Reading the Silmarillion: Ainulindalë (2) – The Nature of Evil

There’s no sense beating about the bush. If we want to understand Tolkien’s work, there’s no better place to begin than at the ultimate question: what is good? Or rather, what does Tolkien tell us that good is, within the context of this novel?

But that’s a boring question. Let’s ask a more interesting one, which is in the end the same: what is evil?
There is a popular image of Tolkien as a conservative – an arch-conservative. A Little Englander. A man who wants nothing to change, except sometimes for things to change back to the way they were. A religious man, who wants the Church – the original Church, the one and only – to guide our moral lives. Who wants society to be more or less as it was in the depths of the middle ages; who prizes and fetishises Authority, Hierarchy, Obedience. That’s the generous view. A more hostile view – or worse, a more friendly view from entirely the wrong quarters – paints Tolkien as a fascist, and his work, particularly The Lord of the Rings as a fascist heroic epic. A great many seem to believe that Tolkien was perhaps a racist; or, at best, a man who disliked difference, alienness, diversity. A man who believed that everywhere in the world should be full of like-minded middle-class folk from Oxfordshire. Several well-known writers have taken this line; their quotes are quite well-known also: “small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical status-quos”, “a kind of Wagnerish Hitlerism”, “don’t ask any questions”, “a conservative hymn to order and reason, to the status quo”, “a fearful, backward-yearning class for whom ‘good taste’ is synonymous with ‘restraint’… and ‘civilised’ behaviour means ‘conventional behaviour in all circumstances’”.
When we read the Ainulindalë, it’s not hard to find evidence for this view. Melkor, after all, turns to ‘evil’ by failing to carry out the desires of his father. What’s more, the stated motivation for this hardly seems to display an authorial dedication to liberalism. We read that at first the Ainur create a multitude of melodies interwoven in harmony… but that Melkor desires his part to be greater than it is. Thus, disharmony arises. Harmony, of course, was not the immediate state of things: at first, each only knew themselves, and their own part, and only gradually did they come to know each other, and find harmony between the parts. Harmony in music, then, goes hand in hand with fraternity among the musicians. Melkor, however, divides himself out from the others – he goes by himself in empty places, and ‘being alone he had begun to conceive thoughts of his own’.

That’s a tricky statement for those of us who don’t want to paint Tolkien as a reactionnary tyrant. What’s so wrong with having thoughts of your own? Well, maybe nothing at all. The point, after all, isn’t that Melkor has thoughts of his own, but that they are ‘unlike those of his brethren’. And yet is that much of an improvement? Evil is having thoughts unlike those of those around you? Of course not. Tolkien doesn’t mean to say that at all, as we will see in a moment. Tolkien is perfectly OK with people being different, and having different thoughts – creation begins, after all, with each of the Ainur concentrating on their own melodies, and Tolkien will go on to show how they have such different concerns and interests that some seem hardly to interact with certain others. From time to time, they will even come into conflict with one another. When Tolkien says that Melkor’s thoughts became ‘unalike’ from those of his brethren, he can’t just mean that they were different in the same way that they were all different – instead, they must be different in some more fundamental way. And music shows what is meant: the other melodies all harmonise with one another – they are different, and yet alike in their relation to a common music – but Melkor’s melody seeks to drown out that of the others, not harmonise with it.

That’s not a very interesting insight into evil, I’ll be honest. A little more interesting is the implicit reasoning: Melkor seeks power and glory because he has been alone with himself. Tolkien doesn’t spell out what that ‘because’ means, but to me it seems as though the suggestion is that the other Ainur are able to see each other as comrades in a common cause, musicians in the same ensemble; Melkor has been apart for so long that he seems to have lost that sense of fraternity. Melkor’s failure to ‘know his place’ comes from Melkor’s failure to have enough in common with those he is meant to be collaborating with.

If goodness requires a degree of commonality between people, and a willingness to know our place, and yet at the same time we must all be different, what exactly is it that we must keep in common? Tolkien, of course, doesn’t say. Yet there is nothing all that radically conservative in this viewpoint. Even liberals usually agree that a society cannot function without a shared, common framework of beliefs – the difference between liberals and conservatives instead revolves around the extent and specificity of this necessary framework. Tolkien offers no comment on this. Indeed, becoming fanciful for a moment, it’s tempting to read this passage as suggesting that the way in which Melkor’s thoughts become ‘unalike’ is simply that he no longer recognises that they are alike – perhaps his dissent from the community is simply that he does not believe himself to be in community?

Anyway, at first glance this may still not look very pleasant: goodness is being alike? Goodness is knowing your place? But these suggestions are stamped over by Tolkien’s later comments. First, he notes that the disharmony that arises is not simply because of Melkor’s pride. The problem begins with Melkor, but the only result is ‘dischord around him’. That sounds minor; that sounds controllable. What happens next, however, is that some of those around him grow ‘despondent’, and some of those then choose to follow Melkor’s music rather than ‘the thought which they had at first’. Only then do we hear of ‘turbulent sound’ and ‘dark waters’ and ‘a raging storm’ and ‘endless wrath that would not be assuaged’. Melkor is the seed of evil, but he is not the body of it – it is what he inspires in others that brings them to evil.

It’s a very Catholic explanation for the triumph of evil. Even Melkor, by far the greatest of all the Ainur, can do nothing but create a little local dischord; global evil comes not from Melkor’s pride, but from the despair of those around him. Despair – the greatest evil of all, the loss of faith, which is in a way to say the loss of the perfect love of god. And at the root of this is the Catholic doctrine of natural law: the belief that right and wrong can be known by reason alone; the belief that at the heart of everybody is a conscience that can discern each person’s proper actions, and that sin arises from the failure to heed that personal conscience. For humans, of course (as I understand it) this theoretical clarity is obfuscated by the weakness of our intellect and will, and our finite knowledge – for humans, the rational conscience is so likely to go wrong somewhere, to be lead astray by some confusion or temptation, that the best path is to listen closely to God’s more direct advice through Scripture, and Tradition, and the Church, to tell us how to interpret our conscience. But for the Ainur, these limitations are less significant – the Ainur, after all, are angelic beings in the direct presence of God. We can expect their conscience to be pure and their intellect to be acute. So we are not told that many of them were evil, or that many were turned to evil through seduction or temptation. Instead, those around Melkor have, as it were, gone over to the dark side because they have despaired – they have lost their faith in their own conscience, their faith that they must simply follow their own melody. Time and again in Tolkien’s work, it is despair that leads to evil – in The Lord of the Rings, for instance, we may think of Saruman and of Denethor, each of whom first despaired and then surrendered their own principles. That is what despair is: the surrender of one’s own melody.

So if Tolkien’s description of Melkor’s own fall may have seemed a little fascistic, his description of Melkor’s allies should assuage that fear in us: maintaining fraternity, each of us keeping to our own place, our own path in life, must not be confused with doing what we are told, with following the loudest and most glorious noise we hear. That is the route to evil.

And what, in the end, is evil? It isn’t dischord, or disharmony – those are merely the consequences of the fight between evil and good. Instead, we are told, evil “had now achieved a unity of its own; but it was loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated; and it had little harmony, but rather a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes”. Unison, and repetition – that’s Melkor’s world. When somebody tries to tell you that Tolkien is a conservative writer who just wanted everything to be an extension of middle-class England, and that he wanted nothing to ever change, or when people say that his work is chauvanist, or even fascistic, and most of all when fascists themselves appeal to his work… just remember that at the core, his concept of evil is the idea of ‘many trumpets braying upon a few notes’.

This, indeed, is an interesting contrast between Tolkien himself and many of those who have followed after him in the fantasy genre. Often we see it said explicitly or implicitly that the battle between good and evil is the same as, or subordinate to, the battle between order and chaos – with chaos lined up with evil, and order with good. [I’m minded of a striking mantra in the Dragonlance books, where, even though evil/good and chaos/order are theoretically explicitly perpendicular dimensions of character, we are nonetheless reassured that ‘evil turns upon itself’]. In Tolkien, by contrast, evil is if anything associated with an excess of order.

In the end, the fascistic interpretation of Tolkien – perhaps even the conservative interpretation – seem to fundamentally misunderstand Tolkien’s beliefs. Departing briefly from the text itself, we may want to bear in mind that Tolkien himself described his political thoughts as tending toward anarchism; he said that the most ‘improper’ job for any man was bossing another man – even if the boss happened to be a saint; he said (presumably exaggerating) that he would arrest and execute anyone found using the word “State”, so obnoxious was the concept. If he was undemocratic, it was because democracy only elected those who ran for office – who he considered the worst possible people to be allowed to obtain it. His favoured option, he said, would be an unconstitutional king… whose only interest was stamp-collecting. Even his much-discussed antipathy to ‘progress’ was rooted in this anarcho-monarchism: he feared that the end of the ‘inefficient’ old way of life would make his system impossible and require the creation of a strong, Statist, coercive system. His reactionary and antidemocratic urges should therefore be seen not as fascist, not as a desire for authority and hierarchy and obedience and order and reason, but as precisely the opposite: a strong opposition to anything (democracy, efficiency) which could stiffle the individual conscience and the individual voice. He preferred the older, less effective tyrannies, and saw them as protection against the newer and more terrible forms. But this confusion should hardly surprise us, as it is a common confusion regarding the nature of Toryism, perhaps because ‘Tory’ has become synonymous with their replacements, the Conservatives. But in the beginning, ‘Tory’ meant something very different. The name should give it away: it’s a reference to Tory Island, notorious Irish haunt of brigands and rebels. That is to say, Catholic ne’er-do-wells. The Tories became known as Tories because they were Catholics and allies of Catholics – the supporters of Charles II’s Catholic brother, James II… at a time when Catholicism was a despised, persecuted and oppressed minority. That genesis of Toryism seems to me to capture the sense in which Tolkien was a Tory: a persecuted Catholic minority who looked to a powerful monarch for protection against majoritarian, democratic institutions. Many people who might now be seen as rebels, outsiders, the disenfranchised, supported the Tories. Of course, so did a lot of fat rich landowners, and so did a lot of fanatical conservatives and reactionaries, and they went on to be very conservative about a whole lot of things – despite their origin, for instance, it was the Tories who generally opposed Catholic Emancipation in the nineteenth century (and drove electoral reform as a result, hoping, as the Whigs once had before them, that more democracy would help maintain the oppression of minorities). But though the idea of the Tory (particularly Catholic Tory) anarcho-monarchist has fallen out of political (and to a large extent social) relevence, it has a long tradition, and is a better way to approach Tolkien than as a simple conservative.

[An interesting comparison I’ve not seen made that often is between Tolkien’s views and libertarianism. It might be thought that the two could not be more different – and yet. Most libertarianism, classically, has shared Tolkien’s support for a protective central government, though like Tolkien they preferred this government to do very little, and shared his skepticism around democratic institutions and his fear of the tyranny of the majority. Tolkien could probably be seen as a libertarian in very old-fashioned clothing (and probably a bit more to the left, more a One Nation-er than a Neoliberal). Comparisons might also be made between Tolkien and Ayn Rand personally – both writers of very big and very distinctive novels who paint in bright whites and dark blacks and attempt a semi-religious moral importance; both writers, accordingly, who have developed fanatical apologists and vehement enemies. As someone who loves Tolkien and hates Rand, this isn’t a particularly comfortable comparison, but I think it’s there to be made.]

Anyway, enough tangent. I’m not going to pretend that reading the Ainulindalë will make everyone think of Tolkien as a democrat/Marxist revolutionary; I’m not even going to pretend that reading it will give anyone a really clear of what exactly Tolkien thought about anything – I’m not convinced Tolkien knew what he thought on most things, at least in any systematic way.  But the Ainulindalë is where The Silmarillion begins – where our experience of The Silmarillion begins – and I think it lays down important principles regarding how we should approach the stories that follow. Some of those principles I’d like to return to later, but for now, here’s just one of the most important: evil is what happens when powerful people are too proud and wish to dominate others, but it is also, and more devastatingly, what happens when many people lose faith in their own destinies and allow themselves to become voices turned to someone else’s song.

I don’t believe that Tolkien ever intended his books to convey a structure and coherent body of moral ‘theory’ – but I do believe that, reading The Silmarillion, we get a very strong feel of the author’s moral sentiment. If I appear to be ascribing too much to Tolkien’s text or suggesting too close an allegory, it is most likely because I am attempting to bring out this sentiment to greater visibility.

I’ve a feeling we’ll be encountering evil again later on in this book…

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10 thoughts on “Reading the Silmarillion: Ainulindalë (2) – The Nature of Evil

  1. Katie says:

    “That is what despair is: the surrender of one’s own melody.”

    That’s wonderful, I’ve never really read the Ainulindale that way before, but I think that now I always will. Thanks for that.

    And great post on the whole. I think that’s a very convincing way of looking at Tolkien’s worldview.

  2. Thanks for the complement – it’s always fantastic to hear that someone appreciates something I’ve said!

    I must admit, this way of looking at tolkien didn’t really come to me until a few years ago. I think I used to see him primarily as a modern fantasy writer who was a bit odd (in a good way). I now tend to think that the most enlightening way to interpret him is as a Catholic – not to try to say that his work is just an allegory for his religion, but rather to say that his work reflects his way of seeing the world, which is perhaps a Catholic way (with a pagan influence, of course).
    I think I came to this conclusion due to a confluence of things: I happened to have read first The Book of the New Sun and then A Canticle for Leibowitz, two other great works of Catholic genre fiction (explicitly so of course in the latter case). This helped encourage me to consider (and look more closely at) Catholic perspectives (it doesn’t hurt that I was raised Catholic myself, albeit loosely, and I’m neither a believer nor a follower now), and around the same time I got into some arguments about what Tolkien was or wasn’t saying, and the two things seemed to fit together extremely well.
    I don’t think Tolkien was a fanatic, or a theologian, and I don’t intend to bring Catholicism into every one of these posts, but I do think that the starting point of, as it were, ‘Catholic culture’ (and in particular a certain form of English and Anglo-Irish liberal intellectual literary Catholic culture) helps to explain a lot of how he seems to see things.

  3. Katie says:

    I think you’re right. I was raised Catholic as well, and there are lots of aspects of Tolkien that feel really deeply tied into that kind of worldview. But I’ve always appreciated the fact that (maybe because his stories are so deeply entrenched in their own world?) his Catholicism is never, or almost never, of the dogmatic kind in his writings. It’s always floating around as the backdrop, but never falls over that line that would turn it into a Catholic allegory.

  4. Vicomte13 says:

    Your writing is wonderful. Yes, Tolkein was a Catholic, and one who had paid a price for his Catholicism. He was born in South Africa, his mother converted to Catholicism, his father died when he and his brother were very young, and they returned to England. His mother’s family was well-to-do, but refused to extend any help to her and her children unless she renounced her Catholicism and rejoined the Church of England. This, she refused to do, and so she and her children were cut off and left to live in desperate poverty in early 20th Century England. His mother died from exhaustion and untreated illnesses a few years later, but Tolkien was not taken into the family fold. Instead, his mother arranged that he should be raised by her parish priest. JRR Tolkein grew up in a rectory, raised by a Catholic priest. He was an orthodox Catholic who confessed before communion, and took communion every day. His works are not an allegory – he disliked allegory. Rather, they simply reflect who he was, his personality, down to the very core of his being since childhood. He didn’t set out to write Catholic literature, but the nature of who the man was made it such that the music he propounded in his lays was spun of Catholic thread. How could it be otherwise?

  5. Thanks, Vicomte – although reading it back, the post feels rather too rambly to me (as usual).

    I would point out, however, that his mother’s illness was untreated simply because there was no possible treatment – aiui, she actually lived as long as anyone with her condition could be expected to.

    Katie: a little late to respond, but something just struck me. When you talk about Tolkien’s religion as a backdrop, you remind me of what Lewis said about reading MacDonald: that it had baptised his imagination, but not his intellect. This was, I think, the effect that all of these writers were going for – using the ‘fairy tale’ as a way to instill their values and worldview into their readers through the way the world is constructed and portrayed, without having to get into intellectual discussions of it. So they produced works deeply infused with their ideologies, without lecturing to the audience – or tried to. The extent to which they succeeded varied, with Lewis in particular often failing to respect the line.

  6. Vicomte13 says:

    With Lewis, you have a man who was already an adult, an established man, a professor, when he came to Christianity. His works were consciously written for a purpose. With Tolkien, though, we are dealing with something more complicated. His deepest, more thoughtful work – the root works from which both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings sprung – were not really written for an external audience at all. The Silmarillion is really Tolkien’s masterpiece, but it was not so much written FOR an audience as it was literally Tolkien’s own “mar vanwa tyalieva” his “little house of lost play”.

    Tolkien’s life prior to his permanent professorship, was traumatic by any light: orphaned, raised by a priest outside of his own biological family because of bitterness, poverty and then World War I, the Battle of the Somme, lingering illness, the loss of all of his “gang” of boyhood friends, leaving him alone to carry their stories. And lengthy frustration in love engineered by the priest who had been a father to him. The extent to which Middle Earth was a place that Tolkien peopled with races who could speak the languages he had created since he was a teen, and where he could test his sophisticated linguistic theories is easy enough to see, but the extent to which the heroes and events of the Silamarillion are actually episodes of his own life, reduced to poetry, is not at all clear unless one has read his biography and letters. For example, if one reads the stories that were in Tolkien’s work-papers, later published by his son in the “History of MIddle Earth” series, one finds an account of the “Fall of Gondolin” that doesn’t make it even into the published Silmarillion (which itself was not intended for publication by Tolkien),The particularly gritty account of that battle, and of the mechanical machines of the goblins, evokes images of World War I tanks on a Western Front battlefield. Fantasy authors write about battles, but Tolkien himself had actually lived through one of the most hellish battles in human history, and one feels the experience in his account of the destructon of a beautiful Elvish city by the mechanized forces of the enemy.
    Probably most to the point: Tolkien never published the Silmarillion. His son did, after his death. But Tolkien and his wife are buried together under a headstone that was composed by Tolkien himself. The headstone says “Beren” and “Luthien”, without explanation. Had the Silmarillion never been published, nobody would know what that meant. The story of Beren and Luthien Tinuviel is actually a mythologzed account of Tolkien’s meeting of his own wife, and the perils and frustrations they had to endure to finally be able to marry. But for their son’s publishing his father’s work papers, nobody would know the story, or know who those two names were. Lewis was writing for an audience who would buy his books. But Tolkien wrote the deepest core of his stories in the Silmarillion, and it was so intensely personal that he was never satisfied with it, and never was ready for its publication. The Lord of the Rings grew out of that root, and has much of its richness from the underlying Silmarillion, but the world of the First Age and the Second Age were hidden from the public and never shown by Tolkien at all. We are foirtunate that his son unveiled it for us, but Tolkien never did. And it is for that reason that I think it cannot be said of Tolikien’s writings, particularly his Silmarillion, that he was seeking an effect. I think he was truly writing for himself, truly creating a world full of languages as a place where he could play with lnaguages, and filled it with elves and goblins that embodied his own struggle with the world. His work papers show us the way that he rewrote and rewokrd the stories as he matured, to incorporate new moral elements or considerations. The Hobbot he wrote as a children’s story, really, and borrowed from his secret world to people it. The Lord of the Rings flowed from the Hobbit, and drew far more heavily upon Middle Earth (and also required amending the Hobbit to fit the deeper history. But the Lord of ther Rings is really more of a history book, a place where Tokine’s Hobbits were fleshed out more than ever. Tolkien himself, in his deepest heart, most thought about the Elves, though they are only tangential to the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, his great publsihed works.

    This has gone on much too long. Sorry.

  7. Vicomte13 says:

    Sorry about the typos. My computer screen will not let me see past the first few lines, so I had to type the end of that in the blind.

  8. Vicomte13 says:

    Also, as far as his mother’s condition go, when people are worn down with care and overworked, they become vulnerable to physical ailments that they might resist were they better cared for and faced less trauma. The bottom line remains: her wealthy family let their daughter and grandchildren live in poverty and suffer tremendously, without security they could have had, to try to force her through economic privation, to abandon her faith. They were villainous, and what they did marked Tolkien for life. It’s also the reason he was raised in a rectory and why his primary culture was Catholic.

  9. I’m not going to get into the details of Tolkien’s childhood, although I will note that the period you’re talking about (when his mother’s allowance was stopped) only lasted four years of his childhood, and that that poverty, while I’m sure unpleasant, was still a long way from the dire poverty that many people in the country experienced at the time (they rented a cottage in a pleasant, leafy suburb, rather than being, as many Catholics in the city at the time would have been, cramped ten to a room in a moldy tenement block – remember, while Tolkien and his brother played around and read books, and while their mother declined the chance of state-funded education for the boys to spend her time teaching them, nearly a quarter of children their age in England and Wales were already in employment). Also, that his mother’s illness – type one diabetes – isn’t just something you catch when your immune system is overworked, and that she had a reasonably long life for someone with the disease (she didn’t die until she was 34), and that she was the one who insisted he be raised by a priest rather than be allowed to have further contact with her protestant relatives. Even Tolkien, adamant that she died a martyr for the faith, nonetheless admitted that she had killed herself to preserve their Catholicism, rather than claiming that she had been killed by her family to erase it.

    Anyway, about audiences: the general thing I’d say is that just because you don’t intend to publish doesn’t mean you don’t have an audience in mind, an audience you’re trying to communicate with. I’ve written a fair number of short stories myself (or part-written anyway, I have this thing about actually finishing things…), and hardly ever have I had the slightest intention of publishing any of it (it’s not good enough). And I have written for public perusal other stuff, world-building and language-making, that may be publically displayed but for which there is virtually no audience, and into which I’ve put subtleties and references that I’m sure nobody will ever notie. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t see things from the point of view, as it were, of the hypothetical reader. I think this goes double for Tolkien, whose style was that of a storyteller, a bard – the role of the storyteller, the nature of the story that is told, is nothing without the person they’re telling it to, even if sometimes that means they have to tell their stories to an imaginary, hypothetical audience.

    The specific thing I’d say is that in fact Tolkien did want to publish his writings. In the specific case of the tale of Beren and Luthien, he a) wrote the story in a book he wanted to publish, but abandoned; b) showed the story to friends; c) wrote a complete prose version of the story and an incomplete version in poetry, which he actually sent out to publishers; d) included the story in two complete versions of the silmarillion that he showed to friends and that were meant to form the basis for a later published work; e) included it in an incomplete version of the silmarillion that he tried to have published before he wrote The Lord of the Rings; f) included it in the revised silmarillion he tried to publish alongside or shortly after The Lord of the Rings; g) included a brief retelling of it in The Lord of the Rings itself, so yes, people would have known what he meant by ‘Beren’ and ‘Luthien’ even if his son had never succeeded in publishing the nachlass. [And even if the public hadn’t, his friends and family would have done]

  10. Vicomte13 says:

    I leave you in possession of the field.

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