Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Problem of Melkor and Christianity

Melkor is a problem. I mean this not just in the sense that he is a problem for the Ainur and Iluvatar, and threatens the very existence of Middle-Earth – though this alone would certainly be enough to call him the biggest problem in Arda. I mean that Melkor is a problem in the theological sense, if one were to approach Tolkien’s mythos as a sort of religious metaphor (using Sayers’ definition of a metaphor). Though the Ainulindale certainly does not map onto the Genesis story, nor is it intended to, it suffers from some of the same confusions and apparent inconsistencies that the Christian story does. Most notable is the problem of evil: if God created everything, and everything is good, where does evil come from?

I felt confident that we successfully explicated much of this issue in our Wednesday discussion, which I’ll very briefly summarize and is basically Sayers’ argument mapped onto the Silmarillion. Iluvatar created Being, and that was Light, but everything that was Not-Being was Darkness. In creating Light, he also necessarily created its opposite, Darkness, which was not bad in itself but simply a result of its opposite. Turning from the Light is sin. As Elrond argued of the Ring’s power to corrupt, “Nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so.” Corrupting the Light into Darkness is evil. This act is that of Anti-Light, direct opposition to Iluvatar’s will and creation. To use an example, Melkor’s “vilest deed” that was “most hateful to Iluvatar” was the corruption of Elves, the Light, into Orcs, the Dark (Silmarillion).

This is an elegant answer to the first part of the question. Sin is a physical act of turning away from the Light, and evil is the Anti-Light, that which corrupts the Light into Darkness. But then we run into three follow-up questions: where does the Anti-Good come from, what is the line between sinfulness and evil, and how did Melkor become evil, if he was created by Iluvatar? The first and third questions are similar, because Melkor is the ultimate Anti-Good for he is directly opposed to Iluvatar’s will. It is clear that his acts of corruption of others, such as of Feanor and Sauron, are evil, and that makes Melkor evil. But who or what corrupted Melkor? What was the act that turned him from simply sinful to the embodiment of evil?

To approach this, we will first have to explore the concept of free will. This is a tricky concept in reference to the Ainur, because Tolkien never explicitly states that they were granted free will, instead describing them as independent beings, “each with their own thoughts and devices,” but not all-powerful (Silmarillion). Given this, we can assume that they were given some degree of free will, though as offspring of Iluvatar’s thoughts, they could not operate independently of him. Melkor, as the most powerful and knowledgeable of the Ainur, desired to “increase the glory of the part assigned to himself,” and sought the Imperishable Flame in the Void. As Flieger noted, the best and brightest are often the ones to fall the farthest into darkness, and it is no surprise that Melkor grew weary of his limited power and believed that he deserved more. Here, as Melkor develops his own thoughts, we see him turning from the Light and towards sin. But when did this become absolute evil? Many Men and Elves turned from the Light at some point, but they were not evil.

I think that Melkor’s greatest evil was not defying Iluvatar by desiring the Void – it was his contempt for Iluvatar’s creation and will, and his own arrogance in believing that he could create better than Iluvatar himself. He does not just create music in opposition to Iluvatar’s, but rather directly challenges Iluvatar’s power in a musical show down where he has the audacity to compete with Iluvatar. Once defeated, Melkor does not admit his lesser power, but becomes angry and vindictive. By refusing to back down and challenging Iluvatar, Melkor crosses the line from sinful into evil. When one’s inner impulse is turned to actively seeking Darkness, rather than an occasional venture towards it or a tendency towards it, as Men experience, he becomes evil and is no longer just sinful.

But, if Melkor was inclined towards evil, and he was an offspring of Iluvatar’s thoughts, does that mean that part of Iluvatar from which Melkor came was also inclined towards evil? Here, one could again turn to free will as an explanation, but I don’t find that sufficient. Melkor’s desire for Darkness had to come from somewhere. It might be useful here to use Numenor as an analogy (warning: here be speculation, as this is not a perspective explored in the Silmarillion). It was discussed in class that perhaps some of the blame for the fall lies with Iluvatar, for tempting the Numenoreans to pursue Valinor and immortality in the first place. He granted them extended lives and a paradise on earth – but not Valinor. In so doing, he may have made them feel that they were getting “closer” to being Elves, who were seen as a sort of “chosen people.” This temptation, and a fear of death, was ultimately too much for the Numenoreans, who believed that they had become close enough in nature to the Elves that they should rightfully join them in Valinor. In the same way, was Iluvatar’s own power too much of a temptation for Melkor, who believed that he, by being given more power than the other Ainur, was a step closer to being Iluvatar himself? The Numenoreans, like Melkor, were not evil or even inclined towards Darkness in the beginning, for they feared death and desired immortality before being corrupted by Sauron. It was the temptation of Valinor that led them astray. Did Iluvatar mislead Melkor by giving him too much knowledge, thereby planting in him greed for more power? Can we blame Iluvatar partially for Melkor’s fall? This is dangerous territory because it means that Iluvatar was not flawless. It means that Melkor’s tendency towards evil was fostered by Iluvatar himself. Iluvatar did indeed create evil, because he created a being capable of committing evil. This is a statement that I am not bold enough to make. On the other hand, I’m also not convinced that Iluvatar must be flawless like the Christian God.

Bringing this back to Numenor, I would like to briefly defend the Men and maintain that they suffered an unjust fate. Sauron, the treacherous, was to blame because he committed the ultimate sin of corrupting the Light. He directly opposed Iluvatar’s will by interfering in and trying to change the fate of Men. Of course the Numenoreans feared death – none of the Ainur were even able to tell them where they would go or what would happen to them after death. True, they committed a sin by not having faith in Iluvatar’s plan, but that does not make them, or even Ar-Pharazon, evil, just human. Sauron should therefore have been the only one to suffer the punishment for the Numenoreans’ actions, because they did not understand the extent of their sin while Sauron most certainly did. Then again, it could be argued that the Numenoreans were given another gift by being drowned, since we do not know what happens to them in death.

In conclusion, I find the Melkor problem to be irreconcilable with Christian thought. The thing that makes it different from Christianity is that Melkor and the Ainur were offsprings of Iluvatar’s thought, and there is no perfect analogy for this in Christianity. So where did Melkor’s desire for Darkness come from? I can only come to the unfortunate conclusion that it came from Iluvatar himself.



  1. I think that I know why you come to the conclusion that you do, but I'm still not entirely sure that it is necessary for it to be God's/Iluvatar's fault that Melkor or Men fall. If there is no possibility for a creature to make a choice against its nature, then it does not enjoy truly free will. The question is whether it is possible to give a creature free will without including this possibility. Certainly, it can seem like it is God's fault for allowing this temptation, but how can it be God's fault that his free creatures make the choice?


  2. You address a complex problem here; Melkor’s first act is difficult to explain, given what we know about the creation of Eä. The desire to go against the Light doesn’t seem like something that should have been able to develop at the very beginning of all things. I, too, find it difficult to understand the distinction between “free will” and having “their own thoughts and devices,” if any distinction exists. Tolkien is never explicit about the difference. He makes oblique references in some letters to the Children of llúvatar being the only ones with “free will,” but it seems to exist differently for Elves than for Men, since Elves are closer to the Ainur and the original plan for creation. But clearly the Ainur have some kind of will. Perhaps the only way for us to understand this is to conceive of each in turn (Ainur, Elves, Men) as having ‘more’ free will, more ability to divert from llúvatar’s plan. But I digress.

    You are right to point out that there are levels of falling into evil: disobeying the will of the Light is bad, but forgivable (like the Moriquendi, or Aulë with his Dwarves); turning from the light is sin, but not evil; the acts of Feänor and Thingol are greater sins, bordering on evil, but still the result of attempts to create something good which then took over its creator. Even Melkor’s initial disobedience doesn’t seem to have been evil. llúvatar simply worked Melkor’s new discord into the larger theme, just as he worked the Dwarves into the plan for the inhabitants of Middle Earth. Because of this, I think Melkor’s first divergence from the plan is roughly equivalent to Aulë’s. It seems to me that the first act of ‘free will’ (or whatever it is that Ainur have) is sometimes a move away from llúvatar, but that that is not necessarily a bad thing. Melkor’s subsequent actions are the ones that try to destroy the Light, and are therefore evil. This seems more like Feänor and Thingol, who initially simply did things that weren’t a great idea (trying to hold the Undying Light forever; not going to Valinor), but these initial choices led them down the path of choices that become closer and closer to evil. This is all by way of saying, for my part, I think free will is the fundamental ‘problem’ because it allows llúvatar’s creations to start down the paths that lead them to evil.