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Tolkien Group Discussion - June 12, 1982
of June 12, 1982
reported by Margaret Purdy
Those present: Randolph Fritz
Michael White (our host)
Our discussion of the first two chapters of The Silmarillion, "Ainulindalë" and "Valaquenta", opened with a few quips about the "music of Melkor" , referring to the Greek music floating in the window from a festival going on in the street outside. The topic for the evening was defined as Theology and Cosmogony as expressed in these opening chapters of the tale of Middle-earth. The introduction of these awesome subjects struck the entire company speechless until one hardy soul plunged in with a question that had come to mind while reading over the two chapters, relating to Tolkien's essay on Fairy-stories. The passage on "Faerian Drama" was cited, and Alexei in particular was asked if he knew any of the so-called "abundant records" on the subject of this elvish art. He suggested that Tolkien was being ironic about their abundance, but subsequently was able to call to mind several instances in Celtic mythology wherein illusions were convincing enough to induce Primary Belief, and also wherein time seemed almost to stand still for those within the dream (e.g., the sojourn of the heroes of the Mabinogion with the head of Bran). Unanswered question: was "Faerian Drama" an actual performing art among the Elves?
This was related in a roundabout way to the topic by comparing "Faerian Drama" (illusion) to the vision shown to the Ainur by Ilúvatar of the results of their song. This led to the subject of Reality vs. Illusion, and their roles in the creation story of "Ainulindalë": the song itself was something conceived in the minds of the Ainur, using as a basis the theme of Ilúvatar; the vision was an visual presentation of that conception, but still illusory; and then the idea was given actual Being by lluvatar, who alone has the ability to create in truth. Thus all reality proceeds ultimately from Him.
This being so, does it follow that everything good is real, and evil is unreal (illusory)? Lewis' The Great Divorce was cited, wherein all of Hell is represented as being so insubstantial that it will fit into a tiny crack in the ground of Heaven. It was also pointed out that what seem to be great evils (e.g., the Fall of Man) are turned ultimately to good ("Felix peccatum Adae").
The question of creation was brought up again, using the musical analogy of theme and variations. The theme of Ilúvatar is the basis of creation, but the Ainur are allowed to embellish it with their own thoughts and devices. The sin of Melkor did not lie in introducing something new per se, but in introducing something new that was not in accord with the underlying theme. What about morality? In "Ainulindalë," art is equated with morality, or is a symbol for it. It was pointed out that this was a form of the common symbolism in which beauty = good. (Melkor's new matter created discord and disrupted the beauty of the Music.)
What would music be like in eternity? The music we know is very dependent on sequence and order, therefore time, but presumably the Music of the Ainur is taking place in eternity. However, the story is being told from the viewpoint of creatures who do exist in time (ostensibly the Elves), and thus seems as if it were taking place in time. David suggested that music in eternity might be compared to having sheet music in front of you and "seeing" a whole piece at once. Several other analogues were suggested to this strictly unimaginable (for beings such as ourselves) experience.
The discussion passed to the three themes of Ilúvatar (the original one, the one raised by his left hand to contend with the discords of Melkor, and the third theme raised by his right hand, which introduced the Children of Ilúvatar) and what they might represent. One idea was that they might correspond to different periods in the history of Eä: its initial creation, the strife of the Valar with Melkor, and then the latter part (the one we know most about) including Elves and Men. The other idea was that the three themes are interwoven simultaneously in Time, rather than being "played out" in sequence.
The subject of animals came up. The Children of Ilúvatar are stated to have been conceived and created by him alone. Yavanna was in charge of plants (olvar); who was responsible for animals (kelvar)? It was pointed out that different animals were associated with different Valar: birds with Manwë (especially eagles), deer with Nessa, horses and hounds with Oromë, sea creatures with Ulmo, etc. What about talking, and presumably sentient, beasts such as the eagles, the talking fox in LotR, and so forth? The suggestion was made that these were a "hangover" from the less developed world of The Hobbit. Mention was made of the fact that Gandalf sometimes talks to animals (e.g., the wolves outside of Moria). Were those natural wolves, however, or werewolves? And what does Tolkien mean by the word "werewolf," anyway? Are the werewolves of Sauron's isle of Tol-in-Gaurhoth actually men who change into wolves, or preternaturally intelligent and evil wolves, or demons in wolf shape?Dragging ourselves back from this digression, we tackled the subject of the Valar. Their pairing was compared to that of the Hindu deities (shakti), wherein you will find an active and a passive member of the pair. It was pointed out that not all the Valar are paired--Nienna and Ulmo are alone. Also, the paired Valar are not separated into passive and active but instead interact. (Passage from The Silmarillion cited concerning Manwë and Varda; with her help he can see, and with his help she can hear, more extensively than either would be able to do alone.) Digression on the subject of women in The Silmarillion in general: all the real accomplishments of the First Age are made with the help of women. The story of Beren and Lúthien in particular seems like a long series of "Beren gets himself in a scrape and Lúthien gets him out of it." However, without the men's influence the women don't do anything either. Both are necessary.
The character of Elves was brought up. Elves stick to their decisions; once they have begun a course of action, they continue with it even if they know it is wrong (e.g. Maedhros). Humans can change their minds and purposes. On the other hand, humans tend not to know their own purposes as well as the Elves do. Not having the Elves' experience of the Valar and so forth, they have to muddle through as best they can. Túrin was a prize muddler. Back to the Elves: it was pointed out that in the Norse culture (which Tolkien was drawing from) oathbreaking was considered as bad as or worse than murder-- "especially that kind of oath" (referring to the Oath of Fëanor). However, even Galadriel never went back on her decision, only returning to Valinor when specifically pardoned by the Valar (or, in later versions, when she found that the Ban had not extended to her in the first place).
Getting back to the Valar, we compared the Ainur with the medieval orders of angels. There are supposed to be nine orders of angels, but we could only remember eight: Cherubim, Seraphim, Thrones, Dominations, Principalities, Powers, Archangels and Angels. We decided that the Valar and Maiar corresponded most closely with the archangels and angels respectively, since these were the two orders that had contact with the world of men.
The theology of Eä is built of what Tolkien found intuitively correct, even though all its details might not be strictly orthodox according to the Judeo-Christian tradition. The reincarnation of the Elves was cited as an example. A reader took Tolkien to task for this in a letter; Tolkien replied that while reincarnation might not be right for humans in the Primary World, there was nothing to say that it might not be right for Elves in his Secondary World. However, he did take the matter seriously. Alexei pointed out that at least one early Christian theologian, 'Origen, considered the possibility of reincarnation. This grew out of a concern that the short life of men did not give enough time for the important decisions of good and evil that affected man's ultimate fate. (This was before the doctrine of the immortality of the soul had developed; the belief then was that the dead would be raised bodily at the end of time, but between now and then was nothing.) A totally beneficent God, it was argued, would give a man more time than a single mortal life to make such momentous choices. One obvious solution was giving him more than one mortal lifetime. Later this concern would give rise to the idea of Purgatory.
The afterlife of the Elves was discussed (the ever-expanding halls of Mandos). Elves can be reincarnated if they should happen to die in the first place (e.g. Glorfindel and Finrod), but it does not happen automatically (e.g. Fëanor). It was argued that in Valinor, the death of an elf would be an unusual event ("unless someone fell off a cliff or something"), since Elves didn't die naturally and there were no wars or similar violence. The elvish spirits in the halls of Mandos presumably spent their time considering their past life and the error of their ways. Men, of course, spent only a brief time there and then passed on out of the world altogether.
It was suggested that it might be fruitful to go through the two chapters and look at them in the light of, say, Hindu or Buddhist ideas, or the theories of Jung or Freud. The usefulness of this procedure was questioned, partly because Tolkien himself was working from a Judeo-Christian viewpoint (so that looking at his work from another angle might not yield much understanding of what he was trying to say), and partly because of the ignorance of several of the company in the area of these beliefs and theories. The idea softly and silently vanished away as we turned to the subject of evolution.
Is creation (Eä) evolving? Digression here as we looked up in the Letters passages that would clarify just what was meant by the term "Middle-earth": basically, does it refer to more or less the area shown on the maps, or the whole of the (presumable) planet? Quoted passages were ambiguous; "middle" could refer to simply "mortal lands" (Le., between Heaven and Hell) or to the lands "between the ice of the North and the fire of the South." We returned to the subject of evolution. Did the Children of Ilúvatar evolve? Was the "wakening" of the Elves a literal wakening, or did it mean their awakening into sentience? If the latter, where did their immortal nature come in? Were there non-sentient "proto-elves," and somewhere in Middle-earth would there still be these immortal monkeys running around? Well, there are different kinds,,"of evolution, spiritual as well as physical. Possibly the Children of Ilúvatar did not come into being until their physical vessels were imbued with souls.
It was noted that Tolkien never uses the word "soul"--"spirit," yes, "soul," no. In fact, he avoids overt theology altogether. Digression on Tolkien's dislike of the Arthurian mythos because it did incorporate overt, Primary-World theology--he was unsympathetic towards Williams' Arthurian poetry for the same reason. What would he think of Katherine Kurtz (leaving aside her stylistic flaws)? Further digression on the flaws and attractions of Kurtz, and how Barbara Hambly (Time of the Dark) handles a similar situation better (and writes better, too).
We returned to the subject of evolution of the spirit. Theosophical idea -- the spirit can evolve once it is incarnate.
At this point Randolph decided that the discussion could use a bit more ordering, and began to read "Ainulindalë" aloud, so that commentary could be made on it in order. Here my notes fail completely, the last words being the cryptic notation "Melkor=Disco." Around eleven o'clock the discussion came to a complete halt when David left, after offering the possible use of his apartment for the next meeting. The date of the July meeting was later set provisionally for the fourth Saturday (July 24), to be held at David's apartment if convenient for him and others.
This report is, of course, incomplete, since I am working from sketchy notes intended to jog a faulty memory. Many ideas were presented and many fascinating paths explored that are not recorded here. I do hope and believe, however, that I have not added any extraneous material that did not in fact enter into the discussion. Anyone else's additions, corrections, alterations and deletions will be gratefully accepted.