The Nature of Time

As part of the Tale of the Sun and Moon, Tolkien also tells of the creation of time and how the sun and moon become fixed in their paths.  Ultimately the scene is highly problematic and never quite fit in the larger mythology.  And so it was culled from the final tale.  Yet there are many intriguing ideas presented in the tale which give a sense of the nature of time as Tolkien saw it, minimally within the context of his sub-created world, but possibly for our own world as well.

Soon after the creation of the Sun and Moon, problems arose due to the irregularities of their paths and speeds.  The Gods take council, and three aged men appear in their midst, who offer a solution to their problem.  They agree to let them try, and give the brothers space in which to work.

“There did they spin and weave in secret, and after a space of twice twelve hours Danuin came forth and spake to Manwë, saying: ‘Behold my handicraft!’; and none knew his intent, for his hands were empty.” (TBoLT I p245)

When the ship of the sun returns, the first of the brothers, Danuin, affixes his work to the stern, and thus is the sun constrained.

“…after twenty nights and eight came forth Ranuin and he said also: ‘Behold my handicraft!’ and yet no more could be seen in his outstretched hands than before in those of Danuin.  Now Ranuin waited until Ilinsor brought the Rose of Silpion unto Valinor, and then going he set his hands against a jag of glass upon that isle, and thereafter might no many stir Ilinsor’s bark far from Ranuin against his will…” (TBoLT I p245-6)

And thus is the moon constrained also.  For a long time the Gods pondered the meaning of this, until after thirteen cycles of Rána, Fanuin came forth.

“…he bid the Gods detain Ilinsor that at Sári’s coming both the ships might stand in Valinor at once.  But when this was done he begged aid of the Gods, ‘for,’ said he, ‘I have fashioned somewhat of great weight that I would fain show to you, yet cannot of my own strength hale it forth.’  And seven of the stoutest from the halls of Tulkas went to the place of Fanuin’s laboring and could not see aught therein; but he bid them stoop, and them seemed they laid hands upon a mighty cable and staggered beneath it as they laid it upon their shoulders, yet could they not see it.

Then going unto Sári and to Rána in turn Fanuin moved his hands as though he were making fast a great rope to each of those vessels; but when all was done he said to Manwë: ‘Lo, O Súlimo Lord of the Gods, the work is wrought and the ships of light are set in the unbreakable fetters of time, which neither ye, nor they may ever break, nor may they escape therefrom, albeit these fetters are invisible to all beings that Ilúvatar has made; for nonetheless are they the strongest of things.” (TBoLT p 246)

And so are the Sun and the Moon bound, creating Day, Month and Year.  And dragging behind them the bonds of the three brothers, they wind Time around the entire world, and so are all within it bound by Time.

Now this concept of the beginning of Time is troublesome, and was ultimately dropped.  Yet the ideas about the nature of time are arguably still present.  One has only to look to Gollum’s riddle for reference:

“This thing all things devours:

Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;

Gnaws iron, bites steel;

Grinds hard stones to meal;

Slays king, ruins town,

And beats high mountain down.”

(The Hobbit, p 91)

The nature of time as a weave or a rope is of ancient origin, seen countless times in the mythology of many cultures.  Yet always it is seen as strands watched over by Fates or guardians of some form.  It is not so much a constraint or a guiding power in the movements of the world, but largely seems to be the realm of the oracle or fortune teller.  While the idea of being bound by fate or time is present, it has a much weaker overall quality compared to what Tolkien proposes in this tale.

As suggested by the riddle, in many ways Time is all powerful, holding sway over all things.  Like darkness, it cannot be seen, and cannot be felt.  What is interesting about this scenario, the creation of time, is that it cannot be done by the Valar.  They are constrained by being part of the world.  The power of time comes from without, ultimately from Ilúvatar himself.

The symbol of the weave or the rope is a strong one with regards to time.  It lends itself easily to manifold interpretations of the nature and substance of time.  However, I am not going to discuss that here.  What intrigues me most with this tale is the notion of being bound by time; bound to the world, bound to age, bound to history.

The Children of Ilúvatar are given different gifts.  The Gift of the Elves is that of long life and unsurpassed love of the earth.  They are of the earth, and so when they die, they are removed to Valinor and eventual rebirth.  Through it all, they are firmly lashed into the strands of Time.

What happens after Men die does not appear fully developed at this point in the development of the Legendarium, but the notion of Time as bonds adds meaning to the ultimate definition of the Gift of Men.  The Gift of Men is short life and death.  To us, in our search for ever longer life, this seems absurd.  Yet in death, Men are allowed to leave the bonds of Time and move Beyond.

Again, this is a moment where I believe Tolkien’s faith played a major part in the development of this “Gift.”  When we die, and leave the bonds of Time, we are born into Eternal Life in Heaven, outside Time.

Presumably, looking to Biblical sources, before the Fall, Men would have lived on without the presence of death much as the Elves do in Middle Earth.  We would be tied to the earth.  After the Fall, Men are burdened by death with little hope of redemption.  With the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, Men were redeemed and so allowed to leave the confines of the world for eternal life.

I’ve read before that the Elves have been interpreted as an “unfallen” race of Men.  There is some truth in that, which can be seen through this analysis of time.  It can be argued that Men of Eden are the equivalent of Elves and after the Fall are as Men, and following death may be as Elves once more.  I don’t really agree with the idea, but in writing this post I’ve come to understand the logic and implications of this notion for the first time.

For myself, I see the Gift of Men as one of the great examples of how Tolkien was able to create the Pre-Christian Christian myth.  By largely eliminating the notion of a “fall,” Tolkien shines light on the truth: death is no longer punishment but gift.  And this is only reinforced by the concept of time as bond.


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