The Voice of Many Angels
Since its posthumous publication in 1977, The Silmarillion has been considered by many readers to be the crowning achievement of J.R.R. Tolkien’s long and complex writing career. Filled with fantastic imagery, heartbreaking romance, love, sacrifice, and a rich spiritual dimension, it has captured the imagination of countless fans of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and given readers a deeper sense of the meaningful truths behind these books. Undoubtedly, the book’s impact is due in large part to its being written over the course of Tolkien’s lifetime, from its conception in the mid-1920s to its publication by Tolkien’s son, Christopher, over half a century later.
Literary critics in general, and Christians in particular, have found great spiritual meaning behind the pages of The Silmarillion. Some, though, project a more sinister aspect onto Tolkien’s early history of Middle-earth. They argue that Tolkien’s Ainur/Valar (spiritual beings who aid in the creation of Middle-earth and guide its inhabitants) can be interpreted as representing Norse-like god-beings… almost a Roman pantheon. They claim that the spirituality built into Tolkien’s world is not monotheistic, but polytheistic, and that Christians should not look to his books for spiritual truths because of this. In order to reach such a viewpoint, one must make several leaps of logic, taking parts of The Silmarillion out of context and overlooking other parts entirely.
For example, at the start of the Ainulindalë (the first “book” of The Silmarillion), Eru (Middle-earth’s image of God) creates the Ainur and has them sing before him. Their singing ends up being the “blueprint” for Middle-earth, which they are sent into to prepare for the Elves and Men who will inhabit it. One passage in particular plainly states that some of the Men of Middle-earth call the Ainur “gods.” At first glance, all of this evidence would seem to point to the Ainur actually being gods, and Tolkien’s world being setup right from the start as a pantheistic institution! A closer examination of Tolkien’s writing, though, reveals the truth of the situation; a truth that is both beautiful and highly relevant to our own world’s process of creation.
The first sentence of The Silmarillion states that Eru “made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made.” The Ainur were the offspring of his thought. Note that they were not his offspring proper. In other words, they were not begotten as Jesus was begotten of God, but they were clearly spiritual beings that had been made by Eru. If our point of departure is that Eru is Middle-earth’s image of our own God, why would such a supreme and infinite Being create other gods with power and majesty equal to his own? Reading on, we see that our question is answered almost immediately: the Ainur are not equal to Eru, but are a small part of his whole. “[E]ach comprehended only that part of the mind of [Eru] Illúvatar from which he came.” They are clearly not omniscient as Eru is. On the surface, the general impression is that they are angelic beings. This fact alone is a mortal blow to the pantheism-theorists, but we are not finished yet.
The Ainur sing before Illúvatar and their song takes shape as Middle-earth. Isn’t that just an obfuscated way of saying that they actually created Middle-earth, and not Eru? Certainly not, for we read that Illúvatar “called together all the Ainur and declared to them a mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed; and the glory of its beginning and the splendour of its end amazed the Ainur, so that they bowed before Illúvatar and were silent.” The theme, or central part, of the song/creation clearly belongs to Illúvatar. Furthermore, the theme is clearly something creative that the Ainur had no prior knowledge of. It was a mighty theme and it amazed them! They were clearly not involved in its formulation. They are in such awe of this theme and of Illúvatar that they bow before him. The Roman pantheon certainly would not have done the same before Zeus. It’s quite conceivable, though, that angelic beings would bow in amazement before the One who had created them.
My explanations of the meaning behind Tolkien’s writing as given above have been incredibly simplified, of course, but such simplification renders my arguments no less valid. It is, of course, true that any book written by a fallible human being is prone to error, and I make no claim that Tolkien’s books are free of it. However, an overwhelming majority of his writing (The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings being at the top of the list) is both intellectually valid and Biblically sound. Throughout Tolkien’s early history of Middle-earth we are presented with a world ruled by a single God who is just, yet merciful, possessing an infinite love for the beings He has created. We are presented a world where the difference between good and evil is vivid and clear… a refreshing change from our own fallen existence in which humanity seems hell bent on destroying any last vestige of discernment we have left. It is obvious to me that The Silmarillion is, at its heart, a distinctly Christian book. Through the process of reading and enjoying it, I hear countless echoes of God’s majesty, power, and grace as demonstrated in our own world through His book, the Bible…
…the Silmarillion that actually happened.
© 2004 Matthew Bass
Matthew Bass is the webmaster of TolkienMovies.com.
Christianity and Middle-Earth