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.

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Incarnate, sub-creative angels

Does Thomas’s metaphysics of the angels preclude or leave open the possibility of Tolkien’s incarnate and sub-creative angels?

According to Thomas, influencing the heavenly bodies is not the only way in which angels can effect change in the natural order. He admits, for example, that angels can and sometimes do assume corporeal bodies, not because it is in their nature to do so (ST 1.51.1), but because in this manner they are able to be of greater service to men with whom they have “intellectual companionship” and whose salvation they help administer (ST 1.51.2). In such cases, however, the angel is not united to the body as its form, as in the case of the human soul and its body; instead, the angelic spirit acts merely as its body’s extrinsic mover (ST 1.51.2 ad 3).[1] A couple of significant remarks made by Thomas on this point are, first, his statement that when angels do appear to men, the bodies they assume are or can be nothing more than “condensed air” (ST 1.51.2 ad3).[2]

Secondly, although angels cannot produce a human body (the angels being themselves incorporeal), Thomas avers that they nevertheless “could act as ministers in the formation of the body of the first man, in the same way as they will do at the last resurrection, by collecting the dust” (ST 1.91.2 ad 1).[3] This would appear to be a particular instance of Thomas’s more general principle that, although angels cannot perform miracles, being themselves part of the natural order (ST 1.110.4), they can nevertheless predispose nature to the supernatural and miraculous working of God, their own knowledge of the powers of nature being so acute that they can perform wondrous albeit natural works. As Thomas writes in one place, “angels are better acquainted than men with the active and passive powers of the lower bodies, and are therefore able to employ them effectively with greater ease and expedition seeing that bodies move locally at their command. Hence again physicians produce more wonderful results in healing, because they are better acquainted with the powers of natural things” (On the Power of God 6.3). Thomas even goes so far as to refer to the existence of an ars angeli or “art of the angels.”[4]

According to Thomas, however, the angelic will cannot command corporeal matter directly, but moves it “in a more excellent way” by moving “corporeal agents themselves” (ST 1.110.2 ad 2).[5] As Collins summarizes, in this way corporeal forms may indeed derive from angelic intelligences, not through an immediate “creative influx” (or direct “emanation,” as Thomas puts it in ST 1.65.4) on the part of the angelic intelligence, but rather through an “eductive process” of “moving the bodies to their forms.”[6] Whatever might have been the case, however, Thomas reminds us that, at least as a matter of historical fact, in the original creation of corporeal creatures no such “transmutation from potency to act” by angelic means actually took place, as Scripture teaches that “the corporeal forms that bodies had when first produced came immediately from God, whose bidding alone matter obeys, as its proper cause” (ST 1.65.4).[7]


[1] “[C]orpus assumptum unitur angelo, non quidem ut formae, neque solum ut motori; sed sicut motori repraesentato per corpus mobile assumptum.”

[2] “Et sic angeli assumunt corpora ex aere, condensando ipsum virtute divina, quantum necesse est ad corporis assumnedi formationem.” Dante in the Divine Comedy suggests that the diaphanous bodies of the shades are the effect of the deceased soul giving form to the air surrounding it, making the soul visible as well as giving it organs of sense perception through which even the deceased souls are able to continue communicating with each other (Purgatorio 25.94-105). On the Thomistic origins of Dante’s idea of diaphanous bodies, see Philip Wicksteed, Dante and Aquinas, 223-225.

[3] “Potuit tamen fieri ut aliquod ministerium in formatione corporis primi hominis angeli exhiberent; sicut exhibebunt in ultima resurrectione, pulveres colligendo.”

[4] On the angelic knowledge of and consequent power over nature, see Collins, The Thomistic Philosophy of the Angels, 315.

[5] “Et sic angelus excellentiori modo transmutat materiam corporalem quam agentia corporalia, scilicet movendo ipsa agentia corporalia, tanquam causa superior.”

[6] Collins, The Thomistic Philosophy of the Angels, 289.

[7] “In prima autem corporalis creaturae productione non consideratur aliqua transmutatio de potentia in actum. Et ideo formae corporales quas in prima productione corpora habuerunt, sunt immediate a Deo productae, cui soli ad nutum obedit materia, tanquam propriae causae.”

Unsplintered Light

Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger has written incisively on the theme of “splintered light” in Tolkien’s work, which she interprets in terms of the occasional Inkling Owen Barfield’s thesis that language, meaning, and human perception change over time from a more authentic, mythic, unified state to a more fragmented, differentiated, and profuse state. As Tolkien himself writes in one letter, the Light of the Two Trees of Valinor, “derived from light before any fall,” symbolizes the “light of art undivorced from reason, that sees things both scientifically (or philosophically) and imaginatively (or subcreatively) and says that they are good–as beautiful” (L 148n). Part of Tolkien’s goal in his legendarium, as I’ve suggested previously, was to recover a lost vision of these now-divergent perspectives in their supposedly original, mythic unity.

As I’ve also noted before, however, there is a tendency in some readers to interpret such Tolkienian images in terms of a Neoplatonic, tragic metaphysics of emanation, according to which reality and meaning become more and more diminished or diluted the further they get from their originating source. In this context, accordingly, it is interesting to note that the light of the Two Trees, which Tolkien identifies as an authentic, unified, “undivorced” light of scientific or philosophical reason and sub-creative imagination, is in another sense not a primordial unity at all, but is itself the result of a sub-creative “blending” of two different light sources (in this case, the golden rain of Laurelin and the silver dew of Telperion). Put differently, the Light of Valinor is not just an authentically pre-splintered light, but already an unsplintering (if you will) of post-splintered light. The blended light of the Two Trees, in other words, is a symbol not of an original or natural–but of a sub-created (and in that sense “artificial”) and achieved–unity.

When we realize this, we may fairly see that in his image Tolkien treats us to a wonderful metaphor for understanding the import of his own legendarium, namely the harmonious and complementary synthesis of myth and fantasy on the one hand and analytical, scholastic reasoning on the other. If so, more than merely dramatizing Barfield’s  thesis about the tendency of human thought to self-differentiate and fragment over time, the aim of Tolkien’s own fiction is to help heal this modern perceptual breach by re-envisioning the world in a way that satisfies at once the human powers of both imagination and reason. Tolkien’s entire legendarium, in short, simply is the Light of Valinor, the powerfully fruitful and mutually fructifying mingling of the twin lights of reason and imagination.

As Tolkien well knew, such light can be and in fact has been “splintered,” “fractured,” and hence diminished and lost. When Saruman boasts that “white light can be broken,” Gandalf doesn’t contest the achievement so much as he questions its prudence and desirability: “In which case it is no longer white… And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.” But as a Christian Tolkien also believed that there was a way of changing the original light of God’s creation–and that by God’s own design and ordination–that resulted in more, not less, light. In his poem “Mythopoeia” he puts it in terms that, at first glance, may seem curiously Sarumanian: “Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light / through whom is splintered from a single White / to many hues, and endlessly combined / in living shapes that move from mind to mind.” Man the Sub-creator does indeed “refract” and “splinter” God’s “White light” of creation, but he does so (properly) only in order that he might then re-“combine” that light into even more “living shapes” that may “move from mind to mind.” Tolkien gives us a profound, positive, even comic image, finally, of this paradoxical, anti-entropic tendency of sub-creative light to escalate and multiply itself in an early account of the Two Trees of Valinor, in which it said that “of their growth and being did they ever make light in great abundance still over and beyond that which their roots sucked in…” This cross-pollination of sub-creative light is hardly a Neoplatonic outlook of a tragic, ever-diminishing reality, truth, and meaning–the metaphysical and semantic equivalent of Bilbo’s “butter scraped over too much bread”–but is more akin to the prophet Ezekiel’s eucatastrophic vision of the Gospel as a living stream flowing from the Temple: the further it gets from its source, the wider and deeper the water becomes.

Tulkas and the “Untold Stories”

There are better examples of the phenomenon, but the way the Valar Tulkas is introduced in the chapter “Of the Beginning Days” illustrates something of Tolkien’s remarkable technique of the “untold stories.” In the Valar’s First War on Earth with the diabolus Melkor, it is said that Melkor had the “upper hand” until “in the midst of the war a spirit of great strength and hardihood came to the aid of the Valar, hearing in the far heaven that there was battle in the Little Kingdom.” What was Tulkas doing out in the “far heaven”? We don’t know, and we’re never told (though we may guess that it involved fighting baddies). Of all the physical universe of Eä, Arda (Earth), of course, is the focus of the Tolkien’s narrative and, in a very real sense, is the focus of existing reality itself. It is where the Children of Ilúvatar, after all, will have their home, and it is some mark of its importance that it is also the place that Melkor specifically “names unto himself.” Yet for all its significance, not only narrativally but also cosmically, Tolkien is careful to balance this “Arda-centrism” with the revelation that there are other Valar besides Arda’s, and hence other stories besides those of Arda. By the very nature of the case we are not made privy to those stories, and the ones, such as Tulkas’s, which do momentarily intersect or combine with Arda’s serve to remind us of the many others that do not. Tulkas allows his own story to become largely assimilated to the narrative being told here by the Elves, but we are given hints of other stories for which this is not the case. We know, for example, that there are other Ainur who choose not to enter into Eä, remaining in the Timeless Halls of Ilúvatar. Of those Ainur who do enter Eä, as the example of Tulkas indicates, not all of these immediately, if ever, concern themselves with Arda. Of those, moreover, who do come to inhabit Arda, not all, as the Valaquenta suggests, become involved in the affairs of Middle-earth. (This is true even of some of the Elves, especially the Vanyar, who once they arrive in Aman, do not seem to give their original home of Middle-earth a second thought, and so do not afterward come into the history told in The Silmarillion.) Finally, even among those spirits who make their home in Middle-earth, while some allow themselves to become enmeshed in her great power struggles, such as Melian who marries the Elflord Thingol, in Tom Bombadil, by contrast, we witness a Maiar-spirit whose own story and interests are entirely tangential and therefore seemingly peripheral to what might otherwise be deemed to be the central and therefore the most important thread in the history of Middle-earth at that time (namely the war with Sauron and the quest to destroy his Ring). These peripheral characters, however, with their “untold stories,” nevertheless serve a very crucial and necessary function, which is that they lend to Tolkien’s fictional history the kind of real-world density and complexity that must inevitably rebuff the kind of historical reductionism that would seek to place the manifold meanings of the events of history on the Procrustean bed of any one story or conflict. This danger is perhaps best illustrated in the character of Denethor, whom Gandalf warns not to “think, as is your wont, of Gondor only… Yet there are other men and other lives, and time still to be.” For Denethor, the war between Gondor and Sauron simply is the war between good and evil, but this historical and political reductionism, ironically, is after a fashion just another version of the tyranny and domination being perpetrated by Sauron. For Tolkien, then, the delicate task of his characters, and hence of his readers, is to be faithful within one’s own story and within one’s own conflicts, all the while recognizing that there are always other stories and other purposes that are tangential if not entirely asymptotic and even transcendent to one’s own. It’s this level of depth and narrative subtlety that Tolkien helps achieve through characters such as Tulkas.