Lewis on elves in medieval thought

For St. Thomas, according to Chesterton, the question of angels was, in part, the question of whether there could be creatures “between” men and God. As Peter Kreeft has observed, the question for Tolkien is the related one of, “Could there be creatures between men and angels, such as Elves?” (The Philosophy of Tolkien 78). As Kreeft also points out, Tolkien’s question was not original to him but was also of medieval origin. Kreeft cites a passage from The Discarded Image by Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis in which Lewis makes much the same point about the intermediary and cosmological-aesthetic function served by Elves (the Longaevi or “longlivers”) in medieval literature, as Chesterton and others have made on behalf of St. Thomas’s angels. As Lewis writes of the medieval conception of the Elves: “Herein lies their imaginative value. They soften the classic severity of the huge design…” (Lewis, The Discarded Image, 122). Kreeft goes further to suggest that “[t]he same philosophical arguments for the existence of angels” that Lewis makes in his treatise on Miracles “could also be used as probable arguments for the possible existence of Elves or other species between the human and the angelic” (Kreeft 80).

Chesterton on Aquinas’s anthropology of the angels

In addition to Aquinas’s treatment of angels as metaphysical curiosities, Howard Kainz also speaks of an important anthropological dimension to Thomas’s angelology. Kainz begins by making the point (especially apropos to our interest in Tolkien) that it is “profitable for us to discuss the significance of the angels, in terms of their mythical content,” by which he means the “subjective relevance” of the angelic beings, first, as “projections” of an idealized human existence, secondly, as “external reflections” of a “hierarchy of spiritual values, and thirdly, as “models” for human political ideals such as equality. In other words, in addition to the theoretical significance of the question of their actual existence, reflection on angels was understood to provide important insights into human beings as their immediate yet subordinate neighbors in the hierarchy of being.

Consistent with this anthropological perspective on Thomas’s angelology is the following remark by one of Tolkien’s own mentors in the ways of fairy-land, G.K. Chesterton. In his biography of St. Thomas he writes:

St. Thomas really was rather specially interested in the nature of Angels, for the same reason that made him even more interested in the nature of Men. It was a part of that strong personal interest in things subordinate and semidependent, which runs through his whole system: a hierarchy of higher and lower liberties. He was interested in the problem of the Angel, as he was interested in the problem of the Man, because it was a problem; and especially because it was a problem of an intermediate creature. I do not pretend to deal here with this mysterious quality, as he conceives it to exist in that inscrutable intellectual being, who is less than God but more than Man. But it was this quality of a link in the chain, or a rung in the ladder, which mainly concerned the theologian, in developing his own particular theory of degrees. Above all, it is this which chiefly moves him, when he finds so fascinating the central mystery of Man. And for him the point is always that Man is not a balloon going up into the sky, nor a mole burrowing merely in the earth; but rather a thing like a tree, whose roots are fed from the earth, while its highest branches seem to rise almost to the stars.[1]

As I hope to show in some follow-up posts, it is to this same scholastic tradition of doing anthropology by proxy—that is, of studying man by studying that which is not man and yet nearest to him (man’s “other”)—that both Tolkien’s fictional angels and his Elves may instructively be seen to belong.


[1] Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas: “The Dumb Ox,164. David Keck gives a similar account of the anthropological motive involved not only in Thomas’s but in medieval speculation over angels generally when he writes: “Of all God’s creatures, human beings are nearest to the angels, and angelology thus promises to illuminate anthropology. In the modern world, the impulse to learn about human nature from closely related beings has shifted subjects from seraphim to simians. Whereas modern scientists study the origins of the apes to uncover clues about humanity, medieval theologians investigated angels.” Keck, Angels and Angelology in the Middle Ages, 16. Collins makes the same point in his study on Thomas’s angelology: “The unity of the source of all being and the analogical similarity of all things guarantee that a knowledge of each grade will shed some further light upon what is below and what is above it in the hierarchy of reality. For the better understanding of God and the creative process, we can turn to that order of being which provides the most intimate created similitude of the first intelligent and free Agent. On the other hand, while it is true (as Pascal observes) that man is neither brute nor angel, still the consideration of him from the perspective of the angel to whom he is inferior as well as of the brute which he surpasses does enable us to determine more accurately his proper stature. Both natural theology and philosophical anthropology may profit by a comparative use of the Thomistic theory of pure forms.” Collins, The Thomistic Philosophy of the Angels, xii-xiii.

The philosopher vs. the poet

In Chesterton’s The Man Who was Thursday, two characters, the Secretary and Gregory Syme, illustrate the contrast between the two archetypes of “the philosopher” and “the poet”:

“For if the Secretary stood for that philosopher who loves the original and formless light, Syme was a type of the poet who seeks always to make the light in special shapes, to split it up into sun and star. The philosopher may sometimes love the infinite; the poet always loves the finite. For him the great moment is not the creation of light, but the creation of the sun and moon.” –G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who was Thursday 

Tolkien’s Chestertonian Nominalism?

The previous post noted the similarity between Tolkien’s use of the law of non-contradiction as a limit on legitimate sub-creative possibility and the use of this same law by medieval schoolmen such as Aquinas and Ockham to help define God’s own creative possibility. A further, at least apparent similarity between Tolkien and Ockham in particular on this point is the seeming permissiveness of the limit of mere logical possibility in allowing for all manner of outrageous speculations as to how God, or the finite sub-creator, might make the world otherwise than it is.

In Tolkien’s account of sub-creative fantasy, for example, and similar to that given by his mentor in the ways of fairy-land, Chesterton, the theme of creaturely contingency is so exaggerated that one might almost be lead to wonder if it isn’t Ockham rather than Aquinas who exerted the more significant philosophical influence over Tolkien’s imagination. In his chapter from Orthodoxy on “The Ethics of Elfland,” a passage which made a deep impression on Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Chesterton gives us the following account of the philosophical import of fairy-stories which might sound more like a page lifted from Ockham’s Enlightenment counterpart, the nominalist David Hume, than it does from a man who would later write the world’s most famous biography of St. Thomas:

We have always in our fairy tales kept this sharp distinction between the science of mental relations, in which there really are laws, and the science of physical facts, in which there are no laws, but only weird repetitions… All the terms used in the science books, “law,” “necessity,” “order,” “tendency,” and so on, are really unintellectual, because they assume an inner synthesis, which we do not possess. The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, “charm,” “spell,” “enchantment.” They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched.[1]

Later on in the same chapter, Chesterton spells out explicitly the theology implicit in this philosophy of fairyland, a philosophy that, again, would seem to channel more the spirit of the “unconquerable doctor” (doctor invincibilis) than that of the angelic doctor:

the fairy-tale philosopher is glad that the leaf is green precisely because it might have been scarlet. He feels as if it had turned green an instant before he looked at it. He is pleased that snow is white on the strictly reasonable ground that it might have been black. Every color has in it a bold quality as of choice; the red of garden roses is not only decisive but also dramatic, like suddenly spilt blood. He feels that something has been done…. So one elephant having a trunk was odd; but all elephants having trunks looked like a plot…. But the repetition in Nature seemed sometimes to be an excited repetition, like that of an angry schoolmaster saying the same thing over and over again… But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them… I had always vaguely felt facts to be miracles in the sense that they are wonderful: now I began to think them miracles in the stricter sense that they were willful. I mean that they were, or might be, repeated exercises of some will. In short, I had always believed that the world involved magic: now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician…. There was something personal in the world, as in a work of art; whatever it meant it meant violently.[2]

While Tolkien’s approach to fairy-land is perhaps less exaggerated than Chesterton’s, his own fairy-tale speculations about the kind of metaphysical “magic” able to “make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey led into yellow gold, and the still rock into swift water,” are similarly evocative of the brand of outlandish, counter-factual hypotheses about divine absolute power associated with Ockham. In the comparatively more sober, tidy, predictable, and reserved Aristotelian outlook of Aquinas, after all, where knowledge is primarily a matter of intellectually apprehending the immutable essences of things, one is much more disposed (as Aquinas is) to dwell on the naturalness, the fittingness, and in some sense even the necessity of created structures. In the fairyland of Tolkien, by contrast, a very different spirit seems to dwell, one in which knowledge of a thing is almost a knowledge of its contingency, of its lack of necessity. Finally, in his ability to produce “new form” by the mere command of his “will,” as he puts it in his essay, the Tolkienian sub-creator might seem to resemble in small-scale the voluntarist God of Ockham, that supremely free and powerful deity whose sovereign and unfettered will not only freely posits the created world itself, but also the very forms or divine ideas according to which the world is created. In a world so conceived, the forms or universals by which the human mind gains knowledge are in fact nothing real independent of the mind that conceives or “names” them, but are rather mere “fictions” of the mind, fictional in the etymological sense of things having been “made.”

These similarities notwithstanding, and as I hope to demonstrate in follow-up posts, not only is Tolkien not, in the final analysis, at least, an Ockhamist, but his reflections on the nature of sub-creation may in fact provide us with an altogether unique and powerful critique of Ockham’s theology of divine omnipotence which helped lay the foundation for the modern age.


[1] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 56, 58. Chesterton’s distinction between the “science of mental relations” and the “science of physical facts” derives from Hume’s well-known distinction between “relations of ideas” and “matters of fact” as the two fundamental classes of human knowledge. Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 15. (Alison Milbank draws a similar comparison between Chesterton and Hume in Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 9.) In Chesterton’s claim, moreover, that in nature we do not find “laws” but “only weird repetitions,” we would also seem to have Hume’s occasionalist theory of causality, also anticipated by Ockham, according to which our experience of causality is never that of “necessary connection” but merely of “constant conjunction.” As Chesterton himself writes a couple of pages later, “[a] forlorn lover might be unable to dissociate the moon from lost love; so the materialist is unable to dissociate the moon from the tide. In both cases there is no connection, except that one has seen them together.” Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 58.

[2] Ibid., 64-70.