Manwë’s Thomism After All?

I posted last week on the un-Thomism of Manwë’s statement that, because of the great beauty in song that will result from the Noldor’s rebellion, “evil [will] yet be good to have been.” After revisiting another passage from Aquinas today, however, I’m prepared to acknowledge that Manwë’s statement may have been more Thomistic than I realized, and that, if so, this fact might reflect well on neither Manwë’s Thomism nor St. Thomas’s.

To review, I had juxtaposed the above statement by Manwë with Aquinas’s argument, in Summa Theologiae I.19.9 ad 1, that, whatever the good that may come of evil, it is nevertheless “not correct” to say that “it is good that evil should be or be done.” Aquinas gives as an example the good of the patience of the martyrs brought about through the persecution of tyrants: because “it was beside the intention of tyrants that the patience of the martyrs should shine forth from all their persecutions,” he argues, “It cannot therefore be said that such an ordering to good is implied in the statement that it is a good thing that evil should be or be done, since nothing is judged of by that which appertains to it accidentally, but by that which belongs to it essentially.” For Aquinas, in other words, even if good is brought out of evil, even good that otherwise would not have existed were it not occasioned by the evil, one cannot rightly say of any given instance of evil that it was “good” for it to happen, since there is no essential, but only at best an accidental relationship between the evil that occurred and the good that was brought about as a result or in response. The Noldor’s rebellion may have brought about beauty that otherwise would not have existed (which is not to say that there would have been any less beauty–but only a different beauty–had they not rebelled), but it does not follow that it was therefore “good” that they rebelled.

Only a few questions later, however, in Summa Theologiae I.22.2 ad 2, Aquinas would seem to reverse his above argument in a way that sounds, well, awfully Manwë-ish. First is the following objection that Aquinas raises to his thesis that “everything is subject to the providence of God,” which reads:

a wise provider excludes any defect or evil, as far as he can, from those over whom he has a care. But we see many evils existing. Either, then, God cannot hinder these, and thus is not omnipotent; or else He does not have care for everything. (ST I.22.2 obj. 2)

In his reply, Aquinas counters that, on the contrary,

It is otherwise with one who has care of a particular thing, and one whose providence is universal, because a particular provider excludes all defects from what is subject to his care as far as he can; whereas, one who provides universally allows some little defect to remain, lest the good of the whole should be hindered. Hence, corruption and defects in natural things are said to be contrary to some particular nature; yet they are in keeping with the plan of universal nature; inasmuch as the defect in one thing yields to the good of another, or even to the universal good: for the corruption of one is the generation of another, and through this it is that a species is kept in existence. Since God, then, provides universally for all being, it belongs to His providence to permit certain defects in particular effects, that the perfect good of the universe may not be hindered, for if all evil were prevented, much good would be absent from the universe. A lion would cease to live, if there were no slaying of animals; and there would be no patience of martyrs if there were no tyrannical persecution. Thus Augustine says (Enchiridion 2): “Almighty God would in no wise permit evil to exist in His works, unless He were so almighty and so good as to produce good even from evil.” It would appear that it was on account of these two arguments to which we have just replied, that some were persuaded to consider corruptible things—e.g. casual and evil things—as removed from the care of divine providence.

What is interesting is that Aquinas uses the exact same illustration of the tyrant and the martyr, only this time to argue the almost opposite conclusion. Here Aquinas’s point is that there are some goods proper to the created order which are not possible except in the event of real (moral) evil. As Aquinas clearly implies here, there is a kind of good that would be “hindered” if God were not to allow its corresponding, occasioning evil, such that (we might presume) the total level of good in the universe would be less, and what is more, the good of creation would go unrealized, if God were not to allow for it. This, I submit, is not only a different claim, but an even contrary one to what he had argued in question 19, cited above. Based on this version of Aquinas, in other words, Manwë could indeed claim that it was “good for evil to have been.” But I still maintain that in saying this, neither Manwë nor Aquinas are being properly Thomistic.

The Good of Evil: Manwë’s Un-Thomism

When, in the Silmarillion, the herald of Manwë reports to him the bold and brazen words of Fëanor, we are told that

Manwë wept and bowed his head. But at that last word of Fëanor: that at the least the Noldor should do deeds to live in song for ever, he raised his head, as one that hears a voice far off, and he said: ‘So shall it be! Dear-bought those songs shall be accounted, and yet shall be well-bought. For the price could be no other. Thus even as Eru spoke to us shall beauty not before conceived be brought into Eä, and evil yet be good to have been.’ (“Of the Sun and Moon and the Hiding of Valinor”)

St. Thomas, however, would seem to prefer not put things in quite this way. In his article on “whether God wills evils” (ST I.19.9), the first objection he entertains reads as follows:

It seems that God wills evils. For every good that exists, God wills. But it is a good that evil should exist. For Augustine says (Enchiridion 95): “Although evil in so far as it is evil is not a good, yet it is good that not only good things should exist, but also evil things.” Therefore God wills evil things.

To this objection Aquinas replies thus:

Some have said that although God does not will evil, yet He wills that evil should be or be done, because, although evil is not a good, yet it is good that evil should be or be done. This they said because things evil in themselves are ordered to some good end; and this order they thought was expressed in the words “that evil should be or be done.” This, however, is not correct; since evil is not of itself ordered to good, but accidentally. For it is beside the intention of the sinner, that any good should follow from his sin; as it was beside the intention of tyrants that the patience of the martyrs should shine forth from all their persecutions. It cannot therefore be said that such an ordering to good is implied in the statement that it is a good thing that evil should be or be done, since nothing is judged of by that which appertains to it accidentally, but by that which belongs to it essentially.

As Aquinas would see it, accordingly, while it is true that not only good, but a unique form of good that otherwise would not have been possible, is brought about as a consequence of Fëanor’s rebellion, it does not follow from this, as Manwë implies, that it was therefore good for Fëanor’s “evil to have been” (indeed, for Aquinas, as for Tolkien generally, since evil has no being of itself but is a privation of being, it makes no sense to speak, literally, of evil “having been”). Manwë’s error, in other words, might be seen to involve the fallacy of division, of assuming, that is, that what is true of the whole (in this case, the goodness of Fëanor’s-evil-leading-to-good) must therefore also be true of its parts (the goodness of Fëanor’s-evil).

Entrepreneurship vs. Labor in Middle-earth

Tolkien’s episode on the Elvish lord Thingol’s hiring of the dwarves to build his cave-dwelling at Menegroth contains an implicit reflection on an application to the relationship between the role of the entrepreneur on the one hand and labor on the other:

Now Melian had much foresight, after the manner of the Maiar; and when the second age of the captivity of Melkor had passed, she counseled Thingol that the Peace of Arda would not last for ever. He took thought therefore how he should make for himself a kingly dwelling, and a place that should be strong, if evil were to awake again in Middle-earth; and he sought aid and counsel of the Dwarves of Belegost. They gave it willingly, for they were unwearied in those days and eager for new works; and though the Dwarves ever demanded a price for all that they did, whether with delight or with toil, at this time they held themselves paid. –Silmarillion, “Of the Sindar,”p. 92.

(For more posts on Tolkien’s social or political philosophy, see here.)

Tolkien on Weapons Proliferation

“And when Melkor saw that these lies were smouldering, and that pride and anger were awake among the Noldor, he spoke to them concerning weapons; and in that time the Noldor began the smithying of swords and axes and spears. Shields also they made displaying the tokens of many houses and kindreds that vied one with another; and these only they wore abroad, and of other weapons they did not speak, for each believed that he alone had received the warning.” Silm., “Of the Silmarils and the Unrest of the Noldor,” 69.

For other posts on Tolkien’s social or political philosophy, see 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)


Aulë as the anti-Prometheus

In his Birth of Tragedy, sect. 69, Nietzsche writes how “the youthful Goethe was able to reveal to us in the audacious words of his Prometheus:

Here I sit, forming men

in my own image,

a race to be like me,

to suffer, to weep,

to delight and to rejoice,

and to defy you,

as I do.             

Contrast this with Aulë’s very different account of his motives in his attempt at making “men”:

‘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 [Ilúvatar] hast caused to be. For it seemed to me that there is great room in Arda for many things that might rejoice in it, yet it is for the most part empty still, and dumb. And in my impatience I have fallen into folly. Yet the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee; and the child of little understanding that makes a play of the deeds of his father may do so without thought of mockery, but because he is the son of his father.’ 

In other words, Aulë’s response to Ilúvatar is: “I’m no Prometheus.”


The Means Justify the Ends: Ilúvatar’s Reverse Pragmatism

In the story “Of Aulë and Yavanna,” when Aulë’s ill-formed dwarves are graciously given “a life of their own” by Ilúvatar, Aulë asks Ilúvatar at that point to “bless [his] work and amend it.” Ilúvatar, however, does not do so, and his response accords, I think, with an actualist theology according to which what is possible depends on what is already actual, and in which “means” are more than the mere instrument to their respective “ends.”

But Ilúvatar spoke again and said: ‘Even as I gave being to the thoughts of the Ainur at the beginning of the World, so now I have taken up thy desire and given to it a place therein; but in no other other way will I amend thy handiwork, and as thou hast made it, so shall it be.

Aulë’s request, in other words, is that Ilúvatar should correct his sub-creations by effectively turning his Dwarves back into Elves or Men, the “Children of Ilúvatar,” thereby undoing his own sub-creative alterations and aberrations and restoring the original pristine plan of Ilúvatar. Remarkably, Ilúvatar declines to answer this request, and in general seems shockingly far less concerned for the dignity of his own “original” purposes than Aulë is. Far from requiring that Aulë’s “handiwork” be suppressed for the sake of his own original design, it is Ilúvatar who insists that it is his own design that must now be “altered” to accommodate Aulë’s sub-creative additions, including all their short-comings. As Ilúvatar puts it, he has “taken up [Aulë’s] desire and given to it a place” in his own, newly revised plan.

Of course, the sovereignty of Ilúvatar in The Silmarillion is such that there can’t be any real question about any of this taking Ilúvatar by surprise, or that this whole scene isn’t in some sense from the very beginning the outworking of an even greater, “master plan,” as we call it. As I was explaining to a friend recently, the fact that God sometimes has to resort to “plan B” in departure from plan A, is itself part of a more ultimate plan (call it “plan A-prime”). Yet far from this master plan involving a fatalistic achievement of a predestined end irrespective of the means, we see that the true master plan is one that achieves its end precisely in and through and therefore with its specific means, means which themselves might nevertheless involve a departure or corruption from a prior plan. Or put differently, the true master plan is one where the means themselves–of how a thing is achieved–is itself elevated virtually to the level of an end. Pragmatism is the philosophy that “the end justifies the means.” In Iluvatar we get a kind of reverse pragmatism, in which it is also the means that justifies the end, for some means are no mere instrument to a given end, but are the very meaning and exclusive possibility of certain ends.

“The Hollow of His Hand”: Tolkien and Peter Damian’s Dialectic of Divine Presence

The issue of divine transcendence and immanence is an important one, I have argued before, for understanding appreciating the theology of Tolkien’s fiction. I’m fond of citing Tolkien’s claim, made in reply to W.H. Auden’s review of The Lord of the Rings, that the central conflict of the story is “about God, and his sole right to divine honour” (Letters no. 183). How is it that a story–in which its author deliberately and studiously avoids ever explicitly or unequivocally referring to God–be basically “about God”? At least part of the answer, I contend, has to do with Tolkien’s assumed metaphysical theology of divine presence: God’s supreme transcendence over creation and creation history isn’t in tension with his immanence, but is precisely the basis for his profound and universal ubiquity. Tolkien’s story doesn’t need to refer to God because, after its own fashion, it is always referring to God. As Tolkien writes in another letter, quoting favorably from one of his agnostic readers, his achievement was to “create a world in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like light from an invisible lamp” (Letters no. 328).

It is in the above spirit that I want to list a few passages comparing Tolkien and the eleventh-century theologian Peter Damian (1007-1072) on the issue of divine presence. The first passage is from Manwë’s vision at the end of the chapter “Of Aulë and Yavanna” from The Silmarillion, in which Manwë sees “that all was upheld by the hand of Ilúvatatar; and the hand entered in, and from it came forth many wonders that had until then been hidden from him [Manwë] in the hearts of the Ainur.” In this image, Ilúvatatar’s “hand” symbolizes both his transcendence over creation, sustaining it from without, as well as his immanence within creation, his ability, that is, to enter into it and miraculously, supernaturally intervene on its behalf.

A second, series of passages comes from the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, the “Debate of Finrod and Andreth” from Morgoth’s Ring (vol. 10 in The History of Middle-earth). In it the mortal woman Andreth reports a “rumour” among those men of the “old hope” that someday the Creator “will himself enter into Arda [the Earth], and heal Men and all the Marring from the beginning to the end.” Andreth doesn’t believe the rumour, however, asking the Elf-lord Finrod,

‘…How could Eru enter into the thing that He has made, and than which He is beyond measure greater? Can the singer enter into his tale or the designer into his picture?’
‘He is already in it, as well as outside,’ said Finrod. ‘But indeed the “in-dwelling” and the “out-living” are not in the same mode.’
‘Truly,’ said Andreth. ‘So may Eru in that mode be present in Ea that proceeded from Him. But they speak of Eru Himself entering into Arda, and that is a thing wholly different. How could He the greater do this? Would it not shatter Arda, or
indeed all Ea? ‘
‘Ask me not,’ said Finrod. ‘These things are beyond the compass of the wisdom of the Eldar, or of the Valar maybe. But I doubt that our words may mislead us, and that when you say “greater” you think of the dimensions of Arda, in which the greater vessel may not be contained in the less.
‘But such words may not be used of the Measureless. If Eru wished to do this, I do not doubt that He would find a way, though I cannot foresee it. For, as it seems to me, even if He in Himself were to enter in, He must still remain also as He is: the Author without.’

In his commentary on the Athrabeth, Tolkien elaborates further:

Eru Himself must at some time come to oppose Melkor. But Eru could not enter wholly into the world and its history, which is, however great, only a finite Drama. He must as Author always remain ‘outside’ the Drama, even
though that Drama depends on His design and His will for its beginning and continuance, in every detail and moment. Finrod therefore thinks that He will, when He comes, have to be both ‘outside’ and inside; and so he glimpses the possibility of complexity or of distinctions in the nature of Eru, which nonetheless leaves Him ‘The One’.  

And finally, in his note on the above commentary, Tolkien writes how the above dialectic of divine transcendence and immanence is

actually already glimpsed in the Ainulindalë, in which reference is made to the ‘Flame Imperishable’. This 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.

To turn, finally, to Peter Damian, the similarities of note between the following discussion of divine omnipresence and the above passages by Tolkien are his image of the “divine hand” and his container-metaphor for describing God’s presence both within and without creation. Damian writes:

he remains immanent and transcendent in relation to the throne on which he presides, for, by measuring the heavens with a span and gathering the earth in the hollow of his hand he demonstrates that on every side he is external to all the things that he has created. Whatever, in fact, is enclosed inside remains external to the container; hence, relative to the throne on which he sits, he is considered to be within and above; by the hollow of the hand in which he is enclosed, however, it is indicated that he is external and beneath. And since he remains within all, external to all, above all, and beyond all things, he is superior through his power, inferior by reason of his support, external relative to his greatness, and internal because of his subtle penetration.” (Peter Damian: Letters 91-120, 358-9)

Qualifying “Splintered Light”

Metaphysics of the Music, part 13

In the previous post I mentioned that there were some qualifications I would make to Verlyn Flieger’s characterization of the tragic nature of the linguistic, perceptual, and social change embodied in Tolkien’s splintered-light imagery. The qualifications I have in mind are these. First, the main cause behind the succession of lights in Middle-earth in the first place, of course, is not due to any tragic flaw within the light itself, but owing to the aberrant interference of the evil of Melkor. Second, to the extent that in Tolkien’s mythical history there is a regrettable loss of light each time the previous source of light is replaced, I submit that this has less to do with some kind of metaphysical entropy at work in Tolkien’s world than it does with the gratuitous and sacrificial nature of Tolkien’s metaphysics. When the Valar Yavanna, for example, laments her inability to remake the Two Trees after Melkor and Ungoliant’s attack on them, she says that “[e]ven for those who are mightiest under Ilúvatar there is some work that they may accomplish once, and once only. The Light of the Trees I brought into being, and within Eä I can do so never again” (Silmarillion 78). However, as the later, parallel speech by Feänor, maker of the Silmarills, indicates, the reason for this inability has less to do with the tragic unrepeatability of certain deeds than it does with the inherent sacrifice and love that such deeds require of their agent. In sum, then, if there is a diminution of light in Middle-earth, the difficulty is not the tragic loss of being, but the self-sacrificing gift of being for which there is no assurance, at least in this lifetime, of it ever being received back again in full. Yet the promise is already given on the opening page of The Silmarillion that, however much our sub-creative desires or intentions may find themselves frustrated or unfulfilled in this life, at the glorious consummation of all things at “end of days,” the themes of all shall be once again “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.” Finally, a third consideration is the felix culpa dimension to the splintering of light addressed by Tolkien and discussed by Flieger, for without the possibility of the splintering of the light of language and human perception, there would be no place for the kind of sub-creative “refracting” of light that Tolkien celebrates in his “Mythopoeia” poem and which he practices in his own mythology and language formation. “Splintered light,” in other words, isn’t so much tragic as it is eucatastrophic. 

The good as the efficacy of evil

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 53

In the previous post on this subject I noted that Tolkien does not write in The Silmarillion that Ungoliant’s darkness “was not lack but a thing with being of its own,” but that it “seemed not lack but a thing with being of its own. The point of this observation, however, is not merely to demonstrate that Tolkien’s presentation of evil is consistently Augustinian or Boethian after all, but rather to raise the prospect that Tolkien is in fact doing something much more profound and interesting. Far from vacillating between the Augustinian and Manichaean theories of evil, as per Tom Shippey’s reading, what Tolkien’s fiction accomplishes is a confrontation of Manichaeism head-on, not by contradicting it outright, but more intriguingly, by conceding what even the pre-converted Augustine recognized as a certain superficial cogency to Manichaean dualism: evil at times at least seems to have its own independent power and being. As Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis put it in the context of his own rejection of Manichaeism in favor of the Augustinian privation theory, the Manichaean position does enjoy a certain “obvious prima facie plausibility…” (“Evil and God,” 22). I think the best way of understanding Tolkien, therefore, is to see him as conceding the appearance of Manichaean evil at the phenomenological level, all the while re-inscribing and accounting for this appearance in the only way it could be accounted for, namely in terms of an otherwise Augustinian and Thomistic metaphysics of creation. This “truth” of Manichaeism, moreover, is one that Thomas himself, after a fashion, defends in the Summa, when he argues that evil is no mere illusion, but has a real existence in things (ST 1.48.2), meaning that in an important respect evil is as real and present as the things in which it resides. This I also take to be the meaning behind Tolkien’s emphatic claim in his “Mythopoeia” poem that “Evil is,” for as the poem also assures us of the eye that will see Paradise,

Evil it will not see, for evil lies

not in God’s picture but in crooked eyes,

not in the source but in malicious choice,

and not in sound but in the tuneless voice. (Tree and Leaf 101)

As we have seen, for both Thomas and Tolkien, evil by itself is a “zero,” but therein lies the paradox: evil is never by itself. As Thomas puts it, “evil is the privation of good, and not pure negation” (malum privatio est boni, et non negatio pura, ST 1.48.5 ad 1). Evil, in other words, is not isolatable to that small segment of the thing which it negates, for its effects reverberate throughout and may even be said to be amplified by the being that remains. (Compare this with the devastation which follows from Melkor’s monstrous wolf, Carcharoth, swallowing the Silmaril jewel after he bit off the hand of Beren. Although the jewel, as a symbol of creative and sub-creative light and existence, is a thing beautiful and good in itself, inside the belly of Carcharoth, its powerful effect is only to magnify the madness, terror, and destruction of Carcharoth’s rampage: “Of all the terrors that came ever into Beleriand ere Angband’s fall the madness of Carcharoth was the most dreadful; for the power of the Silmaril was hidden within him.”)

As Mary Edwin DeCoursey aptly puts it in her 1948 dissertation on Thomas’s metaphysics of evil, the privation of evil “is more than simple non-being. It has definite, malevolent ties with reality; it is the absence that is conspicuous” (The Theory of Evil in the Metaphysics of St. Thomas and Its Contemporary Significance: A Dissertation, 34, also cited in Knight, Chesterton and Evil, 51). Herbert McCabe has also put the point well:
Now does this mean that badness is unreal? Certainly not. Things really are bad sometimes and this is because the absence of what is to be expected is just as real as a presence. If I have a hole in my sock, the hole is not anything at all, it is just an absence of wool or cotton or whatever, but it is a perfectly real hole in my sock. It would be absurd to say that holes in socks are unreal and illusory just because the hole isn’t made of anything and is purely an absence. Nothing in the wrong place can be just as real and just as important as something in the wrong place. If you inadvertently drive your car over a cliff you will have nothing to worry about; it is precisely the nothing that you will have to worry about. (God Matters, 29)
In this way, as John Milbank has put it, “it is possible for negativity to take a sublime quasi-heroic form” (“Evil: Darkness and Silence,” 21). Thus, it is not in spite of evil’s status as a privation that it seems to be so powerful, but precisely on account of it. To state it differently still, evil doesn’t need to be ontologically independent in order for it to be a potent force to reckon with, since it has the very potency of the goodness of being at its disposal. Evil’s status as a privation of being is not what mitigates its efficacy, therefore, but what establishes it: it is as a privation of being that evil is able to derive its power and potency from the being it labors to negate. Thomas explains that evil is never capable of “corrupting the whole good” (ST 1.48.4), yet this only means that evil always has some remaining good behind it, giving it its very ontological efficacy and metaphysical momentum.

Tolkien’s “phenomenology of evil”

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 52

The previous post made the claim that, in portraying the darkness and evil of Ungoliant as “more” than a mere “loss” or negation of light, but as a “thing with being of its own,” Tolkien might seem to challenge deliberately the Augustinian doctrine of evil as mere non-being in favor of the more dualistic and Manichaean account of evil. Before concluding, however, as Tom Shippey does, that Tolkien’s presentation of evil is ambiguous, incoherent, or contradictory—the result of an effort to make sense of distinctly modern forms of evil by means of quaint and antiquated premodern theories of evil—we should consider whether Tolkien might not have had a deeper purpose in view here.

To begin, we may observe in this episode from The Silmarillion that Tolkien does not in fact say that the darkness introduced by Ungoliant was a thing with being in itself, but rather that it “seemed not lack but a thing with being of its own.” In the passage cited earlier recording the Ainur’s first experience of darkness, moreover, Tolkien writes not that they had “perceived a new thing,” but that “it seemed to them that in that moment they perceived a new thing” (S 19, emphasis added). In the case of Ungoliant, the explanation the narrative gives for this “seeming” ontological independence of darkness and evil is fully consistent with Tolkien’s creation metaphysics, “for it was made by malice out of Light,” and thus it had “power to pierce the eye, and to enter heart and mind, and strangle the very will.” Ungoliant’s evil and darkness, in other words, are powerful precisely because they have as the source of their strength the goodness and light which they negate, and it is this borrowed strength that in turn provides evil and darkness with even its appearance of radical independence. Again, Tolkien aptly captures the very phenomenon John Milbank sees as being fully accounted for in the privation theory of evil as taught by St. Thomas, namely “an incremental piling up of small deficient preferences which gradually and ‘accidentally’ (as Aquinas argued) produce the monstrous” (Milbank, “Evil: Darkness and Silence,” in Being Reconciled, 21).

The Logic and Economy of Light

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 51

In a comment on my previous post, my friend Matt Peterson suggests that “darkness is not evil, but is good, but is, like snow, something that evil uncovers.” To this I think I would answer (as Matt himself often does), “It depends.” As usual, I find Aquinas helpful here, whom I might paraphrase as saying that evil isn’t simply “non-being”; rather, evil is non-being where there is supposed to be being (where the “supposed” indicates, ultimately, divine intention, purpose, desire, etc.). Similarly, we might say that in Tolkien, darkness by itself isn’t necessarily a metaphor or image of evil. The darkness following the Ainur’s Vision in the Ainulindale is a good case in point, where it serves an aesthetic function of setting in relief both the light of the Vision preceding it and the light of Eä to follow.

Darkness where there is supposed to be light, however, does seem to be straightforwardly associated with evil, and this, of course, is what we have with Ungoliant. The darkness of the Ainulidale is progressive and eschatological, preceding but also anticipating a later, greater disclosure of light. Ungoliant’s darkness, by contrast, is regressive, a deliberate turning back the clock of creation, moving from being to non-being. Both “darknesses” involve a privation of light, yet the intentions behind each are radically at variance: one is a privation, the other a deprivation. They both involve an absence of light, and yet they both retain (paradoxically) an ordering toward the light that they make absent, one positively, the other negatively. As such, neither darkness is truly light’s “other” or opposite, inasmuch as they are both dependent upon light for their very (non)being, identity, and definition. Darkness, in other words, belongs to the economy of light, just as evil, according to St. Augustine, as “disordered love,” does not establish its own economy but falls within–or involves a falling off, as the case may be–the economy of the good. So both forms of darkness represent not just light’s absence, but also its memory, the one recollecting light nostalgically and expectantly, the other resentfully and rebelliously. Darkness, in short, is a very peculiar form of absence in that it makes light present by way of its absence. It is this respect in which darkness-as-evil never achieves its desired independence, but remains forever parasitic on the light that it hates and strives to negate, that ultimately underlies the comic and indeed eucatastrophic metaphysics of Tolkien. Darkness-as-evil strives to negate light, yet in the end must be negated by it, making light darkness’s own night.

“The Darkness was More than Loss of Light”: the Case of Ungoliant

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 50

Even more poignant an example of evil’s nihilistic bent than Melkor, and perhaps the closest Tolkien could be said to come to a Manichaean affirmation of evil as an ontologically independent force, is the horrifying specter of the spider-demon Ungoliant, the former servant of Melkor and ancestor to Shelob of The Lord of the Rings. (For an excellent analysis of Shelob, incidentally, see Alison Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 71-80.)

Because the predominant imagery throughout the episode of Ungoliant is that of light and darkness, we should perhaps begin our analysis with the Ainulindalë’s account of how, after the Ainur’s Vision had been taken away, “in that moment they perceived a new thing, Darkness, which they had not known before, except in thought” (Silmarillion 19-20). Here at least,  we observe, Tolkien unequivocally identifies darkness’s status as a mere privation of light and hence its dependence upon the prior existence of light for its very potency. In this manner Tolkien aptly illustrates St. Thomas’s point in the Summa regarding the dependence of evil upon the good, not only for its “existence,” but also for its possibility of being known and experienced: as “darkness is known through light,” so evil “must be known from the notion of good” (unum oppositorum cognoscitur per alterum, sicut per lucem tenebra. Unde et quid sit malum, oportet ex ratione boni accipere, ST 1.48.1).

Later on in The Silmarillion, however, when the character of Ungoliant is first introduced, Tolkien almost seems to contradict this relationship of dependence. Her existence is described as one of “taking all things to herself to feed her emptiness” and of hiding in a cleft in the mountain where she “sucked up all light that she could find, and spun it forth again in dark nets of strangling gloom, until no light more could come to her abode; and she was famished” (Silmarillion 73). When solicited by Melkor to aid him in his assault on Valinor, home of the Valar, she veils the two of them in “a cloak of darkness” which was nothing less than “an Unlight, in which things seemed to be no more, and which eyes could not pierce, for it was void” (74). More perplexing still is Tolkien’s account of the aftermath of Melkor and Ungoliant’s attack on the Two Trees of Valinor, at that time the two primary sources of light in the world: “The Light failed; but the Darkness that followed was more than loss of light. In that hour was made a Darkness that seemed not lack but a thing with being of its own: for it was indeed made by malice out of Light, and it had power to pierce the eye, and to enter heart and mind, and strangle the very will” (76).

In portraying the darkness and evil of Ungoliant as “more” than a mere “loss” or negation of light, but as a “thing with being of its own,” Tolkien would appear to challenge deliberately the Augustinian doctrine of evil as mere non-being in favor of the more dualistic and Manichaean account of evil. Indeed, the whole scene, especially with its emphasis on the imagery of light and darkness, poignantly captures the basic metaphysical drama defined by the Manichees, who believed that evil “came from an invasion of the good—the ‘Kingdom of Light’—by a hostile force of evil, equal in power, eternal, totally separate—the ‘Kingdom of Darkness’” (Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 47). As Tolkien, moreover, bracingly puts it in his “Mythopoeia” poem written to C.S. Lewis, “of Evil this / alone is deadly certain: Evil is” (Tree and Leaf 99).

(To be continued…….)

“How Awful Goodness Is”: Milton’s Satan and Tolkien’s Saruman

Saruman the Gollum, part 3

In a previous post I compared in passing Saruman’s mimetic rivalry with Radagast (and Gandalf) to Satan’s encounter with the angel Zephon in book four of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The passage, however, is too good not to republish in full here, as Zephon’s humble yet righteous put-down of Satan has got to be one of the best in the history of western literature. Apropos my comparison of Saruman to Gollum, it might also be worth noting that, in the following scene, Satan has just been caught, in the form of a toad, whispering into the ear of the sleeping Eve. (And Saruman, we may recall, will corrupt Theoden in the form, not of a toad exactly, but of a “Wormtongue,” whispering, as Gandalf later puts it, “poison … for Théoden’s ears.”) Even after he has been forcibly transformed back into his normal form, there is a great deal of irony and, I would submit, humor in Zephon’s continued difficulty in recognizing who Satan is.

Know ye not then said SATAN, filld with scorn,
Know ye not me? ye knew me once no mate
For you, there sitting where ye durst not soare;
Not to know mee argues your selves unknown,
The lowest of your throng; or if ye know,
Why ask ye, and superfluous begin
Your message, like to end as much in vain?
To whom thus ZEPHON, answering scorn with scorn.
Think not, revolted Spirit, thy shape the same,
Or undiminisht brightness, to be known
As when thou stoodst in Heav’n upright and pure;
That Glorie then, when thou no more wast good,
Departed from thee, and thou resembl’st now
Thy sin and place of doom obscure and foule.
But come, for thou, be sure, shalt give account
To him who sent us, whose charge is to keep
This place inviolable, and these from harm.

So spake the Cherube, and his grave rebuke
Severe in youthful beautie, added grace
Invincible: abasht the Devil stood,
And felt how awful goodness is, and saw
Vertue in her shape how lovly, saw, and pin’d
His loss; but chiefly to find here observd
His lustre visibly impar’d; yet seemd
Undaunted. If I must contend, said he,
Best with the best, the Sender not the sent,
Or all at once; more glorie will be wonn,
Or less be lost. Thy fear, said ZEPHON bold,
Will save us trial what the least can doe
Single against thee wicked, and thence weak.

I won’t develop these at any length, but the above scene calls to mind a number of related passages from Tolkien. The linking elements throughout the following episodes  are (1) an encounter or conflict between a hierarchically lower yet more virtuous being and a higher yet morally compromised being, (2) the rebuke of some formally great being and the latter’s resentful shame, (3) some commentary on the futility and self-dehumanization of the formally great being’s rebellion, or (4) some combination of the above. Without suggesting that Tolkien’s politics were those of Milton, so far as Paradise Lost itself is concerned, the following passages harmonize with Milton’s observations into the ultimately and tragically pathetic destiny of rebellion (however heroic, proud, and noble may be its beginnings) and, in contrast with it, the humble “awfulness” of an obedient goodness.

1. Iluvatar’s rebuke and Melkor’s humiliation after the contest of the Music in the Ainulindale:

Then Ilúvatar spoke, and he said: ‘Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.’

    Then the Ainur were afraid, and they did not yet comprehend the words that were said to them; and Melkor was filled with shame, of which came secret anger. 

2.   Fëanor’s humiliating and contemptuous dismissal of Morgoth from Formenos:

he came to Formenos, and spoke with Fëanor before his doors. Friendship he feigned with cunning argument, urging him to his former thought of flight from the trammels of the Valar… Fëanor looked upon Melkor with eyes that burned through his fair semblance and pierced the cloaks of his mind, perceiving there his fierce lust for the Silmarils. Then hate overcame Fëanor’s fear, and he cursed Melkor and bade him be gone, saying: ‘Get thee gone from my gate, thou jail-crow of Mandos!’ And he shut the doors of his house in the face of the mightiest of all the dwellers in Eä.
    Then Melkor departed in shame, for he was himself in peril, and he saw not his time yet for revenge; but his heart was black with anger. (Silmarillion, “Of the Silmarils and the Unrest of the Noldor”) 

3. Merry and Aragorn’s discussion of Saruman’s former greatness in comparison to his later degradation:

‘They [the Ents] pushed, pulled, tore, shook, and hammered; and clang-bang, crash-crack, in five minutes they had these huge gates just lying in ruin; and some were already beginning to eat into the walls, like rabbits in a sand-pit. I don’t know what Saruman thought was happening; but anyway he did not know how to deal with it. His wizardry may have been falling off lately, of course; but anyway I think he has not much grit, not much plain courage alone in a tight place without a lot of slaves and machines and things, if you know what I mean. Very different from old Gandalf. I wonder if his fame was not all along mainly due to his cleverness in settling at Isengard.’

            ‘No,’ said Aragorn. ‘Once he was as great as his fame made him. His knowledge was deep, his thought was subtle, and his hands marvellously skilled; and he had a power over the minds of others. The wise he could persuade, and the smaller folk he could daunt. That power he certainly still keeps. There are not many in Middle-earth that I should say were safe, if they were left alone to talk with him, even now when he has suffered a defeat. Gandalf, Elrond, and Galadriel, perhaps, now that his wickedness has been laid bare, but very few others.’ (The Two Towers, “Flotsam and Jetsam”)

4.  Saruman’s attempt to parley with Theoden, Theoden’s remonstration, and Saruman’s response:

‘I say, Theoden King: shall we have peace and friendship, you and I? It is ours to command.’

      ‘We will have peace,’ said Theoden at last thickly and with an effort…. Yes, we will have peace,’ he said, now in a clear voice, ‘we will have peace, when you and all your works have perished – and the works of your dark master to whom you would deliver us. You are a liar, Saruman, and a corrupter of men’s hearts. You hold out your hand to me, and I perceive only a finger of the claw of Mordor. Cruel and cold! Even if your war on me was just as it was not, for were you ten times as wise you would have no right to rule me and mine for your own profit as you desired – even so, what will you say of your torches in Westfold and the children that lie dead there? And they hewed Hama’s body before the gates of the Hornburg, after he was dead. When you hang from a gibbet at your window for the sport of your own crows, I will have peace with you and Orthanc. So much for the House of Eorl. A lesser son of great sires am I, but I do not need to lick your fingers. Turn elsewhither. But I fear your voice has lost its charm.’

    The Riders gazed up at Theoden like men startled out of a dream. Harsh as an old raven’s their master’s voice sounded in their ears after the music of Saruman. But Saruman for a while was beside himself with wrath. He leaned over the rail as if he would smite the King with his staff. To some suddenly it seemed that they saw a snake coiling itself to strike.
     ‘Gibbets and crows!’ he hissed, and they shuddered at the hideous change. ‘Dotard! What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among the dogs? Too long have they escaped the gibbet themselves. But the noose comes, slow in the drawing, tight and hard in the end. Hang if you will!’ Now his voice changed, as he slowly mastered himself. ‘I know not why I have had the patience to speak to you. For I need you not, nor your little band of gallopers, as swift to fly as to advance, Theoden Horsemaster. Long ago I offered you a state beyond your merit and your wit. I have offered it again, so that those whom you mislead may clearly see the choice of roads. You give me brag and abuse. So be it. Go back to your huts!

5. Saruman’s attempt to parley with Gandalf, and Gandalf’s mockery and control over Saruman (note once again Saruman’s Gollum-speak–“so condescending, and so very kind”–as well as Gandalf’s description of Saruman’s Gollum-like condition–“But you choose to stay and gnaw the ends of your old plots”):  

‘But you, Gandalf! For you at least I am grieved, feeling for your shame. How comes it that you can endure such company? For you are proud, Gandalf – and not without reason, having a noble mind and eyes that look both deep and far. Even now will you not listen to my counsel?’… Are we not both members of a high and ancient order, most excellent in Middle-earth? Our friendship would profit us both alike. Much we could still accomplish together, to heal the disorders of the world. Let us understand one another, and dismiss from thought these lesser folk! Let them wait on our decisions! For the common good I am willing to redress the past, and to receive you. Will you not consult with me? Will you not come up?’

       ….Then Gandalf laughed. The fantasy vanished like a puff of smoke. ‘Saruman, Saruman!’ said Gandalf still laughing. ‘Saruman, you missed your path in life. You should have been the king’s jester and earned your bread, and stripes too, by mimicking his counsellors. Ah me!’ he paused, getting the better of his mirth. ‘Understand one another? I fear I am beyond your comprehension. But you, Saruman, I understand now too well…. Nay, I do not think I will come up. But listen, Saruman, for the last time! Will you not come down? Isengard has proved less strong than your hope and fancy made it. So may other things in which you still have trust. Would it not be well to leave it for a while? To turn to new things, perhaps? Think well, Saruman! Will you not come down?’

        A shadow passed over Saruman’s face; then it went deathly white. Before he could conceal it, they saw through the mask the anguish of a mind in doubt, loathing to stay and dreading to leave its refuge. For a second he hesitated, and no one breathed. Then he spoke, and his voice was shrill and cold. Pride and hate were conquering him.

        ‘Will I come down?’ he mocked. ‘Does an unarmed man come down to speak with robbers out of doors? I can hear you well enough here. I am no fool, and I do not trust you, Gandalf. They do not stand openly on my stairs, but I know where the wild wood-demons are lurking, at your command.’

         ‘The treacherous are ever distrustful,’ answered Gandalf wearily. ‘But you need not fear for your skin. I do not wish to kill you, or hurt you, as you would know, if you really understood me. And I have the power to protect you. I am giving you a last chance. You can leave Orthanc, free – if you choose.’

      ‘That sounds well,’ sneered Saruman. ‘Very much in the manner of Gandalf the Grey: so condescending, and so very kind…. But why should I wish to leave?…’

      ‘Reasons for leaving you can see from your windows,’ answered Gandalf. ‘…But you will first surrender to me the Key of Orthanc, and your staff. They shall be pledges of your conduct, to be returned later, if you merit them.’

       Saruman’s face grew livid, twisted with rage, and a red light was kindled in his eyes. He laughed wildly. ‘Later!’ he cried, and his voice rose to a scream. ‘Later! Yes, when you also have the Keys of Barad-dur itself, I suppose; and the crowns of seven kings, and the rods of the Five Wizards, and have purchased yourself a pair of boots many sizes larger than those that you wear now. A modest plan. Hardly one in which my help is needed! I have other things to do. Do not be a fool. If you wish to treat with me, while you have a chance, go away, and come back when you are sober! And leave behind these cut-throats and small rag-tag that dangle at your tail! Good day!’ He turned and left the balcony.

      ‘Come back, Saruman!’ said Gandalf in a commanding voice. To the amazement of the others, Saruman turned again, and as if dragged against his will, he came slowly back to the iron rail, leaning on it, breathing hard. His face was lined and shrunken. His hand clutched his heavy black staff like a claw. ‘I did not give you leave to go,’ said Gandalf sternly. ‘I have not finished. You have become a fool, Saruman, and yet pitiable. You might still have turned away from folly and evil, and have been of service. But you choose to stay and gnaw the ends of your old plots…. Saruman!’ he cried, and his voice grew in power and authority. ‘Behold, I am not Gandalf the Grey, whom you betrayed. I am Gandalf the White, who has returned from death. You have no colour now, and I cast you from the order and from the Council.’ He raised his hand, and spoke slowly in a clear cold voice. ‘Saruman, your staff is broken.’ There was a crack, and the staff split asunder in Saruman’s hand, and the head of it fell down at Gandalf’s feet. ‘Go!’ said Gandalf. With a cry Saruman fell back and crawled away. (The Two Towers, “The Voice of Saruman”) 

6. The Fellowship’s encounter with Saruman while returning to Rivendell:

As they came out again into the open country at sundown they overtook an old man leaning on a staff, and he was clothed in rags of grey or dirty white, and at his heels went another beggar, slouching and whining. ‘Well Saruman!’ said Gandalf. ‘Where are you going?’

          ‘What is that to you?’ he answered. ‘Will you still order my goings, and are you not content with my ruin?’

         ‘You know the answers,’ said Gandalf, ‘no and no. But in any case the time of my labours now draws to an end. The King has taken on the burden. If you had waited at Orthanc, you would have seen him, and he would have shown you wisdom and mercy.’

     ‘Then all the more reason to have left sooner,’ said Saruman, ‘for I desire neither of him. Indeed if you wish for an answer to your first question, I am seeking a way out of his realm.’

       ‘Then once more you are going the wrong way,’ said Gandalf, ‘and I see no hope in your journey. But will you scorn our help? For we offer it to you.’

      ‘To me?’ said Saruman. ‘Nay, pray do not smile at me! I prefer your frowns. And as for the Lady here, I do not trust her: she always hated me, and schemed for your part. I do not doubt that she has brought you this way to have the pleasure of gloating over my poverty. Had I been warned of your pursuit, I would have denied you the pleasure.’

      ‘Saruman,’ said Galadriel, ‘we have other errands and other cares that seem to us more urgent than hunting for you. Say rather that you are overtaken by good fortune; for now you have a last chance.’

       ‘If it be truly the last, I am glad,’ said Saruman, ‘for I shall be spared the trouble of refusing it again. All my hopes are ruined, but I would not share yours. If you have any.’

     For a moment his eyes kindled. ‘Go!’ he said. ‘I did not spend long study on these matters for naught. You have doomed yourselves, and you know it. And it will afford me some comfort as I wander to think that you pulled down your own house when you destroyed mine. And now, what ship will bear you back across so wide a sea?’ he mocked. ‘It will be a grey ship, and full of ghosts.’ He laughed, but his voice was cracked and hideous…. As the wretched pair passed by the company they came to the hobbits, and Saruman stopped and stared at them; but they looked at him with pity.

        ‘So you have come to gloat too, have you, my urchins?’ he said. ‘You don’t care what a beggar lacks, do you? For you have all you want, food and fine clothes, and the best weed for your pipes. Oh yes, I know! I know where it comes from. You would not give a pipeful to a beggar, would you?’

      ‘I would, if I had any,’ said Frodo.

      ‘You can have what I have got left,’ said Merry, ‘if you will wait a moment.’ He got down and searched in the bag at his saddle. Then he handed to Saruman a leather pouch. ‘Take what there is,’ he said. ‘You are welcome to it; it came from the flotsam of Isengard.’

       ‘Mine, mine, yes and dearly bought!’ cried Saruman, clutching at the pouch. ‘This is only a repayment in token; for you took more, I’ll be bound. Still, a beggar must be grateful, if a thief returns him even a morsel of his own. Well, it will serve you right when you come home, if you find things less good in the Southfarthing than you would like. Long may your land be short of leaf!’

      ‘Thank you!’ said Merry. ‘In that case I will have my pouch back, which is not yours and has journeyed far with me. Wrap the weed in a rag of your own.’ ‘One thief deserves another,’ said Saruman, and turned his back on Merry, and kicked Wormtongue, and went away towards the wood. (The Return of the King, “Many Partings” 

7. Finally, Frodo’s encounter with Saruman-cum-Sharkey in the Shire:

‘[A]nd so I am able to welcome you home.’ There standing at the door was Saruman himself, looking well-fed and well-pleased; his eyes gleamed with malice and amusement.

         A sudden light broke on Frodo. ‘Sharkey!’ he cried.

        Saruman laughed. ‘So you have heard the name, have you? All my people used to call me that in Isengard, I believe. A sign of affection, possibly. But evidently you did not expect to see me here.’

      ‘I did not,’ said Frodo. ‘But I might have guessed. A little mischief in a mean way: Gandalf warned me that you were still capable of it.

        ‘Quite capable,’ said Saruman, ‘and more than a little. You made me laugh, you hobbit-lordlings, riding along with all those great people so secure and so pleased with your little selves. You thought you had done very well out of it all, and could now just amble back and have a nice quiet time in the country. Saruman’s home could be all wrecked, and he could be turned out, but no one could touch yours. Oh no! Gandalf would look after your affairs.’

       Saruman laughed again. ‘Not he! When his tools have done their task he drops them. But you must go dangling after him, dawdling and talking, and riding round twice as far as you needed. “Well,” thought I, “if they’re such fools, I will get ahead of them and teach them a lesson. One ill turn deserves another.” It would have been a sharper lesson, if only you had given me a little more time and more Men. Still I have already done much that you will find it hard to mend or undo in your lives. And it will be pleasant to think of that and set it against my injuries.’

         ‘Well, if that is what you find pleasure in,’ said Frodo, ‘I pity you. It will be a pleasure of memory only, I fear. Go at once and never return!’

       The hobbits of the villages had seen Saruman come out of one of the huts, and at once they came crowding up to the door of Bag End. When they heard Frodo’s command, they murmured angrily:

        ‘Don’t let him go! Kill him! He’s a villain and a murderer. Kill him!’

        Saruman looked round at their hostile faces and smiled. ‘Kill him!’ he mocked. ‘Kill him, if you think there are enough of you, my brave hobbits!’ He drew himself up and stared at them darkly with his black eyes. ‘But do not think that when I lost all my goods I lost all my power! Whoever strikes me shall be accursed. And if my blood stains the Shire, it shall wither and never again be healed.’

       The hobbits recoiled. But Frodo said: ‘Do not believe him! He has lost all power, save his voice that can still daunt you and deceive you, if you let it. But I will not have him slain. It is useless to meet revenge with revenge: it will heal nothing. Go, Saruman, by the speediest way!’…..

        Saruman turned to go, and Wormtongue shuffled after him. But even as Saruman passed close to Frodo a knife flashed in his hand, and he stabbed swiftly. The blade turned on the hidden mail-coat and snapped. A dozen hobbits, led by Sam, leaped forward with a cry and flung the villain to the ground. Sam drew his sword.

        ‘No, Sam!’ said Frodo. ‘Do not kill him even now. For he has not hurt me. And in any case I do not wish him to be slain in this evil mood. He was great once, of a noble kind that we should not dare to raise our hands against. He is fallen, and his cure is beyond us; but I would still spare him, in the hope that he may find it.’

        Saruman rose to his feet, and stared at Frodo. There was a strange look in his eyes of mingled wonder and respect and hatred. ‘You have grown, Halfling,’ he said. ‘Yes, you have grown very much. You are wise, and cruel. You have robbed my revenge of sweetness, and now I must go hence in bitterness, in debt to your mercy. I hate it and you!….’ (Return of the King, “The Scouring of the Shire”)  

“Day Shall Come Again!”: The Book of Samuel in “The Silmarillion”

One of my interests is in the presence not just of general Christian and theological themes in Tolkien’s fiction, but of specifically biblical types and patterns in particular. As I am fond of saying to Christians who have enjoyed The Lord of the Rings but not yet discovered (or at least not yet been able to appreciate) the riches of The Silmarillion, if you think of the former as Tolkien’s “New Testament,” the latter is his “Old Testament”: while you can certainly profit knowing the one without the other, you won’t be able to fully understand it.

I’m reading through the Book of Samuel at the moment and I’m reminded of one such incidental parallel that I’ve observed for a while but whose relevance (if any) has escaped me. When Jonathan is killed along with his father, King Saul, in battle with the Philistines, David composes a lament for his slain friend, the so-called “Song of the Bow” (2 Sam. 1:17-27). In like manner, and in one of the most tragically poignant scenes in The Silmarillion, after mistakenly killing his friend Beleg Strongbow, Túrin Turumbar composes in his honor and memory the Laer Cú Beleg, the “Song of the Great Bow.”

The value of this comparison, I suspect, lies in the other connections between The Silmarillion and the Book of Samuel it may lead us to. Although Jonathan is not killed by David as Beleg is by Túrin, earlier in the story Jonathan is nearly killed by his father on David’s behalf when he foils Saul’s plot to assassinate David (1 Sam. 20). And when Jonathan finally is killed, it is by the Philistines with whom David had earlier entered into an alliance (1 Sam. 27, 29), and with whom David had also purposed to join in their war against Israel.

Related to this is the parallel irony involved in the swords that Túrin and David both wield. Doubtlessly the most famous sword in the Bible is the one that David took from Goliath when he cut off the Philistine Giant’s head. When he later requests of the priests of Nob a sword and they offer him Goliath’s for his own use (and for which assistance they are afterward killed by Saul), David responds by saying that “There is none like that; give it me” (1 Sam. 21:9). Again, David doesn’t kill Jonathan, but in bearing a Philistine sword, there is a sense in which the same sword that kills Jonathan is also the one that David wields. In similar manner, when King Thingol offers Beleg any sword of his choosing to help him in his service to and protection of Túrin, Beleg asks for Anglachel, “a sword of great worth because it was made of iron that fell from heaven as a blazing star; it would cleave all earth-delved iron,” and later described as a weapon that “was heavy and strong and had a great power” and “a strange blade, and unlike any that [has been] seen in Middle-earth.” Yet as Melian warns Beleg, it is also a weapon with both a dubious history and an uncertain future: ” ‘There is malice in this sword. The dark heart of the smith still dwells in it. It will not love the hand it serves; neither will it abide with you long.’ ‘Nonetheless I will wield it while I may,’ said Beleg.” Even after Melian’s prophecy proves true and the sword betrays its owner to his death, Túrin is unwilling to cast aside the accursed, black blade, using it later to slay (as no other sword could) the dragon Glaurung, and at last to take even his own troubled life.

Other, more tangential but still interesting connections include Beleg’s chancing upon and rescue of Gwindor, an escapee from Angband, while pursuing the Orcs who had taken Túrin captive, a scene somewhat reminiscent of David and company’s rescue of the Egyptian slave while pursuing the Amalekites who had taken their wives and children captive in their raid on Ziklag. Beleg, we might note here, is also a secondary character in the Beren-Luthien-Thingol saga, which involves a replay of the David-Michal-Saul episode from 1 Sam. 18: father despises daughter’s would-be-suitor and tries (unsuccessfully) to kill him by giving him a seemingly impossible and fatal mission as a bride-price.

Knowing something of the origin and prior history of Anglachel also serves to reinforce the David-Túrin connection. As alluded to in Melian’s warning, the sword had been forged by Eöl the dark Elf who had  captured and seduced Aredhel of Gondolin, and from which union Maeglin was begotten. When Maeglin and Aredhel finally escape from Eöl, Maeglin steals his father’s sword, taking it with them to Gondolin, whither Eöl also follows them and, like Saul (but compare also Denethor), after insulting his wife, tried to kill his own son. It is also while in Gondolin that Maeglin falls in love with his cousin Idril, but “without hope,” for, as it is told,

[t]he Eldar wedded not with kin so near, nor ever before had any desired to do so. And however that might be, Idril loved Maeglin not at all; and knowing his thought of her she loved him the less. For it seemed to her a thing strange and crooked in him, as indeed the Eldar ever since have deemed it: an evil fruit of the Kinslaying, whereby the shadow of the curse of Mandos fell upon the last hope of the Noldor. But as the years passed still Maeglin watched Idril, and waited, and his love turned to darkness in his heart. And he sought the more to have his will in other matters, shirking no toil or burden, if he might thereby have power.

It is due in part to his frustrated, incestuous, and in any case unrequited love for Idril that leads Maeglin to betray his uncle and adopted father Turgon in an attempt to usurp his throne.

Here it is possible and reasonable to see Tolkien interweaving or overlapping a number of episodes from the Book of Samuel. In particular I have in mind David’s seduction and impregnation of Bathsheba and conspiracy to kill her husband Uriah the Hittite, sins which bring the Lord’s curse that the sword would “never depart from thine house” (2 Sam. 10-11). This prophecy first begins to be filled in David’s son Amnon’s “crooked” love for and rape of his half-sister Tamar, his subsequent murder by his half-brother Absalom, and Absalom’s later usurpation of David’s throne. In the story of David, or so it would seem, we have an important biblical antecedent not only for the doom laid upon the Children of Húrin by Morgoth, but also of the Noldor’s slaying of their kin at Alqualondë: the curse laid upon the father will be visited upon his children.

Yet the story of David in the Bible is not ultimately about the curse as it is about Yahweh’s ability to bring about blessing and lasting faithfulness despite the curse and the unfaithfulness of his people. And perhaps it is here we might find some broader significance to the above parallels. David is told that the sword will not depart from his house, but he is also told that Yahweh himself will build David a house that will know no end. In like manner, as relentlessly tragic as Túrin’s story is, it is for all that a story contextualized by an overriding promise of hope. In the Fifth Battle between the Elves and Morgoth, the “Nirnaeth Arnoediad” or battle of “Unnumbered Tears,” when Turgon unexpectedly leads his army from Gondolin to join the forces against Morgoth, his brother Fingon shouts aloud, “Utúlie’n aurë! Aiya Eldalië ar Atanatári, utúlie’n aurë! The day has come!,” to which “all those who heard his great voice echo in the hills answered crying: ‘Auta i lómë! The night is passing!'” This particular hope, however, proves precipitous: betrayed by the Men of Uldor the Accursed, the allied forces of Men and Elves suffer a great defeat. Yet even as Turgon predicts in defeat that “Not long now can Gondolin be hidden, and being discovered it must fall,” the dying Huor is able to reply:

“Yet if it stands but a little while, then out of your house shall come the hope of Elves and Men. This I say to you, lord, with the eyes of death: though we part here for ever, and I shall not look on your white walls again, from you and from me a new star shall arise. Farewell!”

Like David, Turgon’s “house” will fall, yet “out of [his] house shall come the hope of Elves and Men,” a hope that receives its most immediate fulfillment in the union of Huor’s son Tuor and Turgon’s daughter Idril and their son Eärendil, but more remotely in their distant descendant (and one Tolkien’s most christological and hence davidic characters), Aragorn. Thus, while it may have proved too soon for Fingon naively and definitively to declare that “Day has come,” and to be answered that “Night is passing,” it is Húrin’s (repeated) expression of indomitable hope in the face of imminent and certain defeat that is given the “last word,” as it were: “each time that he slew Húrin cried: ‘Aurë entuluva! Day shall come again!’ Seventy times he uttered that cry; but they took him at last alive…” (Thanks to this lecture by Corey “The Tolkien Professor” Olsen for drawing my attention to these passages).

To return to the story of Beleg and Túrin, although neither of them witness the dawn of the “Day” spoken of by Húrin, their friendship, as tragic as it may be, nevertheless foreshadows not only the prophesied union of Elf and Man through the line of Tuor and Idril, but another crucial dimension of Tolkien’s eschatology as well, namely the Elves’ eventual succession and supplanting by Men in the historical-redemptive purposes of Ilúvatar to restore all of Arda. In the noble Elf Beleg’s sacrificial service and loyalty to Túrin, after all, we have a type of Jonathan’s own great love, humility, and willing acquiescence as the crown-prince to his divinely destined replacement by David in the line to the throne (1 Sam. 23:17). Fittingly, it is Finrod–whose own profound service to Beren to the point of death may have helped inspire Beleg’s similar service to Túrin–that Tolkien gives the fullest expression of this biblical, Johannine philosophy of “He must increase, and I must decrease.” In the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth–a dialogue which Tolkien describes in terms of “an attempt of a generous Elvish mind to fathom the relations of Elves and Men, and the part they were designed to play in what he would have called the Oienkarme Eruo (The One’s perpetual production), which might be rendered by ‘God’s management of the Drama’ “–the conversation reaches to its zenith when Finrod tells the mortal Andreth:

‘This then, I propound, was the errand of Men, not the followers, but the heirs and fulfillers of all: to heal the Marring of Arda, already foreshadowed before their devising; and to do more, as agents of the magnificence of Eru: to enlarge the Music and surpass the Vision of the World!’… I beheld as a vision Arda Remade; and there the Eldar completed but not ended could abide in the present for ever, and there walk, maybe, with the Children of Men, their deliverers, and sing to them such songs as, even in the Bliss beyond bliss, should make the green valleys ring and the everlasting mountain-tops to throb like harps…. Yes, Wise-woman, maybe it was ordained that we Quendi, and ye Atani, ere the world grows old, should meet and bring news one to another, and so we should learn of the Hope from you: ordained, indeed, that thou and I, Andreth, should sit here and speak together, across the gulf that divides our kindreds, so that while the Shadow still broods in the North we should not be wholly afraid.’ (Morgoth’s Ring)

In conclusion, then, while nothing can or should take away the inherently tragic character of the tale of Túrin Turambar turun ambartanen, the “master of doom by doom mastered,” it’s apparent parallels with the biblical Book of Samuel may nonetheless remind us that it is not an instance of “tragedy for its own sake,” but rather of that kind of “dyscatastrophe” that Tolkien says is not so much denied as it is presupposed by the possibility of eucatastrophe. The latter, he says at the end of his essay “On Fairy-Stories,”  “does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” This, we might say, is the “Gospel according to Túrin.”

Evil and “Preservation”: The Fainéance of the Valar

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 23

I’ve said that the first instance or occasion of evil in Tolkien’s fictional world is when the created spirit Melkor presumes to discover and exercise for himself the exclusively divine power of creation, and that it is as a consequence of this desire that we see the natural and proper power of sub-creation first become corrupted in a creature. One peculiar manifestation of the corruption of the sub-creative desire in Tolkien’s stories involves not only the sub-creation of things in overt conflict with the Creator and what he has made, but also the well-meaning but ill-judged attempt at “preserving” or “possessing” the things around us and produced by us in a way that is contrary to their ultimate nature and divine purpose. This motive is operative in the otherwise unfallen Valar, for example, when instead of pursuing their primary task after first giving shape to the world, namely the continued resistance of Melkor and the governance of the world according to the Music for the benefit of the Children of Ilúvatar, they fell rather into the practice of trying to preserve just one, isolated area of the world, Valinor, against the onslaughts of Melkor, but also against the otherwise natural processes of time and change themselves. Thus, Tolkien describes Manwë’s “own inherent fault (though not sin)” as a matter of having become “engrossed… in amendment, healing, re-ordering—even ‘keeping the status quo’—to the loss of all creative power and even to weakness in dealing with difficult and perilous situations” (Morgoth’s Ring 392). (Tolkien’s distinction between an “inherent fault” that has not yet become a “sin” might be compared to the important distinction Thomas draws in De Malo 1.3, where he argues that evil begins with a defect in the will that is voluntary but not yet morally culpable. For an explanation of Thomas’s argument and its historic significance in the debate over the question of the causality of evil, see Steel, “Does Evil Have a Cause?” 260-262.) Addressing the Valar more generally, Tolkien says of the Two Trees of Valinor that one of their objects

was the healing of the hurts of Melkor, but this could easily have a selfish aspect: the staying of history—not going on with the Tale. This effect it had on the Valar. They became more and more enamoured of Valinor, and went there more often and stayed there longer. Middle-earth was left too little tended, and too little protected against Melkor. (377, emphasis original)

In a letter Tolkien refers to the “fainéance” (i.e., inactivity, idleness, or indolence) of the Valar (Letters 202). Preoccupied with mere preservation, the Valar fail to apply and so lose the important sub-creative skill of adaptation, of adjusting to the conditions of growth, change, and hence of growing into maturity, qualities that are necessary in a material world that is ultimately not of one’s own creating.

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.

“Every Creature Must Have Some Weakness”: Tolkien’s Hierarchy of Evil

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 14

The first point of comparison I want to make between Tolkien’s and St. Thomas’s respective doctrines of evil, one that will furnish us with the organizing principle for much of the analysis to follow, has to do with the hierarchical nature of reality as a whole, a point that St. Thomas himself raises toward the beginning of his discussion of evil in the Summa. For St. Thomas the hierarchical structure of creation is necessitated by the fact that God’s only “motive” (so to speak) in creating is to communicate his own goodness, meaning that the created order, if it is at all to emulate adequately God’s goodness towards creation, must itself consist in a hierarchy of diverse and unequal beings. Only in this way can the divine drama of a higher reality ministering to and bringing to perfection a lower order of being be carried out on a finite scale. It is much this same drama that Tolkien illustrates through the Valar Aulë who, impatient with the relative emptiness and lack of diversity and inequality at that point in the world, attempts to make the Dwarves, and who justifies his action by saying that he merely desired beings upon whom he could exercise something of Ilúvatar’s own fatherly care. As I have also suggested recently, one way of viewing Tolkien’s invented races, the Elves and the Valar in particular, is to appreciate them as refinements upon or further iterations within an otherwise Thomistic hierarchy of being. Because the perfection of the universe requires that there should be, as Thomas puts it, “inequality in things, so that every grade of goodness may be realized,” and because one “grade of goodness” consists in things that can nevertheless fail to achieve the level of goodness intended for it, it follows for St. Thomas that the perfection of the universe “requires that there should be some which can fail in goodness, and thence it follows that sometimes they do fail” (ST 1.48. 2).[1] As Thomas goes on to conclude, it is in this failure of a thing to achieve its goodness that evil consists.

Because evil does not have its own nature (and thus no proper “place” in the hierarchy of being), but “exists” only as a privation of the perfection proper to those natures within the hierarchy, we might expect evil itself to reflect a kind of hierarchical structure corresponding to the hierarchy of goods which it corrupts. True to this expectation, Tolkien often depicts his characters as tending towards a form of evil unique to the nature of the particular species to which the character belongs, and therefore to the particular ways in which that species can fail to realize its true being. As Tolkien writes in one place, “[e]very finite creature must have some weakness: that is some inadequacy to deal with some situations. It is not sinful when not willed, and when the creature does his best (even if it is not what should be done) as he sees it—with the conscious intent of serving Eru” (Morgoth’s Ring 392n). Thus, the Ainur and Valar have their Melkor, the Maiar their Sauron, the Wizards their Saruman, the Elves their Orcs, Men their Wormtongues, Boromirs, and Denethors, the Ents their Old Man Willow, and the Hobbits their Gollum. The almost perfect symmetry with which Tolkien counterpoises each good being with its corresponding form of evil, far from suggesting a kind of Manichaean dualism and equipotency between good and evil, ought to remind us rather that evil owes even its otherwise extraordinary variety and subtlety to that authentic variety and subtlety that creation has by virtue of its participation in the “infinite variety” of the Creator.

[1] “[I]ta perfectio universi requirit ut sint quaedam quae a bonitate deficere possint; ad quod sequitur ea interdum deficere.”

“You Read Too Much”: Tolkien to Lewis on the Critic vs. the Writer

Tolkien’s theology of forgiveness, part 3 (part 1) (part 2)

Before getting to his fullest expression of his peculiar theory of forgiveness, Tolkien first seeks to explain to Lewis and put into context his caustic remarks on the latter’s English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. Lewis had, in his reply to Tolkien’s initial letter of apology, referred to him as a “critic,” a title that Tolkien is adamant to disclaim: “I am not a critic. I do not want to be one. I am capable on occasion (after long pondering) of ‘criticism’, but I am not naturally a critical man” (Letters 126, emphasis Tolkien’s). In a note on this passage, Tolkien elaborates further on his view that formal literary criticism actually “get[s] in the way of a writer who has anything personal to say,” and compares the critic-qua-writer to a tightrope walker whose in-the-act theorizing about equilibrium may cost him his grace, if not his balance. He goes on hesitatingly to suggest that this is in fact one of Lewis’s shortcomings—that he is too much the critic and that it “gets in your way, as a writer. You read too much, and too much of that analytically. But then you are also a born critic. I am not. You are also a born reader.”

In contrast (and in part due) to Lewis’s native analytic and critical bent, Tolkien says of himself that he has “been partly and in a sense unnaturally galvanized into it by the strongly ‘critical’ tendency of the brotherhood” (i.e., the Inklings). He again denies that he is “really ‘hyper-critical’” (presumably another term Lewis had used in his letter to describe him); instead, he writes,

I am usually only trying to express ‘liking’ not universally valid criticism. As a result I am in fact merely lost in a chartless alien sea. I need food of particular kinds, not exercise for my analytical wits (which are normally employed in other fields). For I have something that I deeply desire to make, and which it is the (largely frustrated) bent of my nature to make.

For Tolkien, his judgments are no mere academic exercise of the trained literary critic, but the stomach-rumbling (as it were) of a peculiar, even idiosyncratic literary taste and need for a certain kind of aesthetic and intellectual nourishment. Critics have palates that want teasing and pleasing; Tolkien, by contrast, admits simply to an intense spiritual hunger in need of satiation.

As he implies in the above passage, it is partly his failing to find adequate sustenance elsewhere, and partly his own artistic compulsion, that has fueled his own literary expression. His statement, moreover, that he has “something I deeply desire to make” should particularly call to mind the Vala Aulë from The Silmarillion, who, after Niggle, is perhaps Tolkien’s most autobiographical and self-parodying character (for more on Aulë, see here). Much like the author of the present letter, for example, in both Aulë and Niggle we have sub-creators whose preoccupation with the works of their own hands lead them (even if unintentionally) to neglect their duties toward, and to fall short in their love for, their nearest neighbors and friends. As for Aulë in particular, when caught by Ilúvatar in his misguided and hubristic attempt to make the Dwarves, he is asked if what he seeks is a lifeless corpse to dominate and manipulate at will—a perhaps not wholly inaccurate representation, it occurs to me, of Tolkien’s above views on the literary critic. In response to this chastisement Aulë humbly, penitently, yet boldly and not without some justification informs and reminds Ilúvatar that “I did not desire such lordship. I desired things other than I am… Yet the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee.” For Tolkien as much as for Aristotle and St. Thomas, nature (because ultimately the Creator) does nothing in vain, meaning in this case that the compulsory (because ultimately divine) call of the sub-creative must be answered.

(To be continued….)

“I am the Servant of the Secret Fire”: On Gandalf’s Hobbit hobby

The following are some rough, underdeveloped notes attempting to connect some different aspects of Gandalf’s character, history, and peculiar mission and practice in Middle-earth. The first datum comes from Tolkien’s long letter to potential publisher Milton Waldman describing one of the central “motives” in The Lord of the Rings:

Here [in the story of Beren and Lúthien] we meet, among other things, the first example of the motive (to become dominant in Hobbits) that the great policies of world history, ‘the wheels of the world’, are often turned not by the Lords and Governors, even gods, but by the seemingly unknown and weak—owing to the secret life in creation, and the part unknowable to all wisdom but One, that resides in the intrusions of the Children of God into the Drama…” (Letters 149, emphasis mine)

So the first reference point for the present discussion is the central theme in Tolkien’s work of the small, the unknown, the unobtrusive, and the weak—animated by a “secret life in creation”—being responsible for accomplishing things not possible or anticipated by the strong, the noble, and the great.

A second point is that this “secret life in creation” by which “the One” unexpectedly and eucatastrophically intrudes himself and his purposes into the world sounds a lot like the Secret Fire or Flame Imperishable which Ilúvatar in the Ainulindalë, to the surprise and joy of the Ainur, sends into the Void to burn at the heart of the world, “kindling” it into its very existence. And though the Secret Fire is not mentioned by name, I think we see something of its distinctive agency in the vision Manwë is treated to in the chapter “On Aulë and Yavanna”:

Then Manwë sat silent, and the thought of Yavanna that she had put into his heart grew and unfolded; and it was beheld by Ilúvatar. Then it seemed to Manwë that the Song rose once more about him, and he heeded now many things therein that though he had heard them he had not heeded before. And at last the Vision was renewed, but it was not now remote, for he was himself within it, and yet he saw that all was upheld by the hand of Ilúvatar; and the hand entered in, and from it came forth many wonders that had until then been hidden from him in the hearts of the Ainur. (Emphasis mine)

This characterization of the Secret Fire, taken together with the first point, suggests that the above theme of the weak doing great things on behalf of the great is something of a signature or trade-mark activity of the Secret Fire. Beyond merely bringing the world into being (or rather, precisely on account of it), this is the kind of “business” that the Secret Fire is in, the kind of work that the Secret Fire does.

A third point is that, as is well known, it is this same Secret Fire whose servant Gandalf identifies himself as when facing down the Balrog on the Bridge of Khazad-dum. Assuming for the moment the principle of “like master, like servant,” we are led to the conclusion that it is this same line of work that Gandalf also specializes in, the paradoxical business of accomplishing mighty deeds through comparatively weak, insignificant, or overlooked means. (Tolkien’s indication in an interview with Clyde Kilby and elsewhere that the Secret Fire is the Holy Spirit would seem to further identify Gandalf as something of a Pentecostal, but I digress.) It is also interesting to note in this context Tolkien’s particular choice of words in one letter to explain why it is that Gandalf ultimately never has to personally fight and overcome the Lord of the Nazgûl: “so powerful is the whole train of human resistance, that he [Gandalf] himself has kindled and organized, that in fact no battle between the two occurs: it passes to other mortal hands” (Letters no. 156, emphasis added). As the protégé of the Secret Fire, Gandalf’s apostolic ministry (something I comment on elsewhere) involves him in going about and “kindling” fires among the Children of Ilúvatar, the unexpected but necessary consequence of which is that it is a mere shieldmaden of Rohan and her Hobbit-thain who together slay the Witch King whom no man is said to be able to kill.

Fourth and lastly, knowing this about Gandalf helps explain in part his attachment to and involvement with Hobbits, in whom Tolkien says above that the theme of the “great policies of world history” being accomplished by the “seemingly unknown and weak” comes to be particularly manifest. Enfranchising and fellowshipping with Hobbits, in short, is “Secret Fire” work, something that helps round out Gandalf’s already christological typology: if you’ve seen Gandalf, you’ve seen the Secret Fire who sends him.