Atheism in Middle-earth: “The Sea has no shore. There is no Light in the West.”

“The Sea has no shore. There is no Light in the West.” These are the words spoken by one of Melkor’s spies, disguised as Amlach, son of Imlach, at the council of Men convened in the First Age to decide what to do about the perils facing them in Middle-earth (Silmarillion, “Of the Coming of Men into the West,” 145). The literal significance of these words, of course, is their denial of Valinor, of the Valar, of their light, by implication, a denial of Ilúvatar himself, and therefore also a denial of Men’s own dignified status as the Children of Ilúvatar.

More symbolically, pseudo-Amlach’s words are an expression of philosophical atheism: they constitute a rejection of transcendence, of a future hope and resurrection, of a reconciliation of the world to God and the restoration of all things, of a final judgment upon evil and the righting of all wrongs. In exchange for these things, pseudo-Amlach’s words offer (again, symbolically) a worldview that is reductionistic, wholly immanentized, materialistic, anti-supernatural, and hence anti-humane and therefore anti-humanistic. It is the counsel of despair under the guise of an urbane but (in reality) enervating cynicism.

Against such philosophical reductionism, accordingly, Tolkien’s entire legendarium sounds a clarion reminder that the seemingly endless Sea does have a shore, and that however dark things may seem, there is indeed a “Light in the West.” (This is The Lord of the Rings as counter-atheism.) A couple of familiar passages reinforce the point. The first is from Frodo’s peculiar dream while at Crick-Hollow:

Then he heard a noise in the distance. At first he thought it was a great wind coming over the leaves of the forest. Then he knew that it was not leaves, but the sound of the Sea far-off; a sound he had never heard in waking life, though it had often troubled his dreams. Suddenly he found he was out in the open. There were no trees after all. He was on a dark heath, and there was a strange salt smell in the air. Looking up he saw before him a tall white tower, standing alone on a high ridge. A great desire came over him to climb the tower and see the Sea. He started to struggle up the ridge towards the tower: but suddenly a light came in the sky, and there was a noise of thunder.

As Verlyn Flieger comments in her fine analysis of this passage in Splintered Light, 

The episode invites comparison with the final line of the allegory in the Beowulf essay. In both instances, the effect comes less from the images of tower and sea than from the stated or implied desire to climb up and look outward to the immense unknown. Tolkien’s use of this idea in both the [Beowulf] essay and The Lord of the Rings suggests that for him it transcended allegory to express an indefinable but very real attribute of the human psyche: the desire to seek something without knowing what it is.” (Flieger, Splintered Light, 16)

As St. Thomas would put it, man seeks God as an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason. The second passage is one I cited recently (Tolkien’s last voyage), when Frodo himself finally comes to the shore and Light beyond the Sea:

Then Frodo kissed Merry and Pippin, and last of all Sam, and went aboard; and the sails were drawn up, and the wind blew, and slowly the ship slipped away down the long grey firth; and the light of the glass of Galadriel that Frodo bore glimmered and was lost. And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.

This scene answers to and is the fulfillment of Frodo’s earlier dream: no longer in a state of mere anticipation of that which he has most deeply longed for, he has come to that place where his desire can at last be satiated and his joy made full. For this reason the passage really stands as the climactic and consummating eucatastrophe of the entire Lord of the Rings, when the work is at its most theological–reminding us, as Augustine so memorably put it, that “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee”–as Frodo is ushered into a vision of divine light, not as an oblique “ray of light through the very chinks of the universe” (as Tolkien describes eucatastrophe in one place), but now (as St. Paul put it) “face to face.”

Nightingale, image of Eucatastrophe

“[Luthien] Tinúviel’s attendant bird, the nightingale, is a fitting emblem of eucatastrophe, pouring out its fluting song when all is dark. Its symbolic significance may be measured in the words of men on the Western Front. [Tolkien’s friend and fellow TCBS member] Rob Gilson, hearing a nightingale in the early hours one May morning from his trench dugout, thought it ‘wonderful that shells and bullets shouldn’t have banished them, when they are always so shy of everything human’, while Siegfried Sassoon wrote that ‘the perfect performance of a nightingale… seemed miraculous after the desolation of the trenches’.” (Garth, Tolkien and the Great War, 265)

Material Necessity in Tolkien and Plato

The concluding point of the previous post observed that neither Tolkien’s Valar nor Plato’s demiurge create ex nihilo, but produce things from already existing matter which in both cases is further analyzed in terms of the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water. This leads to yet another fascinating parallel between Tolkien and Plato, which is that although both their creation-accounts attempt to attribute as much causality in the world as possible to the agency of their respective demiurges (what Plato represents under the principle of divine “Mind” or nous), both mythologies also recognize the existence and role of a counter-principle, one that both Plato and, as we shall see, Tolkien after him represent under the concept of ananke or “necessity.” In the Timaeus, because matter is not created by, but is co-existent with the demiurge, it has its own intrinsic and even erratic properties which the demiurge is not responsible for and which present an inherent constraint on or obstacle to his world-making activity. The result, as Donald Zeyl has put it, is that there are moments when divine Mind or Intellect “must make concessions to Necessity [ananke].”[1]

For Tolkien’s “demiurges”, too, the matter out of which they make the world is not indefinitely malleable but, as we will see later, has its own inherent potentialities which the Valar do not themselves make but instead labor to harness and actualize. As for Plato’s notion of ananke or Necessity, while it does not appear in the Ainulindalë, Tolkien does make a reference to this concept in a letter to his son Christopher explaining his literary device of eucatastrophe. As Tolkien defines it, eucatastrophe involves

a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back… So that in the Primary Miracle (the Resurrection) and the lesser Christian miracles too though less, you have not only that sudden glimpse of the truth behind the apparent Anankê of our world, but a glimpse that is actually a ray of light through the very chinks of the universe about us. (Letters 100-1)

According to Tolkien, part of what makes the rescued joy of eucatastrophe so poignant is the prior sense of the tragic inevitability of an event, the assumption, that is, that the course of nature is locked in an inalterable chain of “material cause and effect, the chain of death,” which the Creator must somehow overcome if his purposes are to be realized in the world. As I will argue in a follow-up post, Tolkien’s account of ananke does differ significantly from Plato’s, yet the point to be appreciated here is that, for Tolkien, the thrill of eucatastrophe, whether in fairy-stories or in real-life miracles, is expressible and experience-able in terms of the Platonic dialectic of a victory of divine benevolence, wisdom, or “Mind” over an (apparently) competing, impersonal force of brute, causal necessity.


[1] Zeyl, “Introduction,” in Plato, Timaeus, xxxiv. According to Eric Voeglin, the notion of ananke in the Timaeus, along with the idea of peitho or “persuasion” by which the demiurge manipulates ananke, were themes Plato derived from “the other great spiritual thinker of Hellas,” the tragedian Aeschylus: “The theme of the Oresteia is the yoke of Ananke and its breaking through the wisdom that has come by suffering. The generations of the gods follow one another, each doing penance for the violence of its rule by falling a victim to the successor, until Zeus breaks the chain through his personal rise to a just rule of constraint and wisdom. Likewise the mortals, as Agamemnon, bow to Ananke and commit misdeeds, to be followed by avenging in misdeeds in horrible succession until the chain of vengeance is broken, in the Eumenides, by Athena who persuades the Erinyes to accept the acquittal of their victim and to change their own nature from vengeance to beneficence…. The parallels between Plato and Aeschylus are so close that they hardly can be accidental. The Zeus agoraios, the Zeus of persuasion over the assembly of the people, is next of kin to the Demiurge and the Royal Ruler. The victory of Nous over Ananke in the Timaeus must be seen against the Aeschylean background of the victory of the new wisdom over the older mythical forces…” Voeglin, Plato, 204. On Aeschylus’s significance for Plato’s Timaeus, see also Cornford, Plato’s Cosmology, 361-4.