Monday, April 25, 2011

The Risk of Creation

Art is dangerous.

It seems fitting that this message should be assigned this weekend. As a Catholic, I have spent the past four days celebrating the Paschal Triduum—Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, culminating in Easter Sunday. Over those four days we recount the narrative of Jesus Christ being tried, found guilty, crucified, and resurrected.

I mention this because, whatever you may believe about the relative truth of Christianity, it illustrates the same risks of creation as Tolkien’s work. After all, the story of Christ crucified and resurrected has been used to justify crusades, charity, inquisitions, ideals, oppression, Mozart, cathedrals, and prejudice. It has been interpreted and sieved and picked apart and rewritten—if there were any authorial intent to begin with, it has been lost, veiled, or ignored. To separate the story of Christianity from the story of its Christ has become a task for religious scholars and historians, and the books they write.

Creation, after all, develops a life of its own. To write, paint, smith, carve, or weave is to risk unpredictability. An artist may have control in the gerundive (creating, making) but once a thing is made, it belongs to readers, buyers, critics, sellers, collectors. A made thing is just as free to be broken and misused as it is to be glorified and admired. Even in Tolkien’s legendarium, the creation which begot all other creation—the Ainulindalë—also ushered in free will. Primary creation is synonymous with the primary source of uncertainty, disagreement, and conflict. To create is to lose control.

In the Silmarillion, this theme is especially prominent. When Aulë creates the dwarves, he assumes a control over them he does not have. When Eru discovers what he has been doing in secret, Aulë repents asking, “But should I not rather destroy the work of my presumption?” (Silmarillion 38). He even raises his hammer to smite the new-born dwarves, to demonstrate how willing he is to obey Eru’s will. However, Ilúvatar corrects him, saying, “Doest thou not see that these things have now a life of their own, and speak with their own voices?” (Silmarillion 38). The dwarves are free to misuse this gift of free will or celebrate it, to mine Moria too deeply as much as care for Aglarond. Aulë has played the part of creator—a subcreator, beneath Eru—but once a thing is created, it exists independent of its maker.

Independence of creation, however, brings its own dangers. The creative urge is a deeply, almost inexorably, human trait. However, its power can seem almost divine—after all, the first question any religion tries to answer is, how did we get here? which necessitates a genesis of some sort. Tolkien subscribes to the same theology as Dorothy Sayers when she writes, “The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire the ability to make things” (22). It is the beauty of Ilúvatar’s Music of Creation that inspires the Ainur to go forth: “And many among them became enamoured of its beauty and…Then those of the Ainur who desired it arose and entered into the World at the beginning of Time; and it was their task to achieve it, and by their labors to fulfill the vision which they had seen” (Silmarillion 15). The Ainur create because creation is beautiful, and they love what is beautiful because it reminds them of creation. Clearly, Tolkien’s creative impulse is powerful because it descends from this divine lineage.

However—of course there is a however—creation and love of beauty are equally dangerous, and this cycle can become distorted. Tolkien is clear on this point: creation is meant to be created, but not mastered or controlled. The artistic power of the gerundive ends when creating ends. As he says in his letter to Peter Hastings, “I have used ‘subcreation’ in a special way…to make visible and physical the effects of Sin or misused Free Will by men” (Letters 195). The examples of this are numerous, whether it is the Noldor, who “hoarded them [gems] not, but gave them freely, and by their labour enriched all Valinor” (Silmarillion 60) or Nerdandel, Fëanor’s wife, who was “more patient than Fëanor, desiring to understand minds rather than to master them” (Silmarillion 66).

However, a better illustration of the power of creation corrupted is the drama surrounding the creation of the Silmarils. They are examples of the great beauty of sub-creation: “Therefore even in the darkness of the deepest treasury the Silmarils of their own radiance shone like the stars if Varda; and yet, as were they indeed living things, they rejoiced in light and received it and gave it back in hues more marvelous than before” (Silmarillion 69-70). This beauty, intended to protect the light of the Trees of Valinor, is attractive to many—including Melkor, who seeks to possess them himself. Even Fëanor, maker of the Silmarils, falls so in love with the beauty of his creation that he becomes jealous and possessive of it. His possessive love causes him to threaten his half-brother, resist Manwë, and even lose the Silmarils at the moment when Valinor is most in need of them. Unlike Nerdandel or the Noldor, Fëanor refused to cede control of his creation after the creating was finished. His excessive love for the finished product of his own hands drives him to break the proper cycle of making. Fëanor wreaks destruction on Aman, and all of Arda, because he refused to acknowledge that to create is also to surrender.

The balance between making and surrendering is one that extends beyond strictly artisan creation. Parallels to it can be seen in the Tolkien perspective on death. Though not encountered in the Silmarillion, another cataclysm, the Fall of Númenor, occurs because men refuse to accept their mortal lives. Like Fëanor, they refuse to relinquish their creations—in this case, their lives—when the creating, the living, is done. (And life is a creation; we certainly spend enough time working on it, and most of us leave it largely unfinished…) The Núménoreans loved life out of balance; too much to follow the proper cycle of making. They defy the surrender of power that follows creation, and reject death—suffering the consequences thereof.

However, there is solace to be found. While the Silmarils were discrete, capable of being “possessed by a single individual to the exclusion of others” (Flieger 108), there are other forms of creation which are much slipperier. This can be found in the method Christianity employs, as well as Tolkien himself: the story. Just as light can illuminate the world without discrimination, a story can be owned by many simultaneously. J.K. Rowling may receive a great deal in royalties, but Harry Potter belongs in equal measure to the children that read about him.

On the first day of class, Professor Fulton-Brown reassured us that she would try to deepen our appreciation of the legendarium rather than supplant our individual visions. We laughed, but Tolkien might not have—after all, he had surrendered his creation to be shared by us; it seems only fair that we should loosen our grips on our respective creative interpretations.

Flieger, Verlyn. Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World, rev. ed. (Kent: Kent State University Press, 2002).
Sayers, Dorothy.  The Mind of the Maker, ch. 2, pp. 19-31 ("Image of God")
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Silmarillion, ed. Christopher Tolkien (New York: Del Rey, 1985). 


  1. And of course, I forgot to sign: Sarah Gregory. (Since SAGR is an extremely ugly combination of letters.)

  2. I really liked this post. Your writing is really-well structured and insightful. I particularly liked your interweaving the Easter narrative; I hadn't thought of that specific thematic link, but it's a good one. This is less of a real "comment" to start a discussion and more of a "wow, hadn't thought of that, nice work!" but I thought it was worth letting you know anyway.

  3. Your claim that "to create is to lose control" struck a chord with me, especially since we've been discussing subcreation so much lately. I don't know that Iluvatar saw the creation of the Valar as losing control, rather he willingly gave them free will. However, you are correct when you say that "once a thing is created, it exists independent of its maker." I wonder then how Iluvatar felt when he saw Melkor's rebellion and fall. Can a divine entity have remorse or feel guilt? Evil though Melkor's intentions may be, they shape the world he and the rest of the Valar are creating, so that even his destruction plays its part in shaping the history of Men.

    A. Demma

  4. Beautifully argued! It seems to me that there are two very important points here: one, that we do not (cannot) ultimately possess the things that we make; and two, that once we have made them, they take on a life of their own. Perhaps, therefore, it is in the very nature of creatures to have free will: once made, they will act on the world around them, whether as embodied consciousnesses (like Elves, Dwarves or Men) or as artifacts (like jewels or stories). But can stories act on us or is it just we acting on them?


  5. I'm glad that you addressed the issue of control over creation, because it has been in the back of my head since class on Monday. Our discussion, mentioned by you here, about Aulё and his dwarves, especially struck me. The idea that someone brought up in lecture, about the connection between Aulё and Abraham in Genesis, is intriguing. Abraham was called on to give up his only son, and as Kierkegaard argues (in Fear and Trembling)he both gave up the hope of having his son, yet had such a strong faith in God that he believed he would still have Isaac anyway. That is, sacrifice of what is ours requires a leap of faith. I like the connection that the Abraham story raises between creation and children, especially as Men and Elves are the Children of Ilúvatar. Perhaps procreation is yet another facet of sub-creation, and it requires a parental leap of faith to let go of children. Parents do become frustrated with their 'creations' when they act on their own free will, after all.


  6. I think the aspect of free will is the key element here. If not for that, creation cannot be misused. While creations achieve independence from the creator, they do not necessarily have a will of their own. A book that is written may go on to win awards, get banned from schools, serve as the basis for a screenplay, and so on none of which may have been the intent of the author. In that sense it will go places that the author may have never intended. However, the book itself has no self direction in the matter anymore than the silmarils. Its independence is totally circumscribed by the free will or reason of others, by the way in which it is received. So, in a way there is a danger related to the act of creation. But the danger is in us, not creation itself.
    A lesson to learn may be that creation is by nature universal and an act of sharing. The point of creation is to share something new. Books are written to be read, paintings made to be seen. It is essentially the opposite of consumption which is personal (even selfish) and to some extent an act of deconstruction (or a least transmutation in to a debased form. Wanton consumption, that is consumption for greed and not need, is quite opposite to creation. What we see in Feanor is this struggle, and ultimate lapse into greed. What separates him from Aule, is that Aule had no desire to possess the dwarves, but rather to share them, add them to the creation of Eru. Feanor, long before the trees were destroyed, wished to keep the silmarils to himself. In the end, Feanor was like Ungoliant, wishing to consume the embodiment of the light of the trees originally shared with the world.
    -Jason A Banks

  7. Eloquently written post! When you bring up, however, the conflict between Eru Ilúvatar and Aulë, I wonder to what extent the "risk of creation" applies to the Vala themselves. Surely, it would neatly explain why Aulë is able to create the Dwarves independently of Eru, and why Morgoth is able to wreak such havoc upon Arda, but it does not seem to me to fit in fully with Tolkien's conception of the relationship between Eru and the Vala. It is very clearly stated that Eru "made first the Ainur," (Silmarillion, p. 15) but right after that they were "offspring of his thought" - something that implies that they are not entirely separate from Eru. Is Morgoth then a creation loosed onto the world at large, or is his existence part of the same existence as Eru? Obviously, we discussed the relationship between Eru and the Vala quite a lot in class, but I think its an important question in light of the framework that you're trying to set up here.

    I don't know that there is a right or wrong answer to that question, but it's definitely food for thought!

    Taylor Ehlis

  8. I think your post has pinpointed one of the most crucial motifs in Tolkien’s legendarium--his union or reconciliation of various forms of creation, including divine Creation (Eru creating the Ainur and the latter furnishing Arda), literary creation (Tolkien’s construction of “a Myth of England”, a myth of our Earth in a imaginary time, etc.), artistic creation (crafting nature into art) and even biological creation (reproduction, which we discussed very recently). Indeed Tolkien seems to endorse creation and sub-creation, but he is consistently admonishing us against the greed of possessing our own creatures, for we must recognize, as you said, that they develop a life of their own.

    While reading your post I was reminded of an additional case of crossing the boundary between creation and possession and losing oneself to greed: Thingol’s reluctance to let go Luthien, which transgressed normal paternal love and becomes excessive obsession over possessing her. In Splintered Light, Flieger makes it explicit, “light is not to be possessed...Thingol’s possessiveness of Luthien is wrongful...Luthien’s light is not his to give. It is hers.” In a very literal sense, one’s creation does acquire its own life, with its own path to tread. Moreover, Creatures are meant to be used by wills independent of its maker in the first place. In the same sense that Roland Barthes wrote “Death of the Author”, one could argue that Tolkien was arguing for “Death of the creator” with his legendarium.

    Sophie Zhuang