“Things the Angels Desire to Look into”

In the Akallabeth, when the Numenoreans begin to covet the unending life of the Eldar and Valar, the Valar give them this warning and exhortation:

The will of Eru may not be gainsaid; and the Valar bid you earnestly not to withhold the trust to which you are called, lest soon it become again a bond by which you are constrained. Hope rather that in the end even the least of your desires shall have fruit. The love of Arda was set in your hearts by Iluvatar, and he does not plant to no purpose. Nonetheless, many ages of Men unborn may pass ere the at purpose is made known; and to you it will be revealed and not to the Valar. (Silm. 265)

Two observations, the first of which is the allusion in this passage (and in the Numenoreans’ earlier statement to the Valar that “of us is required a blind trust, and a hope without assurance… yet we also love the Earth”) to the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love. The second is the way the relationship between the Eldar, the Valar, and Men closely models the one 1 Peter 1:10-12 describes between the Old Testament prophets, the angels, and the New Testament Christians:

Of which salvation the prophets have enquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you… Unto whom it was revealed, that not unto themselves, but unto us they did minister the things, which are now reported unto you by them that have preached the gospel unto you with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven; which things the angels desire to look into.

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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)

Feänor, Tolkien’s (Dantean) Ulysses

I’ve commented before on the Nietzschean, Dionysian aspect to Feänor’s character. I’m re-reading Dante’s Divine Comedy at the moment and it occurs to me that the Florentine poet’s inventive depiction of Ulysses/Odysseus might be another noteworthy literary antecedent and parallel, if not outright influence. We learn something of Tolkien’s familiarity with and attitude toward Dante in a letter reviewing an interview in which he had said that Dante “doesn’t attract me. He’s full of spite and malice. I don’t care for his petty relations with petty people in petty cities.” In his review of the interview, Tolkien retracts his remarks, writing that his

reference to Dante was outrageous. I do not seriously dream of being measured against Dante, a supreme poet. At one time Lewis and I used to read him to one another. I was for a while a member of the Oxford Dante Society (I think at the proposal of Lewis, who overestimated greatly my scholarship in Dante or Italian generally). It remains true that I found the ‘pettiness’ that I spoke of a sad blemish in places.

One character who receives an ignoble if not exactly “petty” end at Dante’s hands, yet in a way that anticipates an important message in Tolkien’s fiction, is the Greek hero Ulysses, whom Dante places in the eighth circle of his Hell where the perpetrators of “simple” fraud are imprisoned, and in the eighth malebolgia (“evil pocket”) in particular, in which those guilty of deception, fraudulent advice, or “evil counsel” are punished. Not knowing Greek, Dante did not have a first-hand knowledge of Homer’s epics, and so was presumably unaware of the eventual fate of Odysseus as Homer foreshadows it. The Ithacan King, as we learn in the Odyssey, is told that, even after arriving home after a 20 year absence, must undertake one final journey (over land) to plant an oar in homage to and appeasement of Poseidon. Only then will he at last be allowed to settle down and live to the end of his days in relative peace.

In Dante’s recasting of his character, “Ulysses” is made instead into an incurable adventurer who apparently never makes it home at all, as he persuades his men to sail with him beyond the Straights of Gibraltar, going (as Captain Kirk so memorably put it) where no man has ever gone before. As Ulysses explains to Dante the pilgrim,

not sweetness of a son, not reverence / for an aging father, not the debt of love / I owed Penelope to make her happy, / could quench deep in myself the burning wish / to know the world and have experience / of all man’s vices, of all human worth. (Inferno 26.94-99, Musa trans.)

Ulysses goes on to recount the speech by which he persuaded his men to join him on his ludicrous journey, the speech, we are led to believe, that is also responsible for his present place in Hell:

‘Brothers,’ I said, ‘who through a hundred thousand / perils have made your way to reach the West, / during this so brief vigil of our senses / that is still reserved for us, do not deny / yourself experience of what there is beyond, / behind the sun, in the world they call unpeopled. / Consider what you came from: you are Greeks! / You were not born to live like mindless brutes / but to follow paths of excellence and knowledge. / With this brief exhortation I made my crew / so anxious for the way that lay ahead, / that then I hardly could have held them back…  (26.112-120)

As Ulysses explains the end of their “mad flight,” they sailed to the southernmost end of the Earth where they were just able to espy the shores and towering height of Mount Purgatory itself (atop of which Eden or Paradise lies) before, in an act of divine judgment (“as pleased Another’s will”–26.141), their ship was spun around three times and sunk into the sea with all her crew.

Thus, in exchange for Homer’s Odysseus, the “great tactician,” man of great cunning and “many turns” (polymetis) who overcomes enormous obstacles, including gods, giants, monsters, and suitors, Dante gives us a Ulysses whose lasting legacy is the deception he perpetrated, not on his enemies, but on his own men. In Dante’s hands, the story of Ulysses is a cautionary tale about the hubris, curiosity, and autonomy or independence that seeks knowledge, experience, and perhaps even power that lies beyond man’s proper boundaries, as well as the destructive interpersonal and social consequences of the kind of eloquence and demagoguery that deceives others for one’s own benefit.

While Tolkien reserves Ulysses and his men’s specific fate of drowning by divine intervention for the Númenóreans–themselves a cautionary tale warning man not transgress his appointed boundaries, to aspire to determine his own destiny, and to seize paradise by his own power–the theme of deceptively and self-interestedly playing to the prejudices and sense of superiority of one’s subordinates in persuading them to distinguish themselves through the pursuit of new lands and experiences is very much at the heart of Fëanor’s story. In The Silmarillion, after Melkor’s theft of the Silmarils, Fëanor, a “master of words” whose “tongue had great power over hearts when he would use it,” makes to his fellow Noldorin Elves a speech

which they ever remembered. Fierce and few were his words, and filled with anger and pride; and hearing them the Noldor were stirred to madness…. Long he spoke, and ever he urged the Noldor to follow him and by their own prowess to win freedom and great realms in the lands of the East… ‘Fair shall the end be,’ he cried, though long and hard shall be the road! Say farewell to bondage! But say farewell also to ease! Say farewell to the weak! Say farewell to your treasures! More still shall we make. Journey light: but bring with you your swords! For we will go further than Oromë, endure longer than Tulkas: we will never turn back from pursuit. After Morgoth to the ends of the Earth!… But when we have conquered and have regained the Silmarils, then we and we alone shall be lords of the unsullied Light, and masters of the bliss and beauty of Arda. No other race shall oust us!’

As I’ve suggested elsewhere, through his character of Fëanor, Tolkien honestly and sympathetically captures something of the tragic and epic greatness and nobility sought after, for example, by Nietzsche in his Dionysian neo-paganism. At the same time, however, a consideration of Fëanor’s Ulyssean aspect serves to remind us of something else I’ve written on previously, which is Tolkien’s Christian (and now Dantean) concern that in the final analysis such assertions of self-will are no ultimate answer to the human destructiveness and banality of nihilism, but are merely a more dramatic and pathetic (in both the etymological and colloquial senses of that word) form of it.

Two Atlantis myths, two morality tales

Yet another dimension to Tolkien’s and Plato’s differing views on the relation between divine providence and Necessity. Although a number of Timaeus scholars have failed to see any intrinsic connection between Critias’s introductory speech about ancient Athens’s epic victory over Atlantis at the beginning of the dialogue, and the creation-myth Timaeus tells in the remainder of the dialogue (see, for example, Welliver,Character, Plot, and Thought in Plato’s “Timaeus-Critias,” 2-3; Taylor, Plato, 440; and Cornford, Plato’s Cosmology, 20), the two stories in an important respect are concerned with the same fundamental problem, namely the ineradicable limits the gods face in realizing their benevolent purposes in the physical realm of becoming. Thus, although in the defeat of the despotic power of Atlantis by the ideal, virtuous city of Athens we have an historic example of divine Nous triumphing over the chaos of Necessity, we see the limits of divine power in the fact that not even the patronage of Athena is able to save Athens from being destroyed by the same natural disasters that engulf Atlantis.

In Tolkien’s retelling of the story at the end of the Silmarillion, however, Atlantis is destroyed for a much different purpose, one in keeping with his metaphysical differences with Plato outlined earlier. In Tolkien’s tale, Atlantis is Númenor (Atalantë in the Elvish tongue of Quenya, from which the Greek name Atlantis is supposed to have derived), an island-kingdom inhabited by a noble but proud race of men who are eventually seduced by Sauron into outright Melkor-worship. When the Númenoreans in their rebellious quest for personal immortality break the ban laid upon them by the Valar and travel to the forbidden land of Valinor, Ilúvatar intervenes directly and destroys both their fleet and the island of Númenor with a flood.

Thus, whereas in the Timaeus Atlantis simultaneously symbolizes and is obliterated by an impersonal and indiscriminate Necessity that cannot be completely controlled by the gods because it is not created by them, Tolkien has Atlantis destroyed as an act of divine judgment by a personal, omnipotent God for its worship of Melkor, the one who first sought the power of creation for himself, and for its imitation of his presumption by seeking immortality on Man’s own terms.

From Creation to Atlantis

Another, more literary parallel between the Timaeus and the Ainulindalë: Like Plato’s Timaeus, which was to be followed by the Critias’s much fuller account (left unfinished at Plato’s death) of ancient Athens’s defeat of imperial Atlantis and the subsequent destruction of both nations through earthquake and flood—theAinulindalë forms with the rest of The Silmarillion an equally ambitious, all-encompassing mythology (also incomplete at Tolkien’s death) beginning with the creation of the world and climaxing in Tolkien’s own retelling of the fate of ancient Atlantis in the tragic history of Númenor.

Valinor: Plato’s realm of the forms?

According to Tolkien, some fairies serve the semi-Platonic function of acting as “agents” in impressing upon creation the divine ideas of the natural world. Possibly related to this is the description in The Silmarillion of the withdrawal of Valinor from the circles of the Arda following the rebellion and destruction of Númenor:

“For Ilúvatar cast back the Great Seas west of Middle-earth, and the Empty Lands east of it, and new lands and new seas were made; and the world was diminished, for Valinor and Eressëa were taken from it into the realm of hidden things.” (Silmarillion 279)

Rather than “Platonizing fairy-land,” perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Tolkien “Fairy-izes Plato”: the undying, transcendent “realm of hidden things” that men long for and which infuses our own world with its sense of beauty and wonder, is not some putative, unchanging “intelligible” realm of the forms, but the perilous land of “Faërie,” a source of song, of enchantment, of desire, of light.

Faith and Reason in Middle-earth, part 3

[Faith and Reason in Middle-earth, part 1 and part 2]

The question of faith in Middle-earth does not occur only among Elves, for in The Silmarillion we see the matter of trusting both in “angelic instruction” and in the Creator’s good intentions brought to bear directly on human history in Tolkien’s retelling of the Atlantis myth, the Akallabeth. In this story, the men of Númenor, fearing death and coveting the immortality of the Elves, bitterly complain that “of us is required a blind trust, and a hope without assurance, knowing not what lies before us in a little while” (S 265). The theological context behind the complaint, as the Athrabeth helps to make clear, is the fact that the difference between human mortality and Elvish immortality is the result of a voluntary, albeit intelligent and purposeful choice of the Creator. Because the origin of this difference between Men and Elves lies ultimately in the freedom of the divine will, this means there is no discernable, rational necessity behind what turns out to be the contingent fact of human mortality. Indeed, from the perspective of the Elves, whose own nature is such that they must continue to endure forever in a world they love but cannot prevent from changing, human mortality—for men a tragedy—is in their view nothing less than a “gift” which the Creator has granted to Men alone. For the Men themselves, however, who know their own mortality by direct experience but are left in ignorance as to their fate after death, to accept their mortal nature as a gift requires an exercise of faith or trust in the good purposes of the Creator and that they have not in fact been cheated of the unending life that has been given to the Elves and so now belongs to them as a matter of created, natural right. Refusing to rest in such “hope without assurance,” and seduced into rebellion by Sauron, the Númenóreans at last break the ban laid upon them by the Valar and sail to Valinor to win from the Valar by force the immortality that only Ilúvatar can bestow. The outcome of their rebellion is that Númenor is destroyed in an act of direct, divine judgment.[1] In Tolkien’s re-writing of the legend, accordingly, it was a fundamental failure of both faith and reason that brought about the downfall of the ancient kingdom of Atlantis—of reason, because the Númenóreans neglected to discern rightly their own proper nature; of faith, because they failed to receive this God-given nature as a gift whose goodness and wisdom, if not perfectly evident at the present, might be made plain in the future.[2]


[1] Tolkien distinguishes several stages leading up to the Númenóreans’ eventual breaking of the ban: “They must not set foot on ‘immortal’ lands, and so become enamoured of an immortality (within the world), which was against their law, the special doom or gift of Ilúvatar (God), and which their nature could not in fact endure. There are three phases in their fall from grace. First acquiescence, obedience that is free and willing, though without complete understanding. Then for long they obey unwillingly, murmuring more and more openly. Finally they rebel—and a rift appears between the King’s men and rebels, and the small minority of persecuted Faithful” (L 154-5).

[2] As Verlyn Flieger summarizes the theme of mortality in its relationship to the question of faith in this episode, “[r]elease from bondage to the circles of the world comes not with immortality but with death, the Gift of Ilúvatar to Men. But it is release with no promise. Tolkien’s text gives no guarantees; what’s to come is still unsure. Indeed, Tolkien explicitly stated that he was concerned with death as belonging to the nature of humanity, and wanted to illustrate the necessity of accepting ‘hope without guarantees.’ There is in his story no assurance of any future beyond death. The unknown must be accepted in faith. This is exactly the point. The ability to let go, to trust, is the ability to rely on faith. To cling to the known, the tangible—even if it is a Silmaril—is to be bound.” Flieger, Splintered Light, 144. Flieger also sees the question of faith implicit in the Elves’ differing responses to the summons, issued by the Valar, that they should leave their home in Middle-earth and come to Valinor where they would be free from the threat of Melkor: “The Avari are those Elves who reject the light and choose to remain in Middle-earth, ‘preferring the starlight … to the rumour of the Trees’ (S 52). The word ‘rumour’ is important. The Avari are unwilling to predicate action on the basis of a rumour, of something they have not themselves experienced… [T]he three Elven kindreds who go to Valinor… represent the spectrum of human spirituality and response to the light.” Ibid., 78, 98.