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. 

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.

“Yearn for your bodies”: Tolkien and Thomas’s rejection of Platonic dualism

Like Thomas, Tolkien in his mythology expressly rejects Platonic dualism in favor of a view of the soul as “indwelling,” “cohering with” (Morgoth’s Ring 218), and generally “desiring to inhabit” its body (243). In the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, in response to Finrod’s suggestion that perhaps it is part of Man’s original nature that their soul (fëa) should eventually leave behind its body (hröa), the human (mortal) woman Andreth emphatically denies that for Men the body is a mere “inn” for the soul to temporarily dwell in, as such a position would involve a “contempt of the body.” And while she does, in somewhat Platonic fashion, refer to the body as a “raiment,” she says that we should speak not only of the “raiment being fitted to the wearer,” but also “of the wearer being fitted to the raiment” (Morgoth’s Ring 317). St. Thomas, by comparison, criticizes Plato for his view that man was merely an anima utens corpora, a “soul making use of a body” (Summa Theologiae 1.75.4). On the soul’s “desire to inhabit” its body, we also have the testimony of the “Doom” pronounced on the Noldor Elves in The Silmarillion:

“For though Eru appointed to you to die not in Eä, and no sickness may assail you, yet slain ye may be, and slain ye shall be: by weapon and by torment and by grief; and; and your houseless spirits shall come then to Mandos. There long shall ye abide and yearn for your bodies, and find little pity though all whom ye have slain should entreat for you.” (Silmarillion 88, emphasis added)

For Tolkien and St. Thomas, human beings are naturally embodied creatures, such that even in death the soul, though continuing to exist, retains its fundamental orientation towards and even desire for its body.

“The Foreknowledge of Death”

Consuming Sons: The Nihilism of Fëanor and Denethor, part 5

The previous post ended on the seemingly inevitable doom and futility involved in the oath of Fëanor and his sons. So long as there is the possibility, however, that the quest to which Fëanor and his sons swear themselves may yet be achieved, it may seem uncertain that Fëanor has purposely or knowingly committed himself and his sons to their own utter destruction. All doubt, however, is removed when Fëanor, in his final moments,

beheld far off the peaks of Thangorodrim, mightiest of the towers of Middle-earth, and knew with the foreknowledge of death that no power of the Noldor would ever overthrow them; but he cursed the name of Morgoth thrice, and laid it upon his sons to hold to their oath, and to avenge their father. Then he died…

On his death bed Fëanor now knows that his war on Morgoth is vain. Instead of having them repent of their oath (itself one of the consuming consequences of their oath?), however, Fëanor demands that his sons continue to carry out their hopeless task anyway. In doing so, Fëanor is virtually guaranteeing their destruction, yet for the madness of Fëanor, his own sons’ lives is none too high a price to pay that they might “avenge their father.”

The Oath of Fëanor

Consuming Sons: The Nihilism of Fëanor and Denethor, part 4

To return to the theme of this series, a less obvious and even counter-intuitive, but for all that, perhaps the most tragic example of Fëanor’s many consumptive relationships, is the one between himself and his seven sons. Fëanor doubtlessly loves his sons, but as with the Silmarils, by the end we see this love corrupting into something that has less to do with his sons than it does with himself and his own selfish desires. The clearest illustration of this is the dreadful oath sworn by Fëanor, an oath which “none shall break, and none should take,” and yet which he allows his sons to make with him. Their penalty of the oath is that they should be cursed with “the Everlasting Dark” should they fail to “pursue with vengeance and hatred to the ends of the World” anyone who should withhold a Silmaril from their possession. In encouraging his sons to bind themselves, upon pain of eternal damnation, to the pursuit of his Silmarils, and the punishment of any who might resist them, Fëanor of course is putting his sons at the very great risk (if not the certainty) of forever losing their own souls—a devouring fire indeed. That they further name in witness to their oath not only Manwë (interesting in light of Fëanor’s previous curse upon Manwë’s summons), Varda, and their mountain home of Taniquetil (the Valar’s “Olympus”), but even Ilúvatar himself, is also noteworthy in this context. In calling upon the Absolute and Unconditioned One to bind themselves to an otherwise rebellious and essentially self-serving oath, we see what is in some ways the perverse extreme of Fëanor’s pragmatism. In the classical theological terms of St. Augustine, God, the one who is the ultimate end of all things and therefore the only proper object of true “enjoyment” (frui), Fëanor and his sons are effectively exploiting as a mere means for their “use” (uti). A consuming “spirit of fire” Fëanor may be, but when the fire one “plays” with is none other than the Flame Imperishableit will not be Ilúvatar, but Fëanor who will find himself burned.

Fëanor, “Spirit of Fire”

Consuming Sons: The Nihilism of Fëanor and Denethor, part 3

More obvious examples of Fëanor’s devouring spirit, of course, are to be found in his demagogic manipulation and exploitation of his fellow Noldorin Elves, persuading them to return to Middle-earth and take up the war against Melkor, a war which is really on his own behalf and for his own benefit; his Melkorish theft of the Teleri’s ships and his instigation of the kin-slaying when the Teleri attempt to withstand him; his abandoning his half-brother Fingolfin and the greater part of the Noldorin people on the northern shores of Aman when he deems them no longer useful to himself, and leaving them to cross over to Middle-earth via the treacherous “grinding ice” of the Helcaraxë; his wanton and wasteful destruction of the Teleri’s beautiful ships upon his own debarkation on the shores of Middle-earth (in this Tolkien may be seen, through his arguably most Dionysian character, to expose Nietzsche’s übermensch as no protection against, but as precariously vulnerable to, the very petty spirit of ressentiment and nihilism that Nietzsche so feared); and finally, the manner in which Fëanor’s spirit destroys his own flesh upon his death after being mortally wounded by Balrogs in his charge upon Angband: “Then he died; but he had neither burial nor tomb, for so fiery was his spirit that as it sped his body fell to ash, and was borne away like smoke…” As Fëanor lived, so he died, consuming even his own self.

Hoarded Silmarils

Consuming Sons: The Nihilism of Fëanor and Denethor, part 2

The statement that Fëanor loved his father even more than the “peerless works of his hands”—an oblique and hence, again, possibly ironic reference to the Silmarils—leads us to the next great exploitative relationship of Fëanor. Although not exactly “consumed” by Fëanor, the Silmarils are nonetheless by him “locked in the deep chambers of his hoard.” In this we have echoed the almost identical expression Tolkien uses in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” to describe the effect familiarity and possessiveness have in stifling the otherwise marvelousness and wondrousness of the things of our everyday experience. As Tolkien describes them, things have been made to suffer the “drab blur of triteness” that is “really the penalty of ‘appropriation.’” They are “things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them” (emphasis added). Through Fëanor’s possessive love and admiration for “these things that he himself had made,” accordingly, Tolkien’s purpose in part seems to be to symbolize the kind of greedy, “consuming” mentality that must eventually suffocate or suppress the very beauty and allure that the Silmarils represent and embody.

That Fëanor’s attitude towards the light of the Silmarils is, finally, (like Ungoliant’s) ultimately a devouring rather than ennobling and freeing one may be seen in his refusal, after the attack of Melkor and Ungoliant, to sacrifice the Silmarils so that the Trees of Valinor, the source of the Silmarils’ own light, might be healed and their light restored. For Fëanor, what is of value in the Silmarils is apparently not their light per se (otherwise he presumably would be more solicitous for the good of the Trees from which their light came), but the fact that the Silmarils are his. Thus, in his very possessiveness Fëanor himself has effectively denied them their fantastical “otherness” and independence from himself and so reduced the Silmarils to something less than what they truly are and meant to be.