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.