Of Threats to the Valar and Maiar

The Silmarillion Film Project is an entertaining thought exercise, which explores the endless opportunities and seemingly insurmountable difficulties of adapting The Silmarillion to the small screen. As stated in their welcome page, the effort is purely a planning endeavor, marked by discussion and creativity on all levels. The easiest way to familiarize oneself with their work is to start listening to the podcasts; they are very entertaining and have the feel of the best discussion groups.

Episode seven of the hypothetical first season, centers on the creation of the Lamps and setting up a potential red herring in Ungoliant. However, the podcast begins with a fascinating metaphysical discussion on the nature of the Maiar and Valar. They are able to take on corporeal form, yet they are still creatures of Spirit, who presumable may dematerialize and materialize at will. Therefore what danger or fear of harm can they ever experience? Can they be physically harmed? Mentally harmed? Or only spiritually harmed?

This is obviously a critical question that requires answering when adapting the Valaquenta and the Quenta Silmarillion, as so much of the story focuses on the efforts and failings of both the Valar and Maiar.

The Ainur take on physical form after the Music of the Ainur, as they descend into Arda, thereby becoming the Valar and Maiar. In taking their form, they imitate the Vision of Ilúvatar, creating an image of the World as they understand it, while not being of the World (S 21). In the Valaquenta, fittingly, it is explicitly stated that the forms of the Valar are “a veil upon their beauty and their power” (S 29). Like a veil, their perceivable form is unnecessary, and may often cloud their divine nature. Their form is as clothing is to humanity, “they need it not” and as a person “may be naked and suffer no loss of being,” so to with the Valar (S 21). Their form makes them present to the Children, but does not define them or their nature.

This would seem to imply on the surface that a purely physical attack would be meaningless. On the other hand, one may be horrifically scarred by such an attack, even if it only tears or stains one’s clothes or even strips them away entirely. This is the trauma of abuse, or rape; a psychological terror which may hold the key to the nature of the Valar and Maiar.

Morgoth is a unique case, previously discussed in the post “The Nature of Morgoth”. He alone of the Valar has been wounded and experience physical pain, at least so far as is told in the published Silmarillion. In his confrontation with Fingolfin, Morgoth is wounded nine times and “the pain of [those] wounds [cannot] be healed” (S 154). He has invested himself in Middle Earth, become of its nature, able to be wounded but unable to be healed. His case is unique.

Or is it?

During the First and Second Age, Sauron is a shape shifter, able to take any form at will. This ability is most clearly on display during his battle with Huan at Tol-in-Guarhoth, where he changes no less than three times. On that occasion, he is defeated by the great hound, but is shown to be reluctant to “[forsake] his body utterly” (S 175). His “dark house” is no more than a mask, according to Lúthien, who taunts him saying, “thy naked self shall endure the torment of [Morgoth’s] scorn” (S 175). His body is his projection of how he wants the world to see him. Upon escaping, he changes into a vampire bat, yet its throat is torn and bleeding. No pain is ascribed to Sauron here, yet his corporeal form is definitely damaged. Perhaps, like Morgoth, becoming too much of the world, he also has gained this singular curse.

During the Second Age, Sauron is depicted as both domineering Dark Lord and the benevolent Annatar. In either form (if indeed they be two), he is apparently “fair and wise” (S 287). He is able to pass himself off as either the benevolent “Lord of Gifts” or the cowed supplicant before the throne of Ar Pharazôn, and later the high priest and wily advisor. Granted, again, it should be reinforced that Sauron has become worldly and invested himself wholly in the physical realm, but the Akallabêth does give some clear answers.

With the breaking of the Ban, the Valar cede power of Arda back to Ilúvatar. The seas are bent and the isle of Númenor sunk, and Sauron with it. From this point on, Sauron only manifests as the Eye, a form of terror and hate. He is “robbed…of that shape in which he [has] wrought so great an evil, so that he [can] never again appear fair to the eyes of Men” (S 280). It is noteworthy here, that in the preceding sentence, his survival hinges upon the fact that he is not “of mortal flesh” (S 280). It is true that trauma and actions against this flesh have repercussions, which may cause spiritual and even lasting scars to his ability, but again, pain is not mentioned.

The clothing metaphor is most apt when discussing what may threaten a Valar or Maiar. If Sauron and Morgoth are suitable examples, it is easily seen that destruction of their form eliminates that form from their ‘repertory.’ They lose something of themselves. Just as a certain type of clothing may restrict or facilitate certain actions, so too the forms the Valar and Maiar take either restrict, facilitate, or shape their abilities in that particular form.

This may be seen in both Morgoth and Sauron. It is excusable, however, to distrust their example as they are worldly and fallen spirits, who have their own unique traits. Gandalf, perhaps, is the answer.

The Istari are maiar, sent by the Valar in the Third Age to aid in the fight against the growing might of Sauron. They are perceived to be old men, though they do not die. In the book Unfinished Tales, the Istari are described as “clad in the bodies…of Men, real and not feigned, but subject to the fears and pains and weariness of earth, able to hunger and thirst and be slain” (UT 406). By virtue of this explicit description, it may be assumed these last traits are not intrinsic to the Maiar and by extension the Valar. Yet the nature of Gandalf, particularly with regards to his reincarnation, may prove instructive.

When Gandalf returns he is consistently mistaken for Saruman, not because he necessarily looks like Saruman, but because he no longer looks like himself. Éomer warns Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli of Saruman, who “walks about like an old man hooded and cloaked,” much like the man spotted spying on their encampment at the edge of Fangorn who, by dint of not being Gandalf, must be Saruman (LotR 432). Later, the company comes upon a ragged old man in the wood, of similar dress and stature. They, like the reader, are led to believe these two are one and the same. Indeed, Gimli repeatedly admonishes Legolas to halt the man. The four speak, during which the white robes of the old man are revealed. Immediately the three companions jump to attack, believing Saruman to be before them. The flames consuming Legolas’ arrow reveal Mithrandir definitively.

When he reincarnates Gandalf returns in a new form and his friends do not immediately recognize him. His old body is consumed and eliminated, and he returns as “Saruman as he should have been” (LotR 484). If his flesh is simply raiment, to be removed and put on again, why the new form? As an istari, he is bound to the flesh and its associated pains and needs. That flesh is destroyed by the Balrog. Why doesn’t he just return in a new form matching the old?

As Unfinished Tales states, Gandalf is the one and only istari to remain true to their mandate from the Valar. Gandalf is the head wizard, supplanting Saruman in position and power, as seen when he confronts Saruman and Saruman is forced to both obey and his staff is broken. In his new form his power is revealed, and his divine nature lies closer to the skin; he “[shines]…as if with some light kindled within” (LotR 489). He has “forgotten much that [he] thought [he] knew, and learned again much that [he has] forgotten” (LotR 484). Gandalf the Grey is the scholar, the diplomat, the troublemaker. Gandalf the White is the knight, the banner, the leader enflaming hearts to deeds of great renown. In each guise, he is imbued with skills, knowledge, and power necessary for the role.

While none of this exactly defines what a threat to either Maiar or Valar may look like, it seems to establish what they have to lose. Though, as stated in the Ainulindalë, they are not limited to or defined by their form and simply are regardless, it is justifiable that the primary threat to them is the loss of their physical form. It is unclear if the Great Powers may simply take up again a lost form, as Morgoth, Sauron, and the Istari are unique cases, but by their example the forms they take have intrinsic value. Whether the form is lost or not may not matter. What matters is its forcible removal, a violation, when seen in light of the clothing metaphor, akin to rape or physical abuse. The possible wounds of the Valar and the Maiar, while not causing physical pain, cause tremendous emotional, psychological, and spiritual agony, which may be manifested in their physical form.

The Nature of Morgoth

This week for the Grey Havens Group meeting we were reading ‘Of the Ruin of Beleriand.’ Little did I know I was uniquely primed for this chapter to more deeply contemplate the nature of Morgoth, the fallen Valar.

I recently completed and reviewed Stant Litore’s No Lasting Burial. I have also been indulging a guilty pleasure of mine, re-watching Xena: Warrior Princess from its start. Neither was on my mind while reading, but the ideas they espouse brought aspects of the tale of ‘The Fall of Fingolfin’ to the fore as never before.

On a lark, I posted to the GHG facebook page, asking “What does Xena have to do with Morgoth?” and later “the Gift of Men and the Gift of Elves, leprosy and zombies” in order to stir up some interest. It proved to be an entertaining experiment, though I will never get the image of Morgoth in Xena’s armor out of my head. Thanks, Stant Litore!

A couple of weeks ago, I watched the Xena episode ‘Death in Chains,’ which is a retelling of the Greek myth of Sisyphus. In usual Xena fashion, it is no simple mash-up, blending many myths across many cultures.  In the episode, Sisyphus chains Celesta or Death, thereby preventing not only his own passing, but all deaths. Interestingly, however, suffering remains. As in the earlier episode “Prometheus,” humanity loses its ability to heal. Death is not something to be feared, but may be a release, a comfort.

Curious, I did a little research to see how accurate this portrayal is to Greek mythology.

The story of the chaining of ‘death’ is central to the mythology of Sisyphus, being one of the primary reasons for his unique punishment. Celesta is an invented goddess, basically substituting for Thanatos, Hades or Hermes depending on the myth. The twin brothers, Thanatos and Hypnos (Death and Sleep), like the Norse Valkyries, bore the dead down to Hades. The episode also pulls in elements of the keres, death spirits and daughters of Nix, whose touch sends the fallen warrior’s soul to Hades, as described in Hesiod’s Shield of Heracles. Whether it is Hades or Thanatos, the god of death is tricked into the chains meant for Sisyphus. And in one version, where Hades is captured, no one can die, those ill from wound, age or sickness suffer with no relief.

I am no expert on Classical mythology, and do not intend to prove anything about Tolkien’s sources or influences. Instead, I want to establish my frame reference. When I read Tolkien, I attempt to interpret Tolkien from within Tolkien using Tolkien, though applicability always opens new vistas.

The tale of the “Fall of Fingolfin” is unique in all the tales of the Legendarium in that it marks the only time Morgoth answered the challenge of the Eldar. It is also an interesting commentary on the nature of Morgoth, particularly as he relates to his fellow Valar, the Eldar and Men. Much like Sauron’s relationship to the Ring, Morgoth’s works in Middle-earth diminish and “[disperse]” his power, making him “ever more bound to the earth” (S 101). This marks the paradoxical condition in which Morgoth is both “greatest of all things in this world” and “alone of the Valar [knowing] fear” (S 153). These two brief statements are radical in their implications.

From the beginning, Melkor is “mightiest among” the Valar; foremost in power, and cunning (S17). Yet in his quest for dominion, there is a major tectonic shift, which is only hinted at up to this moment. The Valar are made by Ilúvatar, they are creatures of the Void, from without. However, in their choice to descend to the world, their power is “contained and bounded in the World, to be within it forever…so they are its life and it is theirs” (S 20). Paradoxically, the Valar are both of the World, being confined in it, and outside of the World. In part, therefore, they are akin to the Eldar, who “cannot escape and are bound to this world, never to leave it so long as it lasts, for its life is theirs” (S 265). On the other hand, having their origins outside the world, they are also akin to Men, who die not as punishment, but are allowed to “escape, and leave the world, and are not bound to it, in hope or in weariness” (S 265). The Valar, though bound to Arda, are intimately aware of the Void without, though they may not return until the ultimate end.

Returning to the description of Morgoth, given as he comes to answer Fingolfin’s challenge, it is critical to pay minute attention to Tolkien’s choice of words. Notice he says “greatest of all things in this world,” seemingly indicating in power Morgoth may not be judged among the Valar. However, turning the initial quote on its head, he “alone of the Valar” knows fear. These simple word choices demonstrate a great shift; Morgoth is become of the world, in a manner which negates his nature outside the world, thereby taking on traits from the world.

During the battle between Morgoth and Fingolfin, Morgoth is wounded seven times and finally pierced an additional time in the foot before Fingolfin’s death. Coming to preserve Fingolfin’s body from defilement, Thorondor mars Morgoth’s face. These actions in themselves are amazing, but the truly astounding part follows. After the battle, Morgoth is maimed. Not only is he maimed but “the pain of his wounds [cannot] be healed” (S 154). This single phrase shatters everything I ever thought of Morgoth.

“[T]he pain of his wounds [cannot] be healed.”

Think about that. Here is Morgoth, once mightiest of the Valar, wounded, in pain, suffering, with no remedy.

Ever.

There is no mention of hurt or harm ever coming to the Valar or Maiar, or at least any which may not be undone. Melkor has fallen so far it may be argued he may no longer be counted among their number. He has taken on the cares of the world, its fears and pains, with neither the release of the Gift of Men or the death and rebirth in Mandos of the Gift of the Eldar. He is trapped in a state in between.

For him, and presumably all the Valar, there is no death. Yet having invested himself so much in the world as to make himself of the world, he takes on the suffering of death and sickness without the comfort of final release, whether through death or through healing.

In his unsurpassed hunger for works both sacred and beautiful, out of jealousy and a yearning for dominance and the abasement of others that entails, Morgoth may be easily compared to the undead, to zombies. His is an unreasoning and unquenchable hunger, a sharp pain, which though never assuaged is somehow satisfied in the torture and destruction of others. But the wounds, and the pain, remain.

I am reminded of the Biblical treatment of leprosy, in which any ailment of the skin or flesh is proclaimed unclean. Stant Litore takes that to the ultimate extreme, with the unclean dead, but reading No Lasting Burial and Yeshua’s treatment of the hungry dead did remind me of something.

In Biblical times, any ailment was seen as a mark of sin, whether originating in the afflicted or their ancestors. In almost every miraculous healing, Jesus does not just heal the body, he first and foremost heals the soul. This is most poignantly shown during the healing of the paralytic in Luke, where Jesus first forgives the sins of the afflicted man, then, hearing those arrayed against him, commands him to “rise, take up your bed and go home” (Luke 5:24). In this, we are meant to see the more important wound, not that of the flesh, but that of the spirit.

Morgoth’s marred state is curious, and sets him apart. Though one of the Valar, and still mighty among the creatures of the earth, he is wounded and incapable of release. This state makes his fall from grace physical. Nowhere else is there any indication of pain, suffering, deformity or woundedness among the Valar. It radically changes the frame of reference by which Morgoth is to be judged.

The Foresight of Gandalf

The Shadow of the Past chapter is a huge info dump, revealing the nature and history of the Ring.  I have already described a few of the revelations to be found in this chapter, but have left off discussing Gandalf.  In this chapter, the reader gets his or her first peaks at the true Gandalf.  It is edifying to pay close attention to his words, what they imply, especially knowing the future of the War of the Ring.

The history of the loss and rediscovery of the Ring reveals the wandering path by which the Ring reaches Frodo.  For some reason, the fact that the Ring came from Gollum disgusts Frodo, even though it is apparent he already knew its origin.  I believe at this point he comes to understand the full treachery of Gollum.  Frodo hastily calls for Gollum’s death.  This is Gandalf’s response:

“Many that live deserve death.  And some that die deserve life.  Can you give it to them?  Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.  For even the very wise cannot see all ends.  I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it.  And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring.  My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many-yours not the least.” FotR 58

This statement may at first glance appear solely reactionary.  I’ve purposely highlighted a few segments.  Gandalf has some knowledge, possibly never fully revealed, of the future to come.  It is an obvious deduction that Gollum is and always will be tied up in the fate of the Ring.  Yet to say that he has part to play and a role in Frodo’s fate as well is a jump.  It reveals Gandalf’s hidden thought and for the first time his divine nature.   

Later, as already discussed, Frodo attempts to destroy the Ring at Gandalf’s urging.  Yet when the reader pays close attention to Gandalf’s words, he demonstrates grim humor.  It is apparent he knows this attempt will fail.  And yet it would seem he also knows any future attempt would fail as well:

“Gandalf laughed grimly.  ‘You see?  Already you too, Frodo, cannot easily let it go, nor will to damage it.  And I could “make” you-except by force, which would break your mind.”  FotR 59

He has seen this attempt.  He would make the necessary jump.  While the Ring may not consume Frodo, it has a firm hold on him; he can neither relinquish it or wish it harm.  So why then does Gandalf still have hope?  The obvious answer is this:  Gandalf is aware of the presence of the Valar and Iluvatar in the Middle Earth; he trusts in the hope of future eucatastrophe.  In a sense, his own presence as one of the maiar is in itself a eucatastrophe.  He saves the Fellowship from the  Balrog.  He discovers the true nature of the Ring in enough time to send it on its way to destruction.  He organizes and aids in the saving of Rohan and Gondor.

Gandalf is both aware and unaware of his divine nature.  Yet on some instinctual level he must understand how he himself is an agent of Grace.  So why send Frodo on the quest and not himself?  This second question is answered by Gandalf’s response to Frodo’s offer of Ring:

“‘Do not tempt me!  I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused.  The wish to wield it would be too great for my strength.  I shall have such need of it.  Great perils lie before me.‘” FotR 60

And yet, even here, the question of Gandalf’s nature is raised.  How does he know he will need the Ring?  What perils approach?  How much does Gandalf really know?  He is a maia after all.  While in human form, he still holds much of the knowledge of his divine self, though not all.  This is made clearer when Gandalf the Grey becomes Gandalf the White.  In each alias, different qualities of his divine self come to the fore according to the needs of his mission: to aid in the fall of Sauron.

Now everything Gandalf says must come under investigation.  Are these ‘guesses’ just informed conclusions, or evidence of some deeper and miraculous insight?  The quote below emphasizes this point.  It may be interpreted in two completely different ways depending on the stance.

“‘The Ring will not be able to stay hidden in the Shire much longer; and for your own sake, as well as for others, you will have to go…'” FotR 61

Gandalf the Wise makes this statement a statement of fact.  The Ring may not remain in the Shire, because inevitably danger will come.  Given the evidence he has, Gandalf knows the Enemy is aware of the Ring and the Shire as well as the name Baggins.  Therefore, this may just be a statement of concern or an attempt to thwart the inevitable.

As Gandalf the Maia, this statement takes more weight.  The return of the ringwraiths and their coming to the Shire is wrapped up in this one line.  It may also imply further suspision into the coming of Saruman and the ruin of the Shire. 

How much is Gandalf human?  How much is Gandalf divine?