Wednesday, May 7, 2014

On the Inevitability of the Fall

         “The Locked Door stands as an eternal Temptation.” says Tolkien in On Fairy Stories. Although the Numenoreans were indeed desirous of immortality as well as all the beauty and comfort in the Blessed Realm for their own sake, their decision to sail west is significantly influenced by the very Ban that prohibited doing so. It is both unfair and over-simplistic to attribute their reluctance of death entirely to fear and greed, because the fact that Valar denied them immortality, something alien to them and therefore mysterious, unexplained and therefore provocative, is one of the reasons, if not the only reason, that they desire immortality. To overlook this would be to miss Tolkien’s most crucial theme in the Fall of Numenor--for Akallabeth is not only a metaphor about mortal fear but a discussion about the nature and inevitability of the Fall of Man.
       Death and immortality for the Numenoreans are not the same as they are for us human beings in the primary world. For Numenoreans, death is passing into the next stage of Illuvatar’s grand design that is concealed from all, including the Valar. Therefore to interpret death literally as the termination of consciousness, which it is for us (at least according to secular beliefs), and to simulate their feelings towards death with our humanly mortal fear is misleading. Mortal fear is also meant to be taken metaphorically, not only as the fear of dying but as a source of Temptation. 

      Living a life of perfect bliss and being able to escape worldly-weariness when and how they please, the Numenoreans originally had no reason to complain. The only possible source of dissatisfaction in their paradise is perhaps the asymmetry of information: Although the design of Illuvatar, such as death, and the intentions of the Valars, such as the Ban, are eminently relevant to the Numenoreans' existence, they remain unexplained. But ignorance, possible reason for theological contemplation, would have remained healthy if only the asymmetry of information were not so explicitly manifested in practical aspects of life (dying and seafaring) and highlighted by the visible contrast of Tol Eressea, from where elves visited the Numenoreans often. The contrast intensified, if not ignited, curiosity which later turned into frustration, skeptical doubt and eventually downright discard of faith. Indeed, thus far in the analysis one marvels at the Valar’s deficient understanding of human psychology, for a door locked without a convincing reason arouses much speculation. And when the speculation, or non-faith, is aided by creative powers such as deception (for deception actively generates opposition), it becomes anti-faith with destructive consequences.
      Therefore we ask “Is Eru, or the Valar, to be blamed for the Fall of Numenor?”. Though irreverent, the question seems exceedingly relevant and legitimate. If we dig a little deeper the concepts of Fall and of Evil, however, we will see that Illuvatar is beyond blame. The tendency to be tempted by the forbidden boils down to the nature of Man, with various shades of Light and Dark rather than a perfect image of God Himself. For man is a mixture of Good and Evil and a compromise the Creator Himself made with Satan.Therefore to ask whether Illuvatar is to blamed for the Fall of Numenor is to ask whether God is to be blamed for the imperfections of human nature and the existence of Evil. He is responsible for both, but guilty of neither, for by generating Good He necessarily caused the being of Evil and is therefore responsible. But guilt would entail choice, whereas in the case of Evil God has none. Evil exists by necessity. When God created Good He necessarily conjured into existence the category of non-good, which, when endowed with a creative will, becomes anti-good or Evil. His relevant strength over Evil is irrelevant, and cannot help with the existence of generation of Evil.  A place blessed to be beyond the reach of Evil is neither a conceptual possibility nor a logical one. Even in Aman treacheries and deceit existed, which led the wise and immortal Noldor to their Fall.      

     The question, then, is how the non-Good which exists by necessity turns into the anti-Good, which causes damage despite the supposed omnipotence of Good. Both Sayers and Flieger point to free will, or the creative will, which is a prelude to hubris and is closely associated with both Man and Devil. In Creation, Man retains a level of independence from the Music of Creation, and they fulfill their “task” through the exercise of free will and the purpose of creation (or sub-creation, as Men are creatures themselves). The free will is a creative will, and its creativity, despite Tolkien’s romanticization of the process of sub-creation from literary instincts, is profoundly dangerous, because it contains the risk of subverting Creation. As shown in the case of Feanor, whose pride grew when he forged the Silmarils that captured the light of the Two Trees, and in the case of the Numenors, whose pride grew proportionally to their power and culture (the two are powers of creation, of material and spiritual goods respectively), creativity could potentially mislead the creature into the illusion of acting as God. This mentality of usurpation, though it must eventually prove futile because God is omnipotent, is the ultimate offense. A highly literal manifestation of “the desire to be God” is found in Akallabeth, where the Numenors desired to live in Aman as the Valars do. In spite of the awe and defiance God inspires in Men, free will seems to always entail something disharmonious. And it is disharmonious in the literal sense, too, if one recalls Melkor’s music. Since free will is an a priori existence, and the necessity of evil an a priori truth, the inevitability of the Fall in so many religious and literary traditions perhaps points to not only cultural interrelation (or philological descent of literary motifs) but to a metaphysical truth that the struggle against the Temptation of Evil, despite the omnipotence of Good, exists by necessity and will exist through all eternity.

Sophie Zhuang


  1. I wonder if "omnipotence" is the right attribute of Good? Is Good (that is, created Good) omnipotent, that is, all powerful? RLFB

  2. One question that occurred to me while reading your post was what would happen if the Numenoreans were never explicitly told that they were prohibited from sailing west? By creating this single Ban, many questions seem to arise and only fuel the desire to want to know why the Ban was created in the first place. So would the fall have occurred if the Numenoreans were simply told that they could do whatever they pleased and that they were in a paradise where nothing could possibly be better? If I had everything that I needed and desired and nobody hinted at the possibility of a better situation, then there would not really be a reason to go search for greener pastures. However, once the slightest inkling of an even more prosperous situation was reveled, then it does seem inevitable that one would seek out this opportunity.

    On the other hand, not mentioning a new paradise that actually does exist would be a lie and as a result even more dire consequences would exist if the Numenoreans discovered that their gods lied them to. In that case, I think Iluvater would be both responsible and guilty for the fall of the Numenoreans since his direct actions or withholding of information would cause a great amount of distrust in their creator. Perhaps creating the Ban was the best option given the likelihood of the Numenoreans eventually stumbling west regardless of any actions taken by Iluvatar? I am not sure if an actual answer to this question exists, but it is always interesting to speculate.

  3. There are some wonderful points here! I think you are right to remind us that what the Numenoreans fear is not permanent loss of consciousness, as it is in modern secular discussions about death, but an uncertainty as to what happens next in the great plan of Illuvatar. This uncertainty becomes, as you beautifully phrase it, a “source of dissatisfaction in their paradise” not just because of uncertainty itself, but by the presence of those with more knowledge and what they perceive as greater access to this great plan, generating an “asymmetry of information.” I also particularly like the way you phrase the distinction between “non” and “anti-”: “And when the speculation, or non-faith, is aided by creative powers such as deception (for deception actively generates opposition), it becomes anti-faith with destructive consequences.”

    I'm not entirely convinced that the “necessity of evil an a priori truth,” from the way that you've formulated your argument: you've started from the premise that the category of non-Good must exist as soon as Good exists, but does this necessarily mean that anti-Good, which is Evil, must exist of necessity from the act of creating Good? I agree that it is “creative will” that gets everyone into trouble and the traps of hubris, but does creative will by necessity have to turn non-Good into anti-Good?


  4. Like Jenna, I agree that creative will is the thing that has the power to turn non-Good into anti-Good but I'm not sure that it "by necessity" does this. I think free will is necessarily infused with the ability to either multiply Good (in an act of worship -- subcreation) or to turn Good into anti-Good (evil). The choice between these two outcomes is left to the human (or elf). So, as I mentioned, I think creative will when turned towards Eru/God/the creator can only work to enhance the good already present. Free will is particularly the burden of humans because it gives us the opportunity to either add evil to the world or add to the good. That is why creative will is such a gift, because, as Tolkien explicates in Mythopoeia, it allows us to do the same work that the creator does. Participating in the act of creation is work that can bring glory back to God, much like the creation of the dwarves, although at first considered anti-Good, was brought back in to give more glory to Iluvatar.


  5. I really like the points that you raise here and the eloquence with which you raise them. I especially am interested in the concept of asymmetry of information, and how that led to the downfall of Numenor. Lack of information, however, as lack of good, is a neutral moral state not imbued with goodness or evilness. However, obtaining information, or attempting to, is more nuanced than the good-evil binary suggests. The Numenoreans of course seek out information needed to perfect their craft and cultivate their land- this would naturally be seen as a "good" act. However, not all information is created equal, and their attempts to access information which was clearly not meant for them was what caused them to fall. Just as they tried to gain immortality through the worship of darkness, the seeking of certain knowledge seems to require acts of evil, thus creating an active anti-state to lack of knowledge, perhaps more easily called resentment.