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Silmarillion, Creation, sins of the artist Tehanu's Tenth Note

Current Note
 The Return of the King
Past Notes
 Following Tolkien's Footsteps
 Tad Episode
 Scary Stuff
 Monstrous Regiment
 Kalevala and the Silmarillon
 Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, Middle-earth
 Silmarillion, Creation, sins of the artist
 Rarefied Air
 Quests, Myths and Archetypes
 Arthur: Quests and Legends
 Yin and Yang Quests
 The Power of Myth
 His Dark Materials
 Are We Not Geeks?
 The Two Towers Film: Tricks And Treats
 Two Towers Review, Part 2
 The Return of the King
 Where To From Here?

Mong ago at the beginning of things I thought I’d examine inspiration and creativity on the way to finding out what sets The Lord of the Rings apart. Having read The Silmarillion, Paradise Lost and now Joseph Pearce’s book Tolkien, Man and Myth in close succession I can see that this topic is going to stray into subjects like mysticism and religion. This is always loaded ground, since try as I might I am bound to lay down my own prejudices and beliefs, whether I mean to or not.

I don’t want to represent Pearce’s arguments in great detail. I read The Lord of the Rings for years without noticing the Christian element in it; now I couldn’t deny it any more than I could claim the sun rises in the West. It’s fitting that Tolkien, who valued free will so highly in the workings of all his creations, would not browbeat the reader with his own beliefs but leave them implicit in all he did, for the reader to choose to see or not.

Two or three quotes from Pearce’s book and I’ll consider my point made. The first is a letter from Tolkien arguing against the armchair psychoanalysts who find the ‘meanings’ of a book from the external facts of a life:

"There are insignificant facts (those particularly dear to analysts and writers about writers): such as drunkenness, wife-beating, and suchlike disorders. I do not happen to be guilty of these particular sins. But if I were, I should not suppose that artistic work proceeded from the weaknesses that produced them, but from other and still uncorrupted regions of my being…"

Tolkien went on to list some facts that he considered had a greater bearing on his life as a writer, and in this list he placed what we have considered to be the paramount fact of his life, his occupation as a philologist at Oxford. His ‘taste in languages,’ he said, was ‘obviously a large ingredient in The Lord of the Rings.

But the facts that had the greatest bearing on his writing? According to Tolkien himself:

"And there are a few basic facts, which however drily expressed, are really significant. For instance I was born in 1892 and lived for my early years in ‘the Shire’ in a pre-mechanical age. Or more important, I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories), and in fact a Roman Catholic."
"Moseley Bog, part of the woods round Sarehole where Tolkien played as a child. Photo courtesy of Shaun Spain."

Months ago I argued that Tolkien created a convincing world because he was a master of myth (did I mention myth?) and language, for we filter our knowledge of the world through words and those who can make a world speak to us in a dozen different accents and languages of race, class and character, will most convince us. That, and the ability to found that world in a background of myth and history, for we are innately drawn to both.

Now I revise my opinion and think that in addition, Tolkien’s work gains power from the tension he felt all his life between Good and Evil. OK, most fantasy novels have some evil to oppose against the good, but how many authors consider it as a force in their everyday life? It shows up clearly in the letters Tolkien wrote to his friends and family. Furthermore, Catholicism states that Man is fallen and the mortal world doomed to suffer corruption and evil until Redemption, yet to despair and condone evil is in itself a sin. I can see how that belief would generate a kind of tension between joy and despair, and so much of Tolkien’s work explores that strange balance.

"I am a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ – though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory."

Right through The Lord of the Rings we know that much magic and beauty must pass. All victories are dearly bought and cannot last forever. It’s even clearer in The Silmarillion.

Pearce’s book also contains some great quotes from the fantasy author Stephen R. Lawhead (who I’ll now have to rush out and read….), who followed up an interest in Tolkien and read about the Inklings, and read their work in turn:

"I enjoyed the books, but in the end it wasn’t the Inklings’ work that moved me. It was the informing spirit of their work, a spirit which I began to sense they all shared….
"…In short it was not Tolkien’s style or subject matter that influenced me; it was the integrity of the work itself.
"I found this same integrity in Lewis’s space tales. Taken together, these books possessed an inner worth that far exceeded the narrative skills of their authors. Perelandra and The Lord of the Rings seemed to me more in total than the sum of their parts. These books, I concluded, derived their value chiefly from this inner worth, this integrity that lay behind the stories themselves. But what was it?
"It was, of course, the Christian faith of the authors shining through the fabric of their work. I saw that faith informed the story, and infused it with value and meaning, lifting the tale above the ordinary expressions of the genre……
"What an extraordinary thing, I thought; though Tolkien makes never so much as a glancing reference to Jesus Christ in a single paragraph of all The Lord of the Rings’s thick volumes, His face is glimpsed on virtually every page."

I would agree with that, and likewise I find it astonishing.

Now, The Silmarillion opens with the creation of the world and Tolkien envisions it as a kind of music in which even the discords will at the end resolve into a perfect whole; and I know that our Western music relies on the tension of discords and resolutions in all its harmony. Other philosophers have likened good and evil to the light and shadow in a painting, which can have no meaning without them both. We are too close to the picture to see the whole as God sees it; or in Tolkien’s terms, we haven’t heard the music of the Ainur through to the final resolution.

The fall of Melkor is a close parallel of the fall of Lucifer in Paradise Lost:

"…He began with the desire of the Light, but when he could not possess it for himself alone, he descended through fire and wrath into a great burning, down in Darkness. And darkness he used most in his evil works upon Arda, and filled it with fear for all living things."

Man enters the tale of the Silmarillion long-awaited but unannounced, and they have already some strife behind them – there are gaps in the story where the Garden of Eden story could take place, as there are hints that in the future, biblical and known history might begin. The Silmarillion continues in parallel, telling the story not of Man’s fall and redemption, but, in a sense, that of the Elves. Their redemption comes with the returning of the Silmaril with Earendil.

What interests me most is Tolkien’s notion of the very first sin, the sin that Melkor committed against Iluvatar, the One. Yes, it is like Lucifer’s sin, that of pride, and of disobedience, and rebellion. But in Melkor’s case it was also uniquely an artist’s sin.

"…it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Iluvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself….He had gone often alone into the void places seeking the Imperishable Flame; for the desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own….Yet he found not the Fire, for it is with Iluvatar."

It is after that that Melkor "desired rather to subdue to his will both Elves and men, envying the gifts with which Iluvatar had promised to endow them; and he wished himself to have subjects and servants, and to be called Lord, and to be a master over other wills."

That is standard Evil Overlord practice; it is the ‘corrupted creator’ aspect of Melkor that interests me more. This is the comparison Tolkien makes between Melkor and Aule:

"Both also, desired to make things of their own that should be new and unthought of by others, and delighted in the praise of their skill. But Aule remained faithful to Eru and submitted all that he did to his will; and he did not envy the works of others, but sought and gave counsel. Whereas Melkor spent his spirit in envy and hate, until at last he could make nothing save in mockery of the thought of others, and all their works he destroyed if he could."

Is Tolkien arguing against individuality? He’s certainly promoting the virtue of submitting to God’s will.

I will speak of what I do know: that the moment of inspiration is a mysterious experience for any artist that is paying attention to it; from some source that is incredibly personal and yet unkowably ‘other’, comes a powerful mastery and ease within the medium they work in. Not always, not every time they make something, but there is no mistaking the sensation when it comes: as though the art is coming through one’s hands and mind, and the self stands back to observe.

At such moments all the things one might normally desire, power, wealth, status, seem irrelevant.

What Tolkien sees as a God-given gift for creation was corrupted by Melkor in the moment that he ceased to enjoy it for its own sake and turned rather to the love of power. It is no accident that tyranny and the arts stand so often in opposition; they face in opposite directions and are partially blind to each other.

Secondly, Tolkien sees human creativity as part of the way we are created in the image of a creative God. He would regard it as arrogant to take all credit for one’s talents on oneself. Some artists are proud of their talent. Some never forget the mysterious nature of inspiration, which does not come at their bidding. I don’t pretend to have any answers.

The Lord of the Rings is a sub-created world, according to Tolkien. The film of the book will be a kind of tertiary world, this website about the film of the book is a quaternary world, people who post on bulletin boards about TheOneRing.net set up a further echo…all of these feed back up the chain to lend greater reality to Middle-earth. The big question is, how does The Lord of the Rings lend reality to the real world? I’ll leave the last word to the Jesuit Priest Father James V. Schall, quoted from his essay ‘On the Reality of Fantasy’:

‘The unsuspecting reader who thinks he is only reading "fantasy" in reading Tolkien will suddenly find himself pondering the state of his own soul because he recognises his own soul in each fairy-tale."

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