Friday, April 28, 2017

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.



  1. I think you are onto something here with the emphasis on betrayal, particularly betrayal of kin. The Elves' greatest sin is the Kinslaying, when Feanor kills the Teleri to seize their ships. But it is not just the Valar who are kin: it is all the Children of Iluvatar, which makes any destruction of their sub-creations also an attack on kinfolk. RLFB

  2. I am thoroughly intrigued by your choice to identify betrayal as the defining characteristic of evil. Based especially on parallels you draw between the familial ties of the Ancient Greek pantheon and the Valar, it indeed seems to me at least that in Tolkien’s conception, the Fall of Melkor introduced evil in that it introduced a sundering of the existing, Eru Ilúvatar-instituted familial bonds that had existed up to that point. Implicit in this conception of family is the fundamental nature of loyalty as the proper response to the continuity of creation, whether that which arises within a family or that derived from the ultimate external Creation. This conception of evil as betrayal is also consistent with the idea of forgiveness present in Aulë’s creation of the dwarves, but it is insufficient in explaining the depth of evil perceived in Ungoliant’s destruction of the Trees. Perhaps we need to recognize several different registers on which an evil can exist in order to reconcile this difference, as it seems that however compelling this conception is, some things seen as evil can still arise that are utterly beyond the purview of loyalty.

    C. Abbott