As we struggled on Monday to describe the Ainur in terms of Christian theology I quickly realized there was no simple answer. The Ainur aren’t meant to map neatly onto a specific being in Christianity because Tolkien didn’t intend his work to be read as a simple allegory, but instead as a literary exploration of man’s relation to light, goodness, and God. Tolkien’s work, particularly The Silmarillion, deals beautifully with often-problematic tenants of Christian belief, including the intricate conflict of man’s free will and God’s omnipotence.
Tolkien’s use of metaphor and his intention to distinguish the Ainur from angels are obvious from the outset of The Silmarillion. Melkor is described as an offspring of the thought of Ilúvatar (Tolkien’s God character) (3), and as such his rebellion and lust for power could easily be viewed as Tolkien departing from his Catholic beliefs. However, I believe the opposite is true. Tolkien uses the rebellion of Melkor to communicate God’s omniscience and omnipotence. By placing Melkor’s rebellion before the coming of man (meaning Men or Elves) to Middle Earth, Tolkien communicates the idea that God, from the outset of creation, knew the fall of man would occur. Creating a world whose inhabitants possess free will necessitates the existence of at least the possibility of sin and God, in his omniscience recognized this fact. After Melkor deviates from Ilúvatar’s theme, Ilúvatar tells him that “Thou, Melkor, wilt discover all the secret thoughts of thy mind, and wilt perceive that they are but a part of the whole” (6). Tolkien’s metaphor explains that God, by allowing free will must necessarily allow for sin as well and it is in fact present in the world from the outset of creation.
Similarly, the fact that the each Ainur only has knowledge of the single part of Ilúvatar’s mind from which he came (3) communicates the Christian belief that man can only attain an incomplete knowledge of God. This is further relayed through Tolkien’s later statement that “some things there are that they (the Ainur) cannot see… for to none but himself has Ilúvatar revealed all that he has in store” (7). Although the Ainur enter the world and the Elves can interact with and know them, this is not equivalent to a complete knowledge of God. Tolkien is careful to make a distinction between Ilúvatar and all other beings present in The Silmarillion, clearly portraying the belief that God is a unique entity and though he creates other beings none can equal Him or possess a complete understanding of Him.
Even more striking however (to me at least) is the way Tolkien uses the story line itself to explore the complex tension that exists between man’s free will and God’s ultimate authority. This can be a difficult concept even for seasoned Christians, but by presenting the issue in a narrative formative Tolkien makes the solution seem surprisingly natural.
God, or Ilúvatar, can use anything, including rebellion and sin, to further communicate his glory as Augustine says in City of God (473). This belief is present in the story of Aulë and the creation of the dwarves. Aulë, impatient for the coming of the children of Ilúvatar to Middle Earth creates the dwarven race in secret. Aulë loves his creation deeply, yet they lack true life as they are controlled entirely by Aulë. When Ilúvatar discovers Aulë’s creation, rather than ordering him to destroy it as Aulë expects (and because of his devotion to Ilúvatar is completely willing to do), Ilúvatar instead endows Aulë’s work with the gift of true life. Through his action, Ilúvatar communicates that he is the only one who can give life and allow for free will, an idea that Tolkien states explicitly in “Letter 153”. Aulë’s deviation from Ilúvatar’s plan offers Ilúvatar an opportunity to further demonstrate his ultimate authority and power as the author of all.
This story clearly parallels the biblical tale of Abraham. Abraham was promised a son in his old age by God and rather than waiting for God to fulfill the promise Abraham fathers a child through his wife’s servant. Similar to Aulë’s impatience, God uses this Abraham’s transgression to His glory. When God sees what Abraham has done God chastises Abraham and ordains that the offspring of the originally promised child will be eternally in conflict with the offspring of the servant’s child. The sin of Abraham has caused a lasting friction in creation that God’s perfect plan, had it been followed, would have avoided. God, as an omnipotent being, could obviously have prevented Abraham’s action, but rather than eliminate free will, God uses Abraham’s free will to communicate his superiority to man. Man lacks God’s omniscient and as a shortsighted being is bereft of God’s ability to create a perfect and peaceful existence.
The story of Fëanor deals even more intricately with the ideas of free will and predestination. After Yavanna’s trees are destroyed and the subsequent darkness descends upon Valinor, Fëanor is presented with a choice by the Valar: relinquish his precious Simarils and return light to Valinor, or continue to hoard them for himself. Fëanor’s choice to retain the jewels, along with his general attitude of lust and possessiveness towards the Silmarils proves the cause of his ultimate downfall.
From the viewpoint of Fëanor, he plainly has a choice and the uncontestable right to employ his god-given gift of free will. He consciously decides to keep the Silmarils for himself. However, the ultimate outcome of his actions (his death) had already been ordained. As Flieger says on pg 111, and we discussed in class, the desire to possess light is Tolkien’s equivalent of the ultimate sin and must subsequently lead to Fëanor’s downfall. Fëanor makes every choice leading up to his death, including his unwillingness to relinquish the Silmarils and his rash decision to pursue Melkor after their theft, but the reality that he must die is unalterable.
This is telling of man’s relation to God, and specifically the relationship between man’s free will and God’s ultimate authority. Although man has the power to make a choice in every instance, God, as a being outside our linear understanding of time, already has a knowledge of the eventual outcome. Furthermore, these outcomes will not only be appropriate within God’s justice system, but will also serve to further glorify Him.
The coexistence of predestination and free will is one of the most difficult concepts in Christianity. Much like the Trinity it presents two seemingly conflicting ideas and paradoxically states that both are at once true. However, as Tolkien communicates in The Silmarillion, through the power of God both can exist at once and serve to deepen the beauty of creation.