Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Locating Tolkien in English Religious History

       While we were discussing how to position and conceptualize the Valar and Ilúvatar in the grand scheme of Tolkien’s work, my first thought was: what exactly is the problem? The way I look at it is, we’ve got a relatively strong division here. It seems to me we can understand Ilúvatar as an incarnation of the omnipotent God portrayed in the Christian canon. He is the prime mover, the creator, the figure to which all others owe allegiance. However, as we discussed in class, that leaves a question as to how exactly we can conceptualize the Valar. If we try to put them in the same paradigm, the natural response is to say that they are the angels to Ilúvatar’s deity. This interpretation comes with many problems, which we discussed in class, including, but not limited to, the inconsistency between the ranks of angels and the Valar, the strong attachment of each Valar to a particular element or attribute, which is not present in the concept of Christian angels, such as it is. Rather, when taken on their own (that is, ignoring for a moment their subservience to Ilúvatar) the Valar map relatively clearly on to the Germanic/Norse pantheon, specifically the Æsir (or perhaps more accurately the ēse, the Anglo-Saxon variant). These gods are often associated with a particular attribute (Thor or Þunor for thunder, Sól or Sunne for the sun), are subject to mistakes, and have unique, knowable personalities and faces. Indeed, the echoes, as we know, of old northern European mythology are extensive, including many links in the cosmology (Middangard, the Anglo-Saxon conception of the human world, roughly translates to Middle Enclosure, thus, Middle-Earth). However, the point that Tolkien is influenced by Anglo-Saxon mythology hardly needs to be made. The real point is, if we accept that we can understand Ilúvatar as a God essentially modeled on the Christian God, and that the Valar map relatively well onto the Anglo-Saxon pantheon, how do they co-exist?

        The answer, I think, lies in Tolkien’s attempt to create his “mythology for England.” Since Anglo-Saxon polytheism and Christianity exist as the two major religious forces in English history (excepting, of course, the imposition of Roman polytheism in the first CE and following which were, of course, not really English), it makes sense that an imagining of an English mythology would contain elements of both. Tolkien’s schema superimposes the two religious systems on top of one each other and in the world of his works, there’s no real conflict. Since Ilúvatar does not come along with a monotheistic “I am your only God” stipulation, it is not problematic to have other figures which, while clearly subordinate, can still be called gods. Thus, the resulting religious structure is a new one that is neither mono- no poly-theistic and yet somehow both. Again, however, this point is relatively elemental. The value of this realization lies in the implications it has for Tolkien’s sub-creationist efforts and how it illuminates to create for England it’s own mythology.

        Specifically, the integration of two very separate systems of belief have roughly the same effect as looking at English religious history, but taking out the dimension of time. That is, flattening the entirety of religious history into one layer which comprises the diverse elements. This has several things to tell us. First, it speaks to the unity of the past and the present of England within the body of Tolkien’s work. However, more significantly, it speaks to the constraints of the framework of what Tolkien is doing. While a work of history has the luxury of discussing a belief system that has been largely ‘discredited’ at the time of writing but which still is understood to have been thought of as true during the historical events discussed, and for the people involved in them, an internally consistent mythology does not. So, it is important that Tolkien is crafting something with elements of mythology and not pure history. Mythology has the quality of needing to be capable of being believed. So, in order to make an English mythology, Tolkien needed to incorporate elements of English religion that could be believed in context. In order to make the narrative(s) apply not only to a modern England, but an England of the past as well, he needed to include edifices of multiple religious epochs, and that’s how we got to where we were. It is the only style, as it were, of religious conception that makes sense in the world that Tolkien created.

         Alternatively, the melding of the pagan and the Christian could help us locate Tolkien’s world in the history of our Earth. Specifically, the union of the pagan and Christian belief systems cannot help but remind us of the cycle of Old English Christ poems. Specifically, the poems contain what seems to be a merging of the Anglo-Saxon cosmology (i.e., Middangard, Neorxnawang etc) with a Christian cosmology (Earth, heaven, etc.). Perhaps more notably, the the first segment of the poem contains the lines: “Eala earendel, engla beorhtast,//ofer middangard monnum sended” and any reader of Tolkien cannot help but spy Eärendil in this verse. So, it may in fact be that in some sense, Tolkien’s world can be located contemporary to this poem (8th or 9th century CE). They both share a melding and overlaying of Christian and Germanic mythology which is manifest not only in the question of the Valar and Ilúvatar, but in the linguistic parallels, which point to Tolkien’s heavy use of Germanic source material. So, we have that Tolkien’s ‘religious’ structure is uniquely fit to include a mythology of all of English history, but perhaps we have located the time in that history where someone would have been willing to write it.

-E. Moore

"Christ A, B, C." Georgetown University: Web Hosting. Web. 27 Apr. 2011. .
Davidson, Hilda Roderick Ellis. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. London: Penguin, 1990.
Schaar, Claes. Critical Studies in the Cynewulf Group. Lund: C.W.K. Gleerup, 1949.


  1. But what then do with do with the fact that Tolkien attributes this mythology not to the Anglo-Saxons as such, but to the Elves? You do a very nice job articulating the puzzle (how to have both Valar and God), but I'm not sure I see how "flattening" out the history helps us resolve the paradox of polytheism vs. monotheism when Tolkien seems to go out of his way to make the Elvish story clearly monotheistic. Are you suggesting something other than the intermingling of traditions that took place during the conversion of England to Christianity?


  2. I like the manner in which you have explored different avenues here in an attempt to sort out the Iluvatar-Valar-God issue. Be careful about how you categorize the Valer within Tolkien’s universe: there, the Valar are only viewed as gods by Men. In his famous letter to Milton Waldman, Tolkien refers to the Ainur as being “of the same order” as the gods of other mythologies and merely “Englished as gods.” To describe the relationship between the Ainur and Iluvatar, taking into account that ultimately Tolkien’s characters are all monotheists, I think the word you are looking for is ‘henotheism,’ which literally means ‘one god,’ but which has come to signify a system by which numerous deities are all aspects of one greater deity, who is the ultimate Creator and/or focus of worship. Hinduism has often been described this way, although it depends on who you talk to.

    I’m not sure about your comment that Roman polytheism should be discounted because it is “not really English.” By that reasoning, so should Christianity, which was brought in through the Roman Empire. Pre-roman polytheism on the Isles incorporated some of Roman polytheism after a while, and, eventually, converted to Christianity (though sometimes under duress) with the rest of the empire. So, perhaps we could say that Tolkien was envisioning the syncretic religious traditions of the Isles in a new form!

    You make some excellent observations about the Ainulindalë as a chronological flattening of English traditions! I agree that this, in a way, brings past and present England together in this mythology.