Saturday, April 29, 2017

Good and Bad

Dorothy Sayers says that “the characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and the ability to make things” (Image of God, 22).  To put it simply, when we have this desire and ability, we are doing “good” and when we do not, we are doing “bad.”  However, it is not always that simple.  Often, a wrong act is takes the form of some kind of perversion of that first statement.  For example, Tolkien claims, “the proper study of Man is anything but Man; and the most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men” (Letter 52).  Here, bossing other men presumes an authority over other men.  It is one thing to appeal to a higher common authority such as God, but it is quite another thing to claim authority in and of oneself.  Speaking on the difference between good angels (or creation in general) and bad angels, Augustine says the “difference had its origin in their wills and desires, the one sort persisting resolutely in that Good which is common to all—which for them is God himself…while the others were delighted with their own power, as though they themselves were their own good” (City of God, 471).  By claiming oneself as an authority with no appeal to a higher law, it follows that there is some sort of pride in thinking that one can change one of God’s own creatures and make it better.  Or, in another sense, claiming authority takes the role of God upon oneself.  Likewise, this also necessitates a sense of pride if a created thing thinks that it can become equal or greater than its creator.  It can be argued that in Genesis, God gave Adam authority over all living things.  He was to name them and, in effect, become their master.  In this example, Adam is able to exercise authority over other created things, so surely he must be placing himself on par with God.  However, Adam does not have this authority in and of himself.  It is a gift to him from God and therefore appeals to God’s higher authority.  Therefore, Adam is able to exercise some authority over created beings without succumbing to the pride of being greater than God himself. 

In a criticism of Tolkien’s presentation of good versus evil, Hastings says that “evil was incapable of creating anything,” but the Dark Lord created the Trolls and the Orcs (Letter 153).  Tolkien responds by saying that Sauron was “not ‘evil’ in origin” (Letter 153).  Tolkien’s logic is that since Sauron had good origins, he still retains some of that power to sub-create.  Furthermore, he says that the Trolls were not created by Sauron, but rather, Sauron twisted the already created creatures and turned them into the evil species that they are.  This comes from the aforementioned statement from Image of God, which states that creatures coming from God (i.e. good things) are able to share in God’s creative capacity, whereas wicked things are only able to twist or distort already created things.  With regard to the Trolls, Tolkien states that they are “sub-creational counterfeits” that do not show any good will at all (Letter 153).  The first part seems like an unnecessary cop-out and the second part seems impossible.  A sub-creational counterfeit seems eerily similar to creation and how can Sauron, who does not have evil roots, sub-create these trolls that do not emit any goodness at all?  Instead, it may be completely plausible if Tolkien admitted that Sauron could sub-create since he has good origins.  He can appeal to the smallest ounce of goodness in Sauron that will allow him to create.  With regard to the trolls, Tolkien clarifies by saying that the creatures made by Diabolus Morgoth are “creatures begotten of Sin, and naturally bad” but not “irredeemably bad” (Letter 153).  This can make sense if they are sub-creations of Sauron.  If so, they will have a good nature (similar to Sauron), but they will be twisted and somewhat unlike other creation since Sauron is so far from goodness.

Finally, with regard to Elves being reincarnated, Hastings says that the sub-creator “should use those channels which he knows the creator to have used already” (Letter 153).  Tolkien’s quick response is “I do not care” (Letter 153).  He says that this is just an imagined world, and if Elves and Men are able to produce fertile offspring, then that is the biology.  The reader must figure it out and make sense of it himself.  This serves as a snap back to reality in that Tolkien’s fantasy is still a sub-creation of Tolkien himself and therefore requires some sort of charity from the reader in order to fill out the details even if they are miniscule.

-Peter L.


Friday, April 28, 2017

Metaphor vs Reality

It is easy to explain the First Age of Middle Earth and the creation of the universe as a purely metaphorical mythological history of the Elves, in the same way that myths of the gods and adventures of Hercules, Achilles, etc were a metaphorical mythological history of the Ancient Greeks. The Valar each choose an element of their liking, and their dealings within the Silmarillion could be interpreted as simply the relationship of the elements to the creation of the world and to history. Certain figures such as Earendil becoming the Morning Star or the Numenorians resulting in the world becoming round can easily be seen as myths that didn’t actually happen but help to explain observable natural phenomena. It is difficult to imagine, for example, that in Tolkien’s universe the Sun and Moon are actually vessels containing the last essence of the Trees of Valinor that are being pushed across the sky by lesser angelic spirits. However, whether we determine these stories as purely metaphorical or an actual representation of reality depends on the frame through which we view it. Within the context of the story universe itself it is not possible to view them as anything other than reality, however as a part of the relationship between our reality and the story universe it is certainly meant as metaphor.

Tolkien set out to create a whole mythological history for England. This included a creation story as well as various individual mythological stories. Tolkien acknowledges in Letter 153 that “the whole matter from beginning to end is mainly concerned with the relation of Creation to making and sub-creation (and subsidiarily with the related matter of ‘mortality’), and it must be clear that references to these things are not casual, but fundamental: they may well be fundamentally ‘wrong’ from the point of view of Reality (external reality). But they cannot be wrong inside this imaginary world, since that is how it is made.” The entire story of the Valar is tied up in the relationship of Creation and sub-creation, as well as the very nature of morality within the universe. Illuvatar is the only being with the authority to create. Melkor is “evil” because he wants to create for himself and be the lord of that which he creates instead of sub-creating for the glory of Illuvatar as the rest of the Valar do. This leads him to jealousy and to destroy that which the other Valar do. Thus, the entire story of creation, as a very clear reference to the relationship between Creation and sub-creation, “cannot be wrong inside this imaginary world.” This means that though it may not be literal from the view of external reality, it cannot be wrong from the view of those inside the universe because the entire story was made as a coherent whole discussing the relationship of Creation to sub-creation.

It is easy to draw parallels between the mythological history within the Silmarillion and other creation stories or myths such as Genesis or Greek mythology, and that is of course by design. The relationship between modern society and those mythologies is such that (by most people) they’re viewed as metaphor, and in the same way the creation story within Tolkien’s universe is metaphorical in relation to our society. However, within the context of their own universes, those stories are reality. We can clearly state that Frodo and Sam taking the Ring to Mordor probably didn’t literally happen, just as we can say that Adam and Eve eating the Forbidden Fruit or Hercules battling the Hydra probably didn’t literally happen. However within the universe of those stories, the divine beings, creation stories, etc have to be regarded as literal history. The Valar and the history of the First Age cannot be simply metaphorical because they directly impact events that take place within The Lord of the Rings. Galadriel met the Valar and was present during the First Age, and she plays a role during the Third Age. Elrond’s father was Earendil. The Fellowship encounters a Balrog. These things would not be possible if the Valar and the First Age were simply metaphorical. If the Valar were not real Galadriel could have told people so. There would be no place for Maiar such as Gandalf and Sauron if we write off the existence of Valar and Maiar. Within the universe of the story as it exists during the events of the War of the Ring, they must have been literal history, in the same way that in the story of Genesis the story of creation was literal history to the characters within it or in the story of Hercules the Greek pantheon were literal history to its characters.

The contrast between reality in the universe of the story and reality as it relates to our ‘real’ world gets at the very nature of the relationship between Creation and sub-creation that Tolkien explores throughout his writing. His belief is that God created our real universe, and that he is a creation of God. His act of creating this imaginary universe is an act of sub-creation, in which he is able to create a fully coherent history that does not necessary have to be right from the perspective of us within the primary universe. It can be metaphorical to us, but literal to the characters within the story.


Metaphor and Sin

In class, we spent some time discussing Barfield’s ideas about language and metaphor as espoused in Poetic Diction.  Barfield makes the claim that “Metaphorical language marks the before unapprehended relations of things and perpetuates their apprehension until words, which represent them, become, through time, signs for portions or classes of thought, instead of pictures of integral thoughts,” (Poetic Diction 66).This notion of some distant historical state in which the interrelatedness of creation was apprehensible led us to the discussion of the inevitable (at least according to Tolkien) fall from this state. It was mentioned that the use of metaphor in language itself constitutes some type of fall, as it obscures these original relations through language (this “principle of living unity”, as Barfield calls it) and, in some sense, denies the truest nature of object’s existence. I think this notion can be extended to help us understand some of the later discussion of sin and what makes an act inherently sinful.

Tolkien’s discussion of the “magic” of language in earlier weeks is particularly relevant here. Tolkien claims that it is primarily adjectives that give language power; by being able to take a “gray rock” and both conceptually and linguistically separate the grayness from the rock, we become able to conceptualize that which is not purely from experiencing that which is. We can imagine gray water, for example, and understand such an unreal concept via our understanding of the rock and of water.  This is a type of metaphorical language as it attempts to have us understand one object through its relations to another. Such usage presents the same issues of obfuscation that Barfield observes – it replaces a once present intuition of the essence of the object with a metaphor-mediated understanding of its properties. In this way, we “fall” away from our primeval state in which our understanding came primarily through this intuition and enter a state in which most, if not all, understanding is metaphorical.

Counterintuitively, metaphorical understanding removes an object from its proper place in existence, while. Barfield explains:
At a later stage in the evolution of consciousness, we find [the principle of living unity] operative in individual poets, enabling them . . . to intuit relationships which their fellows have forgotten-relationships which they must now express as metaphor. Reality, once self-evident, and therefore not conceptually experienced, but which can now only be reached by an effort of individual mind… (Poetic Diction 87)
The original chain of understanding becomes reversed, and we come to understand the rock in terms of its “grayness” and “hardness”. This fall is thus characterized by a denial of the proper place of the object in creation, i.e. its true essence. It is interesting to note that this fall presents a contradiction found elsewhere in Tolkien’s works, namely that of evil bringing about beauty. Just as Melkor’s discord gives rise to the beauty of snow, our fall away from true apprehension of “principle of living unity” also allows us to speak figuratively, thereby allowing us access to the magic of language. We can tell beautiful stories at the cost of apprehending the “story” truly present in objects, i.e. that of creation.

I think we can use a similar framework to attempt to understand the “fall” away from a state of grace, namely sin. The cases of sinful acts presented in class have one primary characteristic in common; in each of these acts, an actor attempts to impose their own will over some aspect of the Music. Fëanor attempts to exert complete domination over the Silmarils and effectively isolates them from the rest of creation. Melkor similarly attempts to corrupt Arda out of the desire to have domination over it. Of course, the Ring is the physical manifestation of Sauron’s attempts to impose his own will on others.

In these cases, the central characteristic is a denial of the themes present in the Music – the ultimate will of Eru. Attempting to control completely an object necessitates removing it from the context of its place in the Music, i.e. its true place in creation. I claim that it is this rejection of Eru’s will makes an act sinful. This is to be contrasted with those actions that embrace both the actor’s and the action’s place in creation and their relations to other objects. Aule, in forming the Dwarves, does so out of love for both his role as a sub-creator and out of love for his sub-creation. Contrary to Melkor’s rejection of his role as a subcreator (desiring instead to be a creator in his own right), Aule embraces and fully apprehends his role in the Music.

It is also interesting to note that these actions are sinful despite them being ultimately futile. None of the cases presented as sinful result in the actor having complete dominion over the object of his actions. Fëanor loses the Silmarils, Melkor is cast into the void, the Ring is destroyed, and Eru’s will ultimately prevails. Indeed, this is explicitly stated from the outset when Eru proclaims:
And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined. (Silmarillion 4) [Emphasis added]

This ultimately raises the question of what role the Ainur and Children of Illúvatar are to play in the Music, and thus what their true place in creation is. Submission to His will is dual to rejection of His will, and thus it stands to reason that such submission should be viewed as the ultimate good. Indeed, Frodo’s acceptance that the ring was “fated” to come to him and his embracing of the role of ringbearer is an act of heroism. This is not entirely unlike Catholic thought, in which one of the central acts in the Gospels is the Virgin Mary’s acceptance of her role in the story as the Mother of Christ.  In creation, Eru wills the Ainur to be subcreators: the first act of their existence is a subcreative one through the Music. The role of the Children of Illuvatar is also to be subcreators – they are to shape and form Arda as they can. Perhaps Tolkien’s works can be best as his struggle to understand and submit his role as a sub-creator? As the angels sing the Gloria to God in heaven, Tolkien worships through his own works of sub-creation on earth.

Works Cited:

Barfield, Owen, and Howard Nemerov. Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning. Hanover/NH.: Wesleyan U, 1987. Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R., and Christopher Tolkien. The Silmarillion. New York: Ballantine, 2002. Print.

On Creation and Destruction

I want to focus on some of the severe acts of evil within the Quenta Silmarillion. Most of them focus on destruction, but, more interestingly, some of them are rooted in creation itself. I hope to develop a more nuanced look at evil in Tolkien that isn't just 'creation = good, destruction = bad' by showing how creation itself can be evil.

First, as a clear-cut example where destruction is truly an act of evil we can look at the Noldor's actions towards the Teleri when they are trying to flee to Middle Earth. They ask the Teleri for their ships and, when they refuse, they kill the Teleri, steal their ships, and later burn them. After the battle we see many reactions to this wickedness despite the fact that the Valar weren't strictly allowed to stop the Noldor from leaving. After they man the ships, "the sea rose in wrath against the slayers, so that many of the ships were wrecked and those in them drowned. Of the Kinslaying at Alqualondë more is told in the lament which is named Noldolantë, the Fall of the Noldor, that Maglor made ere he was lost." There is an elemental reaction their deeds and a lament (as opposed to a poem or just a longer story) was written about the events called the 'Fall of the Noldor'. It's clear that this act of cruelty was a turning point for the Noldor after which there was no return. Mandos himself appeared to the Noldor and said,
"Tears unnumbered ye shall shed; and the Valar will fence Valinor against you, and shut you out, so that not even the echo of your lamentation shall pass over the mountains... To evil end shall all things turn that they begin well; and by treason of kin unto kin, and the fear of treason, shall this come to pass. The Disposessed shall they be for ever... Ye have spilled the blood of your kindred unrighteously and have stained the land of Aman. For blood ye shall render blood, and beyond Aman ye shall dwell in Death's shadow... And those that endure in Middle-earth and come not to Mandos shall grow weary of the world as with a great burden and shall wane, and become as shadows of regret before the younger race that cometh after. The Valar have spoken."
This is quite a long quote, but it hammers home the same message over and over: by killing their fellow Elves, they have doomed themselves to a terrible fate. This passage is referred to as a 'doom,' as a 'curse',  'the Prophecy of the North', and as 'the Doom of the Noldor.' Their actions of destruction - killing other living beings that had been created by Ilúvatar - are treated with the utmost punishment.

For a second example where creation and destruction are more closely woven, we have Melkor and the Orcs. Here is a quote describing Melkor's actions:
"...all those of the Quendi who came in to the hands of Melkor, ere Utumno was broken, were put there in prison, and by slow arts of cruelty were corrupted and enslaved; and thus did Melkor breed the hideous race of the Orcs in the envy and mockery of the Elves, of whom they were afterwards the bitterest foes... This it may be was the vilest deed of Melkor, and the most hateful to Ilúvatar."
 This is an interesting bridge between creation and destruction that might be better described as transformation. On the one hand, Melkor is creating a new race, but this 'creation' was not done from nothing in the way that Ilúvatar performs creation. Melkor did not create the Orcs out of thin air, but did it by corrupting Elves that he found. This is also not pure destruction because he does not kill the Elves, he just renders them into something other, but that act is evil because it is a perversion of something that was good and pure.

Finally we have Ungoliant. I think that this is the most interesting example because Ungoliant creates in a very sense, but her creation does seem to be evil in and of itself. At first glance, it seems like Ungoliant merely devours (such as when she kills the Trees of Valinor) and so her evil derives from the destruction of created things in a similar way to the Noldor's Kinslaying. But Ungoliant also creates. Here is a description of Ungoliant: "She sucked up all light that she could find, and spun it forth again in dark nets of strangling gloom, until no light more could come to her abode; and she was famished." It seems that her creation of darkness is more than just a devouring / absence of light - she takes in light and actually puts forth something new in the form of 'dark nets of strangling gloom.' This may not be creating something from nothing, but the act of taking something and putting forth something more also seems like a type of creation. It is also quite clear from the description that this darkness is not neutral - dark nets of strangling gloom do not sound positive or even neutral in any way. Here is another description of Ungoliant: "Then the Unlight of Ungoliant rose up even to the roots of the Trees..." The Unlight - note the usage of a capital letter, signifying that this is something in and of itself rather than just an absence of something else - is capable of taking action on other things in the world and so it is not just a void, it is its own entity.

Very often in Tolkien we can see the bad guy as the one who runs around and destroys things. This is especially obvious when we see Sauron and Saruman destroying trees and other life. But it's not always quite so simple as that and this is clearest in the example of Ungoliant.

- V. Pressler

Free Will in The Lord of the Rings

There are several levels at which to discuss the existence of free will in Tolkien’s work. In the Silmarillion, the hierarchy of beings is partially delineated through their respective stores of knowledge, power, and finally free will, or agency. In The Lord of the Rings, commentary on free will is less explicit, since the story is constrained to Elves and Men, and other creatures of Arda. Free will in The Lord of the Rings can be pondered by an exploration of the presence of the Valar in the story, especially the Vala Nienna. What I am interested in is the way in which the Valar are present in The Lord of the Rings, and the way that free will functions in relation to higher powers. This is fundamentally a question of how to understand the Valar in Tolkien’s work. In the Silmarillion they can function as embodied characters, for instance coming physically to Middle-earth and battling Melkor. This function of the Valar is wholly absent from The Lord of the Rings. However, it is possible to infer the presence of higher powers in that work.
The key places to see higher powers in The Lord of the Rings are the instances when chance makes an appearance, frequently present and noted in text. Gollum steps back and falls into the fire in the Sammath Naur, destroying the Ring. Tom Bombadil comes along to rescue the hobbits from Willow-man: “Just chance brought me then, if chance you call it.” Ruin in the Northlands was averted because Gandalf met Thorin one evening: “A chance-meeting, as we say in Middle-earth.” Merry and Pippen escape Grishnakh because an arrow strikes his hand: “it was aimed with skill, or guided by fate.” (Shippey, Author, 144-6) In all these instances, Tolkien hints at higher guiding powers, but always offers the alternative explanation of mere chance.
As we discussed in class, some of the Valar have clear parallels outside of Tolkien’s work, for instance, to the Olympian gods and to the natural elements. One who stands out is the Vala Nienna, who has no clear parallel and seems most distinctly associated with Tolkien. Nienna is “acquainted with grief” and she works to “bring strength to the spirit and turns sorrow to wisdom.” (Valaquenta) Nienna represents a highly important narrative theme in Tolkien’s work—sorrow—one whose power is explicitly made clear in the Music of the Ainur. In response to the discord created by Melkor and the dismay of the other Ainur, Iluvatar creates a third theme in the Music: it “was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came.” This third theme counteracts the cacophonous theme of Melkor, and the most triumphant notes of Melkor’s theme “were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern.” Somehow, sorrow is the way of transforming Melkor’s rebellious theme back to Iluvatar’s purpose, Melkor becoming Iluvatar’s “instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.” (Ainulindale
Nienna is the Vala most directly linked to The Lord of the Rings since she is the teacher of Olorin, or Gandalf. From Nienna, he “learned pity and patience,” and was the “friend of all the Children of Iluvatar, and took pity on their sorrows; and those who listened to him awoke from despair and put away the imaginations of darkness.” (Valaquenta) Through Gandalf, and the characters whom Gandalf most influences, the grief, pity, and sorrow represented by Nienna appear in the text. Speaking of Bilbo and Gollum, Gandalf tells Frodo: “Pity? It was Pity stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need.” (LotR Bk. 1, Ch. 2) When Frodo is confronted by Gollum he hears “quite plainly but far off, voices out of the past” recalling Gandalf’s words, and he does pity Gollum and restrain from killing him—not unimportantly contributing to the “chance” by which Gollum comes to be at Sammath Naur. (LotR Bk. 4, Ch. 1) When Faramir describes his vision of Boromir to Frodo, he notes “Dreamlike it was, and yet it was not dream, for there was no waking,” but that it was not the work of the Enemy “For his works fill the heart with loathing; but my heart was filled with grief and pity.” (Lotr Bk. 4, Ch. 5) Are these examples the work of the guiding power of Nienna? Speaking to Frodo, “Pity” and “Mercy” are capitalized and framed as the subject “staying” Bilbo’s hand. Voices come to Frodo “quite plainly” at the key moment, reminding him of pity, and preventing him from killing Gollum. Faramir describes a seemingly supernatural vision of Boromir, marked by the feeling of grief and pity. Or are these examples only instances of a recurring narrative theme, involving only ordinary memory and emotions, as we understand them? Like in the instances of chance in the text, dual interpretations are possible.
In Gandalf’s speech to Frodo, he alludes to a higher power, but does not name it: "Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought." (LotR Bk. 1, Ch. 2) For some reason, Gandalf can “put it no plainer” than that Bilbo “was meant” to have the Ring, the use of the passive voice obscuring the identity of the subject. Meant by whom? The reader is only told that it is not by Sauron, the Ring’s maker. Readers of the Silmarillion are equipped to answer the question that it is “meant” by Iluvatar, or by the Valar. If this is the case, then it is highly important for the question of free will whether the character’s actions are determined by internal will, or guided by external higher power. However, maybe this application of the Silmarillion to The Lord of the Rings is not the best way to read the text. The ambiguity in these passages is characteristic of Tolkien’s world building, where languages, maps, and fragments serve to create the illusion of a world outside the telling of the tale. Maybe too complete explanations do “destroy the magic” (Letters 247), and the little narrative equivocations in The Lord of Rings do well to soften the problem of free will, and make it more accessible to the reader.


Works Cited:

Shippey, T. A. J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Harper Collins, 2001.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings; The Two Towers. New York: Harper Collins, 2008.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Silmarillion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Free Will and Sin

      In our last class, we discussed what sin is in Tolkien’s mythology and, in particular, what Melkor’s great sin was. Of course, in order to discuss sin, we also had to figure out what evil is too. Some argued that evil was destruction; in an Augustinian frame, this argument seems to have merits. Augustine states that “God is existence in supreme degree - he supremely is - and he is therefor immutable . . . Thus to this highest existence, from which all things that derive their existence, the only contrary nature is the non-existent” (CoG 473). If existence is good, then destruction/forcing out of existence must be evil. In a Christian context, however, I wonder if true destruction is even possible. If God is, as Augustine and most Christians today agree, “utterly incapable of any change or injury” and “God is existence in supreme degree” then for a created being to complete destroy and erase the existence of anything would be the same as that creature destroying God. We see some of this thinking when Iluvatar says to Ulmo, “Seest thou not how here in this little realm in the Deeps of Time Melkor hath made war upon thy province? He hath bethought him of bitter cold immoderate, and yet not destroyed the beauty of thy fountains, nor of thy clear pools. . . . Melkor hath devised heats and fire without restraint, and hath not dried up thy desire nor utterly quelled the music of the sea” (Sim. 19). Melkor can only harm what has been created and can not destroy completely the beauty of Iluvatar’s creations; Augustine says, “It goes without saying that no evil can harm God; but evils can harm natural substances liable to change and injury” (CoG 474).

    Another possibility that was brought up was that sin is a lack of respect for the creator. Aule and Melkor, in particular, were contrasted against each other in class. Melkor “built his strength, and he slept not, but watched, and laboured. And the evil things that he had perverted walked abroad, and the dark slumbering woods were haunted by monsters and shapes of dread” (Sim. 47). The word “perverted” is especially reminiscent of Augustine who states “No nature is contrary to God; but a perversion, being evil, is contrary to good” (CoG 474). Melkor’s perversion (not creation! Tolkien writes, “I have represented at least the Orcs as pre-existing real beings on whom the Dark Lord has exerted the fullness of his power in remodeling and corrupting them, not in making them” (Letters 195)) of Iluvatar’s creations makes clear his lack of respect for Iluvatar. In contrast to Melkor, Aule made dwarves in secret because he was childishly impatient and “unwilling to await the fulfillment of the designs of Iluvatar” (Sim. 43), however, because of Aule’s humility, “Iluvatar had compassion upon Aule and his desire” (Sim. 43).  Aule’s humility made clear his true respect and fear of Iluvatar. Furthermore, Aule states of his dwarves that “Eru will give them dominion, and they shall use all that they find in Arda: though not, by the purpose of Eru, without respect or gratitude” (Sim. 45) showing that this respect and gratitude is an essential part of giving Iluvatar his proper due.

       I think more attention should be given to Aule and Iluvatar’s exchange over the creation of the dwarves. Iluvatar asks Aule, “Why hast thou done this? Why dost thou attempt a thing which thou knowest is beyond thy power and thy authority? For thou hast from me as a gift thy own being only, and no more; and therefore the creatures of thy hand and mind live only by that being, moving when thou thinkest to move them, and if thy thought be elsewhere, standing idle. Is that thy desire?” The line, I think this means that, at this point, the dwarves were similar to puppets at this time and only empty forms. Aule does begin “to instruct the Dwarves in the speech that he had devised for them”, but it is apparent that they did not have minds of their own since Iluvatar says to Aule “Thy offer I accepted even as it was made. Dost thou not see that these things have now a life of their own, and speak with their own voices?” (Sim. 44, emphasis added). Perhaps in line with Tolkien’s belief that power and control corrupts, it is Iluvatar alone who can give beings a mind, or will, of their own. The dwarves as Aule originally made them would only have ever been able to act if Aule when Aule thought to make them act. Aule perhaps did not “desire such lordship”, but it is what he would have had if Iluvatar had not given the dwarves their own will. Melkor’s great sin was that he “started making things ‘for himself, to be their Lord” (Letters p.195)

      One of the big questions that come up, however, either in Tolkien’s mythology or in Christian theology, is what does it mean to “have now a life of their own, and speak with their own voices” in a universe with a God with “providential design”? (Augustine 475) Iluvatar says, “And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite” (Sim. 17). What are sin and free will if everything that happens is according to God or Iluvatar’s plan? Is it that sin, or perversion of will, is used to contrast how truly good what God has created is since perversion “shows how great and honourable is the nature itself”?(CoG 472) If “good may exist on its own” (CoG 474) why would a supremely good God even allow sin to exist at all? I am not going to attempt to answer these questions using the universe Tolkien made for I believe that Tolkien would agree with Augustine’s (mind-blowingly frustrating, in my opinion) statement that, “the right course for us, when faced with things in which we are ill-equipped to contemplate God’s providential design, is to obey the command to believe in the Creator’s providence. We must not, in the rashness of human folly, allow ourselves to find fault, in any particular, with the work of that great Artificer who created all things” (CoG 475).


Destruction and Betrayal

What is evil? What does it mean to “be evil?” Augustine writes in City of God: “The contrasted aims of the good and the evil angels did not arise from any difference in nature or origin. It would be utterly wrong to have any doubt about that, since God created both, and he is good in his creation and fashioning of all substances” (City of God, 471). In Tolkien’s legendarium, the same concept can be applied to Iluvatar and the Valar: if Ilúvatar is incontestably good, then the Valar by origin must be good, and any evil stems from an extraneous source. Of course, we must now ask ourselves: what is evil? In class, we discussed “sin and the misuse of free will,” and someone offered up the idea that “evil” is the destruction of sub-creation. In other words, evil comes from dissonance in sub-creation, like killing and stealing. Additionally, however, there is a sense that there must be some kind of selfishness associated with that destruction. For example, Melkor made the orcs in spite of Iluvatar, but Aulë made the dwarves for Iluvatar. We came to a consensus that Melkor’s actions could be considered evil because they stem from a hateful, negative motivation, whilst Aulë is not evil because he had good intentions (good meaning for Iluvatar and in line with Ilúvatar’s will for Arda). Aulë’s story with the dwarves reminds me in part of the story of Abraham and the Sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis. Although Abraham was intentionally being tested by God, both Abraham and Aulë are willing to destroy what they love most for their masters. In essence, Isaac is also a subcreation of Abraham because he is his son. I would like to play around with this idea of kinship in relation to subcreation because Tolkien’s mentions familial ties over and over in the Silmarillion, and we can tell that bloodship is important. The Valar have siblings and spouses. The elves have bloodlines. Is evil more about betrayal than destruction? 

In class, we tried to define what the Valar are. We pointed out that the Valar have definite familial ties, like siblingship and marriage. In many ways, the Valar are similar to the Olympians from Greek and Roman mythology. The Olympians were called siblings, the children of Cronus. However, the Valar are explicitly related to one another. We are told that there are siblings like Melkor and Manwë, Nessa and Oromë, and Namo, Irmo, and Nienna, but it remains unclear how exactly these siblings are more related to each other than to the others. If we look at each of the Valar’s “specialties,” the siblings have related fields of expertise: Melkor and Manwë are fire and air (opposites), Nessa and Oromë are the lover of deer and the hunter (opposites), and Namo, Irmo, and Nienna are the masters of spirits, visions, and mourning respectively (death). Beyond these relationships, there is not much that indicates a stronger bond between these combinations. Likewise, we discussed how the Valar were able to choose which elements they wanted to be in charge of. Were sibling relationships established after they chose their elements? This aspect of the Valar was, in my opinion, the least fleshed out and the most unconvincing in its attempt to help us understand the nature of the divine beings. For the Olympians, there was necessary incest because the siblings only ad each other to marry. Perhaps Tolkien purposely did not make the Valar one big family in order to dodge the moral conflict of adding incest to his story.

To me, it seems like all of the Valar have a sense of “family” because they are all the same kind of being. In this way, perhaps Melkor could be considered the most evil because he is going against his family, betraying Iluvatar and the sub-creations of the other Valar. On the other hand, the elves definitely have familial loyalty. This is most prominent with Fëanor who is incredibly loyal to his father and sons, but threatens his half-brother, Fingolfin. It is this threat which ultimately gets Fëanor exiled from Tirion because “this deed was unlawful, whether in Aman or not in Aman” (The Silmarillion, 71). Fëanor did not actually kill anyone, but his intention to slay his own kin is seen as a sin. We see many similarities between Melkor and Fëanor, like their hostility towards their own kind and greedy creation. Fëanor does differ from Melkor in one big way, however: he remains loyal to his father and sons, those who are closest in blood ties. Tolkien writes, “For Fëanor bean to love the Silmarils with a greedy love, and grudged the sight of them to all save his father and his seven sons; he seldom remembered now that light within them was not his own” (The Silmarillion, 69). Although Fëanor’s attitude towards the Silmarils mirrors Melkor’s selfishness, I think it is the family loyalty that make Fëanor a more neutral character than Melkor.

Of course, we can’t just make the blanket statement that familial disloyalty is the driving force behind our perceptions of evil. I think the idea of evil as a betrayal of family needs to thought of more abstractly than just familial blood ties. Perhaps one of the most evil acts in the Silmarillion is Ungoliant’s destruction of the Two Trees of Valinor. Here, of course, Ungoliant is not betraying her actual family. However, I think an argument can be made that the Valar are a kind of superior beings, much like an older sibling to the children of Iluvatar (and other races). There is some kind of natural relationship that bonds beings both within their own races and between other races. Transgressing this law becomes what we call evil.


Do the Valar Have Free Will?

By the end of discussion on Wednesday, we had arrived at the idea that the Valar must have needed free will in order to rule, create, and make mistakes in Arda as they do. However, I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced of that. Throughout the Valaquenta and what we read of the Quenta Silmarillion, the Valar sub-create under the watch of Iluvatar, their creator. Though Iluvutar eventually moves out of the picture, acting more as a “clockmaker god” as one student in class referred to him, in the time that he’s involved it seems that Iluvutar gave the Valar free will, but often punished them for using it in ways that displeased him, calling into question just how free their will or ability to create was at all.

In the beginning of the Valaquenta, Tolkien states that Eru “made the Ainur of his thought; and they made a great Music before him” (Sillmarillion, 25). Eru creates the Ainur; they create in turn. In the Ainulindale, he commands them to make this music, though he allows them to add their own flair: “ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will” (Silmarillion, 15). So they also have a will in their creation; that much is clear. However, this will is given a limit, boundaries – Iluvatar’s theme.

Though the Ainur, later Valar, do have a will, their will is limited by that of Iluvatar’s – and so is their power to create. For example, they sing the music of Creation, but only Iluvatar is able to take that music and turn it into the World: “Iluvatar gave to their vision Being, and set it amid the Void” (Silmarillion 25). Of the Valar which then enter the world, Tolkien says it was “their task to achieve it, and by their labours to fulfil the vision which they had seen” (Silmarillion 25). Iluvatar creates a sandbox for them to play in, and they’re free to go make sandcastles in it. But it’s important to note that Tolkien calls it their “task” – an assignment, not necessarily a choice.

Even in their creative choices, and perhaps even in their creative rebellions, Iluvatar has a say. Melkor, for example, adds themes of his own into the Ainalundale, breaking Iluvatar’s boundaries, because he “sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself” (Siimarillion 16). This is of course coded as a crime against Iluvatar, despite the fact that Iluvatar purposefully gave him “the greatest gifts of power and knowledge” and thereby must have also given him the desire that “grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own” (Silmarillion 16). Melkor is scolded for breaking his boundaries, but is then told that he “shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.” (Silmarillion 17). In exercising their subcreative free will, they are only Iluvatar’s “instruments” for the execution of his creative vision, not necessarily their own.

Aule, who intentions are purer but whose creative impulse is the same, is also limited by Iluvatar in his creation. Upon Iluvatar’s discovery that Aule has attempted to create the dwarves, he says to Aule: “Why dost thou attempt a thing which thou knowest is beyond thy power and thy authority? For thou hast from me as a gift they own being only, and no more; and therefore the creatures of thy hand and mnd can live only by that being, moving when thou thinkest to move thy thought be elsewhere, standing idle” (Silmarillion 43). Aule responds that he has only acted according to the desire for “the making of things” that “is in [his] heart from [his] own making by [Iluvatar]” (Silmarillion 43). Similar to Melkor, Iluvatar gave them the creative impulse and the ability to act on it to an extent, but moves to punish each of them for it. Aule only escapes the same punishment – and the same doom of evil – because he “submitted all that he did to [Eru’s] will” in the end – giving up his own will in the process (Silmarillion 27).

Tolkien himself admits that the supposed “free will” and creative abilities given to the Valar are limited, or even “feigned” (Letters 195). “Free Will is derivative and is only operative within provided circumstances; but in order that it may exist, it is necessary that the Author should guarantee it, whatever betides” – that is, their free will is limited, but allows for Melkor to do evil selfish things anyway (Letters 195). “In this myth,” Tolkien continues, “it is ‘feigned’ … that He gave special ‘sub-creative’ powers to certain of His highest created beings: that is a guarantee that what they devised and made should be given the reality of Creation” (Letters 195). Tolkien uses the word “feigned” to describe that the world he created is fictionalized (since the letter he’s responding to was challenging his work on the basis of real-world Catholicism), but it seems that word applies to just how serious Iluvatar was about giving creative powers to his own creations. First, they can create what they want, but not entirely, because it’s all part of Iluvatar’s plan; second, their creations aren’t guaranteed to actually be part of Creation anyway, not only in the case of a fall like Melkor’s, but even in the case of Aule, who was ever faithful to Iluvatar. Only through submission to another’s will does his creation get to live, because they “cannot by their own will alter any fundamental provision” of the Earth they helped Iluvatar to bring into being (Letters 194). Tolkien says that these powers of subcreation for the Valar must “of course” be “within limits, and of course subject to certain commands or prohibitions,” but by putting those limits, commands, and prohibitions in place, the Valar’s actual free will and ability to create are not as real as they first appear (Letters 195).

I realize this is an age-old problem, especially concerning real-life Catholicism or religion in general (it’s been a long time since I’ve been in a CCD class, but there were indignant arguments about this even among us fifth graders). The challenge: how can a divine creator have a known, set plan for his creations and still say that they have a choice in what they do? But in the case of Tolkien's Valar, there's a determinism in their definition – as creations themselves, the Valar have less freedom than they would otherwise; they cannot create but only sub-create, which is always something less, and allowed only by another's will.

-- Annie N.

The Role of the Valar and the Intention of Evil

The Valar, be they metaphor or elements given life, are fallible and know not all ends for good or evil. Mightier they are than all other things in Arda, but even they can stray from the beauty of their Father, Illuvatar. The Eldar sing the sad song of the world and remember what might have been if many deeds were not done, by both the Valar and their kin. Many among our peers debate the nature of evil in the works which Tolkien wrought, but they need look no further than Tolkein’s own words. Three great sins there are from which evil arises as a shadow marring the works of Illuvatar. Pride above Eru is first, and it is terrible. Second is deceit and treachery, for through these the children cast aside the love of their father. Third is the strife which arises between Eru’s creations, but not wholly is this evil. For by humility and submission to Illuvatar, great beauty can be wrought from conflict also.

Melkor fell from Illuvatar’s grace because he desired lordship over all else, but it is Illuvatar who is lord and it can be no other. Ever, Melkor sought to bring under his dominion the other Ainur before the world was made, and in Arda he quested still for power and supremacy. Aule also desired more than was given him, but Aule is not regarded as evil for it was when he created the Naugrim, the Dwarves, born before their time that he demonstrated his mighty humility. Illuvatar knew always of Aule’s creations and came to him in anger when they were complete. And Aule said unto his father:

“I did not desire such lordship. I desired things other than I am, to love and to teach them, so that they might perceive the beauty of Ea, which thou hast caused to be… In my impatience I have fallen into folly... the child of little understanding that makes play of the deeds of his father may do so without thought of mockery… As a child to a father, I offer to thee these things, the work of the hands which thou hast made.”

Aule’s deed was not wholly wrong because of his humility, where Melkor desires to be lifted above his station, and he is jealous and filled with spite. Where Aule sought to honor Illuvatar with his creations, Melkor sought to profane. He stole the Quendi who wandered afar alone or but few together and twisted them to dark forms, “Thus did Melkor breed the hideous race of the Orcs in jealousy and mockery of the Elves… This it may be was the vilest deed of Melkor, and the most hateful to Illuvatar.”
The children of Illuvatar, Valar or mortal, can discard their father’s love through pride but also through treachery and lies. Tolkien describes Morgoth Bauglir, Black Enemy of the World, as foremost jealous then as a weaver of lies. And while Morgoth has powers many and great, his greatest evils were wrought through deceit. It is said that, “his lies passed from friend to friend, as secrets the knowledge of which proves the teller wise… and then whispers went abroad that the Valar had brought the Eldar to Aman because of their jealousy… Thus ere the Valar were aware, the peace of Valinor was poisoned.” Melkor’s lies twist his own darkness to bear upon the listener fanning dark flames within their hearts. The servants of Morgoth, lesser than he but still among the great, are also wielders of lies. Sauron using a Palantir has no power to show what has not happened, but can weave the images to deceive, showing what has come to pass but in a way which is untrue. Just as his master did in the days before the coming of the Second Children, Sauron goes among the people of Numenor as a friend but with ill intent and secret malice bent upon those who listen.

                Strife among the creations of Illuvatar is the third great evil. Tolkien writes of the Noontide of Aman as a time of peace and creation, and in the chronicles of the War of the Ring, he writes of Faramir, most noble man then alive in Minas Tirith as a lover not of war but of peace. War and conflict are among the most evil acts against Illuvatar. Even more evil is violence among kin, as Feanor flees Valinor and slays the Teleri on the strands of Aqualonde. But strife among kin can be brought to good if submitted with humility to Illuvatar. Feanor’s treachery against the Teleri is evil because he does it not for the beauty of Arda but in pursuit of his own glory and the Silmarills, the light of which he forgets is not his own. War is always terrible, but not always evil. When the Valar broke Angband and cast down the peaks of Thangorodrim, the land was scarred, but that act was not an evil one. Nor is conflict evil in the eyes of Illuvatar. When Melkor brought about his strife before the beginning of days, Illuvatar wove it into his music, and Ulmo was amazed. Illuvatar showed Ulmo snow and ice, which he found beautiful and marveled at the majesty of Illuvatar turning evil to good. It is not the action always which is evil but the intent.

- N. Reuter

The Role of Doubt in Empowering Metaphor: The Silmarillion as Historical and Religious Narrative

While metaphor plays many roles in language, the primary function of metaphor in understanding the interaction between history and religious narrative is to bridge the gap between our perception of what happens and what actually does happen. If there is no gap, then there is no space for metaphor. As such, doubt is a crucial element that gives weight to metaphor.

It is entirely possible and indeed quite common to understand metaphors as being literally true until we are given reason to doubt them. A well-educated scientist will know that much of the language we use to take about atoms and other particles is highly metaphorical; the well-known diagrams of electrons orbiting a nucleus in separate rings is merely a helpful way of illustrating concepts. Those of us who never move past high school chemistry, however, may believe our conceptions of atoms to be literally true, not understanding that the concepts explained to us were metaphors. It is only when we are given reason to doubt our conception of an atom that we come to understand the metaphor.

The same is true for mythological or religious belief as well. Max Muller, in investigating the link in Latin between breath (spiritum) and spirit (spiritus), suggests that the material, breath, is abstracted via metaphor into the non-literal concept of spirit. This implies, however, that the introduction of the metaphor was intentional and understood. In the absence of further evidence, is it not equally likely that a person’s breath actually was their spirit? This understanding would explain why dead individuals don’t breathe: Their spirits have left their bodies. As long as the relationship between spirit and breath is considered to be literally true, it is not a metaphor; it is an explanation of how the world works.

This means that a central problem of understanding metaphors is knowing the circumstances of its origin. Religious writing, including the Christian Bible as well as Tolkien’s Ainulindale and Quenta Silmarillion, is rife with this problem. Dorothy Sayers would likely not consider this an issue. In The Mind of the Maker, she writes, “All language about God must, as Thomas Aquinas pointed out, necessarily be analogical. . . The fact is, that all language about everything is analogical; we think in a series of metaphors” (22-23). Sayers’s claim makes sense for the early chapters of Genesis in which God creates the world, but it becomes more dubious in later chapters,  particularly with regards to interaction between God and his creations. A chief example of this problem is Jacob’s wrestling match with God:

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and humans, and have prevailed.” (Gen 32:24-28)

The problem of how to interpret this scene in Genesis cannot be explained away by claiming that “everything is analogical.” The theological implications are crucial, and the role of doubt in metaphor once again appears. Anyone who reads this account as historical  does not even consider the possibility that the language might be metaphorical. However, anyone who approaches the story with skepticism towards its historical value is much more likely to interpret Jacob’s wrestling match with God as a metaphor for his struggle with God.

To take this argument to an extreme conclusion, readers only have the luxury of interpreting something as metaphorical if they do not consider it to be historical truth. Understanding metaphor in the Bible is not a particularly difficult task for a modern audience, though the original receivers of the stories, having no doubt as to their historical truth, would not have considered the language metaphorical.

The Elves of Middle-Earth, like the early Hebrews, interpret the Ainulindale and Quenta Silmarillion as both historical and religious narratives.  The Ainulindale proclaims its own origin as the words of the Ainur: “For what has here been declared is come from the Valar themselves with whom the Eldalie spoke in the land of Valinor” (22). At no point does one of Tolkien’s characters suggest any alternate account of the creation of Middle-earth or put forth a competing cosmology. If the story of the First Age as put forth in The Silmarillion is the only account, then within the context of Tolkien’s own world, it is not possible to view the story as metaphor because no one would ever doubt its truthfulness, and without doubt, metaphor is not considered.

As a final note, Tolkien as an author and sub-creator should be granted some leeway. He did not live long enough to assemble The Silmarillion for publication himself, and the task fell upon his son Christopher, who openly admits that he may not have done the work justice. He writes in the foreword that his father “came to conceive The Silmarillion as a compilation, a compendious narrative, made long afterwards from sources of great diversity (poems, and annals, and oral tales) that had survived in agelong tradition” (viii). Christopher’s description suggests that Tolkien was attempting to write his own Bible for Middle-earth, complete with its inconsistencies, written and rewritten stories, and overall obfuscation of historical events. In such a context, metaphorical interpretation of the First Age would have been made possible within Tolkien’s world, empowered chiefly by the introduction of doubt into the narrative.