3

I recently started reading The Silmarillion, and came across the below passage in a letter Tolkien sent to Milton Waldman.

"Anyway all this stuff is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine. With Fall inevitably, and that motive occurs in several modes. With Mortality, especially as it affects art and the creative (or as I should say, sub-creative) desire which seems to have no biological function, and to be apart from the satisfactions of plain ordinary biological life, with which, in our world, it is indeed usually at strife. This desire is at once wedded to a passionate love of the real primary world, and hence filled with the sense of mortality, and yet unsatisfied by it. It has various opportunities of ‘Fall’."

While it is clear that Tolkien is talking about the general theme of the Silmarillion, I'm still unable to decipher the exact meaning of the passage.

1

There’s a lot to unpack here, as you might imagine when an author tries to sum up his life’s work in three words.

Fall

By “fall” Tolkien means “descent or lapse into a sinful state”. This idea comes from Christian myth, in which angels and people were originally sinless. This is clear in Tolkien’s letter to Waldman:

In the cosmogony there is a fall: a fall of Angels we should say. Though quite different in form, of course, to that of Christian myth. These tales are ‘new’, they are not directly derived from other myths and legends, but they must inevitably contain a large measure of ancient wide-spread motives or elements. After all, I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth’, and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear. There cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall—all stories are ultimately about the fall—at least not for human minds as we know them and have them.

J. R. R. Tolkien (1951). Letter to Milton Waldman. Number 131 in Humphrey Carpenter, ed. (1981). The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. London: George Allen & Unwin.

By “There cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall” I think Tolkien means that dramatic narrative requires conflict between characters, which cannot happen if all the characters remain sinless. Tolkien puts something like this idea into the mouth of Iluvater:

‘And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that has not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall be but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.’

J. R. R. Tolkien (c. 1950). ‘Ainulindalë’. In Christopher Tolkien (1993). Morgoth’s Ring. London: HarperCollins.

In Christian myth there are two falls: the fall of Satan (Luke 10:18, “I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven”) together with the other rebel angels, and the fall of man (Genesis chapter 3). In The Silmarillion there are likewise two falls: the fall of Melkor and the fall of the elves. But within these broad similarities, Tolkien chooses different motives for his characters. In Christian myth, Satan’s motive is pride:

Th’infernal Serpent; he it was, whose guile
Stird up with Envy and Revenge, deceiv’d
The Mother of Mankinde, what time his Pride
Had cast him out from Heav’n
, with all his Host
Of Rebel Angels, by whose aid aspiring
To set himself in Glory above his Peers,
He trusted to have equal’d the most High

John Milton (1674). Paradise Lost I.34–40.

But in Tolkien’s myth, Melkor’s motive is a desire to create things:

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 Iluvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself. […] For desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own, and it seemed to him that Iluvatar took no thought for the Void, and he was impatient of its emptiness.

J. R. R. Tolkien (c. 1950). ‘Ainulindalë’. In Christopher Tolkien (1993). Morgoth’s Ring. London: HarperCollins.

Tolkien relates Melkor’s desire to “bring into being things of his own” with his (Tolkien’s) own desire to engage in literary world-building, which he calls “sub-creation”:

[The sub-creative desire] may become possessive, clinging to the things made as ‘its own’, the sub-creator wishes to be the Lord and God of his private creation.

Tolkien (1951).

Similarly, the motivation for Fëanor’s fall is his love for the work of his hands:

But Fëanor spoke then, and cried bitterly: ‘Verily for the less even as for the greater there is some deed that he may accomplish but once only. And in that deed his heart shall rest. Mayhap I can unlock my jewels, but never again shall I make their like; and if they be broken, then broken will be my heart, and I shall die: first of all the Children of Eru.’

J. R. R. Tolkien (c. 1950). ‘The Annals of Aman’. In Christopher Tolkien (1993). Morgoth’s Ring. London: HarperCollins.

Hence both falls are associated with the characters’ relationship with their own creations:

the whole matter from beginning to end is mainly concerned with the relation of Creation to making and sub-creation.

J. R. R. Tolkien (1954). Letter to Peter Hastings. Number 153 in Carpenter (1981).

Mortality

By “mortality” Tolkien means the problem of death: how to reconcile a supposedly loving God with the existence of death. In Christian myth, death is explained as a punishment for sin. But in Tolkien’s mythology the mortality of humans is contrasted with the immortality of Elves:

The doom of the Elves is to be immortal, to love the beauty of the world, to bring it to full flower with their gifts of delicacy and perfection, to last while it lasts, never leaving it even when ‘slain’, but returning—and yet, when the Followers [that is, humans] come, to teach them, and make way for them, to ‘fade’ as the Followers grow and absorb the life from which both proceed. The Doom (or the Gift) of Men is mortality, freedom from the circles of the world. Since the point of view of the whole cycle is the Elvish, mortality is not explained mythically: it is a mystery of God of which no more is known than that ‘what God has purposed for Men is hidden’ a grief and an envy to the immortal Elves.

J. R. R. Tolkien (1951). Letter to Milton Waldman. Number 131 in Carpenter (1981).

Tolkien portrays the immortality of Elves as having negative aspects: world-weariness, ‘fading’, confinement to the ‘circles of the world’ and so on. Against this Elvish point of view the mortality of humans can be recontextualized and positive aspects discerned:

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 Ea) is the chief bait of Sauron—it leads the small to a Gollum, and the great to a Ringwraith.

J. R. R. Tolkien (1951). Letter to Milton Waldman. Number 131 in Carpenter (1981).

Machine

By “Machine”, Tolkien means something like “the dehumanizing effects of industrial civilization”. Anyone familiar with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings will have noticed the author’s attitude to industry and machinery. In Tolkien’s works, it is the evil characters who employ machinery, for example:

Now goblins are cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted. They make no beautiful things, but they make many clever ones. They can tunnel and mine as well as any but the most skilled dwarves, when they take the trouble, though they are usually untidy and dirty. Hammers, axes, swords, daggers, pickaxes, tongs, and also instruments of torture, they make very well, or get other people to make to their design, prisoners and slaves that have to work till they die for want of air and light. It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them, and also not working with their own hands more than they could help; but in those days and those wild parts they had not advanced (as it is called) so far.

J. R. R. Tolkien (1937). The Hobbit, chapter 4. London: Allen and Unwin.

‘I don’t know what Saruman thought was happening; but anyway he did not know how to deal with it. His wizardry may have been falling off lately, of course; but anyway I think he has not much grit, not much plain courage alone in a tight place without a lot of slaves and machines and things, if you know what I mean.’

J. R. R. Tolkien (1954). The Two Towers, book III, chapter 9. London: Allen and Unwin.

Whereas the good characters use their hands:

Hobbits are an unobtrusive but very ancient people, more numerous formerly than they are today; for they love peace and quiet and good tilled earth: a well-ordered and well-farmed countryside was their favourite haunt. They do not and did not understand or like machines more complicated than a forge-bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom, though they were skilful with tools.

J. R. R. Tolkien (1954). The Fellowship of the Ring. London: Allen and Unwin.

This is an unprepossessing attitude in someone who did not have to earn his living through manual labour, but his view seems to have been that the employment of machinery has a corrupting effect on the person using it:

There is the tragedy and despair of all machinery laid bare. Unlike art which is content to create a new secondary world in the mind, it attempts to actualize desire, and so to create power in this World; and that cannot really be done with any real satisfaction. Labour-saving machinery only creates endless and worse labour. And in addition to this fundamental disability of a creature, is added the Fall, which makes our devices not only fail of their desire but turn to new and horrible evil.

J. R. R. Tolkien (7 July 1944). Letter to Christopher Tolkien. Number 75 in Carpenter (1981).

Tolkien included “magic” under the umbrella of “machinery”, and suggested that in Middle-earth it has a similarly corrupting influence:

The Enemy, or those who have become like him, go in for ‘machinery’—with destructive and evil effects—because ‘magicians’, who have become chiefly concerned to use magia for their own power, would do so (do do so). The basic motive for magia—quite apart from any philosophic consideration of how it would work—is immediacy: speed, reduction of labour, and reduction also to a minimum (or vanishing point) of the gap between the idea or desire and the result or effect. But the magia may not be easy to come by, and at any rate if you have command of abundant slave-labour or machinery (often only the same thing concealed), it may be as quick or quick enough to push mountains over, wreck forests, or build pyramids by such means. Of course another factor then comes in, a moral or pathological one: the tyrants lose sight of objects, become cruel, and like smashing, hurting, and defiling as such. It would no doubt be possible to defend poor Lotho’s introduction of more efficient mills; but not of Sharkey and Sandyman’s use of them.

J. R. R. Tolkien (September 1954). Unsent draft of letter to Naomi Mitchison. Number 155 in Carpenter (1981).

This theme is barely present in The Silmarillion, but Tolkien explores it more thoroughly in The Lord of the Rings, where he gives us Sauron’s scheme to rule Middle-earth through the magical rings, and Saruman’s fouling of the River Isen and the Shire-Water with industrial pollution.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.