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).