Is Eru a good god? And why

In his article, ‘God’s Tapestry and the Future of Foresight’,  Jamie at Futile Democracy writes that:

…we’re left with three possibilities; 1) God knew exactly how the course of human history would be affected by the onset of Christianity, and not simply allowed, but forced through His unbreakable tapestry, centuries of violent oppression – including the suppression of scientific endeavor – to take place for the sake of a grand scheme that He refuses to reveal. This is appealing because it allows for the all-knowing God, yet leaves a lot to be desired for the notion of an all-loving God, seeming as it does to imply that God is playing a cruel game with human beings who have no choice. 2) God is restricted by time, cannot see the long stretching consequences of His actions, which implies He is not all-knowing, nor all-powerful and if we look back over the course of history of the religion, reads like a series of bad decisions by the divine. Or 3) There is no God, and the flawed species of humanity is responsible for its own shortcomings. Because the problem of foresight as summarised in points 1 and 2 necessarily contradict the Christian premise of an all-loving, all-knowing God, I am further led to conclude that point 3 is the more likely.

I think that a similar set of objections can be raised against the philosophical idea of Eru – Tolkien’s supposedly Christianlike godhead. That Eru is a fictional character (actually, much like ‘God’ himself) does not preclude the discussion of philosophical or logical difficulties that may arise out of the ‘tapestry’ of the story. What is interesting about Eru, however, is the way in which Tolkien attempts to explain or parse these kinds of objections. He does this, I think, by making Eru an ‘artist’ as opposed to a personable god like the Christian Jehovah. The Ainulindale paints Eru as a supreme creator artist, directing his heavenly choir. His most pressing concerns seems to be the generation of beauty and harmony, not necessarily the well-being of his ‘children’. Evil, somehow comes about (and it must necessarily have its source in him) and is allowed to enter into the world on account of the drama it provokes. God sits in the Timeless Halls, watching the play.

This conception of god is, of course, disturbing, and Christian interpreters of Tolkien have long attempted to equate Eru with the Christian god directly, insisting that he is all loving etc. I don’t really see a great deal of evidence for this in the text, however. It is not so much that Eru is deistic (although he seems to be partly deistic) but that his interests are inscrutable. He desires beauty and drama – but why should a ‘perfect’ being desire such things? As with the ‘real’ God, we must as believers insist that the ways of Eru are mysterious. But what kind of a set up is this? Eru is good, but he allows evil and suffering to flourish? It is ‘right’ that he should be ‘worshiped’ or at the very least considered in a beneficent light, but he sees fit to drown islands of defenseless ‘heathens’? As with many aspects of Tolkien’s work, I think the Eru character embodies philosophical difficulties that inhere in Tolkien’s own religion, without coming to any firm conclusion about them. Eru seems to be important to Tolkien, but as an ultimate source of ‘goodness’ his pedigree is alarmingly vacuous.

I think this is why the Lord of the Rings appeals to non religious folks life myself, and why I think Tolkien’s oeuvre is actually best understood through a non religious glass. To insist on a Christian reading – for example, of Eru – and to ignore the ambiguous presentation of his character is to introduce a level of interpretative certitude into the text that is just lacking. Tolkien didn’t consciously set out to deride his own beliefs, of course, but when construing a world of unfolding ‘drama’ wherein evil and suffering are ever present realities, the theology which pertains to the Christian god – a beneficent, all-knowing, personal deity – fails to account for that suffering, as fails to account for the suffering of this world.

Many Christians will appeal to the Free will defense, and argue that Eru explicitly grants this to human beings (and probably Elves too). This is true, but as in regard to the real world, the free will defense cannot explain the prevalence of natural suffering, and nor does it explain why Evil of Suffering should actually come to be in the first place. Many Christians assume that free will entails the existence of morally opposite urges – the drive to do good or evil. But there is no reason to think that god could not have produced a world replete with choice that did not reduce to either causing or refraining to cause suffering. The category of ‘suffering’ need never have been ‘invented’. For Tolkien’s fictional world, these objections may be a little cerebral, but the reality of suffering in that world means that objections like the ‘free will’ defense have little purchase there either. Suffering remains a mystery, and one that informs the narrative without there being a resolution to the problem.

5 thoughts on “Is Eru a good god? And why

  1. Troelsfo

    I would say that, in order to discuss the nature of Eru Ilúvatar, one must start with Tolkien’s own views and intentions. Obviously it may be so that Tolkien is not entirely successful in conveying these intentions (but then, he didn’t actually finish his Silmarillion mythology, so there is some wriggle room there), but I think that these must be the starting point of such a discussion.

    Besides what he put in the Ainulindalë (some of which ended up in another chapter in the published Silmarillion), Tolkien addresses this question more explicitly in a letter (# 153 in the collection edited by Humphrey Carpenter):
    “To conclude: having mentioned Free Will, I might say that in my myth I have used ‘subcreation’ in a special way (not the same as ‘subcreation’ as a term in criticism of art, though I tried to show allegorically how that might come to be taken up into Creation in some plane in my ‘purgatorial’ story Leaf by Niggle (Dublin Review 1945)) to make visible and physical the effects of Sin or misused Free Will by men. Free Will is derivative, and is only operative within provided circumstances; but in order that it may exist, it is necessary that the Author should guarantee it, whatever betides: sc. when it is ‘against His Will’, as we say, at any rate as it appears on a finite view. He does not stop or make ‘unreal’ sinful acts and their consequences. So in this myth, it is ‘feigned’ (legitimately whether that is a feature of the real world or not) that He gave special ‘sub-creative’ powers to certain of His highest created beings: that is a guarantee that what they devised and made should be given the reality of Creation.”

    So, Tolkien very much does use the ‘Free Will’ explanation, but does so in combination with the ‘long perspective’ implied in Eru’s admonition to Melkor in the Ainulindalë: “And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.”

    So, whether one agrees or not, Tolkien’s position seems to be that
    a) Eru, having created Free Will, must guarantee it is real – i.e. that it allows the free-willed agent to act against Eru’s will (“at any rate as it appears on a finite view”)
    b) Regardless of this, Eru will in the end make sure that Eä / Arda and Time is made more beautiful and wonderful for these actions – suggesting that on an infinite view, he is able to turn the acts to work his will.

    Personally I think Tolkien is reasonably successful in showing this as the basis for his sub-creation – in particular when we notice how the exercise of power for the domination of other wills is portrayed as one of the most evil things anyone may do within Tolkien’s legendarium; a rule which must also apply to Eru himself.

  2. Pingback: Tolkien Transactions LX |

  3. Sorry for the incredibly late response, but thanks for your comment in any case.

    As I wrote above, “As with many aspects of Tolkien’s work, I think the Eru character embodies philosophical difficulties that inhere in Tolkien’s own religion, without coming to any firm conclusion about them.”

    In a sense, I’m saying that despite Tolkien’s professed intentions, this still holds. If I am not convinced by the free will defense as it applies to the real world, I am hardly going to be convinced by in the secondary one. You might reply that Tolkien nevertheless succeeds on a kind of neutral philosophical level – even if I disagree with Tolkien’s theodicy the story nonetheless adheres to it and bears it out. Indeed, this is the crux of the argument and is the heart of my disagreement with Christian interpretations, or even interpretations which, like yours above, take Tolkien’s word with a degree of (I think unwarranted) philosophical certitude. That is, I don’t think the story actually bears out the theodicy. Suffering is not magically transformed into joy at the conclusion of ‘The Silmarillion’ (surely, if any text takes an ‘infinite’ perspective, it is this one!). Thus the very text which so many critics use to argue for a Christian-friendly interpretation ends with a note of tremendous ambiguity – moral, psychological, philosophical. It is not nihilistic, per se, but the narrative of the whole Silmarillion does (or should, I think) throw the whole Ainulindale and its theodicy into question. What is the point of such drama, such suffering, if it is all a footnote in the “grand plan”? The narrative cannot help but undermine the neat theology – that’s my point.

    1. Troelsfo

      I’ve discovered this answer minutes after posting a comment on your most recent post (“Turin and Pridefulness”), where I think I raise some of the same concerns that you answer here …

      I think it is entirely fair to raise the question of whether the story actually bears out the theodicy, though I cannot help but feel that at least the published Silmarillion is useless as a reference for this question, and I am not entirely certain that there is any version at all that can be used, as Tolkien seems to have never completed the cycle to a point where he addressed this final resolution.

      One can, of course, look at e.g. the published Silmarillion as a stand-alone text, in which case I would agree: the published narrative undermines (though I would protest that it does not refute) the neat theology. However, given the textual history of the published Silmarillion, what is then the literary relevance of such a conclusion?

      There are, however, a few glimpses that can be used to get a vague idea of where Tolkien might have been heading – glimpses of a “Last Battle” in which Túrin Turambar would kill Melko(r) with his black sword, and after which there would be a Second Music, where the choirs of the Children of Ilúvatar would join to ensure that the Music was sung right – but that this would only be possible because of the suffering.

      I think Tolkien’s writings overall make it clear that he very much believed in the idea of ennoblement through suffering – whether I, personally, agree with this, is, in my opinion, not really relevant – the relevant question is rather whether he succeeds in convincing me that this is how things work within his sub-created Secondary World – and here I do find myself convinced.

      Hmm … upon reflection, would it have been better if I had kept all this in an answer to the other post – just to keep the discussion in a single thread?

  4. ‘However, given the textual history of the published Silmarillion, what is then the literary relevance of such a conclusion?’

    I want to address some other points you make later on – but for now I want to address this one. I happen to think, along with Gergely Nagy (see his entry on the Silmarillion in the ‘Companion to JRR Tolkien volume’) that the Silmarillion as a text actually adheres to Tolkien’s vision rather well. His argument as to why this is the case is rather complex, but for the purposes of this discussion I believe that the Silmarillion text as we have it is actually rather close to Tolkien’s vision, and not, as some would have it, a kind of bastard child. As such, I think one can make perfectly good literary judgements on its basis.

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