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.
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“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.”

Nightingale, image of Eucatastrophe

“[Luthien] Tinúviel’s attendant bird, the nightingale, is a fitting emblem of eucatastrophe, pouring out its fluting song when all is dark. Its symbolic significance may be measured in the words of men on the Western Front. [Tolkien’s friend and fellow TCBS member] Rob Gilson, hearing a nightingale in the early hours one May morning from his trench dugout, thought it ‘wonderful that shells and bullets shouldn’t have banished them, when they are always so shy of everything human’, while Siegfried Sassoon wrote that ‘the perfect performance of a nightingale… seemed miraculous after the desolation of the trenches’.” (Garth, Tolkien and the Great War, 265)