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Thursday, June 14, 2018

Philosophical Angelology; Part 3: Angel Song

Titania's Awakening by Charles Sims

This post is a part of the online book Philosophical Counseling with Tolkien.

In 1939, as Europe braced for the worst, J.R.R. Tolkien completed the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring, emphasizing how terrible riders in black could terrorize even the peaceful oasis of Frodo´s beloved Shire. The Ringwraiths of Middle-earth added a touch of evil not present in Tolkien´s previous novel, The Hobbit. In The Fellowship, the Black Riders are messengers of a greater evil brewing in Mordor. However, within the parallel perils of Europe in the twentieth century and Middle-earth at the end of the Third Age, Tolkien elegantly writes of safe havens where even in the darkest times, songs of love are sung under starlit skies. Nestled in the perfumed mountains of Rivendell and the ancient forest of Lórien, many of the elves of old knows what to hold on to, and what to let go of. 

It is not unexpected that Frodo should be healed (though never cured) and reunited with Gandalf and Bilbo at the house of Elrond in Rivendell. Readers of The Hobbit already are familiar with the charms of The Last Homely House, the westernmost outpost of the elves. “That house was, as Bilbo had long ago reported, ‘a perfect house, whether you like food or sleep or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all.’ Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness.” In Rivendell the Nine Riders of the enemy are turned back, Isildur´s sword is re-forged and given to Aragorn, and the Fellowship of men, dwarves, hobbits and elves is formed. Despite, or because of such hard work, there is joyous singing, day and night.

The elves of Rivendell are famous for their singing. In the Christian story of creation, the New Testament tells us that in the beginning, there was the Word. In Tolkien´s spin, we are told that in the beginning, there was the Song. Before writing The Hobbit, Tolkien laid out the origins of Middle-earth and how the happy elves found a home there. Though The Silmarillion was first published in 1977, four years after Tolkien´s death, it contains the history behind Middle-earth that Tolkien had been working on for much of his adult life. As it begins, the creator of the world, Ilúvatar, made the Ainur, or Holy Ones, and gave them the power of song. The voices of the Ainur, like innumerable choirs and musical instruments,

Began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went into the Void, and it was not void.

Both elves and men (Quendi and Atani) were created as important players of the world´s symphony. But though the race of men will do great things, Ilúvatar proclaims, it is the elves who “shall be the fairests of all earthly creatures, and they shall have and conceive and bring forth more beauty than all my Children; and they shall have the greater bliss in this world.”

The highest of the “guardian angels” in The Lord of the Rings is Elbereth. At the most critical juncture in the Quest, Sam is inspired to invoke her by name, “speaking in tongues” (language is always the clearest indicator of importance in Tolkien):

A Elbereth Gilthoniel
O menel palan-diriel,
Le nallon sí di-nguruthos!
A tiro nin, Fanuilos (LOTR, p. 712)

This translates as: “O, Elbereth Starkindler from heaven gazing-afar, to thee I cry now in the shadow of death. O look towards me, Everwhite.”

Indeed, Tolkien writes, “I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories), and in fact a Roman Catholic. The latter ‘fact’ perhaps cannot be deduced; though one critic (by letter) asserted that the invocations of Elbereth, and the character of Galadriel…were clearly related to Catholic devotion to Mary” (Letters, no. 288).

Tolkien introduces Elbereth in The Silmarillion as “Varda, Lady of the Stars, who knows all the regions of Ea. Too great is her beauty to be declared in the words of Men, or of Elves; for the light of Iluvatar lives still in her face. In light is her power and her joy” (Silmarillion, p. 27). He also says of Galadriel: “I think it is true that I owe much of this character to Christian and Catholic teaching and imagination of Mary” (Letters, no. 220, p. 407). And he writes to Fr. Robert Murray, S.J., “I think I know exactly what you mean by the order of Grace; and of course by your references to Our Lady, upon which all my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded” (Letters, no. 142, p. 172).

One reason Tolkien did not bring the Valar (angels) more directly into The Lord of the Rings is that they would have “lowered” the Elves, made them less distinguishable from Men, less awesome, less like angels. For Elves are semiangelic beings in The Lord of the Rings, both in themselves and to us. In themselves because they are semi-immortal; to us because when we look at them we look in the direction of the angels, just as when a finger is pointing at the moon.

Elves are not, like the Ainur, pure spirits that can assume bodies as we assume clothing. Nor are they mortals like us. Their bodies are immortal as long as the matter of the world lasts, and if their bodies are killed in Middle-earth, their spirits return to the Halls of Mandos and are given new bodies bu reincarnation.

Tolkien writes, “The Elves represent…the artistic, aesthetic, and purely scientific aspects of the Humane Nature raised to a higher level than is actually seen in Men” (Letters, no. 181, p. 236). The movie has them fight alongside Men (and Dwarf) at Helm´s Deep – a legitimate extension of the friendship between Legolas and Gimli – to show the alliance of all the good species and the involvement of all in the spiritual warfare that is the main theme of history.

One reason both Elves and Dwarves are so common in pre-modern literature is that they represent, roughly, the spiritual and the physical, soul and body, angel-like and animal-like halves of human nature. In The Lord of the Rings, however, the contrast is more between Elves and Hobbits, who are neither artists nor scientists, but humble, earthly, “bourgeois”, creature-comfort-loving homebodies. An author succeeds if we recognize parts of ourselves in each character; but Tolkien aims higher: we recognize parts of ourselves in each species.

Elves and fairies are not quite synonymous, but they are overlapping; and when Tolkien writes the most insightful essay ever written about fairy tales, he is writing about Elves. Indeed, he makes the connection explicitly:

“Faërian Drama” – those plays which according to abundant records the elves have often presented to men – can produce Fantasy with a realism and immediacy beyond the compass of any human mechanism. As a result their usual effect (upon a man) is to go beyond Secondary Belief [literary belief]. If you are present at a Faërien drama you yourself are, or think that you are, bodily inside its Secondary World [as the four Hobbits felt at Tom Bombadil´s house in The Fellowship of the Ring, chap. 7]…To the elvish craft, Enchantment, Fantasy aspires, and when it is successful of all forms of human art most nearly approaches (“On Fairy-Stories”, pp. 51-53).

Kreeft says that this is the clue that solves the great Tolkien puzzle. The puzzle is why, of all humans who ever took pen to paper, Tolkien has produced by far the most convincing, desirable, beautiful, believable, and awesome Elves. And the answer is that he must have been an Elf. Kreeft is quite serious when he says so. Or at least he had Elf blood somewhere in his ancestry. For if any work of literature in the history of the world is a “Faërian drama”, it is The Lord of the Rings.

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