Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Origin of Evil and If God Is Good

In Monday’s lecture, we discussed the Middle-earth mythology of Eru and the Ainur in comparison to the Christian concept of God and angels in the Creation.  To what extent does Tolkien’s story mirror the Christian Creation in its various interpretations?  How would a Christian, such as Ælfwine, receive the Elvish creation myth?  Above all, how much do the differences or lack thereof actually matter?  It seems that the Christian and Elvish stories have a lot in common, at least in the general scheme of things, but the disparities appear to me to have serious implications for the way the Creator and the world are viewed.  In the Christian creation story, God makes everything exactly as He wants it, but Middle-earth, due to the mischief of Melkor, is from the beginning an imperfect world.

In Genesis 1, God simply creates each aspect of the earth without interference and the result is as intended.  The phrase “it was good” is repeated six times (1.4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25) and the chapter ends with an emphatic, “And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good” (1.31).  Nothing gets in God’s way and all things are completed in a manner that is satisfactory, if not perfect.  The Gospel of John says, “All things were made by [God]; and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1.3).  There is no mention of angels or any other helpers in either of these texts; God does all of the work directly.  The Book of Jubilees lists various angels, but they are not given an active part in the Creation.

In “Ainulindalë,” Ilúvatar’s helpers are of the utmost importance.  He makes the Ainur before anything else and employs them in creating Middle-earth.  Ilúvatar himself does not physically make the world.  Verlyn Flieger notes, “Unlike the biblical God, Tolkien’s Eru is a strikingly remote and disengaged figure” (Splintered Light 53).  He is the head architect who directs the plans, but he lets the Ainur draw the blueprints with their music and build the structures they have designed.  Eru only conducts the choir and then shows them a model of what they made under his supervision before sending them off to be the construction workers, or sub-creators.  Unlike in Genesis, the world does not come out exactly as planned.  The Valar try to make lands, valleys, mountains, and seas, and Melkor destroys them.  He does not ruin everything, but “nowhere and in no work was their will and purpose wholly fulfilled, and all things were in hue and shape other than the Valar had at first intended” (The Silmarillion 22).  Things may still be “good” enough, but they are not perfect, as a world made by the Almighty would be.

Who is to blame for this imperfection and original sin, and how far back does it go?  In Christian theology, it is out of God’s hands.  After He makes heaven and earth perfectly, He gives free will to Lucifer, Adam, and Eve, and they misuse it.  He renounces control over his creations, with good intention, and they are separate from him when they sin.  In “Ainulindalë,” evil arises much earlier, while its agent is still connected to Eru, and infects all of Creation.  These small details of whether the Creator makes angels before or during the Creation, when trouble first begins, and if he makes the world himself or delegates the task to agents that are part of him alters the source of sin. 

The big question this raises for me is whether there is evil in Ilúvatar.  The Ainur are described as “the offspring of his thought” (The Silmarillion 15).  He warns Melkor, “…[N]o theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite,” a sentiment reminiscent of the aforementioned quotation from John 1.3 (The Silmarillion 17).  Melkor has indeed introduced his own music!  If everything is derived from Ilúvatar, wouldn’t that mean that Melkor’s discord had to come from the One?  This is a rather terrifying thought!  Even Ilúvatar seems unable to restrain evil.  Still, he claims that one who attempts to change the music “shall prove [Eru’s] instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined,” and that Melkor will see that his evil thoughts “are but a part of the whole and tributary to its glory” (The Silmarillion 17).  Now Ilúvatar seems prepared for Melkor’s misconduct and capable of overriding it, but Melkor is able to do so much damage throughout the history of Middle-earth, and only gets a scolding from Eru.  This leaves us with two equally disturbing possibilities: either Eru has evil within him that he cannot control or he allows evil to interfere.  Is this not blasphemy?

This is actually not so different from questions of belief in Christianity.  People wonder how terrible things can happen if there is a God, whether He causes such things or allows them, and if He has a reason for everything.  “Ainulindalë” makes these issues even more pressing by giving sin an earlier source closer to the Creator.

Flieger’s point in Splintered Light about literalizing metaphors can be of use here.  She says that “Tolkien has used fantasy to reinvest metaphor with literality” (64).  Maybe Ilúvatar is not as anthropomorphic as he seems to be, a single character responsible and blamable for everything.  Isn’t God beyond human conception?  As much as He is anthropomorphized in the Bible, referred to as one being with thoughts and feelings, might He be more of a manifestation of the universe as a whole, which contains good and bad and works in mysterious ways?  The best way for us to understand God is to give him human attributes, but He is really so different from us that it is not a truly accurate way to describe him.  Tolkien does the same with Ilúvatar, putting evil in more direct contact with Eru to give a more literal representation of evil in God’s Creation.  The origin of sin doesn’t truly matter, since an all-powerful Creator would be equally able to stop it at any point, if he so chose.

If we apply the Christian reading to “Ainulindalë,” Eru has everything worked out.  Tolkien indicates that Ilúvatar has a greater plan, but “the Valar have not seen as with sight the Later Ages or the ending of the World,” and only during the second music shall all “understand fully his intent in their part” (The Silmarillion 20, 16).  The idea that someone omnipotent and loving knowingly permits tragedy and suffering when he could prevent it is somewhat disturbing, no matter the justification.  But what would be the point of Creation if the result could not exist on its own after being produced?  Ilúvatar does not go to Middle-earth himself, relinquishing control earlier than God, and despite Melkor’s crimes, it is a work of art with plenty of beauty and good, which hopefully has a happy ending in store.  His logic may seem fallible at times, but maybe that is because he, like God, is not a person and doesn’t possess human “logic.”  Whenever angels and sin come about, “Ainulindalë” can mesh with a Christian interpretation of God with Eru as the literalization of an unpredictable universe, always striving toward balance.

-Laurie Beckoff


  1. I think that considering the problem of evil in the context of middle earth reveals one of the bigger differences between Christian theology and what we can assume about its elvish counterpart. As you point out, the God in Genesis is described not only as all-powerful but also (at least by extension from his creation) as good. With Iluvatar, this isn’t the case. He and his creation are described as great, beautiful, and even lovely, but it’s never really given or assumed in the Ainulindale that the creator is inherently “good” to the inhabitants of middle earth. God is celebrated in Christianity as directly loving all living members of creation, and interacts with them directly at several points, but Eru seems to just create the world and then leave it alone, satisfied that everything is going to be fine.

    Knowing that you were created without a real concern for your happiness or wellbeing is certainly disturbing, but I think the problem of evil in middle earth is somewhat less concerning than that in Christian theology simply because there isn’t an expectation of a caring God. There’s also much less of a precedent for direct intervention on behalf of men and elves than in the Bible, which may explain why elves don’t seem to worship Eru in a way we recognize or expect any action from him. In the end though, I think your point from Flieger makes the most sense to explain Eru’s (in)action by simply admitting that he is a separate being and not meant to be comprehended by the creatures of middle earth, or of ours.
    -Brian R

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    1. This is some great analysis of the relationship between the Ainulindale and the Christian creation story. Unfortunately for us, you are completely right that the concept of a creator allowing evil to permeate the world is pretty hard to understand and to justify. Tolkien’s explanation of how Melkor’s evil was permitted to enter the world is (I think intentionally) a bit dissatisfying, but necessary to make the Christian-esque creation story of Arda plausible.

      If I could add just another aspect of the legendarium for consideration, there was an interesting passage in the reading for the following class (from The Silmarillion) in which Manwe makes an interesting statement about the redemptive role of evil. After Feanor defies the doom of Mandos, he asserts that the deeds of the Noldor will “be the matter of song until the last days of Arda” (The Silmarillion, p. 88). Upon hearing the message, Manwe responds with grief in Feanor’s folly, but says of the songs that “thus even as Eru spoke to us that beauty not before conceived be brought into Ea, and evil yet be good to have been” (The Silmarillion, p. 98). He knows how terrible the wars of the Noldor and Morgoth will be, and yet he considers the songs that will come after to be noteworthy compensation! While this may just seem like a complete misdirection of priorities, it does highlight the power of story and song in Middle Earth. As we saw in last week’s readings, the songs of the elves are much more powerful than our Primary World attempts at story telling. It’s hard to imagine anyone claiming that the beauty of war stories makes up for the loss and destruction of conflict. However, to the immortal elves of Middle Earth, stories, and art in general, is of a much higher significance, a cause worth fighting, and perhaps dying for.

  3. Laurie,

    Thanks for the post. You put your finger on a lot of very large, very important issues. Another way to put one of your issues is that the nature of Melkor’s will is problematic. Is he able to rebel against Eru’s will—as we’re told Men can—or is he a (disordered?) extension of it? The former seems problematic, the latter profoundly disturbing…

    Bill the Heliotrope

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  5. I’m interested in your opinions, and I’m afraid I’m a bit restricted by the blogging system from holding a more insightful conversation! But your reflection has sparked a few things in my mind I’d like to compliment your post with.

    In my mind, Melkor is an essential element for creation. When the other Ainur create mountains, Melkor razes them to valleys. When they create bodies of water, Melkor shifts the waters. In this way, the Earth is molded and formed. In Tolkien’s creation story, Ilúvatar is not attempting to create perfection. Ilúvatar, like God, was creating for the sake of creating; for the joy of creation. In Genesis when God creates, God looks at creation and sees that it is good. God does not say it is perfect, or amazing, or stupendous. God sees it and says that it is good, because it is satisfactory.
    The existence of Melkor reminds me much of the scene in The Phantom Tollbooth when the conductor allows Milo to conduct nature, and in essence the world, while he naps. I can’t help but think the conductor knew deep down that Milo, a child who had never conducted nature before, was inevitably going to mess up or at least conduct differently from himself. In a similar way, Ilúvatar created and allowed Melkor, an element of change and chaos, to exist. Ilúvatar must have known Melkor, just like the other Ainur (and I’m thinking of Aulë creating the dwarves in particular), would not be perfect. Yet despite this, Ilúvatar shows satisfaction with what the Ainur do, working their actions and creations into the grand scheme of the world. In such a way, God is a conductor, like Ilúvatar. God knows that his ‘children’, like creation, are not perfect. God expects it, adapts to it, and works it into the mechanics of the world.

    In line of children being imperfect, here’s a fun little insight/reflection on Genesis. In my humble opinion, God isn’t spiteful in the end, but rather shows a mixture of frustration and love- as any parent would.