Friday, May 2, 2014

The Literal Metaphor of Sub-Creation

            In class, we discussed a major theme (one could almost call it a guiding principle) of Tolkien’s myths and stories – the role of sub-creation. In particular, Tolkien wants to use this theme to make “visible and physical the effects of sin or misused free will by men” as represented by the characters in his stories. By sub-creating with only their own desires in mind and without serving the greater good of Eru’s will, Tolkien’s characters weave their own downfall. As a theme, this is a bit surprising for a fantasy realm, since a discussion of sin and free will in this context has very strong biblical undertones. Indeed, Augustine writes that the same shortcoming was what separated the good angels from the bad ones in the early days of Heaven; rather than serving the Good which is common to all (God and His will), the bad angels “delighted rather with their own power, as though they themselves were their own Good.” This makes them “arrogant, deceitful and envious.” Here we see yet another parallel between Tolkien’s version of creation and the biblical one. Melkor, Feanor and the Exiled Elves, as well as the race of men, all share this same propensity to glorify their own creations while ignoring or defying the greater Good of Iluvatar. Feanor and the other elves’ lust for their own creation brings about the fall of the elves and the resulting war causes the end of the First Age. And of course, Melkor’s glorifying his own desires and creations is richly symbolized with creating his own musical theme that clashes dissonantly with Eru’s.
            But a closer analysis reveals that this thread runs further through the history of Middle Earth. In a 1951 letter to his publisher, Tolkien wrote that there was a sort of “second fall or at least ‘error’ of the Elves” which involved the Elves lingering in Middle-Earth. For some this was fairly innocuous – they simply wanted to preserve their history and position as the highest people, even if this constituted “a kind of embalming.” But others were persuaded by Sauron to try to make “Western Middle-Earth as beautiful as Valinor” by creating the Rings of Power. The chief function of the rings was “the prevention or slowing of decay (i.e. ‘change’ viewed as a regrettable thing), the preservation of what is desired or loved, or its semblance.” Once again, we see the same theme resurface: by trying to preserve the beautiful world they loved against the changes of time, and in attempting to create their own version of paradise, the elves empowered Sauron and created rings which would aid him in his evil designs. Thus possessiveness, and an unwillingness to sacrifice ones own creations to the natural course of change or wyrd, once again brings about a downfall.
            In this same letter, Tolkien outlines his greater legendary project, creating a sort of indigenous body of legend for England. He says that Arthurian legend comes close to achieving this role, but it is hampered by the fact that it “is involved in, and explicitly contains the Christian religion.” This is “fatal” – “fantasy should contain elements of moral and religious truth but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary ‘real’ world.” Does Tolkien’s legendarium achieve this subtle, implicit embodiment of religious truth? It certainly contains some elements that are quite reminiscent of Christianity, and Tolkien couched his discussion of it in the Christian theological language of “sin and free will.” But in the story itself, there cannot be said to be any overtly explicit reference to Christianity – many traditional creation myths bear striking resemblances to one another, so that is not necessarily a shortcoming. Rather, it seems that Tolkien achieved something closer to the metaphorical truth behind the explicit Christian dogma.
This relates to our discussion of metaphorical language and going back to an unfragmented understanding of the world, in which the abstract and concrete meanings of words were not separated. In a concrete sense, the Ainur might be seen as angels, Melkor Satan and Eru God – but Tolkien is not proselytizing. Rather, they embody in an epic and mythical mode the abstract truths that Tolkien found to be valuable within Christianity. Similarly, the characters are part of a legend that represents an unfragmented understanding of myth-history, in which the literal history and the metaphorical myth aspects are seamlessly intertwined. In this unfragmented understanding of the world, it does not make sense to draw a dividing line between our present Primary Reality and the myths and legends that we have created over the centuries, and call the former history and the latter fantasy.

 -Amory K.


  1. Dear Amory,
    Thanks for this very helpful discussion of the question of free will in terms of its possible Christian overtones and then relating this back to the theme of Tolkien’s stated goals in his mythological subcreation for England. These are key reminders of important themes and in which you don’t allow yourself to get bogged down. Well done.

    The key question, as I see you pressing it, might be how his statement: “…Fantasy should contain elements of moral and religious truth but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary ‘real’ world.” (Letter 131) can fit with his later statement: “I have used 'subcreation' in a special way…to make visible and physical the effects of Sin or misused Free Will by men.” (Letter 153)

    As you point out, Sin and misused Free Will are deeply Christian themes. So, does Tolkien succeed on his own terms to ‘contain religious truth but not explicitly’ AND to ‘make visible the effects’ of certain religious themes? Is there a tension here? Is it bridgeable?

    On the other hand, to erase the sharp distinction between the Primary and Secondary worlds (as you seem to suggest) would seem to fit the figures of myth (Eru, Melkor, &c) too closely (even allegorically?) with those of theology. In that case, drawing no sharp line between worlds, would not Tolkien “proselytizing” after all?

  2. This is a really interesting and thoughtful breakdown of the material from our most recent class. Certain elements of Tolkien's mythology do seem to closely shadow those of the Christian religion, the most obvious being the dynamic between Melkor and Illuvatar who are so analogous to Satan and God.
    But I am still more interested in the relation between change and evil. I doubt it is a coincidence that Melkor's elemental attribute is fire, a force which is fundamentally opposed to the preservation of that which already exists. Yet fire, in addition to its role as a destroyer, is frequently portrayed in human thought as the guiding force of civilization and progress. Again, we see the close relation between evil and advancement, the thin line between destruction and change.
    Take the Greek myth of Prometheus for example: Prometheus gives fire to man so that they may forge a civilization, but is punished for it by Zeus. This is because it disrupts the status quo which the Gods had sought to create. Zeus is generally portrayed as good, if not the same fundamental force of good as the Christian God. Yet that which he has created is disrupted by the gift of fire. Melkor of course turns out to be evil whereas Prometheus merely doted on humans more than the gods wished, but again we see the arrogance of the forces of good in trying to maintain their won creation.
    James Mackenzie