If you have not read the Silmarillion, it may be worth coming back to this page after having read the remainder of the site, except for Metaphysical Elements which should be read after this page.
This page gives a commentary on the mythology and creation of Middle-earth and compares it with traditional Catholic doctrine and understanding of our own universe's creation. This page deals more with the Silmarillion than the Lord of the Rings but it is still essential in the overall understanding of Middle-earth and of how Tolkien's world is a mythical reflection of our own.
Before discussing some of the details of the creation story of Middle-earth it's worth looking into the art of story telling
This page should really be called 'Sub-creation', as that is what Tolkien understood his artistic pursuits to be, [see Truth and Myth]
"Since the Christian joy, the Gloria, has redeemed Man, it has also redeemed the sub-creativity of man..." [M&M p. 105]
"Great harm can be done, of course, by this potent form of 'myth' - especially wilfully. The right to 'freedom' of the sub-creator is no guarantee among fallen men that it will not be used as wickedly as is Free Will. I am comforted by the fact that some, more pious and learned than I, have found nothing harmful in this Tale or its feigning as a 'myth'..." [Letters p.194-195]
In Truth and Myth it was explained how Tolkien viewed Myth [from his own words] and its place in relation to the Revelation of Jesus Christ.
This is not a new understanding, but comes from a combination of Ancient Philosophy and the Catholic Church.
Tolkien's attitude to man's artistic pursuits has very much been derived from St Thomas Aquinas.
God --> God's Art [Primary Creation] --> Man --> Man's Art [Sub-Creation]
From the ancient philosophers, myth was understood to have carried certain Truths [Aristotle, Plato, Cicero]. In their pursuit of Truth and understanding of Reality and Being, the Ancients believed that certain Truths could be contained in old Myth and could be grasped from it. Myth was considered sort of untouchable, beyond critique. Tolkien has adopted this attitude, and has considered certain Truths as being held in the old pagan myths, though sometimes they are distorted or mixed with other lies. So they carried some Truths or splintered light. It is because these stories are essentially a reflection on reality and an attempt to grasp at eternal concepts.
In the Theology of the Body [here & Christopher West's commentary here & here], Pope John Paul II gives reflection on the Genesis creation accounts. He mentions that they are almost mythic in their nature. He uses this term in the sense that they use a language that conveys and transfers a deeper truth than is apparent on the surface of the story. He does not mean that they are not true. This has always been Tolkien's understanding of myth and the Pope confirms this in a small way [see Truth and Myth]
When we say 'Truths' in old myth above, we are referring more to the Natural Moral Law that has been written into the heart of every man by the Creator. When these myths were written and developed by men, they have contained and transported Truths and Realities from this Natural Law; and they have even, at times, expressed higher elements above and beyond that.
The Catholic Church has always taught and maintained that belief in the existence of God can be attained through the natural light of the reason, i.e. through philosophy & natural wisdom [cf. Aristotle, Plato]. This is why the Church has always respected these searches for Truth from men who searched for Reality in Being. They didn't understand everything correctly [they got some things wrong], but their sincere search lead them into Divine Objective Truth through their reasoning and subjective experience in reality.
But to go any further than that, we have needed Revelation, which is God revealing the true nature of Himself to man. And that has been done in the Old Law of Israel and in Jesus Christ.
Now, in the Revelation of Christ, all these stories and myths have found true culmination and expression. True Reality. All these myths and legends have inadvertently pointed towards the appearance of God becoming Man and the Redeeming Act [Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection] of Jesus who is the Fullness of the Truth.
It is the true story, true legend and True Myth.
But with one fundamental difference. The Gospel of Jesus is God's True Story revealed by Him to man through the very real, tangible and concrete facts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ: the Word made Flesh. The flesh can be touched, seen, experienced. Jesus' Body reveals the reality of the His person [One Divine Person with two natures: divine and human] and His disciples witnessed this. They ate with Him. They spoke with Him. They received the Full Revelation of God in the world through their real experience of Jesus.
Whereas the other 'myths' are man's stories, attempting to express some perception of God, 'gods' or eternal things. If you like, they have grasped at something revealed to them from within their minds and souls which reflect their creator; they have tapped into their moral conscience, reflected on reality and understood some part of the Truth. Though not all of it due to their fallen nature.
In Revelation, Jesus comes and reveals the True Nature of God and True Reality. True Reality because God is the Author of All Reality and Being.
Consider Tolkien's own words:
"Christianity, the True Myth, has reconciled all lesser myths to itself. The lesser myths, in the form of fairy story or romance, were derived from Reality, or are flowing into it. However inadequate in themselves, they still offered a glimpse of the greater Truth from which they spring or into which they flow."
"But this story has entered History and the Primary World; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfilment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the 'eucatastrophe' of Man's history. The Resurrection is the 'eucatastrophe' of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy."
"It has pre-eminently the 'inner consistency of reality'. There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art. That is, of Creation." [M&M p. 104-105]
"Man the story teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story. But since the author of it is the supreme Artist and Author of Reality, this one was also made to Be, to be true on the Primary Plane." [M&M p.104-105]
Now, from this perception, Tolkien has delved into expressing his love of languages, fairy tales and belief in Truth, through myth as a sub-creative art-form;
...so as to reveal deeper Truths lying behind the fabric of the story. The Lord of the Rings is beautifully mythic.
But, interestingly, he didn't consider himself a philosopher. Fairy Tales:
Tolkien said his stories were a literary expression. He wrote to excite, move, entertain and please. He wrote a story: a fairy tale and a fantasy saga.
Most Fairy Tales are quest stories. Usually they are journeys to find something at the end. They are quests to find something that will save the world or the person in focus. And in Quest, the character(s) pass through fire, trial and suffering and come out the other side changed.
It usually involves a physical journey, like a pilgrimage, that reflects the inner movement of the soul towards change and a greater existence. This is why Catholics [and Muslims and Jews] make pilgrimages to holy sites. The external movement reflects the internal spiritual reality.
In the case of the Lord of the Rings, the Quest is to destroy something at the end. But, in ridding the world of the object, true freedom is found. In killing the Ring, there is life. In destroying evil, Goodness can prosper.
Tolkien confirmed this thinking;
"God created us incomplete, because the kind of creature than can only be perfected by its own choices [and so through Quest and trial], is more glorious than the kind that has only to be, whatever it was made to be by another." [M&M p.107]
Tolkien once made the assertion that he considered;
"...fairy story one of the highest forms of literature." [Letters p.220]
But why is this? His understanding of man's pilgrimage through life and hence his salvation are caught up in this statement. God has created us as free rational creatures. He would like us to choose and love him freely.
After the fall, man needed ennoblement. This is granted in Jesus; but the application of it in our lives causes purification and regeneration. It causes change in our lives - otherwise called daily conversion, - if we pray and co-operate with the Grace offered to us each day.
It is through trial, self-sacrifice, inner struggle, practice of virtue; all driven and aided, in and by the Grace of Christ, through prayer, the sacraments and the teachings of the Church, that we are regenerated.
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