Friday, April 29, 2011

Creativity and Immortality

The assignment of different facets of Humanity to Elves and to Men was touched on briefly in the last class, and I think it might have some bearing on the source of corruption that in part led to the downfall of Numenor. We said that to Elves, other than the obvious immortality within Arda, was assigned the Human power of creation, whereas to Men was primarily assigned mortality and the ability to escape beyond the confines of Arda, as well as the ability to influence the Music through free will; it is said that they trouble even Manwe with their actions. We also said that to be Evil is to go against that which is Good, or more specifically that which is one’s intended purpose or lot in creation.

We can see this separation of characteristics between the Children of Iluvatar in the chapter of the Quenta Silmarillion titled “Of Men,” in which the differences and broader interactions between the races in the early days are most clearly laid out. Tolkien’s description suggests several reasons for Men to be jealous, for "Elves and Men were of like stature and strength of body, but the Elves had greater wisdom, and skill, and beauty… But Men were more frail, more easily slain by weapons or mischance, and less easily healed; subject to sickness and many ills; and they grew old and died. (104)" Yet of the Edain, who would become the Numenoreans, he said “there were some among Men that learned the wisdom of the Eldar, and became great and valiant among the captains of the Noldor.” (105) It seems that, though the favored men could attain wisdom and valor, great strength of mind and body through learning from the Eldar, they could not acquire two things, those facets we said explicitly assigned to them, creation and immortality. I want to suggest that it is the sundering of these two assigned virtues that leads to the downfall—the Numenoreans are able to create but always overshadowed by the inevitable separation from their creations.

Both of these traits, assigned as we saw to the Eldar, are directly related to the Gift of Numenor, though we see one is addressed and one only hinted at. Though the Valar cannot entirely revoke the Gift to Men, they attempt to compromise or alleviate some of the negativity by increasing the Numenorean lifespan threefold. In addition, Numenor is the first time in the history of Men (that we are aware of) that they demonstrate the act of creation. In Middle Earth, they had appeared in the East, under the eaves of shadow and far from the light of the West, and even when the fathers of the Edain arrived into Beleriand it was to a land under at best a wary peace. They are not credited with any of the creative arts (even city building) while in Beleriand, seeming to live in villages and small settlements, apparently associated primarily with the Eldar to whom they gave their aid, being gifted in valor and destruction rather than creation. With the gift of Numenor they are taken out of Middle Earth, away from the unhappy lot of Men, who “dwelt in darkness and were troubled by many evil things that Morgoth had devised.” (260) In this land of peace and plenty there are no restrictions and no limits to their creativity or movement, save only the Ban. There "they grew wise and glorious, and in all things more like the Firstborn than any other of the kindreds of Men… At the feet of the mountain were built the tombs of the Kings, and hard by upon a hill was Armenelos, fairest of cities, and there stood the tower and the citadel that were raised by Elros son of Earendil (261)" The work of their hands and their increased life span keep them happy for a while, but it seems to be no coincidence that the first murmurings of discontent take the form of complaints against death, which forces them to “(leave) our home and all that we have made” (264). The Numenoreans, having gotten a taste for creation and the work of their hands, don’t want to give it up.

This is similar to the difficulties of Feanor and Aule with the work of their hands. As long as the joy is in the creation and not in the possession, they have not overstretched their bounds as beings whose prime directive is subcreation under the greater creation of Iluvatar. Aule is able to turn away from the evil of going against his intended purpose because he creates the dwarves through joy of sub-creation and his desire to share that joy, rather than through desire for possession and dominance. Feanor, as we see, creates the Silmarils through the joy of sub-creation, but also to preserve something (the light of the trees) in the event of its destruction, and through this to encapsulate, make physical, and eventually possess the light. It is the possibility of the ending of something good (which no one else seems to imagine) that leads to the creation of the Silmarils, for “he pondered how the light of the Trees, the glory of the Blessed Realm, might be preserved imperishable.” (67) It seems to me that the possibility of the ending of the light of the Trees must be considered in order for the idea of ‘imperishable’ to arise in response. The need for possession, in turn, arises primarily from the act of creation, and secondarily from the possibility of the ending of the possession… Perhaps following the vein of true Creation, sub-creation creates both an object, and in turn an owner, which by necessity creates the opposite of ownership, non-possession. This is not in and of itself bad, as we see with the analogy of the Light and the not-Light or Being and not-Being, where the absence is not the antithesis. Rather it is when something attempts to dispossess the sub-creator of his creation that problems arise. With Feanor he turns on those who he sees as the source of his dispossession and so the Numenoreans also, who turn on the Valar who they see as withholding the secret to rectifying their dispossession (or ending the fear of death).

I don’t mean to do anything more than suggest, but: it seems to me that with the giving of the Land of Gift, free from trouble and the Shadow, and allowing the Edain the chance to engage in sub-creation, the Valar are encouraging them to overstep their purpose in making them like to the Firstborn, and yet withholding the primary gift of the Eldar, that of immortality. This implies that there will be possession, but that the dispossession through death in inevitable. Because there is the inevitable separation the creations become all the more dear. The Valar have, by tripling the Numenoreans’ life span compared to other men, and as they themselves are deathless, suggested that they have the power to also give this immortality to Men thus taking away the inevitability of dispossession. By not revoking the Gift, they take on the role of the dispossessors of Men, both of the work of their hands and of their lives, which is the conflict that inevitably leads to the final Fall and breaking of the Ban. I am suggesting that in giving a Gift which makes it possible for the Edain to go beyond their intended purpose and take on a roll which was not, apparently, originally in their knowledge and purpose, that of sub-creator, and yet not fully making them of the Firstborn, only ‘like to,’ the Valar make the fall inevitable by helping the Edain perpetrate the original evil, attempting to be, or attain a roll, other than intended for them by Iluvatar. They are not fully of the Men nor fully of the Elves, a corrupted form, though corrupted through good intentions.



  1. I'm not sure I would go so far as to blame the Valar for the fall of Numenor, but I like very much the connection that you make between creation and death and the corollary problem of possession: I think you have captured extremely well the essence of the problem with which Tolkien was struggling throughout his work. It is creation (existence, life) itself that raises the possibility of death, of no longer having (possessing) life. The most difficult thing to do is to accept that (to paraphrase the words of the Gospel), "he who would save his life must lose it." Not an easy lesson at all!


  2. You really capture the inherent vulnerability of the Numenoreans. Your connection between creation, possession and death is compelling. I am reminded that, within the Christian tradition, St. Augustine saw private possession as a consequence of the fall, coming into existence at the same time as death. Here the paradigm you argue for is different, as it tries to take into account a theology of creation/sub-creation and consequent notions of possession and mortality. Creation may be one of the great responses to mortality: making against time. But I don’t know if these things are the logical problems of the gods, for the believers of a mythology or for us. It is about the myth of continuance, and its materialistic versions. By materialistic I mean a tendency of identifying ourselves with the material and surviving forms of our culture. The challenge is indeed that of seeing death not as dispossession, but as a gift, of which the recipient may even be unworthy. Could this be part of why Tolkien calls it a gift?