Friday, April 8, 2011

'A straight way lay westward, now it is bent' - Fatal Curiosity

“There cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall – all stories are ultimately about the fall – at least not for human minds as we know them and have them” (Letters p147).
             When thinking about Wednesday’s class and the readings for it, I found myself continually coming back to one trend that seemed to haunt all that we had touched on and much of what we didn’t get to: the idea of incompleteness. The unfinished dreams and discussions of Alboin and Audoin, Ramer’s difficulty remembering and holding on to aspects of his dreams, the breaking of peoples and languages in Splintered Light, the ambiguity and individuality of taste, our class’ difficulty in finding the exact words needed to communicate our ideas…it left me wondering what the source of all these tantalizingly partial circumstances could be. Originally, I considered what Tolkien said about the Fall and how it drives stories. However, the general idea of losing something in a fall doesn’t seem enough somehow. If one looks even deeper, one can the see engine behind many of the most famous literary falls of all time, including Tolkien’s: an intrinsic desire to understand the world as we perceive it. This wish guides a good portion of our thought and actions, and often times, it not being wholly fulfilled is the cause of the many falls one sees in stories and literature. It becomes a vicious cycle, for every time one falls, one distances oneself even more from the concept one was trying to comprehend and the desire to regain what was lost often leads to another fall. One sees this in the history of Middle Earth over and over again. As near as I can tell, our relationship (and those of Tolkien’s characters in his various works) to dreams, languages, and the idea of taste we discussed in class all stem at least in part from this conflict.
            Dreams are extremely powerful experiences for most human beings. Emotions felt oftentimes are even more raw than in waking life because it’s possible to have no barrier or warning between these feelings and the dreamer. A pretty clear case of this is Ramer, who claims that when he experiences true fear in a dream, his mind is so scared it actually erases his memory of the particular part of his dream that terrified him so badly (HME9 197). Despite the intense emotion one often experiences, the meaning of dreams is often obscure at best. Tolkien plays with this idea in Lorien with Galadriel’s Mirror. She cautions Frodo and Sam before they look that the dream-like visions in the mirror may never have happened, and often “For it shows things that were, and things that are, and things that yet may be. But which it is that he sees, even the wisest cannot always tell” (Book II Chapter 7). Perhaps the distance Galadriel and her people put between themselves and Valinor has resulted created the uncertainty in her art. And yet, on some level, the incompleteness of dreams combined with our desire to understand things somehow makes dreams all the more intoxicating and legitimate sometimes more than the rationally explained. After all, in spite of the Lady’s warning, Sam is greatly affected by his vision of the Shire, and immediately considers abandoning the quest and running home to try and set things straight. Also, in The Lost Road, the mystery of Alboin’s dreams came to affect him both asleep and awake: “‘I am sure I will dream tonight; and it is so exciting…[the language in his dreams] comes, and I simply can’t let it slip when it does…’”  and “‘Confound you, dreams!’…‘Lay off and let me do a little patient work…’” (The Lost Road and Other Writings 46). The power of half-realized things even provided the ground for Melkor’s trickery of the Elves. The frustration of not understanding their situation was like a match to the miscommunication of the Valar (for example, the coming of Men and their fate to eventually overshadow the Elves).Thus, half-dreamed things led to a rebellion that resulted in destruction, kinslaying, banishment, and much grief.
            Language, on the other hand, has a slightly more direct connection to these ideas a desire to understanding and resulting falls in Tolkien’s world. It is a powerful tool of relating ideas and emotions to others, in addition to sub-creation. However, not only does it bring about joy and conflict, but it also results from the strife of separation. In Tolkien’s universe, we see an outcropping of various languages as the Elves divide themselves into sub-groups through events like the Fall of the Noldor in the Silmarillion, etc.  When the Valar intially summon the newly-awakened Elves to live with them in Valinor, it incites some of the first discord among them, resulting in the formation of two large groups (both of whom will eventually break down into even smaller groups), Tareldar and Avari, whose languages, Quenya and Sindarian, develop separately. The group who went into the West sought protection and a greater understanding of their world through seeing the Trees and meeting and learning from the Valar. This action will eventually lead to even further splitting from their kindred and the birth of even more languages, particularly as Men come into the picture.
            Coming along with the division of Elves according to ideals and desires are the seedlings of ‘taste’ in the Children of Illuvatar: each sub-group develops it’s own flavor and preferences relative to the others of their race. It’s because of love for the art that results from these differing tastes that many of the Noldorian Elves choose to remain in Middle Earth even after the Valar forgive them and lift their banishment, including Galadriel: “The love of the Elves for their land and their works is deeper than the deeps of the Sea, and their regret is undying and cannot ever wholly be assuaged” (Book II Chapter 7). Hence taste keeps the Elves confined to a land where their power continues to fade and where the very art they love is becoming harder and harder to preserve.
            So, in a way, the desire to understand completely dooms the characters in Tolkien’s universe. Whether the dwarves delve too deep, the Elves can’t give up their taste for Middle Earth and their art, the fragments of ideas and truths in dreams are too powerful to resist, there is something about that desire which causes the characters to strive for things which result in their fall. Does our very nature doom us to eventually fall?

(My copy of the trilogy is on a Kindle, so it doesn't have page numbers)


  1. This is a powerful question! Does our desire to create doom us to dissatisfaction, or worse? Tolkien mentions several times in his letters that the Elves "represent the artistic, aesthetic and purely scientific aspects of the Humane nature raised to a higher level than is actually seen in Men" (p. 236), but as you rightly point out, even this does not save the Elves from the disappointment of not being able to fulfill their creative desires perfectly. Perhaps, in the end, this is what gives all art its great poignancy: the glimpse that it affords of something perfect and complete that can only ever be a glimpse.


    P.S. My iPad Kindle copy of the LotR has page numbers on the status bar at the bottom. Is the Kindle for Kindle version different?

  2. I think that Tolkien did not mean to discourage the pursuit of knowledge, but rather the greedy acquisition of it. Without learning and knowledge, the Silmarils would never have been crafted and the the one ring might have never been identified in time. Instead it seems to be the pursuit of knowledge that questions higher powers that Tolkien dislikes. Eru never tells the Valar what will come to pass because they need not know; Eru creating Ea should have been enough. Similarly, Gandalf is famous for speaking in riddles, never explaining himself unless he deems it necessary. This seems to be a direct result of Tolkien's Catholicism, where the secrecy of God's ways is an important theme. That is why faith is able to figure so prominently into it.


  3. Is it the case that curiosity is the cause of fall? Are we doomed to fall eventually? One answer (I think one consistent with Christian theology) might be “No, we are not doomed to fall, since we have already fallen.” In Christianity fallenness is about fragmentation. It renders the immortal soul separable from the body (i.e., death), and divides the will against knowledge. A source of great fragility, fallenness may also be a source of great dignity. Language fragments too - perhaps a sign of fallenness?-, and so all communication looks incomplete. It often seems like this is inherent in the possession of language: even the divine Word in Christianity must fall, from heaven to earth in incarnation - and then die (fragmenting of body and soul) - in order to utter words that transcend the earth. (I skip over the many theological paradoxes involved here.) It is not simply that we struggle to find words, but words are the primary vehicle we have for addressing these problems, and so are our fundamental act of creation. They are constraining and at the same time an access to freedom. What access to freedom do dreams contain? They too involve fall, in a way, since we must ‘fall asleep’ to have them. Yet, their incompleteness must be different from that of conscious, ordered waking language. I suppose the tension is between partial and total vision. I imagine Tolkien felt this tension too. We are in a position to observe the unfolding of his mythology: the significance of its images/characters sometimes changes as he comes to understand their relation to the total myth. In a way, our study can do something similar for us, building a knowledge that goes far beyond experience.


  4. I think that Eru certainly places his subcreation with freewill in a way that certainly makes it very vulnerable to corruption. We see Melkor immediately deviating from the role appointed for him because he wished to create something in the void. However, I do not believe that Melkor was doomed to do so, even if an all-knowing Eru knew that Melkor would sin and rebel against him. There is definitely a distinction to be made.

    Seemingly, Eru (or Tolkien to reflect the true world as perceived by him) made everything in a stable equilibrium with a vast potential to fall away into sin.

    As an illustration, say we have a mountain, and shafts of light are shining down on a boulder that is in a small hole at the very top. Eventually, it seems likely that something will happen that will cause the boulder to fall away from the light, but everything is good in the beginning. So, yes, we have freewill and the probability of sinning and falling, but I do not think that our creativity dooms us to do so.

    -Andrew Wong