“For trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow'”

An exposition of “Mythopoeia,” part 2

for trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow.’ Here we have an example of what labeling consists of. There’s no real mystery, just an identification of something someone already knew. There’s been no process of defamiliarization, of “making strange,” followed by “Recovery.” In epistemological terms, you might call this a mere “correspondence” theory of truth. Things are already a certain way, and our statements come along and merely affirm that instead of entering into dialogue with things and changing them as a result.

you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace /one of the many minor globes of Space. Here we see a scientific diminishment of earth, in contrast with the mythopoeic representation Tolkien will give later when he refers to the earth as “mother.” Earth, in other words, is what myth tells us what it is, whereas here, in the scientific conception, earth is merely one globe amongst many, and not a particularly remarkable one at that.

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“You look at trees and label them just so”

An exposition of “Mythopoeia,” part 1

In an elective I taught recently on Anselm and Tolkien, the class spent a couple of sessions expositing together the meaning of Tolkien’s poem “Mythopoeia.” This series is the fruit of that exercise.

You look at trees and label them just so. Later in the poem Tolkien uses the word name, setting up a contrast between labeling and naming. Labeling is what the modern scientist does; naming is what Adam and subcreators do. So what is the differenence? Labeling is comparatively passive, a mere reflection of what is already there, slaping a label on it without contributing anything to it. There is no “value added.” In modal theistic terms, we might say that labelling is “possibilistic”: it takes for granted the existing reality and seeks merely to represent it as it is; the possibility of what it may be labeled is predetermined. Naming, by conrast, is “actualistic”: what its name is cannot be determined apart from the act of naming itself.

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.