Interview on the Catholic Culture Podcast

For those interested, I was recently interviewed by Thomas Mirus on the Catholic Culture Podcast. We talked about my book The Flame Imperishable, but also spent some time reading through the Ainulindalë and highlighting different aspects of Tolkien’s text. You can check it out here:

Ilúvatar’s critique of socialism

Ilúvatar’s interrogation of Aulë after the latter’s misguided fashioning of the dwarves could equally double as a critique of socialist central planning:

“Why hast thou done this? Why dost thou attempt a thing which thou knowest is beyond thy power and thy authority? For thou has from me as a gift thy own being only, and no more; and therefore the creatures of thy hand and mind can live only by that being, moving when thou thinkest to move them, and if thy thought be elsewhere, standing idle. Is that thy desire?” (Silm. 43)

In his penitent reply, moreover, in which he denies having any such desire for domination, Aulë can be heard instead re-affirming the comparatively “libertarian” values of the Valar expressed earlier in the Silmarillion. For it was said that when the Valar first beheld the Children of Ilúvatar, “the more did they love them, being things other than themselves, strange and free, and learned yet a little more of his wisdom, which otherwise had been hidden even from the Ainur” (Silm. 18). As Aulë similarly confesses to Ilúvatar:

“I did not desire such lordship, I desired things other than I am, to love and to teach them, so that they too might perceive the beauty of Eä, which thou has caused to be.” (Silm. 43)


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.

Ok, so why Angelology also saves the Silmarillion

I wrote recently on how it is theology that “saves the Silmarillion,” providing its foregrounded history of the Elves with its own sense of “background,” the necessary lens for “viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist,” and hence the requisite “new unattainable vistas [being] again revealed.” Perhaps more immediate in this regard than the theology of the Silmarillion, however, would be its “angelology,” for lack of a better term (the Ainur/Valar are angelic, but they are not angels–they’re simply Ainur). This is brought out in many places, but this passage from the Ainulindale is perhaps the first:

For the Children of Iluvatar were conceived by him alone; and they came with the third theme, and were not in the theme which Iluvatar propounded at the beginning, and none of the Ainur had part in their making. Therefore when they beheld them, the more did they love them, being things other than themselves, strange and free, wherein they saw the mind of Iluvatar reflected anew, and learned yet a little more of his wisdom, which otherwise had been hidden even from the Ainur.

In other words, in the Ainur is embodied, among other things, the very same love of otherness that Tolkien in places associates particularly with his Elves, making the Ainur into the “Elves’ Elves.” To restate Tolkien’s own criticism, or at least concern, regarding the Silmarillion, therefore, it is that the fairies, the usual agents of Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, and Consolation, are themselves in need of undergoing these same operations. Who will be there to “enchant” the Elves when the Elves need to be enchanted? The Ainur.

Tolkien’s Romantic Eschatology

This passage from the Ainulindale captures well Tolkien’s ability to bring together and harmonize two otherwise very distinct literary and emotional themes:

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 Iluvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Iluvatar after the end of days.

On the one hand, in the unrepeatability of the original Music of the Ainur, we have the idea of a longed-for yet lost and irretrievable past that dominates much of Tolkien’s writing. On the other hand, in the very same sentence, Tolkien balances this nostalgic theme with the uniquely Christian hope and expectation that, within time, we will also see all things made new, every hurt mended, and every desire fulfilled. Call this Tolkien’s “romantic eschatology.”

Why Only Theology Can Save “The Silmarillion”

Reading The Silmarillion, as Tolkien enthusiasts have long realized, is a very different, difficult, and for many, even disappointing experience compared to reading The Lord of the Rings. In a letter addressing the difference between the two works, Tolkien writes:

Part of the attraction of The L.R. is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist. To go there is to destroy the magic, unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed. (L 333)

The problem with The Silmarillion, in other words, is that it tells the untold stories and visits the unvisited islands of The Lord of the Rings, thereby foreshortening the sense of depth of the latter work and so (at least potentially) “destroy[ing] the magic.” In The Silmarillion, to put the matter differently, what is left remote and in that sense transcendent in The Lord of the Rings is rendered immanently present–one might almost say “familiar” and “appropriated,” to use a couple of important terms from Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories.” This effect must be inevitable, Tolkien goes on to admit, “unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed,” unless, that is, there is some even deeper or more distant reality that can play The Silmarillion to The Silmarillion’The Lord of the Rings, as it were.

Although Tolkien doesn’t go into this in his letter, I submit that, for the perceptive reader, The Silmarillion does in fact offer or reveal such “new unattainable vistas,” namely in the form of the expressly theological vision with which the work opens and then almost immediately (though never wholly) leaves behind. Far from suggesting a form of Enlightenment deism, according to which a divine watchmaker is supposed to have established the world and the left it to run itself of its own accord, as I have argued elsewhere, what Tolkien does in his opening creation-myth, the Ainulindalë, is preface his legendarium with the necessary theological prolegomena for properly interpreting the subsequent, less theologically explicit portions of his Middle-earth mythology. As Tolkien makes clear in a number of places, every instance of eucatastrophe–a device he identifies as a sine qua non of the fairy-story genre–in his own writings is an instance of special divine intervention and deliverance whereby the Creator reveals himself as “that one ever-present Person who is never absent and never named” (Letters no. 192). Of course, there are many other qualities in The Silmarillion which make it a great piece of literature in its own right, yet in Tolkien’s own mind there simply was no substitute for that elusive and allusive “impression of depth,” as he put it, whereby something greater–an unreduced and ultimately irreducible surplus of meaning and mystery–might be “glimpsed in the background.”

It is for reasons such as these that The Silmarillion‘s editor, Tolkien’s son Christopher, later regretted his decision not to include his father’s original framing device telling how the early medieval adventurer Eriol discovered fairy-land (the isle of modern day England) and learned the tales contained in The Silmarillion. Had he done so, The Silmarillion would have provided its own means of at once mediating itself to its modern audience while creating the desired sense of an unbridgeable historical distance between the reader and this “book of lost tales.” While I, too, share this regret with Christopher, it should not go unnoticed the way in which the published Silmarillion, beginning (like the Book of Genesis) as it does with the story of God’s loving act of creation and providential ordering of the world, does provide its own form of framing device. It is the divine realities and verities revealed in the opening mythology of the Silmarillion that ultimately provides the work with its own set of “new unattainable vistas” and what, as a consequence, helps “save” its “magic.”

(For a related post, see “Hobbits: Non-Mediating Mediators.”)

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.

Tolkien vs. Augustine on Difference of Sex

In book six of his De Genesi ad Litteram (Literal Commentary on Genesis) St. Augustine addresses the question of whether human souls might have been created simultaneously with the rest of the world at the beginning of creation, with their bodies being formed only later on. Augustine gives two arguments against this view:

first, because of that completion of God’s works, I do not see how these could be understood to be complete if anything was not there established in its causes which would later on be realized visibly; secondly, because the difference of sex between male and female can only be verified in bodies. (De Genesis 6.7.12)

According to Augustine’s second argument, sexual differences are not psyche-logical differences, but physio-logical differences.

Compare this now with Tolkien’s account of the Valar in the Ainulindale:

Therefore the Valar may walk, if they will, unclad, and then even the Eldar cannot clearly perceive them, though they be present. But when they desire to clothe themselves the Valar take upon them forms some as of male and some as of female; for that difference of temper they had even from their beginning, and it is but bodied forth in the choice of each, not made by the choice, even as with us male and female may be shown by the raiment but is not made thereby.

For the Valar, “sexual” differences are more than–because prior–to bodily differences, being a mater of “difference of temper” that is then “bodied forth” afterward in the physical appearance the individual Valar choose for themselves.

Necessity of the Incarnation in Tolkien’s Ainulindalë

Tolkien really was an astute theologian, my latest example of which is the following, theologically suggestive passage from his creation-myth, the Ainulindalë. In it, Tolkien may be interpreted as pointing in the direction of a theistic actualism, the thesis that God creates his own possibilities rather than creating from a set of possibilities already given to or for him. After the world of Eä was created, it is recorded that some of the angelic Ainur

took leave of Ilúvatar and descended into it. But this condition Ilúvatar made, or it is the necessity of their love, that their power should thenceforward be contained and bounded in the World, to be within it for ever, until it is complete, so that  they are its life and it is theirs. And therefore they are named the Valar, the Powers of the World.

When the Ainur choose to enter into this world, they have to take upon themselves something of its own nature. Consistent with the literary mode of myth, however, Tolkien is deliberately ambiguous as to the source of this “necessity of the (Ainur’s) incarnation.” Is it because Ilúvatar, for inscrutable reasons of his own, simply and autocratically stipulated physical embodiment as a condition for the Ainur’s habitation within Eä (i.e., divine-command theory, theological voluntarism)? Or was the origin of this necessity something more immanent and intrinsic to the natural order, the “way things are”? The answer, of course, is both: Ilúvatar is the sovereign Creator of the natural order, including its possibilities and necessities, and as such he has made it a necessity of Ainuric love that should they choose to enter the world that he has made, they must kenotically take upon themselves its limitations and conditions. In this Tolkien arrives at much the same conclusion St. Anselm does with regard to Christ’s Incarnation in Cur Deus Homo, namely that in order for God to save the human race, it was necessary that he himself become a man, and yet this necessity was not a constraint imposed upon God from the outside, but was a condition he laid upon both creation and himself in making creation to be what it is.

Nihil ex Creatione: On the Invention of Darkness out of Light in Tolkien’s Ainulindalë

In Tolkien’s Middle-earth creation-myth, the Ainulindalë, there is a scene in which the angelic Ainur are treated to a glorious, light-filled Vision of the future history of the world. After the Vision is taken away, it is said of the Ainur “that in that moment they perceived a new thing, Darkness, which they had not known before, except in thought.” Rather than Darkness being the prior condition and possibility of Light, in other words, it is Light that it is the prior condition and possibility of Darkness as its negation. One might wonder, what implications might this have for thinking about the doctrine of creation ex nihilo?

Heidegger claimed that the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” was the metaphysical question. Given the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, Christians would seem to have good prima facie grounds for agreeing. First there was nothing, then there was something: surely it is the something that bears the metaphysical “burden of proof,” that it is something rather than nothing that needs to explain itself.

While there is a sense in which this is obviously true, there may be another sense in which it is the something which (paradoxically) brings into being with itself the possibility of nothing; that until you have a something, there is not anything, not even nothing. Conor Cunningham hints at something like this when he says that “Before the opposition of being and nothing there is the difference of the Trinity” (Genealogy of Nihilism 199). I’m accustomed to thinking of the difference within the Trinity as the archetype for the distinction that exists between God and what God makes: no intra-Trinitarian difference, no Creator-creature difference. If Cunningham is right, however, the difference amongst the persons of the Godhead is so profound that it is what provides us even with the basis for the difference between the being that God creates and the non-being “from” which he makes it. The difference between something and nothing, in other words, is a Trinitarian difference. What this further suggests is that this difference between something and nothing is not something that is a given for God, but is itself a gift of God (to use yet another of Cunningham’s distinctions). God creates, in other words, not only something, but in creating something, he brings along with it into being the very opposition (i.e., antithetical difference) between something and nothing. There would seem to be a valid sense, then, in which creation is not just from nothing, but that nothing is also from the something that is creation–not just creatio ex nihilo, but nihil ex creatione. In terms of our above point about darkness and light in Tolkien’s Ainulindalë, nothing is not the antecedent condition and possibility of something, but it is a created something that is the antecedent condition and possibility of their being nothing. 

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…


Death as Gift in Tolkien and Peter Damian

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

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

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

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

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

Or, as Tolkien himself put it one letter,

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

Ainulindale as (Proto)Evangelion

Metaphysics of the Music, part 46 (conclusion)

In summary, then, we see that the fundamental movement of the Ainulindalë from the world as it exists in the Ainur’s Music and Vision to the world as it exists in its own created right, is hardly the Neoplatonic, emanationist story of a gradual, metaphysical decay or demise, but is the same comic, or rather “eucatstrophic” pattern which Tolkien, following St. Thomas, saw as constituting the being of our own world. In its representation of the Ainur’s own “fairy-story” being gifted with the “fulfillment of Creation,” as well as its prophecy of a day when Ilúvatar will give the thoughts of his children the “secret fire” so that they shall “take Being in the moment of their utterance,” we realize that for Tolkien the Ainulindalë is as much a mythical retelling and foreshadowing of the Christian story of salvation, or re-creation, as it is a rehearsal of the original story of creation itself. In Tolkien’s hands the creation event itself has become a kind of protoevangelion: if the Music is a beautiful, yet abstract, metaphysically disinterested “Dream,” and the Vision a desire-inducing “fairy-story,” then the sublime, concept-defying joy of the Ainur in response to the creation of the actual world reveals the latter as nothing less than an image of the Gospel. With the angelic doctor and over against the essentialism and idealism of much Greek and modern thought, Tolkien shares the metaphysical insight that a thing in its act of existence enjoys a higher status in the order of being—and as the Ainur exemplify, a consequent higher status in the order of desirability—than what a thing’s essence, form, or concept alone provides, precisely because the act of existence is what completes or perfects that essence. The move from Music to Vision to Reality, from intelligible or conceived essence to existing, mind-independent reality, is metaphysically speaking not a tragedy, but a eucatastrophe, not a Fall, but a Fulfillment. Through his Thomistic creation-myth Tolkien thus portrays the real existence or being of things as a surpassing and gratuitous gift, anticipated in but never necessitated by their forms or essences alone, hoped for in the promising and received with joy in the giving, a gift freely given by a good, all-powerful, personal God who himself must transcend all conceptuality because he is Being itself.

From Fairy-Story to Evangelion

Metaphysics of the Music, part 45

As I think the passages cited in the previous post repeatedly demonstrate, the fundamental dialectic of Tolkien’s understanding of creation, at least as he depicts it in the Ainulindalë, consists in this progression from the mere mind-dependent, thought-existence the world enjoys in the Ainur’s Music and Vision, to the “realized” or “achieved” existence the world later receives in its own ontological right. In other words, through the Ainulindalë Tolkien dramatizes mythically much the same principle that some have identified as the heart of the existential realism of St. Thomas Aquinas. Because it is not the mere form, essence, or intelligibility of a thing, but its real-world existence that represents the “actuality of all acts and the perfection of all perfections,” there is a respect in which even for the divine mind things have something more in them and therefore exist “more truly” (esse verius habent) in themselves than they do in the mind alone.

As it turns out, however, this Thomistic, metaphysical dialectic at the center of the Ainulindalë is none other than the same tension Tolkien identifies in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” as being at play in our own world and history. I have commented at length before on Tolkien’s concept of eucatastrophe, the “sudden joyous ‘turn’” and “miraculous grace” of the happy ending which he holds to be essential to all “true fairy-stories.” Yet as Tolkien explains in the epilogue to his essay, the ultimate significance of these eucatastrophic moments is not limited to the highly desirable emotional or psychological effect it has on the reader, but in the fact that in them we are treated to a “sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth” of the world:

But in the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world… 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. (TR 88-9)

According to Tolkien, in the Christian Gospel of the Incarnation, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, what has happened is that the Creator has taken up the “essence of fairy-stories” in their otherwise “perfect, self-contained significance,” these stories about hope and the unlooked-for “sudden joyous turn,” and he has made them real by giving them the reality of “History and the primary world,” raising them “to the fulfillment of Creation.” The Gospel, in other words, is not merely a real-life story containing a eucatastrophe or happy ending, but precisely in being real it constitutes for Tolkien the eucatastrophe or happy ending of all other fairy-stories, for in it all other fairy-stories have, in a sense, become true, have been graced with the special dispensation of real, historical, physical, created being.

Story vs. Reality

Metaphysics of the Music, part 44

In his various commentaries on or summaries of the Ainulindalë found in his letters and elsewhere Tolkien repeatedly emphasizes the dialectic between the merely mental existence of the Music and Vision taken together, and the later, real existence enjoyed by the created physical world. In one letter, for example, Tolkien analyzes his creation narrative in terms of the “story” of the world as contained in the Music and the Vision on the one hand, and the story as it later becomes “realized” in the creation of the physical world (Letters 235-6). In another letter he similarly speaks of the Music and Vision together as a “cosmogonical drama” which is “perceived… as in a fashion we perceive a story composed by some-one else,” to which he contrasts the world we see “later as a ‘reality’” (146). In yet another letter, Tolkien passes over the Vision entirely to speak of the Ainur’s Music as their

work of Art, as it was in the first instance, [and the Valar] became so engrossed with it, that when the Creator made it real (that is, gave it the secondary reality, subordinate to his own, which we call primary reality, and so in that hierarchy on the same plane with themselves) they desired to enter into it, from the beginning of its “realization.” (259)

Here Tolkien goes so far as to suggest—again, contrary to the metaphysically tragic reading—that the independent existence of the physical world actually makes it more like the spiritual being of the Ainur than the purely mental and hence derivative being of the Music: the physical world enjoys the same kind of “primary reality” which places it on “on the same plane” as the Ainur. The same point is made in another letter which describes the Music and Vision as a “Design” communicated to and then “interpreted” by the Ainur, “propounded first in musical or abstract form, and then in an ‘historical vision,’” after which “the One (the Teller [of the story]) said Let it Be, then the Tale became History, on the same plane as the hearers…” (284). Tolkien goes on to contrast the story of the Music as “it ‘exists’ in the mind of the teller, and derivatively in the minds of hearers, but not on the same plane as the hearers,” with the realized world which the hearers “could, if they desired, enter into” (emphasis original). And in his commentary on the Athrabeth, Tolkien likewise juxtaposes the “Great Music, which was as it were a rehearsal, and remained in the stage of thought or imagination,” with the “Achievement” it receives in the fifth and final act of the creation drama when it is at last made real (Morgoth’s Ring 336).

[1] “According to the fable Elves and Men were the first of these [divine] intrusions, made indeed while the ‘story’ was still only a story and not ‘realized’; they were not therefore in any sense conceived or made by the gods, the Valar, and were called the Eruhíni or ‘Children of God’…” (L 235-6).

From Music to Vision, from Vision to Eä

Metaphysics of the Music, part 43

To review my argument thus far about the “metaphysics of the Music,” we have seen that, in contradiction with the metaphysically tragic reading of Tolkien’s creation-myth, the Ainulindalë outlines a much more positive and eschatological movement. As I have further argued, it is a movement intended to dramatize, in part, a progression between what Tolkien distinguishes in his essay, on the one hand, as the mere contented, dream-like disinterest in the possibility of a mind-independent reality, and on the other hand, the awakening of the fairy-desire for real, mind-independent existence. Yet while Tolkien in his essay is hesitant to insist that our “primal desire” for the existence of things other than ourselves is any necessary indication of the way things actually are, as the Aristotelian tradition of Aquinas would maintain, the arousal of this “primal desire” would nevertheless be in vain if there were no means or hope of its existence being realized or fulfilled. As Tolkien in a related fashion writes of the Elves in his commentary on the Athrabeth, they “insisted that ‘desires’, especially such fundamental desires as are here dealt with, were to be taken as indications of the true natures of the Incarnates, and of the direction in which their unmarred fulfillment must lie” (Morgoth’s Ring 343). Thus, even more fundamental to the logic of the Ainulindalë, I contend, than the contrast between the Music and the Vision is the even more basic distinction, also found, as we shall see, in Tolkien’s essay, that this story dramatizes between the world as it exists in mere thought and the real, extra-mental existence the world comes to enjoy as a gift from the Creator himself.

It is this dialectic of mental versus extra-mental existence, for example, that we meet already on the opening page of Tolkien’s entire legendarium, where it is anticipated that “after the end of days… the themes of Ilúvatar shall be 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 Ilúvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased” (Silmarillion 15-16, emphasis added). Behind and prior to the subversive music of Melkor, moreover, is his earlier idolatrous quest into the Void to find the “Flame Imperishable” of Ilúvatar whereby he might “bring into Being” the thoughts of his own mind (16). The antithesis between thought and reality receives further expression when Ilúvatar first informs the Ainur of his intention to create the world of Eä: “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” (20).[1] Ilúvatar even speaks somewhat diminishingly of both the Music and Vision together when he says how the Music had “been but the growth and flowering of thought in the Timeless Halls, and the Vision only a foreshowing,” whereas the task of the Valar, after the physical world has actually been created, is to “achieve it” (20, emphasis added). In the Athrabeth, finally—and almost in express contradiction of the claim reviewed earlier that there is an “unconscious decay of cosmological theory written into The Silmarillion” beginning with the Great Music and ending with Men and Elves—Finrod clearly presupposes the physical world’s metaphysical superiority over the Music and Vision when he tells Andreth that the “errand of Men” in history is “to enlarge the Music and surpass the Vision of the World!” (Morgoth’s Ring 318, emphasis added).

[1] Later on in The Silmarillion Ilúvatar repeats this point, reminding the Ainur how he “gave being to the thoughts of the Ainur at the beginning of the World…” (S 44). And a few pages later the contrast between the Music and Vision on the one hand and the actual history of the world is drawn in these terms: “Thus it was that the Valar found at last, as it were by chance, those whom they had so long awaited. And Oromë looking upon the Elves was filled with wonder, as though they were beings sudden and marvelous and unforeseen; for so it shall ever be with the Valar. From without the World, though all things may be forethought in music or foreshown in vision from afar, to those who enter verily into Eä each in its time shall be met at unawares as something new and unforetold” (S 49).

How the Vision “Saves” the Music

Metaphysics of the Music, part 42

Tolkien’s characterization in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” of the literary device of the Dream as a piece of “machinery” is also of some note. In Tolkien’s bestiary, of course, the Machine is typically a symbol of the tyrannical domination of nature. Yet the technological or instrumental mastery and manipulation of nature is not the only way in which one can exercise a kind of tyranny over things, for as Tolkien explains elsewhere in his essay, it is also possible to “appropriate” and “possess” things “mentally” or even artistically and aesthetically (Tolkien Reader 77). It is in this sense, I think, that the Dream “cheats” the primal desire for otherness: by deliberately suspending the question of the story’s reality or truthfulness, the Dream becomes a kind of instrument of intellectual domination, suppressing the objectifying otherness of the things and the world its story serves to relate. In this way, and as John Betz for example has argued in the case of Kant, “disinterest” in the aesthetic object’s mind-independent existence is really an indirect form of self-interest, and the refusal to recognize and enjoy the existence of an “other” becomes the occasion for a form of self-enjoyment.[1] One of the questions implicitly raised by the Ainur’s Music, consequently, is whether the temptation or at least possibility towards the “interested” and self-idolatrous quest of Melkor for the power to give being to his thoughts might already be latent within the kind of pure conceptual or mental mastery the Ainur enjoy and exercise in their Music. For as Betz again points out, in a passage evocative of  Melkor’s retreat to the Void to seek the Imperishable Flame, or his refusal later in the legendarium to leave the endless halls of his subterranean kingdom, Angband, “once beauty no longer inspires a sense of transcendence, a love for an other, it can only conduct one more deeply and despairingly into the chambers of the modern subject and its ‘horizons’, i.e., into the bad infinite of its ‘mirror halls’.”[2] At the risk of overstatement, there would seem to be a very limited yet important respect in which the Ainur’s Vision of the physical world in all its desirable otherness not only fulfills and surpasses the disinterested conceptuality of their Music, but in doing so possibly even saves them from it.

[1] Betz, “Beyond the Sublime,” 379.

[2] Ibid.

Tolkien’s Thomistic realism vs. modern idealism

Metaphysics of the Music, part 41

In the previous post I compared Tolkien’s and Chesterton’s “metaphysics of the Dream.” Also of interest here is the way Tolkien develops in his essay the implicit realism of fairy-stories—as Chesterton does the metaphysical “vision” of St. Thomas—in juxtaposition with the idealism of modern philosophy, a passage that more than one commentator has related back to Tolkien’s own unspoken Thomism. In saying that fairy-stories accomplish a “regaining of a clear view” of things, Tolkien explains that he does not necessarily mean “‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’—as things apart from ourselves” (Tolkien Reader 77). Commenting on this passage, Paul Kocher has suggested that the “philosophers” Tolkien probably has in mind are “those of the idealist school from Berkeley down to our modern phenomenologists who, each in his own way, echo Coleridge’s dejection, ‘…we receive but what we give / And in our life alone does Nature live.’”[1] As Kocher goes on to argue, his assumed posture of reticence notwithstanding, Tolkien of course cannot and ultimately has no intention to “escape metaphysics,” and what is more, that the metaphysics behind Tolkien’s philosophy of fairy-stories is “best understood when viewed in the context of the natural theology of Thomas Aquinas…”[2] More recently, however, Alison Milbank has commented on this same passage from Tolkien’s essay, this time explicitly contrasting the realist metaphysics common to St. Thomas, Maritain, Chesterton, and Tolkien, with the idealism of Kant in particular, and in the process introducing a further dimension to the problem represented by idealist metaphysics and its corresponding aesthetics:

The “things in themselves” to which Tolkien alludes are those elements of phenomena to which Kant, a critical idealist, believes we have no access, and to which he gives the term, “noumena.” Despite his apologetic tone, Tolkien is actually saying something quite radical: that fiction in the form of fantastic recreation of the world can give us access to the real by freeing the world of objects from our appropriation of them. Maritain states that Kant’s mistake was in believing “that the act of knowing consists in creating the other, not in becoming the other, he foolishly reversed the order of dependence between the object of knowledge and the human intellect and made the human intellect the measure and law of the object.”[3]

[1] Kocher, Master of Middle-earth: the Fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien, 76-7.

[2] Ibid., 77.

[3] Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 19.

Chesterton on the “Dream” vs. the “Vision”

Metaphysics of the Music, part 40

In the last few posts I have been developing a possible parallel between the differences between the Music and the Vision of the Ainur, and the opposition Tolkien constructs between the Dream and the Fairy-Story in his essay. Like the Dream, the Ainur’s Music possessed a kind of “perfectly self-contained significance,” but did not clearly point to any reality beyond itself. Instead, the Ainur “knew not that it had any purpose beyond its own beauty.” The Ainur’s Vision, by contrast, is more redolent of Tolkien’s remarks about fairy-stories in their suggestion of and eliciting of a desire for realities, worlds, and realms outside or beyond oneself. I’ve noted, furthermore, this same opposition between the Dream and true Art in Tolkien’s fellow 20th century Thomists Jacques Maritain and, under his direct influence, American novelist Flannery O’Connor.

It is in another reader of Maritain, however, that the most suggestive reference to the dream-image for our consideration of Tolkien appears. In his biography of St. Thomas, Chesterton writes:

That strangeness of things, which is the light in all poetry, and indeed in all art, is really connected with their otherness; or what is called their objectivity. What is subjective must be stale; it is exactly what is objective that is in this imaginative manner strange. In this the great contemplative is the complete contrast of the false contemplative, the mystic who looks only into his own soul, the selfish artist who shrinks from the world and lives only in his own mind. According to St. Thomas, the mind acts freely of itself, but its freedom exactly consists in finding a way out to liberty and the light of day; to reality and the land of the living. In the subjectivist, the pressure of the world forces the imagination inwards. In the Thomist, the energy of the mind forces the imagination outwards, but because the images it seeks are real things. All their romance and glamour, so to speak, lies in the fact that they are real things; things not to be found by staring inwards at the mind. The flower is a vision because it is not only a vision. Or, if you will, it is a vision because it is not a dream.[1]

Whether Tolkien ever read Chesterton’s biography of St. Thomas is not known for sure, yet the antithesis Chesterton draws between the vision and the dream as metaphors for the opposition between the subjective idealism of much modern aesthetics and the metaphysical realism of Thomas’s aesthetics is certainly striking, and would seem to corroborate further my suggestion that behind the relationship between the Ainur’s Music and Vision is the Dream/fairy-story polarity of Tolkien’s essay.[2] In contrast to the Music, after all, the Ainur’s Vision illustrates Tolkien’s belief that fairy-stories tap into a “primal desire” inherent in human beings, namely that, whatever the reality might be, there at least should exist things other than ourselves. Where the question of desire is concerned, therefore, the Music would seem to be more akin to the Dream in the limited sense that in it the Ainur’s desire-for-the-other, if not exactly “cheated,” at least goes unrecognized, to say nothing of it being unrealized. The Music was certainly beautiful for its time, “unlocking strange powers” in the minds of the Ainur, yet the logic of the Ainulindalë is hard to mistake: had Ilúvatar followed the Vision, not with the creation of the actual, physical world, but instead with a repetition of the Music which had preceded it, the Ainur would have perceived its self-contained, disinterested beauty by comparison as a mere “figment or illusion,” i.e., as a dream.

[1] Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas: “The Dumb Ox,” 182-3.

[2] The sequencing of the publication of Chesterton’s biography of St. Thomas in 1933, Tolkien’s Andrew Lang address “On Fairy-Stories” at the University of St. Andrews in 1939, and his revision of the Ainulindalë in the early 1950s to give the Vision (now named for the first time as such) a much more prominent place in the narrative (MR 24-6), is consistent at any rate with the possibility of Tolkien having read and been influenced by Chesterton’s biography.

Tolkienian Fairy-Story and Nietzschean Tragedy

Metaphysics of the Music, part 39

Tolkien’s critique of the dream-device in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” might be further compared with Nietzsche’s similar critique in The Birth of Tragedy of the dramatic prologue introduced by Euripides into ancient Greek tragedy. Similar to Tolkien’s remarks on the Dream, Nietzsche speaks of the Euripidean prologue as depriving man of the exercise of an human emotion or experience which he believes to be foundational to man’s being. For Nietzsche, of course, it is not the experience that Tolkien hungers for, namely the desire or hope that the imaginatively and marvelous worlds of Faërie should be made real, a hope that ends in joy in the metaphysical event of the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus. Rather, Nietzsche speaks of the tragic prologue as “interfering” with the audience’s pathos, passion, and “pleasurable absorption” in the tragic, Dionysian scenes being represented on the stage. With the introduction of the Euripidean prologue, “[s]o long as the spectator has to figure out the meaning of this or that person, or the presuppositions of this or that conflict of inclinations and purposes, he cannot become completely absorbed in the activities and sufferings of the chief characters or feel breathless pity and fear” (The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Kaufmann, 84). For both Tolkien and Nietzsche, the artistic experience is ultimately about man being reminded of and reconciled to the ultimate nature of things, of allowing ultimate reality, however conceived, to break into man’s routine existence and to revisit and revivify the ordinary with a sense of the extraordinary. It is this fundamental openness to a transcendent (in Tolkien’s case) or immanent/subterranean (in Nietzche’s) reality that the dream-device for Tolkien and the Euripidean prologue for Nietzsche work to impede.