Friday, May 2, 2014

Greedy Love and God

A common theme in Tolkien’s works is how loving one’s possessions too much can have a harmful effect. This ‘greedy love’ manifests itself in many ways, but for the most part  it is the total obsession with an object to the exclusion of everything else – often this object it a link to the person’s (perceived) power or greatness. In The Hobbit Thorin’s obsession with the treasure, especially the Arkenstone, causes a conflict. And in Lord of the Rings, the effects of One Ring has on the people around it are clear enough. Flieger makes some good connections concerning this topic in chapter 13 of Splintered Light.
In class we arrived at the conclusion that the peril of the Valar existing in the world is that people may start worshiping them as gods, as opposed to Eru; as illustrated by the men of Númenor. Melkor is also representative of this false worship when he desired “to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.”(Silmarillion,p16). This almost perfectly matches what Augustine has to say about evil angels in City of God; that they “ …were delighted rather in their own power, as though they themselves were their own Good.” The problem with this is “that there is only one Good which will bring happiness to a rational or intellectual creature; and that Good is God.”(p471). Overall, losing sight of Ilúvatar as God, or the source of all things, is wrong for both the Valar and Children of Ilúvatar
During discussion we compared and contrasted Aulë and Fëanor to understand why ‘greedy love’ is wrong, and how this manifests itself as sacrifice. Both are faced with a choice; of weather to give up their creation or not. Aulë passes this test, and is willing to destroy the dwarves; but Fëanor refuses to give up the Silmarils even though many would benefit from it. Because Aulë was face with such a decision, he understands Fëanor’s reluctance.
Are these two comparable in this way? Though Aulë goes against Ilúvatar by creating the dwarves, the dwarves themselves do not pose a threat to Arda, and there doesn’t seem to be any obvious benefit from destroying them. In fact, Aulë is never asked to destroy the dwarves; he comes to that conclusion himself. I suppose that because they are not part of Ilúvatar’s plan, they could pose some threat to it; and I suppose that the act of making the dwarves is the problem, and not the dwarves themselves. Yet for me this is still very different from Fëanor refusing the Silmarils, and the obvious good that would come from restoring the trees. Contrasting the two seems less questionable to me.
The reasons why Fëanor does not give up the Silmarils (and why Aulë is willing to destroy the dwarves) connects to the idea that losing sight of Ilúvatar as, for lack of a better word, God is wrong. “For Fëanor began to love the Silmarils with a greedy love… he seldom remembered now that the light within them was not his own.”(Silmarillion,p69). In essence, Fëanor forgets that Ilúvatar is the source of everything, and begins to think of the Silmarils as representative of his own greatness only, which leads to the all the strife of his people. Aulë, on the other hand, realizes what he has done and makes to fix it, and is therefore forgiven.
Given these themes – which ‘greedy love’ leads to a kind of ‘false worship’, which is wrong – the question becomes what one should do with them. Is it enough to take them at face value, that they exist in the stories as a connecting theme and have no other applications? I’m going to assume no.  If there is a ‘lesson’ it is plain enough; one needs to know when sacrifices are necessary for the greater good, and no one should think too highly of themselves. This seems like an easy way out. In The Road to Middle-Earth, Shippey proposes that ”A more wide-ranging reason is that a love of things, especially artificial things, could be seen as the besetting sin of modern civilization, and in a way a new one, not quite Avarice and not quite Pride, but somehow related to both. In that view The SIlmarillion would have something like the distinctively modern ‘applicability’ of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, of all it’s archaic setting.”(p242). I feel like this is only part of the answer. My main issue with approaching these themes is that I’m reluctant to take very far. The idea that losing sight of God is inherently wrong is a very religious, specifically Christian, viewpoint; and I’m not sure how thinking of the themes in this way would affect their applicability.
Taking this very Christian stance may not matter in a way. Tolkien was Christian, and Christian elements are woven throughout his works. This doesn't quite solve my problem.
One of the last things we touched on – but didn’t answer – was what how Tolkien and his works would fit into this. Someone proposed that Tolkien and his works were akin to Fëanor and his Silmarils. This brought up the question whether or not Tolkien would have been able to give up his works (as Aulë was able to). I can only assume that this is a question that Tolkien was aware of, and struggled with. Was he worried he would have to sacrifice his work? If so, for what? Was the Christian view of it –that loving objects more than god is wrong– a legitimate problem for him?
Overall, I'm not sure how I should approach the idea of ‘false worship being wrong’; I think I've only understood a part of  it, and its importance in Tolkien’s works.

- Chloe Besanko


  1. I think you've gone a long way in tackling Tolkien's views on false worship. The discussion of Aule and Feanor is a critical one to consider because it's obviously at the heart of that. And I think you're right to say that Feanor's mistake is in forgetting that Illuvutar is at the source of all things and that possession of the Silmarils can hardly bring him greatness. However, I think Tolkien's conception of 'greedy love' was even more capacious than just the pursuit and possession of objects contrary to the will of Illuvutar but also any aim or purpose that self-glorifies at his expense. This is where some discussion of Melkor might be useful, I think. Bringing him in as a contrast to Aule in particular, whose crime falls somewhere in-between might shed light on an exact defenition of 'greedy love', at the heart of which is false worship of material goods, false idols or uncouth ambitions too. Great post though, very glad I got to read it.

  2. Chloe,

    Thanks for the post! It’s quite well done. I think to hone this discussion, you might look at the traditional term used for “greedy love,” jealousy which is the overzealous love for something you have, as distinct from envy or covetousness which is overweening desire for something someone else has that you don’t.

    Also, in the context of Aulë’s willing to destroy his beloved children because it’s the right thing to do by Ilúvatar, you might look at Abraham’s equally agonized willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac when asked to do so by YHVH (who, like Ilúvatar, stays his obedient servant’s hand).

    Bill the Heliotrope

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  4. Reading your post on greedy love and false worship, and thinking about Feanor and his Simarils, I was reminded of lines from Romans, a book in the Bible.

    “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

    Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.” Romans 1:21-25

    You pose an interesting question, how do we move from these concepts of false worship and greedy love and apply it to real-life? How does one who is secular one take these seemingly Christian perspectives and make sense of them?

    I agree with your identified problem: greedy love leads to false worship. Fëanor loved his creation so much that he forgot that its true source was not himself, but rather light from Ilúvatar. He worshipped his creation rather than the Creator, he glorifies the creature and deprives forgets the greater glory of the creator, and forgets that all creation is the Creator’s and hence all glory should go to him, and not Feanor himself.

    Yet, if I am interpreting your post correctly, you seem uncomfortable with accepting that “false worship” is a problem. What if one doesn’t believe in God? Is false worship a problem then? I would like to suggest that in looking at the effects of false worship, it is not just a problem for Christians, but a universal condition.

    Let’s look at what the false worship of the Simarils does to those who interact with it. The lust after these Simarils caused war and strife amongst the Elves: Feanor threatened his half-brother with a sword at his breast, while his sons Maglor and Maedhros in trying to regain the Simarils, slayed many of their own kind. Later on, in the quest to regain the Simarils in order to gain Thingol’s permission to marry Luthien, Beren is slayed. The incorruptible jewels corrupted the hearts of those who longed to possess them.
    Moving from Tolkien’s legendarium to real-life (Or perhaps Tolkien would argue that he is writing about reality), I quite clearly see the effects of false worship in today’s world. The “greedy love” that Feanor had for the Simarils, may perhaps be compared to man’s hunger for things like wealth and success and popularity. Think about the man who chases after success and money – as he gets more, he thinks he deserves what his hands has built, and he gets greedier for even more, abandoning many other things in life in his pursuit…till he is old and withered and realizes that maybe it was not worth it. Think about the student chasing good grades and good resume to the point that she is willing to cheat to get what she desires.

    Just like how Feanor forgot that the light from the Simarils came from Iluvatar and not himself, we too forget that there is a Creator when we worship the creation on this earth. We may find temporary satisfaction for while but surely there is something broken about this picture when the True Source of Light is forgotten.


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  6. The idea of false worship and greedy love reminds me of Augustine’s Confessions. In Confessions, Augustine argues that original sin is inherent in humans by discussing a “jealous” baby. Augustine claims to have noticed a jealous look on a baby’s face when watching his mother/wet-nurse feed his milk brother. The baby’s sin is that he seeks to control something that is not his, that thing being his mother’s breast milk. The baby’s sin can be seen as both greedy love and false worship. The greedy love is fairly obvious, coveting his mother’s milk above all else and beyond the possibility of sharing is clearly wrong. False worship comes from the fact that the baby’s love of milk turns his attention away from God. This is also the sin we witness Aule and Morgoth commit. They are allowed to participate in Illuvatar creation but it is blasphemy to try to that creation into their own hands. They have attempted to exert their will over a dominion that is not theirs. What’s interesting is how easy love can cause one to step on God/Illuvatar’s toes. Aule does not seem to think he knows better than Illuvatar in the creation of Dwarfs nor does he have malintent. He is really just creating and doing something he loves. Perhaps the lack of malintent is why Illuvatar lets him of the hook and allows him to keep his creation.

    -Javon Brown