Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Limits of the Creator

            “God was well aware that man would sin and so become liable to death, would then produce a progeny destined to die” (City of God, 503).
            When considering the story of Genesis – or any other creation story– what is more mind-bendingly, insanely confusing as this quote? How could a creator form a race of free-willed beings, only to know that many would turn against him (using the same free will he decided to gift unto them)? If you have ever studied the Bible, Augustine’s interpretation is the one that seems to fit the most comprehensively, “But God foresaw that by his grace a community of godly men was to be called to adoption as his sons, and this company of godly men was to benefit from consideration of this truth, that God started the human race to show mankind how pleasing to him is unity in plurality” (City of God, 503).
            If we take Augustine’s explanation of God’s “foreknowledge of man’s sin” to be true, I believe that understanding the fall of Numenor actually becomes less straightforward. Of course, it’s important to acknowledge that Tolkien really didn’t want Akallabeth to be an allegory for biblical stories, but the comparison is inevitably made. The fate of Numenor’s fall from grace and eventual redemption of the Godly correlates thematically with many different biblical stories, for example:
Adam and Eve (original sin)
Noah’s Ark
The Tower of Babel
Sodom and Gomorrah
The list could go on. Though the specifics vary, each story’s arc consists of 1) the narrator reminding the reader how God created all righteously in the beginning, 2) a statement describing the current wicket and corrupted state of man, 3) punishment and destruction, 4) survival of the faithful man/men, 5) lesson learned from the situation. I’m no biblical scholar, so these summaries are likely gross oversimplifications and vulgarizations of the actual stories, but each one seems to follow this pattern fairly consistently.
            Coming back to Tolkien’s Numenor, it’s very easy to draw the curtain of this story arc over the creation and destruction of Numenor – but I spy a key difference. Unlike the biblical stories, Tolkien’s Numenor lacks the omniscient God whose presence and narration makes the corruption of his own creation teleologically significant. God’s foreknowledge of the eventual redemption of man gives man’s fall a clear meaning. God has the beginning, end, and everything in between planned out, and he watches from afar, waiting to eventually take back the reigns.
            In my opinion this is very little like the story of Numenor. First of all, the Valar are not equivalent to God. They do not create the men to put on the Land of Gift, but rather offer it as a “rest after war” to the Fathers of Men. Even after setting rules for the Numenoreans, the Valar do not have omniscient oversight as God does over the earth. The Valar do not foresee the drowning of Numenor and the salvation the Elendil and his followers, at least not as comprehensively as God sees the beginning and end of the story of man. Each offense the men of Numenor makes against the Valar comes as a new and discrete challenge that is dealt with individually – until, of course, Numenor proves itself as beyond salvation, “Then suddenly fire burst from the Meneltarma, and there came a mighty wind and a tumult of earth, and the sky reeled, and the hills slid, and Numenor went down into the sea, with all its children…they vanished for ever” (Akallabeth, 279).
            I believe this key difference between the aforementioned biblical stories and Akallabeth gives a greater power to the Numenoreans’ free will and ability to sub-create as compared to their biblical counterparts. True, the Numenoreans have tight restrictions and harsh consequences for their actions, but their final fate remains unknown to both themselves and the Valar. Every aspect of the story, from man’s envy of immortality to the rise of Sauron, is not overtly presupposed and does not have a clear end purpose, “his creation is safe from the interference of other wills only as long as it remains in his head” (The Mind of the Maker, 104).
            Still, I wonder if this lack of omniscient foresight and oversight by the Valar, and the resulting increased creative ability of men, has a darker significance. Though the Valar didn’t create the Numenoreans as God created man, they did have a fairly intimate knowledge of man’s nature before gifting them the Land of Gift. I have to question that if by giving man so much creative freedom, in addition to the knowledge of the Undying Lands and access to Middle Earth, that the Valar were almost tempting men to overstep their boundaries. Because we don’t have access to the Valar’s thoughts to the same extent we (sort of) understand God’s intent for man, it’s very difficult draw such a conclusion, but I believe it merits consideration. What are we lead to conclude if the Valar knew the men would err in the ways they did, but didn’t believe some would merit salvation?
            “Thus in after days…the kings of Men knew that the world was indeed made round, and yet the Eldar were permitted still to depart and to come to the Ancient West…therefore the loremasters of Men said that a Straight Road must still be, for those that were permitted to find it” (Akallabeth, 281).

E.A. Zale           

2 comments:

  1. Reading this post after Wednesday's (5/7) discussion was a great idea. Not that I have at all a better answer for your last question than I would have before the lecture, just some new thoughts to bring to the table.

    You write: "I have to question that if by giving man so much creative freedom, in addition to the knowledge of the Undying Lands and access to Middle Earth, that the Valar were almost tempting men to overstep their boundaries."

    After today's lecture, where you write "creative freedom" I am now tempted (ha) to read "free will." Rather than wondering if the Valar were tempting the men of Numenor, I wonder if it is possible that the Valar could ever not set up this temptation under the circumstances? That is, they themselves could not impose any will or force any choice; that thread of domination is born with Melkor and his discord. Can the Valar do anything but preserve the Numenorean's will to choose?

    As I said, that doesn't really answer your question very well. We could still say, hey, given that they're pro-free will, why make it so easy for some men to make the wrong choice?

    Perhaps it's in part as Ariadne wrote in her post (http://tolkienmedievalandmodern.blogspot.com/2014/05/blind-trust-history-and-redemptive.html)? Perhaps the Valar actually do not fully see the capability for men's failings, and do not perceive exactly how this could go wrong. In Monday's lectures, many of us felt the fall was inevitable. We talked of how of COURSE men get bored, of how of COURSE men must strive for greater and greater existence, of how of COURSE men cannot simply accept a ban to travel West. But perhaps to the Valar it was not so inevitable? They created a paradise for the men who were deserving, but preserved their ability to choose (including an ability to fail) because - well, of course. The Valar aren't evil.

    Or maybe they do have some idea of how Men will err, but there is still an importance in providing that choice and letting them make that choice. But what importance? We're back to your question and I'm still dancing around it. But, hey. I tried? :)

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  2. You skillfully bring up a point that has engaged theologians for centuries—what is the difference between foreknowledge and fore-ordination? If you know what will happen, does that mean that it is happening as you intended? This is one of the lynchpins of theodicy and the problems of reconciling the omniscient, omnipotent, and good God with the presence of evil in the world.

    I agree that the role of the Valar is not quite that of God, for the Valar have imperfect knowledge. I like your analysis of the Valar as the agents of temptation—even with imperfect knowledge, they know a lot about the nature of men. Did they not see that restricting a free-willed species in this way would be a challenge and temptation? But I don't think Tolkien means us to be reading the Valar as equivalent to the Christian creator God—are they authors of man's plan, or just the stewards?

    --Jenna

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