Cosmic Music in Plato and Plotinus

The metaphysics of the Music, part 4

Although Aristotle was somewhat dismissive of the idea of the music of the spheres, his teacher Plato’s attraction to the notion is evident in the Timaeus, a work that, as I have argued at some length previously, Tolkien certainly had in mind in the development of his creation-myth. In one of the more challenging passages of the dialogue, the eponymous Timaeus, himself a Pythagorean mathematician and philosopher, alludes to the notion of the music of the spheres when he suggests that an analogous structure was placed by the demiurge in the World Soul: “Now while the body of the heavens had come to be as a visible thing, the soul was invisible. But even so, because it shares in reason and harmony, the soul came to be as the most excellent of all the things begotten by him who is himself most excellent of all that is intelligible and eternal” (Plato, Timaeus 36e-37a, trans. Zeyl). In addition, the way in which the Ainur’s Music antedates and pre-contains the entire history of the world resembles Plato’s famous realm of the forms, in which the physical world of sensible things participates, or, as the Timaeus has it, the eternal model according to which the demiurge-creator has fashioned the material world. As Plato’s disciple Plotinus applied the master’s theory to music some six-hundred years later, “certainly all music, since the ideas which it has are concerned with rhythm and melody, would be of the same kind, just like the art which is concerned with intelligible number,” and thus like the other arts would have “its principles from the intelligible world…” (Plotinus, Enneads 5.9.11, trans. Armstrong).

The truth of myth

Another point of contrast between Plato and Tolkien concerns the conflicting evaluations of the truth-capacity of myth implied in their respective metaphysics.  Gergely Nagy has observed that “Plato, like Tolkien, draws heavily on traditional myths, also including his own ‘myths’ (nowhere else attested and probably written by him) in his dialogues,” and says that this parallels Tolkien’s “mythopoeic enterprise” in its ultimate aim of “show[ing] ‘truth,’ in Plato always expressed in mythic scenes and language…” (“Plato,” in Drout, ed.,J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, 513). Similarly, Frank Weinreich emphasizes Tolkien’s debt to Plato for his “metaphysics of myth” when he writes how the “quintessence of Tolkien’s ontology” behind his theory of myth is “at the core a Platonic one” (“Metaphysics of Myth: The Platonic Ontololgy of ‘Mythopoeia’,” 325). For Plato, however, the philosopher uses myths not out of choice, but of necessity. As the principle is stated in the Timaeus, “the accounts we give of things have the same character as the subjects they set forth” (29b), meaning that just as the world (on account of the ananke or constraint of its pre-existing matter) only ever achieves a tragically partial and thus never fully-realized participation in the divine, so the “likely story” (eikos mythos) that Timaeus has to tell about the origins of the cosmos achieves at best a tragic likeness to the ideal logos or rational account that the philosopher would prefer.

In Tolkien’s creation-myth, by contrast, and following the Christian doctrine of creation, while the world’s participation in the divine is limited by its finitude, because creation is nevertheless from nothing, the world—including its matter—has its entire existence through a participation in and likeness of the divine without remainder. For Tolkien, in short, the world in its entirety is a story about the divine, a metaphysical reality that at least in principle allows the stories or myths we tell about the world a much greater participation in the truth that remains to be told about that world. As Tolkien puts it in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” myth is no mere “disease of language” (TR 48), but given the inherent and irreducibly storied structure of reality itself, is a uniquely privileged way of communicating the truth of that reality. Indeed, for Tolkien it is through such myth-telling that reality for the first time comes into its own, accomplishing by God’s own ordination the “effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation” (TR 89).

Two Atlantis myths, two morality tales

Yet another dimension to Tolkien’s and Plato’s differing views on the relation between divine providence and Necessity. Although a number of Timaeus scholars have failed to see any intrinsic connection between Critias’s introductory speech about ancient Athens’s epic victory over Atlantis at the beginning of the dialogue, and the creation-myth Timaeus tells in the remainder of the dialogue (see, for example, Welliver,Character, Plot, and Thought in Plato’s “Timaeus-Critias,” 2-3; Taylor, Plato, 440; and Cornford, Plato’s Cosmology, 20), the two stories in an important respect are concerned with the same fundamental problem, namely the ineradicable limits the gods face in realizing their benevolent purposes in the physical realm of becoming. Thus, although in the defeat of the despotic power of Atlantis by the ideal, virtuous city of Athens we have an historic example of divine Nous triumphing over the chaos of Necessity, we see the limits of divine power in the fact that not even the patronage of Athena is able to save Athens from being destroyed by the same natural disasters that engulf Atlantis.

In Tolkien’s retelling of the story at the end of the Silmarillion, however, Atlantis is destroyed for a much different purpose, one in keeping with his metaphysical differences with Plato outlined earlier. In Tolkien’s tale, Atlantis is Númenor (Atalantë in the Elvish tongue of Quenya, from which the Greek name Atlantis is supposed to have derived), an island-kingdom inhabited by a noble but proud race of men who are eventually seduced by Sauron into outright Melkor-worship. When the Númenoreans in their rebellious quest for personal immortality break the ban laid upon them by the Valar and travel to the forbidden land of Valinor, Ilúvatar intervenes directly and destroys both their fleet and the island of Númenor with a flood.

Thus, whereas in the Timaeus Atlantis simultaneously symbolizes and is obliterated by an impersonal and indiscriminate Necessity that cannot be completely controlled by the gods because it is not created by them, Tolkien has Atlantis destroyed as an act of divine judgment by a personal, omnipotent God for its worship of Melkor, the one who first sought the power of creation for himself, and for its imitation of his presumption by seeking immortality on Man’s own terms.

Eucatastrophe and Ananke

Yet another difference between Tolkien and Plato I would point out concerns their respective concepts or uses of ananke (necessity or constraint). Similar to Plato’s Timaeus, Tolkien characterizes the operation of divine providence in his mythology in terms of a benevolent, “eucatastrophic” disruption of Necessity’s otherwise tragic course of “material cause and effect.” Unlike the Timaeus, however—according to which this material, causal determinism comprises an external limit on divine power, originating in an independently existing reality that is co-eternal with the demiurge—for Tolkien the “chain of death” which binds creation is not only a chain that the Creator shatters, but more paradoxically still, is a chain that he himself has forged. As I have argued previously, the seemingly impersonal inevitability of causal and historical necessity in Tolkien’s fiction is an artifice, a kind of divine subterfuge, used by an eminently personal God in order to escalate dramatically the impression of divine absence, only so that he might then destroy that impression through an even more radical disclosure of his unwavering, abiding, saving presence.[1] Thus, while it is true that, on the one hand, Tolkien ties his concept of eucatastrophe dialectically to Plato’s metaphysically tragic concept of ananke, on the other hand he makes it clear, as he puts it in his letter to Christopher, that this impression of the ananke behind the world is not so much real as it is “apparent,” that behind this apparent reality there is a greater reality still, namely the divine light which shines “through the very chinks of the universe about us.” In this way Tolkien may be seen as attempting to “save the appearances” of Plato’s concept of ananke, all the while sublating it within his otherwise Christian metaphysics of creation (much as St. Thomas, for example, does when in his own discussion of divine providence he does not so much disallow the existence of chance as he affirms it at its own proper level while subordinating it at a higher level to the divine governance[2]).

[1] As Stratford Caldecott aptly describes the basic conflict in Tolkien’s fiction, it is “a triumph of Providence over Fate.” Caldecott, “Over the Chasm of Fire,” 32.

[2] ST 1, 103, 5, ad 1. Thomas goes so far as to suggest that chance depends for its very possibility or efficacy on its subjection to divine government: “For unless corruptible things of this kind were governed by a higher being, they would tend to nothing definite, especially those which possess no kind of knowledge. So nothing in them would happen unintentionally, which constitutes the nature of chance.” In the closely related article of ST 1, 103, 7, “Whether anything can happen outside the order of the divine government?”, Thomas again writes: “Things are said to be fortuitous as regards some particular cause from the order of which they escape. But as to the order of Divine providence, ‘nothing in the world happens by chance,’ as Augustine declares.”

The beauty of matter

In the Ainulindalë, the inherent order and beauty enjoyed by matter from its first creation makes for an altogether different motivation for Tolkien’s demiurges from what we see in Plato’s Timaeus. In the first place, the existence of the matter out of which the world is made, far from representing an externally imposed and metaphysically tragic constraint (as per the Timaeus), is instead graciously brought into being by Ilúvatar in response to the Ainur’s desire that the world they had seen in the Vision should be given its own, mind-independent existence. In fact, as Tolkien indicates in one letters, it is on account of their “love” for the physical world, not despite but precisely because of its materiality, that some of the Ainur choose, as a condition of their demiurgic power laid upon them by Ilúvatar, to become physically “incarnate” within the world (L 286). Later in the same letter Tolkien refers in particular to Aulë’s “great love of the materials of which the world is made” (L 287). In this Tolkien seems to have intended his Valar to embody yet another principle of his theory of fairy-stories. As he writes in his essay, “Fantasy is made out of the Primary World, but a good craftsman loves his material, and has a knowledge and feeling for clay, stone and wood which only the art of making can give. By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and Moon root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory…. It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine” (TR 78, emphasis added).

As for the character of the matter itself, whereas in the Timaeus it is indifferent at best and outright resistant at worst to the ordering activity of the divine mind, Tolkien’s tale, by contrast, stresses the beauty and order of matter from its very inception. As in the Timaeus, an at least rudimentary division of matter into the four basic elements appears to precede the sub-creative work of the Valar, but instead of seeing a chaos of conflicting elements calling for demiurgic intervention and harmonization, the Valar’s sub-creative work is inspired by an altogether different first impression:

But the other Ainur looked upon this habitation set within the vast spaces of the World, which the Elves call Arda, the Earth; and their hearts rejoiced in light, and their eyes beholding many colours were filled with gladness; but because of the roaring of the sea they felt a great unquiet. And they observed the winds and the air, and the matters of which Arda was made, of iron and stone and silver and gold and many substances: but of all these water they most greatly praised. And it is said by the Eldar that in water there lives yet the echo of the Music of the Ainur more than in any substance else that is in the Earth… (S 19)

When the Ainur first see the world in the Vision, accordingly, many of its basic elements appear already to be in place prior to their demiurgic labor. The three chief Valar—Ulmo, Manwë, and Aulë—come to be particularly linked with the three elements of water, air, and earth, respectively, not because they were responsible for bringing them into being, but because they were the ones who took a special interest in them:

Now to water had that Ainu whom the Elves call Ulmo turned his thought, and of all most deeply was he instructed by Ilúvatar in music. But of the airs and winds Manwë most had pondered, who is the noblest of the Ainur. Of the fabric of Earth had Aulë thought, to whom Ilúvatar had given skill and knowledge scarce less than to Melkor; but the delight and pride of Aulë is in the deed of making, and in the thing made and, either in possession nor in his own mastery; wherefore he gives and hoards not, and is free from care, passing ever on to some new work. (S 19)

So the world is not entirely formless and devoid of beauty when the Valar first enter it, but is from its beginning already marked by its own intrinsic being and corresponding beauty, a beauty which serves not as an obstacle or impediment (ananke), but a positive incentive or inducement to the Valar’s demiurgic labors. Tolkien thus embodies in his myth a much more Christian metaphysical attitude toward material reality as good and therefore desirable because created.

Plato’s primeval matter

I’ve noted a number of parallels between Tolkien’s and Plato’s respective creation-myths, and many more might doubtlessly be enumerated. At the same time, Tolkien’s creation-myth makes a number of significant departures from Plato’s, to the point that the Ainulindalë might be said to define itself over against Plato as much it borrows from him. Implied in Tolkien’s association of his Valar with Plato’s demiurge, after all, is the claim that the closest approximation to Plato’s world-craftsman in Christian theology is not the God of orthodox belief, but the created, finite angels with whom Tolkien also identifies the Valar. And while both Plato’s demiurge and Tolkien’s Valar fashion the world out of pre-existing matter, both the nature of this matter and, as a consequence, the motivation behind the world-making of their respective demiurges, differ in significant ways. In the Timaeus, because matter is entirely uncreated and hence eternal, it has no intrinsic, intelligible relation to either the divine mind or eternal model from which the order and beauty of the cosmos originates. On the contrary, the original state of the uncreated matter is one of disorder (Timaeus refers to it as the “straying cause”), and it is this external condition of primordial chaos that prompts–even necessitates–the demiurge’s benevolent program of communicating to the material world something of his own goodness and order, while at the same time ensuring that this process of beautification remains always partial and incomplete. As I’ve noted before and will explore more fully in a follow-up post, in the Aindulindalë Tolkien has a very different story to tell about primeval matter.

From Creation to Atlantis

Another, more literary parallel between the Timaeus and the Ainulindalë: Like Plato’s Timaeus, which was to be followed by the Critias’s much fuller account (left unfinished at Plato’s death) of ancient Athens’s defeat of imperial Atlantis and the subsequent destruction of both nations through earthquake and flood—theAinulindalë forms with the rest of The Silmarillion an equally ambitious, all-encompassing mythology (also incomplete at Tolkien’s death) beginning with the creation of the world and climaxing in Tolkien’s own retelling of the fate of ancient Atlantis in the tragic history of Númenor.

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.

More parallels between Tolkien’s Ainulindalë and Plato’s Timaeus

In addition to those noted by John Cox, a number of further parallels between the cosmogonies of Tolkien’s Ainulindalë and Platos Timaeus may be observed. Plato’s demiurge and Tolkien’s Eru, to begin, are each identified as “father,” and while they both delegate to their respective sub-deities the responsibility of fashioning other living beings—representing the world as imperfect apart from the presence of a hierarchy of beings and thus instructing the sub-deities to produce things according to their ability[1]—in each case the supreme deity nevertheless retains for himself a direct role in fashioning rational, immortal souls.[2] Thus, in the Timaeus the demiurge tells his underling gods that the part of man which is “immortal” he himself will begin by “sowing that seed, and then hand it over to you. The rest of the task is yours. Weave what is mortal to what is immortal, fashion and beget living things. Give them food, cause them to grow, and when they perish, receive them back again.”[3] In a similar vein, although the Valar Aulë is chastised by Ilúvatar for his presumptuous and futile attempt at sub-creating the dwarves, he does manage to fashion their mortal bodies, bodies which Eru, in response to Aulë’s repentance, afterwards animates by uniting them with free, rational souls, something Aulë by himself could not do. Even in Aulë’s speech of repentance we find an eloquent and earnest expression of the principle articulated by Plato’s demiurge, namely that until it is properly populated by all manner of mortal beings, the world “will be incomplete, for it will still lack within it all the kinds of living things it must have if it is to be sufficiently complete.”[4] As Aulë defends himself,

I desired things other than I am, to love and to teach them, so that they too might perceive the beauty of Eä, which thou hast caused to be. 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. And in my impatience I have fallen into folly. Yet 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. (Silmarillion 43)

In both creation-myths, moreover, just as the presence of beauty and goodness in the world correspond to the establishment of a divine order, so evil is presented as a form of disorder.[5] And yet despite the possibility of evil, both Tolkien’s Ilúvatar and Plato’s demiurge remind their vassals that the order they have placed in the world cannot be ultimately undone or reversed except by their providential consent.[6] Neither the Valar nor the demiurge, furthermore, create ex nihilo, but produce things from already existing matter which in each writer’s account is further analyzed in terms of the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water.

[1] Timaeus 41c5, trans. Zeyl; Silmarillion 15.

[2] Timaeus 41b7-c4.

[3] Ibid., 41c8-d4.

[4] Ibid., 41b8-c2.

[5] As the demiurge informs his sub-deities, “Now while it is true that anything that is bound is liable to being undone, still, only one who is evil would consent to the undoing of what has been well fitted together and is in fine condition.” Ibid., 41b1-3.

[6] Plato’s demiurge declares, “O gods, works divine whose maker and father I am, whatever has come to be by my hands cannot be undone but by my consent” (Timaeus 41a8-10), a speech echoed in Ilúvatar’s pronouncement to the Ainur at the conclusion of the Great Music: “Then Ilúvatar spoke, and he said: ‘Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done. 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’” (Silmarillion 17).

Tolkien’s Demiurges

In his conception of angelic beings with the power and freedom to fashion a world according to their choosing, Tolkien’s purpose was to capture, as he puts it, something of the “beauty, power, and majesty” of the gods of the ancient mythologies. One of these ancient myths he seems particularly to have had in mind is the creation-story of Plato’s Timaeus dialogue, a work that was tremendously influential in both early Jewish and Christian patristic and later medieval thought.[1] In a number of places, Tolkien describes the sub-creative work of the Valar as “demiurgic” (MR 330, 370, 387, and 401), an evident allusion to the divine demiurge of the Timaeus who fashions the changing, visible world by looking to the order, intelligibility, and beauty of the unchanging, invisible, yet eternal and “living model,” and reproducing as much as possible that order within the realm of a pre-existing yet hitherto unorganized matter.

Surprisingly, given the interest of Tolkien’s readers in his Platonic inheritance noted in the Introduction, the extent of the parallels—to say nothing yet of the equally remarkable differences—between the Ainulindalë and Plato’s Timaeus has yet to receive a thorough investigation. The most comprehensive comparison to date must be John Cox’s study mentioned in previous posts, which draws attention to the fact that, like Plato’s demiurge, “everything else [besides the Ainur] that Ilúvatar makes, he makes by the agency of the Ainur,” a pattern Cox finds paralleled in the Timaeus’s account of the divine demiurge, “a benevolent and eternal maker, who first creates what Plato calls ‘gods’ and then charges them with the task of carrying on the creation.”[2] Cox finds in both narratives, moreover, the same “progression from the Creator, to intermediate creating powers, to the visible creation.”[3] Both creation-myths, accordingly, present worlds of “stark contrasts” between the invisible, eternal, and unchanging divine realm of being on the one hand and the visible, temporal, and changeable realm of becoming on the other.[4] Cox further points to the resulting themes of emanation and imitation associated with these structures as they manifest themselves in both Plato and Tolkien.[5]

[1] Plato’s Timaeus, Meno, and Phaedo, for example, were the only three of his dialogues known throughout the medieval period. On early Jewish, Roman, and Christian readings of Plato’s Timaeus, see Jaroslav Pelikan, What Has Athens to Do with Jerusalem? On the reception of Plato’s Timaeus in the later Middle Ages, particularly in the 12th century, see Dutton, “The Uncovering of the Glosae Super Platonem of Bernard of Chartres” and “Medieval Approaches to Calcidius”; Chenu, “The Platonisms of the Twelfth Century”; Gregory, “The Platonic Inheritance”; and Gibson, “The Study of the Timaeus in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries.” On Aquinas’s own knowledge of Plato’s Timaeus, see Hankey, “Aquinas and the Platonists.”

[2] Cox, “Tolkien’s Platonic Fantasy,” 57.

[3] Ibid., 57.

[4] Ibid., 58.

[5] Ibid., 58-9.

Some interpretations of Tolkien on Angelic Creation

Notwithstanding Thomas’s historic critique, for most of Tolkien’s commentators, the account of creation reflected in the Ainulindalë is the pre-Thomistic, classical and early medieval doctrine of angelic, mediated creation. Verlyn Flieger’s Neoplatonic reading of the theology of the Ainulindalë, for example, is in evidence when she writes:

It is the Ainur, not Eru, who actually create Tolkien’s world. They sing its plan in the Great Music which they make from the themes Eru propounds to them, and from that plan fabricate the material world. The rest of Tolkien’s vast mythology is enacted without Eru, involving chiefly the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar. Father of All he may be, but he has no further role in the action.[1]

In previous posts I’ve considered Flieger’s Neoplatonic interpretation of Eru’s remoteness or aloofness from the created world. Related to this, as the above passage illustrates, is Flieger’s similarly Neoplatonic interpretation of the doctrine of creation displayed in the Ainulindalë: as the supposed intermediate “creators” of the world, the Valar’s creative operation or agency is seen as introducing a causal space or distance between Eru and the created world, so that their agency comes only at the expense of his absence. Flieger again makes the alleged pagan philosophical context of Tolkien’s Valar explicit in her Splintered Light, in which she contrasts the biblical account of creation with what she argues to be the much more Platonic account given by Tolkien:

The adjective Tolkien used to describe the labors of the Valar in making the world is demiurgic. It recalls Plato’s use of “demiurge” to describe the deity who fashions the material world and, as well, the Gnostic use of the word for the same purpose. Tolkien’s Valar do, indeed, create the material world of Arda, action that puts them closer to the God of Genesis than to the angels. But Eru of The Silmarillion is not the God of Genesis, and the clear distinction between Eru and the Valar is essential to Tolkien’s design. There is only one Prime Mover—Eru, the One. The Ainur, and more particularly the Valar, are sub-creators. They participate in the physical making of the world but could not have done so had not Eru first given them the theme.[2]

According to Flieger, in summary, the Valar are the true creators in Tolkien’s tale.[3]

Nor is Flieger alone in her interpretation, as I’ve noted before. John Cox’s Platonic reading of Tolkien likewise stresses the Valar’s over Eru’s role in the act of creation. According to Cox, in the Ainulindalë

the pattern of creation is very different from that in the book of Genesis. Its pattern, in fact, is Platonic rather than Hebraic. Ilúvatar begins by creating what Tolkien calls the Ainur… Almost everything else that Ilúvatar makes, he makes by the agency of the Ainur. That is, the creative force always emanates from one source, Ilúvatar, but it operates by the intermediate actions of the first creatures it made, who therefore become “sub-creators” (the phrase is Tolkien’s) in their own right. This principle of intermediate creation—or “sub-creation”—is extremely important for Tolkien,… and while it has no Hebraic counterpart, it has a very close parallel in Plato’s account of creation in the Timaeus. Here, as in the Silmarillion, the creative impulse derives from one source, a benevolent and eternal maker, who first creates what Plato calls “gods” and then charges them with the task of carrying on the creation.[4]

Similarly, Protestant theologian and literary critic Ralph Wood, while refuting the kind of deistic reading of Tolkien exhibited in Flieger in favor of a more biblical interpretation, also uses creation-language to describe the Valar’s activity, as when he connects them with the pre-Nicea interpretation of Genesis’s “Let us make”:

Ilúvatar in fact creates his own special Children—men and elves, who are two members of the same species—directly and not by mediation. That Ilúvatar uses the angelic valar as lieutenants in his other creative acts puts him in full accord … with the declaration of Yahweh in Genesis: “Let us make.” The ancient Hebrew author of Genesis probably alluded to the heavenly court surrounding Yahweh, and it is such a notion that Tolkien perhaps has in mind.[5]

Even Thomist philosopher Peter Kreeft sees Tolkien’s Valar as hearkening back to the pre-Thomistic, Lombardian and patristic conception of angelic power when he writes: “in The Silmarillion [the Creator] then uses the angels as instruments in creating the material world. This idea, which is not part of the mainline Christian tradition, is not heretical. It is a theologoumenon (a possible theological opinion) that is found in some of the Church Fathers.”[6]

[1] Flieger, “Naming the Unnameable: The Neoplatonic ‘One’ in Tolkien’s Silmarillion,” 132.

[2] Flieger, Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World, 55.

[3] To be sure, Flieger does identify the Valar as “sub-creators,” but the context would seem to suggest that by this she means not that they do not create, but that their act of creation simply takes place after or in response to Eru’s first having created them. Flieger stresses this point later on in her book when she implies that, after giving the Ainur their initial theme in the second stage of the creation-drama, Eru had virtually no other contribution to make: “We must remember the differing relationships that Eru and the Valar have with the world. Having provided the theme, Eru knows and understands the Music; yet he takes no further action, leaving the fulfillment and orchestration of the theme to the Valar.” Ibid., 77. However, even within the context of the Ainur’s Music alone it is not true that Eru “takes no further action,” for as the Ainulindalë makes clear, Eru continually interjects new themes into the Music, contributions, moreover, that correspond to Eru’s later direct intervention within the history of the world itself (S 16).

[4] John Cox, “Tolkien’s Platonic Fantasy,” 57. A few pages later Cox reiterates the point, referring to the Valar’s act of sub-creation as the “fictional means by which [Tolkien’s] cosmos comes into being” (ibid., 59, emphasis added) and again writes of Melkor in particular that he “was created with sufficient power to create a universe in his own turn…” (ibid., 62, emphasis added). (For a reading of Genesis, however, according to which God does in fact delegate the power of “creation” to his creatures, see Watson, “Language, God and Creation,” 142.)

[5] Wood, “Tolkien’s Orthodoxy: A Response to Berit Kjos.” Elsewhere Wood further writes that “Ilúvatar employs his valar as ancillaries in the act of creation.” Wood, The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-earth, 12. Nevertheless, Wood does draw the following parallels with traditional theologians such as Aquinas: “Even in his pre-Christian world, Tolkien suggests that Ilúvatar is no autonomous monarch. Tolkien even hints at a trinitarian understanding of God in having Ilúvatar act communally rather than solitarily. Here again Tolkien is in accord with the central Christian tradition. Two of the church’s greatest theologians, Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth, regarded angels as the invisible mediators of divine action in the world. Tolkien agrees. That he specifies the particular powers of all fifteen maiar is his way of helping us reverence God’s constant angelic sustenance of all the good gifts of creation – fresh water, clean air, hot baths, nourishing food, broad daylight, the night sky, plus all the wonders of human making.” Wood, “Tolkien’s Orthodoxy.”

[6] Kreeft, The Philosophy of Tolkien, 72-3. Another author to have imputed a doctrine of mediated creation to Tolkien is Elizabeth A. Whittingham, who writes how, “[i]n giving the Ainur power to create, Ilúvatar has not reduced his own creative force; he has simply extended it, including their efforts within his own.” Whittingham, “The Mythology of the ‘Ainulindalë’: Tolkien’s Creation of Hope,” 216. Later, however, Whittingham comes very near to attributing to Tolkien the Thomistic doctrine of the exclusively divine activity of creation when she says that, in speaking the word Eä!, “[i]n this moment, Ilúvatar has done what no Ainur—neither Manwë nor even Melkor—could have done. Ilúvatar takes the Great Music, which he has revealed through the Vision, and gives it form, brings it into being…” Ibid., 17.