Why Ilúvatar Doesn’t Sing

In yesterday’s post I noted how the early, Book of Lost Tales version of the Ainulindalë, unlike the published Silmarillion account, has Ilúvatar
actually “singing” the Ainur “into being” before then instructing them to produce their own music in their turn. Michael Devaux attributes the omission to Ilúvatar’s singing in the later version to Tolkien’s alleged concern to distinguish Ilúvatar’s act of creation from the Ainur’s act of sub-creation:

The difference between a sung creation and a spoken creation of the Ainur by Ilúvatar is not negligible in its theological consequences. In fact, as Carla Giannone has shown, in the 1977 Ainulindale… Tolkien distinguishes two hierarchical levels, God and the gods (Eru Ilúvatar and the Ainur) as a function of this difference between speech and song. Strictly speaking, there is no music played by Eru. God’s prerogative (and his act of creation) resides in the Λογος (‘In the beginning was the Word,’ says the prologue to St. John’s Gospel), which is also thought.” (Devaux, “The Origins of the Ainulindalë: The Present State of Research,” 94)

As Devaux explains again a little later, “the difference between Ilúvatar and the Ainur” may be seen in the fact that, “[f]irst, as Tolkien says, strictly speaking the creation is the work of God while the making is given over to the Valar… Ilúvatar speaks and the Ainur sing…” (101).

Creation as Decay in the Music of the Ainur

Metaphysics of the Music, part 10

It is in similar, metaphysically tragic terms that Bradford Eden, in his Boethian interpretation of Tolkien, understands the relationship between the Ainur’s Music and the subsequent phases of creation. As we saw earlier, Boethius recognizes three specific kinds of music: cosmic, human or vocal, and instrumental. In Eden’s hands, however, Boethius’s threefold classification becomes also a Neoplatonic progression, or rather digression, from highest to lowest, and the pattern around which the entire subsequent history of Middle-earth is allegedly structured:

The gradations of music’s power in Middle-earth from its appearance in the first page of The Silmarillion all the way down to the Fourth Age in The Lord of the Rings reflects a Neoplatonic hierarchy of being, from the highest form of music, universal or comic [sic] music, down to human/vocal music, and then down to instrumental music. This chain of musical being also embodies the diminution of cosmic love/harmony that ends with the most material and literal, in the instruments of Man. (Eden, “The ‘Music of the Spheres’,” 192)

Again, according to Eden the pattern in Tolkien’s creation-story is a pattern of metaphysical corruption or dilution of being, a “diminution of cosmic love/harmony that ends with the most material and literal.” Pressing the point further, Eden writes:

There may be an unconscious decay of cosmological theory written into The Silmarillion that can only be detected by one who is knowledgeable about the entire mythological reality that is Middle-earth. Each theoretical step taken away from the “Great Music,” which set everything into motion, is a slow descent away from “the divine.” This is a strong thread throughout the writings of Plato and Aristotle, that each gradation and division of music away from the “pure” or “universal” results in a type of gradual descent downward in spirit and soul…. Elves and Men are farther away in both time and space from the “music of the spheres” and closer to the third and lower type of music in the Third Age. (190-1)

On this Platonic reading of Tolkien, each subsequent stage of his creation-account and subsequent mythical history involves a necessary “decay,” a “descent downward” or falling away from the “pure” and “divine” origins of the Music of the Ainur, so that physical reality itself finally emerges, as it does for Plotinus, as a veritable metaphysical catastrophe or accident, necessary yet regrettable.

Misreading the Music

Metaphysics of the Music, part 8

As the preceding posts in this series have intended to show, Tolkien’s music-metaphor has significant metaphysical and cosmological implications, and the attention given by commentators to the classical and medieval heritage behind his music imagery is well-merited. The history of the world, as Tolkien has conceived it, consists in the gradual unfolding of a primeval, cosmic symphony whose governance extends all the way down to the meanest creature. As much in the great events of human history as in the seemingly most mundane natural processes, such as the oak growing from acorn to tree, or even in its changing of colors over the course of the year, what we are beholding is nothing less than part of a now silent sonata played and sung from before the foundations of the world. This is the profound way in which Tolkien’s creation-myth would have us think not only about human history, but also about the constitution of created being itself.

Nevertheless, while the significance of the Ainur’s Music—as an illustration of such central Tolkienian themes as creaturely sub-creation and freedom, cosmic harmony, and the temporal development of creation—can hardly be overstated, the emphasis placed on it by commentators has been to the neglect of some of the more important metaphysical points made in the Ainulindalë. More than this, there has been a tendency to read Tolkien’s music imagery in a way that directly contradicts its ultimate meaning, a meaning that I suggest is best understood in light of St. Thomas’s thoughts on being, beauty, and even music. One notable trend in this regard is an exaggerated reading of the Ainur’s Music that sees it as a truly creative or causal power of the world. One reader, for example, says that “Tolkien’s music of creation actually creates the entire cosmos” (emphasis original), and that the Ainur’s Music represents the “vibratory force in creation, and it is that force which has the power to create and sustain worlds” (Davis, “Ainulindalë: The Music of Creation,” 6, 8). Another commentator has written that “Middle-earth is created and sustained through the sung words of the ‘Great Music’,” and mistakenly attributes the idea of “creation through music” not only to Tolkien but to the Pythagoreans as well (Grubbs, “The Maker’s Image: Tolkien, Fantasy & Magic”). Bradford Eden, in his Boethian interpretation of Tolkien, also overestimates the contribution of the Ainur’s Music to the world’s creation when he identifies it by turns as “the creative and omnipotent force,” “the creational and binding force that sets in motion the entire drama of Middle-earth,” “the generational force out of which much of the drama of Middle-earth develops,” the “creational and cosmological power,” and “the ultimate power in the cosmological history of Middle-earth” (Eden, “The ‘Music of the Spheres’,” 185-8). Tolkien scholars Verlyn Flieger and Brad Birzer are similarly carried away in their estimation of the power of the Music, as when Flieger variously describes the Music as “the initiating force,” “creative force,” and “ordering force of the universe” (Flieger, Splintered Light, 57-9), or when Birzer claims that after Eru created the Ainur, “He gave to each of them a piece of his wisdom and knowledge, and together they sang the universe into existence” (Birzer, Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, 53). Robert Collins, finally, while acutely describing Tolkien’s philosophy of being as an “aesthetic ontology,” nevertheless mistakes matters when he asserts that the musical paradigm of Tolkien’s creation myth is the “key to” and the “essential nature of” his theory of being (Collins, “‘Ainulindalë’: Tolkien’s Commitment to an Aesthetic Ontology,” 257, 264). As we shall see in the posts to follow, however, the Music of the Ainur, while important, is and does none of these things, and what is more, understanding this fact turns out to be the true key to his theory of being.

Some early observations on Tolkien’s Augustinian doctrine of evil

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 6

As John Houghton and Neal Keesee have documented, Tolkien’s readers realized early on that his portrayal of evil in The Lord of the Rings belongs to a wider and older philosophical tradition. Rose Zimbardo remarked in 1969, for example, that, “[a]s in St. Augustine’s, so in Tolkien’s vision, nothing is created evil. Evil is good that has been perverted,”[1] and Clyde Kilby’s made the observation in 1970 that, in regard to Tolkien’s work, “we can mention the inability of evil to create anything but only to mock… Philosophers and theologians have often noted the inessentiality of evil.”[2] To this early consensus concerning the Augustinianism of Tolkien’s ponerology we may also add the following testimony of Paul Kocher, who wrote in 1972:

Some of Thomas’ less specifically Christian propositions about the nature of evil seem highly congruent with those which Tolkien expresses or implies in laymen’s terms in The Lord of the Rings… Literally and figuratively, light is exchanged for darkness. Sauron’s every change is a deterioration from those good and healthy norms which he began. Aquinas would call them all losses of Being. Evil is not a thing in itself but a lessening of the Being inherent in the created order… [T]he losses cry out for ontological interpretation…. Over and over Tolkien’s own words connect Sauron and his servants with a nothingness that is the philosophical opposite of Being.[3]

For Tolkien as for Augustine, Boethius, and Thomas, evil is non-being, which is to say, it is nothing.

[1] Houghton and Keesee, “Tolkien, King Alfred, and Boethius: Platonist Views of Evil in The Lord of the Rings,” 131, citing Zimbardo, “Moral Vision in The Lord of the Rings,” 73.

[2] Houghton and Keesee, “Tolkien, King Alfred, and Boethius,” 151n1, citing John Warwick Montgomery, ed., Myth, Allegory and Gospel: An Interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and Charles Williams (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1974), 138.

[3] Kocher, Master of Middle-earth: The Fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien, 77-9.

Free will and sub-creation

The concepts of sub-creation and free will are very closely associated in Tolkien’s mind, and in at least one place he uses them almost interchangeably: “having mentioned Free Will, I might say that in my myth I have used ‘subcreation’ in a special way… Free Will is derivative, and is [therefore] only operative within provided circumstances…” (Letters #153). As the paradigmatic instance of free will, sub-creation becomes for Tolkien something of a model for free action in general. Human praxis, as it were, is a kind of human poesis–human doing a form of human making–inasmuch as every human action seeks to bring about an alternative state of affairs, and therefore to realize an alternative, “secondary world” or reality to the one currently realized. (As Frodo and Sam realize on the stairs of Cirith Ungol, their own heroic quest to destroy the Ring of Sauron and so save Middle-earth is in fact part of an ancient and on-going “tale” that never ends, “[b]ut the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended.”)

The theme of free will, and especially its relationship to divine providence, has received a good deal of attention in the literature on Tolkien, but what I’m presently interested in here (as usual) is the uniquely metaphysical approach Tolkien also takes to this important issue, an approach that, again, leads one back to his Thomistic doctrine of creation.[1] For Tolkien, not only does sub-creative free will dimly mirror the freedom the Creator himself enjoys in the act of creation, but as with its specific application in sub-creation, creaturely free will is likewise wholly dependent for its very existence and exercise upon divine providence. This dependence, however, involves much more than the Creator passively “allowing” or “permitting” his creatures to make their own choices about things (though Tolkien will also speak of the Creator as “accepting” or “permitting” creaturely sub-creating or “Making” when it is used for evil purposes).[2] As Tolkien puts it, free will is not absolute but “derivative,” being “only operative within provided circumstances,” namely, those circumstances in which the Creator himself “should guarantee it” by giving it the “reality of creation.” It is something like this radical sense of causal dependency that the Ainulindalë hints at on its opening page when Ilúvatar invites the Ainur to develop their Music, explaining to them that “since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will” (S 15, emphasis added). For Tolkien, creaturely freedom is not and cannot be threatened by divine providence, for it is the divine Creator who first brings the creaturely free will into being and by whose providence the individual will, its intentions, and its consequent, real-world effects, are continuously and actively kept in being.

[1] On the relationship between free will and divine providence in Tolkien, see Daniel Timmons’s article “Free Will” and attached bibliography in Drout, ed. J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia.

[2] See, for example, Letters 190n, 195, and 259.

The truth of myth

Another point of contrast between Plato and Tolkien concerns the conflicting evaluations of the truth-capacity of myth implied in their respective metaphysics.  Gergely Nagy has observed that “Plato, like Tolkien, draws heavily on traditional myths, also including his own ‘myths’ (nowhere else attested and probably written by him) in his dialogues,” and says that this parallels Tolkien’s “mythopoeic enterprise” in its ultimate aim of “show[ing] ‘truth,’ in Plato always expressed in mythic scenes and language…” (“Plato,” in Drout, ed.,J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, 513). Similarly, Frank Weinreich emphasizes Tolkien’s debt to Plato for his “metaphysics of myth” when he writes how the “quintessence of Tolkien’s ontology” behind his theory of myth is “at the core a Platonic one” (“Metaphysics of Myth: The Platonic Ontololgy of ‘Mythopoeia’,” 325). For Plato, however, the philosopher uses myths not out of choice, but of necessity. As the principle is stated in the Timaeus, “the accounts we give of things have the same character as the subjects they set forth” (29b), meaning that just as the world (on account of the ananke or constraint of its pre-existing matter) only ever achieves a tragically partial and thus never fully-realized participation in the divine, so the “likely story” (eikos mythos) that Timaeus has to tell about the origins of the cosmos achieves at best a tragic likeness to the ideal logos or rational account that the philosopher would prefer.

In Tolkien’s creation-myth, by contrast, and following the Christian doctrine of creation, while the world’s participation in the divine is limited by its finitude, because creation is nevertheless from nothing, the world—including its matter—has its entire existence through a participation in and likeness of the divine without remainder. For Tolkien, in short, the world in its entirety is a story about the divine, a metaphysical reality that at least in principle allows the stories or myths we tell about the world a much greater participation in the truth that remains to be told about that world. As Tolkien puts it in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” myth is no mere “disease of language” (TR 48), but given the inherent and irreducibly storied structure of reality itself, is a uniquely privileged way of communicating the truth of that reality. Indeed, for Tolkien it is through such myth-telling that reality for the first time comes into its own, accomplishing by God’s own ordination the “effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation” (TR 89).

Tolkien’s use of interlace, sorta

*** West, Richard C. “The Interlace Structure of The Lord of the Rings.” In A Tolkien Compass, ed. Jared Lobdell. Open Court, 2003. An early study of Tolkien’s now well-known use of the “interlace” technique. In West’s lengthy definition,

Interlace … seeks to mirror the perception of the flux of events in the world around us, where everything is happening at once. Its narrative line is digressive and cluttered, dividing our attention among an indefinite number of events, characters, and themes, any one of which may dominate at any given time, and it is often indifferent to cause and effect relationships. The paths of the characters cross, diverge, and recross, and the story passes from one to another and then another but does not follow a single line. Also, the narrator implies that there are innumerable events that he has not had time to tell us about; moreover, no attempt is made to provide a clear-cut beginning or end to the story. We feel that we have interrupted the chaotic activity of the world at a certain point and followed a selection from it for a time, and that after we leave, it continues on it its own random path.

West identifies Tolkien’s use of the interlace structure as a characteristically medieval literary technique, although he suggests that Tolkien’s use of it may have been due less to direct influence than to the inherent exigencies of his fiction: “He may simply have reinvented the interlace to accommodate the story he had to tell: the nature of his material requires just such a form.” (I especially appreciated West’s rehearsal of Tolkien’s own remark that, although “medieval studies fertilized his imagination,… his typical response upon reading a medieval work was to desire not so much to make a philological or critical study of it as to write a modern work in the same tradition.” Would that more scholarship were conducted so!) Perhaps the clearest example of interlace cited by West is Frodo’s dream in the house of Bombadil of Gandalf’s rescue by Gwaihir from Saruman’s imprisonment of him on the top of Tower of Isengard.

West’s definition of interlace is perhaps over-broad, as he comes to include under its rubric virtually any technique used by Tolkien to lend unity and coherence to his narrative. Thus, the complex causal chain leading up to crucial events in the LOTR, the numerous prophecies fulfilled in the course of the story, the mythological background and “untold stories” giving Tolkien’s world its depth, the use of thematic interweave, repetition, foreshadowing, typology, and what West calls narrative “open-endedness”; all of these are hailed as so many instances and varieties of the interlace technique. As a study of the interlace structure in the LOTR, consequently, West’s treatment is somewhat blunted or distracted, but otherwise his analysis of the work is quite accurate and insightful. As Tom Shippey puts it in his foreword to the 2003 reprint of this collection, in terms of the presence of interlace in the LOTR, subsequent scholarship has proven West to be more right than he knows, noting in particular “Tolkien’s deliberate cross-referencing from one area of plot to another, indicated by careful remarks about dates, times, and the phases of the moon, but West’s work is a good place to start.”

Tolkien’s Demiurges

In his conception of angelic beings with the power and freedom to fashion a world according to their choosing, Tolkien’s purpose was to capture, as he puts it, something of the “beauty, power, and majesty” of the gods of the ancient mythologies. One of these ancient myths he seems particularly to have had in mind is the creation-story of Plato’s Timaeus dialogue, a work that was tremendously influential in both early Jewish and Christian patristic and later medieval thought.[1] In a number of places, Tolkien describes the sub-creative work of the Valar as “demiurgic” (MR 330, 370, 387, and 401), an evident allusion to the divine demiurge of the Timaeus who fashions the changing, visible world by looking to the order, intelligibility, and beauty of the unchanging, invisible, yet eternal and “living model,” and reproducing as much as possible that order within the realm of a pre-existing yet hitherto unorganized matter.

Surprisingly, given the interest of Tolkien’s readers in his Platonic inheritance noted in the Introduction, the extent of the parallels—to say nothing yet of the equally remarkable differences—between the Ainulindalë and Plato’s Timaeus has yet to receive a thorough investigation. The most comprehensive comparison to date must be John Cox’s study mentioned in previous posts, which draws attention to the fact that, like Plato’s demiurge, “everything else [besides the Ainur] that Ilúvatar makes, he makes by the agency of the Ainur,” a pattern Cox finds paralleled in the Timaeus’s account of the divine demiurge, “a benevolent and eternal maker, who first creates what Plato calls ‘gods’ and then charges them with the task of carrying on the creation.”[2] Cox finds in both narratives, moreover, the same “progression from the Creator, to intermediate creating powers, to the visible creation.”[3] Both creation-myths, accordingly, present worlds of “stark contrasts” between the invisible, eternal, and unchanging divine realm of being on the one hand and the visible, temporal, and changeable realm of becoming on the other.[4] Cox further points to the resulting themes of emanation and imitation associated with these structures as they manifest themselves in both Plato and Tolkien.[5]

[1] Plato’s Timaeus, Meno, and Phaedo, for example, were the only three of his dialogues known throughout the medieval period. On early Jewish, Roman, and Christian readings of Plato’s Timaeus, see Jaroslav Pelikan, What Has Athens to Do with Jerusalem? On the reception of Plato’s Timaeus in the later Middle Ages, particularly in the 12th century, see Dutton, “The Uncovering of the Glosae Super Platonem of Bernard of Chartres” and “Medieval Approaches to Calcidius”; Chenu, “The Platonisms of the Twelfth Century”; Gregory, “The Platonic Inheritance”; and Gibson, “The Study of the Timaeus in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries.” On Aquinas’s own knowledge of Plato’s Timaeus, see Hankey, “Aquinas and the Platonists.”

[2] Cox, “Tolkien’s Platonic Fantasy,” 57.

[3] Ibid., 57.

[4] Ibid., 58.

[5] Ibid., 58-9.

In a volume titled “A Tolkien Compass,” this author has clearly lost his

* Scheps, Walter. “The Fairy-tale Morality of The Lord of the Rings.” In A Tolkien Compass, ed. Jared Lobdell. Open Court, 2003. This article was nothing short of an interpretative travesty. Schep, to his credit, draws some useful observations about the moral realism of Tolkien’s fictional world, but unfortunately he is entirely unable to appreciate (or understand, for that matter) the moral outlook of that world: “If we attempt to transfer the moral values inherent in [The Lord of the Rings] to the ‘real world’, we find that they may be called paternalistic, reactionary, anti-intellectual, racist, fascistic and, perhaps worst of all in contemporary terms, irrelevant.” He concludes by claiming that “the moral system which governs [the hobbits’] world cannot, without serious consequences, be applied to our own.” On the contrary, Mr. Schep, “serious consequences” are exactly what we are getting precisely because we will not apply the moral outlook of The Lord of the Rings to our world.

Some interpretations of Tolkien on Angelic Creation

Notwithstanding Thomas’s historic critique, for most of Tolkien’s commentators, the account of creation reflected in the Ainulindalë is the pre-Thomistic, classical and early medieval doctrine of angelic, mediated creation. Verlyn Flieger’s Neoplatonic reading of the theology of the Ainulindalë, for example, is in evidence when she writes:

It is the Ainur, not Eru, who actually create Tolkien’s world. They sing its plan in the Great Music which they make from the themes Eru propounds to them, and from that plan fabricate the material world. The rest of Tolkien’s vast mythology is enacted without Eru, involving chiefly the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar. Father of All he may be, but he has no further role in the action.[1]

In previous posts I’ve considered Flieger’s Neoplatonic interpretation of Eru’s remoteness or aloofness from the created world. Related to this, as the above passage illustrates, is Flieger’s similarly Neoplatonic interpretation of the doctrine of creation displayed in the Ainulindalë: as the supposed intermediate “creators” of the world, the Valar’s creative operation or agency is seen as introducing a causal space or distance between Eru and the created world, so that their agency comes only at the expense of his absence. Flieger again makes the alleged pagan philosophical context of Tolkien’s Valar explicit in her Splintered Light, in which she contrasts the biblical account of creation with what she argues to be the much more Platonic account given by Tolkien:

The adjective Tolkien used to describe the labors of the Valar in making the world is demiurgic. It recalls Plato’s use of “demiurge” to describe the deity who fashions the material world and, as well, the Gnostic use of the word for the same purpose. Tolkien’s Valar do, indeed, create the material world of Arda, action that puts them closer to the God of Genesis than to the angels. But Eru of The Silmarillion is not the God of Genesis, and the clear distinction between Eru and the Valar is essential to Tolkien’s design. There is only one Prime Mover—Eru, the One. The Ainur, and more particularly the Valar, are sub-creators. They participate in the physical making of the world but could not have done so had not Eru first given them the theme.[2]

According to Flieger, in summary, the Valar are the true creators in Tolkien’s tale.[3]

Nor is Flieger alone in her interpretation, as I’ve noted before. John Cox’s Platonic reading of Tolkien likewise stresses the Valar’s over Eru’s role in the act of creation. According to Cox, in the Ainulindalë

the pattern of creation is very different from that in the book of Genesis. Its pattern, in fact, is Platonic rather than Hebraic. Ilúvatar begins by creating what Tolkien calls the Ainur… Almost everything else that Ilúvatar makes, he makes by the agency of the Ainur. That is, the creative force always emanates from one source, Ilúvatar, but it operates by the intermediate actions of the first creatures it made, who therefore become “sub-creators” (the phrase is Tolkien’s) in their own right. This principle of intermediate creation—or “sub-creation”—is extremely important for Tolkien,… and while it has no Hebraic counterpart, it has a very close parallel in Plato’s account of creation in the Timaeus. Here, as in the Silmarillion, the creative impulse derives from one source, a benevolent and eternal maker, who first creates what Plato calls “gods” and then charges them with the task of carrying on the creation.[4]

Similarly, Protestant theologian and literary critic Ralph Wood, while refuting the kind of deistic reading of Tolkien exhibited in Flieger in favor of a more biblical interpretation, also uses creation-language to describe the Valar’s activity, as when he connects them with the pre-Nicea interpretation of Genesis’s “Let us make”:

Ilúvatar in fact creates his own special Children—men and elves, who are two members of the same species—directly and not by mediation. That Ilúvatar uses the angelic valar as lieutenants in his other creative acts puts him in full accord … with the declaration of Yahweh in Genesis: “Let us make.” The ancient Hebrew author of Genesis probably alluded to the heavenly court surrounding Yahweh, and it is such a notion that Tolkien perhaps has in mind.[5]

Even Thomist philosopher Peter Kreeft sees Tolkien’s Valar as hearkening back to the pre-Thomistic, Lombardian and patristic conception of angelic power when he writes: “in The Silmarillion [the Creator] then uses the angels as instruments in creating the material world. This idea, which is not part of the mainline Christian tradition, is not heretical. It is a theologoumenon (a possible theological opinion) that is found in some of the Church Fathers.”[6]

[1] Flieger, “Naming the Unnameable: The Neoplatonic ‘One’ in Tolkien’s Silmarillion,” 132.

[2] Flieger, Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World, 55.

[3] To be sure, Flieger does identify the Valar as “sub-creators,” but the context would seem to suggest that by this she means not that they do not create, but that their act of creation simply takes place after or in response to Eru’s first having created them. Flieger stresses this point later on in her book when she implies that, after giving the Ainur their initial theme in the second stage of the creation-drama, Eru had virtually no other contribution to make: “We must remember the differing relationships that Eru and the Valar have with the world. Having provided the theme, Eru knows and understands the Music; yet he takes no further action, leaving the fulfillment and orchestration of the theme to the Valar.” Ibid., 77. However, even within the context of the Ainur’s Music alone it is not true that Eru “takes no further action,” for as the Ainulindalë makes clear, Eru continually interjects new themes into the Music, contributions, moreover, that correspond to Eru’s later direct intervention within the history of the world itself (S 16).

[4] John Cox, “Tolkien’s Platonic Fantasy,” 57. A few pages later Cox reiterates the point, referring to the Valar’s act of sub-creation as the “fictional means by which [Tolkien’s] cosmos comes into being” (ibid., 59, emphasis added) and again writes of Melkor in particular that he “was created with sufficient power to create a universe in his own turn…” (ibid., 62, emphasis added). (For a reading of Genesis, however, according to which God does in fact delegate the power of “creation” to his creatures, see Watson, “Language, God and Creation,” 142.)

[5] Wood, “Tolkien’s Orthodoxy: A Response to Berit Kjos.” Elsewhere Wood further writes that “Ilúvatar employs his valar as ancillaries in the act of creation.” Wood, The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-earth, 12. Nevertheless, Wood does draw the following parallels with traditional theologians such as Aquinas: “Even in his pre-Christian world, Tolkien suggests that Ilúvatar is no autonomous monarch. Tolkien even hints at a trinitarian understanding of God in having Ilúvatar act communally rather than solitarily. Here again Tolkien is in accord with the central Christian tradition. Two of the church’s greatest theologians, Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth, regarded angels as the invisible mediators of divine action in the world. Tolkien agrees. That he specifies the particular powers of all fifteen maiar is his way of helping us reverence God’s constant angelic sustenance of all the good gifts of creation – fresh water, clean air, hot baths, nourishing food, broad daylight, the night sky, plus all the wonders of human making.” Wood, “Tolkien’s Orthodoxy.”

[6] Kreeft, The Philosophy of Tolkien, 72-3. Another author to have imputed a doctrine of mediated creation to Tolkien is Elizabeth A. Whittingham, who writes how, “[i]n giving the Ainur power to create, Ilúvatar has not reduced his own creative force; he has simply extended it, including their efforts within his own.” Whittingham, “The Mythology of the ‘Ainulindalë’: Tolkien’s Creation of Hope,” 216. Later, however, Whittingham comes very near to attributing to Tolkien the Thomistic doctrine of the exclusively divine activity of creation when she says that, in speaking the word Eä!, “[i]n this moment, Ilúvatar has done what no Ainur—neither Manwë nor even Melkor—could have done. Ilúvatar takes the Great Music, which he has revealed through the Vision, and gives it form, brings it into being…” Ibid., 17.

Psychoanalyzing “The Hobbit”

* Matthews, Dorothy. “The Psychological Journey of Bilbo Baggins.” In A Tolkien Compass, ed. Jared Lobdell. Open Court, 2003. A psychoanalytical approach to The Hobbit that accomplishes at least one thing to its credit: an (unwitting) exhibition of the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the psychological theories of Freud and Jung. (These guys make medieval allegorical interpretation in its more, um, “creative” moments look like sober and sound exegesis.) Swords as phallic symbols (teehee) gets mentioned at least twice, and we are reminded with a straight face of the “Freudian sex symbols” of “keys, locks, caves, chalices, and cups,” items prevalent in “coming-into-manhood” stories such as The Hobbit. Here’s a choice morsel on Gollum: “The association of this adversary with water and the attention given to his long grasping fingers and voracious appetite suggest a similarity to Jung’s Devouring Mother archetype, that predatory monster which must be faced and slain by every individual in the depths of his unconscious if he is to develop a self-reliant individual.” Whatever. (But perhaps I’m being unfair, and am aggressively acting out my own repressed but otherwise well-adjusted childhood.) Matthews, to be sure, does make a number of insightful comments in the course of her article (for example, her answer to the question why it is not Bilbo whom Tolkien makes responsible for killing Smaug), but it is noteworthy that almost none of them have really anything to do with her psychoanalytical reading of the text.

Revisions in the character of Gollum and the Ring in “The Hobbit”

*** Christensen, Bonniejean. “Gollum’s Character Transformation in The Hobbit.” In A Tolkien Compass, ed. Jared Lobdell. Open Court, 2003. Originally published in 1975 (along with the other articles in this volume), this piece undertakes a side-by-side passage comparison of the first and second editions of The Hobbit, noting the changes that Tolkien’s work on The Lord of the Rings exerted retroactively on the character of Gollum and the Ring in The Hobbit. As Christensen summarizes her findings, “Tolkien’s chief alterations in ‘Riddles in the Dark’ change the stakes in the riddle-game, introduce the Ring as a ring of power—sentient, malevolent, addictive, and independent—define the opposing forces in the universe and convert Gollum from a simply lost creature to a totally depraved one…. The alterations clearly increase Gollum’s role and remove the story from the realm of the nursery tale… [T]he transformation of character indicate[s] that Tolkien attaches great importance to Gollum—more than is necessary or even suitable for his function in The Hobbit. But his prominence is appropriate to his expanded role in The Lord of the Rings.

A few (minor) criticisms. While Christensen does a good job of documenting the fact of the influence of The Lord of the Rings on The Hobbit, some further reflection on the significance of this influence, either for the works themselves, or for Tolkien’s craft as a writer, would be appreciated. Related to this, I was surprised Christiansen didn’t mention one item I would think pertinent to her discussion, namely the way Tolkien, in the preface to The Lord of the Rings, ingeniously faults Bilbo’s own initial dishonesty about how he came to acquire the Ring as the reason why there are two significantly differing versions of The Hobbit (clever when an author can blame his own characters for inconsistencies in his work). Finally, I found myself bristling a little at her claim that the imagery of Bilbo’s “leap in the dark” over Gollum’s head is an allusion “so explicitly Christian and so commonplace in theological discussion that again one is tempted to assume that Tolkien has employed common expressions without thought…. Faith: the leap in the dark that a man takes. Bilbo, a hobbit, takes it. The anticlimactic conclusion reinforces the Christian interpretation: man is a weak and insignificant creature who through faith and God’s help overcomes insurmountable obstacles.” Amen to the sentiment about man, but as an interpretation of the passage or its imagery, it seems to assume far too much affinity between Tolkien and Kierkegaardian Christian existentialism than is probably warranted (though to be perfectly fair to Kierkegaard, not even he described faith as a “leap in the dark,” a myth based on the mistaken assumption that the “author” of Fear and Trembling, one “Johannes de Silentio,” is a mere pseudonym for Kierkegaard himself and not the name of a character of his own invention).  These quibbles aside, a valid and worthwhile study of some important changes in The Hobbit. 

Tolkien’s Eru: Plotinian One or Thomistic Esse? (part 1)

In previous posts I commented on Tolkien’s claim that the world of The Lord of the Rings was a “monotheistic world of ‘natural theology’” (L 220), and looked at how his fictional Elves, but also Tolkien personally, exercised broadly the same kind of teleological reasoning about the world as we see assumed and exhibited in, for example, St. Thomas’s famous “Fifth Way,” the argument from divine governance, for demonstrating God’s existence. The question remains, at this point, as to what precisely this God is, the belief in whom Tolkien’s pre-Christian, pagan mythology is in some sense intent upon restoring us to.

The name Eru, as the opening line of The Silmarillion indicates, simply means “the One,” and the index to the book gives the additional rendering of “He that is alone” (S 329).[1] These associations have led Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger—in one of the only studies to date to focus exclusively on the question of the philosophical theology of Tolkien’s mythology—to identify Eru with the One of classic Neoplatonic thought. As Flieger observes, a “central idea, indeed a major element, in Neoplatonic thought is the concept of God as the One, the Monad beyond human knowing or naming.”[2] As explained by the third-century A.D. Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus, the whole of reality consists in a hierarchy of cascading or overflowing “emanations” from the One, which is so utterly transcendent that, following Plato’s famous suggestion in the Republic, it is said to be even “beyond being.”[3] As that which is beyond being, Plotinus further held the One to be beyond all thought or self-knowledge, to say nothing of its surpassing the comprehension of those orders of reality below it in the hierarchy of being. Even knowledge and thought, after all, imply a distinction and thus a duality between the knower and the object known, so that, according to Plotinus, “if anything is the simplest of all, it will not possess thought of itself: for if it is to possess it, it will possess it by being multiple. It is not therefore thought, nor is there any thinking about it.”[4] Unknowable to itself, the One is all the more wholly unknowable to, and therefore unnamable by, the individual human soul far below it: “But the One, as it is beyond Intellect, so is beyond knowledge… It is, therefore, truly ineffable… [W]e can say nothing of it.”[5]

It is the negative theology of Plotinus, as well as that of his sixth-century Christian counterpart, the Pseudo-Dionysius, to which Flieger particularly likens Tolkien’s Eru. Flieger, for example, suggests that, as in the case of the emanationist hierarchy of Plotinus, what gives unity to Tolkien’s “hodgepodge” of fictional creatures and races, organizing these “seemingly random elements into a coherent whole,” is the figure of Eru, “drawn not from any national or ethnic mythology, but from the arcane reaches of Plotinian and Dionysian explications of the nature of God.”[6] Also uniting Tolkien with this tradition is his alleged acknowledgement of the “unsolvable problem” of naming the One. All three thinkers find themselves

confined to the separable and limited vocabulary of human language to talk about inseparable, unlimited being. They must express the inexpressible. Plotinus acknowledges the problem explicitly, the other two implicitly. Plotinus cautions his reader that he is and must be speaking “incorrectly.” For even the statement that the One “is” embodies contradiction; the addition of the verb is an admission of duality to express singularity.

            This problem admitted, all three writers go on to affirm, each in his own way, the oneness of the One, its indivisibility and its incomprehensibility to the divided human mind. The One, says Plotinus, is self-constituted, perfect, the source of all yet separate from and beyond that which come from it. Dionysius, mystical rather than logical, describes a God beyond comprehension, of whom he says: “the boundless Super-Essence surpasses Essences, the Super-Intellectual Unity surpasses Intelligences, the One which is beyond thought surpasses the apprehension of thought, and the Good which is beyond utterance surpasses the reach of words. Yea, it is an Unity which is the unifying source of all unity and a Super-Essential Essence, a Mind beyond the reach of mind and a Word beyond all utterance, eluding Discourse, Intuition, Name, and every kind of being.”[7]

Turning to the Ainulindalë, Flieger argues that it is a similarly ineffable divine being which Tolkien portrays there:

The first three words are striking in their simplicity: “There was Eru,” a plain declarative in the past tense singular of the verb “to be,” coupled with no place and no time other than the indeterminate pre-present, plus a single noun with no modifier, no Dionysian superlative, no embellishment. Rather than try to explain the unexplainable, Tolkien presents his reader with subject and predicate, the minimum necessary to put his meaning into a literate sentence. And he adds, as his only explication, “the One.”[8]

Even Ilúvatar, the name by which Eru is known in Arda meaning “Father of All,” Flieger claims to designate “name, not essence… It is a name for the unnameable, and thus akin to Dionysius’ concept of Divine Names, which, he says, ‘refer in Symbolical Revelation to Its beneficent Emanations.’”[9] In other words, the name Father refers to the One, not as he is in himself, but only insofar as he relates to his “emanations” or creations. Flieger writes that, although the name of Father is common to Christian Trinitarianism and many other ancient mythologies, such designations are “of necessity built from human perception, derived from and reflecting a human model.”[10]

In her Splintered Light, Flieger casts into even sharper relief the antithesis she finds between the negative theology of Tolkien’s Neoplatonism and the comparatively more positive theology of Christian revelation:

Unlike the biblical God, Tolkien’s Eru is a strikingly remote and disengaged figure. He had little or no direct interaction in his world but leaves it to those of the Ainur called the Valar, the Powers of the World, who choose to concern themselves specifically with the earth and its inhabitants… In that capacity, they seem in some ways more comparable to the creator God presented in Genesis than does Eru. Like Jahweh, as God is called in Genesis 2, the Valar are present in and (when they so will) manifest to the world they have fashioned. On the level of language, however, they have a greater resemblance to Elohim, as God is called in Genesis 1… As a plural, [Elohim] can suggest not many gods but God in all his aspects, God as multiplicity, a concept not unlike the multiplicity of Eru’s thought who are the Valar… But Eru of The Silmarillion is not the God of Genesis.[11]

Joining Flieger in her Platonic interpretation of Eru, John Cox similarly associates Tolkien with Plato and Plotinus over against the Hebrew tradition in what he suggests is the Ainulindalë’s assertion of a radical dualism between the supreme unity, eternality, and immutability of Eru on the one hand and the plurality, temporality, and changeability of the created order on the other. The difference is so great, according to Cox, that it necessitates on the part of the Ainur, and as the logic of Plato would dictate, an emanated, “third entity as a kind of buffer, so to speak, between the two extremes.”[12] The result, for Cox, is that “the pattern of creation [in the Ainulindalë] is very different from that in the book of Genesis. Its pattern, in fact, is Platonic rather than Hebraic.”[13]

Against this overly Platonic interpretation of his fictional theology, however, I will suggest in a couple of follow-up posts that the picture Tolkien presents of the divine nature owes much more to the biblically informed Christian Neoplatonism of such influential theologians as Augustine and Aquinas—with their comparative balance of positive and negative theology—than it does to the pre-Christian, pagan, and predominantly negative theology of Plato and Plotinus.

[1] Michaël Devaux observes that, absent in earlier editions of the Ainulindalë, “the inclusion of the name Eru is a unique feature of the 1977 Silmarillion.” Devaux, “The Origins of the Ainulindalë: The Present State of Research,” 91.

[2] Flieger, “Naming the Unnameable,” 127.

[3] Plotinus, Enneads 5.1.10, trans. Armstrong. On Plotinus’s doctrine of the One, see Bussanich, “Plotinus’s Metaphysics of the One.”

[4] Plotinus, Enneads 5.3.13.

[5] Ibid., 5.3.12-13.

[6] Flieger, “Naming the Unnameable,” 128.

[7] Ibid., 129.

[8] Ibid., 128-9.

[9] Ibid., 130.

[10] Ibid., 131.

[11] Flieger, Splintered Light, 53-5.

[12] Cox, “Tolkien’s Platonic Fantasy,” 58.

[13] Ibid., 57. John Houghton, by contrast, has made the claim that, in its similarities with Augustine’s Literal Commentary on Genesis, most notably in the role assumed by the Ainur, the Ainulindalë is in fact unlike the cosmogony of Plotinian Neoplatonism: “[T]ypically… those more directly Plotinian cosmogonies stress the role of three successively emanating hypostases (such as One, Intellect, and Soul) rather than the work of the angels, and thus the Ainulindalë by its nature resembles them less closely [than] it does De Genesi.” Houghton, “Augustine in the Cottage of Lost Play,” 180.

Tolkien’s Social Philosophy and Distributism

The following is a summary of Stratford Caldecott’s “Tolkien’s Social Philosophy,” an appendix to his book The Power of the Ring. Interested readers may also want to take a look at Matthew Akers’s article, “Distributism in the Shire.”

  • The social and governmental structure of the Shire was not a mere “agrarian idyll,” as some critics have called it, but the embodiment of what Tolkien took to be a practical social and political ideal.
  • Tolkien wrote that “My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs)—or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy” (Letters 52).
  • Tolkien’s antipathy towards the modern nation state is made clear in his (ironic) statement: “I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights, nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate!” Government, he adds, “is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offense to write it with a capital G or so as to refer to people.”
  • He refers to the shire as a “half republic half aristocracy” (Letters 183), and vociferously denied being either a socialist (see “The Scouring of the Shire”) or a democrat “only because ‘humility’ and equality are spiritual principles corrupted by the attempt to mechanise [sic] and formalize them, with the result that we get not universal smallness and humility, but universal greatness and pride, till some Orc gets hold of a ring of power—and then we get and are getting slavery” (Letters 186).
  • Caldecott links Tolkien’s social and political views with the Catholic social theory known as “Distributism” whose most famous proponents were Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton (collectively known as “Chesterbelloc”). The other major popular social Catholic movement at the time was the Catholic Social Guild, which Tolkien would also have greatly sympathized with, though after 1942 it became increasingly aligned with the Labor Party.
  • Distributists, as Caldecott summarizes, “saw the family as the only solid basis for civil society and of any sustainable civilization. They believed in a society of households, and were suspicious of top-down government. Power, they held, should be devolved to the lowest level compatible with a reasonable degree of order (the principle of ‘subsidiarity’). Social order flows form the natural bonds of friendship, cooperation and family loyalty, within the context of a local culture possessing a strong sense of right and wrong. It cannot be imposed by force, and indeed force should never be employed except as a last resort and in self-defense.” The problem with modern Capitalism was that “there were not enough capitalists around: property and wealth had become concentrated in the hands of a few, reducing other people to the status of ‘wage slaves’…” Distributists saw the answer to lie “in the direction of wider ownership (not ‘public ownership’); meaning that measures should be taken to encourage small and family-run businesses, farmers and local retailers, and to defend them against the larger conglomerates. Forcible redistribution of land… was not an option. … One of the most basic of these principles was freedom: the whole point of the philosophy was to foster self-sufficiency, independence, and personal responsibility. The Shire fits neatly into this tradition of social thought… It was a way of life founded on local tradition… one shaped by our ancestors…”

Tolkien, Augustine, Boethius, and Evil

In the handful of studies that have approached Tolkien first and foremost as a Christian Neoplatonist, St. Augustine and Boethius have naturally had feature-roles. John Houghton, for example, has drawn out a number of illuminating parallels between Tolkien’s creation-myth and Augustine’s literal commentary on the Book of Genesis.[1] Matthew Fisher has written an article placing Tolkien at the “crossroads” of Augustinian theology and anthropology on the one hand and, on the other, the Northern, Beowulfian theme of courage in the face of impossible opposition,[2] while Kathleen Dubs has traced the important themes of providence, fate, and chance in The Lord of the Rings to Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy.[3]

Augustine and Boethius have also made prominent appearances in a debate that has been waged over Tolkien’s philosophy of evil. While readers have long recognized a certain Neoplatonism to Tolkien’s representation of evil as a corruption or privation of the otherwise inherent goodness of being, Tolkien expert Tom Shippey has argued that Tolkien’s fiction in fact embodies a syncretistic, even contradictory union of the historically opposed views of Neoplatonic monism on the one hand and, on the other, a Manichean dualism according to which evil is a subsistent reality in its own right, coequal and equipotent with the good.[4] While Shippey’s argument has gained a significant following, Scott Davison and the late British theologian Colin Gunton have each written pieces attempting to defend the consistent Augustinianism of Tolkien’s theology of evil, and John Houghton and Neal Keesee have together argued that the tensions in Tolkien’s presentation of evil noted by Shippey are in fact tensions already present in Boethius’s treatment of evil.[5] I hope to take up this question of evil in future posts in an effort to show how an understanding of Tolkien’s Thomistic metaphysics of creation may give us a clearer view of both the coherence and the scholastic subtlety of Tolkien’s representation of evil in his fiction.

[1] Houghton, “Augustine in the Cottage of Lost Play: The Ainulindalë as Asterisk Cosmology.”

[2] Fisher, “Working at the Crossroads: Tolkien, St. Augustine, and the Beowulf-poet.”

[3] Dubs, “Providence, Fate, and Chance: Boethian Philosophy in The Lord of the Rings.”

[4] Shippey, J.R.R.Tolkien: Author of the Century, 112-160.

[5] Gunton, “A Far-Off Gleam of the Gospel: Salvation in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings”; Davison, “Tolkien and the Nature of Evil”; and Houghton and Keesee, “Tolkien, King Alfred, and Boethius: Platonist Views of Evil in The Lord Of The Rings.”

Tolkien and Platonism

Of those studies addressing the philosophical antecedents of Tolkien’s work, interest has understandably gravitated towards the foundational philosophies of Platonism and Neoplatonism. There have been the inevitable comparisons of Tolkien’s invisibility-inducing ring with the famous Ring of Gyges from Plato’s Republic,[1] and Gergely Nagy and Frank Weinreich have each looked at the similar roles that myth serves in the thought of Tolkien and Plato.[2] I already alluded in an earlier post to the prominent role Plato (along with C.S. Lewis) serves in Kreeft’s The Philosophy of Tolkien, and Mary E. Zimmer has argued that behind Tolkien’s depiction of magic in his stories is what twentieth-century German philosopher Ernst Cassirer describes as “the assumption that the world of things and the world of names form a single undifferentiated chain of causality and hence a single reality,” an assumption that Zimmer correlates with what she describes as the “Christian-Neoplatonic belief that language first created that reality.”[3] Of particular note in connection with Tolkien’s alleged Platonism are a couple of essays written more than twenty years ago by Mary Carman Rose and Verlyn Flieger.[4] Rose’s article also shares its attention with C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams, so that her discussion of Tolkien is rather brief. In it, however, she identifies Tolkien as a Christian Platonist in general and his Ainulindalë in particular as a “Christian Platonist account of creation.”[5] The three specific Platonic elements she finds common to Lewis, Williams, and Tolkien are “the reality and availability of suprasensory aspects of creation; the modes of our coming to know these aspects of creation; and the ideal copresence of truth, beauty, and goodness in all aspects of creation.”[6] Although Rose recognizes that, as Christians, the Platonism of these three thinkers does differ in some notable ways from all forms of non-Christian Platonism, she nevertheless implies that the “psychophysical dualism” and “other-worldliness” she finds explicit in Lewis and Williams are also dimly present in Tolkien. Ralph Wood, on the other hand, has made the point that, in comparison with his friend Lewis, Tolkien was in fact “no sort of Platonist at all. He espoused what might be roughly called an Aristotelian metaphysics. For him, transcendent reality is to be found in the depths of this world rather than in some putative existence beyond it.”[7] While Wood’s emphatic denial of any Platonism in Tolkien is perhaps slightly overstated, he is certainly right that the latter’s metaphysical sympathies run in a decidedly more Aristotelian than directly Platonic direction.[8]

As for Flieger’s article on Tolkien’s Neoplatonic influence, she focuses on Tolkien’s identification of God, or “Eru,” as “the One” (Eru being the Elvish word for “the One”), pointing out that a “central idea, indeed a major element, in Neoplatonic thought is the concept of God as the One, the Monad beyond human knowing or naming.”[9] Of prime interest to Flieger, accordingly, is the “unsolvable problem” she finds common to Tolkien, Plotinus, and the Christian Neoplatonist Pseudo-Dionysius: “They are confined to the separable and limited vocabulary of human language to talk about inseparable, unlimited being. They must express the inexpressible.”[10] Approaching Tolkien in light of the Plotinian and Dionysian tradition of Neoplatonism, Flieger both here and in her recently revised study, Splintered Light, stresses the apophatic or negative dimension of Tolkien’s fictional theology at the expense of its more cataphatic or positive aspects, going so far as to represent Tolkien’s Eru as an almost deistic entity who has abdicated the real work of creation to the intermediate agency of the angelic Ainur.[11] Following in Flieger’s footsteps, while offering an even deeper analysis of the overlap between the themes of Tolkien and those of Platonic and Neoplatonic philosophy, is John Cox’s thoughtful but similarly flawed “Tolkien’s Platonic Fantasy.”[12] As I have argued in contrast to both of these studies, Tolkien is in fact far more balanced, biblical, and Thomistic in his philosophies of God and creation than an one-sidedly Platonic and Neoplatonic interpretation of Tolkien would seem to allow.

[1] See Katz, “The Rings of Tolkien and Plato: Lessons in Power, Choice, and Morality”; De Armas, “Gyges’ Ring: Invisibility in Plato, Tolkien, and Lope de Vega”; Eaglestone, “Invisibility”; and Herbert, “Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil and the Platonic Ring of Gyges.”

[2] Nagy, “Saving the Myths: the Re-creation of Mythology in Plato and Tolkien” and Weinreich, “Metaphysics of Myth: The Platonic Ontology of ‘Mythopoeia’.”

[3] Zimmer, “Creating and Re-creating Worlds with Words: The Religion and Magic of Language in The Lord of the Rings,” 50, 52.

[4] Rose, “The Christian Platonism of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams,” and Flieger, “Naming the Unnameable: The Neoplatonic ‘One’ in Tolkien’s Silmarillion.”

[5] Rose, “Christian Platonism,” 205.

[6] Ibid., 206. Unfortunately Rose doesn’t apply any of these elements to Tolkien in much detail.

[7] Wood, “Conflict and Convergence,” 325.

[8] Contrary to Rose’s claim, as I may show in a future post, in the Athrabeth Tolkien explicitly rejects the psychophysical dualism of Plato in favor of the hylomorphic understanding of the soul’s relationship to the body advanced by Aristotle and St. Thomas.

[9] Flieger, “Naming the Unnameable,” 127.

[10] Ibid., 128-9.

[11] “It is the Ainur, not Eru, who actually create Tolkien’s world. They sing its plan in the Great Music which they make from the themes Eru propounds to them, and from that plan fabricate the material world. The rest of Tolkien’s vast mythology is enacted without Eru, involving chiefly the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar. Father of All he may be, but he has no further role in the action… He remains throughout the Unknown God, unknowable and unreachable in his oneness, perceivable and approachable only to the extent by which the part can represent the whole.” Ibid., 132.

[12] Cox, “Tolkien’s Platonic Fantasy.”

Tolkien Among the Postmodernists

A brief note on a few studies of Tolkien’s thought and writing that have been informed by a more postmodern focus. On the side of philosophy of language we might include here Verlyn Flieger’s Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World, which uses the linguistic theory of marginal Inkling-member Owen Barfield to elucidate Tolkien’s views on the integral and co-constitutional relationship between words and reality. Flieger, however, betrays a certain hesitance in suggesting that the beauty of Tolkien’s created universe necessarily tells us anything ultimately true about the beauty of the real universe (“Whether there really is such a universe is less important than the undeniable truth that we need one badly…”[1]). Peter Candler, however, I think comes much closer to capturing—in his study (“Tolkien or Nietzsche, Philology and Nihilism”) juxtaposing Tolkien’s Frodo Baggins and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra in their competition for the title of the ideal human form—Tolkien’s confidence in the real-world, metaphysical implications of his aesthetics. According to Candler, there is indeed an “inescapably linguistic character of all revelation and truth,” and yet Tolkien’s own contribution to the postmodern “linguistic turn” is best understood against the backdrop of the medieval belief in the absolute convertibility of the transcendental properties of truth and beauty: “The Christian appeal is, with a certain element of charm (if not ‘glamour’), to a story that is in some way more attractive because more beautiful, and beautiful because true.”[2] The contrast between Tolkien’s humble hobbits and Nietzsche’s Zarathustrian philosophy of the will to power is also the subject of Douglas Blount’s essay, “Überhobbits: Tolkien, Nietzsche, and the Will to Power.” Tolkien’s hostility towards modernity in general and its manifestation in the technological mastery of nature in particular has invited comparison with another eminent German philosopher of the last century, Martin Heidegger.[3] Also addressing the theme of power in Tolkien’s writings is Jane Chance’s “The Lord of the Rings”: The Mythology of Power, which examines Tolkien’s magnum opus in light of Michel Foucault’s important work on the nature of power structures and relationships. In an essay by Robert Eaglestone, Emanuel Levinas is the post-modern French philosopher of choice, as Eagleston analyzes the invisibility-inducing effects of Sauron’s Ring in light of Levinas’s logic of the “other.”[4] Hayden Head, finally, has found in Tolkien’s fiction a worthwhile application of the theory of imitative desire propounded by the contemporary French philosopher René Girard.[5]

[1] Flieger, Splintered Light, xii.

[2] Candler, “Tolkien or Nietzsche,” 6 (emphasis added).

[3] Malpas, “Home.”

[4] Eagleston, “Invisibility.”

[5] Head, “Imitative Desire in Tolkien’s Mythology: A Girardian Perspective.”

Some recent research on Tolkien’s medievalism, Thomism

Of late there has been a surge of interest in Tolkien’s medievalism on the one hand and in the general philosophical import of and sources behind his work on the other. A few recent books addressing Tolkien’s medieval antecedents are Tolkien the Medievalist and Tolkien’s Modern Middle Ages, both edited by Jane Chance, and The Keys of Middle-Earth: Discovering Medieval Literature through the Fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien by Stuart Lee and Elizabeth Solopova. Interested as these works primarily are in the literary influences on Tolkien, the thirteenth-century intellectual giant Aquinas receives nary a mention, nor is Tolkien’s philosophy or theology (with a couple of exceptions noted below) given much serious attention. In the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia edited by Michael Drout, Thomas fares slightly better, receiving his own article by Brad Birzer, who rightly observes that it is an “implicit rather than explicit Thomism” one finds in Tolkien’s work.[1] Birzer makes the further point as to how it would have been impossible for a Roman Catholic of Tolkien’s generation (and traditionalist bent, one might add) to have escaped the influence of Thomism, not to mention one who received his education during the decades immediately following the first Vatican Council’s revitalization of Thomas studies. Somewhat curiously, however, Birzer locates “the first and most significant Thomistic element” of Tolkien’s oeuvre in Aragorn’s Christ-like kingship, leaving the convergence between Thomas and Tolkien in matters of philosophical theology, that area where Thomas’s own legacy has arguably been the most lasting and influential, completely unconsidered.

There have been a couple of essays, however, which have ventured further into the relation between Thomas and Tolkien. Andrew Nimmo’s article, “Tolkien and Thomism: Middle-earth and the States of Nature,” takes up the five states of nature distinguished by Aquinas, namely the “hypothetical” states of (1) pure nature and (2) integral nature, and the “historical” states of (3) innocence or original justice, (4) fallen nature, and (5) restored or repaired nature, and correlates these (albeit in a rather underdeveloped fashion) with the different species of rational beings and their respective states found in Tolkien’s mythology.[2] One of if not the most extensive treatment of Tolkien in conjunction with Thomas to appear in print to date is a study by Peter Candler, which suggestively situates Tolkien at the “intersection” of Aquinas and Nietzsche.[3] Candler’s argument concerning the theoretical or conceptual relationship between the philosophies of Thomas and Tolkien revolves chiefly around Tolkien’s premise that the activity of human sub-creation is grounded in the divine activity of creation proper.[4] Candler’s main purpose, however, being the comparison and contrast of Tolkien with Nietzsche, his otherwise helpful discussion of Thomas is concluded after only a few pages.

At least two other noted Thomists have been published on Tolkien—Thomas Hibbs in his article on “Providence and the Dramatic Unity of The Lord of the Rings” in The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy, and Peter Kreeft in The Philosophy of Tolkien—though curiously neither has said anything in regards to Tolkien’s Thomism (Plato and C.S. Lewis are Kreeft’s philosophical interlocutors of choice). John Milbank, founder of the contemporary intellectual movement known as “Radical Orthodoxy” and coauthor of Truth in Aquinas, in an essay-review of Rowan William’s book on Thomist Jacques Maritain’s aesthetics, Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love, briefly credits Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton with having developed “a Catholic and even a Thomistic aesthetic.”[5] These comments anticipated the publication of his wife Alison Milbank’s book, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real, which draws attention to the metaphysical realism and the consequent belief in the freedom or independence of the created order that Chesterton and Tolkien both inherited from St. Thomas.[6] Theologian and literary critic Ralph Wood, finally, has noted a certain affinity between Tolkien and St. Thomas in their understanding of divine providence, concurrence, and miracles.[7]

[1] Birzer, “Aquinas, Thomas,” in Drout, ed., J.R.R.T. Encyclopedia, 22. St. Thomas receives a second brief mention in the Encyclopedia in Matthew Dickerson’s article, “Theological and Moral Approaches in Tolkien’s Works,” which makes the claim that “Tolkien’s Aristotelian and Thomist outlook can be seen in his emphasis on the orderliness of creation and the view of all creation having its source and purpose in the mind of God; the Ainur were the offspring of Ilúvatar’s thought, and Eä, the creation, arose from the music or Theme of Ilúvatar.” Ibid., 644.

[2] Nimmo, “Tolkien and Thomism: Middle-earth and the States of Nature.”

[3] Candler, “Tolkien or Nietzsche, Philology and Nihilism.”

[4] “Whatever the case, Tolkien, while not straightforwardly ‘Thomist’, is quite clearly, like Flannery O’Connor, at least ‘a Thomist thrice-removed’. This is evident in the way in which the human activity of poiesis is explicitly bound up with creation, particularly in the sense that all human making reflects the gratuity of the creation itself, and forms not a discrete set of activities of an agency of purely human propriety, but rather participates in the divine creation itself.” Ibid., 8.

[5] Milbank, “Scholasticism, Modernism, and Modernity,” 663.

[6] A condensed version of Alison Milbank’s discussion may also be found in her article “Tolkien, Chesterton, and Thomism.” A further, more incidental parallel between Aquinas and Tolkien pointed out by Milbank is that between, on the one hand, Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc’s social theory of “distributism,” which had its origins in Thomas’s teaching on social issues such as property-ownership, and on the other hand the kind of communitarianism idealized by Tolkien in his depiction of the Shire. Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 13. For more on Tolkien’s social philosophy, see Caldecott, The Ring of Power, 119-121. For a brief discussion of St. Thomas’s own ruralist ambivalence towards the emergent urbanism and commercialism of the thirteenth century, see Courtenay, “The King and the Leaden Coin: The Economic Background of ‘Sine Qua Non’ Causality,” 206.

[7] “There is, in fact, an implicit Thomism at work in Tolkien’s understanding of miracles. As Brian Davies observes, Aquinas ‘thinks that miracles come about by virtue of the creative activity of God and nothing else. The whole point about them is that nothing subject to God’s providence, i.e. no cause other than God (no secondary cause), is at work in their occurrence.’ This is not to say that God does violence to the created order, or that he ‘intervenes’ to disrupt its natural processes. On the contrary, St. Thomas insists that God is totally present to every existing thing, so that all events are always the effect of God’s will. Yet miracles are not worked through secondary causes, not even through their divine compression, as Lewis argues: they are brought about by God alone… Aquinas described miracles, therefore, as those events which, because their divine source is hidden from us, excite admiration—the wonder which existentially and etymologically lies at the root of the word miracle.” Wood, “Conflict and Convergence on Fundamental Matters in C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien,” 325 (emphasis original).

An early reference to Tolkien’s metaphysics, Thomism

One of the earliest acknowledgments of the significant metaphysical dimension to Tolkien’s thought also contains, notably enough, the first reference that I have found to Tolkien’s alleged Thomism. In 1972, the year prior to Tolkien’s death, professor and literary critic Paul H. Kocher raised the question as to “how far Tolkien wishes his treatment of evil to be considered not only moral but metaphysical.”[1]

Without using blatantly theological terms his ideas are often clearly theological nonetheless, and are best understood when viewed in the context of the natural theology of Thomas Aquinas, whom it is reasonable to suppose that Tolkien, as a medievalist and a Catholic, knows well. The same is true in the area of metaphysics. Some of Thomas’s less specifically Christian propositions about the nature of evil seem highly congruent with those which Tolkien expresses or implies in laymen’s terms in The Lord of the Rings.[2]

His perceptive point that Tolkien’s philosophy may be “best understood” in light of the thought of St. Thomas notwithstanding, Kocher curiously goes on to say very little himself in regards to the role of Thomas’s ideas in Tolkien’s thought. (Though in his later A Reader’s Guide to The Silmarillion, Kocher goes on to describe the Ainur as desiring Ilúvatar to give the world portrayed in the Vision “full metaphysical Being (in the Thomistic sense).”)

[1] Kocher, Master of Middle-earth: the Fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien, 76.

[2] Ibid., 77.  

Ainulindalë and Augustine’s Commentary on Genesis

As John Houghton has shown in his article “Augustine in the Cottage of Lost Play” (in Tolkien the Medievalist, ed. Jane Chance), the extent of the structural parallels between Augustine’s analysis of the Genesis account of creation and Tolkien’s Ainulindalë are quite remarkable. Houghton begins by pointing out, from the early version of the Ainulindalë from The Book of Lost Tales, Tolkien’s original intention of representing his creation-narrative as an alternative, “asterisk” or hypothetical cosmogony putatively discovered in England sometime in the early Middle Ages. As this conceit would have it, the Ainulindalë would have constituted for the medievals, along with Genesis and Plato’s Timaeus, a third creation-account.[1] Against the supposition that, because the modern reader may find “the Ainulindalë very different from Genesis,” medieval thinkers must therefore also “have found it equally strange,” Houghton argues on the contrary that, owing to the commentary tradition stemming from Augustine, “[h]ad medieval theologians encountered the Ainulindalë, they would have found its picture of a double creation—creation as music in the song of the Ainur and then as fact in the word of Ilúvatar—reassuringly easy to fit into the scheme of Augustine’s Christian-Neoplatonist synthesis.”[2] In his breakdown of Augustine’s De Genesi, Houghton discerns five distinct stages in Augustine’s analysis of the creation-event:

  1. God’s eternal intention to create, enunciated in the Word;
  2. God’s Creation in the minds of the angels of a knowledge of what is to be made;
  3. God’s creation of things, some of them (like the angels) in full existence, but most of them (like trees, plants, and human beings) in the potentials called “causal reasons”;
  4. The angels’ perception of the created things; and
  5. God’s eternal support of the Creation through the Holy Spirit.[3]

Although Tolkien’s account emphasizes music imagery and the sub-creative role of the Ainur, whereas Augustine, following Genesis, emphasizes the metaphors of speech and light and God’s role as sole Creator, Houghton points out that each of Augustine’s five stages finds an important place in the Ainulindalë:

In both cases, God first creates the angels and then reveals to them the further elements of Creation; the angels’ own knowledge reflects ideas in the divine mind. In both cases, as well, after the revelation, God gives real existence to what the angels have perceived, upholding that existence in the void; yet that real existence has only the undeveloped potential of what it will become in the unfolding of time, and God reserves to God’s self the introduction of elements unanticipated in the basic design.[4]

[1] Houghton, “Augustine in the Cottage of Lost Play,” 171.

[2] Ibid., 171-2.

[3] Ibid., 176.

[4] Ibid., 178.