Friday, May 2, 2014

Knowledge and the relationship between the Silmarillion and Genesis

We moved between a number of topics in class on Wednesday, so I want to focus on an idea that we did not discuss directly but I think ties many of our topics together: knowledge. In particular, Tolkien has, perhaps indirectly, considered its nature and its effect on those who do (or do not) possess it. The theme of knowledge recurs in both the Silmarillion and the related biblical stories.
The initial topic of our discussion, primarily concerning the nature of the Ainur, is primarily a question of knowledge, in that we are simply lacking the key piece of information. Tolkien is not entirely consistent on whether they more resemble angels or gods; they appear to engage in creation of their own in the Ainulindalë but the creation of the dwarves demonstrates that they are not capable of creating intelligence the way Eru is. (The failure on Aulë’s part to create intelligence raises interesting questions related both to our knowledge of the Ainur and to their knowledge, such as “Is the creation of intelligent beings a question of power or knowledge? For abstract beings like the Ainur, is there even a meaningful difference?” or “Did Aulë know beforehand what the outcome of his attempt would be?” These questions might in turn lead us into further questions about the capabilities of the Ainur, but we are already well beyond what we are capable of answering based on Tolkien’s work.) Whatever Tolkien intended, our lack of knowledge is in some ways more interesting; by making the higher beings of his world mysterious, our state of knowledge more resembles that of the Men of Middle Earth than that of an omniscient outsider, and we can more closely to relate to the characters of the primary story. It also recalls the rather mysterious nature of the Trinity in Catholicism, which is literally referred to as a “mystery of faith” in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. There is of course no direct allegory (even if Tolkien’s dislike of the idea were not known, there are many more tiers of beings in Tolkien’s work than in the Abrahamic tradition)
The question of the Ainur’s nature leads into a question of the nature of knowledge. The Ainur, like God, are difficult to understand; as Dorothy Sayers describes in The Mind of the Maker, we rely on metaphorical language to describe God because His true nature is not one that humans can normally understand, and so it is with the Ainur. But don’t we know more about the Ainur? As we discussed in class, one can view the Ainur as “literalized metaphors” or as some pure concept of an idea made real. But if one pauses for a moment, it should become clear that this description is not particularly helpful. It should be confusing—isn’t “literalized metaphor” simply a contradiction in terms? What have we learned by describing Ulma as a “pure” or “literalized” version of water? We haven’t learned much, because there is much we don’t know about water, and in fact we don’t even know what a “pure concept” or “literalized metaphor” is in general. The supposed explanation has left us confused, and there is good reason for this fact: the idea of a “literalized metaphor” is, in fact, another metaphor. It seems that here, Tolkien is emphasizing the problem of knowledge that Sayer briefly described; namely, that humans are incapable of understanding anything except through and by comparison to their own direct experiences, and that therefore they can understand many concepts only in metaphor. (Forgetting this important fact and treating the metaphor as the reality is sometimes referred to as “mistaking the map for the territory” and is considered fallacious.) It seems straightforward when presented this way, but Tolkien successfully worked this important reminder into what is mostly the introduction to his world.
The third way in which knowledge shows up in the early part of the Silmarillion is in the consideration of free will. If we look to Genesis 2:16 and 3:11-19, we see that the original sin of Adam and Eve centers on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is here worth asking why eating the fruit was a sin, if God had made the tree? Everything God made was good (Gensis 1:12); it is the fact that Adam and Eve disobeyed God which defines their sin. Moreover, God’s reasoning for driving them out of the Garden is interesting; He says, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever” (Genesis 3:22). Clearly Adam and Eve already had free will, in particular the ability to disobey God, so what is it that changed when they ate the fruit? One way to interpret these passages is to consider eating the fruit as making real the until-then abstract concept of evil. Prior to eating the fruit, Adam and Eve were capable of sinning, but no reference to any other form of evil is mentioned. The Commandments, including such basic tenets as “do not kill,” come later. So prior to original sin, Adam and Eve had free will, but it was in some sense a very limited free will because they were not even aware of many of their choices. In this sense they were like the Elves, who have free will but are still bound by fate, but that is not the only similarity. As mentioned above, the tree of life would have allowed Adam and Eve to live forever, just like the Elves. Instead, they fell and became Men.  

-Alexander Zavoluk


  1. "Instead, they fell and became Men." There is a very interesting passage in Ezekiel 28:11-15 that, as Margaret Barker reads it, seems to suggest just this: that Adam was a different kind of being in Eden, more angelic if you will, and that it was this stature that he fell from with the loss of Eden. Yet more resonances with Tolkien?! --RLFB

  2. Great analysis, you raise some great points about the relationship between the Ainulindale and the Judeo-Christian creation story. In particular, your point relating the “free will” of the elves to the ignorant state of pre-fall Adam and Eve really effectively captures the role of elves in Tolkien’s cosmology.

    The role of free will in the elves is definitely a bit hard to grasp. Certainly, in all their interactions with men, elves prove themselves to be far more observant of the fate-like order of the Valar, whereas men (and hobbits) seem to be more prone to pride, greed, and other worldly vices. Prior to the waking of men, however, Feanor seems to have broken with the natural order of the Valar much like later men. Certainly, one could argue that Feanor’s “fall” was fated, but then one could make the same argument of any later actions of men. However, unlike any of the elves of the Second or Third Age, Feanor completely disregarded the will of the Valar in favor of serving his own pride and greed for the Silmarils. The pride of Feanor, specifically manifest in withholding the Silmarils and the kinslaying at Alqualonde, seems to be a very human type of fall, out of place amongst the more solemn and reverent actions of later elves. Feanor and his kin seem to hold a place apart from other elves, a place closer to the moral limitations of human beings in both Middle Earth and the Primary World.

  3. I quite like your point that we are like the creations of the Ainur, limited in our ability to conceive of the act of creation because we lack the omnipotent view of the original creator—and I agree that this has great resonance with the fuzziness surrounding Christian creation (who are the angels, exactly? Who creates? Etc). Although I'm not quite sure what you mean by “there are many more tiers of beings in Tolkien’s work than in the Abrahamic tradition”--are you talking about the categories of created creatures in Genesis, like creeping things, flying things, water, light, etc? Or is this a reference to the hierarchy of Illuvitar, the Ainur/Varda, etc?

    You've grasped Sayers' point quite well here—can you explain more what you mean when you say that “literalized metaphor is, in fact, another metaphor”? Is this to say that we cannot escape our own referential frames, and even if we re-conceptualize ad infinitem, we will only end up with more metaphor? If so, I quite agree—we can never quite get “behind” the metaphor!

    I agree that there is something quite provocative about the idea that pre-fallen Adam and Eve can live forever, but the using of their free will in an act of disobedience cause them to be mortal—so what then can we say about the free will of the immortal Elves? What does it mean to be bound by fate yet have free will?


    1. One could consider 3 tiers in Abrahamic religions--God, Angels, and Man. In Tolkien, we have at least 5: Eru, the Valar, the Maiar, the Elves, and Men. That was my point--that any attempt to compare the two is imperfect from the outset, as there is no one-to-one pairing between the two groups.

      "can you explain more what you mean when you say that “literalized metaphor is, in fact, another metaphor”? Is this to say that we cannot escape our own referential frames, and even if we re-conceptualize ad infinitem, we will only end up with more metaphor?"

      Essentially, yes. It's an inherent problem that results from trying to squeeze the entire universe into a 6-inch diameter gray ball in between our ears. Here's the wiki article on map-territory confusion:

      "so what then can we say about the free will of the immortal Elves?"
      Here I attempted to support an argument raised in class, which is that Elves have free will but are still somewhat bound by fate. Similarly, Adam and Eve have the will to disobey God but are bound by their ignorance.

  4. I think this is very interesting in light of our discussion of Sayers' concept of evil. The idea that one can be perfectly ignorant of the concept of good, and therefore unable to do any evil plays pretty nicely into the question of why/how God created evil. I really like your explanation, especially how it's painted as inevitable if good is ever defined.

    In light of more recent discussions, I think the last point you mention, about Adam and Eve becoming mortal as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, can be discussed more. Specifically, the debate over the origins of middle earth man's mortality that we discussed last week. The wise men believe that men were meant to be immortal, but suffered a fall to mortality, while elves believe that men were meant to be mortal, as this fit with their other unique characteristics in the gift of Iluvatar. This has been brought up a couple times as a big contrast between the two creation myths, but I think with a slight modification that men had the possibility of immortality, but were given free will beyond that of the elves, your description of the fall of Adam and Eve fits with the necessity of the mortality of man on middle earth as well. While elves can handle immortality as they lack the free will necessary to struggle against Eru (with some exceptions) men are given the gift of changing the world, which will turn many to evil and make their collective death/fall inevitable.

    -Brian R

  5. This response really poses some interesting questions, particularly concerning the difference between power and knowledge and whether or not that difference actually exists in Tolkien's conception of the Ainur and their nature. I think the source of the power in the Ainur can be seen as how much of the pure light or truth of Eru that they have access to. We can see this in the description of Melkor-- he was the first created and the most powerful, and the source of his power over the other Ainur was his share in all of the other gifts of knowledge to the other Ainur. We also see the hierarchy of powerful beings go from the most general to specific, from Eru himself through to the Maiar who are subordinate to the Valar. This hierarchy also suggests that knowledge and power are in fact one in the same when it comes to truth. Knowledge of the mind of Eru and of Middle Earth coincide with having power over those domains.

    Knowledge and fate are also reconciled within the realm of subcreation. Subcreation, as an exercise sourced in Eru, can consist of varying degrees of power and beauty, exemplified in the stark difference between the Children of Iluvatar and the corrupted beings (ie Orcs). The quality of the subcreation is dependent on but still a component of the fate of the world in it's original creation.