” that “cheats deliberately the primal desire at the heart of Faerie: the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder” (42). In other words, the dream-device, not unlike the genre of allegory as a whole, for Tolkien, is a literary technique that effectively domesticates and so controls the narrative by denying it any actual or even possible real-world truth. Tolkien’s likening such intellectual and aesthetic appropriation to a matter of “locking” things up in some kind of mental “hoard,” moreover, is noteworthy for its resemblance to Martin Heidegger’s critique in Being and Time of the modern, Cartesian view of human perception:

the perceiving of what is known is not a process of returning with one’s booty to the “cabinet” of consciousness after one has gone out and grasped it; even in perceiving, retaining, and preserving, the Dasein which knows remains outside, and it does so as Dasein. If I “merely” know about some way in which the Being of entities is interconnected, if I “only” represent them, if I “do no more” than “think” about them, I am no less alongside the entities outside in the world than when I originally grasp them. (Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Macquarrie and Robinson, 89-90, emphasis original)

For Tolkien as for Heidegger, we must avoid reducing the existence or being of things to that aspect which lends itself to conceptual or perceptual apprehension (this is why, incidentally, it is so important that in the Ainulindalë the Ainur must eventually move beyond the abstract formalism of the Music to a love for the existing reality of Eä itself). Instead, our task, in the language of Heidegger, is to remain “open” to things “disclosing” themselves to us in new and even unexpected ways. It is precisely such openness, finally, that Tolkien attempts to model for us through the Elvish love of nature and “things other,” while at the same time warning how the things we are open to and value today in their unfamiliarity can quickly become the things we possessively render familiar and trite tomorrow.

The “Minor Melkorism” of the Elves

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 28

On a more philosophical level, then, Tolkien’s Elves may be seen to embody something of what my colleague Peter Leithart has described as the “tragic metaphysics” common to much ancient and modern philosophy, the tendency to “treat finitude, temporality, bodiliness, and limitation as philosophical and practical problems that must be either transcended or grudgingly accepted” (Deep Comedy: Trinity, Tragedy, and Hope in Western Literature, 38). At the theological level, moreover, the Elvish motive of preservation involves the primal sin of desiring God’s own power of creation resurfacing again, albeit in a highly muted form, in the context of Elvish art and immortality: instead of resting content in the Creator’s own power and “design” by limiting their art to cultivating and culling those properties already inherent in things by virtue of their createdness, the Elves were persuaded, as Tolkien puts it, to accept Sauron’s promise of godlike “‘power’ over things as they are (which is quite distinct from art)” (Letters 236). In desiring “to make their particular will to preservation effective” through art, the Elves were essentially coveting, like Melkor, Eru’s power of creation, that is, the total and immediate effectiveness of his will over created being. To cite a passage quoted earlier, the sub-creative desire having thus “become possessive, clinging to the things made as ‘its own’, the sub-creator wishes to be the Lord and God of his private creation” (Letters 145). As Tolkien puts it in another place, “[i]ndividual Elves might be seduced to a kind of minor ‘Melkorism’: desiring to be their own masters in Arda, and to have things their own way, leading in extreme cases to rebellion…” (Morgoth’s Ring 334). Even in the comparatively innocent Elvish motives of possessiveness and preservation we see the residue of the primeval lust of Melkor for the Creator’s power to give being.

Elvish Escapism

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 26

In The Lord of the Rings, it is the idealization of unchanging timelessness and preservation that characterizes the idyllic yet somewhat static Elvish enclaves of Rivendell and LothlorienFor all their elusive beauty, epitomizing the land of Faërie’s depiction in “On Fairy-Stories” as a wide realm of enchantment, peril, and longing, Tolkien nevertheless would not have us take their goodness entirely for granted. Indeed, through the theme of Elvish preservationism, it may be instructive to see Tolkien as revisiting with renewed seriousness and subtlety the problem of “escapism” (in the negative sense of that term) that he briefly acknowledges but otherwise dismisses in his essay. As he writes of the Elves in a 1956 letter,

Mere change as such is not represented as ‘evil’: it is the unfolding of the story and to refuse this is of course against the design of God. But the Elvish weakness is in these terms naturally to regret the past, and to become unwilling to face change: as if a man were to hate a very long book still going on, and wished to settle down in a favorite chapter. Hence they fell in a measure to Sauron’s deceits: they desired some “power” over things as they are (which is quite distinct from art), to make their particular will to preservation effective: to arrest change, and keep things always fresh and fair… (Letters 236)

Much as Tolkien, as I’ve suggested before, satirizes himself as author in characters such as Aulë and Niggle, through his Elves Tolkien similarly holds up what we might call a kind of “mirror for readers,” reflecting back to them their own temptations to “escape” into his and other like stories, to “appropriate,” “possess,” and so “preserve” his story in such a way as to inoculate themselves against living in the real world, instead of peculiarly equipping them for it.

Material Elves Living in a Material World

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 25

In the previous post in this series I suggested that part of the Elvish temptation towards the sin of “preservationism” lies in what Tolkien characterizes as the much greater correspondence between the conceiving intellect and the executing will found in the Elves. This greater unity among their faculties of soul means that the Elves, like Thomas’s angels, approximate to a greater degree the perfect identity of intellect and will found in the divine nature. Yet the Elvish will and intellect are still distinct, meaning, in part, that their control over their artistic sub-creations cannot be complete or exhaustive, hence the impetus towards the sin of “preservationism,” the desire to see one’s ideal sub-creations continue in perpetuity.

Corresponding to the gap between will and intellect in created, rational beings is another point I’ve made previously: whereas, for Tolkien and Thomas, the Creator gives being or existence in its entirety, creaturely sub-creating or “making,” by contrast, always presupposes some already existing and therefore somewhat recalcitrant (from the finite point of view) external matter, what for Plato fell under the principle of anankê or necessity. This lack of total, divine control over one’s artistic medium and product becomes an issue, as Leo Elders points out in a passing but apropos comment relating Thomas’s doctrine of evil to the problem of art, inasmuch as “[i]n a world which consists of limited and perishable things it will never be possible to avoid all failure” in art because “the possibility of decay and passing away is imprinted in the essence of material things…” (The Metaphysics of Being, 134-5). Herbert McCabe makes a comparable point in his discussion of the necessity of “evil suffered”–Thomas’s malo poenae, the “evil of pain”–in a world composed of corruptible beings: “In general, it seems to me that you cannot make material things that develop in time without allowing for the fact that in perfecting themselves they will damage other material things” (God Matters, 31).

To return to Tolkien’s Elves, this in some sense is their dilemma and paradox: by nature undying and unchanging, trying to carry out their sub-creative task while consigned to live forever in—and if they die, to return to—an ever-changing world, the Elves, like the Valar, become obsessed with (as Tolkien puts it) “the prevention or slowing of decay (i.e., ‘change’ viewed as a regrettable thing), the preservation of what is desired or loved, or its semblance—this is more or less an Elvish motive” (Letters 152, emphasis original). To adapt the memorable words of Madonna, the Elvish compulsion (such as it is) is that they are material (albeit immortal) beings living in a material (and so mortal) world.

Tolkien’s “Divine Comedy”: Purgatory as Faërie-land

Furthering the Tolkien-Dante connection I’ve been entertaining lately are some passages from Tolkien’s early writings which re-cast the Middle-earth mythology as a kind of Tolkienian “Divine Comedy.” Summarizing an episode from his father’s account of the Valar’s arrival in Arda and their settlement in Valinor as originally told in The Book of Lost Tales, Christopher Tolkien writes:

Nienna is the judge of Men in her halls named Fui after her own name; and some she keeps in the region of Mando (where is her hall), while the greater number board the black ship Mornië–which does no more than ferry these dead down the coast to Arvalin, where they wander in the dusk until the end of the world. But yet others are driven forth to be seized by Melko and taken to endure ‘evil day’ in Angamandi (in what sense are they dead, or mortal?); and (most extraordinary of all) there are a very few who go to dwell among the Gods in Valinor. (Book of Lost Tales 90)

An early name for Arvalin, the purgatorial region where the souls of the deceased men go who are neither “seized by Melko” nor “who go to dwell among the Gods in Valinor,” is Habbanan, which also happens to have been the subject of a poem written even earlier by Tolkien while he was in camp during the Great War. Much like Dante’s Purgatory, the star-imagery in Habbanon beneath the Stars is pervasive and determinative; both regions are also places of song, of desire, and of new and clear celestial vision.

One key difference between the two, however, is that in comparison to Dante and other traditional accounts, already at this early stage Purgatory in Tolkien’s imagination is less a place of penitence for and purgation of sin than it is a place of healing, rest, and the satiation of restless desire, a distinctive that we see preserved, for example, as late as the characterization of Frodo’s anticipated convalescence in Valinor at the end of The Lord of the Rings. (Tolkien does give, it should be noted, a slightly more conventional, though still highly original and imaginative portrayal of Purgatory in Leaf by Niggle.) Many readers have no doubt been tempted to see Frodo’s departure from Middle-earth into the West as an iconic image of Christian death and the soul’s departure to Heaven at the end of its mortal life. Yet such an interpretation overlooks an important intermediary stage in Tolkien’s Catholic understanding of the afterlife, to say nothing of his Faërie-fascination with the perpetual mediation of desire and the postponement of its satisfaction (a postponement that is itself intensely and strangely desirable). Tolkien’s more typical treatment of such mediation, of course, is through his mythopoetic creation of a longed for but now lost and irretrievable past, yet in cases such as Frodo’s we may see Tolkien as working in the opposite temporal direction, eliciting and sustaining desire through an indefinitely delayed consummation of all things (a deliberately “non-immanentized” eschatology, as it were). As Tolkien writes in one letter of the circumstances surrounding Frodo’s fate:

‘Alas! there are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured’, said Gandalf … – not in Middle-earth. Frodo was sent or allowed to pass over Sea to heal him – if that could be done, before he died. He would have eventually to ‘pass away’: no mortal could, or can, abide for ever on earth, or within Time. So he went both to a purgatory and to a reward, for a while: a period of reflection and peace and a gaining of a truer understanding of his position in littleness and in greatness, spent still in Time amid the natural beauty of ‘Arda Unmarred’, the Earth unspoiled by evil. (Letters 328)

Thus, much as Tolkien, for example, in his apologetic poem “Mythopoeia,” profoundly reinterprets the traditional, Thomistic account of heavenly beatitude, exchanging theoria for poiesis–the beatific vision for beatific sub-creation–as the pinnacle of human potential (“In Paradise perchance the eye may stray / from gazing upon everlasting Day / … Be sure they still will make, not being dead, / and poets shall have flames upon their head, / and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall: / there each shall choose for ever from the All), so we also find him remaking that other region of the Christian after-life in his own image. In Tolkien’s hands, Purgatory becomes nothing less than Faërie-land, a realm

wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost. (“On Fairy-Stories”)

Returning, in conclusion, to Tolkien’s purgatorial poem Habbanan beneath the Stars, I find Christopher’s following analysis to be on point:

This poem … offer[s] a rare and very suggestive glimpse of the mythic conception in its earliest phase; for here ideas that are drawn from Christian theology are explicitly present…. [and] they are still present in this tale [of The Coming of the Valinor]. For in the tale there is an account of the fates of dead Men after judgement in the black hall of Fui Nienna. Some (‘and these are the many’) are ferried by the death-ship to (Habbanan) Eruman, where they wander in the dusk and wait in patience till the Great End; some are seized by Melko and tormented in Angamandi ‘the Hells of Iron’; and some few go to dwell with the Gods in Valinor. Taken with the poem and the evidence of the early ‘dictionaries’, can this be other than a reflection of Purgatory, Hell, and Heaven? (Lost Tales 92)

As I say, Tolkien’s Middle-earth mythology as a kind of modern, fantasy “Divine Comedy.”

Elvish Preservationism: The Correspondence of Sub-creative Intellect and Will

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 24

The species of being with whom the problematic motive of preservation is especially associated are the Elves, who, as exaggerated embodiments of otherwise human artistic and technical excellence, also find therein their peculiar temptation to go astray. Tolkien writes of the Elves in one place that their

“magic” is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete (product, and vision in unflawed correspondence). And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation. The “Elves” are “immortal,” at least as far as this world goes: and hence are concerned rather with the griefs and burdens of deathlessness in time and change, than with death. (Letters 146)

As I’ve suggested elsewhere, these two dimensions of the Elves—their artistic superiority and their immortality—are metaphysically and psychologically linked through Tolkien’s hylomorphic anthropology: the powerful Elvish soul, or fëa, that exerts so formative an influence over the Elvish body, or hröa, making it immortal or at least undying, is also what gives their art its heightened spiritual command over matter—in short, its “magic” (in the positive sense of “enchantment”). As with Tolkien’s incarnate angels, however, whose voluntary and extrinsic relation between spirit and body can tend towards a domineering stance in relation to physical reality in general, so also the Elvish relationship of soul and body is simultaneously its glory and its liability, its peculiar virtue when well-ordered and peculiar vice when not.

The reason this “unflawed correspondence” between “product and vision,” between the will executing the product and the intellect first envisioning it (elsewhere Tolkien refers to the sub-creative will as “the effective link between the indestructible mind and being and the realization of its imagination”–Letters 260), becomes a source of temptation for the Elves is that it can of course never approximate the absolute identity of will and intellect (and thus perfectartistic execution) enjoyed by the Creator by virtue of the divine will’s unrivaled capacity of giving being to things exactly as conceived in the divine mind. James Collins makes this point in a discussion of the inherent limitation on angelic causality that, mutatis mutandis, finds equal application to Tolkien’s Elves:

The limitation placed upon direct angelic causality is based ultimately on the finiteness of created separated substances. While they act through intellect and will, they can move other things only in a way proportioned to their natures. Unlike God, the angel is not its own will; it has will in a determinate nature, and the effect proceeds from this faculty according to the mode of the finite nature. Hence angelic power is subject to the conditions of categorical action and passion. As higher forms, separated substances possess supremely universal active powers to which the passive powers of lower substances are not sufficiently adapted to receive an actualization except through the mediation of natural agents. As pure act, God is determined neither in His being nor in His operation to any particular genus or species. His action is transcendental and His will can do indifferently anything that can be done by any created will or natural agent. Hence God requires no preliminary proportioning of His power to the receptive capacity of the material subject. Immediate formal transmutation or substantial change of material substances, then, is possible only for that immaterial substance Whose power is identical with His infinite act of being. (Collins, The Thomistic Philosophy of the Angels, 314-15)

The temptation inherent in the greater correspondence between will and intellect enjoyed by the Elves (and even more so by Thomas’s angels) is the increased possibility that they will covet the absolute identity of will and intellect that belongs to the Creator alone. As Hayden Head aptly puts it in his Girardian interpretation of Tolkien,

the mighty, those who apparently possess more substance, more ‘being,’ than the rest of us, are those most susceptible to the temptation to rise against God,” to give way to the “primeval impulse to appropriate the prerogatives of God… Gazing into the pure ontology of God, the strong man discovers anew his own contingency, and his pride of strength dissolves in the cauldron of envious desire… The fall is that sudden recognition of the incommensurability between God and man. (Head, “Imitative Desire,” 140-1)

Again, the corruption of the sub-creative motive involves the implicit coveting of God’s own power to create.