Friday, April 21, 2017

Tolkien and Timshel


Just a few verses past the familiar opening lines of Genesis, the scriptures waste no time before revealing the horrors wrought by a free will freely given to evil. First, Adam and Eve are cast from the garden, yet that story is so thoroughly worn-out that it can strike us ironically as idyllic or perhaps inevitable (as our discussion sought to draw out). For the sake of this post, my interest in Tolkien’s inflection of scriptural tones looks to the dialogue of the next chapter of Genesis, wherein scripture turns its eye toward the two sons of the first human beings. In this second vision of man’s first evil, the darkness that rests within man’s reach is put on fuller display, and it seems to me that this tale deserves a place in our consideration of the machinations of Tolkien’s creation story. Cain murders his brother Abel without precedent, and this story strikes a chord with Tolkien such that it mythically appears with greater resonance in a later tale of The Simarillion, yet it is the ambiguous question of agency that I found reappeared in the Ainulindale.

The inevitability of evil guided much of our later discussion on Wednesday, so in the following post I want to draw attention to another use of agency in Music as the mode of Creation. By focusing on God’s words to Cain in Genesis 4, I hope to note the heights to which Tolkien lifts the agency of the Creation in determining its own shape – perhaps lifting the will of the created to a summit higher than a Christian might generally feel comfortable.

In Genesis 4, God speaks to Cain to console him after the Lord expresses greater appreciation for the sacrifice of Abel. Famously (and of great interest in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden) God tells Cain that sin is waiting to devour him, but that Cain “may/must/can/shall rule over it” (Gen. 4:7, translation intentionally ambiguous). Steinbeck’s novel explores the difficulty of the Hebrew term “Timshel” that has been translated, “may rule over it” or “can rule over it” which each connote potency but that this scriptural term may also connote Cain’s charge that he “must rule over [sin].” While it is the scriptures in other places that shine greater light on the limits and power of free will, this version of the creation story emphasizes the power of each will – it can rule over sin, and perhaps it must, but it certainly may – and the role that the will of man has in shaping his destiny.

In class, it seemed that our comments revolved around the origin of sin, but we did not push very deeply into the gravity of the faculty that makes discord a possibility much less a reality. Both in Christian scripture and in the Ainulindale, was it the will of the Almighty that discord come into being? In what sense is this will active, or is this a passive permission for the privation of good? Such were our questions, and while these questions are of interest for their mystery, the limits to which Tolkien stretches the role of the will among the Ainur caught me as far more scandalous than the retold, eternal mystery of the first rebellion. For it is on this point – the role of the agency and work of the Created in forming Creation – that Tolkien seems to depart, at least superficially, from Christian theology and makes use once more of his conviction that the created creates with the pleasure of the Creator.

To summarize the Creation myth as it appears in the Bible, with attention to the role of speech and song: God makes by the Word, the Creation praises. Full stop. This two-part story takes on curves and clarifications when the scriptures are rightfully read in the whole, such as the role of God’s perfect Word in bringing all things into being as told by John and the primordial role of praise among the created angels of God as in Jubilees, but nevertheless this is the clear division of the cosmogony as told by Scripture. God creates all according to His Mind, and the Creation sings according to its glories. Tolkien’s version, however, introduces an agency within this process that strikes me as innovative if not in a subtle manner at dissonance with this explanation of Who does the creating, and who does the singing.

The Ainulindale begins, as does the Christian myth, with the Transcendent All-Father. Where the Christian tradition beholds this Godhead in eternal, triune relation, Tolkien’s deity retains the confused unitarianism of the scriptures without the revelation of Christ. This aside, Eru proceeds to create the Ainur. These beings – definitely created, prime as they may be – learn from the speech of Eru that which they sing at the foot of His throne. Among Tolkien’s varying accounts of the Ainulindale, the order and manner of the following plot development varies a bit, but they agree that the Music of the Ainur is then made real, Ea!-ed into being by Eru. It is not Eru’s thought or Word (as the intellect of Eru from which the Ainur proceed might be understood as a mythological Logos) that model the cosmos, but the song of the Ainur as freely sung in the presence of Eru before there even was. The sons of God, in Jubilees and Job, are depicted singing praises in the immemorial age gone by, this is true, yet their song has no agency in determining the shape of the creation. There is no Timshel to be given to them as warning or charge, because their songs of praise are reflective rather than prescriptive.

In the Scriptures, the warning of Timshel belongs to man, and only then after Creation takes place, yet Tolkien folds agency back into the Creation itself with the audacity of an author convinced that sub-creating is simply the highest calling of the Creation. The Ainur do perfectly that which Tolkien does literarily, and Melkor brings about a Felix Culpa before there is even an apple to be eaten. Genesis places Adam’s sin on the scale of divine justice, but Tolkien blames the Evil One for the horror of frost and the wonder of a snowflake in a world in tension. Fuller implications for this shift might be sketched out, but at the very least this seems to continue our interest in Tolkien's notion of sub-creation as well as his ordering of the cosmic hierarchy and the relative agency of each strata therein.

- WK

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps there is an answer in the fact that the Ainulindale is *not* the story of Creation known by or told by Men, but that told by the Valar to the Elves, thus no word of the Word. And yet, Tolkien was all about words! It is a mystery from this perspective why he privileged music over language in imagining what story the Elves would have heard from the Valar. Is it that the Elves misunderstood? Or that Moses heard a different story altogether? RLFB

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