Thursday, January 15, 2004

The Valaquenta 

I've been reading the Silmarillion again these days. In the Ainulindale and the Valaquenta I think Tolkien's genius has done something utterly new and yet deeply human. Looking through Western history, at least, we human beings have a natural desire for a pantheon. We want to have Aphrodite to go to in matters of love, Ares to call upon for war, Hephaistos when making things. We desire to call, not just upon "a god," but one with personality and a history: Thor who is strong but not too clever, one-eyed Odin who gives the gift of poetry, Frey who traded his sword for love.

The knowledge of the one true God is immeasurably better than these myths and (at best) half-truths. Yet in worshipping Him who is all in all, Him who is perfect, we have lost a particular sort of beauty. The trade is of course well worth it; His beauty eclipses all these tales. And yet, we might ask, are not all good things to be preserved somehow? Is not every authentic human desire, once purified, to be satisfied in Him? How then this aesthetic desire for a pantheon?

We can approach the old mythologies as literature, as tales of a bygone age; but even in literary suspension of disbelief, the Christian man cannot admire the old gods. For all his majesty, Zeus is an adulterer. For all his power and wisdom, Odin is an oathbreaker. The gods toy with men, use them as pawns in their own struggles, and discard them in the end. The old mythologies make good stories, but the Christian cannot
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn
with the awe and reverence of his pagan fathers; he is simply too good a man for that.

Of course, we have the saints. Anthony who helps the lost, Charles Borromeo for seminarians, Lucy for eye diseases, Crispin for shoemakers. They have stories and tales; they can be invoked in need; they are bound to particular places and professions. They form a sort of pantheon, one might say, and they can be admired without reservation as those who have run the race to completion. But these are men and women only, though made partakers in the divine nature, and are still not gods. No one calls on St. Louis the way men once called on Mars.

But men do call on St. Michael in much the same way. He was mighty and powerful from the beginning, of a race we could not begin to comprehend; and he has a story, a tale of the battles he went through and the people to whom he was assigned. His power from the Lord is not only intercession, nor was he ever one of us. We call upon him, not to "pray for us" as a human saint would, but to "protect us" by his own angelic power and the power of God.

And in Michael, perhaps, is the solution Tolkien found to man's longing for a pantheon. In the Valar, the angelic guardians who bound themselves to the world out of love for serve Elves and Men, he creates for us a new pantheon, unsullied by the sordid tales of the Greeks and Norse, as clear and pure as the stars of the night sky. Manwë the high king; Varda the star-kindler; Aulë the smith; Yavanna the gardener; Oromë the hunter; Tulkas the laughing warrior; Ulmo the lord of the sea. These have committed no crimes; these have never left the service of Iluvátar. Though they are fictional, the Christian man can rejoice in them because they serve the one true God. In the Lords of the West can his heart's longing for the beauty of a pantheon find rest and joy.

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