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Wednesday 26 October 2022

The Cosmology of Middle Earth (IV) : World Enough and Time

Welcome back to another exciting instalment in the "I like Tolkien just a bit too much" series. If you've just wandered in, part one was an introduction with a quick look at the Rings and the sword Narsil, part two looked at a selection of characters, and part three began to look at the landscapes on rather larger scales.

So far we've seen something of how Middle Earth operates. At its heart it's driven not by physics but by mind. While the hobbits are skilled enough at ordinary farming, the most powerful characters create life in their very footsteps, or burn it away even while rotting in their graves. The greatest of all can move mountains or sink entire continents.

We've already seen some global processes at work but there are a few more that should be mentioned before we reach further out to truly cosmic scales. In this fourth part, I'll look at bit more at the symbolism of the powers Tolkien depicts, both in terms of what they represent in the story itself, and what they represent morally.

4) World


Note that this map, while having some strong similarities to those of the Third Age, also has some massive differences. 

At last we begin to approach the largest realm of all. If the powers of the Valar diminish or withdraw from the world over time (though they were never, I think limitless), then we have to go back to the earliest eras to see them at their greatest. The destruction of Númenór is far from the only example of continent-scale changes brought about by the wars between good and evil.

For so great was the fury of those adversaries that the northern regions of the western world were rent asunder, and the sea roared in through many chasms, and there was confusion and great noise; and rivers perished or found new paths, and the valleys were upheaved and the hills trod down; and Sirion was no more.

In the Great Battle and the tumults of the fall of Thangorodrim there were mighty convulsions in the earth, and Beleriand was broken and laid waste; and northward and westward many lands sank beneath the waters of the Great Sea. In the east, in Ossiriand, the walls of Ered Luin were broken, and a great gap was made in them towards the south, and a gulf of the sea flowed in. 

New lands and islands are raised after the fall of Númenór, while in the First Age the Valar use an island as a ferry from Valinor :

Now Ulmo, by the counsel of the Valar, came to the shores of Middle-earth and spoke with the Eldar who waited there, gazing on the dark waves; and because of his words and the music which he made for them on his horns of shell their fear of the sea was turned rather to desire. Therefore Ulmo uprooted an island which long had stood alone amid the sea, far from either shore, since the tumults of the fall of Illuin; and with the aid of his servants he moved it, as it were a mighty ship, and anchored it in the Bay of Balar, into which Sirion poured his water. Then the Vanyar and the Noldor embarked upon that isle, and were drawn over the sea.

Once again we see the world being shaped according to the moral intentions of its Powers. In the description of the Great Battle Tolkien presents further ambiguities as to how exactly things are destroyed. The combatants are described in relatively ordinary terms : orcs, dragons, Balrogs, elves, horses*, men and all the rest, with the Valar themselves described much like a conventional pseudo-medieval army. But the effects are much more deeply felt. Is this further evidence that the geography of Middle Earth should be interpreted more figuratively and less literally ? Perhaps. Certainly Tolkien was very explicit about this for the Valar themselves :

* Presumably also some fell ponies.

Their shape comes of their knowledge of the visible World, rather than of the World itself; and they need it not, save only as we use raiment. Therefore the Valar may walk, if they will, unclad, and then even the Eldar cannot clearly perceive them, though they be present. But when they desire to clothe themselves the Valar take upon them forms some as of male and some as of female. But the shapes wherein the Great Ones array themselves are not at all times like to the shapes of the kings and queens of the Children of Ilúvatar; for at times they may clothe themselves in their own thought, made visible in forms of majesty and dread.

Which needs us neatly on to a continent that needs its own section, because there geography is the most mysterious of all. If there's anywhere that's surely intended as more symbolic than literal, it's the land of heaven itself.


Geography of the First Age from The Atlas of Middle Earth. Note how drastically different this is from even the the Second Age, let alone the Third.

The Blessed Realm, the Undying lands, part of the continent of Aman. In the First Age, Valinor is very much a real, physical place, or at least it's described in ordinary physical terms. You can sail back and forth across the sea between Valinor and Middle Earth no trouble, and the Elves seem to make the trip much as we would get on a plane for a summer holiday : you wouldn't want to do it too often, but you wouldn't find it much of an imposition either.

As time goes on this becomes more and more difficult. In some ways this reverses the general tendency in the narrative to become more and more materialistic : the Powers interfere less and less, but travel to Valinor by "the straight road" becomes more symbolic, more magical. This reminds us that the mythical aspects of the First Age are still very much present, that while things have developed and changed, at its core the fundamentals remain the same. 

Travelling to Valinor in latter days seems to become less a matter of navigational skill and more a matter of purpose : it becomes somewhere you can find only if you are meant to find it, if you are worthy and the fates allow. What appeared as normal and routine in earlier ages is revealed as mythical symbolism only by its comparison to later, more literal events. And once again, thinking in purely physical terms – something as mundane as "which direction do you need to go to get to Valinor ?", or even "what would the journey look like ?" is a mistake, because that's just not how Middle Earth operates. At its heart, the reality of Arda is not driven by physical laws at all.

Which is one of many reasons why this answer on Quora is just wrong-headed. Depicting Valinor as a formless shining light even before the fall of Númenór is a perfectly valid artistic choice.

Valinor presents probably the most explicit example of the people influencing the land. Sending messages to the over-mighty men who would seek immortality by a jaunt across the sea, the Valar say :

‘And were you so to voyage that escaping all deceits and snares you came indeed to Aman, the Blessed Realm, little would it profit you. For it is not the land of Manwë that makes its people deathless, but the Deathless that dwell therein have hallowed the land; and there you would but wither and grow weary the sooner, as moths in a light too strong and steadfast.’

While it's been remarked that this means Frodo and Bilbo and the others who are permitted to Valinor in latter days simply go there to die, I find this difficult to swallow. It's very clear that the trip is a reward, and while all creatures in Middle Earth have an immortal soul (though it's not known where they all go in the afterlife), there seems absolutely no point at all in sending senile, decrepit old Bilbo on a dangerous sea voyage when he's about to die anyway. Not even the High Elves are that much of a bag of dicks. 

More probable to me is that those permitted to Valinor in latter days are indeed granted immortality, but this is done by the Valar themselves, not because the land is magical. Bilbo is not so much going to Valinor as he is going to see the Valar. And we know the Valar do occasionally intervene in the cases of individual mortals, such as Beren and Lúthien, and also Eärendil as we'll see in the next post. Otherwise the journey serves no purpose at all – it's not as though Tolkien has some aversion to killing major characters. He might not do it for pure shock value like George R. R. Martin does, but when he wants there to be tragedy and death, then tragedy and death come forth in abundance. So I find it exceedingly unlikely that Tolkien would be trying to shield us from the emotional impact of Frodo's death.

In writing a creation myth Tolkien inevitably touches on issues which are outright theological. Why do the Valar invoke Eru rather than destroying Númenór themselves ? It seems they are forbidden not from using their own powers, but from using them in order to be worshipped, a very interesting answer that may solve a lot of problems with other fantasy and sci-fi creatures of great power that stand idly by while the world falls into ruin. But then we have to wonder why, regardless of who does it, they destroy not just the invasion fleet but Númenór itself. This response certainly seems like massive overkill as not every Númenórean was a Valar-hating servant of Sauron, but there's more complexity to it : the Númenóreans were both warned beforehand and given an chance to escape. Of course, this doesn't address why Eru allows his children to harm each other apparently with impunity.

This all raises the question as to whether we're supposed to read Valinor as being literally heaven. The answer seems to be yes. Not only is Valinor later removed from Arda (see next post), but it's also home to the Halls of Mandos, where the spirits of the dead reside. Tolkien also describes it using the very word "heaven" on more than one occasion, as well as describing Angband as its counterpart : hell. But the latter seems to be firmly metaphorical, as no spirits of the dead end up there. Still, heaven is in the early ages somewhere readily accessible, while later on it becomes ever-harder to find, with an obvious parallel to the Garden of Eden. More on that in the concluding part.

What actually befalls the spirits in the Halls is, however, never made clear except for some unhelpful exceptions. Tolkien does not state whether denizens of Middle Earth can expect eternal bliss or damnation, or whether that correlates with their behaviour before death. Inevitably, at times Tolkien seems to be wrestling with the archetypal theological question : why do bad things happen to good people ? 

I think at least two answers can be discerned in The Silmarillion. The first is implicit and not stated directly, which is simply that this is utterly beyond the ken of mortal men. As in this piece on Thomas Aquinas, the issues which a divine creator has to deal with are by their very nature unfathomable : not very difficult, but actually unknowable. God asks to Job :

“Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades ? Can you loosen Orion’s belt ? Can you bring forth the constellations in their season or lead out the Bear with its cubs ? Do you know the laws of the heavens? Can you set up God’s dominion over the earth ?” 

And for all that the answer to all of this is "no, I wouldn't know where to start", it's still deeply unsatisfying. We may not know everything, but we know that some things are wrong and unjust and unnecessary but they happen anyway (a more Middle Earthian examination of the nature of Eru is given here). Tolkien's second answer is arguably more satisfying, but let's finish this section off first.

The Two Trees

The ambiguities grow ever deeper as we reach the truly cosmological in scale. Originally the Valar create two mighty "lamps" that illuminate the whole of Arda, set upon "high pillars more lofty far than are any mountains of the latter days". Here the overtones of Christian mythology become unmistakable, with Yavanna bringing forth plants under the light of the new lamps. Even more symbolic, Melkor – who is already a creature of hate – hides his designs in shadow, "for he was grown dark as the Night of the Void". 

This is why I suggest that Tolkien does indeed reach true myth. He not only uses light and dark as symbolic of hope and fear, but provides an explanation as to why they induce those feelings : we are afraid of the dark because that is the domain and symbol of Melkor  there is indeed something sinister lurking in the night. Conversely, we desire the light because this is a defence against his evil machinations. Likewise, Melkor himself desires darkness and fears the light :

But Melkor came forth suddenly to war, and struck the first blow, ere the Valar were prepared; and he assailed the lights of Illuin and Ormal, and cast down their pillars and broke their lamps. In the overthrow of the mighty pillars lands were broken and seas arose in tumult; and when the lamps were spilled destroying flame was poured out over the Earth. And the shape of Arda and the symmetry of its waters and its lands was marred in that time, so that the first designs of the Valar were never after restored.

Only after this do the Valar establish Valinor for themselves. Yavanna then creates the Two Trees, but these illuminate only Valinor and not Middle Earth as did the lamps. The development of life in Middle Earth is thus paused for a time. But Valinor enters a state of bliss, with the elves creating the Silmarils – the finest jewels ever created – to preserve their exquisite light. 

The symbolism of the beauty of nature runs deeper. Melkor begins to corrupt the elves by telling them highly political lies, that the one is plotting to overthrow the other. When he approaches and departs from Valinor his evil manifests itself physically :

Then it seemed to the people of Valinor that the light of the Trees was dimmed, and the shadows of all standing things grew longer and darker in that time... Thus Melkor departed from Valinor, and for a while the Two Trees shone again unshadowed, and the land was filled with light.

If Darth Vader is so menacing he has his own theme tune play every time he enters a room, Melkor takes this a whole lot further : at his approach the very lights of heaven are darkened, his lies and corruption flowing from his very being just as goodness flows from Lúthien. The beauty of the Trees is incomparable, and their eventual destruction by Melkor one of the most tragic acts of the The Silmarillion. If nature is all beauty and light and truth, then Melkor is corruption, darkness and deceit. These attributes in Middle Earth invariably go hand in hand, and are not easily separated. For Tolkien, the evil thing lurking in the dread night is not so much a monster but a liar.

We're almost at the final stages now, and we can begin to see how the consistency of Tolkien's moral cosmos manifests itself on all scales. Light brings forth truth, darkness brings despair. Lies and deceit are at the heart of all evil; monsters are scary because of their big nasty pointy teeth, but only evil because they tell lies, not because they wish to inflict harm but because their malevolence is wilful. They know there are alternatives but, like Liz Truss, make the wrong choice anyway.

It's important to understand that Tolkien wasn't writing mere fiction, but true myth. The challenge for hard sci-fi is in exploring the effects of known physical laws in a rigorously, quantitatively correct way, or in developing new laws which are fully self-consistent. Tolkien faced no less formidable a challenge but of a theological rather than physical nature. He had to develop an entire cosmos based on moral beliefs that had to be no less self-consistent, even if that meant  ironically – frequently abandoning physical self-consistency entirely. He had to wrestle with deep moral, theological questions that are interesting regardless of one's religious beliefs, which are far some reason rendered more palatable by cunningly disguising them in tales about dwarves and dragons rather than Jesus and Moses.

I've heard it claimed that the history of Middle Earth is one of continual decline and fall, e.g. the lamps becoming the trees becoming the Sun and Moon. I do not agree. It's one of transformation, certainly, but I do not see it as one of decay. Things become ever-more materialistic, to the point that lifespans and physical stature diminish, but the morality of its protagonists seems if anything to do the opposite. Aragorn doesn't have the power to shout down mountains with song, but he faces the armies of Mordor nonetheless. Let alone little Frodo, who goes into the very heart of the domain of supernatural evil armed with nothing more than a pair of great hairy feet and his gardener.   

True, the magic diminishes. But in the Third Age we find ordinary mortals, even the smallest and most helpless, pitting themselves against powers ancient and dread of terrifying scope. Surely that gives them claim to greater virtue than any of their forebears, not less; any sense of "decline" is only in the most superficial sense of the "physics" of the world.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Having gone from rings to wizards to mountains and continents, it's time to bring this journey through the moral cosmology of Tolkien to an end. Not in the fiery pits of a volcano, but in the cold and beautiful darkness amidst the stars. See you in part five.

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