I: Why they are NOT metaphors—at least, not entirely
The question arises as to whether the Valar, the Powers, the High Children of the One, are gods, or angels, or intellects, or elements. Mainly, it is asserted that they, and the myth as a whole, are a metaphor for something at least. I will try to debunk, or hardily question this claim. To use an example separate from Tolkien’s work, I’ll talk about those mysterious angels in Genesis. The sons of God are understood to be angels of God’s court. Some say that this court of angels is exactly what God is trying to replicate by creating earth: an earthly court to mirror the heavenly one above. Augustine, we see, would support this. And yet the angels of God’s court, biblical scholars say, are the remnants of the court of the Canaanite god El. The god El was in ancient times thought to preside over a court of gods who looked to him as the high god. One would argue immediately that the angels of God’s court are metaphors for the gods of El’s court. But I don’t think you can justify saying that. Angels were a reaction to the pantheon of pagan gods, NOT a metaphor for them. Angels were the Judaic response to a theological problem, mainly polytheism. To say they are a metaphor suggests that the angels are really gods, and the properties of these pagan gods have been carried over [meta (over) + inpher (carry)] to the angels. But that would confuse a reactionary idea with a purposeful transmutation. Similarly, Tolkien’s myth of creation, is not a purposeful transmutation, or a carrying over of properties from one thing to another. He himself says: “:References to creation may well be fundamentally ‘wrong’ from the point of view of Reality (external reality). But they cannot be wrong inside this imaginary world, since that is how it is made,” (Letters:153 p.188). The sub-creation is not subject to the same rules as Creation. The properties of creation have not been ‘carried over’ to sub-creation. Creation entails detachment (which is why Eru creates in the first place). Thus the angels of God are detached fundamentally from the gods of El.
Myth is thus best understood as alternate history, rather than metaphorical history, for it is detached fundamentally from ‘actual’ history. Yet they are both histories, and in that way have some link. Sayers addresses the problem of the metaphor. We are ourselves images. And an image is fundamentally detached and separated from what it is reflecting, whereas a metaphor is fundamentally linked.
II: Light VS Darkness, Or: Why those two trees aren’t as good as they seem
The reading concern the conflict of light and darkness, as each throws the other into greater relief. Just as “the fish out of water is the only one to have an inkling of water,” (Letters:52), only in the presence of darkness can one appreciate life, and vice-versa. Flieger potently addresses the light/darkness, and congruent good/evil problem when she observes that Tolkien likes the Music of Creation to water, harboring both the storm and the calm. Light is good; yet it casts shadows. Civilization is good, but it leads to greed. Feanor, of course, represent this struggle. He seeks to preserves the trees’ light in the Simarils, but in doing so, seeks possession of the light for his own. Thus, Flieger asserts: “Desire to possess is the cardinal temptation in Tolkien’s cosmology,” (Splintered Light, p.108-109). I am reminded of a passage from Vergil’s Aeneid, which I fortunately was translating for Latin class right around when I was doing the reading. It is a sort of creation myth:
The native fauns and nymphs held these woods and as well as a race of men born from tree-trunks and strong oak, who had neither custom nor culture, nor did they know how to yoke bulls or store resources or ration them, but the branches and harsh hunting fed them with food. First Saturn came from heavenly Olympus, fleeing the arms of Jupiter as an exile. That race, indocile and dispersed in the high mountains, he gave to them laws and chose the place to be called Latium, because he had hidden on those safe shores. They lived under that rule which men all call the Golden Age. Thus he ruled the people in calm peace until little by little a worse, tarnished time [came] and the madness of war and the desire for possessing entered. Aeneid, BkVIII. 314-327 (transl. is my own)
I thought this was a nice parallel. Saturn, this god character, like Prometheus and Feanor, brings civilization to this race. Saturn is also an ‘exile’, someone banished like Feanor from the Aman, and like Melkor and Galadriel for that matter (Shippey, p.204) We see how the civilization slowly descends into tumult as the desire for possession begins.
So civilization, evidently, is a double-edged sword (as is death, but I’d rather not tackle the meaning of life and death—I’ll leave that to those greater than me). One may say the Simarils are the best example of this, but I think the Two Trees do an even better job. One of the trees has “leaves of dark green that beneath were as shining silver.” This sounds like a poplar tree. Poplar trees also come up in the Aeneid, and on them, a commentary notes: “The white poplar (bicolor because of the underside of its leaves was white and the upper, green)…was sacred to Hercules. Servius says he made himself a hat of poplar leaves when he descended into the underworld, the two colors symbolizing light and darkness; this symbolism was formalized in the renaissance in Alciati’s book of emblems,” (Aeneid Commentary, K.W. Gransden). This has persuaded me to believe Tolkien also intended his tree to symbolize light and darkness. AN then of course the other tree is golden. Well, we already know what happens when a Golden Age comes….
III: The dangers of taking yourself too seriously
In the battle between light and darkness, your downfall may be that you take yourself too seriously—as a creator, I mean. We first see the dangers of it with Aule, who outsteps his authority and creates the dwarves. Only in supplication to Manwe does he save himself. He is also willing to kill the dwarves (parallel to Abraham and Isaac as Flieger astutely notes). This shows he does not value his creation—and by extension, himself, over the true Creator. And then of course Feanor is the great Over-reacher. Flieger likens him to Prometheus, but Icarus is a better analogy, I think, especially since our winged friend is burned by the sun’s flames. In trying to possess the Simarils, his aim is not to glorify the light contained within, but to glorify and make it an image of himself. Tolkien also recognized the danger of taking yourself too seriously (Letter 53). He says he also sought to create images of his own heart, but sometimes took them,--and himself, too seriously, and would rather avoid the downfall of Feanor. Maybe this is the real reason he never published the Silmirillion himself. It's a bit too serious, don't you think?