Monday, February 16, 2009

Lessons from the Valaquenta

I. On Humility

One slight oddity in the Valentaqua is Tolkien’s treatment of the Four Elements, earth, air, fire, and water. He does NOT associate one with each temperament. The oddity consists in who is associated with what element. Obviously, Manwe is the angel of the air, Ulmo the angel of the water, and Aule the angel of the earth. Under this system, air, not the traditional fire, is treated as the highest element. What could be the significance of this?
The closest there is to being a spirit of fire in the Valentaqua is Melkior, the devil. Described by Tolkien as the greatest of the Ainur, Melkior is also the spirit of the highest element, fire, the element associated with creation, existence, and God in the Ainuirnidale. He, the highest angel, is the fallen one, and his very height is that by which he fell (remember: he searched for the secret fire in the Ainuirindale, and, failing to find it, tried to create his own things and fell from grace).
This is a good explanation for why Melkior fears Elbereth, not Manwe, most of all the Valar. Elbereth, the woman of the stars, is the closest to a fire-angel of all the Valar. Yet she does not make things with her fire in the same way that Melkior aspired to do; her things are real and natural, not the evil parodies that are orcs and trolls. By staying within the bounds of God’s creativity and goodness, Elbereth, though a firey spirit, humbly escaped Melkior’s self-inflicted doom.
Sauron, the greatest of Melkior’s servants, is falls in much the same way as Melkior. Sauron, it is said, was a maia of Aule, and thus would have been skilled in the art of making, Through this, the desire for making is portrayed as a great temptation to pride and evil from its height that comes with affinity with Creation, a fact that is reinforced throughout the whole book (Feanor is the greatest example) and even in the Lord of the Rings proper. Such an idea is consistent with Maritain’s evaluation of the art of making: he gives it a dignity approaching the art of thinking and warns that he who would aspire to the highest and most creative form of making, abstract art, must beware of the extreme temptation to pride.
The crucial difference between Sauron and Aule is obedience and humility: Sauron’s ring is something that anyone is loth to give up, (including himself), but Aule obeys Iluvitar when he is caught making the Dwarves out of season. Aule is also uninterested in using what he makes, but makes for the joy of making, a humble activity. One last parallel is that Aule’s creative work would have used fire to achieve its ends.

II. On the priorities of the Valar

From this furious dichotomy of angelic good and angelic evil, the task of the Valar and their opposites emerged. The Valar are precisely those Ainur who loved the material world so much that they wished to enter it, the evil versions entered it to twist it.
From this love of the world, the Valar became spirits of protection. Their society-structure reflects in one significant way the most marital society the human world has ever known: Dark Ages Northern Europe.
In the company of the Valar, the feminine characters do the productive work of growing plants and tending animals. Most of the masculine characters are limited to functions of war and worship: Orome and Tulkas are warriors, Manwe and Ulmo are wise councilors, Mandos tends the dead souls, and Lorien…inspires? This is exactly the structure in the Dark Ages society mentioned above. Aule makes, of course, but his skill in making is strangely out of place sometimes: it causes the elves to make the tragic silmarils, it makes the Dwarves out of turn, and it does not provide anything of use to the war. In some places, Aule is the only Valar that comes of looking in any way foolish. Doubtless, he has a magnificent aeon of glory while in Valinor, but in summary, making, unlike military virtue or practical productiveness, is not something that is always a wise indulgence.
This allusion to the Dark Ages society illustrates the grand peril in which Middle-earth is caught: it prevents even the Angels from forming a society bases primarily on the arts of peace.


Ancient Greek Philosopher said...

Hey! Fire, air, earth, and water are all symbols of the temperaments!!! What are you talking about?!?!?! Oh. Tolkien didn't use them to represent the temperaments. How could he not? Maybe I shouldn't have voted for him after all.....

Old Fashioned Liberal said...

But which temperament is represented by which element. The most definite association in the silmarillion is the association of earth with sanguine, which does not make sense at all.

Ancient Greek Philosopher said...

That is the OPPOSITE element. Meloncholics are associated with earth. Sanguines are represented by air. Phlegmatics are water, and cholerics are fire.

Old Fashioned Liberal said...

See, Tolkien is backwards. Manwe is anything but sanguine, and Aule is the closest to sanguine of any of the Valar except the non-elemental Tulkas. Melkior, of course, is choleric, and a case could be made that Ulmo (the water-spirit) is phlegmatic (though I would put him as melancholic and Manwe as phlegmatic).

Ancient Greek Philosopher said...

I read the Silmarillion in ancient times, so I don't remember. :-)