“What are some characteristics of a fairytale?”
“It starts with ‘once upon a time’ and ends with ‘they live happily together thereafter forever’! ”
So went the opening remarks in my German 201 class, and the conversation continued onto a discussion on the human need of knowledge of the past and insight into the future. While that is at most an overgeneralization, there are a significant number of fairytales that do follow the pattern to generate such an impression. Yet, Tolkien’s Arda seems to be quite at odds with this characterization. Although marriages still happen as climaxes at different points of Time, there is hardly a romantic story that concludes with certainty that “they live happily together thereafter forever” – at best it is a rumor in the case of Tuor and Idril. Even the ideal couples die. Indeed Tolkien seems to consider Death as a necessary component of an ideal relationship.
But I do not think he is merely following the grand tragedy tradition, nor is introducing a strand of realism his sole purpose. Questions concerning “where do we come from” and “where are we going to” have accompanied man and Mankind ever since we become capable of asking questions. Tolkien’s creation is not isolated episodes of love stories but a self-complete lengendarium, which derives its credibility and independence by constructing a philosophy of its own. Life and Death cannot be taken for granted. The love stories—and indeed all the stories within Arda—seem to be all tainted by sorrow, because the Story has not ended. They are pieces to build the foundation for the uplifting of the Whole. In fact even the stories themselves may not be considered tragic, as Death is not categorically tragic, if we follow the conception of Life and Death as given by the world order of his creation.
Like the Christian tradition and many other ancient legends, Tolkien’s portrayal of Mankind (both Elves and Man, following Flieger’s notation) is centered around the Fall. But as Flieger pointed out, “The Children come with, not (as might expected) in the third theme, which is not just the direct result of Melkor’s rebellion, but also Iluvatar’s acceptance of it and decision to work with it…Their lives come after the fall but do not cause it and are not part of it. This is a notable and important departure of Tolkien’s mythos from the Christian one…” (Splintered Light, 128). There are no Elves or Men in the perfect Arda Unmarred, so there have never been Elves nor men in an “unfallen” state. The “incarnated minds” are by definition post-Rebellion and hence naturally flawed by the damage from Melkor. In them we see a combination of antithetical elements: a Life that will end with death and a Mind that might fail to comprehend. Death—as well as treason, obsession, hatred and other “evil traits” —are but a result of Eru’s decision to bring His Children into the Music at such a moment.
But why imperfect Men and Elves, who are subjected to the temptation of Melkor, are created as Eru’s response to him? Why not perfections so strong in might and faith to fight Melkor without any hesitation? But that will be collapsing into the very heart of “Melkorism,” which proves right through destruction. Melkor is the spirit of Rebellion, an arrogance that assumes its own superiority, whose goal is achieved through subversion and destruction of elements in Eru’s music. His methodology is the torchbearer of his core ideology, and it is not and cannot be how the victory of Eru can be achieved.
The power of Harmony shines through its ability to include and transform Discord into Harmony. The true triumph is to show that the rebel is indeed not a rebel at all—the Death of Melkorism is to show that what it engenders actually follows the principle of Eru. Resignation of Miriel is a weakness, possessiveness of Feanor is a mistake, and rebellion of Noldor seems to be an act of ungrateful Foolishness. It seems that all the sorrows, pains and deaths could be avoided only if any of them didn’t happen. But who can tell? Surely without the Noldor’s coming back to Middle Earth there won’t be the birth of Eärendil, whose marriage with Elwing completes the union of all three Houses of the Eldar and all three Houses of the Edain. The Fall of the Númenor is a catastrophe, but it also introduces necessary conditions for the coming of Aragorn and the War of the Ring. Melkor and Melkorism are defeated through the chain of reactions of their own designs, even though they seem to be winning at every moment. He fails despite of all his cunnings and despite all Children of Illúvatar are inflicted by his instrument.
The Arda sees too many rises and falls of the Elves and Men; it seems to be an unending cycle of past mistakes and amendments, of Life and Death. Yet, using an analogy in Nabokov’s autobiography, the pattern of the memory of Arda is not plainly circular but spiral, each full term coming with an uplifting movement driven by the ability of thought and repentance as endowed by Eru to His Children. For this reason Arda Remade is more glorious than Arda Unmarred, because the Arda Remade brings both the already Harmonious Arda Unmarred and all the elements against it into a new Harmony. Eruhíni are the Children of the One exactly because they are the agent carrying out this noble task. Their struggle to come to terms with the Marred Earth moves them toward redemption of both themselves and of the Arda. Through them shines Eru and the vision of Arda Remade, where the incarnated minds are restored to an “unfallen” state that does not exist before. The Unfallen Minds are not created by Eru but achieved by His Children alone, a testimony to the glory of the creation and the Creator. So the Children must start with imperfection to uncover the road to Perfection.
Death is but an example of how Eru transforms the instrument of Melkor to one of His own. In the debate over Miriel’s Rebirth, Manwë distinguishes between “Death which cometh from the Marrer” and “Death as an instrument of Eru” (HME 10, 245). Men’s expectation of “leaving” will motivate him to take actions and pursues the vision of a better future (it is like how you make plans to travel more than at home when you know that you are living in a country temporarily and might not be able to come back). Efforts to achieve individual goals accumulate to reach the ultimate Goal, the Healing of Arda through fulfillment. The mortal Man is the Mover and the Fulfiller also in the sense that generation change can facilitate the process of redressing past ills and “moving on”. The offspring may see better than their ancestors—imagine what will happen if Fëanor’s sons only have the life span of Men. The hurt done in the past may be soothed in the present, and future hurt could be avoided, which itself is already a progress toward Healing.
But Man with his nature alone cannot achieve the purpose. The players on stage cannot know if the actions taken at present will bear any good fruit until such one is realized. Even Valar themselves have a debate over their judgment, and consolidate their faith in their decision only when Mandos’ foresight is revealed. Guarantee of future is bestowed to no one other than the One. But transient as Men are, they cannot be certain about the past either. How can they know that this is indeed not “a war between Light and Dark equipotent” (HME 10, 321) as perceived by Andreth’s Men? How can they keep faith in Eru and not falter?
Some comfort and guidance are received from the Elves, who “represent the artistic, aesthetic, and purely scientific aspects of the Humane nature” (Letter 181). They are endowed with long life to remember and meditate and even continue to exist in Arda after bodily death. They are a personification of the knowledge accumulated from the past ex post. Men in the Middle Earth learn from the Elves what they cannot know and find reassurance of faith in the One.
Musings on the topic of Life and Death is a perilous thing to Men, as it is easy to become desperate with the want to escape, and equally easy to indulge in the thought Death as Gift and give up on Life. Both are a misunderstanding of the Design for Men. No doubt the path to “bring the world fulfilled” through redressing pains and faults is sacrificial in nature. But so is the centerpiece of “Eruism,” the idea of “Let-go” of Creation after all the work put into the process (a literal presentation can be seen in how an Elf gives forth some of her own vitality in child-bearing). A parallel can be drawn between Life and Light. Light by nature is to illuminate. So does Life of an incarnated mind, created to heal the Marring of Arda. The most fundamental ennoblement of Men (and Elves) above everything else is the sacrificial nature of the mission. Men should not cling to Life as Elves (Feanor and Thingol) should not cling to Light. Cling to light is decline into darkness, cling to life is fall into death (like half of Númenorean Kings and Nazgul). Another aspect of the ennoblement of Men is thus found in those who can accept death graciously as Elf would do (like the other half of Númenorean Kings and Aragorn). It is a grace for the Men, which comes only through a true understanding of Life. Although Men do not necessarily have to learn it through interactions with Elves (the case of Éowyn), but communication would facilitate getting over the limitation in perspective of one race.
The memories of Elves are their source of insight and support of faith in Eru, but also a burden of constantly regretting the past “and to become unwilling to face change” (Letter 181). While the danger for the Man stems from not knowing either the past or the future, the danger for the Elf comes from knowledge of the past too clear and a conviction too strong about the future. What is the purpose of any change, if they are doomed to exist and perish with the Arda at the end? The artistic and the scientific are permanent within the World but not without. The doom seems unsolvable exactly because the conviction arises from trust in Eru’s Music that Arda will come to an End.
The past, however long it might be, still has a supremum at present; but the future might be unbounded. Man, with their desire to improve for their brief and unpredictable future, also brings Hope and comfort to the Elves. Although they come without a past, they do have a future, which requires uncertainties, an end that cannot be seen beyond certain point. Uncertainty brings Amdir, which combines with Elven faith and forms Estel that their fate will be different in the Arda Remade, brought to existence by the Men. Such Estel gives a reason for the Elves to keep their eyes on the future and still participate in the cycle of the world.
Elven knowledge and grace leave an impression of Elven nobility among Men who have some knowledge of them. But a reading of The Silmarillion—an Elven narration—will reveal that they are not always so noble at all. Men’s (majorly Hobbits’?) fascination over Elves can easily mistaken them as perfect beings and forget that they are also creatures of a fallen world, just not fallen in the same way as Men did and hence do not share the same weaknesses. As mentioned before, Tolkien’s Elf and Men are rather characterizations of different aspect of the Humane, translating the abstract into the literal (we might even draw a parallel between the conception of an incarnated mind and the bringing of the metaphorical back into the physical and the literal in fantastic writings). Perhaps the Elf-Man division also contains elements from his understanding of gender, which are also considered as one manifestation of natural inclinations. It seems that once a Love between the two people is found, the Men are often more inclined to regard the Elves as “a kind of guiding star and divinity” (Letter 43). On the other hand, the Men are all so “young” in the eyes of the Elves that they need instruction and perhaps reform for their own good.
According to Tolkien, the tendency to worship and the attempt to reform are the biggest weaknesses among males and females in a relationship. We can also imagine that a blind worshipper and an arrogant reformer can be easily put to use for evil purposes. Yet, both tendencies seem to fit the respective nature of the Children of Illúvatar quite well. Not surprisingly, the union between a male Man and female Elf is crowned as the ideal marriage in Arda. Previous reflections have given wonderful accounts of why such interracial marriage is optimal. Here I found the correlation between gender and race interesting, and I think that “gender role” assignment might also be another instance of “metaphor becomes literal”. It is also interesting to note the transformation of weaknesses into strength for the betterment of both sides, when traits are placed in a slightly different context. Such marriage is indeed blessed by the glory of the One.
To act as a subcreator is to act as the One, whose Creation is unraveled through an organic extension of a few fundamental principles. Understanding of a piece of work hence comes through the understanding of such principles behind. In this sense, it is very appropriate to talk about God through metaphors, which embody the omnipresence of the One-ness. Yet, the perfect state of internal consistency is hard to achieve by human who are themselves facets of the One (we are still in quest of searching for the One through scientific and philosophical studies), hence we see Tolkien’s constant correction and revision in the setting of his lengenarium.* The discussion of Life and Death between Finrod and Andreth is an example of such probing, an attempt representative of all the toils Mankind took to understand the world. Life and Death is but a topic in the Arda through which the principles of Tolkien’s subcreation are shown. It is also a topic through which we can understand the Unity of principles underlying his subcreation. To create a whole and to learn the Whole requires partition into Pieces. The quest to seek answers in the One never ends.
* Language is often characterized as circular in logics since a word is always defined by other words and we cannot pin down a prime unit. But perhaps language is the most completed of all human creations exactly because it is self-contained. Understanding of a language is a perfect synchronization between understanding the whole and the pieces. Perhaps we can say that we truly understand the Universe if we can discern all the internal connections in the World as we do for our mother tongue.