Atheism in Middle-earth: “The Sea has no shore. There is no Light in the West.”

“The Sea has no shore. There is no Light in the West.” These are the words spoken by one of Melkor’s spies, disguised as Amlach, son of Imlach, at the council of Men convened in the First Age to decide what to do about the perils facing them in Middle-earth (Silmarillion, “Of the Coming of Men into the West,” 145). The literal significance of these words, of course, is their denial of Valinor, of the Valar, of their light, by implication, a denial of Ilúvatar himself, and therefore also a denial of Men’s own dignified status as the Children of Ilúvatar.

More symbolically, pseudo-Amlach’s words are an expression of philosophical atheism: they constitute a rejection of transcendence, of a future hope and resurrection, of a reconciliation of the world to God and the restoration of all things, of a final judgment upon evil and the righting of all wrongs. In exchange for these things, pseudo-Amlach’s words offer (again, symbolically) a worldview that is reductionistic, wholly immanentized, materialistic, anti-supernatural, and hence anti-humane and therefore anti-humanistic. It is the counsel of despair under the guise of an urbane but (in reality) enervating cynicism.

Against such philosophical reductionism, accordingly, Tolkien’s entire legendarium sounds a clarion reminder that the seemingly endless Sea does have a shore, and that however dark things may seem, there is indeed a “Light in the West.” (This is The Lord of the Rings as counter-atheism.) A couple of familiar passages reinforce the point. The first is from Frodo’s peculiar dream while at Crick-Hollow:

Then he heard a noise in the distance. At first he thought it was a great wind coming over the leaves of the forest. Then he knew that it was not leaves, but the sound of the Sea far-off; a sound he had never heard in waking life, though it had often troubled his dreams. Suddenly he found he was out in the open. There were no trees after all. He was on a dark heath, and there was a strange salt smell in the air. Looking up he saw before him a tall white tower, standing alone on a high ridge. A great desire came over him to climb the tower and see the Sea. He started to struggle up the ridge towards the tower: but suddenly a light came in the sky, and there was a noise of thunder.

As Verlyn Flieger comments in her fine analysis of this passage in Splintered Light, 

The episode invites comparison with the final line of the allegory in the Beowulf essay. In both instances, the effect comes less from the images of tower and sea than from the stated or implied desire to climb up and look outward to the immense unknown. Tolkien’s use of this idea in both the [Beowulf] essay and The Lord of the Rings suggests that for him it transcended allegory to express an indefinable but very real attribute of the human psyche: the desire to seek something without knowing what it is.” (Flieger, Splintered Light, 16)

As St. Thomas would put it, man seeks God as an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason. The second passage is one I cited recently (Tolkien’s last voyage), when Frodo himself finally comes to the shore and Light beyond the Sea:

Then Frodo kissed Merry and Pippin, and last of all Sam, and went aboard; and the sails were drawn up, and the wind blew, and slowly the ship slipped away down the long grey firth; and the light of the glass of Galadriel that Frodo bore glimmered and was lost. And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.

This scene answers to and is the fulfillment of Frodo’s earlier dream: no longer in a state of mere anticipation of that which he has most deeply longed for, he has come to that place where his desire can at last be satiated and his joy made full. For this reason the passage really stands as the climactic and consummating eucatastrophe of the entire Lord of the Rings, when the work is at its most theological–reminding us, as Augustine so memorably put it, that “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee”–as Frodo is ushered into a vision of divine light, not as an oblique “ray of light through the very chinks of the universe” (as Tolkien describes eucatastrophe in one place), but now (as St. Paul put it) “face to face.”

“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.

Grendel and the “un-theologizing” of Ungoliant

I commented a couple of months ago on the “theologization” of Ungoliant that seems to take place between her first appearance in The Book of Lost Tales as “Wirilóme” the “Gloomweaver” and the final formation of her character in the published Silmarillion. Having just re-read Tolkien’s essay on Beowulf for a class, however, I want to retract or at least revise my earlier conclusion.

To briefly review: In her early form, Ungoliant’s origins are much more mysterious, mythical, and pagan, it being allowed that “[m]ayhap she was bred of mists and darkness on the confines of the Shadowy Seas, in that utter dark that came between the overthrow of the Lamps and the kindling of the Trees… but more like she has always been” (Lost Tales 152). In The Silmarillion, by contrast, while the Elves are said to have not know from “whence she came,” nevertheless some of them “have said that in ages long before she descended from the darkness that lies about Arda, when Melkor first looked down in envy upon the Kingdom of Manwë, and that in the beginning she was one of those that he corrupted to his service.” From this difference in presentation between the early and late Ungoliant, I concluded in my earlier post that “from her origin as a putatively timeless and authentically evil force, to her re-conception as a horribly fallen yet primevally created and therefore presumably good being, we witness the character of Ungoliant in Tolkien’s legendarium undergoing a development from Hesiodic mythos to Augustinian theo-logos.”

In a footnote to his essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” however, Tolkien makes a statement that may have some bearing on this issue. Commenting on the complex question of the Christianity of the poem, Tolkien writes:

It must be observed that there is a difference between the comments of the author and the things said in reported speech by his characters. The two chief of these, Hrothgar and Beowulf, are again differentiated. Thus, the only definitely Scriptural references, to Abel ([lines] 108) and to Cain (108, 1261), occur where the poet is speaking as commentator. The theory of Grendel’s origin is not known to the actors: Hrothgar denies all knowledge of the ancestry of Grendel (1355).

With this discussion of Grendel in mind, it seems that, if we are to be precise, the question of Ungoliant may be less an issue of Tolkien’s changing portrayal of Ungoliant and her origins (is or isn’t she a primordial force co-equal with the good, à la Hesiod and other pagan cosmogonies?), as it is an (admittedly much more recognizably Tolkienian) preoccupation with what the Elves may or may not have understood to be Ungoliant’s origins. Put differently, instead of saying that Tolkien brought Ungoliant as a character into increasing conformity with his own Augustinian creation-metaphysics as a Catholic author, we should perhaps rather understand that this ambiguity surrounding Ungoliant’s nature and origin has always been and continues to be there for the majority of the inhabitants of Tolkien’s fictional world, and that what has changed between versions of the story, therefore, is that Tolkien has merely become more explicit in allowing some of his characters (in this case, the wise among the Elves) a greater share or participation in his Augustinian insight into Ungoliant’s true provenance. So the mythical, pagan ambiguity surrounding Ungoliant’s origins in the early version may really need to remain as part of her identity or character, even if in the later version the “third-person omniscience” of the narrator is, first, made more explicit than it had been and, second, more of the characters themselves are allowed the benefit of sharing in this “omniscience.”

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.

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)

The theologization of Ungoliant

In the published Silmarillion the spider-demon Ungoliant, ancestor to The Lord of the Rings‘ Shelob, is represented as a Maiar (i.e., a subordinate angelic deity) who had once been in the service of Melkor:

The Eldar knew not whence she came; but some have said that in ages long before she descended from the darkness that lies about Arda, when Melkor first looked down in envy upon the Kingdom of Manwë, and that in the beginning she was one of those that he corrupted to his service. But she had disowned her Master, desiring to be mistress of her own lust, taking all things to herself to feed her emptiness…

While the Elves generally are said not to know from “whence she came,” some of them (presumably the “wise”) believe her to be an originally created even if an erstwhile grossly corrupted being. This “mature” understanding of Ungoliant, however, seems to represent something of a pious theologization of Tolkien’s original conception of this malevolent force. In her first appearance, found in The Book of Lost Tales, Ungoliant is “Wirilóme,” or “Gloomweaver,” a creature (as John Garth puts it) whose “provenance is a mystery even to the Valar,” and of whom Tolkien writes:

Mayhap she was bred of mists and darkness on the confines of the Shadowy Seas, in that utter dark that came between the overthrow of the Lamps and the kindling of the Trees… but more like she has always been. (Lost Tales 152, cited in Garth 258)

From her origin as a putatively timeless and authentically evil force, to her re-conception as a horribly fallen yet primevally created and therefore presumably good being, we witness the character of Ungoliant in Tolkien’s legendarium undergoing a development from Hesiodic mythos to Augustinian theo-logos. 

“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.

Consuming Sons: The Nihilism of Fëanor and Denethor, part 1

Denethor and Fëanor are two of Tolkien’s more tragic characters. I’ve mentioned before Denethor’s Hegelian-like statement admiring Sauron for his use of “others as his weapons” in the manner of “all great lords.” That Denethor proudly numbers himself among such company is evident from his follow-up, rhetorical question to Pippin: “Or why should I sit here in my tower and think, and watch, and wait, spending even my sons?” Though it is the most explicit—albeit ironic—statement of the crassly utilitarian approach to one’s own progeny, Denethor is not the first instance in Tolkien’s legendarium of a father wasting his sons to accomplish his own desired (and futile) ends.  

Fëanor, to be sure, is better known for his use and abuse, not of his sons, but of those less directly connected with him, as by the end of his story he leaves worse off virtually everyone with whom he comes into contact. From his very beginning, his mother Míriel “was consumed in spirit and body” in delivering her son into the world, and eventually died from her weariness, but not before bequeathing to Fëanor his ominous name, meaning “Spirit of Fire.” And despite his remarriage and begetting two more sons by his second wife, we are told of Finwë that “All his love he gave thereafter to his son [Fëanor],” foreshadowing that it will not be only the mother who will be consumed by her son’s overweening spirit. In keeping with this premonition, when Fëanor is banished for a time by the Valar from the Noldorin city of Tirion for threatening his half-brother Fingolfin’s life at the point of sword, Finwë (showing a remarkable lack of sympathy for his younger son’s life) goes into voluntary exile with Fëanor. Even when Fëanor, after a period of twelve years, is temporarily summoned back to Tirion by Manwë for a festival, his father, for his part, refuses to attend, declaring that, “While the ban lasts upon Fëanor my son, that he may not go to Tirion, I hold myself unkinged, and I will not meet my people.” It is this Fëanor-fixation, moreover, that indirectly leads to Finwë’s death, for it is while Fëanor is away that he, protecting his sons Silmarils, is killed by Melkor. When he hears of his father’s fate, Fëanor blames and curses the summons of Manwë, an irrational and unfair response revealing perhaps a tinge of guilt and suppressed self-reproach on Fëanor’s part for the death of his father. To Fëanor’s credit, we are told that Finwë “was dearer to him than the Light of Valinor or the peerless works of his hands,” yet it is precisely the love of Fëanor that was Finwë’s doom, and we are perhaps invited to see a touch of tragic irony when the narrator rhetorically asks, “and who among sons, of Elves or of Men, have held their fathers of greater worth?” Inordinate love inevitably proves to be a devouring love.

The scope of Valaric sub-creation

Notwithstanding Tolkien’s and Thomas’s agreement where the doctrine of creation proper is concerned, on the subject of the creaturely power of mere making, particularly of angelic making, it has to be said that Tolkien departs boldly from the more conservative path tread by his great theological forbear. Whereas Tolkien in his fiction accords phenomenally vast sub-creative powers to the Valar, attributing to them the formation of such important and complex structures as the world’s geological formations, plant, and animal life, Thomas expressly denies, for example, that even the substantial forms of corporeal bodies are or can be communicated by angels (ST 1.65.4). Here, at least, Tolkien’s inspiration would indeed seem to have been more directly pre-Thomistic.

Although Eru is the one who first brings the world into being, the world he creates is, for the most part, entirely unformed, consisting of “wastes unmeasured and unexplored” (S 20). The primary responsibility Ilúvatar gives to the Valar, accordingly, is that they should labor to make the world inhabitable for the coming of the Children of Ilúvatar, whom Eru will create himself, and all in fulfillment of what the Valar had seen in the Vision. Thus, at the conclusion of the Ainulindalë it is said that the Valar delved valleys, carved mountains, and hollowed seas, indicating that much of the initial geography of the world is to be attributed to their handiwork. Even more remarkable is that the Valar are also made responsible for the introduction of plant and animal life in the world. It is Yavanna, for example, the spouse of Aulë, who

planted at last the seeds that she had long devised… and there arose a multitude of growing things great and small, mosses and grasses and great ferns, and trees whose tops were crowned with cloud as they were living mountains, but whose feet were wrapped in a green twilight. And beasts came forth and dwelt in the grassy plains, or in the rivers and the lakes, or walked in the shadows of the woods. As yet no flower had bloomed nor any bird had sung, for these things waited still their time in the bosom of Yavanna… (S 35)

The most renowned of Yavanna’s works are the Two Trees of Valinor, Telperion and Laurelin, from whose golden fruit and silver leaf the Valar later fashion the sun and the moon themselves.[1] As for the rest of the celestial bodies, many of the stars are also accounted as having been “wrought” by Varda, the “Lady of the Stars” and spouse of Manwë (S 26, 39).

It is the story of Aulë’s foolish and futile attempt at making the dwarves, however, that best illustrates both the tremendous magnitude of and the intrinsic limits imposed upon the Valar’s sub-creative power. The Silmarillion tells how Aulë, out of an otherwise noble desire for there to be “things other” than himself who might enjoy the beauty of the world, yet in his impatience for the coming of the Children of Ilúvatar, made the dwarves out of earth and stone. Rebuking Aulë afterwards for his presumption, Ilúvatar inquired of him:

Why hast thou done this? Why dost thou attempt a thing which thou knowest is beyond thy power and thy authority? For thou hast 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? (S 43)

Although Eru alone can give being, Aulë is nevertheless able to turn the earth and stone which Eru had created into, if not free, rational beings, as Aulë had intended, then at least into living yet witless organisms. It is only as a supernatural gift from Ilúvatar, graciously bestowed in response to Aulë’s humble repentance, that the dwarves come to have “a life of their own, and speak with their own voices” (S 44). Thus, while in his letter to Hastings Tolkien wanted to leave open the possibility that the Orcs could have been “made” by the dark powers, he also denies the “making of souls or spirits, things of an equal order if not an equal power to the Valar, as a possible ‘delegation’…” (L 195).[2] Related to Aulë’s production of the dwarvish bodies is the idea, later entertained by Tolkien, that the spirits of deceased Elves, instead of becoming reincarnate through a second, physical rebirth, might have their new bodies prepared for them by the Valar (MR 339, 362, and 364).


[1] The sun and the moon are actually fashioned long after Ilúvatar’s creation of the Elves, a sequence of events Tolkien later came to regret. As he put it in one commentary, “you can make up stories of that kind when you live among people who have the same general background of imagination, when the Sun ‘really’ rises in the East and goes down in the West, etc. When however (no matter how little most people know or think about astronomy) it is the general belief that we live upon a ‘spherical’ island in ‘Space’ you cannot do this any more” (MR 370).

[2] Thus, as Tolkien himself concludes in his letter to Hastings, the question of whether the Orcs were “made” or not is a “different question” from whether or not the Orcs had “souls” or “spirits” (L 195).

The Dwarves, Tolkien’s Ishmael

In an interesting twist to the story, the Dwarves play not only the part of Ishmael, but briefly, the role of Isaac as well: “Then Aulë took up a great hammer to smite the Dwarves; and he wept. But Ilúvatar had compassion upon Aulë and his desire, because of his humility… And the voice of Ilúvatar said to Aulë: ‘Thy offer I accepted even as it was made…’” As Verlyn Flieger comments in her Splintered Light, “Aulë’s unquestioning acceptance of Eru’s chastisement and his willingness to destroy his creatures recalls the unquestioning obedience of biblical Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac at his God’s command.”[1] That it is only after Aulë has offered—and in a symbolic sense might be said even—to destroy the Dwarves that Ilúvatar accepts them as part of his plan, might be further compared to the institution of circumcision which Yahweh establishes with Abraham between the births of Ishmael and Isaac, an act in which some commentators have seen a form of ritual castration whereby Abraham was led to renounce in faith his own efforts at accomplishing God’s purposes by the works of the flesh. In the end, of course, Aulë no more literally destroys the Dwarves than Abraham literally cuts off or kills either of his two sons, yet Aulë does have to witness his Dwarves subjected to a kind of death when they are buried “in darkness and under stone,” all the while trusting in Ilúvatar’s promise of their future “resurrection,” much as Abraham is required to receive Isaac from the “deadness,” first, of the womb of Sarah (Rom. 4:19) and later, of the altar and “tomb” that was Mt. Moriah (Heb. 11:11-12).

After Ilúvatar’s acceptance of Aulë’s sacrifice and his granting the Dwarves the gift of life, freedom, and speech, the Dwarves revert to their status as the Ishmaelites of the story. Despite Ishmael being technically Abraham’s firstborn son, it is Isaac whom Yahweh elects as the son of promise and the one with whom he would establish his covenant. In like manner, Ilúvatar decrees that Aulë’s Dwarves, although the first to be brought into being, nevertheless must not “come before the Firstborn of my design… They shall sleep now in the darkness under stone and shall not come forth until the Firstborn have awakened upon Earth.” At the same time, Yahweh’s election of Isaac and his seed does not altogether exclude the possibility of blessing for Ishmael, as Yahweh also promises Hagar to “multiply thy seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for multitude” (Gen. 16:10). This relationship finds its parallel in Ilúvatar’s statement to Aulë that, “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 when the time comes I will awaken them, and they shall be to thee as children…” Yet in both cases this blessing also comes with a foreshadowing of future conflict. As Ilúvatar does with Aulë’s Dwarves, Yahweh will give Ishmael a “place” in his “design,” but Ishmael will still be a “wild man” whose “hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him” (Gen. 16:12). Similarly, Ilúvatar tells Aulë that, notwithstanding his accommodation of the Dwarves within his plan, “in no other way will I amend thy handiwork, and as thou hast made it, so shall it be.” Thus, because “they were to come in the days of the power of Melkor, Aulë made the Dwarves strong to endure. Therefore they are stone-hard, stubborn, fast in friendship and in enmity, and they suffer toil and hanger and hurt of body more hardily than all other speaking peoples…” More than this, Ilúvatar warns Aulë how “often strife shall arise between thine and mine, the children of my adoption and the children of my choice.”


[1] Verlyn Flieger, Splintered Light: Language and Logos in Tolkien’s World, 100.

Aulë, Adam, and Abraham

Aulë’s defense of himself is similarly reminiscent of the Adam and Eve story, yet again with an apparently crucial difference. He admits to Ilúvatar that “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,” words which recall Adam and Eve’s shifting of blame from themselves to the Creator for making and arranging things the way that he did: “And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat… And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat” (Gen. 3:12-13). Yet there is arguably a legitimacy and even plausibility to Aulë’s ambitions, misguided as they are, that seem to be absent in the self-justifications of Adam and Eve. His attempt to imitate Ilúvatar was born not out of a sense of jealousy, envy, or rivalry with his maker, but of a love for him and a desire that there should exist other beings who might, like him, enjoy the beauties of Ilúvatar’s world and give him due praise for it.

If Aulë’s transgression is in some ways like Adam’s, it is also like that of the other great patriarch of Genesis, Abraham. Much as Aulë knew by way of both promise (through the Vision) and natural desire that there should and would be “things other” than himself “to love and to teach them, so that they too might perceive the beauty of Eä,” so Yahweh had promised to Abraham that his children would fill the earth as the stars do the sky (Gen. 15:5). And like Abraham and Sarah did in their bareness, Aulë grew “impatient,” as we have seen, with the world’s bareness: “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.” Moreover, just as Abraham sought to bring the promise about by his own means, conceiving Ishmael through his wife Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar, so Aulë tried to hasten the arrival of the Children of Ilúvatar, Elves and Men, through his fashioning of the Dwarves.

Aulë, Babel, and Pentecost

The previous post drew a comparison between Aulë’s fashioning of the dwarves and the building of the Tower of Babel on the plain of Shinar, while noting the dissimilarity between the failure and futility of Aulë’s attempt at fashioning the Dwarves as free, independent, rational beings, and the comparative success (according to Yahweh) of the builders of the Tower of Babel in their purpose. Indeed, in some ways Aulë’s motivation is the mirror-opposite to that of the men in the plain of Shinar. It is commonplace to see the purpose behind the building of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, namely the desire not to be “scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth,” as an act of rebellion against Yahweh’s dominion mandate in Genesis 1 that man should “be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it” (1:28). In any event, Aulë’s purpose in fashioning the Dwarves seems broadly in keeping with Yahweh’s original dominion plan, as he explains his actions to Ilúvatar that “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.” Aulë, like Yahweh, is concerned to see that the world be filled.

Aulë’s allusion here to speech and language, or rather to their relative absence, is surely also significant in this context. Immediately after fashioning the Dwarves, Aulë “began to instruct the Dwarves in the speech that he had devised for them.” Aulë, in a word, is an inventor of languages, a role we see him carrying out in the previous chapter’s account of Aulë’s as-yet future (relative to his making of the Dwarves) relationship with the Noldorin Elves: “Aulë it is who is named the Friend of the Noldor, for of him they learned much in after days… [T]hey added much to his teaching, delighting in tongues and in scripts…” In his fondness for inventing languages, culminating in his attempt to fashion an entire species capable of speaking those languages, Aulë represents one of if not Tolkien’s most auto-biographical characters,[1] and hence a fascinating self-reflection and cautionary tale to himself on the potential excesses of such an obsession. What is presented as a positive source of great beauty and delight in its own right in The Silmarillion, however, namely the proliferation of speech and language, in Genesis is presented not so much as something good in of itself, as it is judgment or curse on man’s hubris and an impediment to further impious cooperation. As Yahweh declares, “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth” (11:7-9). As is well known, however, Tolkien’s own interpretation of this event was to see it as a felix peccatum (or “fortunate fall”), a veritable eucatastrophe, linguistically speaking, a point that would again commend the story of Aulë and the Dwarves as a sort of commentary on Tolkien’s part on the story of the Tower of Babel. It is perhaps some corroboration of Tolkien’s perspective that when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the Christians at Pentecost in the Book of Acts, an event that, again, commentators have seen as hearkening back to and reversing the Babel incident, the result is not an undoing of the multiplicity and disparity of languages, but the gift of understanding and speaking them. Connected with this is Tolkien’s use of the iconic imagery of Pentecost in the closing lines of his poem “Mythopoeia” to capture his vision of the eschatological role that human sub-creators will play in the consumation of all things:

Be sure they still will make, not being dead,

and poets shall have flames upon their head,

and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:

there each shall choose for ever from the All.


[1] Verlyn Flieger may, if memory serves, make this point in her Splintered Light: Language and Logos in Tolkien’s World. 

Of Aulë and Adam

           A number of interesting, and possibly even significant, parallels suggest themselves between Genesis and the story of the Valar Aulë’s attempt at fashioning the Dwarves in The Silmarillion. When the Creator, Ilúvatar, confronts Aulë, he asks him, “Why hast thou done this? Why dost thou attempt a thing which thou knowest is beyond thy power and thy authority?”, questions which may put us in mind of the inquiry Yahweh makes to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden: “Where art thou?… Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?” (Gen. 3:9, 11). Aulë, in short, is an Adam figure, a representative or covenant head whose transgression in this story will prove to be no ordinary peccadillo, but is nothing short of a “fall,” an original sin that will have consequences extending far beyond the initial offender himself. Part of that sin, moreover, and as we also see in the case of Adam and Eve, involves an illicit effort to become like the Creator himself. The serpent’s temptation to Eve, after all, was that God had forbidden the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden because he knew that in eating of it “ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (3:5), and Aulë admits to Ilúvatar that his desire in fashioning the Dwarves was to achieve a certain likeness to the Creator himself, the very thing, it is worth noting, that also led to Melkor’s fall in the Ainulindalë. Consistent with Genesis, then, Tolkien portrays the origin of evil as a vain and idolatrous effort to attain something of God’s own power. As I would argue further, there is a very real sense in Tolkien’s world in which this is all that evil ever is.

I said a moment ago that the sins of both Aulë and Adam and Eve involved a “vain” effort to attain a certain likeness to God, but in the case of Adam and Eve, this is perhaps not strictly accurate. Like Aulë, Adam and Eve do attempt that which is clearly beyond their “authority,” but unlike Aulë, apparently not wholly beyond their “power.” In contrast to the situation with Aulë, who manages only in fashioning witless automata and not the free, living beings he had intended, Yahweh himself would seem to bear witness to the limited yet real success of Adam and Eve’s rebellion when he declares, “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil…” (Gen. 3:22). In keeping with this achievement is the argument made by some commentators that because the knowledge of good and evil is elsewhere characterized in Scripture as a good and even kingly gift (see 1 Kings 3:10 and Heb. 5:14), Yahweh’s purpose may have been all along to allow Adam and Eve to eat of this fruit after they had passed a period of probation and the testing of their obedience. In this, however, we have yet another point of comparison with the story of Aulë, inasmuch as his sin, as with Melkor’s original fall, is further identified as one of “impatience,” of being too hasty to realize by his own efforts something that Ilúvatar had determined to bring about in his own good time. The ultimate impossibility and hence utter audacity of Aulë’s intentions, therefore, may seem to be more comparable to the building of the Tower of Babel, by means of which men sought to “reach unto heaven” lest they be “scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (11:4) though here, too, it is interesting to find that Yahweh comments more on the potential success than on the apparent futility of their project: “And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do” (11:6).

Fëanor’s Nietzscheanism, Dionysianism

Fëanor is one of Tolkien’s most tragic characters, not only in the classical sense discussed by Aristotle in his Poetics, but also in the sense developed by Nietzsche in that other landmark analysis of the ancient genre, The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music. I hope someday to develop the Nietzschean undertones of Feanor’s character, motives, and speeches (undergraduate thesis, anyone?), but for a teaser, here are a couple of passages juxtaposing Fëanor’s demagoguery in persuading the Noldor to leave Valinor and return to Middle-earth, and Nietzsche’s (remarkably similar in spirit) exhortation to a Dionysian renunciation of the complacent life and the affirmation of forging one’s character and hearty-hood through the hammer and anvil of conflict and strife:

“‘Fair shall the end be,’ he [Fëanor] 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… But if any will come with me, I say to them: Is sorrow foreboded to you? But in Aman we have seen it. In Aman we have come through bliss to woe. The other now we will try: through sorrow to find joy; or freedom, at the least.’” (Silmarillion, “Of the Flight of the Noldor,” 83, 85)

“Yes, my friends, believe with me in Dionysian life and the rebirth of tragedy. The age of the Socratic man is over… Only dare to be tragic men; for you are to be redeemed… Prepare yourselves for hard strife, but believe in the miracles of your god.” (Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, sect. 20)

A people may be best ruled by its own

And yet another passage on political authority in Middle-earth:

“But after a time the Elf-kings, seeing that it was not good for Elves and Men to dwell mingled together without order, and that Men needed lords of their own kind, set regions apart where Men could live their own lives, and appointed chieftains to hold these lands freely. They were the allies of the Eldar in war, but marched under their own leaders.” (Silmarillion, “Of the Coming of Men into the West,” 147)

Two observations. First, its implied (Platonic? Aristotelian?) principle that two heterogeneous elements can only coexist and cooperate according or in conformity to a third principle or law. If Men and Elves are to live together, they may do so successfully only according to an established order. Anarchy, for all Tolkien’s sympathy expressed for it elsewhere, is not a live option. Second, prudence and justice dictate that a people may be best ruled by its own.

Authority, rebellion, and submission

Another choice passage from Tolkien on the subject of political authority, this time from The Silmarillion, the chapter “Of Feänor and the Princes of the Eldalië”:

“…those who will defend authority against rebellion must not themselves rebel.”