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Biblical Motifs in Tolkien’s Silmarillion
Author’s Note: In writing this essay, I presume prior knowledge and familiarity with the Silmarillion on the part of the reader. Therefore references are primarily, though not exclusively, reserved for citations other than from the Silmarillion.
Reading the Silmarillion, even on a casual level, one is struck from the very beginning by the biblical overtones of the language and the story. This was deliberate on the part of Tolkien, for the greater part of the book deals with the events of the First Age of Middle-earth, a mythic age when the Valar walked under the skies of Arda and warred against the Enemy, Morgoth, beside Elves and Men. The language of the text, therefore, reflects the mythological and cosmogonic nature of much of the narrative. (1)
Interwoven with the epic tales of great deeds and terrible battles are three motifs that echo the biblical stories of Creation, the Fall, and what could be called ‘the Saving of the Remnant’. We will look at each of these and see how Tolkien works these motifs into his mythology, how they reflect his Christian and Catholic orientation, and in what ways they diverge (if at all) from orthodox Judeo-Christian theology.
The Silmarillion, like the Bible, begins with Creation. Eru, the One, also called Ilúvatar, invites the Ainur, angelic beings of great power, to participate in the creation of what we would call our universe. Ilúvatar does this by proposing three musical themes from which creation would derive, thus echoing the medieval concept of the ‘Music of the Spheres’. After the third and final theme is played out, Ilúvatar shows the Ainur a Vision of their joint creation, brings it into actual existence by uttering a single word Eä! — Be! — and invites those who desire it to enter into the created universe (or Eä as the Elves called it) and become its guardians in preparation for the coming of Elves and Men, whom only Ilúvatar has any hand in creating and who are known as the Eruhíni — The Children of Eru. Some of the most powerful of the Ainur accept Ilúvatar’s offer and enter into Eä.
Arriving in Eä, however, they discover that the universe is still formless and that it is their task to bring the Vision into Reality.Thus, through long uncountable ages the Valar and Maiar, as they are now called, endeavor to bring to fruition the Vision of Ilúvatar, preparing a place, Arda, which is our solar system, for the habitation of the Eruhíni.
What is interesting to note is that Tolkien seems to have addressed the controversy between creationism and evolution decades before the discussion entered into mainstream consciousness. His retelling of the creation story indicates his adherence to the biblical account without excluding evolution as a viable means by which the Creator has brought the universe into existence. The Valar and Maiar are agents of Ilúvatar in making Arda habitable for Elves and Men and the shaping of the earth undergoes several stages of development over time with many setbacks brought about by the interference of Melkor, a Vala who sets his own will against the Will of Ilúvatar and the other Valar in an attempt to dominate all creation.Thus, the description of Melkor’s ruining of Arda such that monsters roamed the earth hints at the origin of dinosaurs, the existence of which is never alluded to in the biblical account of creation.
Tolkien diverges from the biblical account in two telling instances, and it is not surprising that he does so, since he is not telling the biblical story so much as he is reinterpreting the mythic aspects of all creation stories, yet clearly influenced by his Christian upbringing.
The first divergence deals with the origin of evil. In Tolkien’s mythology, there is no War in Heaven as it figures so greatly in extra-biblical Christian mythology and in the Book of Revelation.Melkor, also called Morgoth, the Enemy, and clearly based on the Christian personification of Evil, Lucifer, while he attempts to undermine the Themes of Ilúvatar in the great Song of Creation, is not ostracized from the heavenly court, but is allowed to enter into Eä along with the other Ainur, thus preserving Melkor’s free will. War with Melkor does occur, however it is not waged in the Timeless Halls of Ilúvatar, but across the empty wastes of Eä and upon the verdant soil of Arda in a time that is before Time as Elves and Men would reckon it.
In the Judeo-Christian accounts of the origin of evil, creation becomes corrupted through a single human disobeying the command of God at the behest of an outside agent, Satan. In the Silmarillion, we are told that creation is corrupted from its very inception by the inclusion of Melkor’s dissonant music into the Three Themes of Creation, which Ilúvatar allows, knowing that from out of this evil great good will arise. (2) This is Tolkien’s way of showing that Evil, while clearly ontic, in other words, having actual being, is derivative and can never be original, only imitative. It is no accident, either of theology or of language, that Tolkien likens Evil to a shadow and shadows disappear in the full light of the noonday sun. (3)
A second divergence from the biblical account occurs in the making of the sun and moon. In Tolkien’s universe, the Sun and Moon are not products of the primeval creation of Arda but are derived from the Two Trees of Valinor, which are the sources of Light in all of Arda. The Elves awake under a starlit sky and there is neither Sun nor Moon to light their way. Only when Melkor and the Great Spider Ungoliant poison the Two Trees do the Valar create the Sun and Moon from their last drops of Light. Thus, the two primary lights of the heavens that have been worshiped by humans as gods in our own history are in fact derivative of the True Light that no longer shines in Valinor. They are products of sub-creation, not primary creation.
This removes these celestial objects from the plane of divinity; there is nothing intrinsically sacred or divine about them, save that they are the last hints of the True Light which once shone in Valinor, Tolkien’s Paradise on earth.
The Fall of Angels, Elves and Men
However, it is not creation that is the main focus of the Silmarillion, rather, it is the story of the Fall, for as Tolkien once remarked, all stories are ultimately about the Fall. (4) In Tolkien’s mythology, there are actually several ‘falls’ from grace, and not just by Men. All three races — the Valar, Elves and Men — fall, but for different reasons and with different consequences.
Unlike the biblical account wherein the Fall of Man caused a spiritual separation between Man and his Creator, the falls of the Valar and the Elves do not result in any such separation. For the Valar, their ‘fall’ is due to a failure to trust in Ilúvatar’s plans for the Elves. (5) They seek to protect the Elves from the ravages of Melkor and so encourage them to migrate from Middle-earth to Valinor.
It is interesting to note that in the discussion of the Valar as to what should be done about Melkor, Manwë consults with Ilúvatar, who tells the Valar to take up arms against Melkor on behalf of the Elves,but when the discussion turns to what should be done for the Elves themselves, no such consultation with Ilúvatar takes place. The decision to bring the Elves to Valinor for their own safety is made out of fear, and Ilúvatar is never consulted about the decision, yet, neither does he forbid them from carrying out their plan, however misguided it might have been in retrospect.
The Valar’s lack of trust in Ilúvatar’s plans is further compounded by the raising of the Pelóri Mountains, ostensibly placed to guard against the possibility of Melkor attacking Aman, but in reality effectively cutting Valinor off from the rest of Middle-earth and thereby divorcing the Valar from their guardianship of Arda. (6) The consequences of this separation for human-Valarin relations becomes incalculable as the seeming disinterest of the Valar towards the fate of Men gives Melkor the opportunity to enslave humans to his will, turning them away from Ilúvatar and his plans for them.
The story of the making of the Silmarils by Fëanor and their subsequent abduction by Melkor gives rise to the Fall of the Noldor. This ‘fall’ is actually a consequence of the Valar’s decision to bring the Elves to Valinor and the reason for their fall is similar to that of the Valar — lack of trust. Only this time it is the Valar against whom that lack is directed. The Noldor — and particularly, Fëanor — accuse the Valar of doing nothing against Melkor in revenge for the poisoning of the Two Trees and the stealing of the Silmarils and so they take it upon themselves to do what the Valar presumably will not — pursue Melkor to Middle-earth and there bring war upon him.
The Noldor leave Valinor against the wishes of the Valar, not because the Valar (or even Ilúvatar) desire for them to remain there, but because their motivation for leaving is suspect.The Noldor have launched a crusade, and like any good crusade, it begins with the shedding of innocent blood, and even more horrific, the shedding of the blood of their kin. (7)
It is the unremitting arrogance of the leader of the Noldor, Fëanor, that drives the Noldor towards their doom, for as Námo, Lord of Mandos, the Doomsman of the Valar, rightly tells them, none of the Elves are a match against Melkor, the most powerful of all the Valar. Their crusade is doomed to futility from the beginning and all their endeavors will eventually come to naught.
It appears a given for Tolkien that the Elves, unlike Men, by their very nature cannot succumb to evil, yet they can be deceived by it and many times are. (8) It is the Noldor’s greatest weakness — the blind pursuit of knowledge — that is the ultimate cause of their downfall, not once but twice. Melkor is able to manipulate the Noldor while in Valinor, deceiving them as to his real purpose and causing strife and suspicion that will ultimately bring about the break between the Valar and the Noldor and the subsequent exile of the latter.
The second deception occurs in the Second Age when Sauron, Melkor’s lieutenant, convinces Celebrimbor, a grandson of Fëanor, to make the various Rings of Power. Again, it is the Noldor’s insatiable pursuit of knowledge that allows them to be blind to the evil in Sauron and to cause them to suffer a selective amnesia concerning him. Evil is always ready to take advantage of the arrogance of others for its own ends, and the Noldor have a plentitude of arrogance at their disposal. The making of the One Ring by Sauron corrupts the other Rings of Power, and limits the efficacy of the Elven rings, which Celebrimbor is able to hide from Sauron so he never touches them. The forging of the One Ring leads to the murder of Celebrimbor by Sauron and the destruction of the Elven realm of Eregion, forcing the remaining Elves to flee north with Elrond to the hidden valley of Imladris.
When we turn to Men we see that in fact Men fall twice. The First Fall, which is apparently the biblical event, occurs ‘off-stage’ and is barely mentioned. (9) There are only hints that at some distant past Men came under the sway of Melkor and worshiped him rather than Ilúvatar, but that some repented. The ones who repented eventually made their way into Beleriand, the realm of the Elves, and became known as the Edain, the Elf-friends. From the moment Finrod chances upon the people of Bëor, the destinies of the Second Children of Ilúvatar would become forever interwoven with those of the Elves, especially with those of the Exilic Noldor. (10)
As a consequence of their alliance with the Elves, the Edain are granted by the Valar, after the War of Wrath that marks the end of the First Age, the island of Númenor for their habitation. Númenor is the furthest west of all mortal lands and the closest to the Blessed Realm, and while the Númenóreans are granted anywhere from three to five times the normal life span of other humans, they are still mortal and destined to die.
At first this does not greatly concern the Númenóreans, but through the influence of Sauron they begin to question the ‘unfairness’ of their fate and begin to envy the Elves and the Valar, believing that humans are just as worthy of immortality as any. Soon, a culture of death permeates the land, for such a culture can only arise where death is feared.
Death vs. Immortality
A word must be said here about Tolkien’s concept of death in his mythology. In the biblical account of the Fall, we are told that death entered the universe as a consequence of humanity’s disobedience to God, or, as the author of the deutero-canonical Book of Wisdom claims, ‘through the Devil’s envy’ (11) In the Silmarillion, however, we are told that death is Ilúvatar’s gift to the Secondborn — Men — just as immortality, or rather, serial longevity, is the gift given to the Firstborn — Elves. Why the discrepancy? Why does Tolkien claim that death is a gift rather than a curse as Judeo-Christian theology claims?
Perhaps one way to look at it is that death was always meant to be the lot of humans from the very beginning, although the human life span would probably have been longer than it is in the present day, as evidenced by the extraordinary length of years attributed to the pre-diluvial patriarchs. (12) The consequence of disobedience did not lead to physical death but to spiritual death, a severing of the spiritual bond between creature and Creator. In the account of the Fall of Númenor we see that at first the Númenóreans have the power to voluntarily give up their lives, to choose to die when the time was right for them to do so and to return the gift of life to the Giver of Life. It is perhaps this ability that humans lost when they fell, so that acceptance of death as part of the natural order of things was replaced by the fear of death. For the Númenóreans, a concomitant consequence of the fear of death was the shortening of their life spans, a phenomenon which occurs in the Bible as the life spans of humans becomes progressively shorter the further away from the primeval beginnings of human existence we find ourselves. (13)
It is upon this fear of the Númenóreans that Sauron ultimately plays, a fear that eventually leads to the Númenóreans committing the greatest of sins and bringing about their destruction. It is the only time the Valar voluntarily lay down their vice-gerency of Arda to Ilúvatar, who removes Valinor from Middle-earth, forever separating Paradise from the earthly plane.
And so, for a second time, Men fall and the world is forever changed.
The dichotomy between death and deathlessness is of paramount importance to understanding Tolkien’s mythology.The theme of fear of death and the search for immortality is carried over in the making of the Rings of Power and the corruption of the Nine that ultimately creates the Nazgűl, the Ringwraiths. These Rings of Power, especially the One Ring of Sauron, do not grant the bearer of the ring immortality; rather they prolong the person’s life into an intolerable state of suspension between life and death. We glibly speak of how there are fates worse than death without truly believing it, yet in this instance, that statement holds true. Unending existence is not the same as eternal life and death comes as a blessing, if it comes at all.
When a society begins to see death as a curse, where envy for those who are by nature immortal sours an appreciation for one’s own nature as God has given it, then a culture of death arises and fear of death becomes paramount, so that the curse of death becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is a lesson that our own society has failed to learn.
Saving the Few
The final biblical motif that runs through the Silmarillion is what can be called ‘The Saving of the Remnant’. In the Bible, God uses catastrophes from which a remnant of people survive to further his plans of salvation for the world. From the Flood to the Babylonian Exile to the destruction of the Second Temple, a small group of people survive the cataclysm and become a beacon of hope for the rest of the world. This is a common motif in all the world’s mythologies — after a cataclysm, a remnant of the ‘faithful’ survive to start anew.
In the Silmarillion, we see two instances where this occurs. During the First Age, the Fall of Gondolin triggers the final blitzkrieg by Morgoth/Melkor against the remnant of Elves and Men that can only lead to their utter destruction. But it is from this remnant that salvation comes in the person of Eärendil, a scion of both races, who convinces the Valar to come to the aid of the Elves and their mortal allies against Morgoth.
The second instance is at the destruction of Númenor. While most of the Númenóreans had fallen into idolatry and turned away from Ilúvatar and the Valar, a small group remained faithful and survived the cataclysm.They return to Middle-earth where they build new kingdoms and forge alliances with the Elves, which alliance eventually brings about the downfall of Sauron. It is through this remnant of the Edain that divinity is infused into humanity. Certain unions between Maiar, Elves and Men result in a blending of angelic and elvish strains within a specific group of mortals. This blending finds its greatest expression in the union of Aragorn and Arwen at the end of the Third Age when all the separate bloodlines are reunited in their son, Eldarion.
The people of Middle-earth hold great store by the fact that the blood of Lúthien and Beren, Eärendil and Elwing flows through the veins of certain families of Men and the concept of the ‘Heir of Isildur’, through whom all three bloodlines flow, and who will re-establish the Reunited Kingdoms, prefigures the ‘Son of David’ theme in biblical messianic literature, culminating in the person of Jesus of Nazareth in Christian theology.
The interweaving of the biblical motifs of Creation, the Fall, and the Saving of the Remnant within the stories making up the Silmarillion show Tolkien’s debt to his Christian upbringing, yet also show his genius in presenting these motifs in original ways which allow us to appreciate them anew.
1. Humphrey Carpenter, The Letters of J.R.R., Boston: Houghton Mifflin (1981)
2. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 2nd Edition, New York: Ballantine Books (1999)
3. J.R.R. Tolkien, Morgoth’s Ring, HoME XI, in particular ‘Notes on Motives in the Silmarillion’ and ‘Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth’
4. New American Bible
1. Letters, no. 131.
2. ‘And thou, Melkor, shalt see 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.’ [Silmarillion, ‘Ainulindalë’]
3. Consider, for instance, the way Sauron is often referred to by the peoples of Middle-earth as ‘the Shadow’.
4. Letters, no. 131
5. See, for instance, in Morgoth’s Ring, ‘The Converse of Manwë and Eru’ which is appended to ‘Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth’.
6. ‘The last major effort, of this demiurgic kind, made by the Valar was the lifting up of the range of the Pelóri to a great height. It is possible to view this as, if not an actually bad action, at least as a mistaken one. Ulmo disapproved of it. It had one good, and legitimate, object: the preservation incorrupt of at least a part of Arda. But it seemed to have a selfish or neglectful (or despairing) motive also; for the effort to preserve the Elves incorrupt there had proved a failure if they were to be left free: many had refused to come to the Blessed Realm, many had revolted and left it....Thus the ‘Hiding of Valinor’ came near to countering Morgoth’s possessiveness by a rival possessiveness, setting up a private domain of light and bliss against one of darkness and domination: a palace and a pleasaunce (well-fenced) against a fortress and a dungeon.’ [Morgoth’s Ring, ‘Notes on Motives in the Silmarillion’]
The Hiding of Valinor occurs only after the creation of the Sun and Moon and Melkor’s attack on Tilion: ‘But seeing the assault upon Tilion the Valar were in doubt, fearing what the malice and cunning of Morgoth might yet contrive against them. Being unwilling to make war upon him in Middle-earth, they remembered nonetheless the ruin of Almaren; and they resolved that the like should not befall Valinor. Therefore at that time they fortified their land anew, and they raised up the mountain-walls of the Pelóri to sheer and dreadful heights, east, north, and south.’ [Silmarillion, ‘Of the Sun and Moon and the Hiding of Valinor’]
7. One need only to give a cursory glance at our own history to know this is true. There are many accounts of medieval Christian crusaders beginning their march to free the Holy Land from the infidels by first murdering all the Jews in their vicinity.
8. Letters, no. 131.
9.‘A darkness lies behind us,’ said Bëor, ‘and we have turned our backs upon it, and we do not desire to return thither even in thought.’ [Silmarillion, ‘Of the Coming of Men into the West’] Also, see the discussion between Finrod and Andreth in the ‘Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth’.
10. ‘And in the meanwhile, Men, or the best elements in Mankind, shaking off his [Melkor’s] shadow, came into contact with a people who had actually seen and experienced the Blessed Realm.... In their association with the warring Eldar Men were raised to their fullest achievable stature, and by the two marriages the transference to them, or infusion into Mankind, of the noblest Elf-strain was accomplished, in readiness for the still distant, but inevitably approaching, days when the Elves would ‘fade’.’ [Morgoth’s Ring, Notes on Motives in the Silmarillion]
11. Wisdom 2:24.
12. Genesis 5 and 11.
13. So, for instance, the pre-Deluvian Patriarchs generally live over 900 years (Genesis 5), but after the Deluge, the life spans of the Patriarchs begin to lessen. Noah, the last of the pre-Deluvian Patriarchs, lives 950 years (Genesis 9:29), but his son, Shem, lives only 500 years (Genesis 11:11). By the time we get to Abraham, nine generations later, he only lives 175 years (Genesis 25:7).
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