Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Understanding Tolkien’s Creation of a Creation Story and Our Creation Stories

      As a Catholic and a Chemist, I once happened to find myself in an animated discussion about my belief in Catholicism with a friend of mine, who we will call Jack. Now, Jack is a Math major, and he is very strongly atheist to the point that his respect for a person is diminished if he finds out that they are Christian. He seems to find faith inconsistent with reason, which he values highly. To cut a long story short, one of his main criticisms of the Bible stuck with me as particularly memorable.
      We were discussing the tendency of the Bible and Christianity to convey truths about the world using parables and stories such as the story of creation in Genesis. To gently summarize, Jack found the account of the world’s formation in Genesis to be implausible, so I replied that it was my understanding that all you are required to believe from the creation story as a practicing Catholic was that there was an original man and woman, who committed original sin that resulted in a bad disunion with God. He was surprised that I did not see the need to take it literally, and he complained that it would have made more sense to have a religious text that would explicitly tell us how the world was created. He thought that a Bible should clearly and precisely articulate how divinity and religion works in the universe. I replied that I thought that stories like the creation in Genesis or the parables in the New Testament were elegant teaching tools with meaning woven in that can only be decoded through study and efforts similar to literary criticism. In pursuing this understanding, one can in someway nurture one’s relationship with God. Nonetheless, I had the feeling that this thought was very incomplete, and I have found that looking at Tolkien’s project in creating The Silmarillion offers surprising insights into this problem, which I shall discuss.
      When we approach The Silmarillion, we must consider what Tolkien’s intentions for this creation were. Certainly, there were several operative motives. At the dinner table conversation level of knowledge, it has been suggested to me several times that The Silmarillion should be seen as a retelling of the Bible for Middle-Earth. In truth, the production of The Silmarillion was done as many parts of stories over decades, which drew from sources as the Poetic and Prose Eddur, Tolkien’s linguistic tastes, and his desire to bring pre-Christian things together with Christianity in a way that spoiled neither (Shippey 228, 259). Furthermore, Tolkien sought to fill the gap in English mythological tradition (Shippey 244). In doing so, Tolkien creates an alternate yet plausible version of history in a secondary reality. Although Tolkien strives towards an inner consistency of reality for his secondary world, Tolkien asserts that these stories are ultimately about the fall in the primary world (Silmarillion xvi).
      Nevertheless, it quickly becomes apparent that The Silmarillion is not precisely the Bible. For example, there is no analog to the Silmarils in the Bible, and the most important Varda correspond to elements like Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water, which also has no counterpart in the Bible (Shippey 239). What was Tolkien up to?
      I believe that The Silmarillion is a story expressing the metaphysical truths of the primary world as re-created by Tolkien in a secondary world. This secondary world is a metaphor for the primary world’s creation and the events that followed, which Tolkien bases off of the Bible combined with elements of pre-Christian myth. In other words, this story is a new, morally instructive mythology for the world that attempts to merge the fundamentals of Christian and pre-Christian creation myth. It is a synthesis of philosophy and lessons valuable to one living in the modern Christian society into a pleasant secondary reality. This is Tolkien’s subcreation. Tolkien saw that it was good.
      I feel that I must make a brief aside here, since I continue to call The Silmarillion metaphorical. Despite the earlier blog post criticizing the use of the term metaphor applied in this way, I believe that The Silmarillion is metaphorical retelling that represents the creation of the world, which cannot be relived or accurately depicted in any exact way since it falls into the realm of prehistory and history. As Sayers argues, biblical language and all language is necessarily metaphorical, and I would argue that historical language is especially so, since it must appeal to our experience to imagine the past. According to Flieger in Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World, “What would be metaphor in the primary world is literal in Tolkien’s secondary one and yet manages to convey a metaphorical meaning as well” (Flieger 82). In other words, things like the naming of the different kinds of elves as seeing the light or dark represents then as seeing the physical light of Valinor, but it also applies in a spiritual sense to reference their compliance with divinity, and this helps us to better understand them (Flieger 82). This is also a metaphor by which we can reexamine our own primary world.
      At any rate, in terms of Tolkien’s subcreation, Tolkien was sensitive to the fact that there are good and bad subcreations. For instance, Tolkien looked down on many of the products of the industrial revolution that led to or supported war efforts and drove deep divisions in the world, while it would seem that the good subcreations are the ones that serve to bring people together and that synthesize the lives of different peoples to bring about the synthesis of experience that Sayers refers to (Sayers 30). In terms of writing fantasy, Tolkien’s endeavor do subcreate is legitimate if it synthesizes (merges or brings together) the existence of people or their relationship with the true God, and the fantasy is illegitimate if it leads to idolatry, which ruptures the relationship between God and human. As Augustine argues, God is the good, and separation from God is against the nature of his creations, which is bad. Therefore, synthesis as I am using the term is good. The Silmarillion appears to be a legitimate subcreation in that it is instructive and encourages synthesis, which is what I meant earlier by saying that Tolkien saw that The Silmarillion would be a good subcreation.
      Within The Silmarillion, we have stories of the creation, the fall of Melkor, the fall of the Elves, and the fall of men of Númenor. Each story is instructive in a way that teaches the lessons of the Bible by existing as a metaphor to the Bible, which is itself a metaphor to describe the nature of God and the world. It is instructive to see some examples of the ways in which The Silmarillion is a metaphor for the Bible because it shows us the ways in which The Silmarillion is a good subcreation of Tolkien’s that encourages synthesis as Christianity and Christian teaching does.
      In the fall of Melkor and the creation story, we see the wholeness of Eru’s creation and its completeness as his. Everything was created from Eru out of his creative process, which needed no creation. Every subcreation ultimately comes from Eru as everything ultimately comes from God in the primary reality. Furthermore, things are primarily good. When Eru brings about good in the third musical theme from Melkor’s selfish introduction of disharmony, it evokes Jesus’ crucifixion followed by his resurrection and victory over death. Unlike Melkor, Aulë’s unquestioning obedience to Eru when questioned about the dwarves is reminiscent of Abraham obeying God’s command to sacrifice his son (Flieger 100).
      The fall of the elves is a clear demonstration of the lesson that possessiveness leads to separation between individuals and between individuals and God, which is the opposite of good. Christianity preaches giving and generosity. Fëanor’s desire to possess the light of the Silmirils should not supercede desire for all to live together in light under the trees. Ultimately, Fëanor’s attempt to recapture and hoard the Silmirils splintered the elves, and kept them from that Sayers calls a synthesis of experience in which elves could live together harmoniously. For Fëanor and for anyone at all, greed leads to more greed and coveting, which keeps us separated from each other. Fëanor loses his perception of freedom from the Silmirils, which he saw as his possessions, but the Silmirils in a real sense possess him (115). Thus, Fëanor binds the Noldor to a vendetta against Melkor that ruptures the relationship between the divine creatures and the elves as the Noldor leave Valinor and fight amongst their fellow elves in a way that is reminiscent of Cain and Abel (Flieger 116). Elves, who have resided together, splinter. Fëanor’s good motive to preserve light was a good intention, but this intention is corrupted by Fëanor’s hoarding of it to tragic consequences because it separates entities rather than working to synthesize them as the light of the trees was intended to do when the Valar created them.
      However, going back to my original point, Sayers’ thought is of paramount importance for how this relates to Jack and for how we should understand The Silmarillion. Sayers makes the point that artists and theologians are in the same business of describing creation and participating in it, but these groups are separated in their language and their experience (Sayers 30). Even if there is not an explicit religion surrounding Eru, the elves are artists, who enrich creation and subcreate things and ideas that are for achieving a synthesis of experience by making things and by creating ideas that bring beings together. By subcreating, they are also achieving a synthesis of their experience with Eru, who is the true creator of everything and has the freest will. Additionally, this is also true of Tolkien as a subcreator achieving synthesis under the God of the primary world. His art enhances and expands primary creation with his concept of Middle-Earth. Hence, Tolkien’s work provides the potential for synthesis of experience both in the secondary and in the primary reality given the fallen nature of mortal beings in both realities with splintered language. In other words, Tolkien’s project with The Silmarillion was to use language to reverse the process of splintering and work towards a synthesis of experience between humans and between humans and God with a mythology that was instructive in Christianity and morality. The metaphorical mechanisms by which The Silmarillion reflects the Bible and the primary reality encourages this synthesis in the primary reality, and it serves as a model for understanding the importance I perceived in the elegance of the book of Genesis.
      In closing, The Silmarillion is an attempt by Tolkien to foster a synthesis of experience between contemporary individuals and between people and God just as the Bible with all of its complexities is a tool that employs metaphors and parables to achieve synthesis between the same parties. Metaphor is really the only tool that we can use to understand God in our manner of existence. Seemingly, God’s other alternative to communicate with us in a more precise way as Jack craved would have been to keep beings such as humans in some sort of communion with himself outside of space and time, but this would be in tension creating beings of free will, since we would be so closely entwined with God that we would share his infinite knowledge. Hence, if God designated a more precise communication with us than metaphor, reality for beings with free will would be very different from what we now perceive.

-Andrew Wong

Flieger, Verlyn. Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World. Kent: Kent State University Press, 2002.
Sayers, Dorothy. The Mind of the Maker. New York : Meridian Books, 1956.
Shippey, T.A. Author of the Century. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Silmarillion, ed. Christopher Tolkien. New York: Del Rey, 1985.


  1. I am intrigued to hear that Jack wants a scriptural story that tells exactly what happened--or no story at all. Is faith then a willingness to think in metaphor? To do the kind of work that you so nicely describe in making sense of the scriptures? Tolkien certainly seems to have thought so given the way in which he wrote the Elvish scriptures. Very nice use of Flieger and Sayers to help us understand what his project was!


  2. If we think of (religious) faith as a willingness to think in metaphor, then surely we must recognize its strong link to Faerie. For one thing, faith and Faerie are both concepts which are not directly found in the primary reality; however, their influences are very pervasive in the primary reality. The conflict in Jack's mind between reason and faith is one of refusal to believe something which cannot be physically interacted with, but must be perceived solely with thought; similarly, the conflict between the concept of "historical history", or what we might call "uniformitarianism of Faerie", and the vision of history becoming "more mythical" the farther in the past it is, is just this sort of conflict.

    Interestingly enough, mathematics is also something which, in its pure form, must be perceived only by the mind. True, it can be impeccably derived from axioms, which might be said to ground it in the real world, but I think it quite possible that, from a different sort of axiom, one could derive metaphysical concepts such as might be derided by someone like Jack. Of course, there's already a name for that--"philosophy".

    --Luke Bretscher

  3. I think it important to consider an author’s intentions for a work, and I agree that viewing the Silmarillion as a retelling of Genesis in a ‘Middle Earth version’ is an oversimplification (and misunderstanding) of Tolkien’s intention. The Silmarillion is far more a product of what Tolkien loved about different languages, cultures, and creation myths than a product of Tolkien’s Catholic faith alone.

    I also like your view of the Silmarillion as the version, in a secondary reality, of certain fundamental realities in the primary reality! But is it a “morally instructive mythology”? Does Iluvatar establish a moral code for Middle Earth? Do the Ainur? Or do Iluvatar and the Ainur simply establish an outline and leave it to Elves, Men, and Dwarves (and their free will) to determine a code of morality? Also, I’m not sure I understand how historical language is metaphorical in the way religious language is, but separate from the way all language is metaphorical. Can you elaborate on this point?

    I like your idea of the Silmarillion as a synthesis of ideas brought together in metaphorical language to make it familiar and understandable to anyone reading it. I think there is no better support of this idea than all the discussion on this blog of Iluvatar’s and the Ainur’s (and Tolkien’s) use of music as the medium of creation – music is clearly a metaphor we all understand!


  4. I'm sorry for a slow response to the question as I had stopped checking my old post. I believe that the mythology is morally instructive at a metaphorical level. We can learn lessons from the Flight of the Noldor. However, in terms of a prescriptive description of what people should do, we do not see that until much later in the terms of Middle-Earth, until Eru decides to tell the men. It seems that the elves have some kind of mandates on them, but they know that they go to the halls of Mandos. The men know nothing until the coming of Christ, which does not happen until much after this, if it happens at all in Middle-Earth.


    Andrew Wong