Wednesday, April 27, 2011


This essay is split into three, not wholly unrelated parts.

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?

Sam D.


  1. Saying that the Valar have metaphorical significance (e.g. as the elements Earth, Air, Fire and Water; or as the concepts craftsmanship, spirit, pride and communication) is not the same thing as saying that they "are" angels or sub-gods; they are clearly divine in some way. What you are worrying about in I. is exactly how (which is good!). I like what you suggest about the Trees, but as with the Valar, I think that there is more to think about here. And you are right that it is important not to take one's own creation too seriously--if you mean, become too possessive of it, thinking it perfect or something that others cannot possibly appreciate. I wish that you had taken one of these themes and developed it further!


  2. In class when we discussed the metaphorical nature of the Valar, the professor listed four of the Valar as the classical elements, with Melkor being related to fire. Morgoth uses fire at various points (dragons, balrogs, etc.) so this didn’t strike me at the time. However, in the Ainulindale Melkor brings cold along with heat, something that seems strange for a fire spirit. When he takes raiment he is described as “a mountain that wades in the sea and has its head above the clouds and is clad in ice and crowned with smoke and fire” (Silmarillion, 11). This description takes parts from earth, water, air, ice, and fire. So how is Melkor's character related to fire?

    Fire is unique among the classical elements. Fire does not exist in a static form. It only exists in movement, and in consumption. If it uses up its fuel, it dies. Also, it is the only element that grows on its own. Wind and water may move, but they don't grow. In this sense fire matches Melkor’s personality exactly. He consumes and attempts to grow out of his place. However, fire, being the most dynamic element, is required for any creation.

    Another point to complicate things: In the Greek tradition each element was seen as naturally inclined to move towards its own realm. The earth element is heavy and wants to move downwards towards the Earth. All water moves to the sea. Air moves upwards to the sky. Fire, interestingly enough, was thought to point upwards because it was seeking a sphere of fire outside the planet. In this way fire is the only element that draws us away from Earth to the heavens. And of course it is out there somewhere that Eru holds the Flame Imperishable. There seems to be plenty of ramifications to linking Melkor with fire.

    Doug MacDonald

  3. You are right that the angels and the court of El are not metaphorically related. However, the metaphor discussed in class was not on the level of one-for-one comparison of story elements, but rather that the story itself and the construction of relationships within it were metaphors for larger ideas. In this way myth can be both an alternate history on the surface as well as a metaphor for the dynamics of life as we know it. The metaphor here is not comparison or substitution, but a way of talking around a subject in a way more illustrative (or even more artful) than direct description. At the risk of extreme reductionism, instead of saying “pride and the temptation to hoard can corrupt those with the best of intentions, and through them even things of beauty and apparent goodness can be twisted to evil purposes,” Tolkien gives us the story of the downfall for Feanor which serves both as a mythical history and a metaphor for the previous statement.

    About Aule, I don’t think that that Aule’s saving grace is his supplication to Eru or his willingness to destroy the dwarves, but instead his readiness (and true intention) to give the dwarves freely to Eru as part of his greater creation. It is this unselfish intent to add to creation rather than sequester the dwarves for his own purposes only that really sets him apart from Feanor. Feanor pured his heart into the silmarils, but after their their creation it never stopped being about him. Early on when he started wearing them on rare occasions, they were used to glorfy himself and no longer the the original light of the trees. When they were not used to glorify him, they were locked away in his treasure trove. So, his arrogance and pride (indeed taking himself too seriously) was the seed of his eventual downfall. When the trees were destroyed, he could not bring himself to use the silmarils to do what he initially intended which was to preserve the light of the trees. For him, it was worse to lose his self-glorifying gems even if he would gain the renown of saving the trees of Valinor in the process.

    -Jason A Banks