Who in Arda is called Illúvatar
There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Illúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad. But for a long while they sang only each alone, or but few together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Illúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly. Yet ever as they listened they came to a deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony….
–J.R.R. Tolkien, opening paragraph of “Ainulindalë,” first part of The Silmarillion
A friend recently shared with me this article responding to the accusation that Tolkien’s writings are somehow Gnostic. Now, I find the accusation somewhat befuddling; my sense of the Legendarium is that Tolkien consciously set out to write a mythology that, unlike historical mythologies, couldn’t possibly be interpreted as Gnostic. But the deeper question–whether and how Tolkien’s fantasy can be taken as consistent with the Catholic faith–seems to me a much more interesting one, and I’m not sure the linked article fully addresses it.
The Gnosticism accusation is a good way into the topic. It helps us to see how nuanced the line dividing ortho- from heterodoxy can be. The original accusatory article (warning: long and boring) defined the three main characteristics of Gnosticism as follows: “(1) the Gnostic devaluation of the cosmos; (2) liberation through some form of mystic flight; (3) the need of special knowledge… gnosis.” Well, yes… but what exactly do these mean, and what makes them incompatible with Christianity? I’d argue that, on their own, these “characteristics” identify no positive doctrine. When we take out the words “Gnostic” and “gnosis” (which do no work here, since we’re trying to define Gnosticism), we’re left with three extremely ambiguous phrases that require elaboration before they can be made meaningful.
Only certain elaborations of these phrases are incompatible with Christianity. When we say “Gnosticism,” we often mean Manichaeism, and of course these phrases describe Manichean doctrine quite well. The Manicheans, remember, believed in an eternal conflict between two first principles, one Good, one Evil. They taught that matter is evil; that we must free the divine spark within us from its material prison; and that we can only do so through special knowledge gained from their mystic texts. So was Tolkien Manichean? The suggestion isn’t even worth responding to. There’s nothing that even looks like evidence for this proposition.
The Ainulindalë does, however, clearly take inspiration from neo-Platonism.
To which I say–so what? Just read St. Augustine–or, since I’ve been doing a lot of this recently, let me summarize it for you (cf. Confessions, esp. Bk VII, and City of God, esp. Bk XII). Augustine has no truck with Manichaeism. He insists that evil is nothing more than the corruption of Good–it has no positive being. But he borrows quite a lot from neo-Platonism, and is far from the only saint to do so. Neo-Platonic doctrines, like how the One emanates into Mind, emanates into Soul, are the source of the philosophical language we use to describe the Trinity! True, there are certain aspects of neo-Platonism that Christians can’t accept, but it’s not that they can’t accept them, full-stop; it’s that they require modification.
Devaluation of the Cosmos: This can be a misleading way of putting it. Even Christians can (should) “devalue” the cosmos relative to God, that is, believe material beings to be inferior to immaterial ones. It’s only problematic to say that matter is actively bad–evil is supposed to only come from free choice. Neo-Platonists don’t call the material world evil, but they do attribute creation, not to God, but to a demiurge, and say that he created imperfectly, hence, material evil. For Augustine, this is wrong, but mostly because it’s conceptually confused–it has evil enter the world through incompetence, but incompetence is itself an evil, so you still have to either blame God (unacceptable) or blame the Demiurge (in which case matter was created by evil, not good). But Augustine does not say that angels played no role in creation. Rather, he says that God should receive the credit for creation, just like a king, rather than his servants, receives the credit for founding a city. The angels are allowed to contribute to the construction, they’re just not the source of either the plan or the building material. Evil enters the world through the rebellion of some of the angels against God’s plan–a rebellion which God allows only because he can make something good out of it.
Mystic Flight: Neo-Platonists also think the flesh a source of evil which we should desire to escape by living “according to the spirit,” i.e. through a life of philosophical contemplation. Christians can’t accept what neo-Platonists mean by these words. But Augustine does not deny that living according to the spirit is good, and living according to the flesh, bad; it would be quite difficult for him to do, given that these phrases come from John’s Gospel and St. Paul’s Epistles. Rather, first, he aligns flesh with nature rather than matter, and spirit with grace rather than form; and, second, he interprets “according to the spirit” to mean the spirit reigning over the flesh, rather than escaping it.
Special Knowledge: The problem with neo-Platonism isn’t that it has an evil “hidden” doctrine. Its philosophy is for the most part compatible with Christianity. Rather, the problem is that neo-Platonists wish they were angels, not men; or, to put it differently, they believe true wisdom consists in knowing what, not knowing who. They don’t accept Christ. They dislike the Incarnation for a number of reasons: they don’t like how it humbles God, they don’t like how its specifics appear arbitrary, they don’t like how it shifts the emphasis from philosophical meditation to a full-bodied communion with the person of Christ. They’re completely wrong about this. But for Augustine, this isn’t because they philosophize wrongly, it’s because they don’t have revelation. It’s unclear to what extent Plato himself was culpable for not becoming Jewish–interestingly, Augustine speculates that he may have read Genesis and Exodus. Augustine definitely blames Porphyry for remaining a neo-Platonist and refusing to convert to Christianity.
So, how does Tolkien’s Legendarium stack up here?
Responsibility for Creation: Well, the Ainulindalë lines up almost perfectly with Augustine’s modifications of neo-Platonic doctrine. The only possible objection would be that Tolkien says that the Valar–the archangels who served Eru in the act of creation–were sometimes worshiped as gods. But he makes quite clear that the humans who did this were mistaken. The traditional view, to be sure, is that the pagan gods were all demons in disguise. But is it heretical to say that there was nevertheless a truth underlying worship of the pagan gods, namely, that there are angels (perhaps even a set of twelve archangels) who serve God in the world? I don’t see how.
Flesh and Spirit: To demonstrate “mystic flight,” the accusing article focuses on how, at the end of The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf, the elves, and Frodo all go off into the West to Valinor. But this makes no sense. Valinor isn’t philosophy-land, it’s the Land of the Blessed. You don’t get there through secret knowledge, you get there through being saved by God. And in any case, Gandalf is an angel, the elves aren’t human, and Frodo goes there only to rest for a short time before he dies. It’s an interesting question whether the existence of elves, hypothetically speaking, could have been compatible with Christianity, but it’s hard to see how one would even begin answering it. It’s more troubling how Tolkien describes death as Eru’s gift to man, which suggests that death is good in-and-of-itself, but he’s not wrong to say that it serves a good purpose. Although we would be better off never having fallen and never having died, still, given that we’re fallen creatures, we’re better off dying than not dying. Perhaps it would have helped for Tolkien to make clear what happens to men in Middle Earth after death.
Revelation: It’s pretty obvious why he doesn’t, though: he want to avoid stepping on the toes of Christian Revelation. He doesn’t talk about Christ, or a fictional version of Christ, because he believes in the historical specificity of Christ, and doesn’t think fictional stories can offer us anything more than imperfect “types.” This is also why he sets all the Legendarium material thousands of years BC. But C.S. Lewis wrote about a Christ-like Aslan? Yes, but that’s because he was writing about an alternate world, while Tolkien was writing a fictional history of our world. The latter is actually less problematic, religiously speaking. It’s what ever novel does when it posits the existence of a person who did not, in fact, historically exist. So long as nothing contradicts Christian salvation history, there’s no problem. Alternate worlds are metaphysically problematic–they assume that asking the question “what would God have done if he had created a different world, say, one with talking animals?” even makes sense. Note that Tolkien didn’t particularly like the Narnia books.
Similarly, he doesn’t talk about the afterlife because predicating eschatological terms of fictional characters is really difficult to do without trivializing both fiction and eschatology. Saying “Frodo went to Heaven when he died” sounds silly, but so does “Frodo didn’t go to Heaven.” I’m actually not convinced that any writer, past or present, has ever written doctrinally acceptable fiction about the afterlife, rather than fiction about mystical experiences of the afterlife. Dante, you say? The Divine Comedy is technically a fictional mystical experience, and insofar as it’s meant to be taken as more than that, it’s unimaginably arrogant. It’s so stupendously arrogant, and so successful, that it’s difficult for us to remember how arrogant it is. But how the hell can anyone justify being so presumptuous as to decide whether real people go to Heaven or Hell? He even puts someone in Hell while they’re still alive! Could he have done this if he took the language of Heaven and Hell as more than a beautiful poetic fiction? Perhaps–but what he’s doing is much more questionable than anything Tolkien does.
It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that Tolkien shied away from incorporating fictional Christology or eschatology into the Legendarium. It should surprise us, rather, that he took up the challenge of writing a fictional version of Genesis chapter 1. What should we make of the Ainulindalë? I’m not entirely sure, but a few observations.
First, we should remember that Genesis chapter 1 is itself figurative, not literal (God did not literally speak–no sound came out of his mouth), and there is in principle no reason why some other literary image–say, music, rather than words–could not be used to communicate the same metaphysical truths.
Second, we should see Tolkien’s willingness to write this narrative in terms of the traditional idea that one can arrive through reason alone at belief in a creator God, and also in terms of his personal belief that authorial “subcreation” allowed one to participate (in a limited way) in divine Creation. Genesis 1 is about the structure of the universe, which perhaps is knowable only through revelation, but Tolkien’s narrative focuses on what it is to create, which perhaps isn’t.
Finally, the Ainulindalë is, technically speaking, not a narrator’s-eye-view account of how Middle Earth was created, but rather is an Elvish text on the subject filtered through many layers of translation. In this sense, the Ainulindalë may play a role within the secondary world of Middle Earth closer to that of the Timaeus than that of Genesis. More specifically, it’s a Christianized Timaeus, Christianized not in the sense of “turned into a vehicle for Christian doctrine,” but rather “made compatible with Christian doctrine” (to the extent that it wasn’t already).
This doesn’t mean everything Tolkien wrote was perfect. It’s not. But then, neither was everything Augustine wrote–and he’s a saint. (Just read the City of God and you’ll see what I mean about not perfect.) The goal shouldn’t be to hunt out heresy in everything we read, it should be to seek the good in everything we read, while being clear about its flaws and limitations. For the record, Tolkien’s biggest flaw is not Gnosticism, but nostalgia. To bring out what I mean, I’ll ask again: What, exactly, is the metaphysical status of the elves? What does the twilight of the elves represent, if not the twilight of the possibility of belief in elves, dwarves, wizards, and all the other beautiful lies that Christianity replaces? But that’s a question for another time.