Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Conservation, Creativity, and Christianity

One of the things that always bothered me in Tolkien, from my first reading of The Lord of the Rings, was the apparent tension between, on the one hand, his clear commitment to the creative vitality of humankind and the importance of making anew, and, on the other, his longing to preserve a beautiful past unchanged. Or, the same issue framed differently: how can someone who wrote so powerful a story about a revolution which leaves the world irrevocably changed also demonstrate a reactionary yearning to return to an unsullied past? Tolkien clearly struggled with this same tension: consider his deeply ambivalent feelings about change in the church in letter 306. Moreover, both Flieger and Shippey emphasize the importance of this tension in Tolkien’s project: “While Tolkien’s psychological and emotional yearning was nostalgia for aspects of this world that had vanished or were vanishing in his lifetime, still, his philosophical and religious position was that change is necessary” (Flieger 170), “[Tolkien’s] whole professional life brought him into contact with the stories of pagan heroes . . . more than anyone he could appreciate their sterling qualities. At the same time he had no doubt that paganism itself was weak and cruel” (Shippey 199). 

I think my own emotional response is the reverse of Tolkien’s—a yearning for change and truly original creativity coupled with a begrudging respect for the antique—but the problem is the same. My own solution to the problem has been to emphasize the parts of Tolkien’s legendarium where radical change appears necessary or desirable and gloss over the nostalgia; just as many readers do the opposite, and take the passage of the elves into the west at the end of the Third Age to indicate that The Lord of the Rings is ultimately a tragedy. But either solution is clearly inadequate, if only because it permits one only a piecemeal appreciation of Tolkien’s achievement.

Consider the following description of Valinor from the Silmarillion: “In that guarded land the Valar gathered great store of light and all the fairest things that were saved from the ruin; and many others yet fairer they made anew, and Valinor became more beautiful even than Middle-earth in the Spring of Arda” (emphasis mine). Here, the apparent conflict between the desires for creation and preservation dissolves: the only way for the Valar to preserve something of Arda unsullied by Melkor’s evil is to do something truly creative, and “make anew”: and through their desire to preserve the old unchanged they end up actually creating something that is new and better than the old. How can we make sense of this unity between two apparently conflicting impulses? And is this unity merely an isolated occurrence in the actions of beings who are much greater in power than Men or Elves, or can this unity be seen to lie nearer to the heart of Tolkien’s project?

I think it’s helpful here to return to the understanding of sin, creativity, and redemption that we found in Sayers’s The Mind of the Maker earlier this quarter (and which I discussed a little in my last post). Briefly: a change in God’s creation that perverts it from God’s original purpose is an evil and an arrogant attempt to pretend Godliness, but, once evil has been introduced into creation, we can redeem it through a creative act that turns that evil to good and restores God’s original purpose in the work: in this way we can rightly be “like God.” The crucial point is this: all good creative acts are fundamentally motivated by an attempt to preserve something of the original beauty of the world, and the desire for this kind of preservation is only rightly and productively exercised through a truly creative act that redeems the evil one bewails. In Sayers there is a deep unity between conservation and creation—and this unity is rooted in faith and a particular understanding of humankind’s relation to God. This understanding, it seems to me, is precisely the one that Birzer identifies as “Christian humanism.”

Can we also find this deep unity in Tolkien’s work? I think maybe that question can only be answered by a reading, through the lens of this idea, of Tolkien’s legendarium as a whole—a project beyond the scope of this blog post. But I’ll suggest one other place, relevant to the themes of our last discussion, where this unity shines through. We suggested then that Frodo and Sam journey to Mount Doom as a kind of penance for the hobbit-sin of trying to fence the world out. On their journey, they learn than the Shire can only truly be saved by engaging with the outside world: to save the Shire is to save the world. It is likewise true that to save the Shire is to change, irrevocably and entirely, the world—including the Shire. Bolstered every step of the way by their memories of the Shire, Frodo and Sam embark on a journey that ultimately means the end of the Shire as they remember it and its self-absorbed, insular ways. Likewise, they are bolstered everywhere by their prayers to Elbereth which mark them as members of a particular community of worship that includes the Elves, and yet the success of their quest ultimately means the departure of the Elves from Middle-earth. A yearning to preserve or return to the past, then, appears not necessarily reactionary, but in fact, if undertaken responsibly and productively, as a source for (in Sam and Frodo’s case, radical) change.

Blaine Talbut


  1. The seeming contradiction you pointed out at the beginning is, I think, essentially a disagreement between what we understand “change” to be and how Tolkien understands it. For instance, one of the most important ways (arguably the most important) the world has changed since Tolkien was young is technologically, and we consider this to generally be a good thing. Tolkien, however, opposed technological advancement, probably partially because he fought in WWI. You seem to have identified the reason that we think of change differently—good creativity must preserve the intention of the Creator, while creativity warps that intention is sinful. But the matching conclusion, that only very specific kinds of change are good and that Tolkien looks back to a specific part of the past which he would like to remain unchanged, appears to be skipped over. Perhaps this part was supposed to be implied, but I thought it was worth articulating.

  2. These are very sophisticated musings about the tension between redemptive change and nostalgic preservation! I am convinced by your application of this line of thought to the Shire—to save the Shire is to change the Shire, to connect it to the wider world and make it part of a joint purpose.

    I am reminded of a similar tension in medieval thought surrounding Eden and the coming of Christ—the expulsion from Eden is a tragedy, a fall from perfection, but is necessary to bring about the still greater good of the incarnation, because an unfallen world needs no redemption. But what does “paradise” then mean, if there is yet a greater good?