Monday, May 5, 2014

Creativity, Sin, and Sympathy for the Devil

I’d like to talk a little about why one might want to be a bad Númenórean, but first I think I have to talk about the relationship between evil and change.

In lecture today, building on Sayers’s metaphor of artistic creation for God’s creation and bad artistry for evil, we concluded that change is not necessarily an evil. With Hamlet, for example, some changes (like “farthingale” to “petticoat”) can aid in understanding and help preserve the spirit of the original. If the metaphor holds, then, we should expect that there are some changes to God’s creation that can be made without doing evil. But this is a very different picture than the one we get from, for example, Augustine. Augustine writes of the “immutable goods”: 
“The things [God] made are good because they were made by him; but they are subject to change . . . . Therefore although they are not supreme goods, since God is a greater good than they, still those mutable goods are of great value, because they can adhere to the immutable good . . . . Any perversion does harm to nature, which means that it is contrary to nature.” (City of God, 472)
Thus, for Augustine, nature is good insofar as it adheres to God—that is, does not change—and evil is that which is contrary to nature—i.e. is a change. Even Tolkien gives us a similar suggestion. What is it that Melkor did wrong, that constituted the introduction of evil? “He had begun to conceive thoughts . . . unlike those of his brethren” (The Silmarillion, 16). That is, he was different—changed. And discord arose because “some of these thoughts he now wove into his music” (16). It seems that Melkor’s sin consisted precisely in his attempt to change the music. So it seems that any change in God’s creation is sin after all.

I think we have to think carefully about Sayers’s metaphor and how it might break down. One major difference between human creative works and God’s creation is that when we talk about Hamlet and possible adaptations of or alterations to the play, we do so from outside the context of the work itself; but it is impossible for anyone to think about God’s creation from a vantage outside of that creation. Attempts to adapt Shakespeare are not evils only because they respond to a changed context: temporal or cultural changes that make the original work inaccessible, or changes in medium (say, from stage to film) that make the original inappropriate. These changes in context actually remove us from the original work: it’s an acceptable creative liberty to change “farthingale” to “petticoat” only because the actual, original goodness of “farthingale” does not and cannot exist for us today. We have “lost” Hamlet (or some part of Hamlet), and are trying to recreate it. But if no such loss has occurred, we are allowed no creative liberties at all.

Augustine writes about nature as though we have lost nothing of its original, God-intended splendor: that is why for him, sin is what is contrary to it. Any change on Melkor’s part to the music of creation is evil because it is a change to the original, God-given music. The question then arises: how does human creative activity become possible (or at least, become possibly not a sin)? And Sayers gives the answer: if we have already lost the original goodness, i.e. if evil has already entered the work, i.e. if there has been a fall, then we have the possibility of redeeming that evil through a creative act. As she says, this is “the only way in which we can behave if we want to be ‘as gods’” (Mind of the Maker, 107). I think Sayers’s brilliance is to reconcile the sort of thinking about nature and God’s ultimate goodness that we see in Augustine or the Ainulindalë with our own commitments to the value of truly creative work.

Which is all well and good, but what about the possibility for creative production before the fall? Insofar as Númenor is a paradise, totally adhering to the original goodness of Eru’s creation (which I don’t think it is entirely, but is at least in large part—Númenor isn’t the original paradise, and comes after the original fall, but it is a sort of sub-paradise and it comes before its big secondary fall), then the possibilities for human creativity are pretty limited: think of the mountain Meneltarma, whose goodness and divinity are characterized precisely by its lack of human construction, i.e. lack of change from its original form. Men find themselves in a state where everything is as it should be: lives are long, death is peaceful, the weather is perfect, the land is beautiful, and so on. In such a state, the only things there are for an aspiring creative to change are the things that shouldn’t be changed: like the direction in which you’re sailing your ship.

In fact, I’m going to go a step further. Not only do I sympathize with the evil Númenóreans, but I sympathize with Melkor. The only thing more boring that singing “glory to God in the highest” all the time would be singing “glory to God in the highest” from God’s sheet music. Any real act of creativity, at the moment of creation as Tolkien describes it, would have to be a sin. Faced with that situation, I would gladly choose any kind of evil. Creativity is the most valuable thing for a human being to have. Denied it, what is the point of life?

Of course, it’s necessary and natural that a human being should feel this way. As Flieger emphasizes, man comes only in the third theme of the music: after Melkor has already introduced evil; after the Fall. This is the world that man was made to inhabit—he is unsuited to another one, in which evil does not yet exist. Bringing Sayers back into the discussion, man (along with the other contents of the third theme) was created to redeem Melkor’s evil, and it is of course precisely our incessant drive to create that allows us to do that, to take an evil world and produce something good out of it. That chief characteristic of man, our desire to create, only makes sense in a fallen world: in a pre-fallen world it is hopelessly inappropriate, and the kind of natural sympathy I think (human) readers should feel for Melkor in the Ainulindalë indicates this strongly.

Blaine Talbut


  1. This discussion reminded me of a line from Milton's Paradise Lost: "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven." The comparison between Satan and Melkor is fairly obvious as far as analogies go, but Milton was one of the few to actually tackle the idea of Satan and the Fall from a more internal perspective, at least in his day.
    While Melkor gets no such sympathetic treatment anywhere in the Tolkien-verse as Satan does in Milton's work, the question of free will and its potential opposition to good runs throughout both works. Melkor brought about a discord that was counter to Illuvatar's vision of good, thus we could classify the world which came about as a result as "Hell" in so far as Hell is defined as a place where good is countered. Melkor sought agency in his work, as did the men of Numenor, in their own way.
    Yet interestingly, the downfall of Numenor was brought about by attempting to wrest the paradise, or a form of good, for themselves. The Fall shows a figure bound by good break away in order to gain agency. But the men of Numenor already had agency. Sure, they were going against the will of good, but were still attempting to claim that perfection which had been denied to them.

  2. With apologies to Jeremiah 2:20…et dixisti, “Non cantem!”

  3. I think your post covers a lot of good points and I especially agree with your idea that in a paradise-fallen scenario the only way to find any sort of redemption is through change and creativity, even if creativity is what brought the setting to its doom. The one thing I have to disagree with is your sympathy for Melkor, and the sympathy for the devil (excellent reference to the Rolling Stones). I do not agree that Melkor’s decision to stray from the theme was because he was bored with the consistency of the scenario and unchanging environment. His idea of change involved a more selfish background, and he purposely corrupted the music of Iluvatar. What makes Melkor evil is that he was attempting to act in place of the artist, Eru, to make an anti-theme and therefore a corrupted “paradise,” an anti-paradise.
    After our discussion in class it almost seems that the fate of the Valar was inevitable. Just as we discussed, prior to creating Hamlet, there was no anti-Hamlet and this is the same for the creation of Arda. Once Eru created Arda and the Valar, there had to be an anti-Arda and an anti-Valar, hence Melkor’s role. Although we can sympathize with the idea of boredom, Melkor’s actions were extreme none the less.

  4. Though I understand Melkor's motivations in changing the theme, I'm not convinced I should sympathise with him. I feel that since he has a greater knowledge of Illuvatar than man he should have a better understanding that changes to God's creation would be evil
    But onto my main question. In the Ainulindalë (page 26 of Silmarillion I think) The changes that Melkor make to the theme result in rain, snow, mist, etc; which are deemed to be beautiful and good. At this point, has there already been a fall? Can it be a redemption if it resulted from the original act of evil? I may be missing the point, but i'm having trouble reconciling these ideas.

  5. There are two things I wanted to comment on. The first is the idea of change and its role in he idea of Evil. I think the desire to change things is very important in understanding why someone like Frodo or Sam was able to bear The Ring and Gandalf would not be. Gandalf greatly desires for the world to be better, he desires to see change. Frodo and Sam desire to save The Shire, to preserve it, but not to change it. I think this is important in understanding the strength of Hobbits, and perhaps even Tom Bombadil. They are less affected by The Ring because they do not desire to change the world for good or for evil. They wish to preserve it as it is.

    Secondly I wanted to comment on your sympathy for Melkor. I also sympathize with him, but I think our sympathy comes from being human. It is important to realize that Melkor as an Ainur failed in a way very different from the Numenoreans. As we have said it is in the nature of Man to become bored and desire some sort of change, to play against the Music or Iluvatar, but Melkor is not a Human and therefore it should not have been in his nature. And while I can sympathize with him, it is because I am human and I cannot understand him in any other way, even though he is different. It may be human nature to play against music, because we came into being in the Third Theme, and Melkor has some responsibility for that theme. But what is nature to us, should not have been nature to him. I feel that we cannot find Melkor blameless as a man bored of singing the same thing over and over, because he is not a man.

    S. E. B.

  6. Insightful meditation on the problems of evil and creative acts, and very provocative stance! Yes, I think we can thank Milton for making the Devil a sympathetic character, but are the alternatives really only outright perversion of creation or singing only from God's sheet music (a fantastic image!)? I particularly appreciate your reading and incorporation of Sayers and Augustine, with respect to the idea that human creative agency is only possible in a world in which the fall has happened.

    I'm not sure that Augustine would read any change as perversion—that is to say, the mutable goods are subject to change, but so much as they still tend towards the ultimate immutable good (God) they are still good (Augustine in particular can't read created matter as evil, because he is knee-deep in a battle against Manichaeans, who see the physical realm as an evil battling the good spiritual beings.) Otherwise, how could medieval builders take the raw materials of created nature and use them to assemble glorious cathedrals and beautiful books and illuminations to glorify God? I think perhaps this is what distinguishes creation from sub-creation—sub-creators work within the parameters of the original creator, which means that they use the created materials (that by their created nature glorify the Creator) to glorfiy the Creator. Thus, I'm not sure I agree that “the only things there are for an aspiring creative to change are the things that shouldn’t be changed: like the direction in which you’re sailing your ship.” Numenoreans build great temples and sea-faring vessels, taught other peoples of middle earth great craftsmanship, etc. Does this not count?


  7. I like the idea you propose that the human drive to change only makes sense in a flawed world, as a means to repair that world, and the extension that humanity as we know it would be very unhappy in paradise. This situation brings up one question for me, however: what would happen if humanity actually succeeded in its task? So long as humanity is constantly striving to turn earth into paradise, the impulse to change remains good, and all is well. The completion of that striving, however, would undo itself; once the world becomes perfect, the impulse to change becomes evil, and human nature becomes a flaw that disrupts the world's perfection. There are a few ways to get around this problem: human nature could slowly evolve to accept stasis, as part of the reparation process, human nature could be altered, as a divine gift, upon completion of the world, or the creation of paradise on earth could be treated as an impossible goal that will never be reached, with the striving being the important thing. I would guess that Tolkien subscribes to this third idea in relation to Middle-earth, since the task of remaking the world is given to Eru. Significantly, however, this remaking still remains connected to humanity, since The Silmarillion says that “of old the Valar declared to the Elves in Valinor that Men shall join in the Second Music of Ainur; whereas Ilúvatar has not revealed what he purposes for the Elves after the World's end, and Melkor has not discovered it” (The Silmarillion, 42).

    -James Brooks