The Metaphysics of Coercion in Tolkien’s Angelology

Despite their status as fictional and mythical beings, there is a certain metaphysical seriousness and consistency with which Tolkien treats angelic or spiritual creatures in his Middle-earth legendarium. For example, although the “Valar” and their subordinates, the “Maiar,” are very much attached to and involved in the physical world, their relationship to their bodies, and thus to the physical world as a whole, still remains a fundamentally dualistic one. Tolkien likens the relationship in one place between the Valar and their bodies to that between human beings and their clothes, a metaphor Plato also used in his account of the human soul’s relationship to the body.  For Tolkien, however, one interesting implication of the dualism of angelic incarnation is the resultant temptation or proclivity they have towards the domination of other beings. As Tolkien writes in one place:

“But since in the view of this tale & mythology Power—when it dominates or seeks to dominate other wills and minds (except by the assent of their reason)—is evil, these “wizards” were incarnated in the life-forms of Middle-earth, and so suffered the pains both of mind and body. They were also, for the same reason, thus involved in the peril of the incarnate: the possibility of “fall,” of sin, if you will. The chief form this would take with them would be impatience, leading to the desire to force others to their own good ends, and so inevitably at last to mere desire to make their own wills effective by any means. To this evil Saruman succumbed. Gandalf did not.” (L 237, emphasis added)

In another letter Tolkien writes of the wizards Saruman and Gandalf that, although angelic, spiritual beings in themselves, “being incarnate [they] were more likely to stray, or err,” and that it was because of his “far greater inner power” in comparison to his companions that Gandalf’s self-sacrifice on the Bridge of Kazad-dum was a true “humbling and abnegation” (L 202, emphasis added).  Similar to the physical matter which they do not and cannot control directly, other free rational beings are not—or at least ought not to be—subjected to the dominating will of the angelic spirit. Rather, the latter’s influence over others must involve the same kind of sub-creative patience that moves their subordinates to action, not by coercion but by persuasion, a responsibility they share with Thomas’s angels whom he says cannot directly or violently move another creature’s will, but can nevertheless “incline the will to the love of the creature or of God, by way of persuasion” (ST 1.106.2).  Nevertheless, because their embodiment is not natural but voluntary and therefore provisional or conditional, requiring that they lay aside some of their own native powers, it is possible to see Tolkien as recognizing a sense in which the incarnate angels as a consequence necessarily have a much more artificial, extrinsic and utilitarian or pragmatic relationship to their bodies than is the case for Men and Elves. In short, the angelic body is, for the angelic spirits, ultimately a kind of “machine,” a form of technology and therefore a mere tool to be used rather than part of their fundamental nature and identity.  As the demiurgic sub-creators and masters of their own bodies to which they do not belong by nature, the temptation for the Valar and Maiar, Tolkien almost seems to suggest, will be for them to adopt the same attitude of mastery and domination towards others and towards the physical world they are supposed to shepherd.

Entrepreneurship vs. Labor in Middle-earth

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

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

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

Ilúvatar’s critique of socialism

Ilúvatar’s interrogation of Aulë after the latter’s misguided fashioning of the dwarves could equally double as a critique of socialist central planning:

“Why hast thou done this? Why dost thou attempt a thing which thou knowest is beyond thy power and thy authority? For thou has from me as a gift thy own being only, and no more; and therefore the creatures of thy hand and mind can live only by that being, moving when thou thinkest to move them, and if thy thought be elsewhere, standing idle. Is that thy desire?” (Silm. 43)

In his penitent reply, moreover, in which he denies having any such desire for domination, Aulë can be heard instead re-affirming the comparatively “libertarian” values of the Valar expressed earlier in the Silmarillion. For it was said that when the Valar first beheld the Children of Ilúvatar, “the more did they love them, being things other than themselves, strange and free, and learned yet a little more of his wisdom, which otherwise had been hidden even from the Ainur” (Silm. 18). As Aulë similarly confesses to Ilúvatar:

“I did not desire such lordship, I desired things other than I am, to love and to teach them, so that they too might perceive the beauty of Eä, which thou has caused to be.” (Silm. 43)

 

Gandalf’s Anarchism

“Indeed he [Sauron] is in great fear, not knowing what mighty one may suddenly appear, wielding the Ring, and assailing him with war, seeking to cast him down and take his place. That we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place is not a thought that occurs to his mind.” (The Two Towers, ch. 5, “The White Rider”)

When Gandalf Votes

“So you see, Gandalf, that by not voting for me, you’re really just voting for Sauron.”

I posted a few days ago on the subject of “When Elves Flirt.” This and my previous post might be filed under “When Gandalf Votes.” Here’s another passage from The Lord of the Rings remarkably apropos our current election season. The passage is taken from Gandalf’s speech to the traitor Saruman:

“Well, the choices are, it seems, to submit to Sauron, or to yourself. I will take neither. Have you others to offer?”

“Folly it May Appear to Those Who Cling to False Hope”: Tolkien’s advice on how to vote

Tis an election year here in the USA, and for my American readers who seem to have missed it, I thought I’d take this moment to point out that, among other things, The Lord of the Rings is a 1000-page, devastating and conclusive refutation of the principle of voting for the lesser of two evils.

‘…That is the path of despair. Of folly I would say, if the long wisdom of Elrond did not forbid me.’
‘Despair, or folly?’ said Gandalf. `It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not. It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope. Well, let folly be our cloak…”

One greater than Beowulf: Aragorn and Tolkien’s marginalization of the monstrous

A couple of passages to comment briefly on Aragorn vis-a-vis Beowulf today. The first is Aragorn’s speech to Boromir at the Council of Elrond:

`If Gondor, Boromir, has been a stalwart tower, we have played another part. Many evil things there are that your strong walls and bright swords do not stay. You know little of the lands beyond your bounds. Peace and freedom, do you say? The North would have known them little but for us. Fear would have destroyed them. But when dark things come from the houseless hills, or creep from sunless woods, they fly from us. What roads would any dare to tread, what safety would there be in quiet lands, or in the homes of simple men at night, if the Dúnedain were asleep, or were all gone into the grave?
           `And yet less thanks have we than you. Travellers scowl at us, and countrymen give us scornful names. “Strider” I am to one fat man who lives within a day’s march of foes that would freeze his heart or lay his little town in ruin, if he were not guarded ceaselessly. Yet we would not have it otherwise. If simple folk are free from care and fear, simple they will be, and we must be secret to keep them so. That has been the task of my kindred, while the years have lengthened and the grass has grown.’

The second is Aragorn’s exchange with Halbarad in the chapter “The Passing of the Grey Company” on the departure of Legolas, Gimli, and Merry:

‘There go three that I love, and the smallest not the least,’ he said. ‘He knows not to what end he rides; yet if he knew, he still would go on.’

     ‘A little people, but of great worth are the Shire-folk,’ said Halbarad. ‘Little do they know of our long labour for the safekeeping of their borders, and yet I grudge it not.’

     ‘And now our fates are woven together,’ said Aragorn. 

In his essay “The Monsters and the Critics,” Tolkien admires the way in which the Beowulf poet, unlike Homer, places the monsters and the hero’s conflict therewith at the center of the work, and yet at the same time he cautions that the “wages” of such “heroism is death.” In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien further has Faramir identify the kind of Northern, “martial heroism” of Beowulf with what he calls the “middle men,” namely the comparatively primitive, less civilized Rohirrim, but also the Gondorians of his day as they have diminished from their former Numenorean ancestry (Two Towers, “Window on the West”). In this context, it is possible to interpret Aragorn’s practice in the North as Tolkien’s own, post-Beowulf-ian, Christian re-marginalization of the monstrous, inasmuch as he has his hero fighting monsters, not for any kind of fame or honor (the lure that brings Beowulf to Denmark to fight Grendel), but in utter anonymity, and solely for the good of those directly benefited by his action. Aragorn is the image of the idealized medieval Christian king, the ruler whose sole purpose is not his own but the good of his subjects.