Friday, April 29, 2011

Musings Explored

In considering the fall of Numenor, there are some musings that we can toy with, that we began to discuss in class, and about which we were left in confusion and indecision when class ended. I would like to present another perspective on these musings, these “what if?” questions, specifically the questions of 1) What if the human sacrifices had been directed toward Iluvatar, instead of toward Morgoth? Would this have made a difference as to whether they were sinful/evil? And 2) What if the Numenoreans had committed the sacrifices and yet not sailed West? Were the sacrifices evidence that they were beyond the point of no return?

In responding to the first question, I would like to consider the question of, as Dorothy Sayers describes it, what it means to be evil. We discussed how, with the creation of being, for example, there is also the creation of non-being. Evil, however, would be the marring of being, or, in essence, anti-being. So, if we consider “worship to Iluvatar” to be something that was created with the forming of the world, how does this affect our perspective?

When I consider this question, the thing that comes to my mind is that worship, according to its Biblical descriptions, involves both the orientation of the heart and the acted out works of the body. The Bible calls believers, in expressing their love toward God, to “trust and obey” him. Clearly, when the Numenoreans committed human sacrifice for the benefit of Morgoth (in addition to their actions leading up to that event as well), we could safely say that they were neither trusting in Iluvatar nor obeying his intentions in creating being. They were committing acts of “anti-being” in killing other humans, and their acts were oriented in a direction other than toward Iluvatar. If they were to commit these actions toward Iluvatar, would that make the situation any better? Although there is definitely an argument for why it could be less serious, less repulsive, my consideration is this: Evil is oriented toward marring the good. Worship toward Iluvatar is something that would be considered to be very good (regardless of whether it was an expressed requirement or not). But, to worship Iluvatar by destroying his beings does not seem like worship it all. In fact, to do so would not only show a distrust of Iluvatar, to conceive of Iluvatar as being filled of darkness as opposed to light. It displays Iluvatar as a Creator who delights in evil committed toward his creation. By committing human sacrifice in Iluvatar’s direction, the Numenoreans would be accusing Iluvatar of (or “praising” him for) having evil intentions toward his creation. Regardless of whether this is actually “worse” than sacrificing toward Morgoth, I don’t see how being seen as evil by one’s beloved creation could be “better” than being ignored altogether. Frankly, such a situation would be very sad.

Then, we consider what relation the human sacrifice had with the decision to sail West, and whether the first was a true sign of “sin” toward Iluvatar or whether they could have been redeemed if they had not decided to sail West. There was clearly an escalation of their misguided actions, as Sauron penetrated more and more deeply into their society, and as he led them astray increasingly throughout the course of the story. However, this brings to mind the story of the Fall in Genesis. In that story, the serpent comes and speaks to Adam and Eve, leading them astray and turning them against God. And, in that story, they were commanded not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but as the command was given to Adam, some have argued that the Fall didn’t actually happen until Adam himself ate from the tree, and questions have come up as to whether redemption could have happened if Eve had eaten from the tree and Adam hadn’t. However, despite all of our desires to speculate, this is a case where, frankly, what happened is what happened. Was human sacrifice a sign of whether the people had gone past the point of no return? We cannot be sure, and things happened the way that they happened for a reason. Did these actions need to be paired? I don’t know, but they were, and punishment followed.

Like the ban from eating from the tree in Genesis, the ban from sailing west was made for the benefit of those banned—it kept them from the Undying Lands so as to allow them to retain their gift of death, such that they would be able to go to a wonderful place in due time. The committing of human sacrifice was probably a horrible and wretched thing, but it happened in the context of a world where those who were in it would eventually die anyway—it is very different from a scenario where, for example, elves were being sacrificed. However, if they were to be turned away from following Iluvatar, and if they were then to live in the Undying Lands, that would be the worst of both situations—living forever without being able to achieve things fully, as the elves are able to. As we discussed, this is something that the Numenoreans would have understood before Sauron came into their midst and brought fear into their hearts. But they forgot this gift when Sauron came, and this was why they chose to overstep the boundaries of this gift, and why the other gifts that they had been given were taken away.

JaMaBee

7 comments:

  1. While I agree on a personal level with the way in which you describe the problem of human sacrifice, the philosophical and theological difficulties are rather different. What if, in making the sacrifices, you told yourself that you were sending the Children of Ilúvatar back to him sooner? You might still think that what you were doing was good. For example, Abraham being willing to sacrifice Isaac. The problem then becomes the reason for which you are making the sacrifice: it was evil of the Morgothians to kill other human beings when what they themselves wanted was to escape death.

    RLFB

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  2. I think you have struck upon the necessary dual aspect of evil (and good) in “trust and obey.” Evil, at least in the context our discussions, is both a state of mind and action, or choice. It follows that good also is a choice. Unless, both mind and body are in accord, you are neither totally good nor evil, but are in a state of conflict. Doing good when you intend to do evil (malicious kindness if you will) is not fully an act of good and so does not make the perpetrator good, but rather conflicted. Likewise, desiring to do good and yet succumbing to temptation or falling into evil habits is not fully evil, but rather unmasks moral frailty which we all have in varying degrees or a tragic mistake. In this sense almost all characters in the Legendarium fall along a spectrum of good/evil with Eru and Melkor/Sauron at opposite ends.

    Here’s a mindbender, is the genocide of “evil” people in the name of Eru a good thing? If the Numenoreans were all killed by the "faithful" instead drowned in the sea, would their killers' actions have been good since death was the fate Eru had chosen for them? Or is Eru the only one that can commit mass slaughter of men, women, and children in a good way?

    -Jason A Banks

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  3. You examine some good questions here, because understanding at what point the Numenoreans were lost helps us to understand what their greatest sin was and, by extension, how Tolkien valued different sinful and evil acts. I think it a useful angle to take, to look at the worship of Iluvatar as a thing made to exist in the world, since by this perspective, we can view the failure to worship Iluvatar as sin (‘missing the mark’) rather than evil. Following this line of thinking, you make an excellent argument that worship, even toward Iluvatar, by destroying his own creations would be anti-creation and therefore evil.

    I’m not sure I agree that sacrificing Elves would have been worse than sacrificing Men. Even though Elves can live forever and Men are doomed to die, they can both be killed by violent death, and in either case this is a violation of the life they were given by Iluvatar, so I think the sacrifice would have been equally bad either way.

    Be careful about the place of Men in the Undying Lands. The name can be confusing because it isn’t the land itself that grants immortality; it’s named so because those who live there (i.e., Elves and Ainur) are immortal – more like Lands of the Undying than Undying Lands. If Men were to reach Valinor, they would still be mortal and they would still be doomed to leave Middle Earth for the unknown.

    Courtney

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  5. I really liked Jason’s mindbender on if the genocide of “evil” people in the name of Eru is a good thing? From my cursory understanding, especially from the Flieger excerpt, I think that if the Faithful rebelled and massacred the Melkorians, it would be no different than the good/evil forces paradigm in the War of the Rings. The Gondorians and Rohirrim (not to mention Dwarves, Hobbits, and Elves) fought thousands of Sauron-worship ping men: Easterlings, Heradrim, Wild Men. Ultimately, the evil actions of evil-practicing men, be they from Numenor or Middle Earth, threaten to subvert the gift of Illuvitar and ‘fulfill’ and the world in a wrong way. Because their actions are a “‘fate to all things else,’ including Elves,” Eru oddly retains the right to slaughter Melkorians en mass because they threaten his pre-figured designs for both Arda and the other Children. Unlike such Ainur as Melkor, men have the unique “‘virtue to shape their life, amid the powers and chances of the world,’” so Eru could not anticipate the Melkorian’s collective choice to forsake his gift and potentially doom the fates of all other things in Arda, even if that doom was in service to a pre-figured, albeit powerful, Ainu like Melkor (Tolkien in Flieger 128).

    However, I disagree with Flieger’s point that there is “no special assignment is laid out for men” because the gift held no strings attached or obligation for men to hold anything but their freedom “to use Illuvitar’s gift when and as they like.” Will this maintains Tolkien’s inner-consistency—paralleling our Primary World’s ambiguity about the relativity of fate and free-will—I find that Eru would did not massacre the ‘good’ forces in the War of the Ring because they fought against and triumphed over men also using their gift when and as they liked…but with the wrong intentions, means, and ends for Arda and its inhabitants.

    AJE

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  6. Much of your musings resonated with my own musings from that class – I especially liked how you drew connections with the Bible and the parallel of the ban from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Ban on sailing to the Undying West. I also liked how the definition you gave for worship: that “involves both the orientation of the heart and the acted out works of the body.” Working from that definition, then, I think both of the questions raised in that class seem to be grasping for that elusive line between what is sin and what is not. I’m not saying that they are not worthy of considering, because they are. But without the comparative aspect, if these deed is taken on its own – the very act of sacrificing humans to Iluvatar – it is clearly wrong. Already it demonstrates that the Numenoreans’ hearts are not oriented properly and they do not truly know who Iluvatar is and what pleases him.

    Somewhere in the Bible it says that all sins are the same – they are all actions done opposing the will of God. I feel like that’s the same thing here: we might wonder about the gradation of “wrongness” in the deeds of the Numenoreans and seek to find out which is the part which made their act truly heinous in Iluvatar’s sight, but what it boils down to is that they were simply not honoring Iluvatar in the right way at all.

    V.Lau

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  7. I agree with your musings on the nature of the human sacrifices on a personal level, but I have to agree with Professor Fulton's comment that on a philosophical and theological level, things are not quite that simple. The perfect counter-example, of course, is the Abraham and Isaac story. It's easy to argue that sacrificing human for the sake of Iluvatar, or God for that matter, is morally worse than sacrificing to Morgoth because doing so would be the opposite to honoring Iluvatar's creations. However, if so, how does one choose when encountered with the choice between obeying and trusting God, and giving the right respect to God's creations--and by doing so, disobey God directly? Of course, in the Abraham and Isaac story, an angel, who is presumably acting on behalf of God, stops Abraham at the last moment, and a ram was sacrificed in Isaac's stead; nonetheless, the theological relevance of that story still applies here, I think. In the end, God shows his goodness and mercy by sending out an angel to stop Isaac from actually being sacrificed, but the important part is for Abraham--and Numenoreans, if we presume that the same theological points apply in Middle Earth--to trust in God fully and obey him despite the perhaps somewhat questionable methods God uses to test said trust. While I struggle with the idea that the real reason behind Numenor's fall is the attempt to sail towards the West as far as personal moral goes, I do think that given similar incidences in scripture, Tolkien's decision on this matter is "in character" for him as a Catholic. Like you mentioned in your post, there's an obvious parallel between the ban from sailing West and the ban from eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis. Your comment about the possibility for them to be turned away from following Iluvatar yet live in the Undying Lands is really thought-provoking; I've never thought about it that way before, but it does make a lot of sense in terms of the separate fates of Man and Elves. Given the mortality of men, I would hesitate to say that they would live as long as the Elves even if the Numenorians arrive in Valinor, and I think there's a distinct possibility that their lifespan would be stretched unnaturally beyond what their bodies and spirits can endure. And, given Feanor's precedence, one can't presume that the greed of the Numenorians would stop at reaching the shores of Valinor. What would've been next? As callous as it sounds, what did happen might just be the best of all possible results, all things considered.
    -CZ

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