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).