Friday, May 12, 2006

Tolkien's Genesis

Fantasy writing today has become a major method of inculcating theological ideas: just think of the role that the fantasy novels of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien play in popular theology today.

But there is one side where J.R.R. Tolkien's theological insights have not (as far as I know) been remarked on: creation. Perhaps it's because Tolkien's Genesis was only published in the Silmarillion, which was not a favorite of many people. (I am strange enough to have loved it.) This is unfortunate, because I believe that his reading of creation has important implications for the understanding of creation in light of biology that I have previously tried to expound here.

In one of his letters Tolkien reflected sadly on how Genesis has been relegated to the woodshed of (presumably Catholic) believers. As a child he said that he found stories of dinosaurs to be much more redolent of "faerie" than the beast fables often confused with it. Yet in discussing the flying mounts of the Nazgul, he agreed with a correspondant who asked if it was intended to be a pterodactyl, remarking that that would be the name for it in what he called our modern-day legendarium. It seems that Tolkien did not see an iron divide between paleontology and the Biblical account of creation. Without being specific about dates and years he could write about a pterodactyl surviving long after its time, to be used as a flying mount in the world of men.

In the Silmarillion, Tolkien's "creation myth" is expounded in detail:

1) God (=Iluvatar/Eru) proposes to the angels three themes,* which they are allowed to develop and embroider. In each theme successively, Lucifer/Satan (=Melkor/Morgoth) inserts his own discordant themes. The music is then halted by God who informs all the angels 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" (p. 17).

2) There is a vision of what is in the song unfolding, which contains much, but not all of the history of the world, except the Last Days. The angels thus have partial, not full, knowledge of the future of the world, with the most extraordinary things kept in God's wisdom until their revealing.

3) The vision is ceased and God speaks forth with His word to create the unformed earth.

4) Certain angels (including Lucifer and those he will/has seduced) go down into the unformed earth. Thus some angels are attached to this world for as long as it shall exist, while others are not.

5) These angels then labor to prepare the world for the coming of men and elves: "So began their great labours in wastes unmeasured and explored, and in ages uncounted and forgotten, until in the Deeps of Time, and in the midst of the vast halls of Ea [= the World that Is] there came to be that hour and that places where was made the habitation of the Children of Iluvatar [=children of God=men and elves]" (p. 20).

6) During this process of sub-creation, the good angels of sky, fire, and water had the main part, but Lucifer "meddled in all that was done, turning it if he might to his own desires and purposes; and he kindled great fires. When therefore Earth was yet young and full of flame, Melkor coveted it . . ." (p. 20).

7) Eventually there came to be open war between Lucifer and the good angels for control over the World (Arda):

They built and Melkor destroyed them; valleys they delved and Melkor raised them up; mountains they carved and Melkor threw them down; seas they hollowed and Melkor spilled them; and naught might have peace would come to lasting growth for as surely as the Valar began a labour so whould Melkor undo it or corrupt it. And yet their labor was not all in vain; and though nowhere and in no work was their will and purpose wholly fulfilled, and all things were in hue and shape other than the Valar [good angels] had at first intended, slowly nonetheless the Earth was fashioned and made firm (p. 22).

This passage is strikingly similar to that between Legolas and Gimli in Minas Tirith after the battle of Pelennor about how the works of men always begin well, but eventually are withered, yet never cease of their seed. But it is very important to note, that while the good angels' purposes are not completely fulfilled, those of God are fulfilled completely and to the letter.

About this back in stage 2, God had already spoken to Ulmo, good angel of the waters:

"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 hath not destroyed the beauty of they fountains, nor of they clear pools. Behold the snow, and the cunning work of frost! Melkor hath devised heaats and fire without restraint, and hath not dried up thy desire nor utterly quelled the music of the sea. Behold rather the height and glory of the clouds, and the everchanging mists; and listen to the fall of rain upon the Earth! And in these clouds thou are drawn near to Manwe [the good angel of air and sky], thy friend, whom thou lovest."

Then Ulmo answered: "Truly, Water is now become fairer than my heart imagined, neither had my secret thought conceived the snowflake, nor in all my music was contained the falling of the rain."

It is also important to keep in mind that this First War had multiple stages. In the Silmarillion proper, we read that in the middle of the first stage of the war, Lucifer/Melkor had the upper hand, but a new good angel, Tulkas, came into the World/Arda from outside in the heavens and helped drive him out. The good angels then "brought order to the seas and the lands and the mountains" and then plants ("mosses and grasses and great ferns, and trees") and beasts (of the plains, rivers, lakes, and woods), but no flowers or birds, began to grow.

But after a while, during the angels' rest, after their creation, Lucifer again appeared, built his own domain in the far north and began corrupting the creation:

The blight of his hatred flowed out thence, and the Spring of Arda was marred. Green things fell sick and rotted, and rivers were choked with weeds and slime, and fens were made, rank and poisonous, the breeding place of flies; and forests grew dark and perilous, the haunts of fear; and beasts became monsters of horn and ivory and dyed the earth with blood (p. 36)

One may imagine this was the time when pterodactyls were created. The good angels then try to attack Lucifer again, but he attacks first and another outbreak of war:

lands were broken and the seas rose in tumult; and . . . . destroying flame was poured out over the Earth. And the shape of Arda and the symmetry of its waters and lands was marred in that time, so that the first designs of the Valar [=angels, although not, of course, of God] were never after restored (p. 37).

8) Unable to fully defeat Lucifer, as they tried to "restrain the tumults of the Earth" and unwilling to try to remake the world when they didn't know where men and elves would be created, the good angels then retreated to the land of the far West and made it a kind of heaven on earth. Middle Earth then waited in a kind of suspended animation until first elves and then men appeared, according to the time known by God alone, in the far East.

This cosmology strikingly yokes the basic Christian theological narrative of Genesis with a kind of transposition of scientific geological and paleontological history. The basic theology is read this way: Something good is created by God's will and through the angels. This good thing is then marred by an evil angel. Death and corruption result. God then plans a yet greater and more breath-taking action which will both repair the effects of the marring, and demonstrate how God intended the marring to work for a greater, as yet unimagined, good beyond the first good.

What is new about this cosmology is the following:

1) This pattern, far from being a single event, is repeated several times. Instead of one marring fall, there are several: the marring of the continents and mountains, the marring of the plants and animals, and (later) the marring or Fall of the elves and men.

2) The Fall is thus the specific human case (see pp. 41-42, 141 for Tolkien's thoughts on this) of a general pattern of marring, which occurred at each level of creation.

3) In contrast to the scheme of "Paradise Lost" which seems still residually governing much cosmology and angelology of the Christian world, Satan was active in the World, both before and after human creation.

The "very good" of creation in this view is thus given by God, not directly but mediately. Creation was created good at the beginning at each stage. Yet its creation was likewise marred at each stage. In the end, however, that marring led, through sadness and suffering, to a much greater good in the next stage. As Iluvatar said to the gathered angels when he made their song into a vision:

"Behold your Music! This is your minstrelsy; and each of you shall find contained herein, amid the design that I set before you, all those things which it may seem that he himself devised or added. And thou, Melkor, wilt discover all the secret thoughts of thy mind, and wilt perceive that they are but a part of the whole and tributary to its [i.e. the world in all its vast array, that was secretly designed so by the One] glory."

I have at some points "de-mythologized" the Tolkien story (the lamps for lights, the trees for lights, the creation of the sun and moon after that of elves, etc.). But it seems that the mythological elements mostly lie somewhat deeper in the stratigraphy of Tolkien's thinking, when his mythology was seen as just that, while the more explicitly Genesis-like events are more recent, after he began (around in the 1940s) to rethink his mythology within the categories of Catholic Christianity. As such, this Genesis is clearly Tolkien's own way of reconciling the Biblical Genesis with the geological time, the evidence of successive collossal volcanic or other catastrophes on earth, and the paradoxes of animal life that I already dealt with in my previous post on this topic (here). As such it demands our consideration, most importantly because it takes seriously both the goodness and the evil that is marbled through creation as we see and experience it.

The picture, by the way, is of Tuor meeting the Valar of the ocean waters, Ulmo. It was painted by John Howe.

*Exactly what these three themes are is unclear, except that the last is the theme of men and elves. The two previous ones seem to be angelic creation and then the world (material creation, plants, and animals). But this is unclear.