Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The pride of Feanor


Being himself a creative genius of a high order, Tolkien felt a temptation of pride which was perhaps greater than for most.

In his depiction of the elf Feanor - he showed how pride can destroy everything which the greatest creative genius can achieve, and more.


Feanor was by far the most gifted among the gifted race of elves: as a scholar he invented the written script, as a craftsman he created many wonders but especially the Silmarils: three indestructible jewels of beauty unequalled by any products of human art, in which the light of the Two Trees was captured.

Gandalf said that, above all else in the world, he would wish to see the incomparable hand and mind of Feanor at work at the height of his powers.

Even the greatest of 'the gods' (except for 'the One' creator God - Eru) - the premier Archangel Melkor (later re-named Morgoth, by Feanor) could not match Feanor's creative genius, and coveted the Silmarils above all.


Yet Feanor's pride, his possessiveness concerning his own creations, was such that it led to many disasters for the elves: failure to restore the light of the Two Trees (after Morgoth had them destroyed), mass disloyalty, dishonesty and disobedience among the Noldor elves for generations, slaughter of the Teleri and destruction of their wonderful ships, betrayal and death of Noldor kindred, fruitless wars in Middle Earth with huge suffering and death for many centuries, exile from the care of the Valar - most of the major tragedies of the Silmarillion stories.

And all stemming back to the pride of Feanor.


Tolkien depicted the same process at many levels, from Melkor himself, to the first and primary Fall of Man into the worship of Morgoth (unpublished in his life but described in the History of Middle Earth Volume X), to the second Fall of the men of Numenor (who developed the most powerful technological civilization ever in Middle Earth), to individual examples such as Sauron and Saruman (minor gods or angelic figures), to Boromir and Denethor.

In Tolkien's world, as in ours, prideful creative genius often leads first to astonishing achievements of power - else there would be no temptation - then to ruin and loss.

For Tolkien, there is no creative achievement so great that it cannot be undone and reversed by pride.


And yet - we live, now, in a society which esteems and promotes pride - indeed depends upon pride for its very sustenance.

Of all the many moral inversions of political correctness - this is the most serious, the most damaging, the most damning.



Troels said...

This is an interesting subject. More could of course be said about it -- including looking at pride as a significant difference between such pairs as Faramir / Boromir, Gandalf / Saruman, Théoden / Denethor and numerous others.

Since, however, you have taken this in the direction of pride in sub-creation, I think we should really mention the poem Mythopoeia -- in particular lines 57 through 70 where Tolkien not only justifies sub-creation, but also suggests it humbly as a tribute to the Creator:

Disgraced [Man] may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
man, sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with elves and goblins, though we dared to build
gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sow the seed of dragons, ‘twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we're made.

Some of the same ideas are also expressed in the letter to Peter Hastings from September 1954 (no. 153 in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien) in which Tolkien says:
| We differ entirely about the nature of the
| relation of sub-creation to Creation. I
| should have said that liberation 'from the
| channels the creator is known to have used
| already' is the fundamental function of
| 'sub-creation', a tribute to the infinity
| of His potential variety,

What Aulë does is, I think, precisely to offer his (sub-)creation as a tribute to Eru, and it is that which makes his situation different. If you temper your pride in your sub-creation by seeing it as 'a tribute to the infinity of His potential variety', when you recognize that you are just making 'by the law in which [you]'re made', you introduce a humility into your sub-creation: you are a sub-creator beneath the one true Creator and this makes a huge difference. Fëanor's fall was, I believe, in forgetting this: 'he seldom remembered now that the light within them was not his own' as it is said in the published Silmarillion

Bruce Charlton said...

Thanks for that comment.

Of course you are right; and I think Tolkien went a long way towards achieving this humility in his life.

And his (largely successful) struggle with the temptation of pride was what gave his work much of its depth and insight.