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.