“You Read Too Much”: Tolkien to Lewis on the Critic vs. the Writer

Tolkien’s theology of forgiveness, part 3 (part 1) (part 2)

Before getting to his fullest expression of his peculiar theory of forgiveness, Tolkien first seeks to explain to Lewis and put into context his caustic remarks on the latter’s English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. Lewis had, in his reply to Tolkien’s initial letter of apology, referred to him as a “critic,” a title that Tolkien is adamant to disclaim: “I am not a critic. I do not want to be one. I am capable on occasion (after long pondering) of ‘criticism’, but I am not naturally a critical man” (Letters 126, emphasis Tolkien’s). In a note on this passage, Tolkien elaborates further on his view that formal literary criticism actually “get[s] in the way of a writer who has anything personal to say,” and compares the critic-qua-writer to a tightrope walker whose in-the-act theorizing about equilibrium may cost him his grace, if not his balance. He goes on hesitatingly to suggest that this is in fact one of Lewis’s shortcomings—that he is too much the critic and that it “gets in your way, as a writer. You read too much, and too much of that analytically. But then you are also a born critic. I am not. You are also a born reader.”

In contrast (and in part due) to Lewis’s native analytic and critical bent, Tolkien says of himself that he has “been partly and in a sense unnaturally galvanized into it by the strongly ‘critical’ tendency of the brotherhood” (i.e., the Inklings). He again denies that he is “really ‘hyper-critical’” (presumably another term Lewis had used in his letter to describe him); instead, he writes,

I am usually only trying to express ‘liking’ not universally valid criticism. As a result I am in fact merely lost in a chartless alien sea. I need food of particular kinds, not exercise for my analytical wits (which are normally employed in other fields). For I have something that I deeply desire to make, and which it is the (largely frustrated) bent of my nature to make.

For Tolkien, his judgments are no mere academic exercise of the trained literary critic, but the stomach-rumbling (as it were) of a peculiar, even idiosyncratic literary taste and need for a certain kind of aesthetic and intellectual nourishment. Critics have palates that want teasing and pleasing; Tolkien, by contrast, admits simply to an intense spiritual hunger in need of satiation.

As he implies in the above passage, it is partly his failing to find adequate sustenance elsewhere, and partly his own artistic compulsion, that has fueled his own literary expression. His statement, moreover, that he has “something I deeply desire to make” should particularly call to mind the Vala Aulë from The Silmarillion, who, after Niggle, is perhaps Tolkien’s most autobiographical and self-parodying character (for more on Aulë, see here). Much like the author of the present letter, for example, in both Aulë and Niggle we have sub-creators whose preoccupation with the works of their own hands lead them (even if unintentionally) to neglect their duties toward, and to fall short in their love for, their nearest neighbors and friends. As for Aulë in particular, when caught by Ilúvatar in his misguided and hubristic attempt to make the Dwarves, he is asked if what he seeks is a lifeless corpse to dominate and manipulate at will—a perhaps not wholly inaccurate representation, it occurs to me, of Tolkien’s above views on the literary critic. In response to this chastisement Aulë humbly, penitently, yet boldly and not without some justification informs and reminds Ilúvatar that “I did not desire such lordship. I desired things other than I am… Yet the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee.” For Tolkien as much as for Aristotle and St. Thomas, nature (because ultimately the Creator) does nothing in vain, meaning in this case that the compulsory (because ultimately divine) call of the sub-creative must be answered.

(To be continued….)

The Dwarves, Tolkien’s Ishmael

In an interesting twist to the story, the Dwarves play not only the part of Ishmael, but briefly, the role of Isaac as well: “Then Aulë took up a great hammer to smite the Dwarves; and he wept. But Ilúvatar had compassion upon Aulë and his desire, because of his humility… And the voice of Ilúvatar said to Aulë: ‘Thy offer I accepted even as it was made…’” As Verlyn Flieger comments in her Splintered Light, “Aulë’s unquestioning acceptance of Eru’s chastisement and his willingness to destroy his creatures recalls the unquestioning obedience of biblical Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac at his God’s command.”[1] That it is only after Aulë has offered—and in a symbolic sense might be said even—to destroy the Dwarves that Ilúvatar accepts them as part of his plan, might be further compared to the institution of circumcision which Yahweh establishes with Abraham between the births of Ishmael and Isaac, an act in which some commentators have seen a form of ritual castration whereby Abraham was led to renounce in faith his own efforts at accomplishing God’s purposes by the works of the flesh. In the end, of course, Aulë no more literally destroys the Dwarves than Abraham literally cuts off or kills either of his two sons, yet Aulë does have to witness his Dwarves subjected to a kind of death when they are buried “in darkness and under stone,” all the while trusting in Ilúvatar’s promise of their future “resurrection,” much as Abraham is required to receive Isaac from the “deadness,” first, of the womb of Sarah (Rom. 4:19) and later, of the altar and “tomb” that was Mt. Moriah (Heb. 11:11-12).

After Ilúvatar’s acceptance of Aulë’s sacrifice and his granting the Dwarves the gift of life, freedom, and speech, the Dwarves revert to their status as the Ishmaelites of the story. Despite Ishmael being technically Abraham’s firstborn son, it is Isaac whom Yahweh elects as the son of promise and the one with whom he would establish his covenant. In like manner, Ilúvatar decrees that Aulë’s Dwarves, although the first to be brought into being, nevertheless must not “come before the Firstborn of my design… They shall sleep now in the darkness under stone and shall not come forth until the Firstborn have awakened upon Earth.” At the same time, Yahweh’s election of Isaac and his seed does not altogether exclude the possibility of blessing for Ishmael, as Yahweh also promises Hagar to “multiply thy seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for multitude” (Gen. 16:10). This relationship finds its parallel in Ilúvatar’s statement to Aulë that, “Even as I gave being to the thoughts of the Ainur at the beginning of the World, so now I have taken up thy desire and given to it a place therein… But when the time comes I will awaken them, and they shall be to thee as children…” Yet in both cases this blessing also comes with a foreshadowing of future conflict. As Ilúvatar does with Aulë’s Dwarves, Yahweh will give Ishmael a “place” in his “design,” but Ishmael will still be a “wild man” whose “hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him” (Gen. 16:12). Similarly, Ilúvatar tells Aulë that, notwithstanding his accommodation of the Dwarves within his plan, “in no other way will I amend thy handiwork, and as thou hast made it, so shall it be.” Thus, because “they were to come in the days of the power of Melkor, Aulë made the Dwarves strong to endure. Therefore they are stone-hard, stubborn, fast in friendship and in enmity, and they suffer toil and hanger and hurt of body more hardily than all other speaking peoples…” More than this, Ilúvatar warns Aulë how “often strife shall arise between thine and mine, the children of my adoption and the children of my choice.”

[1] Verlyn Flieger, Splintered Light: Language and Logos in Tolkien’s World, 100.

Aulë, Adam, and Abraham

Aulë’s defense of himself is similarly reminiscent of the Adam and Eve story, yet again with an apparently crucial difference. He admits to Ilúvatar that “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,” words which recall Adam and Eve’s shifting of blame from themselves to the Creator for making and arranging things the way that he did: “And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat… And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat” (Gen. 3:12-13). Yet there is arguably a legitimacy and even plausibility to Aulë’s ambitions, misguided as they are, that seem to be absent in the self-justifications of Adam and Eve. His attempt to imitate Ilúvatar was born not out of a sense of jealousy, envy, or rivalry with his maker, but of a love for him and a desire that there should exist other beings who might, like him, enjoy the beauties of Ilúvatar’s world and give him due praise for it.

If Aulë’s transgression is in some ways like Adam’s, it is also like that of the other great patriarch of Genesis, Abraham. Much as Aulë knew by way of both promise (through the Vision) and natural desire that there should and would be “things other” than himself “to love and to teach them, so that they too might perceive the beauty of Eä,” so Yahweh had promised to Abraham that his children would fill the earth as the stars do the sky (Gen. 15:5). And like Abraham and Sarah did in their bareness, Aulë grew “impatient,” as we have seen, with the world’s bareness: “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.” Moreover, just as Abraham sought to bring the promise about by his own means, conceiving Ishmael through his wife Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar, so Aulë tried to hasten the arrival of the Children of Ilúvatar, Elves and Men, through his fashioning of the Dwarves.

Aulë, Babel, and Pentecost

The previous post drew a comparison between Aulë’s fashioning of the dwarves and the building of the Tower of Babel on the plain of Shinar, while noting the dissimilarity between the failure and futility of Aulë’s attempt at fashioning the Dwarves as free, independent, rational beings, and the comparative success (according to Yahweh) of the builders of the Tower of Babel in their purpose. Indeed, in some ways Aulë’s motivation is the mirror-opposite to that of the men in the plain of Shinar. It is commonplace to see the purpose behind the building of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, namely the desire not to be “scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth,” as an act of rebellion against Yahweh’s dominion mandate in Genesis 1 that man should “be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it” (1:28). In any event, Aulë’s purpose in fashioning the Dwarves seems broadly in keeping with Yahweh’s original dominion plan, as he explains his actions to Ilúvatar that “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.” Aulë, like Yahweh, is concerned to see that the world be filled.

Aulë’s allusion here to speech and language, or rather to their relative absence, is surely also significant in this context. Immediately after fashioning the Dwarves, Aulë “began to instruct the Dwarves in the speech that he had devised for them.” Aulë, in a word, is an inventor of languages, a role we see him carrying out in the previous chapter’s account of Aulë’s as-yet future (relative to his making of the Dwarves) relationship with the Noldorin Elves: “Aulë it is who is named the Friend of the Noldor, for of him they learned much in after days… [T]hey added much to his teaching, delighting in tongues and in scripts…” In his fondness for inventing languages, culminating in his attempt to fashion an entire species capable of speaking those languages, Aulë represents one of if not Tolkien’s most auto-biographical characters,[1] and hence a fascinating self-reflection and cautionary tale to himself on the potential excesses of such an obsession. What is presented as a positive source of great beauty and delight in its own right in The Silmarillion, however, namely the proliferation of speech and language, in Genesis is presented not so much as something good in of itself, as it is judgment or curse on man’s hubris and an impediment to further impious cooperation. As Yahweh declares, “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth” (11:7-9). As is well known, however, Tolkien’s own interpretation of this event was to see it as a felix peccatum (or “fortunate fall”), a veritable eucatastrophe, linguistically speaking, a point that would again commend the story of Aulë and the Dwarves as a sort of commentary on Tolkien’s part on the story of the Tower of Babel. It is perhaps some corroboration of Tolkien’s perspective that when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the Christians at Pentecost in the Book of Acts, an event that, again, commentators have seen as hearkening back to and reversing the Babel incident, the result is not an undoing of the multiplicity and disparity of languages, but the gift of understanding and speaking them. Connected with this is Tolkien’s use of the iconic imagery of Pentecost in the closing lines of his poem “Mythopoeia” to capture his vision of the eschatological role that human sub-creators will play in the consumation of all things:

Be sure they still will make, not being dead,

and poets shall have flames upon their head,

and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:

there each shall choose for ever from the All.

[1] Verlyn Flieger may, if memory serves, make this point in her Splintered Light: Language and Logos in Tolkien’s World. 

Of Aulë and Adam

           A number of interesting, and possibly even significant, parallels suggest themselves between Genesis and the story of the Valar Aulë’s attempt at fashioning the Dwarves in The Silmarillion. When the Creator, Ilúvatar, confronts Aulë, he asks him, “Why hast thou done this? Why dost thou attempt a thing which thou knowest is beyond thy power and thy authority?”, questions which may put us in mind of the inquiry Yahweh makes to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden: “Where art thou?… Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?” (Gen. 3:9, 11). Aulë, in short, is an Adam figure, a representative or covenant head whose transgression in this story will prove to be no ordinary peccadillo, but is nothing short of a “fall,” an original sin that will have consequences extending far beyond the initial offender himself. Part of that sin, moreover, and as we also see in the case of Adam and Eve, involves an illicit effort to become like the Creator himself. The serpent’s temptation to Eve, after all, was that God had forbidden the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden because he knew that in eating of it “ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (3:5), and Aulë admits to Ilúvatar that his desire in fashioning the Dwarves was to achieve a certain likeness to the Creator himself, the very thing, it is worth noting, that also led to Melkor’s fall in the Ainulindalë. Consistent with Genesis, then, Tolkien portrays the origin of evil as a vain and idolatrous effort to attain something of God’s own power. As I would argue further, there is a very real sense in Tolkien’s world in which this is all that evil ever is.

I said a moment ago that the sins of both Aulë and Adam and Eve involved a “vain” effort to attain a certain likeness to God, but in the case of Adam and Eve, this is perhaps not strictly accurate. Like Aulë, Adam and Eve do attempt that which is clearly beyond their “authority,” but unlike Aulë, apparently not wholly beyond their “power.” In contrast to the situation with Aulë, who manages only in fashioning witless automata and not the free, living beings he had intended, Yahweh himself would seem to bear witness to the limited yet real success of Adam and Eve’s rebellion when he declares, “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil…” (Gen. 3:22). In keeping with this achievement is the argument made by some commentators that because the knowledge of good and evil is elsewhere characterized in Scripture as a good and even kingly gift (see 1 Kings 3:10 and Heb. 5:14), Yahweh’s purpose may have been all along to allow Adam and Eve to eat of this fruit after they had passed a period of probation and the testing of their obedience. In this, however, we have yet another point of comparison with the story of Aulë, inasmuch as his sin, as with Melkor’s original fall, is further identified as one of “impatience,” of being too hasty to realize by his own efforts something that Ilúvatar had determined to bring about in his own good time. The ultimate impossibility and hence utter audacity of Aulë’s intentions, therefore, may seem to be more comparable to the building of the Tower of Babel, by means of which men sought to “reach unto heaven” lest they be “scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (11:4) though here, too, it is interesting to find that Yahweh comments more on the potential success than on the apparent futility of their project: “And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do” (11:6).