Tolkien’s subversion of Nietzsche

Metaphysics of the Music, part 7

One figure who has been discussed by commentators in connection with Tolkien but not where his music imagery is concerned is Friedrich Nietzsche, whose subversion of the classical and medieval ontology of peace and harmony Tolkien’s own creation-myth serves to undermine. In The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, an early work that ended his career as a philologist while confirming his calling as a philosopher, Nietzsche argues that the fundamental being of things, so far from constituting a universal harmony, instead embodies an original, violent, and terrifying discord and chaos, one that the Greeks symbolized (Nietzsche argues) through the originally Asiatic god Dionysus. Pitted against the annihilating abyss underlying reality, human existence and experience are a “terror and horror,” an ultimate futility and suffering in which consolation may nevertheless be found through a heroic effort of self-assertion and the artistic creation of meaning, value, and order. This is accomplished by imposing on the Dionysian disorder the pleasing veil of “Apollinian” cultural order and constraint. One way to read the Ainulindalë, accordingly, is to see Tolkien as offering an implicit narrative polemic against his fellow philologist, in which the violent, discordant music introduced by the aspiring Dionysian figure, Melkor, represents not, as Nietzsche would have it, an authentic form of reality, but rather the parasitic and pathetic existence of a nihilistic and ressentiment-filled negation of those beautiful harmonies and peaceful rhythms which flow from the Creator himself.

Mimetic Desire as Self-Annihilation

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 49

In the previous post I argued that, despite St. Thomas’s denial of its possibility, it nevertheless seems consistent with what he says elsewhere that Satan could have fallen by desiring (suicidally) equality with God. This, in any event, is how Satan’s fall has been interpreted by René Girard, whose theory of mimetic desire Hayden Head has applied to Tolkien’s portrayal of evil. According to Girard, the suicidal desire for the essence of an “other” is implicitly involved in all such imitative desire: when we desire objects, things, people, status, or the like, we do not desire them so much for themselves as we do for the much more sordid, envious reason that they are possessed by an “Other.” This means that desire for the object is in essence a desire for or towards the rival possessor of the object, meaning further that it is in fact the possessor who is the true object of desire. Entailed in this desire is an awareness that the rival, as the desired object, also stands in a position of superiority over the desirer. This acute awareness of one’s own inferiority Girard refers to as the “ontological sickness”: in coveting what the other desires, a person is in fact coveting the other’s own “essence,” and so in doing so sacrifices something of his own being. In his application of Girard’s analysis of mimetic desire to Tolkien’s fiction, Head writes of Melkor in particular that he

is driven by a desire to imitate Ilúvatar and wishes to claim the ultimate prerogative of Eru, which is the capacity to create. And though he possesses as much “being” as a contingent creature can possess, though he is more powerful than his fellow Ainur, nevertheless, Melkor is not content with any “being” less than Eru’s ultimate being. Like Satan’s doomed attempt to rival God, however, Melkor’s attempt to emulate Eru only serves to bring about his fall… Having failed to acquire the light of Ilúvatar, Melkor… is left with the bitter consolation of “fire and wrath,” dim parodies of Ilúvatar’s creative fire. (Head, “Imitative Desire,” 141-2)

Implicit in Melkor’s desire for the Flame Imperishable, in short, is the desire to supplant and to become his rival, Eru. His desire is the “ontologically sick” and self-annihilating one of having an essence and existence other than one’s own. As Thomas points out, however, such a desire is in effect a desire for the annihilation of one’s own being. As Tolkien himself puts it, the envy and “hatred of God… must end in nihilism” (Morgoth’s Ring)

The Suicide of Self-Deification

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 48

In the previous two posts we saw how suicide in Tolkien’s fiction enacts a kind of world annihilation. To return our attention to the Ainulindalë and the question of creation, the suicidal division between self-and-self and self-and-God may already be observed in Melkor’s hubristic desire for the Flame Imperishable. In his discussion of how the devil first “sinned by seeking to be as God,” Aquinas carefully qualifies his meaning to avoid the suggestion that, in doing so, the devil sought to be “equal” with God. According to Thomas, the angels sought to be “as God” not by equality, but rather by likeness, the basis for this distinction being that, first, the angels would have known equality with God to be intrinsically impossible for any creature, and second, that even if such equality were possible (or at least thought to be possible), in desiring it the angels would have been desiring a nature or essence other than their own, and thus would have been effectively desiring the abolition of their own being, a desire contrary to every nature (ST 1.63.3). (See also On Evil 16.3, “Whether the Devil Sinned by Desiring Equality with God.” As Thomas puts it in his article in the Summa on why evil is not or has no nature, “good is everything desirable; and thus, since every nature desires its own being and its own perfection, it must be said also that the being and the perfection of any nature has the character of goodness” (ST 1.48.1).) “Consequently,” Thomas summarizes, “no thing of a lower order can ever desire the grade of a higher nature, just as an ass does not desire to be a horse; for were it to be so upraised, it would cease to be itself.” For Thomas, in short, the desire that the devil may have had for God’s own power to create nevertheless could not have involved a desire to be equal with God, inasmuch as he would have known such an eventuality to have entailed his own non-existence. The creaturely desire to be God–or any other creature, for that matter–is a form of suicide.

Yet Thomas does not seem to have been consistent himself in his claim that no being can desire the realization of circumstances that would entail its own destruction. As it is, Thomas goes on in the same passage to recognize that there are moments (not applicable to the angels, given their incorporeality) when the “imagination plays us false,” leading a man to believe that by acquiring a “higher grade as to accidentals, which can increase without the destruction of the subject, he can also seek a higher grade of nature, to which he could not attain without ceasing to be.” Toward the beginning of the Summa, however, in his discussion of “whether good is prior in idea to being,” Thomas entertains the objection that good must be prior to being because it is more universal, a point illustrated with the case of Judas, of whom Scripture says that it would have been better for him not to have been born. To this objection Thomas replies that it is not the non-being of a thing itself that is ever desired; rather, its non-being is desired for the sake of the removal of some other evil in something else, which is to say, for the sake of the being of something else, and so “even non-being can be spoken of as relatively good” (ST 1.5.2 ad 3). Thus, it would seem consistent with Thomas’s own principles to say that the devil, in desiring to create, desired to be equal with God, and thus in a sense desired his own non-being, not for its own sake, but as a perceived condition for his gaining something good in itself.

Sub-creation as Interpretation: On Exegeting the Divine Being

According to Tolkien’s theology of sub-creation, then, human Fantasy is a divinely appointed and even privileged means for imaginatively exploring and so celebrating (paying “tribute”) to God’s own infinite “variety,” and in that way extending or “effoliating” God’s own purposes within creation. Not surprisingly, it is the same theology of sub-creative possibility, as rooted in God’s own act of creation, that Tolkien brings to bear on and gives poetic expression to in his literary writings.

In his poem “Mythopoeia,” for example, Tolkien characterizes the work of sub-creation in terms of a lens through which the “white light” of God’s creation becomes “splintered” into “many hues, and endlessly combined / in living shapes that move from mind to mind” (TL 101). The image of the sub-creator as God’s agent for refracting God’s own light of creation parallels Maritain’s account in Art and Scholasticism of how the artist’s concepts find in God “their sovereign analogue” and which therefore represent “dispersed and prismatized reflection[s] of the countenance of God.”[1] Consistent with this sentiment, in the conclusion of his poem where he describes man’s future state of glory, Tolkien indicates that the light of creation from which the sub-creator takes his inspiration is itself only one ray within the infinite, uncreated light that is God’s own being:

In Paradise they look no more awry;

and though they make anew, they make no lie.

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.

Sub-creative freedom involves, both now and forever, a choosing from the divine “All” in whom all possibility is contained.

And it is this same theology of sub-creation, finally, which Tolkien presupposes and in part dramatizes in his Ainulindalë through the Ainur’s sub-creation of their Music. On the one hand, while the Ainur are able and invited to sub-create beyond the original theme taught them by Ilúvatar, the sub-creative possibilities which they discover through their Music are in no way independent of Ilúvatar. Rather, as Tolkien describes the Ainur’s sub-created themes in one letter, they represent so many “interpretations of the mind of the One” (L 284). Their act of sub-creating, in other words, is an act of exegeting, as it were, the divine being. In their act of sub-creation, accordingly, the Ainur are best seen as imitating something of God’s own act, as Thomas puts it, of “inventing” or “devising” the divine ideas through the self-knowledge or interpretation that constitutes the divine Word and “art of God.” David Bentley Hart illustrates well the affinity here between Tolkien and St. Thomas in his account of the traditional view of divine possibility held by Thomas, yet using the same musical imagery employed by Tolkien:

The “theme” of creation is the gift of the whole, committed to limitless possibilities, open to immeasurable ranges of divergence and convergence, consonance and dissonance (which always allows for the possibility of discord), and unpredictable modulations that at once restore and restate that theme. The theme is present in all its modifications, for once it is given it is recuperated throughout, not as a return of the Same but as gratitude, as a new giving of the gift, as what is remembered and as what, consequently, is invented. The truth of the theme is found in its unfolding, forever. God’s glory is an infinite “thematism” whose beauty and variety can never be exhausted, and as the richness of creation traverses the distance of God’s infinite music, the theme is always being given back. Because God imparts the theme, it is not simply unitary and epic but obeys a Trinitarian logic: it yields to a contrapuntal multiplicity allowing for the unfolding of endlessly many differing phrases, new accords, “explicating” the “complication” of divine music.[2]

Ilúvatar himself hints at this respect in which the Ainur’s sub-creative discoveries, for all their freedom and lack of coercion, are nevertheless already anticipated within and pre-contained by the divine mind, when he tells them how in the Vision of the history of the world corresponding to the Ainur’s Music, each of them will behold “all those things which it may seem that he himself devised or added” (S 17, emphasis added). In the earlier version of the Ainulindalë from The Book of Lost Tales, Ilúvatar is slightly less subtle about the source of the Ainur’s sub-creative possibility when he gives them the command to develop the original theme he has taught them: “I have not filled all the empty spaces, neither have I recounted to you all the adornments and things of loveliness and delicacy whereof my mind is full. It is my desire now that ye make a great and glorious music and a singing of this theme…” (BLT 53, emphasis added). As Michaël Devaux has observed—and quoting from Aquinas’s discussion of Augustine’s notion of angelic “morning knowledge,” or their “knowledge of the primordial being of things… according as things are in the Word” (ST 1.58.6)[3]—“[t]o perceive the Word, before the creation, is precisely the situation which the Music has made possible for the Ainur.”[4] Yet in The Silmarillion edition Ilúvatar makes matters plain enough when he explains to Melkor how, despite the latter’s efforts to achieve true novelty through his musical innovations, or rather deviations, in the Vision he will come to learn that all sub-creative possibility finds its home in Ilúvatar: “And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined” (S 17). In his effort to go beyond the boundaries established by the beautiful rhythms of Ilúvatar’s original theme, Melkor succeeds not, as is his intent, in discovering or creating hitherto unrealized musical possibilities, so much as he does in nihilistically negating or distorting those possibilities provided for by the infinite perfection of Ilúvatar’s own being. What Melkor produces, in other words, is not music but anti­-music, not an “interpretation” of Ilúvatar’s original theme, but an “alteration” of it (L 284). Yet even here, because his musical distortions are parasitic upon those rhythms and melodies which derive their possibility from the divine “mind” or “variety” of Ilúvatar, it follows that the ultimate meaning even of Melkor’s distortions are likewise beyond his control, but fall under the sovereignty of Ilúvatar. To the extent, in other words, in which evil is “real” and therefore possible, its own significance is determined by the one who is the God of the possible.[5]


[1] Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 30.

[2] Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth, 282.

[3] “[I]ta cognitio ipsius primordialis esse rerum, dicitur cognitio matutina: et haec est secundum quod res sunt in Verbo.”

[4] Devaux, “The Origins of the Ainulindalë,” 102-3. On Augustine’s doctrine of angelic morning and evening knowledge as it applies to the Ainulindalë, see Houghton, “Augustine in the Cottage of Lost Play: The Ainulindalë as Asterisk Cosmogony.”

[5] As David Harvey observes, “[t]he [Ainur] are always second to Ilúvatar. The foundation of all that they do is within His design. Any incursion by Evil powers, any attempts to change the theme or the design, are taken and skillfully worked into the Theme so that the conclusion is exactly as it was intended.” Harvey, The Song of Middle-earth: JR.R. Tolkien’s Themes, Symbols and Myths, 32.