Friday, May 2, 2014

The Fear of Ilúvatar is the Beginning of Wisdom

              In Wednesday’s class, we talked a lot about the precise nature of sin and misdeeds with regards to Aulë and Melkor. Both defied the will of Ilúvatar, but there is a substantial difference in their motivations to make those defiant actions, a difference which resulted in forgiveness for Aulë and in punishment for Melkor. Yet, as Professor Fulton Brown rightly pointed out, both committed sin, despite their motivations. Does this imply, then, that all three committed equally immoral actions? Do they share a level of moral responsibility? After all, sin is sin.
              Well that’s precisely the thing – sin is not, in fact, just sin. Though I was wrong in class to distinguish Aulë’s actions from those of Melkor as not sinful while the latter were, it later occurred to me that a different distinction ought to be drawn, and one that Tolkien would have been very familiar with – that between venial sin and grave or mortal sin. In a Catholic understanding, the difference between grave and venial sin is not solely an obvious one concerning the severity of the offense, like murder versus insulting someone. Rather, it has a lot to do with the state of mind of the person committing the offense in question – whether or not the sinner is fully aware of the sinfulness of her actions, whether or not the sinner acted from habit as opposed to reason – things of that nature. Venial sin harms a person’s relationship to God, but does not destroy it, and does not forbid one who commits it from being given salvation. Conversely, mortal sin can only be committed by someone who fully understands the will of God and then elects, voluntarily, to defy that will. This distinction, then, allows us to more fully discuss the similarities between the two’s actions and how they relate to Ilúvatar’s creation, while at the same time keeping us mindful of the differences between them and precisely what makes an action sinful in Middle-Earth and to what degree.
              In the case of Melkor, his actions obviously serve as an example of mortal sin, indeed in many ways being reminiscent of Original Sin, the sin committed by Adam and Eve which brought evil and suffering to the world to be inflicted upon all future generations. In Melkor’s case, he knowingly and willingly defied the will of Eru, attempting to introduce his own discordant and violent themes into the great Music at the dawn of creation. Then, in Arda, he consistently, willingly, and knowingly wars against the Valar in all things, attempting to usurp the mastery of the world that was rightfully Eru’s. Always we see the same motivation – the same jealousy of Eru, the ravenous hunger for mastery and dominion, the twisted desire for glory and for power above that of Ilúvatar or that which Ilúvatar had granted him. He has purposefully turned his back on the Eru, and so Eru turned His back on Melkor, who would be bound beyond the Door of Night, not to return until Dagor Dagorath. Ultimately Melkor’s struggle for mastery all came to naught, as his theme was incorporated into the theme of Eru and all of his dissonance in the end served only to further the glory of Ilúvatar.
              Similarly to Melkor, Aulë defied the will of Ilúvatar, this time with regards to His children. Though he was commanded to await the Children of Ilúvatar, Aulë chose instead to make his own version of the Children, the Dwarves. And similarly to Melkor, Aulë was reprimanded and his work incorporated into greater creation not by his will, but by the will of Eru. Similarly did all of this come to pass, and yet there is a noticeable difference. Aulë, it is shown, did not act from the same twisted desires as did Melkor – he did not desire mastery and dominion, he did not create the Dwarves to be his subjects. Rather, he created them “to love and to teach them”, from a desire to have the Children surround him and learn from him and share in his craft, but not for his glory, rather for the glory of Eru. Where Melkor acted from pride and jealousy, Aulë acted from love, though impatient love. He struggles to fulfill the will of Eru, and when Eru Himself speaks to Aulë and denounces his miseeds, he instantly experiences nothing but remorse and sorrow. As many who would be righteous do when confronted with knowledge of his own sin, he becomes convinced of his worthlessness and iredeemability, specifically with regards to the dwarves themselves, who he offers to smite with his mighty hammer. Fortunately Eru intervenes, granting true life to the Dwarves and adding them as part of his creation. Aulë’s sin was venial, and his repentance true, so Eru saw no further need to reprimand him. Mistakes, honestly made, can always be forgiven.
              Aulë, as we have seen, did most certainly sin, but in sinning he was trying, though failing, to fulfill his duty as a sub-creator, desiring to make only to give glory to Ilúvatar. His love of his father is unquestionable, and at worse we can accuse him of rashness and of foolishness. But he came out the wiser for it, and creation the richer, as he learned that love and desire to do good, while paramount, is not sufficient. He learned that he must take a step back, in knowledge and in fear, to better evaluate the morality of his work and of others. This, as we see in the episode of Fëanor, gives him empathy with regards to other’s misdeeds while at the same time better judgment with regards to those misdeeds, and an understanding that personal desires must submit always to the will of Ilúvatar.

-Daniel Betancourt


  1. Daniel,

    Very good post. I don’t have much to add. The same distinction, between venial and mortal sins, came to my mind. I think you’re right throughout.

    Bill the Heliotrope

  2. You say that, "Aulë’s sin was venial, and his repentance true, so Eru saw no further need to reprimand him. Mistakes, honestly made, can always be forgiven," but there is a continued punishment that is attached to Aulë’s sin. Aulë offers to smash the dwarves with his hammer, which he sees as a destruction of the things that he has created in repentance of his misdeeds toward Illúvatar Eru. Were Eru Illúvatar to simply allow the destruction of these lifeless being, that, I think, would have been the standard for allowing complete repentance; Aulë’s sin would be literally ground into dust and dismissed entirely. However, this is not the case. Aulë’s sin is allowed to live on, a reminder of the transgression that he has committed against the power of Illúvatar until the end of middle earth. The creation of the dwarves is not mere ignominy; they are both a shameful (but as you have pointed out quite capably not mortal) sin against Eru, but at the same time, a beautiful creation. However, the cleverness in their creation is used once more to torment Aulë as, in giving them life, Eru Illúvatar is superseding Aulë's cleverness in their creation. Because of these two factors, the overcoming of Aulë's cleverness in creation, and the permanent reminder of Aulë's sinful act, and the sleep into which Eru places the dwarves, I do not think that it is correct to say that, "Eru saw no further need to reprimand him. Mistakes, honestly made, can always be forgiven." Mistakes seem to be able to be superseded, but not fully forgiven and certainly not forgotten.
    --Elliot Mertz

    1. The interpretation of the dwarves as living reminders of Aulë’s sin does not seem to me to accurately portray the events of the story, and definitely not the idea that they exist to "torment" him. In the relevant passage, Aulë does offer to smash the dwarves with a hammer, and Eru does stop him from doing so, but the text describes this as "Illúvatar had compassion upon Aulë and his desire". When he sees that the dwarves have been given true life, Aulë cries out "May Eru bless my work and amend it!", while Yavanna later tells him "Eru is merciful. Now I see that thy heart rejoiceth, as indeed it may; for thou hast received not only forgiveness but bounty". The text doesn't indicate that the incorporation of the dwarves into creation is a living reminder of Aulë's guilt, but rather a mark of how fully Eru has forgiven him.

      In a larger sense, this also ties into the Catholic understanding not just of guilt and forgiveness, but of good and evil. As you say, Eru (I'm just going to refer to him as Eru for the rest of my response, as I can't get the comment box to make the apostrophe for Illúvatar and copying/pasting the name gets annoying) might have signified forgiveness by just letting the dwarves be destroyed, and many people think that God could demonstrate His goodness by destroying evil outright - however, that is not what Catholics or what Tolkien would understand as God's method. Rather than destroying evil, God actively turns it into good, with Catholics pointing to Christ's murder and resurrection as the most important example. Eru has not just forgiven Aulë, He has actively turned the product of his wrongdoing into a good thing, a part of Creation as much as the Elves and Dwarves. This seems to me to be an expression of extreme kindness and forgiveness, and judging by Aulë's reaction of joy I'd imagine that he'd say the same.