Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Fire and Solitude: How Does One Judge Sin?

            Following yesterday’s discussion, I found myself giving a lot of thought to one of the Hebrew translations for sin that we mentioned briefly in class: ‘to miss the mark’. When considering the characters from The Silmarillion and trying to match them up against this definition, I discovered that some interesting trends appeared which primarily revolved around a few, select motifs. Of these, I will touch on solitude and fire. But as one ponders the extent to which characters like Aule, Melkor, and Fëanor are sinners, one has to wonder if the level to which they are sinners correlates directly to how ‘evil’ a given character is.

            In Splintered Light, Flieger makes an important point about the prevalence of the language of fire when discussing Fëanor and the restlessness of nature it implies. His intense skill and creativity have him constantly at work creating something, and he rarely is found not working (Simarillion). He is filled with an urge to create and bring new things into the world. In the case of Fëanor, early on, his works are only tinged with a hint of mastery, as might be implied from the use of the words ‘preserved imperishable’ in Tolkien’s description of Fëanor’s intention behind the Silmarils: “For Feanor, being come to his full might, was filled with a new thought, or it may be that some shadow of foreknowledge came to him of the doom that drew near; and he pondered how the light of the Trees, the glory of the Blessed Realm, might be preserved imperishable.” (Simarillion 67). His compulsion to create leads him to imprison the Light of the Two Trees in jewels which later become for his use alone: “…for though at great feasts Feanor would wear them, blazing upon his brow, at other times they were guarded close…Feanor began to love the Silmarils with a greedy love, and grudged the sight of them to all save his father and his seven sons; he seldom remembered now that the light within them was not his own” (Silmarillion 69). It is when he arrives at this final step that he fully loses sight of Eru’s target-ideal of creation for creation’s sake, not for ownership: he misses the mark.

It is a similar compulsion to bring new things into being that originally drives Melkor (arguably) and Aulë to their own ‘sins’. Melkor is eager for something to fill the empty void outside the realm of the Ainur: “He had gone often alone into the void places seeking the Imperishable Flame; for the desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own, and it seemed to him that Iluvatar took no thought for the Void, and he was impatient of its emptiness” (Silmarillion 16). One could argue that it is ultimately this impatience to create which drives him to feel he must compensate by increasing the “power and glory of the part assigned to himself” (Silmarillion 16) through adding his own themes to Iluvatar’s music. Thus, due to his restless creative impatience, he too misses the mark of Eru’s goal and makes his act rather about himself than pure creation. Aulë’s creative sin is, perhaps, the most forgivable in Eru’s eyes, as Eru chooses to prevent a willing Aulë from destroying the product of his sin. In his love and excitement for the arrival of the Children of Iluvatar, an impatient Aulë’s ever-shifting creative drive compels him to shape beings in their place: “…for so greatly did Aulë desire the coming of the Children, to have learners to whom he could teach his lore and his crafts, that he was unwilling to await the fulfillment of the designs of Iluvatar….” (Silmarillion 43). But, as a result, seven lifeless puppets are made. From his impatience, an imperfect creation is born and the anger of Eru is aroused. However, unlike Melkor or Fëanor, Aulë realizes his mistake and is willing to part with his creations in order to please Eru: “And in my impatience I have fallen in to 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 if the deeds of his father may do so without thought of mockery, but because he is the son of his father’” (43).

Another notable trend among these three is that of solitude. Melkor often walked alone into the void to seek the Fire that made all life live (Silmarillion 16), and it is while alone that he developed ideas that further separated him from the Ainur: “But being alone he had begun to conceive thoughts of his own unlike those of his brethren” (Silmarilion 16). Additionally, all three of these characters hide their actions (Melkor comes to do so later), as if to imply that they have some inkling that what they are doing is wrong in some way. Fëanor tells no one of his attempts to capture the light of the Trees when making the Silmarils: “Then he began a long and secret labor, and he summoned all his lore, and his power, and his subtle skill; and at the end of all he made the Silmarils” (Simarillion 67). Aulë retreats deep into the Earth to make the Dwarves: “But fearing that the other Valar might blame his work, he wrought in secret: and he made first the Seven Fathers of the Dwarves in a hall under the mountains in Middle-Earth” (Silmarillion 43). All this secretive behavior seems to point to, at least on a subconscious level, some sort of self-recognition that their actions are in some way not quite what they are supposed to be, or a sin.

But the question that has been haunting me the most after considering all of this is the following: do characters stop being evil once you understand them? Is there some sort of transition that happens from seeing some sort of abominable action and calling it evil, versus understanding why someone did said action, and then calling it rather a sin? If Eru understands all of the Ainur’s actions, does he see them as sins or evil deeds? Does he see them at failed attempts of doing what he wants, or as purely self-inspired, self-motivated acts intentionally against his will? Does Eru see the restlessness creative fire within his creations/Ainur and weigh that against their guilty solitude in judging their actions? Does knowing why someone does something change how inherently evil that action is? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions….any thoughts?

-C.C. Phillips


  1. I’ve never thought of having sympathetic motives as a basis for judging actions! It’s a very interesting idea, and one I think worth pursuing. However, from a sort religious (specifically Catholic) point of view, I think this can be boiled down the conflict between original sin and “willed” sin, or sin in which a choice is involved. Original Sin—which came into the world via the apple and the garden—afflicts all humanity, but is not a chosen sin. Rather, Original Sin is defined as concupiscence, or the tendency to sin. I think this maps very nicely to Feanor’s “restless fire”—neither Original Sin nor the restless fire are bad in themselves; in fact they are naturally-occurring a result of being human or being Feanor.

    However, the way Feanor chooses to use his restless fire—just as the way an individual chooses to sin or avoid sin—is what Eru may judge. Melkor, for example, has the same nature as the other Ainur, but still consciously chooses to rebel against Eru. Motives matter because motives are conscious, and intent counts.

    But if I or Eru/God can understand your “bad” motives, does that mean your motives aren’t so evil? Your guess is as good as mine.

  2. My first thought is, very good observation about the link between solitude and sin, as if the characters themselves already know that what they are doing is not quite right. And I am intrigued by the thought that once one is understood, a character stops being evil--but I'm not really sure this works. Did our discussion of evil today help at all?


  3. These are some nice images of the character of sin in Tolkien’s thought-world. It’s hard, though, for me to see the exact relation of fire to sin in his imagery. I see in your examples, instead, greed, resistance to the gift, possession, which is where Fëanor ends up. These themes appear of course in LotR too, but it’s not always easy to say that the characters act with self-knowledge. Rather, they are drawn by some kind of necessary magnetism of possession. Is there a lesson here, about the impossibility of not falling, of staying in edenic sinlessness? Your comments on solitude I think strike the point: wanton independence and self-appropriation. I don’t fully understand your distinctions between sin, evil and evil deed, and I don’t know whether knowledge of evil changes the evil. Is not sin an evil deed? In any case, I don’t readily see how knowledge would retroactively affect evil in this way. There is also the question of what knowledge of evil means. I’m not sure that Tolkien presents us with an evil that is understood. It’s observed, though, or rather, wrong choices are observed, while a discursive attempt at understanding is rather less apparent to me.

  4. "Does knowing why someone does something change how inherently evil that action is? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions….any thoughts?"

    I think acknowledging intent (the "why") is a huge factor in distributing blame-- "the road to Hell is paved with good intentions," and good intentions are easier to forgive than malicious ones. Accidental evil, while still hurtful, is somehow less horrible on an emotional level. Think of the different associations to accidentally breaking Great Aunt Edna's prized vase and smashing it in a fit of rage: clearly, you can draw a distinction between the two actions, even though the end result was the same. The smashing holds that inherent evil-- the malice that we discussed in class, the deliberate darkness compared to the simple absence of light. Somehow, the accident is easier to bear than the knowledge of that.

    I especially like your emphasis on "missing the mark," because I think it fits well with the sense of intent. Melkor is considered "evil" because he goes from simply missing to deliberately straying. That transition from accidental to intentional action signifies conscious corruption-- something mirrored in Feanor's descent from the accidental sin of the Silmarils into the intentional, greedy withholding of them, as well as elsewhere in Tolkien's work. Even though lines of intent do get blurry sometimes (especially as we've discussed with the Ring-- does Frodo control his hand, or does some external power?), perhaps that's one way to approach this all.


  5. I really enjoyed your particular analysis of Melkor’s impatient sin and how he ultimately “misse[d] the mark of Eru’s goal…act[ed] rather about himself than pure creation.” Furthermore, I agree with your claim that that Fëanor, Melkor, and Aulë trended toward solitude and secretive behavior because they were aware of that their actions were impermissible.

    Like CJH, I think that intentions are useful dynamics to consider in this discussion of whether or not characters remain evil after we (readers) gain a deeper understanding of their actions, motivations, etc. Throughout his legendarium, Tolkien addresses character intentions through mythical and modern frames. In letter 183, he argued that “man is both a seed and in some degree also a gardener…[he was] impressed by the degree in which the development of ‘character’ can be a product of conscious intention, the will to modify innate tendencies in desired directions.” (258) Even though Melkor “feigned, even to himself at first, that he desired to go thither and order all things for the good of the Children of Illuvitar, controlling the turmoils of the heat and the cold that had come to pass through him…[he] desired rather to subdue to his will both Elves and Men, envying the gifts with which Illuvitar promised to endow them; and he wished himself to have subjects and servants, and to be called Lord, and to be a master over others.” Yet, in as much as Melkor intended to deliberately stray the habituation of Arda by, among other things, trying to corrupt Ulmo’s water, Eru also intended for more purposes to water than what Ulmo knew from the thoughts/concepts he embodied. Melkor committed a unique sin because he was not merely impatient with creation but was willing to corrupt his own maker’s creation. However, Eru pre-figured this, thus making it difficult for me to see Melkor’s admittedly dark intentions as absolutely evil.


  6. On a slightly different note, I think it is important to point out that fire and solitude are not primarily themes of sinfulness in Middle Earth. In the Christian World, fire is often associated with hell, punishment and suffering, but this is not the case for Tolkien’s legendarium. Similar to the Christian Holy Spirit, the beings of Middle Earth are imbued with a Secret Fire/ Imperishable Flame given to them by Eru. As Sarah responded, Fëanor and Melkor are sinful as a result of their chosen relationship with fire. One character, however, is also greatly characterized by fire (and to a lesser extent, solitude), but is considered to be of great good: Gandalf.

    Gandalf’s special relationship to fire is introduced in the Shire when the Hobbits clamor for firework displays, but his relationship with fire, particularly the Secret Fire, is revealed in Moria. When confronting the Balrong, Gandalf declares:

    "I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn.” (“The Bridge of Khazad-dûm”, Fellowship)

    Unlike Fëanor who wished to possess the Secret Fire, Gandalf is a servant of Imperishable Flame. In Unfinished Tales, Tolkien further enhances Gandalf’s positive relationship with fire when he describes him as having a “warm and eager spirit” that opposed “the fire that devours and wastes with the fire that kindles” (“The Istari”, Unfinished Tales). Gandalf’s spirit is intensified when Círdan the Elven Ring of Power associated with fire, Narya.

    - BLS