Qualifying “Splintered Light”

Metaphysics of the Music, part 13

In the previous post I mentioned that there were some qualifications I would make to Verlyn Flieger’s characterization of the tragic nature of the linguistic, perceptual, and social change embodied in Tolkien’s splintered-light imagery. The qualifications I have in mind are these. First, the main cause behind the succession of lights in Middle-earth in the first place, of course, is not due to any tragic flaw within the light itself, but owing to the aberrant interference of the evil of Melkor. Second, to the extent that in Tolkien’s mythical history there is a regrettable loss of light each time the previous source of light is replaced, I submit that this has less to do with some kind of metaphysical entropy at work in Tolkien’s world than it does with the gratuitous and sacrificial nature of Tolkien’s metaphysics. When the Valar Yavanna, for example, laments her inability to remake the Two Trees after Melkor and Ungoliant’s attack on them, she says that “[e]ven for those who are mightiest under Ilúvatar there is some work that they may accomplish once, and once only. The Light of the Trees I brought into being, and within Eä I can do so never again” (Silmarillion 78). However, as the later, parallel speech by Feänor, maker of the Silmarills, indicates, the reason for this inability has less to do with the tragic unrepeatability of certain deeds than it does with the inherent sacrifice and love that such deeds require of their agent. In sum, then, if there is a diminution of light in Middle-earth, the difficulty is not the tragic loss of being, but the self-sacrificing gift of being for which there is no assurance, at least in this lifetime, of it ever being received back again in full. Yet the promise is already given on the opening page of The Silmarillion that, however much our sub-creative desires or intentions may find themselves frustrated or unfulfilled in this life, at the glorious consummation of all things at “end of days,” the themes of all shall be once again “played aright, and take Being in the moment of their utterance, for all shall then understand fully his intent in their part, and each shall know the comprehension of each, and Ilúvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased.” Finally, a third consideration is the felix culpa dimension to the splintering of light addressed by Tolkien and discussed by Flieger, for without the possibility of the splintering of the light of language and human perception, there would be no place for the kind of sub-creative “refracting” of light that Tolkien celebrates in his “Mythopoeia” poem and which he practices in his own mythology and language formation. “Splintered light,” in other words, isn’t so much tragic as it is eucatastrophic. 

Deism in Tolkien’s Ainulindalë?

Metaphysics of the Music, part 12

While there are a number of factors mitigating the inherently tragic nature of the linguistic, perceptual, and social change which Verlyn Flieger finds embodied in Tolkien’s splintered-light imagery, she does draw attention to an integral and well-recognized sense of loss that permeates Tolkien’s mythology and which, as a consequence, represents an important qualification to the very different metaphysical mood I will be attributing to Tolkien in the argument to follow. Where I think Flieger goes astray, however, is when she implies that this tragic sensibility, admittedly present in Tolkien’s mythical history, is also present in his creation-myth and metaphysics. Thus, on the one hand, Flieger quite rightly observes that the “whole concept [of the world] belongs to Eru alone,” and that therefore “[i]n fulfilling his purpose, the Valar are already at one remove from his wholeness, for they bring to the world not light but lights, a variety of lights of differing kinds…” (Splintered Light 60). Going beyond this, on the other hand, is Flieger’s point, made in the context of her own comparison of Tolkien’s Ainulindalë to Plato’s Timaeus, as to how the process of creation and sub-creation involves a progressive alienation between the Creator and his ever-more distant effects. The Valar, according to Flieger, are “dividing the world from Eru, assisting in a process of separation through which Eru and the world can contemplate each other” (55, emphasis original). The theological consequence of this for Flieger is the metaphysically and theologically tragic one in which the Creator emerges as “a strikingly remote and disengaged figure” who has “little or no direct interaction in his world” and who leaves it to his sub-created vassals “to concern themselves specifically with the earth and its inhabitants” (53-4).

Tragic Being, Splintered Light

Metaphysics of the Music, part 11

In this series of posts I have been examining (what I suggest to be) the somewhat exaggerated interpretation of the Music of the Ainur offered by some readers, and the resulting “tragic metaphysics” they have implicitly attribute to Tolkien’s creation-myth as a consequence. There is, to be sure, much tragedy present in Tolkien’s mythology, tragedy which may at times even seem to spill over into his mythology’s underlying philosophy of being. Verlyn Flieger touches on this in her study of Tolkien’s image of “splintered light,” a metaphor illustrating his and Owen Barfield’s theory (discussed here and here) of the fragmentation human language, stories, and perception inevitably undergo over time. Similar to Bradford Eden—who in addition to finding a Boethian pattern of cosmic, human, and instrumental music in the history of Middle-earth, also reads this sequence according to a Neoplatonic pattern of decay—Flieger likewise stresses the sense of tragic loss accompanying the phenomenon of splintering light present in Tolkien’s legendarium. Of the original source of illumination in the world, for example, the two Lamps established by the Valar on twin mountain-pillars of stone, Flieger observes that the light “is brilliant and constant,” but that when the “first light is quenched” by Melkor, it “cannot be renewed,” and so in the Two Trees of Valinor “new light is brought into being, but the quality is changed and the brightness is diminished… The differences between the Lamps and the Trees are multiple and striking and conform to the pattern of fragmentation and diminution that underlies the whole mythology… [T]he Trees give light in waxing and waning cycles of flower and fruit” (Splintered Light, 63). As Flieger interprets Tolkien’s imagery of light, “[f]rom ancient unity to the fragmentation and splintering of light, of perception, of society, and of self, Tolkien’s sub-created world mirrors our own. And through its people, their wars and turmoils, their triumphs and disasters, we come gradually to recognize our world, to see and hear it as Tolkien saw and heard it” (65).

Tolkien’s Pythagorean “inversion”: reality isn’t “like” music, it “is” music

The metaphysics of the Music, part 3

In addition to the foregoing passages pointing to a the presence of a kind of “cosmic music” in Scripture, several readers have discerned a resonance between the Music at the inception of Tolkien’s mythology and the Logos that is “in the beginning” of the Apostle John’s Gospel. Verlyn Flieger, though typically stressing the differences between Tolkien’s creation-account and that of the Bible’s, observes how the word logos “carried at one time far more meaning than it does today,” having the force of order, principle of organization, and harmony and thus

meant something very close to music in the Pythagorean sense. In Tolkien’s fictive world, the creative principles of Genesis and John are combined. Light and music are conjoined elements made manifest in the visible world sung as the Music of the Ainur. The Word ,which in Elvish means, “It is,” or “Let it Be,” is listed in the Index to The Silmarillion as “the word of Ilúvatar when the World began its existence.” It thus become the imperative form of the Great Music, the vision as both light and logos. (Flieger, Splintered Light, 59)

As for the relevant philosophical background behind the Ainur’s Music, the name of the fifth-century mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras has naturally received frequent mention in discussions of the subject, as the above quote from Flieger illustrates. (For other references to Pythagoras in the Tolkien literature, see also Grubbs, “The Maker’s Image: Tolkien, Fantasy & Magic”; Davis, “Ainulindalë: The Music of Creation”; and Collins, “Ainulindalë”: Tolkien’s Commitment to an Aesthetic Ontology.”) It is to Pythagoras and his school, after all, that the popular idea of the “music of the spheres” has been traditionally ascribed. Aristotle, for example, writes of the Pythagoreans that “they took the elements of numbers to be the elements of all things, and the whole heaven to be harmony and number” (Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1.5.986a., trans. Hope), and that according to them “the movement of the stars produces a harmony, i.e., that the sounds they make are concordant…” (Aristotle, On the Heavens, 2.9.290b12, trans. Stocks). Leo Spitzer has gone so far as to suggest that the Pythagorean concept of world or cosmic “harmony” was more than a mere metaphor derived from human vocal or instrumental harmonies, but was in fact conceived as the reality from which human music was ultimately derived. The Pythagoreans thus

inverted the order by admitting that the human lute (as imagined in the hands of the god Apollo) was an imitation of the music of the stars; human activities had to be patterned on godly activities, i.e., on the processes in nature: human art, especially, had to be an imitation of the gods, i.e., of reasonable nature. Thus we will witness [in Pythagoreanism] a continuous flow of metaphors from the human (and divine) sphere to nature and back again to human activities, which are considered as imitating the artistic orderliness and harmony of nature. (Spitzer, Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony, 8-9)

If so, it is a similar kind of Pythagorean “inversion” that Tolkien undertakes by means of his own fictional “gods” when he writes of them in the Ainulindalë how “the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights…” (Silmarillion 15). As I have suggested previously in discussing Tolkien’s image of the Flame Imperishable, the literary genre of myth or fairy-story allows for a reinvesting of metaphors and images such as fire and music with a degree of ancient, pre-Enlightenment literality, so that the Creator’s power of creation is not “like” fire, but simply is the Fire from which all fires originate; nor is the Ainur’s and Ilúvatar’s Music “like” the music we human beings play and experience, but simply is the Music to which all our music is a remote hearkening and response.

Elves: Nostalgic Progressives or “Bad Conservatives”?

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 27

The previous post suggested that Tolkien flecks his characterization of the Elves with an element of the bad kind of escapism he discusses in his essay “On Fairy-Stories.” It should be said, however, that in the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth (“Debate of Finrod and Andreth,” Morgoth’s Ring), Tolkien allows Finrod to articulate a more balanced, considered Elvish perspective on the matter:

“Other creatures also in Middle-earth we [the Elves] love in their measure and kind: the beasts and birds who are our friends, the trees, and even the fair flowers that pass more swiftly than Men. Their passing we regret; but believe it to be a part of their nature, as much as are their shapes or their hues.” (Morgoth’s Ring 308)

Verlyn Flieger, in an excellent discussion of the necessity of change in Tolkien’s philosophy and fiction, indicates something of the complexity and even self-critical nature of Tolkien’s emphasis on this point. While Tolkien was himself an Elf of sorts, and his “psychological and emotional yearning was nostalgia for aspects of his world that had vanished or were vanishing in his lifetime, still, his philosophical and religious position was that change is necessary” (Splintered Light 170). Flieger also makes my earlier point about “evil” in this regard involving the desire for some good when she writes: “Desire to preserve a present good inevitably becomes desire to keep it from passing, but this leads to stagnation. The process of change is part of the design, and must continue if the design is to be fulfilled” (170). Finally, Peter Kreeft has also written perceptibly (if not slightly hyperbolically) on the problem of Elves and change, describing them as “bad conservatives: they want to embalm the present. Seeing the downward slant of the present, they try to preserve the past. They are not evil like Sauron, who always wants to sing ‘I Did It My Way’, but they are foolish because they sing ‘I Believe in Yesterday’” (The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind the Lord of the Rings, 80).

More dualistic readings of Tolkien on evil

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 8

Tom Shippey’s dualistic reading of Tolkien on evil has met both criticism and approval from Tolkien’s readers. Hayden Head, for example, in his Girardian interpretation of Tolkien’s ponerology, cites sympathetically Shippey’s claim that “evil for Tolkien is both an absence and a presence; theologically speaking, evil is both Boethian and Manichaean.”[1] Lee Oser likewise follows in Shippey’s train when he pits Tolkien’s allegedly dualistic account of evil against the Augustinianism of St. Thomas:

There are grounds to suggest that Tolkien, like C.S. Lewis, had a strong intuition of positive evil, verging on dualism. Lewis found evidence for dualism in the New Testament. He recognized the danger of Manichaenism and, while stopping short of heresy, conceded ambiguity. The same kind of metaphysical problem exists in The Lord of the Rings… What is peculiarly modern in Tolkien’s intuition of evil is how he differs from Aquinas with regard to the orthodox Augustinian teaching that positive evil does not exist. He is closer to Kierkegaard, to Nietzsche, and to Yeats, all of whom recognize a creative element in the conflict of psychological drives or, as Nietzsche called them, “inspiring spirits.”[2]

Similarly, Verlyn Flieger, although not dealing directly with Shippey’s Manichaean-Boethian thesis, nevertheless agrees with Tolkien’s biographer Humphrey Carpenter that Tolkien was a “man of antitheses.” Whereas Shippey, however, contextualizes Tolkien’s complex account of evil in terms of his attempt to represent the ambiguities of modern forms of evil, Flieger traces it to significant aspects and events in Tolkien’s own personality and experience, especially the death of his mother when he was still a young boy. Speaking of the tension “between belief and doubt” she finds in Tolkien’s writings, Flieger writes:

They are emblematic of the poles of his emotional life. Even more, they are the boundary markers of his worlds—both the world he perceived around him and the world he created in his fiction. No careful reader of Tolkien’s fiction can fail to be aware of the polarities that give it form and tension. His work is built on contrasts—between hope and despair, between good and evil, between enlightenment and ignorance—and these contrasts are embodied in the polarities of light and dark that are the creative outgrowth of his contrary moods, the “antitheses” of his nature. Carpenter describes him as a man of extreme contrasts, one who was “never moderate: love, intellectual enthusiasm, distaste, anger, self-doubt, guilt, laughter, each was in his mind exclusively and in full force when he experienced it.”[3]

One place where Flieger particularly finds the “extreme contrast” of Tolkien’s temperament on display is in the conflicting pessimism and optimism of his two famous essays, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” and “On Fairy-Stories,” the one representing the tragic spirit of “dyscatastrophe” at one end of Tolkien’s emotional spectrum, the other a spirit of hope and joy or “eucatastrophe” at the other end. Together the two essays are “devoted to exploration of dark and light, and to affirmation of both.”[4]


[1] Head, “Imitative Desire,” 145.

[2] Oser, “Enter Reason and Nature,” 118-19.

[3] Flieger, Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World, 129.

[4] “Although one speaks movingly of man’s defeat by ‘the offspring of the dark’ and the other celebrates ‘the joy of deliverance,’ each essay acknowledges that both light and dark are elements held in interdependent tension. The darkness that is the focus of the first passage needs the ‘little circle of light’ to give it meaning; the ‘Joy’ of the second passage is consoling only in light of the possibility of sorrow…. In the Beowulf essay dark heavily outweighs light; heroes go from the circle of light into the surrounding dark and down to final defeat. In the fairy-story essay, light is victorious and joy triumphs over sorrow.” Ibid., 12-13.