The Universe According to Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is but one peak in a mighty range of mist-wreathed mountains. Although an estimated 150 million copies of Lord of the Rings have been sold around the globe, relatively few readers explore the vast structures of story that support this work and its prequel, The Hobbit. Tolkien’s other books—The Silmarillion and 13 volumes of fragments edited by his son, Christopher—have not enjoyed the same degree of popularity because they lack a single focus. A cycle of grim and hobbit-less tales told in lofty diction is simply harder to love. Yet knowing whence his world came and whither it is going greatly enhances the patient reader’s pleasure in Lord of the Rings. The full scope of Tolkien’s achievement cannot be appreciated otherwise.

In the six decades that Tolkien labored on his never-completed legendarium, he “sub-created” a rich secondary world, complete with intricately wrought languages, history, cultures, and geography. Building it with “an inner consistency of reality” also prompted Tolkien to devise a unique cosmology and eschatology that would be consonant with his own Catholic beliefs without slavishly copying Holy Scripture. Not wishing to “reuse the channels the creator is known to have used already,” he invented his own.

In no sense was Tolkien writing didactic fiction, much less fictionalized catechesis, although some overenthusiastic Catholics may think so. Instead, Tolkien was imagining other pathways through which we could have reached the same planet peopled by fallen men that we see today. Tolkien’s Arda (“the Realm”) is strictly speaking our solar system, but loosely our Earth, and his Middle-earth, is a habitable region of it roughly corresponding to Europe.

Tolkien’s long and often frustrating literary labors surely sharpened his appreciation of a major theme in his work: the relation between the Maker and the Thing Made. As a Christian, Tolkien knew himself as a created being who could at most sub-create. His characters, however, need to be reminded that their creative powers are conditional and warned “love not too well the work of thy hands.” The desire for fully autonomous making corrupts Tolkien’s Satan figure before the beginning of time. Afterward, many other beings are undone by temptations to hold fast what they have wrought—be it a gem, a city, or a civilization.

In another variation of the Maker/Made linkage, Tolkien’s characters are acutely aware of being “inside” stories—a surprisingly modern touch for a traditional artist. As Makers who are Made, they fulfill literary prophecies and recapitulate prototypes met in literature. In particular, the hobbit-heroes Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam in Lord of the Rings experience their adventures as stories while they are living them and later write them down in the same book. They also recognize that, like the road they trod, the story of the world “goes ever on” beyond their parts in the universal tale.

A final aspect of the Maker/Made relationship is the theme Tolkien himself saw in his work: “Death and the desire for Deathlessness.” Both elves and men rebel against the destinies their Creator has assigned them. Men try to seize the immortality granted to elves while elves grow weary of their lengthening years. From highest to lowest, creatures must accept their condition according to the Divine plan—or suffer the consequences. The consequences are what provide the drama, for as Tolkien observed, “There cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall.”

Creation and the Fall

Tolkien opens The Silmarillion with the creation of Arda, spinning his own variation on biblical themes. In the beginning, Eru, the One God, created blessed spirits called the Ainur who made music before his throne. He bade them sing together and improvise melodies on a theme that he proposed. But Melkor (“he who arises in might”), the greatest of the Ainur, introduced discordance by trying to wrest the music to his own designs. Twice the Father of All intervened to counter Melkor’s raucous blare with new themes before halting the chorale unfinished.

Then Eru said to the spirits: “Behold your music!” and they saw as in a vision what their singing had made. “Let these things Be!” said Eru, and the vision turned real, with the Divine Fire burning at its heart. Melkor’s thoughts were “but part of the whole and tributary to its glory,” yet his influence ominously pervades every part of the newly made world of Arda, making it susceptible to his will. Nature has come into existence already fallen, before men lived, much less sinned.

Tolkien’s creation myth departs from Genesis by employing spirits—equivalent to angels—as demiurges. Yet he avoids Gnosticism by having the One alone originate and realize the themes elaborated by his creatures. Because the music ends abruptly, the angelic hosts do not hear its finale and therefore cannot know the entire future of the world. Eru, of course, retains complete freedom to change matters as he wills. The Great Music is not comparable to Islam’s Well-Preserved Tablet, on which the Divine pen has already written all that is to come.

Moreover, despite its contamination by Melkor, matter as such is still good, so good that the blessed spirits wish to enter Arda and bind themselves to it till its ending. The greater angels called Valar (“The Powers”) and lesser ones called Maiar come down to rule Arda as gods. These beings self-incarnate, usually—but not always—in humanoid forms that are gendered. (The wizards later sent to Middle-earth are Maiar enfleshed in old men’s bodies.) Their bond with matter distinguishes them from the angels of Christian theology. They can learn, err, and even be corrupted.

In a world of natural religion, mythology is the only language theology can speak. Thus, in their functions, the faithful Valar resemble an Indo-European pantheon with twelve individuals paired and two solitary. In order of importance they are: Manwe the wise Elder King and his compassionate Queen Varda (who as Wisdom and Mercy suggest Christ and Mary reigning in heaven); Ulmo the sea-god; Aule the smith and Yavanna the “Giver of Fruits”; Nienna the goddess of pity; Orome the hunter and \Tana the bringer of spring; Mandos the doomsman and Vaire the weaver who records dooms; Lorien the inspirer and Este the healer; Tulkas the fighter and Nessa the dancer. Tolkien intended that their personalities and assignments should resonate with various mythological figures. For instance, Ulmo slightly resembles the Irish sea god Manannan and Tulkas the Scandanavian thunder-god Thor.

Spousal relationships between Valar and Maiar bond without intercourse but are mutually enhancing. Tolkien had originally intended the gods to reproduce sexually but abandoned that idea early. Instead of children, he gives them Maiar as servants and associates. Aided by their households, the Valar are authorized to perfect Arda according to their special gifts.

Melkor, the 15th Valar, is mateless but pluripotent. He can penetrate all the spheres of the other Valar. Spreading chaos, he interferes with their projects for achieving the world sketched in the music. What they plant, he roots up; what he builds, they tear down. Melkor also attracts lesser spirits to his cause, including a Maiar named Sauron, his successor. Some of these corrupt spirits eventually incarnate as dragons, werewolves, vampire bats, and the fiery monsters called balrogs.

No war in heaven follows but a destructive age-long struggle across Middle-earth that alters the very shape of the land. Melkor is a brutal coward, not a darkly glamorous Miltonic Satan. The more his wickedness waxes, the more his innate powers wane. By the end, he can only huddle stupidly in the dungeon throne room of his iron fortress.

Unfortunately, the Valar show poor judgment, weakness, and sheer ineptness in dealing with Morgoth. When they do succeed in capturing him, they give him a chance to repent. But he repays their mercy with outrage by destroying the gods’ luminous Trees of Silver and Gold, at that time the world’s only source of light. The Sun and Moon are subsequently fashioned from the last golden fruit and silver flower and committed to the care respectively of a female and a male Maiar.

The Valar’s reluctance to deal a definitive blow stems in part from fear of ruining Arda for future life-forms. Rational incarnate species were predicted to appear while the campaign against Morgoth was in progress and would need protection against him.

The gods are intensely curious about the advent of these other rational creatures, like but unlike themselves. They know that elves and men, the Children of God, are to come at an uncertain moment straight from the hand of Eru and not from the Valar’s contributions to the Great Music.

Impatient to have new beings to love, the smith god Aule fashions models of what he expects the new beings to look like. Eru reproves him for presuming to create what can only be soulless slave-puppets. When penitent Aule offers to destroy his works, the One forgives him and breathes souls into the empty bodies. But they must be kept asleep and hidden until after the coming of elves and men. Aule’s awkward constructs are the dwarves, six couples plus the mateless head of their people.

Aule’s spouse, the fertility goddess Yavanna, fears what his dwarves may do to live in Nature. She begs Eru to prepare a counterbalance. He brings forth the ents, giant “tree shepherds” whose males care for trees and whose females, the entwives, tend orchards and gardens. Thus the oldest rational species is a free gift of God unanticipated in the music of creation.

At long last the first elves emerge in Middle-earth. They break forth from grassy mounds under the stars beside the Waters of Awakening. These, the fairest of the Speaking Peoples, emerge as 72 couples divided into three kindreds (later called Vanyar, Noldor, and Teleri). The Valar soon discover the elves and invite them to cross the western sea to dwell with them in their paradisical home, the Undying Lands. Some elves refuse and others are lost en route, but most join the Valar.

Yet the Valar’s enthrallment with the elves has a trace of the same possessiveness, the craving to hold and keep, that ruined Melkor. Some elves begin to feel as if they are mere pets of the Valar, overprotected and held back from independent ventures. Many elves from the second kindred, the knowledge-hungry Noldor, rebel and return to Middle-earth against the will of the gods. There they futilely wage their own war of vengeance against Melkor, whom they now name Morgoth, “Dark Foe.”

The elves’ motive, too, is possessiveness, here gone mad in a blasphemous oath to recover the rebel leader’s treasured jewels, which Morgoth had stolen. Because Feanor the jewel-smith loved too well the work of his hands, he and the other proud elves are devoured by inexorable fate.

The rebellion of the elves is their Fall. Like the biblical Fall of Man, its sin is disobedience rooted in pride. But unlike the Genesis account, it involves only one segment of elves led by their king rather than a pair of First Parents. And their exile is a march out of paradise rather than an expulsion. The few elves who have second thoughts en route are forgiven and allowed to return. Moreover, the rebels quickly compound their disobedience with slaughter, theft, and treachery against fellow elves—the same crimes they deplore in Morgoth. Those who imagine that Tolkien’s elves “are always good, like good angels” have not read their whole history.

The Fate of the Elves

The Valar leave the exiles to their chosen doom. This amounts to a strategy of using the elves as cannon-fodder to wear down Morgoth’s strength. Only after all three glorious elvish kingdoms in Middle-earth have fallen to treachery do the gods receive a half-human–half-elven emissary from the survivors and agree to intervene. As his reward, Earendil the messenger is sent to sail the sky bearing a silmaril whose light is the Evening Star. It shines as a sign of hope to Morgoth’s foes.

The Valar themselves do not attack Middle-earth; Morgoth is unworthy of their steel. Instead they send an expeditionary force of their Maiar servants and elves who never rebelled. When Morgoth is finally overthrown, the gods extrude him into the Void outside creation. But they cannot prevent his shadow from seeping back or undo the harm he has done. Morgoth’s lieutenant, Sauron, remains at large, free to foment evil in two more ages of the world.

The surviving rebel elves are pardoned and many return to the Undying Lands. Others linger in Middle-earth, which is passing to the dominion of Men. Galadriel, the one notable rebel left after the defeat of Morgoth, refuses the pardon of the gods and stays behind. She wields her magic Ring of Water and her son-in-law, Elrond, his Ring of Air to keep their small realms of Lothlorien and Rivendell safe.

The last elves cling stubbornly to what they have, enjoying the local superiority of their species and trying to approximate conditions in the Undying Lands. The sad result is decadence. Preservation is at best “a long defeat.” Elves who never leave Middle-earth will dwindle into the phantoms of human legend.

The elves are saved from the predicament by sacrifice. In The Lord of the Rings Galadriel rejects the malevolent One Ring of Power and its promise of universal dominion. She, Elrond, and other elves let their magic fade and give up their homes to destroy Sauron. Therefore the Undying Lands welcome even Galadriel.

It is worth noting that because Tolkien wanted Galadriel identified with the Blessed Virgin, he kept rewriting her story to minimize her pride, rebellion, and penitence. Her sojourn in Middle-earth was to become an act of generosity intended to help others. Had Tolkien lived longer, his portrait of Galadriel in The Silmarillion would have altered significantly.

Elves are the elder but not the only Children of Eru. Elves make their first contact with Men during their struggle with Morgoth and learn that the newcomers have their own quarrel with the Enemy. Although the creation and Fall of Man are kept off stage “in the East” to avoid conflict with Genesis, Tolkien’s humans have confused memories of some earlier catastrophe. By promising immortality, Morgoth seduced their forebears into worshiping him as the Creator and rejecting the Creator as a demon. This is how “Death and the desire for Deathlessness” becomes the great theme of the entire legendarium.

Eru had intended death as a “gift” to mankind, a tranquil passage “beyond the circles of the world.” But Morgoth had taught men to fear and flee it. Knowing that elves are immortal makes short human lives harder to bear, especially for humans who fall in love with elves. As later events prove, some men will stoop to any abomination if they think it will extend their lives.

In reward for their sufferings resisting Morgoth, members of the heroic Three Houses of Men are given a beautiful island in the western sea. Their new kingdom of Ntimenor is blessed with every delight. Their kings enjoy lifespans several times the normal length for humans and can choose their moment of departure from life. (Their remote descendant, Aragorn, wills his own peaceful death in The Lord of the Rings.)

But the preternatural gifts showered on Numenoreans are conditional on observing a ban: They must not sail westward out of sight of their island toward the Undying Lands. The haughty kings come to resent this, and when Sauron tempts them to seize eternal life, they break the ban. Like Atlantis, Numenor is sunk for its presumption. The very shape of the world is changed—from flat to round—to put the gods’ country forever out of reach. Only a few faithful people escape the wreck of their island to found new realms in Middle-earth. Their surviving “Byzantine” kingdom, Gondor, appears in The Lord of the Rings.

Ironically, immortality is a mixed blessing. As age after age rolls by, even the Valar may envy men their release from the world. But elves are bound to Arda until the End: Its life is theirs. While the finite world ages, the elves “fade,” as their powerful spirits devour their flesh and wistful memories dominate their minds. What they fear is a final and permanent extinction when Arda is no more. Their “shadow” is before them as men’s “shadow” is behind them—and no less feared for being distant.

Hating the Children of Eru more than other creatures, Morgoth and his servant, Sauron, after him want them estranged, the better to delude and destroy. They mutilate and mutate elves (and sometimes men) into orcs because they can only deform, not create, their monstrous soldiers de novo. Morgoth’s parodies cannot satisfy his craving to make his very own creatures independently of Eru.

Suspicion among all the Speaking Peoples serves evil purposes. By lies and illusions Morgoth fosters it. But he fails to anticipate marriages between elf-maidens and men whose hybrid children doom his works. He could not envision Eru allowing a Maia to wed an elf, an elf to become mortal, or a man to become immortal. Sauron in his turn did not expect armies of elves and men to fight him together or that hobbits, a smaller, hardier race of men without their own origin myth, could pose any threat to his final victory.

Hope in an Unredeemed World

Arda is an unredeemed world without revelation or cultic religion. Times when Morgoth and Sauron were worshiped with human sacrifice poisoned the idea of temple rites. Except for one Hallow in Niimenor, no houses of worship are raised to Eru the One or to the Valar. The king of the Valar and some kings of men, however, adore Eru on mountaintops on behalf of their subjects.

Instead Tolkien uses Cosmos, Height, and Center as subliminal religious symbols. Founding a nation or a city brings order out of disorder like the primordial act of Creation. Elevations, towers, and encircling walls can cosmify for gods, elves, and men. Dwarves revere a reflective mountain pool. But a tree makes the truest axis mundi whether this be the Valar’s Trees of Gold and Silver, elven White Trees, the royal White Trees of Ntimenor and Gondor, or the Party Tree at the center of the hobbits’ Shire. Destroying and replanting trees stand for the withering and renewal of societies.

Although Eru’s providence does secretly work in the world, especially in The Lord of the Rings, Eru is mostly a philosophical concept in Arda rather than a personal God. A sort of grace at meals is the only ordinary human prayer noted. But elves and hobbits taught by elves invoke the Valar, especially Varda, queen of gods. Dwarves look to Aule the smith, ents to Orme the hunter, and entwives to Yavanna the Giver of Fruits. Praying for the intercession of angelic beings is a Catholic touch in a nearly religionless world.

There’s no mention of heaven or hell among the Speaking Peoples, but a type of purgatory looms large—reflecting Tolkien’s Catholic belief. At death the spirits of elves, men, hobbits, and dwarves go to separate chambers in the Halls of Mandos where the god of doom confines them to contemplate their sins. (The ents’ fate is uncertain.) Silent waiting, not fiery torment, is the lot of the dead.

When purged, elves can be incarnated in copies of the same bodies they formerly had. Tolkien discarded the notion of having them reborn in their children because this would deprive elf parents of unique offspring and force the reincarnated to go through another childhood. Reincarnation is a special privilege that can be refused or denied. Men and hobbits, on the other hand, leave the universe to a destiny unknown “beyond the circles of the world.” Dwarves wait until the end of the world; only the Seven Fathers of their race sometimes return to life in their original bodies to live again in Middle-earth.

Some elves and men recognize their world as fallen. They suspect it will take a direct intervention by Eru to set matters right although they cannot see how. They await a last day when Arda Marred will be destroyed and remade lovelier even than Arda Unmarred of the original Great Music. Then elves and men will add their voices to the chorus of new creation.

But a Ragnarok must precede that glorious rebirth. Morgoth will break into the universe again, destroy the Sun and Moon, and be slain by a human hero from the Elder Days. All the silmarils will be recovered. The jewels’ maker, Feanor, finally repentant for his rebellion, will let them be broken to restore the lost Trees of Light. All the dead will rise to some destiny that totally satisfies the heart’s desire. But what this may be, the peoples of Arda know not. They rest in hope alone.

Thus even in the face of persistent and powerful evils, Tolkien’s sub-creation bears witness to unquenchable hope. Hope it must be because Arda is a world not yet redeemed. Its songs are fair but sad. The cycles it endures of good and evil in dreadful conflict striving have yet to reach final victory. Nevertheless, Tolkien’s Secondary World offers our Primary World a whisper of evangelium, a hint of Joy “poignant as grief.”


  • Sandra Miesel

    Sandra Miesel is a medievalist and author. She has written hundreds of articles for the Catholic press, chiefly on history, art, and hagiography, and has spoken at religious and academic conferences, appeared on EWTN, and given numerous radio interviews. She is co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code with Carl E. Olson and The Pied Piper of Atheism: Philip Pullman and Children's Fantasy with Catholic journalist and canon lawyer Pete Vere. She holds master's degrees in biochemistry and medieval history from the University of Illinois.

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