Elvish Escapism

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 26

In The Lord of the Rings, it is the idealization of unchanging timelessness and preservation that characterizes the idyllic yet somewhat static Elvish enclaves of Rivendell and LothlorienFor all their elusive beauty, epitomizing the land of Faërie’s depiction in “On Fairy-Stories” as a wide realm of enchantment, peril, and longing, Tolkien nevertheless would not have us take their goodness entirely for granted. Indeed, through the theme of Elvish preservationism, it may be instructive to see Tolkien as revisiting with renewed seriousness and subtlety the problem of “escapism” (in the negative sense of that term) that he briefly acknowledges but otherwise dismisses in his essay. As he writes of the Elves in a 1956 letter,

Mere change as such is not represented as ‘evil’: it is the unfolding of the story and to refuse this is of course against the design of God. But the Elvish weakness is in these terms naturally to regret the past, and to become unwilling to face change: as if a man were to hate a very long book still going on, and wished to settle down in a favorite chapter. Hence they fell in a measure to Sauron’s deceits: they desired some “power” over things as they are (which is quite distinct from art), to make their particular will to preservation effective: to arrest change, and keep things always fresh and fair… (Letters 236)

Much as Tolkien, as I’ve suggested before, satirizes himself as author in characters such as Aulë and Niggle, through his Elves Tolkien similarly holds up what we might call a kind of “mirror for readers,” reflecting back to them their own temptations to “escape” into his and other like stories, to “appropriate,” “possess,” and so “preserve” his story in such a way as to inoculate themselves against living in the real world, instead of peculiarly equipping them for it.

Material Elves Living in a Material World

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 25

In the previous post in this series I suggested that part of the Elvish temptation towards the sin of “preservationism” lies in what Tolkien characterizes as the much greater correspondence between the conceiving intellect and the executing will found in the Elves. This greater unity among their faculties of soul means that the Elves, like Thomas’s angels, approximate to a greater degree the perfect identity of intellect and will found in the divine nature. Yet the Elvish will and intellect are still distinct, meaning, in part, that their control over their artistic sub-creations cannot be complete or exhaustive, hence the impetus towards the sin of “preservationism,” the desire to see one’s ideal sub-creations continue in perpetuity.

Corresponding to the gap between will and intellect in created, rational beings is another point I’ve made previously: whereas, for Tolkien and Thomas, the Creator gives being or existence in its entirety, creaturely sub-creating or “making,” by contrast, always presupposes some already existing and therefore somewhat recalcitrant (from the finite point of view) external matter, what for Plato fell under the principle of anankê or necessity. This lack of total, divine control over one’s artistic medium and product becomes an issue, as Leo Elders points out in a passing but apropos comment relating Thomas’s doctrine of evil to the problem of art, inasmuch as “[i]n a world which consists of limited and perishable things it will never be possible to avoid all failure” in art because “the possibility of decay and passing away is imprinted in the essence of material things…” (The Metaphysics of Being, 134-5). Herbert McCabe makes a comparable point in his discussion of the necessity of “evil suffered”–Thomas’s malo poenae, the “evil of pain”–in a world composed of corruptible beings: “In general, it seems to me that you cannot make material things that develop in time without allowing for the fact that in perfecting themselves they will damage other material things” (God Matters, 31).

To return to Tolkien’s Elves, this in some sense is their dilemma and paradox: by nature undying and unchanging, trying to carry out their sub-creative task while consigned to live forever in—and if they die, to return to—an ever-changing world, the Elves, like the Valar, become obsessed with (as Tolkien puts it) “the prevention or slowing of decay (i.e., ‘change’ viewed as a regrettable thing), the preservation of what is desired or loved, or its semblance—this is more or less an Elvish motive” (Letters 152, emphasis original). To adapt the memorable words of Madonna, the Elvish compulsion (such as it is) is that they are material (albeit immortal) beings living in a material (and so mortal) world.