Reading the Silmarillion: Aule and the Dwarves

Aulë, Melkor, and Tolkien – the dangers of industry, and the author’s art

Probably the single most thematically important section of the early chapters details Aulë’s creation of the dwarves. Given how little role the dwarves have to play in the stories that will follow – how little is even said about them explicitly in the mythology – that may seem a strange claim. But of course the dwarves are not the point of this story – they’re just bystanders at their own creation (and near-destruction). The pivotal figure is instead the Vala, Aulë, the Smith. Aulë doesn’t come across all that well in the mythology as a whole, as I said in my last post: at least two of his followers turn very seriously to evil, he himself is said to be the most like Melkor in spirit and interests, and here we see him committing what looks almost like a Cardinal Sin for Middle-Earth. ‘I’m just going off for a nap,’ says God (not really, but you get my drift), ‘you just stay there and don’t touch anything. I’ve decided what intelligent life is going to look like, and don’t you start interfering with that like Melkor tried to do!’. So then Aulë waits around for a bit, but gets bored: ‘oh, I’ll just create a little intelligent life, and overstate my own importance in the same way Melkor did just for a moment, what’s the worst that can happen?’ – ‘Aulë, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE!?’

Tolkien gets bashed a lot for his supposed anti-industry stance, and his repeated ‘oh it’s all Aulë’s fault’ plot points are a big piece of supporting evidence for that. I don’t want to get into that argument itself here, but I think that this incident does raise two important issues.

The first is simple: if Aulë’s so flawed, why isn’t he Melkor? We’re told they’re alike, but why are they on different sides if they’re so alike? What is it that keeps Aulë on the side of good? And it turns out that this is more important than just a character point – this goes to the heart of Tolkien’s political and moral views.

First, it’s worth making clear the similarities. Aulë, like Melkor, wants to create. Aulë, like Melkor, wants to overstep his allotted role. Aulë, like Melkor, chooses to work in secret. Secrecy and honesty seem to play an important role for Tolkien: again and again he contrasts the images of the good Ainur, cavorting with each other in the bright light, and the evil Melkor, solitary, fearful, hidden in the shadows of the earth, in the deep dark unknown places – just as, before, the good Ainur were joined together in a choir, while Melkor went alone into the outer void. Aloneness is not necessarily bad in Tolkien’s world – we are told that Ulmo stays apart from the congregations of the other Valar, and Ulmo hardly seems evil – and yet, is Ulmo wise and good because he keeps to himself, or is it that Ulmo can keep to himself and not turn evil because he is wise and good, the most deeply instructed of all the Valar? And Ulmo may be alone, but he is not secretive – he communes regularly with Manwë. In any case, secrecy may not be evil per se, but it certainly seems both suspicious and dangerous.

So Aulë goes out into Middle-Earth and creates the dwarves. He desires learners, so that he may be a great teacher; he is ‘unwilling’ to abide by Eru’s intentions. In a way, Aulë has lost faith in Eru: he sees the wonders of Middle-Earth, and regrets that there is no-one to enjoy them. He doubts the wisdom of Eru’s decisions. In this, he is like those whom Melkor swayed to his side in the great music, by disheartening them.

But the difference comes when Ilúvatar sees what has been done and chastises Aulë. We see it within one sentence: “Ilúvatar spoke to him; and Aulë heard his voice and was silent.” That’s not just a conversational nicety that Tolkien’s reporting, it’s a fundamental theological point. Remember the events of the Ainulindalë – when Melkor’s theme intruded into the music, Ilúvatar merely smiles and introduces a new theme, but Melkor responds to the correction by contending against Ilúvatar further. Melkor tries to drown out Ilúvatar with a great clamour of trumpets; Aulë hears his father’s voice and is silent. It is all said in that; but Tolkien spells it out more clearly by having Aulë explicitly yield to the correction and repent. Yet it is not repentence that Ilúvatar is seeking: Ilúvatar does not have mercy on Aulë and the dwarves because Aulë regrets what he has done – indeed, Ilúvatar does not permit Aulë to undo his ‘error’. There is no forgiveness in any sense that involves an undoing of what is done. Here we have reached one of those peculiar places of agreement, where a certain strain of christianity shares its habitation with that great modern antichrist, Nietzsche: both Nietzsche in his love of life, his adulation of strength, his contempt for any sort of weakness or uncertainty, and the christian in his submission to God, his faith in God’s goodness, his willingness to put his life in God’s hands, both share this emphasis on affirmation – and affirmation begets responsibility. The responsible man is not the man who is willing to undo what he has done, but the man who is willing to live with what he has done, to leave it done. Aulë is hubristic in creating the dwarves – but he is also hubristic in seeking to exterminate them, for regret itself is a form of hubris. No, Ilúvatar does not have mercy on Aulë because he wants to destroy the dwarves – he has mercy on him ‘because of his humility’. Because Aulë has responded to correction – because he has put his work in God’s hands, not sought to keep control of it for himself. That is why Aulë is not Melkor: because when Melkor creates in the great song, and is corrected, and sees his theme taken up and taken over by Ilúvatar, he does not let go of that music, take pride in having added something new to the song, and abide by the correction – Melkor rages to keep his music his own. Aulë submits his work to the will of his Father. This has been a common theme in Catholic teaching for a long time: that the greatest sin is not in the error itself, but in holding to error once one has been shown that it is an error.

But why does Tolkien include all this at all? Why does it matter to him? Although he is clearly an author with firm moral views, I do not for a moment suppose that The Silmarillion should, as a whole, be treated as a moral discourse. So why does he seem to care about this relatively obscure issue, about the morality of rebellious creation?

Because this is the sin that he himself was guilty of. This is the second interesting issue raised by this episode. Melkor, Aulë, and Tolkien, were all authors: they all created what had not (it seemed) been part of God’s plan. Rather than being contented by the world as it was, they sought to to create something new. And Tolkien, we must remember, was a worldbuilder first and a novelist second: these stories are excuses, justifications, for the world he had created in his head. Even today, many worldbuilders of a religious persuasion experience moral qualms about their work – and Tolkien was working in an age where the entire concept of ‘fantasy’ as we know it was far less established. Earlier writers could generally only get away with fantasy by casting it as the strange dream of the protagonist, or a legend preserved by some old manuscript of forgotten more magical times… Tolkien created a world that set out to be as solid as our own (that, technically, was our own, but with this identity barely mentioned). It is hard not to imagine that in Tolkien’s childhood – an orphan raised by a priest – between hubris and indolence the practice of inventing imaginary worlds was not something that was unambiguously encouraged in him. Famously, he later referred to the creation of languages in particular as “The Secret Vice” – humorously in part, no doubt, since he hardly seems to have been convulsed by guilt over this ‘vice’, but the idea that it might be considered a vice at all indicates an underlying moral doubt. So Aulë’s speech to Ilúvatar – the speech that exonerates Aulë of guilt, that distinguishes Aulë from Melkor, that asserts the legitimacy (and perhaps the foolishness, but at any rate the legitimacy) of this sort of creation, is perhaps the place in the book where Tolkien’s voice is heard most directly and most intimately in the words of his character, which lay out a moral and theological theory that was of import to no-one more than to himself:

“I did not desire such lordship. I desired things other than I am, to love and to teach them, so that they too might perceive the beauty of Eä, which thou hast caused to be. For it seemed to me that there is great room in Arda for many things that might rejoice in it, yet it is for the most part empty still, and dumb. And in my impatience I have fallen into folly. Yet the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee; and the child of little understanding that makes a play of the deeds of his father may do so without thought of mockery, but because he is the son of the father. But what shall I do now, so that thou be not angry with me for ever? As a child to his father, I offer to thee these things, the work of the hands which thou hast made. Do with them what thou wilt.”

Of course Ilúvatar has to accept the offering – if he hadn’t done, Tolkien would no doubt have burnt the manuscript.