Letter to a reader, Rhona Beare, Oct 1958
‘In this mythical “prehistory” immortality, strictly longevity co-extensive with the life of Arda, was part of the given nature of the Elves; beyond the End nothing was revealed. Mortality, that is a short life-span having no relation to the life of Arda, is spoken of as the given nature of Men: the Elves called it the Gift of Ilúvatar (God).’
Draft of a continuation of a letter to Rhona Beare (not sent).
Since I have written so much (I hope not too much) I might as well add a few lines on the Myth on which all is founded, since it may make clearer the relations of Valar, Elves, Men, Sauron, Wizards &c.
The Valar or ‘powers, rulers’ were the first ‘creation’: rational spirits or minds without incarnation, created before the physical world. (Strictly these spirits were called Ainur, the Valar being only those from among them who entered the world after its making, and the name is properly applied only to the great among them, who take the imaginative but not the theological place of ‘gods’.) The Ainur took part in the making of the world as ‘sub-creators’: in various degrees, after this fashion. They interpreted according to their powers, and completed in detail, the Design propounded to them by the One. This was propounded first in musical or abstract form, and then in an ‘historical vision’. In the first interpretation, the vast Music of the Ainur, Melkor introduced alterations, not interpretations of the mind of the One, and great discord arose. The One then presented this ‘Music’, including the apparent discords, as a visible ‘history’.
Tolkien’s drawing of the Crown of Gondor sent in a letter to Rhona Beare
At this stage it had still only a validity, to which the validity of a ‘story’ among ourselves may be compared: it ‘exists’ in the mind of the teller, and derivatively in the minds of hearers, but not on the same plane as teller or hearers. When the One (the Teller) said Let it Be*, then the Tale became History, on the same plane as the hearers; and these could, if they desired, enter into it. Many of the Ainur did enter into it, and must bide in it till the End, being involved in Time, the series of events that complete it. These were the Valar, and their lesser attendants. They were those who had ‘fallen in love’ with the vision, and no doubt, were those who had played the most ‘sub-creative’ (or as we might say ‘artistic’) part in the Music.
It was because of their love of Eä, and because of the part they had played in its making, that they wished to, and could, incarnate themselves in visible physical forms, though these were comparable to our clothes (in so far as our clothes are a personal expression) not to our bodies. Their forms were thus expressions of their persons, powers, and loves. They need not be anthropomorphic (Yavanna wife** of Aulë would, for instance, appear in the form of a great Tree.) But the ‘habitual’ shapes of the Valar, when visible or clothed, were anthropomorphic, because of their intense concern with Elves and Men.
Elves and Men were called the ‘children of God’, because they were, so to speak, a private addition to the Design, by the Creator, and one in which the Valar had no part. (Their ‘themes’ were introduced into the Music by the One, when the discords of Melkor arose.) The Valar knew that they would appear, and the great ones knew when and how (though not precisely), but they knew little of their nature, and their foresight, derived from their pre-knowledge of the Design, was imperfect or failed in the matter of the deeds of the Children. The uncorrupted Valar, therefore, yearned for the Children before they came and loved them afterwards, as creatures ‘other’ than themselves, independent of them and their artistry, ‘children’ as being weaker and more ignorant than the Valar, but of equal lineage (deriving being direct from the One); even though under their authority as rulers of Arda. The corrupted, as was Melkor/Morgoth and his followers (of whom Sauron was one of the chief) saw in them the ideal material for subjects and slaves, to whom they could become masters and ‘gods’, envying the Children, and secretly hating them, in proportion as they became rebels against the One (and Manwë his Lieutenant in Eä).
In this mythical ‘prehistory’ immortality, strictly longevity co-extensive with the life of Arda, was part of the given nature of the Elves; beyond the End nothing was revealed. Mortality, that is a short life-span having no relation to the life of Arda, is spoken of as the given nature of Men: the Elves called it the Gift of Ilúvatar (God). But it must be remembered that mythically these tales are Elf-centred***, not anthropocentric, and Men only appear in them, at what must be a point long after their Coming. This is therefore an ‘Elvish’ view, and does not necessarily have anything to say for or against such beliefs as the Christian that ‘death’ is not part of human nature, but a punishment for sin (rebellion), a result of the ‘Fall’. It should be regarded as an Elvish perception of what death — not being tied to the ‘circles of the world’ — should now become for Men, however it arose. A divine ‘punishment’ is also a divine ‘gift’, if accepted, since its object is ultimate blessing, and the supreme inventiveness of the Creator will make ‘punishments’ (that is changes of design) produce a good not otherwise to be attained: a ‘mortal’ Man has probably (an Elf would say) a higher if unrevealed destiny than a longeval one. To attempt by device or ‘magic’ to recover longevity is thus a supreme folly and wickedness of ‘mortals’. Longevity or counterfeit ‘immortality’ (true immortality is beyond Eä) is the chief bait of Sauron — it leads the small to a Gollum, and the great to a Ringwraith.
In the Elvish legends there is record of a strange case of an Elf (Míriel mother of Fëanor) that tried to die, which had disastrous results, leading to the ‘Fall’ of the High-elves. The Elves were not subject to disease, but they could be ‘slain’: that is their bodies could be destroyed, or mutilated so as to be unfit to sustain life. But this did not lead naturally to ‘death’: they were rehabilitated and reborn and eventually recovered memory of all their past: they remained ‘identical’. But Míriel wished to abandon being, and refused rebirth.****
I suppose a difference between this Myth and what may be perhaps called Christian mythology is this. In the latter the Fall of Man is subsequent to and a consequence (though not a necessary consequence) of the ‘Fall of the Angels’ : a rebellion of created free-will at a higher level than Man; but it is not clearly held (and in many versions is not held at all) that this affected the ‘World’ in its nature: evil was brought in from outside, by Satan. In this Myth the rebellion of created free-will precedes creation of the World (Eä); and Eä has in it, subcreatively introduced, evil, rebellions, discordant elements of its own nature already when the Let it Be was spoken. The Fall or corruption, therefore, of all things in it and all inhabitants of it, was a possibility if not inevitable. Trees may ‘go bad’ as in the Old Forest; Elves may turn into Orcs, and if this required the special perversive malice of Morgoth, still Elves themselves could do evil deeds. Even the ‘good’ Valar as inhabiting the World could at least err; as the Great Valar did in their dealings with the Elves; or as the lesser of their kind (as the Istari or wizards) could in various ways become self-seeking. Aulë, for instance, one of the Great, in a sense ‘fell’; for he so desired to see the Children, that he became impatient and tried to anticipate the will of the Creator. Being the greatest of all craftsmen he tried to make children according to his imperfect knowledge of their kind. When he had made thirteen,***** God spoke to him in anger, but not without pity: for Aulë had done this thing not out of evil desire to have slaves and subjects of his own, but out of impatient love, desiring children to talk to and teach, sharing with them the praise of Ilúvatar and his great love of the materials of which the world is made.
The One rebuked Aulë, saying that he had tried to usurp the Creator’s power; but he could not give independent life to his makings. He had only one life, his own derived from the One, and could at most only distribute it. ‘Behold’ said the One: ‘these creatures of thine have only thy will, and thy movement. Though you have devised a language for them, they can only report to thee thine own thought. This is a mockery of me.’
Then Aulë in grief and repentance humbled himself and asked for pardon. And he said: ‘I will destroy these images of my presumption, and wait upon thy will.’ And he took a great hammer, raising it to smite the eldest of his images; but it flinched and cowered from him. And as he withheld his stroke, astonished, he heard the laughter of Ilúvatar.
‘Do you wonder at this?’ he said. ‘Behold! thy creatures now live, free from thy will! For I have seen thy humility, and taken pity on your impatience. Thy making I have taken up into my design.’
This is the Elvish legend of the making of the Dwarves; but the Elves report that Iluvatar said thus also: ‘Nonetheless I will not suffer my design to be forestalled: thy children shall not awake before mine own.’ And he commanded Aulë to lay the fathers of the Dwarves severally in deep places, each with his mate, save Dúrin the eldest who had none. There they should sleep long, until Ilúvatar bade them awake. Nonetheless there has been for the most part little love between the Dwarves and the children of Iluvatar. And of the fate that Ilúvatar has set upon the children of Aulë beyond the Circles of the world Elves and men know nothing, and if Dwarves know they do not speak of it.
* Hence the Elves called the World, the Universe, Eä – It Is.
** It is the view of the Myth that in (say) Elves and Men ‘sex’ is only an expression in physical or biological terms of a difference of nature in the ‘spirit’, not the ultimate cause of the difference between femininity and masculinity.
*** In narrative, as soon as the matter becomes ‘storial’ and not mythical, being in fact human literature, the centre of interest must shift to Men (and their relations with Elves or other creatures). We cannot write stories about Elves, whom we do not know inwardly; and if we try we simply turn Elves into men.
****It was also the Elvish (and uncorrupted Númenórean) view that a ‘good’ Man would or should die voluntarily by surrender with trust before being compelled (as did Aragorn). This may have been the nature of unfallen Man; though compulsion would not threaten him: he would desire and ask to be allowed to ‘go on’ to a higher state. The Assumption of Mary, the only unfallen person, may be regarded as in some ways a simple regaining of unfallen grace and liberty: she asked to be received, and was, having no further function on Earth. Though, of course, even if unfallen she was not ‘pre-Fall’. Her destiny (in which she had cooperated) was far higher than that of any ‘Man’ would have been, had the Fall not occurred. It was also unthinkable that her body, the immediate source of Our Lord’s (without other physical intermediary) should have been disintegrated, or ‘corrupted’, nor could it surely be long separated from Him after the Ascension. There is of course no suggestion that Mary did not ‘age’ at the normal rate of her race; but certainly this process cannot have proceeded or been allowed to proceed to decrepitude or loss of vitality and comeliness. The Assumption was in any case as distinct from the Ascension as the raising of Lazarus from the (self) Resurrection.
***** One, the eldest, alone, and six more with six mates.