The Metaphysics of Coercion in Tolkien’s Angelology

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

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

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

Entrepreneurship vs. Labor in Middle-earth

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

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

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

Tolkien on Weapons Proliferation

“And when Melkor saw that these lies were smouldering, and that pride and anger were awake among the Noldor, he spoke to them concerning weapons; and in that time the Noldor began the smithying of swords and axes and spears. Shields also they made displaying the tokens of many houses and kindreds that vied one with another; and these only they wore abroad, and of other weapons they did not speak, for each believed that he alone had received the warning.” Silm., “Of the Silmarils and the Unrest of the Noldor,” 69.

For other posts on Tolkien’s social or political philosophy, see here.

Ilúvatar’s critique of socialism

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

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

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

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