J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, despite Tolkien’s disapproval of The Chronicles of Narnia, both share some common threads which parallel the biblical creation narrative in the book of Genesis. Genesis, the word, comes from the Greek as can be found in the Septuagint (Greek translation) meaning origin or beginning (not Origen, lol). The Masoretic text which is the Hebrew Old Testament does not bear the name of Genesis, which again is the Greek translation, but rather brshth (bereshith) which means in ‘the’ beginning. The first word/s of the Hebrew Bible open with the very title of the book/scroll and the title is in the beginning. There is a lot of theological scholarly debate surrounding the opening verse of the bible which I won’t get into here, a biblical commentary would cover that if you are interested.
Let us put our interpretive disagreements aside for the moment in regards to how we understand the first chapter of Genesis and let us looks simply at the message and themes that arise from the first chapter plainly. The structure of the book of the beginning, that is of Genesis, is a unique one. The book itself bears narrative writing while also sharing similarities in the opening parts with poetic literature. The first chapter, if you care to turn there with me (English translations are fine), bears an order to the creative work of almighty God. There are some emphases made in chapter one which are revealed by repetition. First, when we read the opening chapter of the Bible, it important to note something rather unique in our day and age (no pun intended there). More often than not today, we read the Bible and think of how it speaks to or about ourselves. We might read it individually or we might read ourselves into the text without hearing what the text has to say. Again, as with many things in biblical scholarship, there is much debate about how this is to be understood. However, when we look at Genesis 1, we do not see ourselves or something necessarily that we can so quickly apply to ourselves straight away, do we?
“In the beginning, God created…”
The opening of the whole bible begins with God’s creative work. God speaks and it happens. God says something and it is done. It is a swift movement, the first chapter, but it shows a sort of order to things. There is water, land, and sky in addition to the lights. There are corresponding creatures for the water, for the land, and for the sky. The flow of the opening chapter is swift, but it slows when after creatures for water, land, and sky have been created God decides to make mankind, and in his image he makes them, and male and female. This created order stands out from the rest bearing the image of God, and after being created God blesses them and gives them dominion over created things in addition to a mandate to be fruitful and multiply. The created order in chapter 1 is marked with a statement that it is good, but mankind are called very good after they are created, male and female (remember, the title woman came when Adam names his companion).
So, God creates and his benevolent character is revealed to us in his creative work. Genesis 1 is rich with theology, but there is a definitive structure to the rest of Genesis which begins in chapter 2 with the term generations. New sections of Genesis begin with this word and a fun practice could be going through Genesis and searching for this word.
(Note: For those interested, a word-study on the Hebrew word adamah in comparison to Adam/adam. The Hebrew word for mankind is adam and adamah is the word for ground.)
Now, we have a bit of background in the bible and can proceed to Tolkien and a little Lewis. Lewis, in his Chronicles, begins his children’s book with Aslan singing Narnia into existence. Tolkien also uses this a sort of singing which is begun by Eru (Illuvatar) and those created things respond properly with the song given them to sing by their creator and thus function as originally intended bearing the mark of the creator by song. Tolkien refers to his world not as creation, but as sub-creation because it is not the true creation that is our world but merely a faerie story/fantastic tale which resides on paper and in the mind of the reader. Tolkien’s sub-creation bears some semblances to Genesis in that there is Ea, The Void, and Arda in addition to Eru (Illuvatar) who is the timeless and preexistent creator god. Ea is the material universe which consists of all celestial elements including Arda (the world), but excludes the immaterial spiritual realm where Eru dwells in which is referred to as the Timeless Halls. Eru exists outside of time and is immaterial. Arda is the world which has been sung into existence along with the primary created beings. There are the Ainur (angelic beings, Illuvatar’s thoughts embodied), the Valar (Ainur which enterred the world), the Maiar (lesser Valar who aid in creative order), the Eldar (elven kind), the children of Illuvatar (mankind and Eldar/elven kind).
After all these strange names and terms, I will give you all chance to take a breath after trying to pronounce them…
Alright, Eru’s creative work is marked by singing much like that of Aslan, except with Eru we find that Eru’s thoughts become embodied in the form of Ainur which each individually yield a specific sound (they individually are much like one section of an orchestra). Together, the Ainur comprise a symphony of holy music which fill The Void which are again the thoughts of Eru. This divine symphony continues in Tolkien’s beginning and it isn’t until the end of the beginning time for Tolkien that the material order is created. Ea, and Arda are created while The Void and the dwelling place of Eru preexist. Each song of the Ainur comprises part of the symphonic sub-creation narrative that Tolkien has created. So, when one piece is removed there are problems. That is precisely what happens when Melkor, one of the Ainur who is called Morgoth by the elves later, decides to literally sing his own song. He becomes jealous of the power or Eru and Eru’s ability to create and have power over everything. The creation of the material world is a pendulum of good and bad. There is an intended purpose by some of the Ainur in creating part of the created order, then it is marred by Melkor. This continues for some time in creation. The Valar created 2 lights, one for day and one for night. Then, there is Melkor who tries to control what the Valar have created, for example.
The timeframe is difficult and complex to describe for all of this, perhaps not unlike Genesis 1, however there is the beginning, age of the Valar, age of the lamps, age of the trees, age of the sun, and then there are about 3-4 ages following where life exists in a regular cycle on Arda and the age of men is contained to these later ages.
Okay, I think I have summarized creation in Genesis and the sub-creation of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth quite enough. Let us begin to look at some of the similarities which you have undoubtedly already begun to pick up…
Tolkien endows his created beings with the ability to create, thus, bearing a sort of functional image of god. The song that each of the Ainur are given to sing are all collectively part of a larger symphony of creation which only the conductor/composer (Eru) knows from start to finish by heart along with all of the parts. So, we can see that Tolkien is revealing that god is omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent as well in his desire to create these thoughts of his and give them each a song to sing as a group for the goodness of all of creation. His creation can think and act independently, and thus, decide to sing songs of their own as Melkor does. Melkor is basically the Tolkien equivalent to Satan if you haven’t got that already. By the way, Sauron, who appears in The Lord of the Rings, is one of Melkor’s evil generals. There is both good which is intended and evil which is not intended which exist in the beginning of Tolkien’s world.
Therefore, in the bible we understand sin originating in the Garden of Eden as being disobedience, or a lack of dependence upon the creator God (conversely, an independence). In Tolkien’s world, evil originates when one of the created beings (angels) decides to sing independently of the creator and act independent of the rest of the symphony, thus, ruining the symphony greatly. Melkor is a mischievous one as well. Great things are created by the Valar, but Melkor is always there to mess something up. Melkor is capable only of the work of evil and destruction as Tolkien shows. Tolkien uses the Valar to create things in the material world and the material things outside of it also. Angels are used to continue the created work of god in Tolkien’s work, but in the bible we see God acting independently and being sufficient in and of himself in performing the work of creation. Angels are given a much greater authority in Tolkien’s world while mankind is given the great authority in our world as is revealed in Genesis.
The character of God, the concept of sin and evil, the purpose of God in creating a sort of symphonic harmony of good life, and the work of God are all in Tolkien’s sub-creation in some form. God exists outside of time and in Tolkien’s world Eru also exists outside of time. Part of the beauty of the incarnation of Jesus Christ is that it is a breaking in of God into time for his redemptive purpose. Tolkien will do this also in a way, but that will be written of later. Tolkien has such high regard for God’s creative work that he uses sub-creation and eucatastrophe to label his own work (Eucatastrophe: Something good coming out of something bad). Good and evil battle it out in Tolkien’s world in a visible form as destruction tries to hinder the purpose of Eru (god), in redeeming his creation and bringing it to it’s ultimate purpose. Tolkien’s sub-creation is ultimately meant to be a symphony of life for the pleasure of god, but it is marred by the evil and independence of the fallen Ainur, Melkor.
There is a lot to discuss and chew on in the midst of all of this. I have omitted some of the parallels for the sake of the discussion. Surely, you all can note some of the parallels that you see between Tolkien’s sub-creation and the creation found in Genesis. It is my hope that I have only begun this analysis of Tolkien and creation, and that you all will continue to see the parallels that I have not mentioned. Also, be careful because part of the beauty of faerie stories as Tolkien would say is that they are not typology or allegorical because that would surely limit their meaning to only one type of things when the imagination can bring so much more to the story. That is his intent and it must not be lost in the midst of this analysis, post, or discussion. There is much more that could be said about Tolkien’s complex world, but only a smidgeon will be addressed here and a gloss of a smidgeon at that. If you want to know more, see the books/websites listed below.
What thought might you have after reading all of this? How do we understand beauty in Genesis and how does that compare with Tolkien’s sub-creation? How does our understanding of good compare with that which was intended in creation? What does Tolkien’s cosmology (sub-creation) make you think about in relation to our own creation story revealed in Genesis? How do we understand the concepts of sin, the character of God, and the order of creation? Does Tolkien accurately depict these things? Yes/No, then how does he depict them in comparison with our own story of creation? What do you like about Tolkien’s sub-creation/dislike? How can this story which includes a much greater story be used for proclaiming the Gospel message of Jesus Christ today?
Okay, enough questions. Let the discussion begin…
See The Silmarillion, and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien to learn more about his cosmology/sub-creation. A helpful user-friendly site could also be found at Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle-earth. I give credit to the book, The Silmarillion, and the website given above for some of the details of Tolkien’s world. A good friend of mine from seminary, Michael Hill, has suggested the website http://www.glyphweb.com/ARDA/ for more information on the details of Tolkien’s world.