The Good of Evil: Manwë’s Un-Thomism

When, in the Silmarillion, the herald of Manwë reports to him the bold and brazen words of Fëanor, we are told that

Manwë wept and bowed his head. But at that last word of Fëanor: that at the least the Noldor should do deeds to live in song for ever, he raised his head, as one that hears a voice far off, and he said: ‘So shall it be! Dear-bought those songs shall be accounted, and yet shall be well-bought. For the price could be no other. Thus even as Eru spoke to us shall beauty not before conceived be brought into Eä, and evil yet be good to have been.’ (“Of the Sun and Moon and the Hiding of Valinor”)

St. Thomas, however, would seem to prefer not put things in quite this way. In his article on “whether God wills evils” (ST I.19.9), the first objection he entertains reads as follows:

It seems that God wills evils. For every good that exists, God wills. But it is a good that evil should exist. For Augustine says (Enchiridion 95): “Although evil in so far as it is evil is not a good, yet it is good that not only good things should exist, but also evil things.” Therefore God wills evil things.

To this objection Aquinas replies thus:

Some have said that although God does not will evil, yet He wills that evil should be or be done, because, although evil is not a good, yet it is good that evil should be or be done. This they said because things evil in themselves are ordered to some good end; and this order they thought was expressed in the words “that evil should be or be done.” This, however, is not correct; since evil is not of itself ordered to good, but accidentally. For it is beside the intention of the sinner, that any good should follow from his sin; as it was beside the intention of tyrants that the patience of the martyrs should shine forth from all their persecutions. It cannot therefore be said that such an ordering to good is implied in the statement that it is a good thing that evil should be or be done, since nothing is judged of by that which appertains to it accidentally, but by that which belongs to it essentially.

As Aquinas would see it, accordingly, while it is true that not only good, but a unique form of good that otherwise would not have been possible, is brought about as a consequence of Fëanor’s rebellion, it does not follow from this, as Manwë implies, that it was therefore good for Fëanor’s “evil to have been” (indeed, for Aquinas, as for Tolkien generally, since evil has no being of itself but is a privation of being, it makes no sense to speak, literally, of evil “having been”). Manwë’s error, in other words, might be seen to involve the fallacy of division, of assuming, that is, that what is true of the whole (in this case, the goodness of Fëanor’s-evil-leading-to-good) must therefore also be true of its parts (the goodness of Fëanor’s-evil).

Enchanting the Elves: Tolkien’s Gospel Inversion of Faërie

(The following is an essay I wrote for Roman Roads’ Digressio Magazine a couple of years ago, and which can be found here.)

In his famous essay “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien defines fairy stories as being not about fairies so much as they are about the land of Faërie, that is, the “perilous realm” (which may or may not be inhabited by actual fairies) into which men will sometimes wander and where they find danger, adventure, and above all enchantment. In his epilogue to his essay, however, Tolkien turns the tables somewhat to imply that, if the role of Faërie and of fairy stories is to enchant and in that sense “redeem” those who venture into them, there is another sense in which both Faërie and fairy stories are themselves in need of being saved. Thus, he explains how in the Gospel tales of Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection, God has not only turned human history and reality into a fairy story, but just as interestingly, he has also made our fairy stories in particular and our sub-creations in general to be something entirely and eminently real. Apart from such fulfillment, Tolkien leads us to believe, our fairy stories, however beautiful and enchanting they may be in their own right, would ultimately differ little from mere “Dreams,” stories, that is, in which (like fairy stories) “strange powers of the mind may be unlocked,” but which in the end “cheat deliberately the primal desire at the heart of Faërie: the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder.” In the Christian evangelium, accordingly, the realm of Faërie itself gets treated to its own enchanting eucatastrophe, a fact that better enables it to enchant us in our turn.

In this essay, I want to look at three examples of how this theme of the “Gospel inversion” of fairy stories—the way, that is, the Gospel turns the tables and subjects Faërie to its own kind of fairy story—shows up within Tolkien’s own master fairy story, The Lord of the Rings. Specifically, I will show how in what might be distinguished as the three “mini-fairy stories” within The Fellowship of the Ring—Frodo’s encounter with Gildor and his Elves in the Shire, Frodo’s experience at Rivendell, and finally Frodo’s experience at Lothlórien—in each case Tolkien begins by presenting us with a classic case of Faërie enchantment, only to then “invert” the stock formula by using hobbits (in some ways a personification of Gospel weakness and lowliness) to “enchant” their elvish enchanters.

Before seeing how these three episodes meet Tolkien’s qualifications for a true fairy story (and how they then go on to invert them), we need to first delineate what some of these distinctive elements are. In his essay Tolkien describes “the realm of fairy-story” as “wide and deep and high” and a place about which “it is dangerous for [man] to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.” As for the inhabitants of this land, the fairies or “elves,” he describes them as “put[ting] on a pride and beauty that we would fain wear ourselves,” and their magic as that of a “power to play on the desires of [man’s] body and his heart.” Part of our desire for Faërie and for fairies, ironically, stems from their indifference towards us: “elves are not primarily concerned with us, nor we with them. Our fates are sundered, and our paths seldom meet. Even upon the borders of Faërie we encounter them only at some chance crossing of the ways.” As Tolkien characterizes Faërie, in sum, it is a land where the fairies or elves—proud, noble, and beautiful—are entirely at home, and we are the tolerated strangers, guests and beneficiaries of their hospitality, however long it should last.

To turn, then, to The Lord of the Rings, perhaps the most complete and self-contained fairy story in the whole book is chapter three of The Fellowship of the Ring, titled “Three’s Company” (the chapter could almost be read on its own as a stand-alone fairy story). The chapter opens with Frodo needing to take a “journey” but to an as-yet unknown destination. When Gandalf tells him to head towards Rivendell, Frodo’s “heart was moved suddenly with a desire to see the house of Elrond Halfelven, and breathe the air of that deep valley where many of the Fair Folk still dwelt in peace.” Frodo’s home of Bag End, by comparison, is described as “seem[ing] sad and gloomy and dishevelled. Frodo wandered round the familiar rooms, and saw the light of the sunset fade on the walls, and shadows creep out of the corners.” Frodo, in short, is in need of enchantment, and that’s exactly what he gets when the travelers encounter Elves in the Shire forest. When the hobbits are about to be discovered by a Black Rider, an eucatastrophe occurs when the Elves arrive and scare the latter off with their singing. From their song, which is about their own, longed-for but irretrievable past, Frodo is able to identify them as “High Elves” and the “fairest folk,” few of whom still remain in Middle-earth, making their meeting here a “strange chance.” The starlight glimmers on their hair and in their eyes, and though they “bore no lights,” they seemed to radiant their own light like the moon. When the Elves at last notice the hobbits, however, they “laugh,” address Frodo by name and indicate a familiarity with his traveling habits. When Frodo asks if they might travel together, the Elves inform him that they have “no need of other company,” that besides the hobbits don’t even know where the Elves are going, and jest with him that, what is more, “hobbits are so dull.” Nevertheless, Gildor, their leader, tells Frodo that although “it is not our custom,” nevertheless “for this time we will take you on our road, and you shall lodge with us tonight, if you will.” As the hobbits travel with the Elves, Sam wandered “as if in a dream, with an expression on his face half of fear and half of astonished joy.” After arriving at their destination, the village of Woodhall, the Elves at first “seemed to take no further notice of the hobbits,” but then prove quite hospitable, delighting the hobbits with food and festivity. When Frodo refers to their surroundings as “our Shire,” Gildor instructs him that “it is not your own Shire,” for “[o]thers dwelt here before hobbits were; and others will dwell here again when hobbits are no more.” The following day, the hobbits awake to find themselves deserted by the Elves, yet fed and fortified to continue their journey to Rivendell.

As the above summary is meant to illustrate, the chapter “Three is Company” represents a rather precise illustration of many of the features of the ideal fairy story that Tolkien discusses in his essay and which I highlighted earlier. But now comes the Gospel twist, which is that while the chapter gives us an excellent, even stock example of “men” stumbling into and being enchanted within the realm of Faërie, Tolkien also turns the tables to some extent to have the high and mighty Elves also receive a form of “enchantment” by the simple and lowly hobbits. Although the first example of Elvish laughter is at the hobbits’ expense, the second time the Elves laugh is now at their own expense, when Frodo addresses them formally but politely in their own language: “‘Be careful, friends!’ cried Gildor laughing. ‘Speak no secrets! Here is a scholar in the Ancient Tongue. Bilbo was a good master. Hail, Elf-friend!’ he said, bowing to Frodo. ‘Come now with your friends and join our company!’” Later, Frodo makes Gildor laugh once more when Frodo playfully and proverbially “defamiliarizes” for Gildor the Elves’ own habit of giving overly-qualified counsel: “‘And it is also said,’ answered Frodo: ‘Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.’ ‘Is it indeed?’ laughed Gildor.” And toward the end of their conversation, when Gildor repeats the commonplace that “Elves have their own labours and their own sorrows, and they are little concerned with the ways of hobbits, or of any other creatures. Our paths cross theirs seldom, by chance of purpose,” he indicates that his puzzling encounter with Frodo has nevertheless altered his perspective at least as much if not more than he has altered Frodo’s: “In this meeting there may be more than chance; but the purpose is not clear to me, and I fear to say too much.” As Gildor dimly senses but does not yet fully realize, it is the small and seemingly helpless and hapless Frodo and his fellow hobbits that, in their quest to destroy the Ring, will turn out to be the eucatastrophic deliverance of the very realm of Faërie itself. In his last words to Frodo, finally, Gildor gives expression to the reverse enchantment that has taken place when he returns Frodo’s earlier benediction: “I name you Elf-friend; and may the stars shine upon the end of your road! Seldom have we had such delight in strangers, and it is fair to hear words of the Ancient Speech from the lips of other wanderers in the world.” They’ve gone from being “dull hobbits” who don’t know where the Elves are even heading to those who actually “delight” the Elves and treat them to a fresh “recovery” of the beauty of their own tongue.

Space forbids us from making a comparable study of The Fellowship of the Ring’s two other fairy-stories-in-miniature, yet a brief word needs to be said about them here. At Rivendell, in the chapter “Many Meetings,” Frodo is once more treated to a fairy story enchantment by the Elves, yet in the following chapter, “The Council of Elrond,” it is the hobbit, Tolkien’s personification of the Pauline principle of God using seemingly “foolish” and “weak” things to confound the “strength of “wisdom” of men, who emerges as the key to unlocking all. Here it is Elrond who expresses the principle of Gospel inversion when, in a reversal of Thucydides’s famous dictum of pagan wisdom that “the strong do what they can while the weak suffer what they must,” he declares instead in much more Christian fashion that the quest of the Ring “may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.” And in Lothlórien, finally, while the Fellowship receives rest and enchantment in the halls of the fairy-queen herself, the Lady Galadriel, these roles also find themselves reversed when it is Galadriel who becomes the beneficiary of the “courtesy” of the hobbit Frodo (and later, even by the dwarf Gimli).

In conclusion, what each of these cases represents, as has been suggested, is a display of Tolkien’s own mastery of the fairy tale genre as he analyses it in his essay, namely as stories of a sublime land of not merely physical but also emotional and even aesthetic peril, a place where man is a guest and may find his own love for the natural world rekindled by a people at once mysterious, proud, noble, and beautiful. At the same time, and has also been said, in each of these episodes we witness another dimension to Tolkien, a uniquely Christian dimension, in which he makes his own fairy stories undergo their own kind of eucatastrophe, by giving the high and noble Elves themselves an opportunity for enchantment, only now by the mundane and familiar hobbits. In doing so, I submit, Tolkien captures something of his own, peculiar and paradoxical view, expressed in the epilogue to his essay, that in the Gospel fairy stories themselves are re-enchanted through the simultaneous nobility and humility of that consummate Elf-hobbit, the God-man Jesus Christ.


Aquinas on the “Buffoons and Comedians” of the Red Carpet (literally)

The Academy Awards are tomorrow, making it an opportune moment to reflect, not so much on what Aquinas might have said about the event, so much as what he actually did say about it. In his commentary on Aristotle’s discussion of the excess and vice of frivolous ostentation, Aquinas writes:

He says that the man who is immoderate in grand outlays—called banausos because he consumes his goods as in a furnace—exceeds the munificent person not in the absolute amount spent but in spending in a way contrary to what he should. The reason is that he uses much money in superfluous expenses, and wants to make lavish expenditures contrary to harmony, i.e., against the right proportion—which is said by way of metaphor—for instance, he entertains buffoons and comedians with nuptial banquets, contributes much to actors, even rolling out the red carpet for their entry, as the Megarians (certain Greek citizens) are in the habit of doing. He does all these and similar things not for some good but for making a show of his riches, thinking that he will be admired for this reason. However, he does not always spend lavishly but sometimes he falls short. Where he ought to spend much, he spends little; but where little, much. The reason is that he does not keep his eye on the good but on vanity. (Commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics, bk, 4, ch. 1, Litzinger trans.)

Aragorn on Leadership

Aragorn to Gandalf after the later asks who will follow him into Moria:

‘I will,’ said Aragorn heavily. ‘You followed my lead almost to disaster in the snow, and have said no word of blame. I will follow your lead now–if this last warning does not move you. It is not of the Ring, nor of us others that I am thinking now, but of you, Gandalf. And I say to you: if you pass the doors of Moria, beware!’

“For trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow'”

An exposition of “Mythopoeia,” part 2

for trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow.’ Here we have an example of what labeling consists of. There’s no real mystery, just an identification of something someone already knew. There’s been no process of defamiliarization, of “making strange,” followed by “Recovery.” In epistemological terms, you might call this a mere “correspondence” theory of truth. Things are already a certain way, and our statements come along and merely affirm that instead of entering into dialogue with things and changing them as a result.

you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace /one of the many minor globes of Space. Here we see a scientific diminishment of earth, in contrast with the mythopoeic representation Tolkien will give later when he refers to the earth as “mother.” Earth, in other words, is what myth tells us what it is, whereas here, in the scientific conception, earth is merely one globe amongst many, and not a particularly remarkable one at that.

“You look at trees and label them just so”

An exposition of “Mythopoeia,” part 1

In an elective I taught recently on Anselm and Tolkien, the class spent a couple of sessions expositing together the meaning of Tolkien’s poem “Mythopoeia.” This series is the fruit of that exercise.

You look at trees and label them just so. Later in the poem Tolkien uses the word name, setting up a contrast between labeling and naming. Labeling is what the modern scientist does; naming is what Adam and subcreators do. So what is the differenence? Labeling is comparatively passive, a mere reflection of what is already there, slaping a label on it without contributing anything to it. There is no “value added.” In modal theistic terms, we might say that labelling is “possibilistic”: it takes for granted the existing reality and seeks merely to represent it as it is; the possibility of what it may be labeled is predetermined. Naming, by conrast, is “actualistic”: what its name is cannot be determined apart from the act of naming itself.

Return of the Kings at the Prancing Pony

I posted a few days ago on the hints Tolkien gives us along the way of the existence of the hobbit “Conspiracy” long before it is “unmasked” in ch. 5 of book 1 of the Fellowship. In a similar fashion, before the reader even meets Strider at the Prancing Pony, Tolkien has already given some clues as to his identity. When Frodo first notices Strider, what he sees is “a strange-looking weather-beaten man, sitting in the shadows near the wall, [who] was also listening intently to the hobbit-talk…. A travel-stained cloak of heavy dark-green cloth was drawn close about him, and in spite of the heat of the room he wore a hood that overshadowed his face.” It’s not clear whether we are supposed to suspect, or at least wonder, whether this man is himself a Black Rider, but there doesn’t seem to be anything to rule it out as a possibility, except that Frodo is able to see the “gleam of his eyes.” Perhaps Tolkien wants us to wonder whether he is a Black Rider while simultaneously giving us the evidence–whether we recognize it as such or not–for why he can’t be. At the very least, it would be reasonable for the (attentive) reader to wonder if this mysterious figure is at all connected with the “dark figure” who, when the hobbits turn their backs from speaking to the Bree gatekeeper, “climbed quickly in over the gated and melted into the shadows of the village street.” For as it turns out, this figure, whom we are led to wonder if it is a Black Rider, is in fact Strider.

When Frodo asks Butterbur who the man is, however, he tells him that he “don’t rightly know,” but that “He is one of the wandering folk–Rangers we call them.” Butterbur goes on to say describe Strider in the following words:

He seldom talks: not but what he can tell a rare tale when he has the mind. He disappears for a month, or a year, and then he pops up again. He was in and out pretty often last spring; but I haven’t seen him about lately. What his right name is I’ve never heard: but he’s known round here as Strider. Goes about at a great pace on his long shanks; though he don’t tell nobody what cause he has to hurry.

What Butterbur says here of Strider, however, is merely a particular instance and illustration of the reader has already learned about Rangers at the beginning of the chapter. As Tolkien writes there:

In those days no other Men had settled dwellings so far west, or within a hundred leagues of the Shire. But in the wild lands beyond Bree there were mysterious wanderers. The Bree-folk called them Rangers, and knew nothing of their origin. They were taller and darker than the Men of Bree and were believed to have strange powers of sight and hearing, and to understand the languages of beasts and birds. They roamed at will southwards, and eastwards even as far as the Misty Mountains; but they were now few and rarely seen. When they appeared they brought news from afar, and told strange forgotten tales which were eagerly listened to; but the Bree-folk did not make friends of them.

Strider, then, is simply one of these “Rangers,” a “mysterious,” dwindling and wandering folk who are “taller and darker” than other men, had “strange powers of sight and hearing and are able to commune with animals. What is important to note, however, is that the Rangers are only introduced after–immediately after, mind you–a discussion of the ancient kings of Númenor. The Men of Bree, we are told, counted themselves the “descendants of the first Men that ever wandered into the West of the middle-world. Few had survived the turmoils of the Elder Days: but when the Kings returned again over the Great Sea they had found the Bree-men still there, and they were still there now, when the memory of the old Kings had faded into the grass.” What this passage says is that the Men of Bree who were there when Númenórean kings first returned from over the sea are still there now, whereas the memory of the kings themselves has become forgotten. What the passage carefully does not say is that the Númenórean kings themselves were no longer there, for of course, the reality is that, while they may be forgotten, they are not gone.

As I say, it is immediately on the heels of this discussion that the narration turns to the Rangers. “In those days no other Men has settled dwellings so far west, or within a hundred leagues of the Shire. But in the wild lands beyond Bree there were mysterious wanderers. The Bree-folk called them Rangers, and knew nothing of their origin.” The reason the Bree-folk knew nothing of their origins, it turns, is one that we have already been told: these are the descendants of the Númenóreans from over the sea whose memory has now “faded into the grass.” And this is who Strider is.

Thus, long before the reader gets to the third part of The Lord of the Rings and its theme of the “return of the king,” he is introduced to those ancients kings who long ago “returned” to Middle-earth over the Great Sea to find men living in Bree, kings whose identity has since become forgotten, but not, as it turns out, because they are no longer present. And it is the descendent and heir to these kings who has made yet another “return” to Bree and whom we meet with Frodo “At the Sign of the Prancing Pony.”