JRR Tolkien, Middle Earth, and the Problem of Evil

JRR Tolkien, Middle Earth, and the Problem of Evil October 30, 2023

JRR Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings (LOTR), lived and died a devout Roman Catholic. His books, including LOTR, reflect his Catholicism. He went so far as to verify this fact in one of his letters. Tolkien’s legendarium, The Silmarillion, also reflects this worldview. In this work, Tolkien lays out the foundation for the world eventually occupied by “the good”: Frodo, Bilbo, Aragorn, and Gandalf, and “the evil”: Saruman and Sauron. As with Catholicism, Tolkien’s legendarium includes the origins of evil and how God (Ilúvatar), while not its cause, integrates evil caused by free creatures towards beauty and ultimate goodness (even in creation).

Turning to the text itself below, we glimpse how the Catholic Tolkien understood evil and how the God of Middle Earth addressed the problem of evil in his world.

Creation of the Ainur

The Silmarillion begins with Ainulindale, The Music of the Ainur. In this beginning, Ilúvatar creates beings with the power of sub-creation: the Ainur (Holy Ones). These “offspring of his thought” Ilúvatar then gave themes of music of each Ainur, and each sang before him in the theme he gave them. However, Ilúvatar had greater things in store for the Ainur.

And it came to pass that Ilúvatar 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 splendor of its end amazed the Ainur, so that they bowed before Ilúvatar and were silent.

Ilúvatar then tells the Ainur:

‘Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will. But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song.’

Note: the Flame Imperishable provides creatures with independent agency and will, for good or ill.

The First Theme

Thus, starts the Great Music.

Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music.

And for a great while, the Great Music was good.

But now Ilúvatar sat and hearkened, and for a great while it seemed good to him, for in the music there were no flaws.

However, this flawless harmony did not last…

But as the theme progressed, it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.

Some of these thoughts he now wove into his music, and straightway discord arose about him, and many that sang nigh him grew despondent, and their thought was disturbed and their music faltered;

Eventually, some around Melkor (the mightiest of the Ainur) chose his theme over that of Ilúvatar.

…but some began to attune their music to his rather than to the thought which they had at first. Then the discord of Melkor spread ever wider, and the melodies which had been heard at first foundered in a sea of turbulent sound.

Ilúvatar sat and listened to the raging storm “as of dark waters that made war one upon the other in an endless wrath that would not be assuaged.”

Then, he smiled.

The Second Theme

Then Ilúvatar arose, and the Ainur perceived that he smiled; and he lifted up his left hand, and a new theme began amid the storm, like and yet unlike to the former theme, and it gathered power and had new beauty.

Not deterred, Melkor pressed his theme…

But the discord of Melkor rose in uproar and contended with it, and there was again a war of sound more violent than before, until many of the Ainur were dismayed and played no longer, and Melkor had the mastery.

In response to this greater tumult, Ilúvatar grew stern.

The Third Theme

Then again Ilúvatar arose, and the Ainur perceived that his countenance was stern; and he lifted up his right hand; and behold, a third theme grew amid the confusion, and it was unlike the others. For it seemed at first soft and sweet, a mere rippling of gentle sounds in delicate melodies, but it could not be quenched, and it grew, and it took to itself power and profundity.

Amid the clamor and strife, something unexpectedly beautiful happened.

And it seemed at last that there were two musics progressing at one time before the seat of Ilúvatar, and they were utterly at variance. One was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came. The other had now achieved a unity of its own; but it was loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated; and it had little harmony, but rather a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes. And it essayed to drown the other music by the violence of its voice, but it seemed that its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern. [emphasis added]

Amidst the loud and endlessly repeating braying of Melkor and his allies, Ilúvatar wove a beautiful theme by taking their most “triumphant notes” and making them a part of Ilúvatar’s “solemn pattern.” The beauty here comes from the slow sorrowful notes, a beauty only discovered through suffering and redemption.

Things More Wonderful

Not wishing to miss an opportunity for instruction, even of the rebellious Melkor, Ilúvatar explains himself. Here, readers of The Silmarillion see plainly Tolkien’s Catholic view of evil.

Then Ilúvatar spoke, and he said: ‘Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye have sung and played, lo! I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.’ [emphasis added]

Moreover, some critics will declare that by here Ilúvatar claims responsibility for Melkor’s rebelliousness. Such a criticism fails to understand that the themes originating in Ilúvatar, and given to Melker, were taken by Melkor and freely misused and abused by him. Ilúvatar, as the Master Conductor, takes even the discordant notes, makes them part of his ultimate theme, and into things more wonderful than even Melkor imagined.

The Music Made Reality

Those Ainur who wished, Ilúvatar granted entrance into the music made reality (Arda). These Ainur became known as the Valar (the Powers), including Melkor. Once within Arda, the Valar set about ordering the world in preparation for the Children of Ilúvatar (Elves and Men). Sadly, as with the Music of the Ainur, Melkor, in envy of the other Valar, set his will against theirs and endeavored to ruin all their work.

…they built lands, and Melkor destroyed them; valleys they delved and Melkor raised them up; mountains they carved and Melkor threw them down; seas they hallowed and Melkor spilled them; and naught might come to peace or lasting growth, for as surely as the Valar began a labour, so would Melkor undo it or corrupt it. And yet their labour was not all in vain; and though nowhere and in no work was their will and purpose wholly fulfilled, and all things were in hue and shape other than the Valar had at first intended, slowly nonetheless the Earth was fashioned and made firm.

Yet even this, Ilúvatar worked towards his purposes.

Of Snowflakes, Rainclouds, and Beauty Unforeseen

An example of Ilúvatar using the rebellion of Melkor towards his purposes concerns the Valar Manwë (Lord of the Wind) and Ulmo (Lord of the Water). After despairing over the damage done to his realm (the water) by Melkor, Ilúvatar consoles Ulmo in stating:

‘Seest thou not here in this little realm in the Deeps of Time and in the midst of the innumerable Stars how Melkor hath made war upon thy province? He hath bethought him of bitter cold immoderate, and yet hath not destroyed the beauty of thy fountains, nor of thy clear pools. Behold the snow, and the cunning work of frost! Behold the towers and mansions of ice! Melkor hath devised heats and fire without restraint, and hath not dried up thy desire, nor utterly quelled the music of the sea. Behold rather the height and glory of the clouds, and the everchanging mists and vapours, and listen to the fall of rain upon the Earth! And in these clouds thou art drawn yet nearer to Manwë, thy friend, whom thou lovest.’

Then Ulmo answered: ‘Truly, Water is become now fairer than my heart imagined, neither had my secret thought conceived the snow-flake, nor in all my music was contained the falling of the rain. Lo! I will seek Manwë, that he and I may make melodies for ever and ever to thy delight!’ And Manwë and Ulmo have from the beginning been allied, and in all things have served most faithfully the purpose of Ilúvatar.

Despite the evil machinations of Melkor, he again proves himself an instrument of Ilúvatar in the creation of wonders unforeseen and beautiful.

The Final Music Yet to Come

Finally, in a brief interlude, Tolkien tips his Catholic hand towards the ultimate end for the creatures in his legendarium. He writes:

Never since have the Ainur made any music like to this music, though it has been said that a greater still shall be made before Ilúvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar after the end of days. Then shall the themes of Ilúvatar be played aright, and take Being in the moment of their utterance, for all shall then understand his intent in their part, and shall know the comprehension of each, and Ilúvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased.

In a very Catholic ending, each creature understands Ilúvatar’s intent for “their part” in the Great Music. In the end, all gets revealed, and all things set aright.

Thank you!

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