Wednesday, May 7, 2014

“Blind Trust,” History, and Redemptive Creation

On Monday we discussed the extent to which we should consider the fall of the Númenóreans to be inevitable. Different theories were offered as to why the eventual breaking of the Valar’s ban might have been essentially assured: inflation of the Númenóreans’ egos upon being hailed as gods by the Wild Men of Middle-earth, anxiety over the mystery of death and the prospect of losing their earthly paradise, or simple “human nature” and the temptation of knowing that Valinor existed and was forbidden to them. I want to further explore this “human nature” conjecture based on what we know about humankind according to Tokien’s creation story. As mentioned on Wednesday, human beings (as well as Elves) emerged from Eru’s third theme, a theme into which Eru had already incorporated Melkor’s defiant discord. Flieger’s discussion of the significance of this fact is helpful here; in “Beyond the Music” she writes that Ilúvatar’s children “will live in a world of immeasurable sorrow as part of a pattern that can take the most triumphant of the discordant notes and weave them into the whole. Their lives come after the fall but do not cause it and are not part of it. This is a notable and important departure of Tolkien’s mythos from the Christian one with which it is so often compared” (128). Men and Elves are not the sources of original rebellion against Eru, but inherently possess a strain of willful evil–what Sayers terms the impulse to act “as God” (105)–embedded within them. 

The Valar, not a part of Eru’s third theme, are literally incapable of fully understanding Elves and Men. Their inability to imagine the world from the perspectives of Ilúvatar’s children is brilliantly illustrated in the scenes of failed communication between Manwë’s messengers and the inhabitants of Númenor in the “Akallabêth.” The messengers chide the Númenóreans for coveting immortality, reminding them that death was originally presented as a “gift” of Eru, and that the Valar and the Eldar are forever bound to the earth without hope of escape. They admit the Valar do not know Ilúvatar’s designs for men, but assure the Númenóreans that “he does not plant to no purpose” (265). The messengers cannot satisfactorily assuage the anxieties of the Númenóreans, who explain, “of us is required a blind trust, and a hope without assurance, knowing not what lies before us…” (265). This protest is unintelligible to the messengers because, for the Valar, trust is necessarily blind; not knowing Ilúvatar’s plans in no way hinders their devotion to him. They may be fallible (Aulë creates the dwarves without Eru’s consent), but they are willing to subordinate their own creations to the purposes of Ilúvatar because of their faith in him. Men, however, partially born from the resistance of Melkor, cannot comfortably and consistently accept that Ilúvatar’s themes are flawless. Unable to understand where they fit into his creation, they react against what they have been given in order to secure some feeling of power and control. The Valar cannot grasp human fear about death; Eru declared death to be a gift, and therefore humans should receive it as such. Yet the very vagueness of the term “gift” is profoundly anxiety-inducing. Men do not understand what is desirable about death, and cannot regard it easily as a “gift”–particularly when confronted by other “gifts” (e.g. immortality) that seem more attractive by comparison. 

Given our recurring discussions regarding the importance of history in this class, the fact that the Númenóreans turn away from Eru after a period during which the study of history falls into decline seems significant. Adûnakhôr forbids the use of Elven speech, symbolically severing Númenor’s ancient ties with the Eldar, from whom Númenor’s loremasters learned “much story and song...from the beginning of the world” (267, 262). The loss of history contributes to the rejection of Eru and the Valar; Ar-Pharazôn forgets what Númenór has gained from following their decrees in the past. Perhaps if the Númenóreans better remembered that their island itself was a gift from Eru, they would be less prone to questioning the value of his other gift–death. 

The hazards of forgetting history reverberate as echoes throughout Tolkien’s work. Specifically in this week’s reading, Tolkien writes that the neglect of the palantíri was largely due to “the decay of Gondor, and the waning of interest in or knowledge of ancient history” (Unfinished Tales 422). The loss of history, in Gondor as well as in Númenor, leads men to question their place in creation. This doubt, in turn, provokes them to seek knowledge and power. Ar-Pharazôn is dissatisfied with the version of events presented to him by the messengers of the Valar. Having lost his attachment to ancient stories and traditions, he falls prey to Sauron’s misinformation and believes he can change the mortal nature assigned to him by Eru. Ages later, Denethor, jealous of Thorongil/Aragorn and resentful of Gandalf, refuses to accept that his seat of power may be ousted by the historically rightful ruler. He begins to use the palantír in order to “surpass these ‘usurpers’ in knowledge and information” (425). A man of stronger will than Ar-Pharazôn, Denethor does not become Sauron’s puppet, but is pushed to despair by the information Sauron provides (426). Denethor’s fate is linked to the Númenóreans’ in that both speak to the inexorably human condition of the difficulty of blind trust, a trust that becomes more and more “blind” as history is lost and our relationship with Eru feels less proximate. Denethor cannot accept being supplanted by Isildur’s long-lost heir, particularly when the man is heralded by Gandalf–who, though wise, has a maddening tendency never to fully explain himself or his intentions. Denethor cannot “blindly trust” Gandalf as an envoy from the Valar, and therefore looks for sight and knowledge in the palantír as a means of gaining knowledge and control. Though Denethor does not turn to evil in the same way Ar-Pharazôn does, both men expose a human vulnerability to doubt and the difficulty of coming to terms with the goodness of Eru’s “gifts.”

Though men in Tolkien’s legendarium are prone to cyclical processes of forgetting history and thereby turning to unfortunate sources in their search for knowledge and power, Tolkien plays with the notion that while written records may be lost, historical memory may still be accessible. In The Notion Club Papers, the descendants of Elendil and Voronwë are able to recall symbols and experiences related to the fall of Númenor, which Tolkien explains as the persistence of “sight and memory” in different people of the same family line (278). Beyond the possibility of transgenerational memory, however, I think we can read Tolkien’s creative project as acting to counter the dangers of forgetting history. Tolkien’s works bring us closer to Númenor; they give us a better idea of our place in Eru’s creation, and render our “blind” trust slightly less blind. We still cannot know Eru’s ultimate design, nor the value of the “gift” of death. Human anxiety about death and our corresponding vulnerability to evil, to the temptation to “act as God” and reject Ilúvatar’s creation in order to achieve a feeling of power and control, is not fully eradicable. Yet Tolkien’s creation of history has a redemptive impulse of the type described by Sayers. Sayers writes that the evil of destructive rebellion against an original Good may be transmuted by a creative act that restores the spirit of the Good (107). By chronicling men’s rebellions in a way that affirms the value of Eru’s gifts, Tolkien commits himself to the creation of a new Good. 



  1. "I think we can read Tolkien’s creative project as acting to counter the dangers of forgetting history." YES!!! Beautifully put! RLFB

  2. This is phenomenal! Thank you for so eloquently defending my discipline! You've convinced me on all accounts—Tolkien in every case ties loss of cultural or institutional memory to acts of evil or misguided acts of envy or greed. I particularly like your use of “blindness,” both in terms of “blind” trust on the part of men, who are unconvinced that this is a good thing, and the “blindness” of those who have lost track of history. And what a conclusion! “Tolkien’s works bring us closer to Númenor; they give us a better idea of our place in Eru’s creation, and render our “blind” trust slightly less blind.... By chronicling men’s rebellions in a way that affirms the value of Eru’s gifts, Tolkien commits himself to the creation of a new Good.” Wonderful.