Friday, May 2, 2014

Mythological creativity through and of language

Wednesday's discussion left me particularly interested in exploring what exactly the role of the Valar might be in Tolkien's mythology. I had previously always envisioned them as gods in their own right, but that misconception was very quickly debunked once I started rereading The Silmarillion. The closest approximation we arrived at was that the Valar were angels—beings with powers beyond that of mortals, but who were still not to be confused with gods. For they in turn were creations of a higher power, and were therefore not to be worshiped or even just regarded as omnipotent. But I think we can try pushing this conclusion further by comparing the construction of Tolkien’s mythology against the mythologies evoked by Tolkien’s creation.
Indeed, to classify the Valar as angels seems a tad simplistic to me. Certainly the Valar cohere fairly well with the delineation of angels as seen in St Augustine’s City of God: the good and the bad are both derived from the same nature; they are not able to create in the way God creates… but let us recall Letter 156, where Tolkien writes, “I am under the difficulty of finding English names for mythological creatures with other names… I would rather they took my legendary creatures even with the false associations of the ‘translation’ than not at all.” For creatures such as elves and dwarves, Tolkien has here conceded to the ease of enabling a reader’s understanding. Yet, notably, Tolkien is content to refer to the Valar by the name he has given them. He does note in the beginning of The Silmarillion that the name means “the powers of Arda,” and that men often think of them in English as “gods.” But Tolkien chooses to eschew these English “translations” in subsequent references. Evidently then, Tolkien considers any English rendering of the term to be insufficient to encompass the true nature of these beings. If so, our regarding the Valar as angels must be equally insufficient.
But if Dorothy Sayers is right, then we can only understand the Valar by analogy. This implies that we must filter the meaning of the Valar through our experience; so, “angel” may be a poor approximation, but it is appropriate provided that it is the best we have. I would challenge that last claim specifically by turning to and fleshing out a particular point brought up in class. Recall that we compared these two quotes: “mythology is a disease of language,” and “language is a disease of mythology.” The latter quote better represents Tolkien’s views, whereby we have distilled the true meaning of broad mythological concepts into limited linguistic constructs. Therefore Ulmo is not only the literal lord of water, but is further the origin of all that we might associate with water. Thus water becomes a simplification of all that Ulmo is. But water is also a deeply essential component of Ulmo’s true nature. To omit it would be to misunderstand what Ulmo is. The same could be said of each natural element represented by the other Valar. And so, because the term “angel” neglects this crucial facet inherent and individualized to each Valar, I would argue that classifying them as “angels” falls particularly short, even when evaluated as a sufficient analogy.
My claim’s validity assumes the existence of a better analogy. To prove this assumption true, I would suggest that we revisit the statement “language is a disease of mythology.” We can first define mythology to better understand language’s relation to it. In looking away from Tolkien’s creation for a moment, we may ask: what was the function of mythology in early civilizations? In my view, mythology was just one means through which people sought to find and impose order upon the world they inhabited. Mythology was an ancient science, to the extent that mythology made sensible the ordinary. So, to name an example, the sun rises each day thanks to the chariot commandeered by Helios. And similarly, language is a creation through which we sought to make communicable this very sense of the world. Language is the means by which we enabled a collective understanding of a specific concept. But paradoxically, language is also the cause of our understanding growing diluted, simply because no term can ever fully encapsulate the entirety of any such understanding. Therefore, the language of mythology is an imperfect distillation of the essence of what causes natural functions. Something with closer ties to nature itself should, as such, lie at the heart of any generalized mythological analogy.
And it is apparent that Tolkien’s Valar echo this ancient mythological structure, to the extent that the Valar each also take lordship (so to speak) over a given natural element. The Valar may not be gods, unlike their historical myth counterparts, but is the term “god” not simply used in the historical sense to attribute causal power to ordinary but misunderstood phenomena? When we did not know or understand gravity, did we not assume that the apple fell by the will of a higher power? Then the Valar are powerful because they are the driving forces of the observable—the very extension of Nature itself. Nature did not construct itself or its constituent parts; all that Nature is, and can be, is derived solely from what Nature presently possesses. According to religious thought, all such possession is from God. Likewise, the Valar are of the Ainur; they are therefore Iluvatar’s creations, and as nothing passes except by Iluvatar’s will, so the Valar were constituted to eventually play vital roles in the history of Arda. Does it not appear therefore that the Valar are more than, yet not quite, angels? Angels are but messengers and attendants of God; this analogy does no justice to the primary role of the Valar in enabling Arda’s very existence. Hence I argue that the Valar are instead the primal forces of Nature itself; in other words, that the Valar are the spirits of the constituent, foundational elements of a world.
This ties back in too to the other main point discussed in class: the errors of Feanor and Melkor, contrasted against Aule’s redemption by Iluvatar. In class, we agreed that excessive attachment to one's creation was problematic in Tolkien’s world. I would like to push that a little further. I see Feanor’s greatest sin as claiming primary ownership and creation credit for his Silmarils. For indeed, the greatest error any being could commit in Tolkien’s world is to regard themselves as the principal force behind any creation. If all fundamentals of creation are possible through Iluvatar only, then nobody has any right to lay a selfish claim over anything—not even the things they used their bodies to help shape into something different. Ultimately, the power of true creation lies with Iluvatar alone—hence why Iluvatar alone may be regarded as God of Middle-earth.

Carol Ann Tan

1 comment:

  1. This is a fine meditation on a complicated subject! I particularly loved this line, from your reflection on how descriptive language can in fact limit rather than facilitate understanding: “But paradoxically, language is also the cause of our understanding growing diluted, simply because no term can ever fully encapsulate the entirety of any such understanding.” This is well-observed, and something that medieval thinkers were fond of saying about figures whose reality escapes encapsulation (particularly the Virgin Mary!). I would only ask, in the vein of Sayer, if “the language of mythology is an imperfect distillation of the essence of what causes natural functions,” how else can we as humans conceive of that “essence”?

    I too was first tempted to think of the Ainur more in the vein of naturalistic gods, or the Greek pantheon, rather than as angels who exhibit a particular aspect of creation. You seem to talked yourself back into this conviction (Valar are more like the naturalistic gods, the “forces of Nature”), but I think this relies on a particular definition of “angel”—you give us a very concise but perhaps limiting one, that “Angels are but messengers and attendants of God; this analogy does no justice to the primary role of the Valar in enabling Arda’s very existence.” I would point you back to the Jubilees text—is there not a tradition of seeing angels in this very same light (angel of fire, angel of the winds, etc)? What does this do to your view of the applicability of the analogy between Valar and angelic beings?