Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Christianity and Middle Earth

The gospel of John begins:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (King James Bible)

This “Word” or the Greek, “Logos” refers to Christ and this passage is used as the primary evidence for the Trinitarian interpretation of God in the Bible. The Trinitarian (mainstream) interpretation holds that the divine essence of God is composed of the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

When we consider the Gospel of John in interpreting the music of the Ainur in the Ainulindale, parallels between the cosmogony that Tolkien has given the Elves and the gospel’s opening lines become apparent. The influence of the Christian trinity on Tolkien’s cosmogony can be seen in the plural nature of Eru (“The One”) or Iluvatar (“All-Father”). The Ainur are extensions of Eru’s divinity. The line, “…and they were with him before aught else was made,” (Morgoth’s Ring; pg. 8) in particular seems to directly parallel the second clause of John 1:1 which refers to Christ’s existence alongside the Father. To suggest that Tolkien intended to imply that Iluvatar shared divinity with the Ainur is not my point here. Instead, I am merely revealing the Christian nature of Tolkien’s cosmogony and positing that he drew inspiration from the Gospel of John. There are significant differences. The Ainur are on a different hierarchical level than Eru and he has dominion over them. Furthermore, they arise from Eru rather than simultaneously with him. They are aspects of Eru and cannot comprehend the full purpose of his creation.

Iluvatar has created the Ainur and uses them as the instrument through which he expresses his theme: the music of creation. Like in Genesis, creation is brought about through speech. This is not to say that the music of creation and God’s creative process in Genesis are analogous. This is not the case. In Genesis, God goes about creation by literally saying what was to be, while in the Ainulindale Eru uses his Ainur to give create through music. However, the inherent divinity of the voice is important to note, particularly given the dearth of biblical allusion and almost complete absence of religion in Tolkien’s legendarium. Tolkien’s choice for creation to be a musical act is significant because it sets the character for the nature of Arda. It is sets his creation apart from our world. The implication of music is beauty, mysticism, and purpose and this is reflected in the nature of Middle-Earth, especially with regards to the importance of prophecy in the narrative (From Iluvatar's purpose in creation and the vision of creation of the Valar to Boromir's dream).

Iluvatar and the Aiunur are, if not distinct entities initially, are at least so after they enter into Arda as the Valar. They then, unlike Christ, cannot fully share the divinity of God/Eru. Furthermore, this act of entering into Middle-Earth in corporeal form cannot be compared to the manifestation of Christ on Earth. The Valar are not the saviors of humankind (Elves and Men) and predated their creation by Iluvatar. The fact is that there is no analogue to this in the Christian Bible. Tolkien’s cosmogony is not allegorical to the Bible, but that he was influenced by it is unarguable.

It is, though, entirely possible to take pieces of the Ainulindale and find comparable pieces in Genesis and the Gospels. The two lights that the Valar create in Middle-Earth are similar to the light that God calls forth in Genesis, but they are thrown down and the comparison, there, fails. Valinor is almost like Eden in that it exists as a paradise in Middle-Earth, but the Children of Iluvatar are not native to there, and so it cannot be like Eden. These comparisons almost never bear out, and the difficulties that one runs into when making such comparisons are the same as those that one runs into when trying to fit Tolkien’s narrative into the scheme of World War Two.

There does seem to me, at least, to be one enduring comparison. How similar is Melkor to Lucifer? The story of the fall of Lucifer, while not in the Bible, seems to have had a heavy influence on how Tolkien conceived of the creation of evil in Middle-Earth. Both Lucifer and Melkor were powerful servants of the God of their universe. Even the reasons for their fall are similar. Lucifer was jealous of man and believed that the angels should have dominion over him. While his fall precedes the creation of man, Melkor sought greater influence in the act of creation and dominion over the other Ainur. The parallel is most apparent when Tolkien writes, “…he desired rather to subdue to his will both Elves and Men, envying the gifts with which Iluvatar promised to endow them; and he wished himself to have subjects and servants, and to be called Lord, and to be a master over other wills.” (Ring of Morgoth; pg. 12) Both Melkor and Lucifer are jealous of creation and of the gifts given to humankind. Both are forced to retreat from the world by an alliance of their peers (Lucifer by Michael and the other archangels and Melkor by the Valar). Both are referred to differently after their fall; Melkor is thereafter Morgoth and Lucifer: Satan. This cannot be coincidence.

Here we see that, while Tolkien’s cosmogony is merely inspired by the themes in Genesis and John, the conception of evil in both the Christian and Elven cosmogony is the same. Their acts are different, and they are not of wholly the same nature, but the undeniable similarities cannot be unintentional. Tolkien chose to make Morgoth satanic in nature. He is the corruptor of creation and strives against its perfection; much like Satan does in the Bible. It is curious how Tolkien’s Christianity and his characterization of his own work as “Catholic” manifests most strongly in the villains of Middle-Earth; and I would ask if there isn’t some other, good counterpart to this manifestation that I have not considered yet.

Does this take me too close to looking for allegory?

-Nick Carter


  1. No, I think you're right in this analysis. However, there's a simple answer to the question of why the Catholic-related elements seem most to relate to the villains. Remember, this is (supposed to be) our world, not a separate fantasy-land, much as it has fantastic elements. There is no real Christ-analogue, though He is perhaps prefigured in Earendil, because Christ has not yet come. Satan's analogue is present because his fall was at the beginning; but the legendarium tells of times after the beginning and before modern times and the 1st coming.

    --Luke Bretscher

  2. No, I don't think you've fallen into allegory (yet!). As Luke says, there are good reasons for being able to find analogues with the human Genesis in the Elvish story: good and evil work the same way because it is our world, simply seen through other eyes. But, no, Valinor is not Eden: Eden is more analogous to the Lake Cuiviénen where the Elves awaken; it is the place that God made for the first human beings to live. Likewise, the lights of Valinor are not the same as the light that God calls into being: even in Genesis, that light is distinct from the sun.


  3. While the parallel between the Ainulindale and Genesis are very good points, I would hesitate to say that one is necessarily an allegory for the other.

    My reason for saying this is that a lot of over-arching themes from the Ainulindale that seem to derive from the Bible are also seen in other, non-Western religions as well. For example, the idea of the "Power-that-Is" (Illuvatar or the God), creating sub-goddesses that are integral parts of the creation myth shows up in the creation myths of Japan and China.

    For example, in Shinto we clearly can see the creation of sub-gods (Ainur) from the chaos (in the Japanese traditions, they are called something like "Spirits who exist outside of heaven"), and similarly in Chinese religions, we have Pangu, the original creator (Illuvatar), forming and shaping the world and giving form to gods, and eventually mankind.

    And then each of these has their stories about redemption and rebellion against the gods and subsequent fall. Although not perfect parallels, the stories of Sun Wukong (The Monkey King) in the Chinese and the fall of Susanoo in his rebellion against Amaterasu in the Japanese. And keep in mind that these religions not only predate Christianity, but were formed independent of Christianity, given that the civilizations were separated by thousands of miles.

    So while there is no doubt that Tolkien was certainly influenced by Christianity, I would hesitate to necessarily say that Ainulindale is allegory for the stories in the Bible, when there are in fact similar stories to Christian tradition that predate Christianity by thousands of years, from both the Western world where there was much influence on the development of Christianity, to the Eastern world which evolved independent traditions that bear the same themes.

    So going back to the theme of "subcreation", is it true that Ainulindale was in some form a "subcreation" of Christian tradition, but we must also keep in mind that Christian tradition is also a subcreation of traditions that pre-date the formation of Christianity.

    Of course, then there's the idea that Ainulindale was a real story that probably also predates Christianity, but that's another topic.

    -James T.

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  5. Allegory need not be an exercise in exact one-to-one equivalency in order to work. While the entirety of the beginning of the Silmarillion may not be an allegory of the Christian creation story, several elements can be. The word and music can be a very successful allegory if you wish to use it as such. “Logos” has quite a variety of meanings and connotations. It can mean word, reason, thought, or even story. The Music of Eru, if we take it less literally and more contextually, was the history or story of Middle Earth born from the mind or thought of Eru. This can be an allegory for the word of God in creation, if we accept that both God and Eru were creating all existence past, present, and future. In creating the world, God spoke the word (his will or thought) and it was made. The Ainur, channeling the thought or will of Eru, performed the music and so creation was manifest. In both cases the action of converting thought to action (speach of musical performance) resulted in
    divine though becoming matter or existence. In for both the judeo-christian God and Eru, the world and existence is simply their though externalized.

    The Ainur and the angels are also ripe allegorical targets. While the telling of the story is different, many underlying concepts are very similar. Like the angels, the Ainur were created by the one creator and were not co-equal with him. Sometimes the angels were referred to as the children of God, as the Ainur were of Eru. They had a degree of free will and could rebel, hence Lucifer and Morgoth. Both the angels and the Ainur have divine properties in so far as they are each facets of God/Eru. For example, Gabriel is often represented as the Messenger of God. Gabriel has no innate powers of phophecy, but rather he is the vessel through which the future will of God is expressed. Likewise, Ulmo embodying the spirit of the sea does not have independent power to create the dynamics of water, but rather it is through him that Eru’s music of the sea is expressed. The names of the archangels betray this connection to God as they generally end in “-el” roughy meaning "of God" (eg Uriel = flame of God).

    Valinor and Eden also make good allegorical targets. Instead of looking at the creation of light vs. the trees, the allegorical comparison is found in the banishment of the Noldor from Valinor. Like Adam and Eve, the Noldor are banished from earthly paradise because they succumbed to temptation and the lust to possess the silmarils. Likewise the house of Feanor was “marked” with a doom because of his part in killing others elves, which harkens to the Cain and Abel story. Ultimately, allegory is where you want to find it, even if the author did not intend to put it there. The clergy have spent centuries developing Christian allegories from all kinds of things.

    For more on the role of angels in the judeo-christian tradition, I would look for the Book of Enoch and the Book of Tobit and certainly Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”

    -Jason A Banks