I wrote a thesis back in 1983, never published. In it I was exploring (amongst other Tolkieny things) the ambivalence that Tolkien had towards what he called ‘sub-creation’ or artistic endeavours. This can be seen throughout his work - subtly throughout the Middle-earth material and more obviously in allegorical works like ‘Leaf by Niggle’ and ‘Smith of Wootton Major’. The thread is to do with the possible sinfulness of creativity, and it’s quite fascinating - at least, to a complete Tolkien nerd like me.
In brief, it is the conflict between creativity as a good thing, an offshoot of divine Creation, and creativity as a bad thing, a turning away from God and ‘doing your own thing.’
You see it first, perhaps, in Melkor’s rebellion in the Music of the Ainur. Clearly, Melkor had his own agenda and this went against the intended harmonies of Eru - but Eru brings the disharmonies back into line, as it were, as the Music goes through its phases. By the time we come down the line to the Elves, the ambivalence is more subtle and less clear: is Feanor wrong to create the Silmarils? Is he wrong because he claims them for his own and doesn’t acknowledge that the light they hold was created originally by the Valar? Or is he wrong to have created them at all?
So Feanor himself is morally ambiguous. He’s more of an anti-hero. It’s interesting, therefore, that Gandalf seems to venerate him. But in Gandalf’s case, there is something else coming into play, possibly: Gandalf and Fire have a close relationship -the Ring of Fire, Narya, the fact that he is a Servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor, his pipe-smoking, his fireworks.
Feanor as a name comes from the Quenya ‘Feanoro’ or ‘Spirit of Fire’ and so there is a connection along a kind of spiritual kinship line. But then fire is ambiguous too: creating warmth but burning and destroying in the process. When Feanor died, his fiery spirit reduced his body to ashes. This is deeply symbolic stuff.
And it intimately relates to Tolkien’s own relationship with his created Middle Earth and everything in it: was it morally right to be so focussed on such an endeavour (especially when he had plenty of other stuff he was supposed to be doing)? Or was it simply self-indulgent and prideful in the extreme? Was creating a ‘secondary reality’ as he called it actually defying God? Or could God sanctify it in some way and make it real on some plane (as we see happening in ‘Leaf by Niggle’)?
That’s one of the reasons why Tolkien (and all other serious fantasy creators) have to, in the end, confront walking away from their sub-creation, as is actually reflected in the plot by the withdrawal or removal of the characters from the ordinary plane of reality as depicted in the tale.
More on this in future posts.