Tolkien’s Answer to Anselm on Why the Devil Fell

I’ve been commenting recently on the parallels between Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (“Why God Became Man”) and Tolkien’s Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth. Another set of texts deserving of comparison is Tolkien’s account of the rebellion of Melkor in the Ainulindalë and Anselm’s De Casu Diaboli (“On the Fall of the Devil”). According to “the Teacher” in Anselm’s dialogue, the devil fell because “he willed something that he did not have and that he ought not to have willed then, as Eve willed to be like a god before God willed it.” When he is asked by “the Student” what this “something” was that the “good angels justly renounced, thereby achieving perfection, and that the bad angels, by unjustly desiring, fell,” the Teacher pleads ignorance: “I do not know what it could have been, but whatever it was, it is sufficient to know that it was something that could have increased their greatness….”

In his Ainulindalë, Tolkien similarly portrays the devil as falling through his desire for something he (in Anselm’s words)  “did not have and that he ought not to have willed.” Yet instead of the Teacher’s confession of ignorance, Tolkien gives a very specific answer to the Student’s question, an answer, moreover, that is all Tolkien’s own. According to the Ainulindalë, the “something” that the devil desired and yet fell in pursuing was the “Imperishable Flame,” that is, the creative power of Ilúvatar by means of which he aspired to “bring into Being things of his own.”

Now, I used to assume that Melkor’s desire for Iluvatar’s own creative power was an act of blatant hubris and self-idolatry–the grasping after a power and dignity that Melkor would have–or at least should have–known to be proper and hence exclusive to Iluvatar alone. As Tolkien’s narrator (somewhat understatedly) put its, Melkor “found not the Fire, for it is with Ilúvatar.” Reading the Ainulindale in light of Anselm’s De Casu, however, I think a more subtle and sophisticated take on Melkor’s fall is possible. Although Anselm’s Teacher doesn’t know what it was that the devil and his cohort unjustly sought, he does believe that it was something that was ultimately necessary for the angel’s happiness, such that their eventual attainment of it would have indeed “increased their greatness.” The irony is that, by unjustly seeking their happiness before the proper time, the evil angels lost the very thing they sought, while the good angels, by remaining content with justice in the absence of their full happiness, were rewarded for their justice with the happiness they did not seek.

I suggest it is much the same story that Tolkien has to tell us in the Ainulindale. While Melkor’s purpose of discovering in the Void and wielding for himself the Flame Imperishable was certainly misguided and confused (to say the least), the ultimate objective of his quest, namely the external realization of those things imagined in his mind, was something Iluvatar presumably had planned from the very beginning. As we are told on almost the first page of the Ainulindale, the consummation of all things “after the end of days” would take the form of the “themes of Iluvatar” being at last

played aright, and take Being in the moment of their utterance, for all shall then understand fully his intent in their part, and each shall know the comprehension of each, and Iluvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased.

The eschatology (doctrine of last things) of Tolkien’s protology (doctrine of the first things), in other words, is the expectation that Iluvatar will one day lend his own creative power to the thoughts and imaginations of his creatures’ minds, bringing them into existence exactly (or at least nearly exactly) as they were conceived. The Ainur themselves are, of course, treated to a small foretaste of this consummation “after the end of days” within the Ainulindale itself when Iluvatar first gives the Vision to their Music, and then gives an otherwise unformed Eä (the “World that Is”) to their Vision. It is this same eschatological hope, of course, that Tolkien portrays in Leaf by Niggle when, in the scene I commented on a few days ago, Niggle in his post-purgatorial but pre-paradaisical state discovers the real-world version of the tree he had been painting. It’s the same hope, moreover, that Tolkien holds out to the pre-converted Lewis in his poem “Mythopoeia” when he writes: “In Paradise they look no more awry; / and though they make anew, they make no lie. / 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.” For Tolkien, in sum, the fulfillment of the sub-creative nature and desire is (and can be) nothing less than the real-world existence of our sub-created imaginings.

Reading the account of Melkor’s initial fall in light of the foregoing, accordingly, it is possible  to see the latter’s desire for the Flame Imperishable, at least at first, as nothing more than a confused and impatient desire for an otherwise creaturely good and divinely intended destiny. In the words of Anselm’s Teacher, “Then he willed something that he did not have and that he ought not to have willed at that time” (De Casu ch. 4). In the Ainulindale, in conclusion, we are treated to a display of Anselmian poetic justice with a distinctively Tolkienian and hence sub-creational and eschatological twist: what Melkor rebelliously sought, he lost, and what the faithful Ainur did not seek, they gain (cp. Romans 9:30). As I have said, in the place of Anselm’s uncertainty as to what that “happiness” was that the rebellious angels preferred over the “justice” of remaining content with what God had provisionally given them, Tolkien posits his own peculiar idea of an innate sub-creative desire to see the realization of those products of sub-created wonder. And instead of Anselm’s faithful angels, who immediately receive and are ever-after “confirmed” in this unknown happiness as a reward for their obedience, Tolkien’s fictional account of the fall of the devil has the angels more fully participating in–in the words of St. Peter, “desiring  to look into” (1 Pet. 1:12)–the drama of Man’s history. (Alternatively, one could, I suppose, locate the entirety of Tolkien’s “angelological epic” in that interval–infinitesimally momentary for an angel, for all we know–between the obedience of Anselm’s angels and their subsequent confirmation.) To repeat the relevant lines from the Ainulindale,

Never since have the Ainur made any music like to this music, though it has been said that a greater still shall be made before Ilúvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar after the end of days. Then the themes of Ilúvatar shall be played aright…


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.”

Unsplintered Light

Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger has written incisively on the theme of “splintered light” in Tolkien’s work, which she interprets in terms of the occasional Inkling Owen Barfield’s thesis that language, meaning, and human perception change over time from a more authentic, mythic, unified state to a more fragmented, differentiated, and profuse state. As Tolkien himself writes in one letter, the Light of the Two Trees of Valinor, “derived from light before any fall,” symbolizes the “light of art undivorced from reason, that sees things both scientifically (or philosophically) and imaginatively (or subcreatively) and says that they are good–as beautiful” (L 148n). Part of Tolkien’s goal in his legendarium, as I’ve suggested previously, was to recover a lost vision of these now-divergent perspectives in their supposedly original, mythic unity.

As I’ve also noted before, however, there is a tendency in some readers to interpret such Tolkienian images in terms of a Neoplatonic, tragic metaphysics of emanation, according to which reality and meaning become more and more diminished or diluted the further they get from their originating source. In this context, accordingly, it is interesting to note that the light of the Two Trees, which Tolkien identifies as an authentic, unified, “undivorced” light of scientific or philosophical reason and sub-creative imagination, is in another sense not a primordial unity at all, but is itself the result of a sub-creative “blending” of two different light sources (in this case, the golden rain of Laurelin and the silver dew of Telperion). Put differently, the Light of Valinor is not just an authentically pre-splintered light, but already an unsplintering (if you will) of post-splintered light. The blended light of the Two Trees, in other words, is a symbol not of an original or natural–but of a sub-created (and in that sense “artificial”) and achieved–unity.

When we realize this, we may fairly see that in his image Tolkien treats us to a wonderful metaphor for understanding the import of his own legendarium, namely the harmonious and complementary synthesis of myth and fantasy on the one hand and analytical, scholastic reasoning on the other. If so, more than merely dramatizing Barfield’s  thesis about the tendency of human thought to self-differentiate and fragment over time, the aim of Tolkien’s own fiction is to help heal this modern perceptual breach by re-envisioning the world in a way that satisfies at once the human powers of both imagination and reason. Tolkien’s entire legendarium, in short, simply is the Light of Valinor, the powerfully fruitful and mutually fructifying mingling of the twin lights of reason and imagination.

As Tolkien well knew, such light can be and in fact has been “splintered,” “fractured,” and hence diminished and lost. When Saruman boasts that “white light can be broken,” Gandalf doesn’t contest the achievement so much as he questions its prudence and desirability: “In which case it is no longer white… And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.” But as a Christian Tolkien also believed that there was a way of changing the original light of God’s creation–and that by God’s own design and ordination–that resulted in more, not less, light. In his poem “Mythopoeia” he puts it in terms that, at first glance, may seem curiously Sarumanian: “Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light / through whom is splintered from a single White / to many hues, and endlessly combined / in living shapes that move from mind to mind.” Man the Sub-creator does indeed “refract” and “splinter” God’s “White light” of creation, but he does so (properly) only in order that he might then re-“combine” that light into even more “living shapes” that may “move from mind to mind.” Tolkien gives us a profound, positive, even comic image, finally, of this paradoxical, anti-entropic tendency of sub-creative light to escalate and multiply itself in an early account of the Two Trees of Valinor, in which it said that “of their growth and being did they ever make light in great abundance still over and beyond that which their roots sucked in…” This cross-pollination of sub-creative light is hardly a Neoplatonic outlook of a tragic, ever-diminishing reality, truth, and meaning–the metaphysical and semantic equivalent of Bilbo’s “butter scraped over too much bread”–but is more akin to the prophet Ezekiel’s eucatastrophic vision of the Gospel as a living stream flowing from the Temple: the further it gets from its source, the wider and deeper the water becomes.

The truth of myth

Another point of contrast between Plato and Tolkien concerns the conflicting evaluations of the truth-capacity of myth implied in their respective metaphysics.  Gergely Nagy has observed that “Plato, like Tolkien, draws heavily on traditional myths, also including his own ‘myths’ (nowhere else attested and probably written by him) in his dialogues,” and says that this parallels Tolkien’s “mythopoeic enterprise” in its ultimate aim of “show[ing] ‘truth,’ in Plato always expressed in mythic scenes and language…” (“Plato,” in Drout, ed.,J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, 513). Similarly, Frank Weinreich emphasizes Tolkien’s debt to Plato for his “metaphysics of myth” when he writes how the “quintessence of Tolkien’s ontology” behind his theory of myth is “at the core a Platonic one” (“Metaphysics of Myth: The Platonic Ontololgy of ‘Mythopoeia’,” 325). For Plato, however, the philosopher uses myths not out of choice, but of necessity. As the principle is stated in the Timaeus, “the accounts we give of things have the same character as the subjects they set forth” (29b), meaning that just as the world (on account of the ananke or constraint of its pre-existing matter) only ever achieves a tragically partial and thus never fully-realized participation in the divine, so the “likely story” (eikos mythos) that Timaeus has to tell about the origins of the cosmos achieves at best a tragic likeness to the ideal logos or rational account that the philosopher would prefer.

In Tolkien’s creation-myth, by contrast, and following the Christian doctrine of creation, while the world’s participation in the divine is limited by its finitude, because creation is nevertheless from nothing, the world—including its matter—has its entire existence through a participation in and likeness of the divine without remainder. For Tolkien, in short, the world in its entirety is a story about the divine, a metaphysical reality that at least in principle allows the stories or myths we tell about the world a much greater participation in the truth that remains to be told about that world. As Tolkien puts it in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” myth is no mere “disease of language” (TR 48), but given the inherent and irreducibly storied structure of reality itself, is a uniquely privileged way of communicating the truth of that reality. Indeed, for Tolkien it is through such myth-telling that reality for the first time comes into its own, accomplishing by God’s own ordination the “effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation” (TR 89).

Aulë, Babel, and Pentecost

The previous post drew a comparison between Aulë’s fashioning of the dwarves and the building of the Tower of Babel on the plain of Shinar, while noting the dissimilarity between the failure and futility of Aulë’s attempt at fashioning the Dwarves as free, independent, rational beings, and the comparative success (according to Yahweh) of the builders of the Tower of Babel in their purpose. Indeed, in some ways Aulë’s motivation is the mirror-opposite to that of the men in the plain of Shinar. It is commonplace to see the purpose behind the building of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, namely the desire not to be “scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth,” as an act of rebellion against Yahweh’s dominion mandate in Genesis 1 that man should “be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it” (1:28). In any event, Aulë’s purpose in fashioning the Dwarves seems broadly in keeping with Yahweh’s original dominion plan, as he explains his actions to Ilúvatar that “it seemed to me that there is great room in Arda for many things that might rejoice in it, yet it is for the most part empty still, and dumb.” Aulë, like Yahweh, is concerned to see that the world be filled.

Aulë’s allusion here to speech and language, or rather to their relative absence, is surely also significant in this context. Immediately after fashioning the Dwarves, Aulë “began to instruct the Dwarves in the speech that he had devised for them.” Aulë, in a word, is an inventor of languages, a role we see him carrying out in the previous chapter’s account of Aulë’s as-yet future (relative to his making of the Dwarves) relationship with the Noldorin Elves: “Aulë it is who is named the Friend of the Noldor, for of him they learned much in after days… [T]hey added much to his teaching, delighting in tongues and in scripts…” In his fondness for inventing languages, culminating in his attempt to fashion an entire species capable of speaking those languages, Aulë represents one of if not Tolkien’s most auto-biographical characters,[1] and hence a fascinating self-reflection and cautionary tale to himself on the potential excesses of such an obsession. What is presented as a positive source of great beauty and delight in its own right in The Silmarillion, however, namely the proliferation of speech and language, in Genesis is presented not so much as something good in of itself, as it is judgment or curse on man’s hubris and an impediment to further impious cooperation. As Yahweh declares, “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth” (11:7-9). As is well known, however, Tolkien’s own interpretation of this event was to see it as a felix peccatum (or “fortunate fall”), a veritable eucatastrophe, linguistically speaking, a point that would again commend the story of Aulë and the Dwarves as a sort of commentary on Tolkien’s part on the story of the Tower of Babel. It is perhaps some corroboration of Tolkien’s perspective that when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the Christians at Pentecost in the Book of Acts, an event that, again, commentators have seen as hearkening back to and reversing the Babel incident, the result is not an undoing of the multiplicity and disparity of languages, but the gift of understanding and speaking them. Connected with this is Tolkien’s use of the iconic imagery of Pentecost in the closing lines of his poem “Mythopoeia” to capture his vision of the eschatological role that human sub-creators will play in the consumation of all things:

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.

[1] Verlyn Flieger may, if memory serves, make this point in her Splintered Light: Language and Logos in Tolkien’s World. 

Sub-creation as Interpretation: On Exegeting the Divine Being

According to Tolkien’s theology of sub-creation, then, human Fantasy is a divinely appointed and even privileged means for imaginatively exploring and so celebrating (paying “tribute”) to God’s own infinite “variety,” and in that way extending or “effoliating” God’s own purposes within creation. Not surprisingly, it is the same theology of sub-creative possibility, as rooted in God’s own act of creation, that Tolkien brings to bear on and gives poetic expression to in his literary writings.

In his poem “Mythopoeia,” for example, Tolkien characterizes the work of sub-creation in terms of a lens through which the “white light” of God’s creation becomes “splintered” into “many hues, and endlessly combined / in living shapes that move from mind to mind” (TL 101). The image of the sub-creator as God’s agent for refracting God’s own light of creation parallels Maritain’s account in Art and Scholasticism of how the artist’s concepts find in God “their sovereign analogue” and which therefore represent “dispersed and prismatized reflection[s] of the countenance of God.”[1] Consistent with this sentiment, in the conclusion of his poem where he describes man’s future state of glory, Tolkien indicates that the light of creation from which the sub-creator takes his inspiration is itself only one ray within the infinite, uncreated light that is God’s own being:

In Paradise they look no more awry;

and though they make anew, they make no lie.

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.

Sub-creative freedom involves, both now and forever, a choosing from the divine “All” in whom all possibility is contained.

And it is this same theology of sub-creation, finally, which Tolkien presupposes and in part dramatizes in his Ainulindalë through the Ainur’s sub-creation of their Music. On the one hand, while the Ainur are able and invited to sub-create beyond the original theme taught them by Ilúvatar, the sub-creative possibilities which they discover through their Music are in no way independent of Ilúvatar. Rather, as Tolkien describes the Ainur’s sub-created themes in one letter, they represent so many “interpretations of the mind of the One” (L 284). Their act of sub-creating, in other words, is an act of exegeting, as it were, the divine being. In their act of sub-creation, accordingly, the Ainur are best seen as imitating something of God’s own act, as Thomas puts it, of “inventing” or “devising” the divine ideas through the self-knowledge or interpretation that constitutes the divine Word and “art of God.” David Bentley Hart illustrates well the affinity here between Tolkien and St. Thomas in his account of the traditional view of divine possibility held by Thomas, yet using the same musical imagery employed by Tolkien:

The “theme” of creation is the gift of the whole, committed to limitless possibilities, open to immeasurable ranges of divergence and convergence, consonance and dissonance (which always allows for the possibility of discord), and unpredictable modulations that at once restore and restate that theme. The theme is present in all its modifications, for once it is given it is recuperated throughout, not as a return of the Same but as gratitude, as a new giving of the gift, as what is remembered and as what, consequently, is invented. The truth of the theme is found in its unfolding, forever. God’s glory is an infinite “thematism” whose beauty and variety can never be exhausted, and as the richness of creation traverses the distance of God’s infinite music, the theme is always being given back. Because God imparts the theme, it is not simply unitary and epic but obeys a Trinitarian logic: it yields to a contrapuntal multiplicity allowing for the unfolding of endlessly many differing phrases, new accords, “explicating” the “complication” of divine music.[2]

Ilúvatar himself hints at this respect in which the Ainur’s sub-creative discoveries, for all their freedom and lack of coercion, are nevertheless already anticipated within and pre-contained by the divine mind, when he tells them how in the Vision of the history of the world corresponding to the Ainur’s Music, each of them will behold “all those things which it may seem that he himself devised or added” (S 17, emphasis added). In the earlier version of the Ainulindalë from The Book of Lost Tales, Ilúvatar is slightly less subtle about the source of the Ainur’s sub-creative possibility when he gives them the command to develop the original theme he has taught them: “I have not filled all the empty spaces, neither have I recounted to you all the adornments and things of loveliness and delicacy whereof my mind is full. It is my desire now that ye make a great and glorious music and a singing of this theme…” (BLT 53, emphasis added). As Michaël Devaux has observed—and quoting from Aquinas’s discussion of Augustine’s notion of angelic “morning knowledge,” or their “knowledge of the primordial being of things… according as things are in the Word” (ST 1.58.6)[3]—“[t]o perceive the Word, before the creation, is precisely the situation which the Music has made possible for the Ainur.”[4] Yet in The Silmarillion edition Ilúvatar makes matters plain enough when he explains to Melkor how, despite the latter’s efforts to achieve true novelty through his musical innovations, or rather deviations, in the Vision he will come to learn that all sub-creative possibility finds its home in Ilúvatar: “And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined” (S 17). In his effort to go beyond the boundaries established by the beautiful rhythms of Ilúvatar’s original theme, Melkor succeeds not, as is his intent, in discovering or creating hitherto unrealized musical possibilities, so much as he does in nihilistically negating or distorting those possibilities provided for by the infinite perfection of Ilúvatar’s own being. What Melkor produces, in other words, is not music but anti­-music, not an “interpretation” of Ilúvatar’s original theme, but an “alteration” of it (L 284). Yet even here, because his musical distortions are parasitic upon those rhythms and melodies which derive their possibility from the divine “mind” or “variety” of Ilúvatar, it follows that the ultimate meaning even of Melkor’s distortions are likewise beyond his control, but fall under the sovereignty of Ilúvatar. To the extent, in other words, in which evil is “real” and therefore possible, its own significance is determined by the one who is the God of the possible.[5]

[1] Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 30.

[2] Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth, 282.

[3] “[I]ta cognitio ipsius primordialis esse rerum, dicitur cognitio matutina: et haec est secundum quod res sunt in Verbo.”

[4] Devaux, “The Origins of the Ainulindalë,” 102-3. On Augustine’s doctrine of angelic morning and evening knowledge as it applies to the Ainulindalë, see Houghton, “Augustine in the Cottage of Lost Play: The Ainulindalë as Asterisk Cosmogony.”

[5] As David Harvey observes, “[t]he [Ainur] are always second to Ilúvatar. The foundation of all that they do is within His design. Any incursion by Evil powers, any attempts to change the theme or the design, are taken and skillfully worked into the Theme so that the conclusion is exactly as it was intended.” Harvey, The Song of Middle-earth: JR.R. Tolkien’s Themes, Symbols and Myths, 32.

Gimli’s Silmaril, Gimli the Silmaril

When Galadriel is first introduced in The Silmarillion, attention is drawn especially to her hair, “lit with gold as though it had caught in a mesh the radiance of Laurelin,” one of the Two Trees of Valinor. This parallel between Galadriel’s hair on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the Silmaril jewels in which Fëanor literally captures the light of the Two Trees, is quite striking, and yet, according to an idea entertained at one point by Tolkien, may not be wholly coincidental. In The Silmarillion, the reason given for Fëanor’s fashioning of the Silmarils is his premonition of the coming destruction of the Two Trees and the loss of their light. In a passage found in Unfinished Tales (230)however, Tolkien considered adding a back-story in which Fëanor, having thrice asked and been thrice denied by Galadriel for a “tress” of her beautiful hair, found a substitute in the making of the Silmarils.

This Fëanor-Galadriel back-story, of course, and its alternative account of the origin of the Silmarils, lends a great deal of significance to Gimli’s own, much later request of Galadriel for a strand of her hair. It is interesting, for example, to read in the astonishment of the Lorien Elves, besides their general annoyance at Gimli’s seeming impertinence, a particular recollection of the terrible consequences resulting from the last time someone asked Galadriel for a strand of her hair. At the same time, Galadriel does say that no one has ever made a request of her quite like Gimli’s, which, if taken together with the Fëanor-Galadriel back-story, might be taken to imply that Gimli’s request is, in another respect, not at all like Fëanor’s.

In some ways, rather, his request may be compared to the making of the Dwarves by Aulë, who, we may recall, was also the patron Vala of the Noldor and possibly one of the master craftsman under whom Fëanor apprenticed. When Ilúvatar asks Aulë if his desire was for creatures whom he could dominate and command, Aulë penitently responds, “I did not desire such lordship,” and explains instead that “the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee; and the child of little understanding that makes a play of the deeds of his father may do so without thought of mocerky, but because he is the son of his father.” Imitating his own “father,” Gimli may be heard echoing Aulë’s words when he responds to Galadriel’s insistence that he ask of her a gift: “ ‘There is nothing, Lady Galadriel,’ said Gimli, bowing low and stammering. ‘Nothing, unless it might be – unless it is permitted to ask, nay, to name a single strand of your hair, which surpasses the gold of the earth as the stars surpass the gems of the mine. I do not ask for such a gift. But you commanded me to name my desire” (emphasis added). Understanding the dismay of her onlookers, Galadriel’s characterization of Gimli’s request could almost equally describe the simultaneous audacity and yet humility of Aulë: “For none have ever made to me a request so bold and yet so courteous.” Her reply also exhibits something of the mercy and understanding that Aulë receives from Ilúvatar: “And how shall I refuse, since I commanded him to speak?”

And it is well that she does, for Galadriel herself has just been the beneficiary of the kind of mercy Aulë had received from Ilúvatar. In a letter that invites us to see the exchange between Galadriel and Gimli against the back-drop of the earlier encounter between Galadriel and Frodo, Tolkien indicates that until Frodo’s arrival in Lothlórien, Galadriel had actually believed her own exile from Valinor to be not temporary but “perennial, as long as the Earth endured.” It was only after her intercessory prayer on Frodo’s behalf—that he should be allowed the grace Galadriel believed to be forever denied to herself, namely of returning to the West—as well as a reward for her refusal of the Ring and her part in the war against Sauron, that Galadriel discovered the ban placed upon her return to the West to be eucatastrophically and miraculously lifted (Unfinished Tales 229). Thus, with Yavanna Galadriel can say that Eru is not only “merciful,” but even “bountiful.” Having been the recipient of bounty in her dealings with Frodo, it is fitting that she be the bestower of great bounty in her dealings with Gimli. Freely she has received, freely she gives.

When Galadriel asks Gimli what he would do with such a gift, “ ‘Treasure it, Lady,’ he answered, ‘in memory of your words to me at our first meeting. And if ever I return to the smithies of my home, it shall be set in imperishable crystal to be an heirloom of my house, and a pledge of good will between the Mountain and the Wood until the end of days.” Significantly, the last time the word imperishable appeared in Tolkien’s legendarium—with the exception of the “song of Lúthien,” which is said still to be sung “unchanged” in Valinor—occurs in the story of Fëanor’s attempt to “preserve imperishable” the light of the Two Trees. With this word, then, Gimli unwittingly yet expressly links his request to that of Fëanor’s (and beyond that, perhaps to Melkor’s own original quest for the Flame Imperishable). Gimli’s purpose, in a word, is to make for himself a new Silmaril.

Yet in marked contrast to Fëanor (and Melkor), Gimli’s purpose is not to make the proposed Silmaril “for himself” at all, but to consecrate it as a public sign and symbol of the newfound fellowship between Dwarf and Elf. In this gesture of Gimli’s, enshrining the “good will between the Mountain and the Wood,” we see something of a gospel-resolution to the strife Ilúvatar predicts to Aulë will obtain “between thine and mine, the children of my adoption and the children of my choice,” and thus a foreshadowing of the eschatological role the Dwarves themselves are appointed to play in the final consummation of all things when “Ilúvatar will hallow them and give them a place among the Children in the End. Then their part shall be to serve Aulë and to aid him in the remaking of Arda after the Last Battle.”

Again, it is tempting to read into Galadriel’s response to Gimli’s intentions an Ilúvatar-like awareness and anticipation of these things, and so with her gift—not of one but three strands—of her golden hair, she also imparts a word of blessing: “if hope should not fail, then I say to you, Gimli son of Glóin, that your hands shall flow with gold, and yet over you gold shall have no dominion.” In Gimli, therefore, we are to see embodied the reversal and redemption of his own people’s tragically greedy history. More than this, however, Galadriel’s words point to Gimli (paradoxically) as the reversal and redemption of her own people’s tragic history (much as in Galadriel’s dealings with Gimli, as I have suggested, we see the outworking of the eucatastrophe in her own personal history). In her prediction of Gimli’s future, after all, we also see a return to the original, prelapsarian generosity of the Noldor before Fëanor’s making of the Silmarils, when they first “devised tools for the cutting of gems, and carved them in many forms,” and they “hoarded them not, but gave them freely, and by their labour enriched all Valinor.” Gimli has made Fëanor’s request of Galadriel, but he is not just a another Fëanor, but a new Fëanor, what Fëanor, should have been or possibly even once was.

Another perspective on Galadriel’s words, however, suggests itself, which is that not only will Gimli make a new Silmaril (or possibly three), but he himself will be a Silmaril. The Silmarils’ symbolism of the harmony of the sub-creative body and soul is made plain when they are first introduced in The Silmarillion. Of the substance of which the Silmarils were made it is said “that crystal was to the Silmarils but as is the body to the Children of Ilúvatar: the house of its inner fire, that is within it and yet in all parts of it, and is its life,” and the Silmarils as a whole are described as “living things [which] rejoiced in light and received it and gave it back in hues more marvellous than before,” an account evidently intended to depict what Tolkien represents in his poem “Mythopoeia” as the prism-like activity of the human sub-creator: “Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light / through whom is splintered from a single White / to many hues, and endlessly combined / in living shapes that move from mind to mind.” Thus, for Gimli’s hands to “flow with gold” without gold thereby having “dominion” over him, is for him to be or become a Silmaril, for him, that is, to take in the “light” that is the goodness and beauty of creation, not to hoard it, but to “refract” it by adorning and enriching it and so passing it on to others. Like Fëanor, Gimli too will be a “spirit of fire,” yet one who will not be “consumed” by the fire of his desire (as Fëanor figuratively was in his life and literally was in his death), but who will put his sub-creative fire to the service of others, and resulting in (what Tolkien describes in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” as) the “effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.”