’In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’
Thus the Holy Scripture of the Catholic Church begins and the profession of the Catholic faith takes the idea up when it confesses in the Apostles’ Creed that God the Father almighty is ‘Creator of heaven and earth’, and, in the Nicene Creed, ’of all that is, seen and unseen’. Tolkien, as a devout Roman Catholic, took these things to heart and confirmed them in his daily and weekly routine as a practitioner of that faith.
The universal human questions of ‘Where do we come from?’ ‘Where are we going?’ ‘What is our origin?’ ‘ What is our end?’ and ‘Where does everything that exists come from and where is it going?’ were answered for Tolkien, as they are for Catholics all over the world today, in these Christian precepts. For the modern, agnostic or atheistic mind, which is often haunted by a lack of answers to the above, it may seem strange to suppose that one can live life with a high degree of daily certainty about these answers, not only knowing when and how the universe arose physically, or when man appeared, but also living within the meaning of such an origin: is the universe governed by chance, blind fate, as the modern view would have it, or by a transcendent, intelligent and good Being whom Catholics call God? And if the world does originate in God's wisdom and goodness, why is there evil? Where does it come from? Who is responsible for it and is there any solution to it?
For our purposes, the fundamental interest here is that the Catholic view of the universe, its nature and shape, its origins and its final destiny, though devoutly shared by Tolkien in life, were at odds to one degree or another with the view he sought to express through his great legendarium, the world of Middle-earth. There is no suggestion that Tolkien was a heretic or that he didn't truly believe in the Catholic version of things, only that his sub-creation explored other possibilities.
Ancient religions and cultures produced many myths about the nature of the universe: some said that everything is God, that the world is God, or that the development of the world is the development of God (as in Pantheism); others have said that the world emanates from God and returns to him. Still other worldviews have affirmed the existence of two eternal principles, Good and Evil, Light and Darkness, locked in permanent conflict (as in Dualism and Manichaeism). According to Gnosticism, for example, the world - at least the physical world- is the product of a fall, evil by its nature, and is to be rejected or abandoned. Deism states that the world was made by God and then left to function on its own, as a watch-maker makes a watch and then leaves it to its own operations.
Materialists reject any transcendent origin for the world, seeing it as merely the interplay of matter that has always existed (Materialism).
What we find in examining Tolkien’s creation is that it differs from the standard Catholic view and merges into some of the above.
Tolkien wrote in a letter that The Silmarillion is a story of ‘the long defeat’ (Letters, no. 195) There are six major battles against Morgoth, who represents the source of evil in Middle-earth: three are devastating defeats for the forces of Good, and one ends with the destruction of half the world as Tolkien envisaged it. Even when Morgoth is imprisoned at the end of The Silmarillion, we are told that he will break free again one day and throw the world into darkness. The Ainulindalë, or Music of the Ainur, describes the universe as created by Eru (or Tolkien’s sub-created God) and sung into being by the Valar (Tolkien’s angels). However, the angel Melkor rebels and seeks to make his own music outside that of Eru's, introducing discord and conflict into the melody. Tolkien then steps majorly away from Catholic theology: instead of God or Eru creating the world and then Melkor entering into it to try and spoil it, as in orthodox Christian belief, Eru takes Melkor’s rebellious theme into his own music thematically, making it part of the basic grand design. So the Creation that we end up with in The Silmarillion and therefore in the entire mythos of Middle-earth is one which has in-built flaws. Tolkien wrote a letter to a friend in 1951:
In this Myth the rebellion of created free-will precedes creation of the World (Eä); and Eä has in it, subcreatively introduced, evil, rebellions, discordant elements of its own nature already when the Let it Be was spoken. The fall or corruption, therefore, of all things in it and all inhabitants of it, was a possibility, if not inevitable. (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 131)
In a way, Tolkien ‘re-invents’ the Christian story. Instead of seeing the world as a perfect Creation into which Evil has entered, eventually to be overcome by the intervention of God through his Son Jesus Christ, Tolkien ‘re-boots’ everything so that the world itself is inherently evil to some degree. This is a kind of Manichaeism or even Gnosticism, a view which states that there is an ongoing battle between Good and Evil at the root of everything or that the world is fundamentally imperfect and should be rejected. We see it more plainly, perhaps, in the nature of the One Ring in the story of The Lord of the Rings which is in effect a ‘footnote’ to The Silmarillion: does the Ring have some mind of innate power by which it enchants its wearers? Or is the evil already inside them, being stirred into life by its presence? In other words, is evil an objective force, existing outside the individual, to be recognised and combatted and perhaps eventually defeated, or is it subjective - a psychological defect in everyone, harder to confront and overcome and part of the way we are made?
Part of the power of The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s other developed tales is that this question is never really settled - and that power rests on this fundamental difference in the ‘theology’ of Tolkien compared with his Catholic orthodoxy: while in Creation God made a perfect world which then fell, in Tolkien’s world Eru made an imperfect world which was doomed from the beginning.
That difference is important on many levels, as we will see in future articles.