A bit of poetry…

I have always found the character of Ulmo fascinating, particularly as a contrary perspective to the other Valar. Therefore, when the Grey Havens Group threw down the poetry gauntlet, Ulmo’s side of the story became my primary focus. After becoming familiar with the rhyme scheme and structure of Tolkien’s “Light is Leaf of Lindentree,” I thought I’d try my hand at something similar. I figured I’d share in case there might be some merit in what I’ve produced; and perhaps I will return to its composition in the future.

Ulmo gazed in frozen wonder
on vision below of songs made
in turbulent roll of thunder,
on seas of harmonies heaving,
a wild concert of hymns which swayed
heart of him whose spell fell under,
the mighty ainu whose voice shall wade
in deeps and heights of song weaving.

But down among the waves new-formed
fire and smoke rose, in swift reply,
as in a tortured dance performed
destructive alchemy seeming.
And dark cold sunk to ossify
a spray of foam up lept deformed.
Harsh crystal and cruel steam awry
anguish bought and tears new-streaming.

Simmering seas and frozen swells,
heats and colds unmindful broken,
in violence none may dispel,
brought Ulmo swiftly angering.
Unseeing eyes in rage woken
sought Melkor, whose singing like spell
had shattered harmonies woven
with discord crassly battering.

But quick Eru was to halt him
and prompt the marvel to reveal,
“See Melkor hast not made ruin grim
but snows and clouds and rains shining,
of envious desire a new ideal
that to my glory greater hymn
might raise the Ainur as they kneel
and fill my Theme with joy twining.”

“See how the fire’s rage brightly sears
yet thy song’s pure form remains true.
In twisted curls the tune appears
up to thy brother embracing,
and with his breath of winds make dew
to fall in gentle wave of tears
where two unite and powers brew
new friendship beyond replacing.”

“Know now thy brother Manwe best
through Melkor’s might and challenge bought,
from storm, and tide, and brief tempest,
new works beyond compare springing.
In biting cold rimed flake is wrought
to fly the airs and find its rest
on shore or branch or ice is caught
the delicate limpet clinging.”


Of Evil and Lust

‘Of Beren and Lúthien’ is arguably the central story of Tolkien’s entire Legendarium. All tales lead to and stem from the pivotal events described. As such, the tale is uniquely suited for closer study, as a microcosm of sorts of the entire history of Arda.

At the last meeting of the Grey Havens Group we discussed this most beautiful and most powerful of Tolkien’s works. Badgaladriel commented at one point that the unsurpassed beauty of Lúthien is difficult to even begin to imagine. Like Helen of Troy, it is a superlative quality which is impossible to qualify. However, in both cases, initially, we were only contemplating external, visual beauty and one member posited that Lúthien’s beauty may be of the flesh, but is also, and perhaps predominantly, a beauty of the spirit.

Lúthien is the most beautiful in the history of Middle-earth not just in appearance, but in substance, and in spirit.

She is the only scion of the pairing of Maiar and Eldar. Not only that, but Thingol is of the eldest, first generation of the Eldar, and one of the three emissaries to see the Trees of Valinor. In her the great and wise are combined. As a maiar, Melian stands among the most powerful beings of Arda, only surpassed by the Valar themselves. The persistent strength of the Girdle is a great testament to her power, only destroyed when she leaves her bodily form in grief following the death of Thingol.

This is Tolkien’s greatest story of love. Lúthien, and all her actions, is defined by it. In some sense, she is suffused by it in a loveliness which is love.

Morgoth lusts for this beauty: of light and love.

The Roman Catholic Catechism describes both greed and lust in similar terms. In both cases, describing the ninth and tenth Commandments, the Catechism refers to the ‘three kinds of covetousness…lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes and pride of life’ (CCC 2514). The desires in and of themselves are good and natural, but often become unreasoning, leading one to ‘covet what is not ours’ (CCC 2535). Also, in both cases these desires are driven by what St. Augustine calls ‘the diabolical sin,’ which is envy. Envy ‘refers to the sadness at the sight of another’s goods and the immoderate desire to acquire them for oneself, even unjustly’ (CCC 2529). The Catechism continues, stating that envy is also a ‘refusal of charity’ and an expression of pride (CCC 2540).

Understanding Lust, Greed, and Envy in this light is important to an understanding of evil in Tolkien’s work, and Morgoth in particular.

Morgoth’s rebellion begins in the very first moments of creation at the singing of the Ainur. Though the greatest of the Valar, and the brother of Manwë, he ‘[envies] the gifts with which Ilúvatar promised to endow” his children, wishing ‘to be called Lord,’ with mastery over them (S 18 &28). Seeing the fire of life kindled in Arda, the other Ainur’s ‘hearts [rejoice] in the light…[and are] filled with gladness’ (S 19). Melkor’s is not. Instead he envies the unique gifts and status given to the Children of Ilúvatar, as well as those unique skills and powers granted the other Valar entering Arda.

Entering the world, the Valar take on earthly forms, ‘lovely and glorious to see,’ filling Melkor with further jealousy. This envy, which consumes him, and his pride of place twist him into a ‘form…dark and terrible,’ falling ‘from splendor…through arrogance to contempt for all things save himself, a spirit wasteful and pitiless’ (S21 & 31). It would appear, therefore, that Melkor’s envious nature poisons his own power, making him incapable of taking on like form. He is filled by insatiable lust for power, for status and for beauty. First of all things he desires ‘Light, but when he [cannot] possess it for himself along, he [descends] through fire and wrath…into Darkness’ (S 31). Morgoth longs for the primordial physical Light, not just a desire for possession in some part, but for possession entire to the exclusion of all others. Presumably, as Light is intrinsically tied up in the genesis of Life (see the burgeoning growth in Middle-earth following the rise of the sun), in his quest to supplant Ilúvatar, Light holds to the key to the domination he desires. And so, all the wars of the First Age, and even those which follow, are defined by the contested ownership of Light, which may be seen as the sacred relic in Middle-earth’s crusades.

Upon their creation, Melkor immediately ‘[lusts] for the Silmarils, and the very memory of their radiance [is] a gnawing fire in his heart,’ causing him both joy (as far as he is able) and tremendous pain (S 66). Ungoliant too, twisted and strengthened by Melkor’s might, ‘[hungers]…for the light and hated it,’ gorging herself in an attempt to feed the ‘emptiness’ inside (S 73). This emptiness is intriguing. It implies the absence of something which was there before. This emptiness is the light of goodness, of life, of charity which is present upon the creation of the Ainur, but is somehow lost in Melkor’s rebellion during the Music. In Tolkien, evil is fallen. Fallen from goodness, or twisted. The hunger and unending emptiness is the sense of that loss within them; and the destructive lust and envy its direct byproduct.

This lust for light, beauty and sanctity, even in the face of searing and everlasting pain, defines evil in Tolkien, though in later years it becomes a lust for their destruction.

When Beren and Lúthien come to the gates of Thangorodrim, they are confronted by Carcharoth, a great beast of terror, fed by the hand of Morgoth with ‘living flesh’ (S 180). In a moment akin to Glorfindel at the flight to the ford, Lúthien is revealed in all her power, ‘radiant and terrible’ (S 180). Again reveale, before the seat of Morgoth, her beauty is the object of ‘evil lust’ (S 180). Morgoth is entranced by her beauty, in some ways like any man would be, but also by the thoughts of evils which might be perpetrated through possession of her. Escaping with the Silmaril, Beren and Lúthien again confront Carcharoth. Beren thrusts the gem at the beast, but rather than quail in its holy light, as does Shelob, he ‘[is] not daunted, and the devouring spirit within him [awakes] to sudden fire,’ driving him to consume the jewel (S 181).

The utter possession of beauty and purity desired by these exemplars (Morgoth and Carcharoth) is a striking aspect of this tale. Unexpectedly, evil hungers for good, for beauty, for purity and for love. True, their desire is unreasoning and without self-control, but remains the excessive expression of a natural impulse.

Might Morgoth desire his own redemption? Might all evil things? Yet looking back at the nature of envy, he must first die to self, eliminate pride and accept charity.

The Arrogance of Evil

One of the striking details of the early Tale of Tinúviel is the depiction of evil and the method by which evil is defeated or, more accurately, circumvented.  The nature of evil is explored to some extent through the protagonists’ direct interactions with both Melko and Tevildo.  In the three primary confrontations, Beren and Tinúviel deal with their adversaries in very similar manner.

First, Beren is captured and brought before Melko.  Melko is at first incensed that a Gnome, one of his thralls, had left his domain to mingle with Men.  Beren responds first with flattery, calling Melko “Lord of the World” and extolling his great “splendor and glory,” while also declaring his utmost contempt for the race of Men.  Following this praise, Beren begs Melko to permit him to serve as a hunter or trapper.  Melko accepts, but there is some confusion in the narrative concerning precisely why.  Was Beren’s speech in some manner inspired by the Valar, or blessed by Gwendeling (Melian)?

“Flattery savoured ever sweet in the nostrils of that Ainu, and for all his unfathomed wisdom many a lie of those whom he despised deceived him, were they clothed sweetly in words of praise.” (TBoLT II p13)

The question implied in the narrative is answered, I believe, by the common bond between arrogance and evil.  Melko was not always evil, even in the earliest Tales.  He began as one of, if not the, most powerful and wise of the Ainur.  His fall, as with Lucifer, stems from his overbearing pride.  He believes he is superior to all others, even Ilúvatar as evidenced by his contrary themes.  He believes he is the greatest of the Valar, and therefore rightfully the overlord of Arda.  Every piece of flattery and praise heaped on him by Beren is held as his rightful due, so firmly believed by himself, and so cruelly denied by the other Valar.  And so evil is deceived through its own pride and overweening sense of self-worth.  As Melko believes the Truth of each of Beren’s appellations, he cannot conceive the thought that the speaker could be only giving lip service.

When Tinúviel confronts Tevildo, the strategy is similar yet subtly different.  Upon gaining entry to his stronghold through flattery of one of his thanes, Tinúviel exploits the extreme hatred between cats and hounds.  She spins a tale of the near presence of Huan, and his apparent infirmity.

“Now all this that Tinúviel spake was a great lie in whose devising Huan had guided her, and maidens of the Eldar are not wont to fashion lies…Tevildo however, himself a great and skilled liar, was so deeply versed in the lies and subtleties of all the beasts and creatures he seldom knew whether to believe what was said to him or not, and was wont to disbelieve all things save those he wished to believe true, and so was he often deceived by the more honest.” (TBoLT II p24)

Tevildo is in some ways craftier than Melko, in that he does not immediately succumb to flattery.  Instead, he waits for the information Tinúviel has come to give.  Being basically distrustful, Tevildo is none the less intrigued and inclined to believe the tale of Huan’s illness or, minimally, eager to test it and so not miss a prime opportunity.  Presumably, given the great enmity between Huan and Tevildo, Huan has some knowledge of this character flaw, and so exploits it.  Like Melko before him, Tevildo exhibits a similar attitude towards all who approach him: that the awe and fear of their presence guarantees truth.

In the third episode, Beren and Tinúviel come disguised before Melko in Angamandi, he in the skin of Oikeroi (one of Tevildo’s thanes) and she in her woven robe.  Melko spots Tinúviel, and demands to know who she is and how she entered his halls.  She responds, again first with flattery, then subtle manipulations of truth:

“’…Knowest thou not that I am Tinúviel daughter of Tinwelint the outlaw, and he hath driven me from his halls, for he is an overbearing Elf and I give not my love at his command.’” (TBoLT II p31)

Now at first Melko doubts the words of Tinúviel, and suspects some scheme, so he asks her why she has come and warns her not to expect any love or soft words.  She responds with a statement of rebellion against her father, followed by an offer of dance in return for a place in his halls.  Melko responds:

“’Nay…such things are little to my mind; but as thou has come thus far to dance, dance, and after we will see,’ and with that he leered horribly, for his dark mind pondered some evil.” (TBoLT II p32)

Thus in similar manner is Melko evaded again.  He takes Tinúviel’s rebellion against her father at face value, and finds here an easy way to strike at the heart of Tinwelint and his people.  Yes, there is some hesitation, even in his acquiescence to Tinúviel’s offered dance, but rather than suspect any danger to himself or the Silmarils (which given his mindset, why should he?) he moves on to contemplate future evils made possible by this encounter.  And so, lost in these musings, he succumbs to Tinúviel’s magic and falls asleep.

In each of these encounters, which comprise major battles of wills in the final tale, the antagonists are not necessarily defeated, but sidestepped.  They are tricked by their own pride and their apparent inability to even contemplate such deceptions by figures of so much lower stature.

There is an element to each solution which evokes more the sense of the child’s fairytale than the epic love story which was to develop.  And yet hints are there, in the confrontations with Carcharoth, which predominantly mirror the final conception.  The question this raises, then, is what is different about Carcharoth, which leads to a more confrontational and combative rather than scheming approach?  I think the primary difference is that Caracharoth is a beast, devoid of any real thought but unending hunger.  His actions are driven by a sense of duty, driven into him by the ministrations of Melko.  He is the guard dog, a most vicious one, but little more.  So ultimately, as I asked of the orcs, is Carcharoth evil?

Tale of The Music of the Ainur

I have always been struck by the beauty of the prose and symbolism of the Music of the Ainur.  To me, it is one of the best conceived and executed of all Tolkien’s tales that make up the mythology of The Silmarillion.  The truly awe-inspiring thing about this work, however, I have discovered in reading the Book of Lost Tales I.

There is very little that is different between the final published chapter in the Silmarillion and the earliest draft of the Tale; and those are not significant and largely do not change any of the meaning.  This tale contains some of Tolkien’s most gorgeous prose, as well as his most awesome (spiritually) storytelling.  It only impresses upon me the greatness of this piece and its significance for Tolkien himself that it remained so pure and authentic in its conception throughout his life.  Most other tales Tolkien wrote, though static in much of their overarching structure, were transformed and grew in the telling, but not the Music of the Ainur.

While there are few significant differences in the two texts, I give here a few of my favorite passages as seen in the Tale:

“Behold, Iluvátar dwelt alone.  Before all things he sang into being the Ainur first…teaching them all manner of things, and the greatest of these was music.” (TBoLTI p.49)

As I’ve stated in previous posts, the power of song and music, particularly in the form of praise, supplication and thanksgiving are a constant theme in Tolkien’s writing.  In reading the Tales, I have found this theme was actually once much more prominent in the mythology, and of all symbols I believe this is one of Tolkien’s most potent for prayer and faith.  Just as song can be uplifting and a pure expression of our emotions and desires and evoke a sense of sublime, so too does prayer.  This pairing is an ancient one, and lends great potency and beauty to Tolkien’s creation story.

Iluvátar presents a great theme to the Ainur, though only as an outline, trusting in their skills and ingenuity, given and nourished by him, to build on what he has created:

“It is my desire now that ye make a great and glorious music and a singing of this theme; and (seeing that I have taught you much and set brightly the Secret Fire within you) that ye exercise your minds and powers in adorning the theme to your own thoughts and devising.”  (TBoLTI p.50)

Here explicitly can be seen the creation so to speak of free will.  It is also in a sense a call to all to utilize their God given talents to the greater glory of God:  to nourish our talents and use them to the fullest of our ability, expending the utmost of our energies in the act of sub-creation.  Here and throughout the Ainulindalë I see the greatest explanation of the concept of sub-creation in Tolkien’s written work.  God has built the framework, we are called by Him to build off His creation and fill in the “adornments.”  And yet, as human beings we are prone to sin and vice, and so our creations may be contrary to God’s Theme.  Here the human experience follows the tale of Melkor; who wishing to create of himself for himself inserted his own theme into the Great Theme of Iluvátar:

“…straightaway harshness and discordancy rose about him, and many of those that played nigh him grew despondent and their music feeble, and their thoughts unfinished and unclear, while many others fell to attuning their music to his rather than to the great theme…” (TBoLTI p.51)

Twice Iluvátar introduces a new theme, the second of which is described below:

“Then Iluvátar raised his right hand, and he no longer smiled, but wept; and behold a third theme, and it was in no way like the others, grew amid the turmoil, till at the last it seemed there were two musics progressing at on time about the feet of Iluvátar, and these were utterly at variance.  One was very great and deep and beautiful, but it was mingled with an unquenchable sorrow, while the other was now grown to unity and system of its own, but was loud and vain and arrogant, braying triumphantly against the other as it thought to drown it, yet ever as it essayed to clash most fearsomely, finding itself but in some manner supplementing or harmonizing with its rival.“ (TBoLTI p.51)

I have always been struck by the tremendous beauty of this passage, which remains essentially unchanged in the Silmarillion.  As Tolkien said to CS Lewis when discussing the veracity of myth, “Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.” (p. 151 Carpenter).  No matter what we do, what we create we are always working towards the plan of God; and He utilizes everything we do, even our failings, for His greater glory.  Again, this is beautifully described in the passage below from the Tale:

“…no theme can be played save it come in the end of Iluvátar’s self, nor can any alter the music in Iluvátar’s despite.  He that attempts this finds himself in the end but aiding me in devising a thing of still greater grandeur and more complex wonder…” (TBoLTI p. 52)

Unlike The Silmarillion, in the Tale Iluvátar continues to describe the wonders that have been created through the discordant music of Melkor: the birth of hope and mercy and the sense of the greatness and worthiness of life sprang of the cruelty, terrors, wrath, and tortures of Melkor.  His “biting colds” and “undue heats” have been used by Iluvátar to increase the glory of creation, giving birth to ice and snow crystals and clouds and rain.  All has been molded to Iluvátar’s will.

So this post has been significantly longer than I intended, but I hope you too may come to enjoy this tale as much as I do.  For me, it is one of the most thought provoking stories Tolkien ever wrote and probably the most overt window into his own faith to be found in the legendarium.