Friday, May 12, 2017

"It's not you that's the problem... it's Aulë." (Or is it?)

On the topic of Jewels in Tolkien’s universe, one observation has particularly stood out in my mind: across The Silmarillion, The Unfinished Tales, The Hobbit, and Lord of the Rings, why do all of the non-godly “evil (anti-Eru)” characters (aside from Melkor) come from either the service or the hand of Aulë, ostensibly a “good (pro-Eru)” Valar?

To start with the most straightforward example, both Sauron and Saruman began as Maiar of Aulë. Tolkien never dives into too much depth about the pre-fall history of Mairon and Curumo, respectively, but a few key quotes from The Silmarillion and The Unfinished Tales bring a few key concepts to light. Sauron is first introduced in TS as “a great craftsman of the household of Aulë” (Morgoth’s Ring, p.52); considering that Aulë is quite literally the god of craftsmen, calling out Sauron as a great craftsman among his peers is high praise indeed. Additionally, when it comes to motivation, Tolkien claims that “it had been his [Sauron’s] virtue (and therefore also the cause of his fall...) that he loved order and coordination, and disliked all confusion and wasteful friction” (Morgoth’s Ring, p.396). Sauron, much like many craftsmen throughout history, is clearly an intensely goal-oriented individual. To use a slight bit of extrapolation, considering Sauron’s love (and massive talent) for crafting “things” for crafting’s sake, outside the Will of Eru, seems to be precisely what leads to his corruption by Melkor, who allows him freedom to achieve his goals and craft to his heart’s content with no restrictions, a.k.a. “confusion or wasteful friction”.

Saruman’s history also involves a fairly similar origin story. As “Saruman” literally translates from Quenya to “Man of Skill” (much like his original name, Curumo, translates to “Skillful One”), Saruman clearly comes from a similar background as Sauron, and although Tolkien never explicitly refers to Saruman’s talents back in his Valinor days, his later expertise in fabricating technology at both Isengard and the Shire, alongside Manwë’s selection of Saruman as head of the Istari, seem to speak to his talent of sub-creation. Saruman’s downfall, outside of his overwhelming pride and related jealousy of Olorin’s power, was largely focused around his use of the Palantír. While not precisely a Jewel in a traditional sense, Tolkien’s Palantíri seem to be formerly natural objects crafted by Fëanor, much like the Silmarils themselves. From Tolkien’s few descriptions of their actual appearance, Palantíri are described as “the globe was dark, black as jet.... Then there came a faint glow and stir in the heart of it, and it held his eyes, so that now he could not look away. Soon all the inside seemed on fire” (The Two Towers, LoTR Book 3, Ch 11). Contrasted with the Silmarils, described as “the inner fire of the Silmarils Fëanor made of the blended light of the Trees of Valinor, which lives in them yet, though the Trees have long withered and shine no more. Therefore even in the darkness of the deepest treasury the Silmarils of their own radiance shone like the stars of Varda; and yet, as were they indeed living things, they rejoiced in light and received it and gave it back in hues more marvelous than before” (The Silmarillion, Quenta Silmarillion, Ch 7), the Palantíri seem to be an almost anti-Jewel. Dark, dull, corruptive, and filled (eventually) with the fires of Sauron, Palantíri seem to be the absolute inverse of the Silmarils, in terms of their physical forms. Saruman’s fascination with the Palantír of Orthanc, this anti-Jewel, is absolutely foundational to his downfall, as it is the object through which Sauron’s influence finally piques his hatred and pushes Saruman to the side of domination.

The Palantíri also mirror the Silmarils in terms of essence in Tolkien’s overall moralistic framework. The Silmarils, which contain the light of the Trees of the Valar, Telperion and Laurelin, are made by Fëanor as a means of appreciating the purely good beauty of Eru-approved sub-creation. Much as the Medieval Lapidaries we read for class on Wednesday focused on these twelve particular Jewels as a means of reproducing some of the glory of the architecture and aesthetics of Heaven’s New Jerusalem, Silmarils are a sub-creative attempt to emulate a higher power in a positive way. On the flip side, Palantíri seem to represent a darker side of this concept, as they attempt to emulate Eru’s prophetic abilities, rather than simply celebrate the inherent beauty of sub-creation itself. This degree of ingrained hubris lends itself to the Palantíri’s corruptive potential, which is then used to its fullest extent by Sauron to push Saruman towards his final fall from grace.

How does this all tie back in to Aulë’s influence, though? By investigating Aulë’s role in the creation of the Dwarves, as well as the Dwarves’ role in The Hobbit, things clear up fairly quickly. As the Vala of both the Earth and Craftsmanship, Aulë decided to create the Dwarves in an attempt to emulate Eru (albeit in an innocently childlike way) – a race truly outside of Eru’s initial plan – much to Eru’s displeasure. This act of sub-creation illustrates the initial pitfall – the father of the other pitfalls – associated with Tolkien’s craftsman characters, in which, as with Sauron, they begin to craft for crafting’s sake rather than for Eru’s sake. This is an inherently selfish act, as it implies the crafter truly understands crafting, which is knowledge truly only in the hands of Eru; while Eru forgives Aulë once he apologizes for his hubris, this idea of emulation of a higher power trickles down through the Dwarves to the Third Age, specifically through the story of Thorin Oakenshield and the Arkenstone. Crafted by Dwarves long before the days of Thorin, the Arkenstone retained its beauty well through the age of The Hobbit. Tolkien describes it as “[when hit with light, the Arkenstone]...changed it into ten thousand sparks of white radiance shot with glints of the rainbow” (The Hobbit, Ch 13); comparing this to The Silmarillion’s description of the Silmarils from before, the Dwarves’ attempt to emulate and celebrate godly creation with sub-creation seems to be a clear reference to Fëanor’s initial crafting of the Silmarils. This sub-creation is birthed through two layers of “flawed” sub-creation not initially approved by Eru, imbuing the Jewel with a bit of the corruptive nature I previously associated with the hubris of the Palantíri. This corruptive influence of Dwarven craftsmanship is demonstrated via Thorin’s obsession with this Jewel effectively led to his eventual downfall during the Battle of the Five Armies, providing yet another instance of impure sub-creation leading to results effectively against the will of Eru.

To tie everything together, the three aforementioned examples serve to demonstrate that while Aulë was indeed the common factor between the four “evil” examples shown above, their respective downfalls (or errors, in Aulë’s case) were due to Tolkien’s views of the nature of craftsmanship, not due to the character of the Vala himself. In the end, sub-creative craftsmanship in the celebration of the beauty of Eru’s plan produces pure Jewels and true beauty, while selfish sub-creative craftsmanship in an attempt to supplant Eru’s will or mimic Eru’s powers leads to evil. 

Works Cited

Tolkien, J. R. R., and Christopher Tolkien. The Silmarillion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings. New York: Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R., and Christopher Tolkien. Morgoth's Ring. N.p.: HarperCollins, 1994. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit. N.p.: Rankin/Bass Productions, 1977. Print.

-A. Jaffe


  1. Nicely observed: the key to Tolkien's thinking about evil lies through craftsmanship. It is interesting that this ability is focused through one Vala, Aule, rather than attributed to them all in different ways. Perhaps a comparison with Yavanna would be helpful? What is the difference between jewels and gardens? Making things of "craft" and making things by helping them grow? The two are intertwined in Tolkien's thinking, as Dwarves and Elves, stone-lovers and tree-lovers. There is a tension between aesthetic production and organic reproduction that the jewels also participate in. RLFB

  2. It's interesting to note that Aule inhabits a particular "cluster" of beings in Tolkien's mythology—a group of species and entities that is, in fact, the focus of almost the entirety of the story. Of the Valar, it is notable that Aule is said to be the most similar to Melkor. Likewise, the Elves consider Men more similar to Melkor than any of the other Valar, meaning that Aule, by extension, takes second place. However, it must be said that the beings in this cluster resemble not only Melkor, but also Iluvatar. Tolkien designed his mythology to be fundamentally compatible with Catholic doctrine, meaning that the humans in it must resemble Eru. As the Valar are said to take forms "like the Children of Iluvatar" rather than Iluvatar himself, we must take this resemblance as being nonphysical, and based on Tolkien's other writings, it seems that he saw it as consisting in the capacity for subcreation. Likewise, as Melkor was said to share in part of the gifts of each of the other Ainur, and each of the Ainur reflected some element of Eru's thought, Melkor must be taken as a reflection of Eru's whole—closer, I would argue, even than Manwe, who may have understood Iluvatar's mind without necessarily resembling it. Thus, it seems that this particular class of beings—Aule, Sauron, Saruman, the Noldor, and humanity, including Tolkien himself—are positioned between the greatest good and the greatest evil, the Secret Fire and Morgoth's burning flames, and are capable of fulfilling either.

  3. —Nathaniel Eakman
    (It'd be really great if this thing had an edit function for when somebody forgets something like, y'know, putting their name.

  4. Your assertion that the “act of sub-creation illustrates the initial pitfall – the father of the other pitfalls – associated with Tolkien’s craftsman characters, in which, as with Sauron, they begin to craft for crafting’s sake rather than for Eru’s sake,” very strongly resonates with me as a way of more intimately understanding Tolkien. The argument and evidence you brought up linking many of the more poignant corrupters and corrupted to Aulë’s field of craftsmanship continually reminds me of just how self-aware Tolkien was of his own position as an author. Even beyond the examples you brought forward, even Smith in Smith of Wooten Major similarly fills the role Tolkien might imagine for himself: a sub-creator with both practical and artistic contributions that carry the potential of being made or wielded improperly. For Tolkien, the criterion you gave of crafting for Eru’s (God’s) sake seems to be a matter of the utmost concern, which is entirely consistent with the vivid theological flavour that he infuses his work with. In the same way that Aulë’s penchant for sub-creation is demonstrably dangerous, Tolkien’s desire to sub-create could also carry significant moral weight.

    C. Abbott