Aulë as the anti-Prometheus

In his Birth of Tragedy, sect. 69, Nietzsche writes how “the youthful Goethe was able to reveal to us in the audacious words of his Prometheus:

Here I sit, forming men

in my own image,

a race to be like me,

to suffer, to weep,

to delight and to rejoice,

and to defy you,

as I do.             

Contrast this with Aulë’s very different account of his motives in his attempt at making “men”:

‘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 [Ilúvatar] hast caused to be. For it seemed to me that there is great room in Arda for many things that might rejoice in it, yet it is for the most part empty still, and dumb. And in my impatience I have fallen into folly. Yet the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee; and the child of little understanding that makes a play of the deeds of his father may do so without thought of mockery, but because he is the son of his father.’ 

In other words, Aulë’s response to Ilúvatar is: “I’m no Prometheus.”


Tolkienian Fairy-Story and Nietzschean Tragedy

Metaphysics of the Music, part 39

Tolkien’s critique of the dream-device in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” might be further compared with Nietzsche’s similar critique in The Birth of Tragedy of the dramatic prologue introduced by Euripides into ancient Greek tragedy. Similar to Tolkien’s remarks on the Dream, Nietzsche speaks of the Euripidean prologue as depriving man of the exercise of an human emotion or experience which he believes to be foundational to man’s being. For Nietzsche, of course, it is not the experience that Tolkien hungers for, namely the desire or hope that the imaginatively and marvelous worlds of Faërie should be made real, a hope that ends in joy in the metaphysical event of the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus. Rather, Nietzsche speaks of the tragic prologue as “interfering” with the audience’s pathos, passion, and “pleasurable absorption” in the tragic, Dionysian scenes being represented on the stage. With the introduction of the Euripidean prologue, “[s]o long as the spectator has to figure out the meaning of this or that person, or the presuppositions of this or that conflict of inclinations and purposes, he cannot become completely absorbed in the activities and sufferings of the chief characters or feel breathless pity and fear” (The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Kaufmann, 84). For both Tolkien and Nietzsche, the artistic experience is ultimately about man being reminded of and reconciled to the ultimate nature of things, of allowing ultimate reality, however conceived, to break into man’s routine existence and to revisit and revivify the ordinary with a sense of the extraordinary. It is this fundamental openness to a transcendent (in Tolkien’s case) or immanent/subterranean (in Nietzche’s) reality that the dream-device for Tolkien and the Euripidean prologue for Nietzsche work to impede.

Tolkien’s subversion of Nietzsche

Metaphysics of the Music, part 7

One figure who has been discussed by commentators in connection with Tolkien but not where his music imagery is concerned is Friedrich Nietzsche, whose subversion of the classical and medieval ontology of peace and harmony Tolkien’s own creation-myth serves to undermine. In The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, an early work that ended his career as a philologist while confirming his calling as a philosopher, Nietzsche argues that the fundamental being of things, so far from constituting a universal harmony, instead embodies an original, violent, and terrifying discord and chaos, one that the Greeks symbolized (Nietzsche argues) through the originally Asiatic god Dionysus. Pitted against the annihilating abyss underlying reality, human existence and experience are a “terror and horror,” an ultimate futility and suffering in which consolation may nevertheless be found through a heroic effort of self-assertion and the artistic creation of meaning, value, and order. This is accomplished by imposing on the Dionysian disorder the pleasing veil of “Apollinian” cultural order and constraint. One way to read the Ainulindalë, accordingly, is to see Tolkien as offering an implicit narrative polemic against his fellow philologist, in which the violent, discordant music introduced by the aspiring Dionysian figure, Melkor, represents not, as Nietzsche would have it, an authentic form of reality, but rather the parasitic and pathetic existence of a nihilistic and ressentiment-filled negation of those beautiful harmonies and peaceful rhythms which flow from the Creator himself.

From Domination to Annihilation

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 44

The fifth and final stage in Tolkien’s “lowerarchy” of evil, already anticipated in his account of domination and thus revealing the latent motive within it, is that of outright annihilation, the will not simply to control and subordinate the being of others, but to destroy them all together. In the Ainulindalë, accordingly, although Melkor is initially satisfied, when the Vision of the world is first given, with making himself the lord and master over it, when he fails (as he must) to achieve this, he falls into utter nihilism in his efforts simply to undo all the demiurgic work of the other Valar. In a commentary titled “Notes on motives in the Silmarillion” (a variant manuscript refers to it as “Some notes on the ‘philosophy‘ of the Silmarillion–Morgoth’s Ring 394), Tolkien distinguishes the domination of Sauron from the later annihilationism of Melkor in this way:

when Melkor was confronted by the existence of other inhabitants of Arda, with other wills and intelligences, he was enraged by the mere fact of their existence… Hence his endeavor always to break wills and subordinate them to or absorb them into his own will and being, before destroying their bodies. This was sheer nihilism, and negation its one ultimate object: Morgoth would no doubt, if he had been victorious, have ultimately destroyed even his own “creatures,” such as the Orcs, when they had served his sole purpose in using them: the destruction of Elves and Men… [L]eft alone, he could only have gone raging on till all was leveled again into a formless chaos…

            Sauron had never reached this stage of nihilistic madness. He did not object to the existence of the world, so long as he could do what he liked with it. He still had the relics of positive purposes, that descended from the good of the nature in which he began: it had been his virtue (and therefore also the cause of his fall, and of his relapse) that he loved order and coordination, and disliked all confusion and wasteful friction…

            Morgoth had no “plan”: unless destruction and reduction to nil of a world in which he had only a share can be called a “plan.” But this is, of course, a simplification of the situation. Sauron had not served Morgoth, even in his last stages, without becoming infected by his lust for destruction, and his hatred of God (which must end in nihilism). (MR 395-7)

The will to dominate, as typified by Sauron, still at least admits the existence and therefore at some level the desirableness of other things, provided they can be made to enlarge oneself. This ambition, however, is never wholly achievable, inasmuch as the otherness of things is ultimately an irreducible, transcendental prerogative and gift of all being, and so the unwavering pursuit of absolute domination invariably devolves into annihilationism, the will to power, in other words, into the will to obliterate. In his suggestion that, following the success of his own domination, Melkor “could only have gone raging on till all was leveled again into a formless chaos,” Tolkien articulates the same logical progression of evil that he may have observed in Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism, wherein Maritain alludes to Thomas’s discussion in the Summa on the potentially infinite hunger of the concupiscible appetite (ST 1-2, 30, 4):

Material progress may contribute [to the production of art], to the extent that it allows man leisure of soul. But if such progress is employed only to serve the will to power and to gratify a cupidity which opens infinite jaws—concupiscentia est infinita—it leads the world back to chaos at an accelerated speed; that is its way of tending toward the principle. (Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 75)

In summary, in Melkor we see the misguided, primeval attempt at making things other than himself, after passing through the Sauronic desire to assimilate all other things to his own self, devolve finally into its complete antithesis in the desire to unmake those things other than himself, the feeling of one’s own being as threatened by and impinged upon by the mere fact of their existence. The contemporary application of this fact, finally, is a stinging indictment of where modern, industrial and mechanized culture is headed. The Sauronic “will to mere power” (Letters160), according to Tolkien (and in contrast to Nietzsche), is not the solution to, but the presaging of, the Melkorish will to nothingness.

Magic, domination, and the Ring

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 38

If the aim of domination is the reduction of the being of another to the image or extension of one’s own being, the principal means for accomplishing this end is what Tolkien refers to as “Magic,” not in the sense of a generous “Enchantment,” but in its negative, occult, and manipulative sense, or, as its modern counterpart has it, “the Machine,” which leads to the third aspect of the Ring I wish to consider. Although Tolkien in general discourages his readers from allegorizing the Ring (the Ring as nuclear power or the atomic bomb, for example), in one letter he nevertheless says that the “primary symbolism of the Ring” is “the will to mere power, seeking to make itself objective by physical force and mechanism, and so inevitably by lies” (Letters160). (That Tolkien may have had Nietzsche’s notion of the will to power particularly in mind here is further implied in his statement, in the same passage, that one “moral” of The Lord of the Rings is, consistent with Nietzsche, “the obvious one that without the high and noble the simple and vulgar is utterly mean,” and yet, contrary to Nietzsche, “without the simple and ordinary the noble and heroic is meaningless.”) Note that Tolkien does not say that the Ring symbolizes technology or mechanization, but that it symbolizes the will or intent to dominate through the production and use of these means. Thus, if the Ring in Tolkien’s fiction should appear as a thing inherently evil, as Shipppey points out, I submit that it is less because Tolkien has momentarily lapsed into a Manichaean, evil-objectifying dualism, than it is a matter of the Ring embodying mythically an inherently problematic attitude towards reality. Also, as the mythical incarnation of Sauron’s corrupt will, the Ring possesses (ironically) a personal dimension or connection that sets it apart from ordinary inanimate objects. One reason the Ring cannot be used for any good whatsoever, therefore, is not because it is an objectified form of independently existing evil, but because the Ring represents and embodies a person, and even evil persons such as Sauron are (as Kant recognized) to be treated as ends and never as means only.

Even considered as a material object, however, Sauron’s Ring might be compared to what Thomas describes in his Summa, in an article on “Whether the adornment of women is devoid of mortal sin,” as a case of “art directed to the production of good which men cannot use without sin” (ST 2-2.169.2 ad 4), a passage Jacques Maritain refers to in his Art and Scholasticism (a work, as I have suggested previously, Tolkien may have been aware of). In such cases, Thomas argues, “it follows that the workmen sin in making such things, as directly affording others an occasion of sin; for instance, if a man were to make idols or anything pertaining to idolatrous worship.” In addition to it being the mythical embodiment of Sauron’s corrupted will, therefore, the Ring in and of itself is evil in the sense that it is was made for one purpose alone, namely the tyrannous domination of others, and therefore has this evil as its only “proper” use (for which it is indeed useful, and therefore in that sense “good”).

Another passage from St. Thomas, this time from the Summa’s discussion of evil proper, that might possibly inform a reading of Sauron’s Ring is found in his explanation, discussed earlier, as to how good can be the cause of evil (ST 1.49.1). When there is a “defect” or “ineptitude” in the instrument or matter of the agent, Thomas argues, then there will be a corresponding defect in the action or effect of the action. And this is the problem with the Ring: designed as a means for dominating others, in addition to it being the literal embodiment of a corrupt or defective will, the Ring has an inherent defect which must corrupt every action, no matter how well intended, in which it is used. (For a related discussion on how “Aquinas also has something to contribute to the problem of the Ring of Power,” see Alison Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 24.)

Tolkien’s “Manichaeism”

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 37

In this series of posts I have been examining Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, the discussion surrounding which has been greatly influenced by Tom Shippey’s provocative and challenging claim that Tolkien’s fiction does not in fact contain a consistent or coherent presentation of evil, but involves rather a “running ambivalence,” tension, or contradiction between two ancient and antagonistic accounts of evil: the Augustinian privation theory of evil on the one hand, according to which everything that exists is good to the extent that it exists, meaning that evil is only an absence, lack, negation, and corruption of that existing good; and on the other hand, the Manichaean doctrine (once espoused by Augustine himself but later abandoned as he turned first to the Platonists and later to Christianity) that evil is a real force, presence, and power in its own right, equal to and equipotent with the good with which it is eternally at war. My purpose, by contrast, in this series of posts has been to show that Tolkien’s literary representation of evil is actually more coherent than Shippey allows, but that, contrary perhaps to some of Shippey’s critics, it is a coherence that is achieved not through an outright rejection of Manichaeism, but (paradoxically) through the deliberate inclusion of and even dalliance with Manichaean elements within his fiction. As I hope to show, Tolkien’s is not an Augustinianism in the face of Manichaeism (an opposition that itself inconsistently implies a kind of Manichaean dualism–Manichaeism as Augustinianism’s “outside,” its intractable, unassimilatable “other”), but an Augustinianism that at some level self-consciously recognizes and exposes the “falsehood” and “evil” of Manichaeism as itself a kind of “privation”–but for that reason also a (distorted) preservation and presupposition of–Augustinian truth.

It should be said, however, that part of Tolkien’s subtle and subversive sublation of Manichaeism is his overt representation of it as evil within his fiction. Thus, in the last post we considered some of the dualistic elements implicit in Sauron’s Ring. Shippey himself takes the Ring’s characterization as something inherently evil and incapable of any proper use as evidence of Tolkien-as-author’s more Manichaean moments, a point I hope to come back to later. Yet as we saw previously, perhaps more significant than the Manichaean metaphysics the Ring allegedly and unwittingly embodies is the Manichaean reality the Ring deliberately and malevolently seeks to enact, particularly by suppressing its wearer’s materiality and physicality by rendering him invisible. It is not Tolkien, in other words, but Sauron who is the Manichee. Consistent with this is the fact that, as Birzer points out, it is something like a Manichaean Gnosticism that Sauron converts the Númenorians to in their worship of Morgoth as the prince of darkness. More significant still is what we learn in the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, namely that it was just this seduction into a Manichaean deification of darkness that comprised the Original Sin of Men as a whole. As Andreth reports to Finrod, “still many Men perceive the world only as a war between Light and Dark equipotent. But you will say: nay, that is Manwë and Melkor; Eru is above them…” (Morgoth’s Ring 321). The Elves are the Augustinians, and corrupted Men are the Manichees.

Thus, it would seem that Shippey is more correct than he realizes when he discovers a certain Manichaeism in Tolkien’s representation of evil, for it is not an implicit but an explicit Manichaeism that Tolkien embodies in his fiction. Yet surely it weighs heavily against Shippey’s claim that Tolkien’s own views on evil were Manichaean when the principal representatives of the Manichaean outlook within his fiction are themselves the greatest agents of evil, as well as the ones standing to gain the most from the proliferation of its doctrine. Instead, and as we shall see more fully later, Tolkien’s purpose seems rather to have been to illustrate the point John Milbank makes in his account of the privation theory of St. Thomas and Augustine: “For evil to be at all, it must still deploy and invoke some good, yet it would like to forget this: evil as positive is evil’s own fondest illusion” (Milbank, “Evil: Darkness and Silence,” in Being Reconciled, 22). And so, while Tolkien was indeed expressly interested in the question of Manichaeism, what we see here is that much of his concern seems to have been the genealogical, etiological, psychological, and ultimately critical one of giving to Manichaeism a mythic and even demonic origin behind its teaching. If so, moreover, it’s possible to see here Tolkien as undertaking a reversal and subversion of what Peter Candler observes to have been Nietzsche’s own “implicit suggestion” in Thus Spake Zarathustra, namely that “Judaism and Christianity are themselves corruptions of an originally pure [pre-Christian and proto-Gnostic] Zoroastrianism which can be redeemed by more forcefully saying ‘yes’ to that particular past, while negating its false images…” (Candler, “Tolkien or Nietzsche, Philology and Nihilism,” 27). As we will see later, then, Tolkien was deeply interested, as Shippey rightly observes, in the seeming independence and autonomy of evil recognized by the Manichees, yet in a way that (as I shall argue) led him to give this seeming independence and autonomy of evil a very different and arguably even more powerful source than what ancient Manichaeism was able to account for.

Melkor: Tolkien’s critique of Nietzsche’s aesthetic

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 33

I’ve written before on Feänor as a kind of implied critique on Tolkien’s part of Nietzsche’s Dionysianism (see here and here). Another character, however, in whom one might see Tolkien toying with and ultimately subverting the aesthetic ideals of his fellow philologist is Melkor. In the preceding post in this series, I cited a passage from the Ainulindalë describing what I characterized as Melkor’s domineering “will to sameness.” In contrast to the complex and diverse themes of Ilúvatar and the faithful Ainur, the music of Melkor is said to have “achieved a unity of its own; but it was loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated; and it had little harmony, but rather a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes,” in contrast to the music of Ilúvatar which “was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came” (Silmarillion 16-17). Although he doesn’t seem to have had Tolkien’s Ainulindalë in mind, the entire conflict between the music of Melkor and Ilúvatar almost perfectly symbolizes what theologian David Bentley Hart has described as the permanent antagonism between the Dionysian aesthetic of Nietzsche and his disciple Gilles Deleuze on the one hand, and the competing aesthetic offered within Christian theology on the other. As Hart writes,

A Dionysian rhythm… embraced within the incessant drumbeat of being’s unica vox as it repeats itself endlessly, from whose beat difference erupts as a perpetual divergence; and even if Dionysus allows the odd irenic caesura in his dance—the occasional beautiful sequence—it constitutes only a slackening of a tempo, a momentary paralysis of his limbs, a reflective interval that still never arrests the underlying beat of difference. Theology, though, starting from the Christian narrative of creation out of nothingness, effected by the power and love of the God who is Trinity, might well inquire whether rhythm could not be the prior truth of things, and chaos only an illusion, the effect of a certain convulsive or discordant beat, the repetition of a sinful series. (The Beauty of the Infinite, 276-7)

Feänor, Tolkien’s (Dantean) Ulysses

I’ve commented before on the Nietzschean, Dionysian aspect to Feänor’s character. I’m re-reading Dante’s Divine Comedy at the moment and it occurs to me that the Florentine poet’s inventive depiction of Ulysses/Odysseus might be another noteworthy literary antecedent and parallel, if not outright influence. We learn something of Tolkien’s familiarity with and attitude toward Dante in a letter reviewing an interview in which he had said that Dante “doesn’t attract me. He’s full of spite and malice. I don’t care for his petty relations with petty people in petty cities.” In his review of the interview, Tolkien retracts his remarks, writing that his

reference to Dante was outrageous. I do not seriously dream of being measured against Dante, a supreme poet. At one time Lewis and I used to read him to one another. I was for a while a member of the Oxford Dante Society (I think at the proposal of Lewis, who overestimated greatly my scholarship in Dante or Italian generally). It remains true that I found the ‘pettiness’ that I spoke of a sad blemish in places.

One character who receives an ignoble if not exactly “petty” end at Dante’s hands, yet in a way that anticipates an important message in Tolkien’s fiction, is the Greek hero Ulysses, whom Dante places in the eighth circle of his Hell where the perpetrators of “simple” fraud are imprisoned, and in the eighth malebolgia (“evil pocket”) in particular, in which those guilty of deception, fraudulent advice, or “evil counsel” are punished. Not knowing Greek, Dante did not have a first-hand knowledge of Homer’s epics, and so was presumably unaware of the eventual fate of Odysseus as Homer foreshadows it. The Ithacan King, as we learn in the Odyssey, is told that, even after arriving home after a 20 year absence, must undertake one final journey (over land) to plant an oar in homage to and appeasement of Poseidon. Only then will he at last be allowed to settle down and live to the end of his days in relative peace.

In Dante’s recasting of his character, “Ulysses” is made instead into an incurable adventurer who apparently never makes it home at all, as he persuades his men to sail with him beyond the Straights of Gibraltar, going (as Captain Kirk so memorably put it) where no man has ever gone before. As Ulysses explains to Dante the pilgrim,

not sweetness of a son, not reverence / for an aging father, not the debt of love / I owed Penelope to make her happy, / could quench deep in myself the burning wish / to know the world and have experience / of all man’s vices, of all human worth. (Inferno 26.94-99, Musa trans.)

Ulysses goes on to recount the speech by which he persuaded his men to join him on his ludicrous journey, the speech, we are led to believe, that is also responsible for his present place in Hell:

‘Brothers,’ I said, ‘who through a hundred thousand / perils have made your way to reach the West, / during this so brief vigil of our senses / that is still reserved for us, do not deny / yourself experience of what there is beyond, / behind the sun, in the world they call unpeopled. / Consider what you came from: you are Greeks! / You were not born to live like mindless brutes / but to follow paths of excellence and knowledge. / With this brief exhortation I made my crew / so anxious for the way that lay ahead, / that then I hardly could have held them back…  (26.112-120)

As Ulysses explains the end of their “mad flight,” they sailed to the southernmost end of the Earth where they were just able to espy the shores and towering height of Mount Purgatory itself (atop of which Eden or Paradise lies) before, in an act of divine judgment (“as pleased Another’s will”–26.141), their ship was spun around three times and sunk into the sea with all her crew.

Thus, in exchange for Homer’s Odysseus, the “great tactician,” man of great cunning and “many turns” (polymetis) who overcomes enormous obstacles, including gods, giants, monsters, and suitors, Dante gives us a Ulysses whose lasting legacy is the deception he perpetrated, not on his enemies, but on his own men. In Dante’s hands, the story of Ulysses is a cautionary tale about the hubris, curiosity, and autonomy or independence that seeks knowledge, experience, and perhaps even power that lies beyond man’s proper boundaries, as well as the destructive interpersonal and social consequences of the kind of eloquence and demagoguery that deceives others for one’s own benefit.

While Tolkien reserves Ulysses and his men’s specific fate of drowning by divine intervention for the Númenóreans–themselves a cautionary tale warning man not transgress his appointed boundaries, to aspire to determine his own destiny, and to seize paradise by his own power–the theme of deceptively and self-interestedly playing to the prejudices and sense of superiority of one’s subordinates in persuading them to distinguish themselves through the pursuit of new lands and experiences is very much at the heart of Fëanor’s story. In The Silmarillion, after Melkor’s theft of the Silmarils, Fëanor, a “master of words” whose “tongue had great power over hearts when he would use it,” makes to his fellow Noldorin Elves a speech

which they ever remembered. Fierce and few were his words, and filled with anger and pride; and hearing them the Noldor were stirred to madness…. Long he spoke, and ever he urged the Noldor to follow him and by their own prowess to win freedom and great realms in the lands of the East… ‘Fair shall the end be,’ he cried, though long and hard shall be the road! Say farewell to bondage! But say farewell also to ease! Say farewell to the weak! Say farewell to your treasures! More still shall we make. Journey light: but bring with you your swords! For we will go further than Oromë, endure longer than Tulkas: we will never turn back from pursuit. After Morgoth to the ends of the Earth!… But when we have conquered and have regained the Silmarils, then we and we alone shall be lords of the unsullied Light, and masters of the bliss and beauty of Arda. No other race shall oust us!’

As I’ve suggested elsewhere, through his character of Fëanor, Tolkien honestly and sympathetically captures something of the tragic and epic greatness and nobility sought after, for example, by Nietzsche in his Dionysian neo-paganism. At the same time, however, a consideration of Fëanor’s Ulyssean aspect serves to remind us of something else I’ve written on previously, which is Tolkien’s Christian (and now Dantean) concern that in the final analysis such assertions of self-will are no ultimate answer to the human destructiveness and banality of nihilism, but are merely a more dramatic and pathetic (in both the etymological and colloquial senses of that word) form of it.

Homer vs. Beowulf: Tolkien and Nietzsche on the necessity of Monsters

There is much in Tolkien’s essay on Beowulf that bears comparison with Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, one instance of which is the role of foil that Homer’s epics play in their respective arguments. Tolkien quotes at length this passage from another scholar’s essay titled “Beowulf and the Heroic Age”:

In the epoch of Beowulf a Heroic Age more wild and primitive than that of Greece is brought into touch with Christendom, with the Sermon on the Mount, with Catholic theology and ideas of Heaven and Hell. We see the difference, if we compare the wilder things–the folk-tale element–in Beowulf with the wilder things of Homer. Take for example the tale of Odysseus and the Cyclops–the No-man trick. Odysseus is struggling with a monstrous and wicked foe, but he is not exactly thought of as struggling with the powers of darkness. Polyphemus, by devouring his guests, acts in a way which is hateful to Zeus and hte other gods: yet the Cyclops is himself god-begotten and under divine protection, and the fact that Odysseus has maimed him is a wrong which Poseidon is slow to forgive. But the gigantic foes whom Beowulf has to meet are identified with the foes of God. Grendel and the dragon are constantly referred to in language which is meant to recall the powers of darkness with which Christian men felt themselves to be encompaeed. They are hte ‘inmates of Hell’, ‘adversaries of God’, ‘offspring of Cain’, ‘enemies of mankind’. Consequently, the matter of hte main story of Beowulf, monstrous as it is, is not so removed from common mediaeval experience as it seems to us to be from our own…. Grendel hardly differs from the fiends of the pit who were always in ambush to waylay a righteous man. And so Beowulf, for all that he moves in the world of the primitive Heroic Age of the Germans, nevertheless is almost a Christian knight.

(Tolkien qualifies that last line, saying “I should prefer to say that [Beowulf] moves in a northern heroic age imagined by a Christian.”) Later in his essay Tolkien is found expressing much the same sentiment in his own words, when he contrasts Homer’s (“southern”) theology with the mythology (and more specifically, the bestiary) of Beowulf:

the southern gods are more godlike–more lofty, dread, and inscrutable. They are timeless and do not fear death. Such a mythology may hold the promise of a profounder thought. In any case it was a virtue of the southern mythology that it could not stop where it was. It must go forward to philosophy or relapse into anarchy. For in a sense it had shirked the problem precisely by not having the monsters in the centre-as they are in Beowulf… But such horrors cannot be left permanently unexplained, lurking on the outer edges… It is the strength of the norther mythological imagination that it faced this problem, put the monsters in the centre, gave them victory but no honour, and found a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage… So potent is it, that while the older southern imagination has faded for ever into literary ornament, the northern has power, as it were, to revive its spirit even in our own times. It can work … without gods: martial heroism as its own end. But we may remember that the poet of Beowulf saw clearly: the wages of heroism is death.

One similarity, then, is between Tolkien’s evaluation of Beowulf‘s continuing capacity to fire the spirit of indomitable will and courage down to “our own times,” and Nietzsche’s parallel argument in The Birth of Tragedy concerning the prophetic potency and promise of the spirit of music, formerly found in Attic tragedy, to revitalize contemporary German culture. Both authors, in other words, are deeply interested in the power of these premodern texts to help rescue the modern world from its intellectual malaise and so replace the prevailing will-to-nothingness with a healthy even if pagan will-to-life. And like Nietzsche before him, who saw the dark and chaotic Dionysian element of Attic tragedy as a necessary corrective to the already too Apollonian (Olympian) world of Homer–what with its clearly drawn deities and intelligible (because all too human) motives and action–Tolkien, too, treats the “southern gods” dialectically as already on their way towards one of two extremes, either the social instability of anarchy or the transcendent repose of philosophy. And similar to Nietzsche’s view of the significance of the Dionysian chorus within Attic tragedy, for Tolkien it is the way in which the Beowulf poet puts the monstrous at the center of things that is particularly deserving of commendation and wonder. Yet one obvious difference is that where Nietzsche the self-appointed “Anti-Christ” saw Attic tragedy’s synthesis of the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses as achieving a truly constructive cultural balance, Tolkien, as Christian, does not allow his admiration for the “martial heroism” of Beowulf to blind him to its limitations, as he sides with the poet himself in testifying that “the wages of heroism is death.”

Fëanor, “Spirit of Fire”

Consuming Sons: The Nihilism of Fëanor and Denethor, part 3

More obvious examples of Fëanor’s devouring spirit, of course, are to be found in his demagogic manipulation and exploitation of his fellow Noldorin Elves, persuading them to return to Middle-earth and take up the war against Melkor, a war which is really on his own behalf and for his own benefit; his Melkorish theft of the Teleri’s ships and his instigation of the kin-slaying when the Teleri attempt to withstand him; his abandoning his half-brother Fingolfin and the greater part of the Noldorin people on the northern shores of Aman when he deems them no longer useful to himself, and leaving them to cross over to Middle-earth via the treacherous “grinding ice” of the Helcaraxë; his wanton and wasteful destruction of the Teleri’s beautiful ships upon his own debarkation on the shores of Middle-earth (in this Tolkien may be seen, through his arguably most Dionysian character, to expose Nietzsche’s übermensch as no protection against, but as precariously vulnerable to, the very petty spirit of ressentiment and nihilism that Nietzsche so feared); and finally, the manner in which Fëanor’s spirit destroys his own flesh upon his death after being mortally wounded by Balrogs in his charge upon Angband: “Then he died; but he had neither burial nor tomb, for so fiery was his spirit that as it sped his body fell to ash, and was borne away like smoke…” As Fëanor lived, so he died, consuming even his own self.

Fëanor’s Nietzscheanism, Dionysianism

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

“‘Fair shall the end be,’ he [Fëanor] cried, ‘though long and hard shall be the road! Say farewell to bondage! But say farewell also to ease! Say farewell to the weak! Say farewell to your treasures! More still shall we make… But if any will come with me, I say to them: Is sorrow foreboded to you? But in Aman we have seen it. In Aman we have come through bliss to woe. The other now we will try: through sorrow to find joy; or freedom, at the least.’” (Silmarillion, “Of the Flight of the Noldor,” 83, 85)

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