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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anselm on the Divine Fancy

I’ve posted before on the similarities between Tolkien’s theory of sub-creation and Anselm’s theological method of fides quarens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”). Anselmian theology strives to provide “necessary” proofs for the revealed articles of the faith, yet Anselm recognizes that, while necessary, his arguments nevertheless have a provisional character that inevitably falls short of the reality itself, always leaving more to be said. In Tolkienian terms, Anselmian theology provides arguments which are “secondary worlds” which have the “inner consistency of reality” and yet which at most approximate, and yet still elucidate and so “recover” the truth that is the primal reality of Christian belief. In doing theology this way, however, the theologian is truly sub-creative, achieving a remarkable parallel to what God himself does in the act of devising and creating the world. When God creates, he fashions a reality which, on the one hand, mirrors his own Triune “inner consistency of reality,” and yet which at the same time represents a genuinely novel, creative interpretation or improvisation of his own reality. The Anselmian theologian, in other words, is a true sub-creator because God was the first Anselmian theologian.

Corroborating this reading of Anselm is Hans urs von Balthasar’s characterization of the Anselmian corpus as “realiz[ing] in the purest form the concerns of theological aesthetics” (The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Vol. II Studies in Theological Styles: Clerical Styles, 213). In a passage addressing this issue of what we might call God’s own internal aesthetic, Balathasar writes how, for Anaselm, God’s creative

‘ideas’ are deduced not primarily from below, from the contingence and the degrees of worldly qualities, which are ascending degrees of perfection, indeed of reality, and which persuade (persuadet) of the existence of something most perfect and most real in their sphere, but rather from above: from the free self-expression of God, who plans and ‘imagines’ what he wills. (229)

To be precise, and as I’ve note elsewhere, Anselm does not in fact have an Augustinian doctrine of divine ideas, yet otherwise I see Balthasar as making a complementary point. The insistence, from Augustine to Aquinas, that there must exist in the divine, creative cause a real plurality of distinct ideas in order to account for the real plurality amongst God’s created effects, is, in Balthasar’s expression, to deduce the divine ideas “from below.” The irony is that, in its attempt to avoid divine demiurgy–God looking outside of himself for his creative archetypes–Augustine committed his own form of Christian ananke-ism: an inferior reality dictating the conditions on which God’s creative agency exists and operates. While retaining the language of “ideas” (which Anselm eschews), Balthasar nevertheless understands this so-called “second Augustine” (alter Augustinus) faithfully enough: God’s ideas, such as they are, are no mere secular, atheological givens, but are the result of an authentically theological process of divine free creativity, even “imagination.” God does not think his possibilities, in other words, but in Brian Leftow’s apt phrase (God and Necessity), God rather “thinks up” his possibilities. (Though using Balthasar’s spatial imagery, perhaps we should say that God thinks down his possibilities.) Balthasar continues:

And with that the category of expression (exprimere) is given its place, which will become so important for Bonaventure; and the ars divina will be less in facto esse, in the order of the universal, than in fieri, in the free discovery of essences, seen in the power of expression of the divine ‘fancy’ and located in the ‘place’ in God, where the power of generation within the divine itself is engaged in its trinitarian work.

For Balthasar’s Anselm, the process by which God knows creaturely forms is less an act of divine theoria or contemplation than it is an act of divine poiesis or making; a matter not of Augustine’s ideae divinae, but of Augustine’s ars divina. Balthasar’s reference to God’s “free discovery of essences” echoes Aquinas’s remark in De Veritatue (3.2 ad 6) that God “devises” (adinvenit) the divine ideas through his reflection on his own essence. Thus, instead of the historic vacillation between the two poles of divine intellect and will, Balthasar’s reading of Anselm allows us to see the latter as transcending and so escaping the tiresome intellectualism/voluntarism debate through the recognition of an altogether new theological category, that of the divine “fancy” or imagination. Rounding out his statement on Anselm’s significance vis-a-vis Augustine, Balthasar writes:

All this is certainly a continuation of Augustine’s trinitarian thought, but from the outset there is [in Anselm] an emphasis on God’s total freedom and therefore on the spontaneiety of his self-disclosure.

Flame Imperishable as Incarnation

I’ve discussed before how Tolkien’s image of the Flame Imperishable refers to God’s creative power over the world, by which he, first, gives existence ex nihilo to his creatures generally, and second, by which he bestows the power of free will and (sub-)creativity upon his rational creatures in particular. Upon review of his explanation of the Flame Imperishable in his commentary on the Athrabath Finrod ah Andreth (Morgoth’s Ring), however, I think the interconnection between these two effects (created being and free, creative will) is a deeper one than the mere genus-species relationship suggested above. As Tolkien explains, the Flame Imperishable

appears to mean the Creative activity of Eru (in some sense distinct from or within Him), by which things could be given a ‘real’ and independent (though derivative and created) existence. The Flame Imperishable is sent out from Eru, to dwell in the heart of the world, and the world then Is, on the same plane as the Ainur, and they can enter into it. But this is not, of course, the same as the re-entry of Eru to defeat Melkor. It refers rather to the mystery of ‘authorship’, by which the author, while remaining ‘outside’ and independent of his work, also ‘indwells’ in it, on its derivative plane, below that of his own being, as the source and guarantee of its being. (Morgoth’s Ring 345)

As Tolkien makes clear, the act of Creation, in which Eru sends the Flame Imperishable into the heart of the world to cause it to be, is a distinct act from the act of Incarnation by which, as Finrod conjectures in the dialogue of the Athrabeth, Eru himself would personally enter into his creation in order to purge it of Melkor’s corruptions. That having been said, it is equally evident that Tolkien still very much conceives of Eru’s creative presence within his creation (and hence of the sub-creator’s presence within his art) in incarnational terms. Creation itself, according to Tolkien’s theology of the Flame Imperishable, involves the Creator being both “‘outside’ and independent of his work” as well as “‘indwell[ing]’ in it, on its derivative plane, below that of his own being…” In this manner, Tolkien may be seen to re-interpret God’s act of Creation as a type of proto-Incarnation.

A few observations. The first is the way this normalizes and naturalizes the idea of Incarnation: if Creation is a kind of Incarnation, it is little wonder that Finrod is able to infer (partly from what he knows of the Flame Imperishable) the possibility of Eru’s future condescension to enter into Arda. Eru will at some point and time enter into the world to give it new being because, in a very real sense, this is what Eru has always been doing. A second observation is how this logic complements but reverses the line of reasoning Tolkien uses in “On Fairy-Stories” in explaining how, in the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has given the fairy-story structure of eucatastrophe the reality of history and creation itself: “this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation.” The Incarnation, in other words, is God giving our fairy-stories the gift of created being, of sending the Flame Imperishable, as it were, into the heart of our own sub-creative imaginings (themselves the product of God’s creative inspiration), and causing them to become real. Thirdly, and as I’ve also pointed out before, the latter is of course precisely the same drama we find in the Ainulindale, when Iluvatar takes the “fairy-story” that is the Ainur’s Music and Vision and gives it the same being that they themselves enjoy, making the Ainulindale not only a retelling of the story of the world’s creation, but also an allegory for its re-creation in Christ.

The God Who is Eucatastrophe

In a previous post I made the claim that it is Jenson who gives us the most radical version of a “Metaphysics of Exodus,” in his argument that we have no real knowledge of God apart from his identity for us as the God who, first, rescued Israel from her bondage in Egypt and, later, rescued the (divine) Israelite Jesus from his bondage in death. For Jenson, these events of deliverance are more than mere acts which God has done: as far as we are concerned, they are literally who God is. This means that, prior to his acts of deliverance, while God is keeping us in suspense, there is a sense in which God’s own identity for us is at risk:

within the story told by Israel’s Bible, the Exile, the Lord explicitly puts his self-identity at narrative risk. By the word of the exilic prophets, classically in Isaiah 40-45, JHWH argues his claim that “I am the one” by pointing to his word’s rule of history: he recounts his past promise-keeping, and then makes new promises and challenges all to see how he will keep these as well. Thus the argument binds JHWH’s claim to the contingencies of history: What if the new promises fail? The proposition one would expect to be established if and when they do not fail is that “JHWH is God.” But Isaiah alternates this conclusion with a sheer statement of the Lord’s self-identity: then all will see that “I am JHWH.” (The Triune God 65)

I do think Jenson overstates matters when he says that God’s invitation to his people to see how he will keep his promises begs the question of “What if the new promises fail?” (even if, historically, that question may indeed have been provoked). The possibility of an obedient faith, in other words, doesn’t possibilistically require an equally available but opposing opportunity on our part to doubt or suspect God’s promises. However, Jenson’s point that it is Yahweh himself who first established the criteria by which his own deity is to be judged, only then to go on and meet those criteria, seems valid and helpful enough, and fits well with how I’ve characterized Tolkien’s notion of eucatastrophe elsewhere as a kind of cosmic game of “peek-a-boo” that God plays with his creation. Yet Jenson puts the point even stronger when he applies the principle to the Crucifixion itself:

The crisis of the total biblical narrative is the Crucifixion. As the cry of dereliction laments, the one called “Father” here hands the one called “Son” over to oppositional and deadly creatures. Therewith it becomes problematic that anything specified by listing “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” can be one God and not rather a mutually betraying pantheon. If the phrase can still be the name of the one self-identical personal reality, his identity must be constituted precisely in the integration of this abandonment. The God of crucifixion and resurrection is one with himself in a moment of supreme dramatic self-transcendence or not at all.

I hope to comment in a later post on Jenson’s Hegelian-sounding rhetoric of divine “self-overcoming” in a future post (and why I think, on this point at least, he’s actually more Kantian than Hegelian). For the time being, what I want to draw attention to is how Jenson has effectively turned eucatastrophe from something that God happens to do into almost something that God is. In his essay “On Fairy-Stories” Tolkien argues that in the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ the eucatastrophic structure of the ideal fairy-story has been given the reality of historical, created being itself. Jenson’s interpretation of the Gospels and of redemptive history in general would seem to take the argument one step further, raising eucatastrophe up to the level of the divine reality and identity itself. If God (as per Tolkien) gives creation history the literary structure of eucatastrophe, this is because in some sense God already is eucatastrophe himself. From literary reality to created reality to divine reality: it’s eucatastrophe as transcendental property of being. 

Eucatastrophe and the “Metaphysics of Exodus”

Yesterday I used Robert Jenson’s account of God’s self-identity with his historical acts of salvation to distinguish Tolkien’s notion of eucatastrophe from its “cheap” counterpart in the deus ex machina. A second comment concerns how Tolkien’s theory of eucatastrophe, especially as articulated in the epilogue to his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” complements Jenson’s argument about how the biblical narrative of divine action has elevated history to a status simply denied to it by Aristotle. For us creatures, as Jenson puts it, “God himself is identified by contingencies.” But if this is the way God has made us and the world, then it stands to reason that this divine “commitment in a history” must itself be an “ontological perfection” of the divine being. History, in short, is metaphysical, for we principally know the God who is Being in and through his historical, narratival, “eventful actuality.” Etienne Gilson referred to this Augustinian and Thomistic tradition of identifying God with being as a “Metaphysics of Exodus,” yet it must be said that within this tradition the Exodus event had at best an incidental and accidental relationship to the metaphysics itself. What Gilson meant, in other words, was something like “the Metaphysics which one might–but need not–find in the Book of Exodus.” Jenson’s claim, by comparison, is the more radical, implying a literal Metaphysics of Exodus, a philosophy and theology of being, in other words, rooted in and inseparable from the actual Exodus event itself. It is this already metaphysical because Christianized view of history that Tolkien, finally, presupposes in his argument that, in the events of the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the eucatastrophic form of fairy-stories has been given the same created being or reality as the primary world itself:

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self- contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation.

For Tolkien, in conclusion, the Gospel has, by raising their eucatastrophic structure to the level of history, done to fairy-stories what Jenson argues that the Gospel already did to history by representing God’s commitment to it as itself a divine “ontological perfection.” Aristotle himself had allowed that art was more philosophical and scientific than history because art grasps the universal whereas history is of the particular. Bringing the two discussions of Jenson and Tolkien together, we are reminded that history itself is nothing other than the divine art of the universal God who identifies himself with the particular.