I wrote an article a number of years ago that was never published. It links with my last post on the use of pop culture. It explores the religious beliefs that might lie behind some aspects of Tolkien’s writings in The Silmarillion.
I wrote in my last blog post about the Chronicles of Narnia and their reflection of Christian beliefs. This has been of great interest to R.E. teachers as they seek for ways to grab student’s attention. We have long known that author’s and poet’s writings often reflect personal views and prejudices no matter how fictionalized they may be. In my first school I had a great rapport with an English teacher who would use me to elucidate the religious imagery in poetry that her GCSE class was studying. Films, texts, art and poetry have long been a staple of the RE teacher in striving to explain the impact and importance of religion. But in the last few years there were a series of films where the author’s religious beliefs were not mentioned or related to the content of the film. Many people will know that CS Lewis was a Christian, but how many people know that it was JRR Tolkien who was instrumental in the ‘conversion’ of Lewis. It is perhaps this lack of knowledge that prevented people looking for the Christian message in Tolkien’s writings. The following article is not about the Lord of the Rings but about a time long before those events, in the book The Silmarillion we find the creation of Middle Earth.
“I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic to the level of romantic fairy story- the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths- which I could dedicate simply: to England my country” (JRR Tolkien cit. Carpenter. 1977: 89-90).
Here is Tolkien’s force behind all his works, his desire to create “a mythology for England” (Ibid p89). The Silmarillion is the background for all of Tolkien’s works where a new world is creating, thus providing a history for Middle- Earth that stretches back far beyond creation. Four main topics in The Silmarillion will be examined (because to try. to cover all of the topics and their religious ideas would be an exhaustive project and one for another time)- the creation, Ilúvatar, the Valar (as a whole) and Melkor. They will be examined in the light of Christian belief because Tolkien was a deeply committed Roman Catholic. However mention must be made of Nordic mythology which “dealt with the Morse pantheon of gods headed by Odin… For them…he developed a lifelong affection.’(Kocher, 1980: 3). We see the combination in the naming of Middle- Earth which recalls the Norse Midgard and the equivalent words in English.
The Silmarillion begins with the two short stories of ‘Ainulindale’ and ‘Valaquenta’ in which is contained much of the myth of creation. It begins with Ilúvatar, the Ainur and a void (into which the world would eventually go). This void was easily transported from both traditions which Tolkien drew upon- Nordic mythology taught that it all began with a void as did the Book of Genesis (where also it begins with pure spirit, God (Ilúvatar) and the angels (Ainur) in the void). The world is then created through the music of the Ainur, Then Ilúvatar said to them: “Of the theme I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony a Great Music. And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices if he will.”(Tolkien, 1992: 15). With the music composed ‘the echo of the music went out into the void (Ibid: 16) then Ilúvatar took the Ainur into the void and said ‘“Behold your music!” And he showed to them a vision …and they saw a New World made visible before them, and it was globed amid the void… And as they looked, and wondered this World began to unfold its history, and it seemed to them that it lived and grew” (Ibid: 18). Then he sent forth to Earth across the Void the Flame Imperishable, which belongs to Ilúvatar, alone and necessary to Being. So the Ainur saw the new globe like “a cloud with a living heart of flame” and knew that it had ceased to be a vision and had become a new thing” (Kocher,1980: 18). “The Flame Imperishable that is the visible form of the song of the Ainur, the stuff of creation” (O’ Neill,1979: 46). Again this parallels with Tolkien’s Christian views while veiling them. The only person in Tolkien’s view with the power to create is God, and his parallel Ilúvatar is the only one with that power in this world. But whereas God uses his voice to create (“and God said…” (Genesis 1:1), “In the beginning was the Word…” (John 1:1)) Ilúvatar uses the music of the Ainur.
Music as the creative process is not without its parallels in literature, Tolkien’s close friend C.S. Lewis uses it in The Magician’s Nephew:
Polly was finding the song more and more interesting because she thought she was beginning to see a connection between the music and the things that were happening. When a line of dark firs sprang up on a ridge a few hundred yards away she felt they were connected with a series of deep, prolonged notes which the lion had sung a second before. . . Thus with an unspeakable thrill she felt quite certain that all the things were coming…out of the lions head’ (Lewis, 1980:99).
This parallel is not surprising if we see the relationship between Tolkien and Lewis as good friends, indeed in the early days of The Silmarillion Tolkien would read it out loud to him (see Carpenter, 1977: 148).
Who is Ilúvatar? His design pervades all of Tolkien’s works, side by side with the freedom of choice he has given to all his intelligent creations. Tolkien could not accept a place without free agency, his Catholicism dictated such, he would give the characters in his books the same privilege which he had. Even the Ainur received this, as can be seen in him allowing them to put their own thoughts into the music, but Melkor took his freedom to choose and went against Ilúvatar, however as we see nothing can thwart his plan. He “warned all the Ainur, especially Melkor and his adherents that’-every sub theme or counter theme which they might think was theirs came ultimately from him, and would always be absorbed into his themes making them more wonderful than before’ (Tolkien,1992: 17). “In short, Ilúvatar would always transmute it so as to serve the ends of his divine providence. Not that there were limits to what he would allow” (Kocher, 1980:16). All through, as in the music his providence accepted the mixture of evil with good to the degree which seemed sufficient to him. In this he is like the Christian God as is his mercifulness, but he is much more so than Odin in the Nordic mythology. He does however have no church through which to be worshipped, “There is in the legends no worship of God yet God is indeed there…Tolkien’s universe is ruled ever by ‘The One’” (Carpenter, 1977: 90). He then withdraws himself (when the Ainur have descended to earth), he does however have Manwë and Mandos as his spokesmen to the Valar. While not being a clone of the Christian God he certainly has some of his characteristics, Tolkien might try to keep himself out of his work as much as he can “an author’s ability to suppress his own views can never succeed entirely, and it will not do merely to rule out all Catholic influence in toto ‘ (Kocher, 1980: 14). To a Christian Ilúvatar is immediately recognisable as God whether intended or not.
“Beneath Him (Ilúvatar) in the hierarchy are the Valar, the guardians of the world, who are not gods but angelic powers, themselves holy and subject to God” (Carpenter, 1977: 90). After creation fourteen of the Ainur descended into Eä and became the Valar to whom were given the charge of putting its elements in order so that it would be a fit dwelling place for the arrival for the Children of Ilúvatar. Each of the fourteen received specific labours to “which he was best fitted by the gifts given him at the time of his creation” (Kocher, 1980: 18). They each represented a part of the mind of Ilúvatar and so while it has been suggested that they are comparable to the angels of God, they were much more so, for they each had powers, and I feel they are physical map4festations of the powers of God and stewards over their part of Ilúvatar’s creation (though the Nephilim of the Bible could be seen to be similar). Because Tolkien didn’t want a carbon copy of the Christian God, he did have Ilúvatar rule over all personally but assigned these tasks to the Valar. It has also been suggested that they are “demiurgic creations of the thought of the one” (O’Neill, 1979: 44) and related to Gnosticism and the finds of Jung (see O’Neill,1979). However as this would contradict Tolkien’s Catholicism, and in every ether place he is careful not to do this it would seem a little far fetched. We mustn’t forget the Nordic influence which is particularly evident when they meet in council in the ‘Ring of Doom’ near the two trees that light the land, likewise the Norse Gods sat in council in a ring under the shade of Yggdrass, the World Ash. (see Kocher,1980: 39).
O’Neill describes Melkor as the “shadow of God” (1979: 45). He claimed the world as his own, but Manwë denied his claim saying all had worked as much. All through The Silmarillion Tolkien’s approach to evil and the personification of it in Melkor, the fallen angel and his followers is very Christian. It is reminiscent of the Christian Satan who rebels, falls from heaven taking a third of the hosts of heaven with him and stakes a claim for the world as his own (see Rev 12:7). There is little doubt that we are seeing Tolkien’s Catholic view of evil represented in The Silmarillion, it has also been suggested tht this is Tolkien’s reflection on the Augustinian theodicy. In other literature Melkor also has his comparisons, “his pride is strong, and he cannot accept domination, like Milton’s Satan, he goes his own way, endlessly spoiling the efforts of the Guardians” (O’Neill, 1979: 44). Also in Nordic mythology there is a parallel with Loki, ‘Both are spirits of malice, and both like to perpetrate their plans secretly… shield(ing) them from blame’(Kocher. 1980: 7). So Melkor while being Christian in origin draws on others for his personality.
The Silmarillion certainly draws on Tolkien’s beliefs, especially in the creation, Ilúvatar and Melkor. Many have deliberated over how Tolkien could write a book which has no Christian God, but as Carpenter says, ‘It does not contradict Christianity but complements it. He wanted the mythological and legendary stories to express his own moral view of the universe, and as a Christian he could not place this view in a cosmos without the God that he worshipped. At the same time, to set his stories ‘reaiistically’ in the known world, where the religious beliefs were explicitly Christian would deprive them of imaginative colour’(1977: 90). He draws on a number of traditions and I feel is successful in creating a ‘mythology for England’ which is not immediately recognisable. Perhaps he managed this because he saw himself as a ‘discoverer of legend’ not an ‘inventor of story.’(Ibid: 75). It indeed seems to those who read it “an attempted retelling of actual, rather than fanciful events. Despite its fantastic elements, it might just as easily have been an accurate portrayal of the way things actually came to pass in a world where dragons dwelt and dwarves hewed stone” (O’ Neill,1979: 159). It is a great myth and a (somewhat disguised) reflection of Tolkien’s beliefs.
A friend, I think, inspired by this unpublished article which he had read published a simplified retelling in RE Today and suggested these activities for the classroom.
With primary aged pupils, read the story and talk about the music. What does the story mean? Is the story true, or does it carry the truth?
Use literacy activities on traditional stories or stories from a range of cultures to explore the meaning of the text.
Could pupils illustrate this story? Dramatise it? Retell it in another way?
Relate the story to what pupils know of Tolkien’s work: the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings
With groups of pupils of any age, studying creation myths, run a ‘philosophy4children’ (P4C) community of enquiry with this story as a stimulus.
Compare this story to Genesis 1, or Genesis 2-3, or the Hindu creation narrative in which Brahma grows from the lotus in the navel of Vishnu. What is similar, what is different?
Theologise and philosophise about the story: does it explain why there is bad in the world, even if God is good? How? Is the explanation any use to us, even though it is fiction? Who would ‘agree’ with this story? Who would argue differently?