Some thoughts about J.R.R. Tolkien's Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth (Morgoth's Ring, The History of Middle-earth
0). No pretension of presenting an exhaustive analysis. Prior knowledge of this text is very strongly recommended.
Thanks to Deborah for her insightful and useful comments, to Nils Ivar Agøy for challenging my use of the concept of 'natural theology', and to Nessime for causing me to formulate some of my ideas and assertions more carefully.
'Het waren twee koningskinderen
die hadden malkander zo lief.
Zij konden bij malkander niet komen,
het water was veel te diep.'
(first stanza of medieval Dutch ballad)
(Two royal children they were,
they loved each other so much,
they could not reach each other,
the water was far too deep.)
Preliminary remark: I am mostly concerned with the text of the Athrabeth proper here. Though I will refer to Tolkien's comments as well, they do not have quite the same value for me: I do not see them as extensions of the text, but as reflections and elucidations by the author that function on a more cerebral and less imaginative and intuitive level than the text itself. (But I will not engage in a discussion concerning the position of authorial comments.)
Some time ago, reading a Live Journal entry, I came across a number of interesting comments on the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, the debate of the Elvenking Finrod Felagund and the mortal woman Andreth, who loved Finrod's brother Aegnor but never found happiness with him, and suffered greatly from this, also because she believed herself scorned. (Morgoth's Ring, HoMe 10). The comments centred on what the LJ owner considered to be Andreth's despair and loss of faith, and contrasted her attitude with that of Túrin and his family, "who never let go their faith in the good". Andreth, on the other hand, gives in to "a deep resentment and envy of what is not hers to possess as she would. She despairs in the face of the news that Men shall be the redeemers of Arda Marred. And, no, the love affair with Aegnor is but an excuse for the falling, an instrumental use of the ordinary."
According to the LJ entry, bot the Narn i Hîn Húrin and the Athrabeth Finrod a Andreth address "the nature of what it means to be fallen in a world without original sin. For what possible purpose can there be such grief and suffering? For the tempering of faith, and to reconcile the one who suffers to the fate of the ordinary." Andreth is faulted for losing faith because she refuses to be reconciled with her own finitude and grasps after the infinite 'still desiring the world - to grasp all to oneself and to envy those who have what you do not." Túrin avoids this fault: "He endures and transgresses and lives with his crimes. At the end, his death is as much punishment as despair, and inflicts upon himself the judgment that should be made of those who kill friends, violate family, and betray oaths."
These comments raise some good points concerning Andreth's attitude in the Athrabeth. Her despair is all over the debate, so to speak, though we have to take into account that the Athrabeth itself is a kind of 'still': it reflects Andreth's situation at one particular moment rather than giving an account of her entire life, as the Narn does of Túrin's life (see Note 1). At this vulnerable moment, when Andreth has recently lost her grandfather Boromir, she does seem to be without estel - in contrast to Appendix A of LotR here translated as "trust" rather than as "hope" and just short of being verbally identified as "faith" - and she seems to remain negative until the last: "And when I go to what halls shall I come? To a darkness in which even the memory of the sharp flame shall be quenched?"
It is also true that she resents the fact that her time on earth is finite, going out of her way to convince Finrod that the mortality of Man is not a natural state of being, but the result of Morgoth's interference. When Finrod challenges this claim by saying that only Eru could have made such a change, and asks why He would have done it, Andreth bluntly refuses to give him an explanation. In a discarded version of the Athrabeth she does present an account of a Fall of Man in the past, but this passage never made it to the main text. This reinforces the impression of resentment and refusal to cope with mortality: apparently Andreth cannot even admit that mortals have themselves blame for their predicament. (With regard to this, the reference to 'a world without original sin' in the LJ entry is surprising; I hope to revert to this later.) In note 9 to the Athrabeth, the author gives another possible reason why she does not tell this story to Finrod: her own confusion with regard to the conflicting human traditions. But this is less relevant here.
Then the LJ entry continues: "And no, the love affair with Aegnor is but an excuse for the falling, an instrumental use of the ordinary." If I read this correctly, the "ordinary" refers to the love affair. I think this is where I would beg to differ, if my reading is correct. A love affair is ordinary, yes: for everyone but the two people involved; this is also why, in the Biblical Song of Songs, ordinary, earthly love can become a metaphor for divine love as well. For all lovers, while it lasts, their love is extraordinary; to each other, lovers are royalty, so to speak. No better illustration for this than Tolkien's own true tale, which, ordinary as it must have seemed to the rest of the world, nevertheless gave rise to the most extraordinary story found in the entire mythology of Arda - the seed from which his entire Tree of Story sprouted. Here, two ordinary people, Ronald Tolkien and Edith Bratt, are transformed into the extraordinary couple Beren and Lúthien, who defy the Devil, Death and the Universe, along with some lesser agents, for the sake of their love - and with success, or as much success as is possible in a marred world.
But the love affair of Andreth and Aegnor is just as extraordinary, a point emphasised by the fact that Tolkien made them a mixed couple, too; they represent the backside of the tale of Beren and Lúthien. To accept the truth and depth of this love requires, perhaps, a stronger suspension of disbelief than in the case of Beren and Lúthien, because we never see Andreth and Aegnor together. Their tale is told in retrospect. But when Finrod says to Andreth: 'I tell thee, Aikanár the Sharp-flame loved thee,' what reason do we have to disbelieve him? And when Andreth says: 'For one year, one day, of the flame I would have given all: kin, youth, and hope itself,' does this leave any doubt as to the nature of her feelings? If Tolkien calls their tale a tragedy in his commentary, he plainly intends us to believe in the reality of this love.
For the people involved, a love that comes to nothing is no more ordinary than a fulfilled love. Was there anything that could have destroyed Andreth's life like this experience did - to love in vain, to believe herself scorned as if she weren't good enough, not 'royalty', and even to be left without the one thing capable of granting mortals at least a small measure of immortality: children? For this is what has happened here. Andreth's age at the time of the debate is highly relevant: she's 48 years old. At this age, most mortals have more life behind them than before them, and though an increase in experience and wisdom can outweigh the loss of physical vitality, the spectre of decline and decrepitude is not always easily banned. The awareness of being finite is usually much stronger in this stage of life than in youth. For women, this is also roughly the age that marks the end of fertility and the possibility of childbearing.
A question that could be raised here, is whether Andreth shouldn't have forgotten Aegnor, married, and raised a family. But if Tolkien thought this was a viable option, why doesn't he at least allude to it somewhere in the main text or in the commentaries? My guess would be that he considers the love of Aegnor and Andreth no less fated than any of the other major love affairs in his mythology ever were. If this is the case, marrying someone else would have been the lower road for Andreth - much like Finwë's marriage to Indis after Míriel's death is said to be a lower road in the same volume of HoMe that contains the Athrabeth - coincidence?
In any case, Andreth's age in the Athrabeth is no coincidence. Climacteric can be, and often is, a difficult time in a woman's life, both physically and mentally. One of the possible mental setbacks is depression. There is a direct link between Andreth's attitude and her stage in life: the depression precipitates the despair; the physical condition influences the metaphysical statements. No one is going to convince me that Tolkien was entirely unaware of this situation when he wrote the Athrabeth, even though his background and upbringing may have prevented him from mentioning it in so many words. And Finrod sees it, too. His statement about the begetting of children is more than an explanatory reference to Elvish habits surrounding childbearing and childrearing as described in Laws and Customs among the Eldar (also found in HoMe 10). I do not doubt Finrod knows this is eating her. It's part of the reason why he bears with her even when she questions everything he holds sacred - even when, in her desperation, she speaks the language of the Enemy - though he does, of course, correct her.
So, no: the love affair is not 'but an excuse for the falling', as if Andreth were in some way predestined to fall while others were not. Her envious grasp for an immortality she cannot have is not a fall to which her love for Aegnor is instrumental. In Arda, the Fall that robbed all Men of their immortality is given (see below), a potential cause for despair in all mortals, and it is the unfulfilled love that actually brings out this despair in the individual called Andreth, because she believes that in her case the lost immortality would have been instrumental to fulfilment. It is her personal doom to fall in love with an undying Elf - nowhere do we find any indication that she would have rebelled the way she did if her beloved had been a mortal. What she does with the outcome of the affair: entering the down road to despair, is her own choice. In a way, this is another small aside from the author pertaining to the theme of fate and freedom, doom and choice.
Both Finrod's assessment of the nature of mortals in the Athrabeth and the essay Aman (Part Five of HoMe 10), correct her belief. The essay bears a close relationship to the Athrabeth and should have preceded or accompanied it, but Christopher Tolkien informs us that he realised this too shortly before the publication of Vol. 10 to be able to change the present arrangement of the texts. According to the essay, other than the elvish soul, the mortal soul was never meant by its Creator to dwell in Arda until the end: 'It is (as the Eldar hold), its nature and doom under the will of Eru that it should not endure Arda for long, but should depart and go elsewhither, returning maybe direct to Eru for another fate or purpose that is beyond the knowledge or guess of the Eldar.' In the Athrabeth, Finrod makes a similar assertion. The human fëa is meant to leave the world, and if Melkor had not marred mankind, he thinks this fëa would have had 'the power to uplift the hröa, as its eternal spouse and companion, into an endurance everlasting beyond Eä, and beyond time'. (This, by the way, is pure and undiluted Thomism, the official philosophy of the Roman Catholic Church, which holds among other things that if the Fall had not taken place, the life of all men would have ended in a bodily assumption into heaven. ) Then Finrod he goes on to speculate about possible human visions of an ideal world, ending up somewhere in the vicinity of Plato. But Andreth refuses to go along, saying that Men haven't thought much about Arda but mostly about themselves, about the joy they have lost and 'the darkness impenetrable that now awaits us.' Her despair remains unmitigated, while at the same time we see here that, per se, it is not an individual thing.
But if being subject to the doom of Men causes her to despair this is, as Finrod rightly points out, because it has "touched her as a woman". It has affected her in her condition of a sexual being. And it is not Andreth who brings this up to excuse her nihilistic attitude in the debate, but Finrod, who thereby acknowledges that it is crucial to the whole situation. To quote Tolkien's own words in the commentary: "Actually, though it deals with such things as death and the relations of Elves and Men to Time and Arda, and to one another, its real purpose is dramatic: to exhibit the generosity of Finrod's mind, his love and pity for Andreth, and the tragic situations that must arise in the meeting of Elves and Men (in the ages of the youth of the Elves)." Tentatively, it could be said that Finrod professes the love Aegnor never showed, but lifted to a higher plane: the love that is charity in the old-fashioned sense of the word. Whether he succeeds in conveying it to Andreth remains to be seen; more about this later.
The tragic situations undoubtedly occurred. As Beleg puts it in the Narn i Hîn Húrin, speaking to Túrin, "There are other griefs in Middle-earth than yours, and wounds made by no weapon. Indeed, I begin to think that Elves and Men should not meet or meddle." This is a reference to another unhappy love: that of the elf-maiden Nellas of Doriath for Túrin, usually disregarded, because unlike Finduilas' love it is mostly implicit. However, despite the different circumstances it can be applied without restriction to the love of Andreth and Aegnor. It would have been better for both of them if Elves and Men had not met or meddled - and as Finrod, so to speak, bears the earthly responsibility for this meeting and meddling it is inevitable that he is the Elf who enters into debate with Andreth. Perhaps it was for the same reason that the author decided that one of the parties involved had to be a brother of Finrod. Another explanation could be that Finrod plays the role of the male authority figure. In the other Elf/mortal relationships this is usually the father: Thingol, Turgon, Elrond, but as Finarfin stayed behind in Valinor his eldest son becomes the pater familias of his family in Beleriand. The text makes it clear that the idea of such a union is problematic for Finrod; his position is probably closer to Thingol's than to Turgon's. His defence of his brother's negative decision remanis total even in the face of Andreth's despair, and his general attitude indicates grave doubts on his part as to the advisability of these 'interracial' marriages; he seems to prefer bridges built of words to those of the flesh.
But the true nature of Andreth's existential emergency is, indeed, not unfulfilled love, though she believes that even a short-lived happiness would have been better than none at all. The great sting is Death. It is Andreth's mortality that makes her union with Aegnor impossible, because he can't bear the prospect to see her age and die. According to Tolkien's own religious beliefs in the Primary World, death is a punishment for sin; human beings, destined to live forever, have listened to the voice that tells them to overstep their bounds, and ended up on the wrong side of Life. The 1977 Silmarillion, however, suggests that the notion of Death as a punishment is absent from Arda. For Men, it is a gift, though they can refuse to see it as such, in which case it becomes a doom. This is what happens to the later Kings of Númenor, and to those lords of Men who become the Ringwraiths.
In the Akkalabêth, this is explained in the passage where the messengers of the Valar travel to Númenor after the Eldar have reported the rebellious thoughts of its inhabitants to Manwë. Death, these messengers declare, 'was not at first appointed for a punishment. Thus you escape, and leave the world, and are not bound to it, in hope or weariness'. When the mortals object that this requires a blind trust, and a hope without assurance, the messengers reply that the true home of Men is not within the Circles of the World (Finrod's 'you are not for Arda'). They go on to explain: 'The Doom of Men, that they should depart, was at first a gift of Ilúvatar (...) The Valar bid you earnestly not to withhold the trust to which you are called.' This trust can easily be identified as the estel of the Athrabeth, though the text of the Akkallabêth does not contain the Sindarin term and the whole concept lacks the theological/philosophical foundation Finrod gives it in his conversation with Andreth, just as his sympathetic approach is also largely absent here. But the main difference remains that death is a gift in this tale as well; the shift towards a more outspoken, Primary World Christian theology has not yet taken place.
Though the notion of death as a punishment is absent from the 1977 Silmarillion, that of a Fall of Men is not. It is implied in Bëor's words to Finrod concerning the darkness he and his people have left behind, and more explicitly mentioned in Tolkien's letters: "The Fall of Man is in the past and off stage; the Redemption of Man is in the far future." (Letters, 297) Though this letter refers to the situation in the Third Age, it holds true for the First Age as well. The notion of a fall is also clearly present in the debate of Finrod and Andreth. The Athrabeth, however, does not merely refer to a Fall of Men in a distant past, it also connects this fall to the condition of humans as beings with finite bodies, doomed to leave this world by way of dying. As this punishment does not only affect the original trespassers but is obviously hereditary, we may conclude that the Athrabeth does, albeit not in so many words, introduce the concept of original sin to the mythology of Arda. Which would imply that Andreth's despair is not a fall, but rather a refusal - or an inability - to get up.
But this Fall of Men, of course, poses a problem in that it counters Tolkien's earlier, stated intentions of making mortality a natural condition of Man and a Gift, statements found, for instance, in his letters to Peter Hastings and Father Robert Murray, both written in 1954. Christopher Tolkien, musing on it in his own comments on the Athrabeth texts, is at a loss what to make of it: "It seems to me therefore that there are problems in the Athrabeth ... for the interpretation of my father's thought on these matters; but I am unable to resolve them."
Preaching the Gospel
The notion of death as a punishment also raises the question, where redemption is supposed to come from within Tolkien's Middle-earth. There is no such thing as Revelation in the form of Holy Writ containing sacred history and inviting saving faith; Tolkien himself called it a monotheistic world of 'natural theology' (Letters, 165; more on this in Note #2). Nor does it help to point out that good and evil are not abstract in Arda but walk the earth in various guises and do not demand belief because they simply are, and that therefore one can't disbelieve in the power of good but only reject it. In Beleriand the evil side is much more in evidence than the good side, and for those who have never crossed the sea to Aman the good powers are indeed, a matter of faith: they have to believe the Elves who say these powers exist and are indeed good. Interestingly, with one exception (Elu Thingol), these Elves are identical with the Noldor, who rebelled against the good Powers and turned their backs to them, which does have the effect of making them somewhat less convincing as witnesses. No mortal had seen Melian before Beren entered the Girdle of Doriath, more than fifty years after the debate of Finrod and Andreth, and the first mortal to see Ulmo was Tuor, almost hundred years later.
Tolkien probably recognised that this lack of direct and visible evidence of divine good could be a problem. This is suggested by two passages in the debate: the one concerning hope (amdir) and trust (estel), and the one concerning Eru entering his own creation. It is Finrod, who preaches estel to an Andreth when she professes the absence of amdir for mortal Men. He says, among other things "It does not come from experience, but from our nature and first being. If we are indeed the Eruhin, the Children of the One, then He will not suffer Himself to be deprived of His own, not by any Enemy, not even by ourselves. This is the last foundation of Estel, which we keep even when we contemplate the End: of all His designs the issue must be for His Children's joy. Amdir you have not, you say. Does no Estel at all abide?'
Andreth's answer to this is: "Maybe. But no! Do you not perceive that it is part of our wound that Estel should falter and it foundations be shaken? Are we the Children of the One? Are we not cast off finally? Or were we ever so? Is not the Nameless the Lord of the World?" This is indeed as desperate as you can get: echoing Baudelaire, Andreth calls the Devil God - with the difference that Baudelaire didn't believe in either God or the Devil, while Andreth knows that the Devil exists. Basically, what she maintains here is, that Finrod's estel is not available to those who have fallen under the shadow of death as a punishment. The 'natural theology' of one who has seen the refracted light of the Divine with his own eyes is too hard to accept for her. She has mainly witnessed the reality of diabolical evil; being one crucial stage further removed from estel than Finrod she cannot grasp it. "Blessed [aman] are they that have not seen and yet have believed" - but she is not among the blessed. Nor is she among those who have seen, like Beren, the first mortal ever to set eyes upon one of the Ainur, and Tuor, who watched Ulmo rise from the waves.
Not that estel comes easy to Finrod himself. While it can't be said that the Elves are a fallen race, as an exiled Noldo under Mandos' Curse Finrod is a fallen being. And as he has not received any personal revelation or reassurance that everything will be all right, even he has to make a leap of faith here - naked trust not based on revelation. All Andreth can do, however, is to follow Finrod in this leap - and with much less solid ground to take off. From her point of view, the difference between Finrod's estel and wishful thinking must appear depressingly small, and there is no indication at this stage that she is willing to jump. But then, further provoked by Finrod, Andreth admits to the existence of a Mannish tradition, upheld by those 'of the Old Hope' according to which Eru will enter into his own creation to heal the Marring of Arda. With that, the stage of 'natural theology' is past, and we have moved into the stage of revelation in the form of thinly disguised Christian theology (which Tolkien himself feared was 'too like a parody of Christianity'; see below). Interestingly, Andreth has to admit now that no, maybe she does not have an excuse to lack hope. That she admits it at all seems very significant to me: they two are still talking, still building their bridge of words: Finrod, but Andreth no less.
One of the things that strikes me here - apart from the clever way Tolkien describes the Incarnation without using the term itself - is that it is Andreth, who lacks estel and who wonders if God isn't really the Devil, gets to be the one who preaches a kind of 'Gospel' to Finrod after he has presented his personal conviction based on 'natural theology' - of which he can be considered the champion - to her. This is what makes the exchange truly mutual, and all the more fascinating. Despite her blasphemy, nihilism and despair Andreth, a vulnerable, depressed, wounded mortal woman, childless and past her childbearing years, is granted the exalted position of a herald of the Lord - who as we know, was incarnated as a child - and becomes a representative of her entire race: 'Maybe,' Finrod says, 'it was ordained that we Quendi, and ye Atani, ere the world grows old, should meet and bring news one to another, and so we should learn of the Hope from you.' She has born no child, but in a way she gives birth here to a central truth of Tolkien's Primary World beliefs, with Finrod (who, accidentally?, has no children either) acting as a midwife - or maybe a little more: after all he is the one who guesses that Eru will be incarnated in human form.
Still, wouldn't the fact that Andreth keeps despairing even now make her unfit or unworthy to be a representative of the mortal race? One answer could be, that we do not get to hear too many views of First Age mortals on their own mortality, to put it mildly. It remains a matter of conjecture how many of them shared Andreth's views as expressed in the debate. But this is less relevant than the fact that these objections are being made at all, if only because it would have been peculiar if no First Age mortal had ever been known to have rebelled against mortality after coming face to face with the undying Elves - or even before; death has a sting regardless of the existence of a deathless race, though the latter definitely makes it worse. These objections have be made before they can be countered, put into a different light, contrasted with other opinions, especially as the Númenoreans who rebel against the Valar never get a proper spokesman, an individual the reader can identify with. We simply need this voice; in a way, Andreth is us in our more rebellious moments.
Another answer would be that the despair is not final after all. There is something to be said for the conclusion that the Athrabeth has an open ending. That Andreth lives past her 90th year could mean that she clings to life until it slips from her grasp, but it could also mean that she has learned to cope: would it truly be possible for someone to despair to such a degree as she seems to do here, and yet live on for forty-odd years? Would it have been possible for her to attain and retain the status of Wise-woman even in the eyes of the Eldar, as Tolkien tells us she did? Andreth does not in so many words admit that Finrod's views have influenced her, but there are indications that she may yet leave the Valley of the Shadow of Death behind and become a mother many times over - of spiritual children. Her antagonism, her defiance, are a constant challenge, a constant invitation to Finrod, who has a tendency to talk down to her like a world-wise daddy to a rebellious daughter, to come up with something she will finally be able to say Amen (Aman...) to. After she and Finrod have discussed the question in what way the One could possibly enter into his creation, we see her 'look up' in wonder and ask Finrod whether he believes in this hope. If she is able to look up - and knowing Tolkien's linguistic awareness I strongly suspect the reference to amdir, looking up, is no coincidence - having gained some hope where previously she had none, wouldn't this at least suggest that she will yet be able to find a glimmer of estel as well? Her history does not end with this debate; she will have time to think. In this respect Andreth is also us: at the end of the Athrabeth the choice to turn away from the down road to final despair is still open - as it is for us, if and when we despair, for whatever reason. In this respect, the Athrabeth is also a direct appeal to the reader.
Even the remaining 'grudge' - that she was rejected because Aegnor thought her below him - is dealt with, though not in the main text. In his commentary, Tolkien states that "Finrod succeeded in making her understand that she was not 'rejected' out of scorn or Elvish lordliness." This is not borne out by the text itself, because there, Andreth doesn't react to Finrod's reassuring words, but it does betray a certain intention on the author's part. And it's also significant that Finrod has the last word. This doesn't bring any certainty, but it contains a pious wish that nevertheless is more than pious, because of the sudden, amazing conviction in his final exhortation: "But you are not for Arda. Whither you go may you find light. Await us there, my brother - and me." If the final verdict on Andreth would be that she despairs after all, that she chooses the Void (to refer to a reader's comment to the LJ entry), those words would become a mockery, and the image of Finrod as a bringer of enlightenment, wisdom and joy to mortal man would be seriously undermined. If his final wish is a mockery, what are we to think of his prediction for Arda Remade, the most beautiful lines of the Athrabeth, about the green and ringing valleys and the everlasting mountain-tops throbbing like harps? Here's a challenge for the reader as well: do we believe in Finrod's power to convince?
To me, the end of the Athrabeth sounds more hopeful than the conclusion of Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings. Arwen, having exchanged the life of the Eldar for mortality because of her love for a mortal, gains a sudden insight into human despair when faced with the death of her beloved: "But I say to you, King of the Númenoreans, not till now have I understood the tale of your people and their fall. As wicked fools I scorned them, but I pity them at last. For if this is indeed, as the Eldar say, the gift of the One to Men, it is bitter to receive." Despite Aragorn's uplifting words, there is no reprieve at the end of her tale, no hopeful statement by an undying Elf who tries to bridge the gap between himself and mortal despair with words, but has never crossed it like Arwen has. The light of her eyes is quenched, and she seems cold and grey 'as nightfall in winter that comes without a star'. (Here, I can't help thinking about the star mirrored in young Andreth's hair in the Athrabeth, and about Gil-estel, the Silmaril in the sky.) To me, this is a much bleaker picture of despair than left by the Athrabeth, and the irony of it is, that it concerns someone who willingly gave up immortality for love.
Another interesting example having to do with estel is found in the same Appendix A and concerns Gilraen, mother of Aragorn. Confessing to her son that she cannot face the darkness of their times gathering upon Middle-earth, she speaks the verse: "Onen i-Estel Edain, ú-chebin estel anim" - I gave Hope to the Dúnedain, I have kept no hope for myself. Not long afterwards Gilraen dies, aged by care as as a lesser mortal. Though it is true that she does not resent death but indeed embraces it as a gift, this, too is another case of despair - lack of trust in the victory of Good and fear that Evil may prevail. Gilraen is not rebellious, only weary of life, but her example also serves to show how much the theme of hope/trust vs. despair occupied Tolkien's mind as he grew older. The passage is too fragmentary to draw more than tentative conclusions from it, for instance that lack of estel does not automatically lead to rejection of the Gift of Men, or that it is apparently possible to embrace the Gift from less than positive motives. However, it does seem plausible to me that the Athrabeth was partly written because Tolkien felt the need to further expound his concept of estel, the key concept of Appendix A, and to root it in the 'natural theology' of his secondary world. In the Athrabeth, written less than a decade after the publication of LotR, the concept acquires a meaning it does not yet have in the appendix. A meaning that takes it as close to the Primary World concept of religious faith as Tolkien could take it without actually translating it as such - wich would have introduced a concept alien to his subcreated world through a back door. (Any discussion of the Athrabeth should use the term "faith" in the religious sense with the utmost care when referring to the situation within Arda, if only because Tolkien avoided to translate it as such.)
All this, however, still does not solve the problem of the Gift of man turned punishment. In all the relevant Tolkien texts preceding the Athrabeth, death, if embraced freely, is Ilúvatar's gift: an escape from the griefs and sufferings of this world, in accordance with the nature of Men, the Guests. It is 'a biologically inherent part of Man's nature' to die. But to those who do not embrace death freely, because they are under the shadow of Melkor, it becomes a doom: 'Death, in the penal sense, is viewed as a chance in attitude...: fear, reluctance' (both quotes from Tolkien's letter to Robert Murray). Gift and Doom are two sides of the same coin, and it depends on individual mortals which side will face them in the end. Punishment for a fall, however, is something different, and of course, Tolkien was keenly aware of this. From Tolkien's letter to Peter Hastings, quoted by his son Christopher in the commentary to the Athrabeth text: 'Since "mortality" is thus represented as a special gift of God to the Second Race ... and not a punishment for a Fall, you may call that "bad theology". So it may be, in the primary world, but it is an imagination capable of elucidating truth, and a legitimate basis of legends.'
'Bad theology', yes, but as Tolkien needs the contrast with the Elvish inability to leave the world, and as the Silmarillion is supposed to be written from an Elvish point of view, at least in most of the versions, death as a gift does indeed elucidate a truth. Living on and on can become a burden, however desirable it may seem to those who have no other choice than to die. To quote the Valaquenta: 'Death is their [men's] fate, the gift of Ilúvatar, which as Time wears even the Powers shall envy.' So why does the notion of death as a punishment emerge in the Athrabeth at all? Is there a relationship with Tolkien's own age at the time of writing? Several decades separate the Quenta Silmarillion with its Death-as-a-Gift from this philosophical/theological debate found in HoMe 10. Tolkien was several decades closer to his own death; did he have doubts about the idea that it was a gift? Wouldn't Arwen's reaction to Aragorn's death support such an interpretation?
Or did he have doubts about the validity of his original view of such a crucial element in human existence? The letter to Peter Hastings precedes the Athrabeth, which Chr. Tolkien dates to 1959, by five years; it may have constituted a turning point in Tolkien's thinking about these fundamental matters. Writing down a thought can be confrontational and lead to second thoughts. If Tolkien felt that his 'bad theology' could not stand in the end, the Athrabeth could be viewed as an attempt to adress this difficulty. It would also explain the contrast between Bëor's attitude towards death at the end of his life - he 'relinquished his life willingly', as we read in the 1977 Silmarillion - and Andreth's attitude. Still, Tolkien had his doubts about the result of this attempt: 'Already it is (if inevitably) too like a parody of Christianity,' he writes in his Athrabeth comment.
But why would the 'bad theology' lose its legitimacy as a basis of legends? Could it be, that the subcreated universe of Arda was becoming more and more real in Tolkien's mind? Both the allegory Leaf by Niggle and the epilogue to On Fairy Stories suggest a strong desire on his part that the things about which he had been dreaming, fantasising and writing for the greater part of his life would, in some way, attain reality and become literally true. Even if he did not rationally believe they could, the desire is unmistakably present. But if this subcreated world was to bear any resemblance to primary reality as he saw it, its metaphysics would have to bear the same kind of resemblance to Christian metaphysics. Hence perhaps Tolkien's attempts to align them with Roman Catholic theology in a work like the Athrabeth. It is true that he denies feeling any such obligation in his letter to Milton Waldman, probably written in 1951, but this may have been intended as a safeguard against possible failure; see the essay 'The Fall and Man's Mortality' in Between Faith and Fiction..
(Here, I'd like to point out that all this doesn't necessarily mean that the One entering Arda would be the same thing as the incarnation of Christ. This rather depends on whether the idea that 'Arda' is our world in some previous (st)age still held validity for Tolkien at the time when he wrote the debate between Finrod and Andreth. But there is at least one indication that it did: sections of Part Five of HoMe 10, Myths Transformed, shows that he attempted to make the cosmology of Arda compatible with that of the Primary World.)
Could such an endeavour be carried out successfully? Seeing the remark regarding the parody of Christianity, Tolkien must have doubted it. Christopher Tolkien modifies this comment, referring to a possible incarnation of Eru: 'This surely is not parody, nor even parallel, but the extension of the 'theology' of Arda into specifically, and of course centrally, Christian belief; and a manifest challenge to my father's view in his letter of 1951 on the necessary limitations of the expression of "moral and religious truth (or error)" in a "Secondary World".' Maybe it is not a parody, as Tolkien's sonjr maintains. But given the fact that his father is known to have rejected the blatantly Christian lion-god of C.S. Lewis' Narnia books, he may have been afraid to walk that road too far. Even if with him it would not have led to parody, it could have had another undesirable result. An incarnated Creator can only point to one thing, in whatever form he manifests Himself: to Primary World Christianity. Symbolism breaks down, and the reader's mind is caught in the vice of allegory - a type of writing Tolkien thoroughly disliked.
Another danger looms here as well. If mortality is linked to a Fall of Man in Middle-earth, this creates a fundamental problem for Elf/mortal marriages that does not exist if the main difference, that of life expectancy, is given with the creation of the Eruhini. What will happen when Elves and mortals intermarry and have offspring in a world were men are fallen from birth? How will things work out genetically? Can Elrond and Elros be both potentially 'immortal' like Elves and potentially mortal like Men, if their genes are in some way tainted by the Fall of Man? If the 'infusion of a "divine" and an Elvish strain into Mankind' (Athrabeth, Note 5) through Lúthien is to remain a symbolic ennoblement, and a reminder of the divine breath once blown into Man's nostrils, instead of an eugenic operation, such genetic notions cannot be allowed to come into play. Yet death as a hereditary punishment affecting all generations of men would leave room for such notions.
In his aforementioned letter to Peter Hastings, Tolkien hints at the scientific and biological difficulties he has involved himself in by creating a world where mortals and immortals can interbreed. His bottom line is, that he does not care. But what he can get away with in an Arda where death is not the hereditary punishment for a Fall, he may not be able to get away with in the Athrabeth version of Arda. It creates a problem that cannot be ignored by retreating to the sandcastles of symbolism, pointing out that Elves are really the creative aspect of man, as he does in this letter.
In short, the profound but hybrid Athrabeth - is it myth? Philosophy? Theology? Drama?- complicates the Arda mythos, and in a way compromises its very structure. It is, so to speak, one step too far on the road from mythology to theology. I don't know whether this is the reason why Christopher Tolkien decided not to incorporate this text into the 1977 Silmarillion, but with hindsight, it seems a wise decision.
What then, do we have? A fascinating glimpse of Tolkien's struggle to create a philosophical and theological foundation for Arda in accordance with his personal convictions and beliefs, yet without copying and pasting them directly into his mythology. And at the same time a moving, even heartrending drama about an ill-starred love in a marred world, a drama that almost begs us to believe what Tolkien believed: 'The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the "happy ending",' as he writes in the Epilogue to his essay On Fairy Stories. 'All tales may come true, and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.' Who knows whether he didn't fantasise about meeting both Andreth and Aegnor in an Earth Remade with ringing valleys and mountain-tops throbbing like harps. I am sorely tempted to believe this.
The theory that Andreth functions as a negative to Túrin seems doubtful to me. Yes, he does get, briefly, what was denied to Andreth: a fulfilled love and the promise of new life. And though neither he nor his sister are Elves, their appalling tragedy and suffering seems to elucidate the Athrabeth passage where Finrod declares: 'We would rather have a memory that is fair but unfinished than one that goes on to a grievous end.' Also, Túrin keeps fighting the Enemy, and unlike Andreth he never wonders if Morgoth isn't, in fact, the real Lord of the World. But he scorns the Valar, and he does despair in the end - a despair that is more final than Andreth's, because it leads to the irreparable act of suicide (the ultimate sin in Roman Catholic theology). Perhaps this can be interpreted as a self-inflicted punishment, but that's only half the story. With his suicide he confirms Morgoth's curse upon his family. All his life he has fought this curse, even hiding his true name and identity in his attempt to escape it. But nothing helps, and by committing suicide in the end he admits defeat - in the Narn, Morgoth is victorious: the doom of the Children of Húrin and that of the Noldor co-operate perfectly towards disaster. I can't for the life of me see a victory of this kind in the Athrabeth, bleak though it is. Admittedly the hopeful texts there come from Finrod - but it's no coincidence that Finrod has no counterpart in the Narn.
But then, the Narn is a story about doom, fate and freedom, not predominantly a story about love and death. If the dramatic passages of the Athrabeth have a counterpart, it is the Lay of Leithian. 'If any marriage can be between our kindred and thine, then it shall be for some high purpose of Doom,' says Finrod. 'Brief it will be, and hard at the end. Yea, the least cruel fate that could befall would be that death should soon end it.' If this isn't a reference to Beren and Lúthien, this remark would be fairly gratuitous, and Finrod making gratuitous remarks is something I don't buy... Whether he is right remains to be seen, by the way. There is a remark in Note 7 to the Athrabeth that intrigues me: 'They [the Elves] still believe that Eru's healing of all griefs of Arda will come now by or through Men; but the Elves' part in the healing of redemption will be chiefly in the restoration of the love of Arda, to which their memory of the Past and understanding of what might have been will contribute.' What might have been: though this seems to be a more general reference to what Arda would have become if Melkor hadn't marred it, it could perhaps, with some caution, be applied to the very specific case of Andreth and Aegnor: what might have been if Aegnor would have had the courage to face Andreth's mortality?
Strictly spoken, 'natural theology' (based on what the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 1:19,20) stands for knowledge of God, and of right and wrong, through God-given reason independent of revelation. In theory, this knowledge is the same for Finrod as for Andreth. But the situation in Arda complicates things, and not just because First Age Beleriand is rife with incarnate 'demons', while incarnate 'angels' are rare, more remote and only seen by a chosen few (Beren, Tuor). The whole concept of Tolkien's Arda as a world of natural theology is somewhat problematic. The Elves of Aman are, so to speak, subject to a modified form of revelation. Perhaps they would have reached natural knowledge of God, right and wrong through applying reason and following their inborn conscience. Yet the truth of the tale is that they owe most of their knowledge to the instructions of the Valar, who no doubt taught them about the Creation of Ea and about Ilúvatar as the source of all being and the Father of Elves and Men. Also, it seems to me that Finrod's estel is essentially a theological virtue, one dependent on revelation for it's proper operation - another instance of Primary World theology making headway in the Athrabeth.
If these considerations are valid, the naturalness of the theology Tolkien postulates for his world is a qualified naturalness, and Tolkien's use of quotation marks, which I followed, is well-considered. However, the example of Fëanor shows that the teachings of the Valar are not wholly compelling, and that his awarenes of being Eru's creation is not dependent on his appreciation of them ('It may be that Eru has set a greater fire in me than thou knowest' - Quenta Silmarillion, Chapter 9), and Finrod has no more certainty about his ultimate fate than Andreth does. So ultimately the concept of 'natural theology' as representing the state of affairs in Tolkien's Arda is tenable even for the Elves who have seen the bliss of Aman.
Excerpts from a private email correspondence with Deborah S, who helped me to refine this essay and address some of its initial sloppiness. As she points out, her reactions are personal, and so are my reactions to what she has to say. Much of this is highly speculative.
DS: For the moment, I think I'll reflect in a personal rather than a scholarly way. The Athrabeth certainly is easy to think about personally, and Andreth, poor girl, is certainly easy to identify with. And what I find myself wondering is - did Tolkien as well? And what estel did he find? The Arda mythos isn't inconsistent with Catholicism necessarily, but it also isn't Catholicism. If Tolkien did find estel, was it because he believed that death was ultimately a gift, or because in a redeemed world we have been saved from death? Did he hope for Arda Healed or heaven?
RV: Well, as the Apocalypse ultimately promises a new Earth (along with a new Heaven) as a dwelling place for Mankind redeemed, I'd go with Arda Healed, or perhaps rather Arda Remade, which is as close as you can get to the new Earth without using the term itself. Death as a gift: seeing what he wrote about the world as a prison camp and escapism as legitimate (On Fairy Stories), he probably saw death as the ultimate means to escape, and you could call this a gift.
DS: If the Athrabeth was his attempt to reconcile his mythos with his faith, and in the end he doubted that he had done so successfully, there seems to me to be something unimaginably tragic in that.
RV: There's something disturbing about the elderly Tolkien - he wrote some texts that strike me as disillusioned or at least resigned: The Tale of Aragorn & Arwen, The Sea Bell & The Last Ship (Bombadil poems), Smith of Wootton Major. Even the end of LotR, in a way. The Elves have left. The magic is gone. Was it all wind and smoke? How real *is* myth the closer you get to death? As if he has to choose between the reality of myth and the reality of faith after all, knows he must choose faith, but deeply mourns the myth.
DS: In the Athrabeth absence of romantic love functions as the conduit for the absence of grace. Andreth feels unloved by her love - and by God. For her, the human race is rejected by God in the same way that she is rejected by Aegnor.
RV: You do have a point there. Is this a negative Song of Songs?
DS: Yes, exactly! That would be a good reason why Andreth is exactly the most appropriate person to have this crisis of faith.
It's a text which demands that the romance in it be taken seriously as part of the theology, although in a dark and terrible way. I think it's a story that strikes fear in its readers, so much so that there's an impulse to escape the cruel theology it implies.
I think that's why the Athrabeth is so frightening for me, and why I fight so hard against the idea that Andreth remained bitter until the end. (When I tell the story to myself, I say that Aegnor came to her at the end of her life, of that she found estel and became a great teacher - and that's not impossible, but it's not in the story.) I just don't want to believe that God can abandon someone like that, someone who so desperately wants not to be abandoned. It somehow seems more unfair than all the other things we've noticed - say, the effects of the Oath on those who don't deserve it. God might not be able or willing to intervene to stop the workings of fate - but you'd think God could find some way to communicate to a suffering theologian that she is not in fact cursed and forever doomed to fall. You'd think that at least is something God can do.
In the end, I don't think what she most needs is Aegnor. I think what she most needs is faith. Revelation. Grace. And she doesn't get it, at least not that we know about with any certainty.
RV: There are moments when I think: we, the readers, are to decide this issue. (But the temptation to say "yes, I'm sure she found peace in the end" is overwhelming.)
DS: Well, yes. If Andreth is Everyman/woman, then we all have to make her decision - whether or not to have faith in the face of a world which is unencouraging. Like so many theological myths, I think this is a bit of a Rorschach test - what you see in it depends so much on where you are. It's not facile to find hope for her if that really is the story the way you authentically tell it. I think. But then it becomes a challenge for the writer, to distinguish between estel and wishful thinking.
I still don't know if Tolkien believes in universal redemption. Most of the time it looks like he does - everyone goes to Arda Healed, not just the elect. And any soul that goes to Mandos can be healed, even if the healing won't always be complete within the lifetime of Arda. But maybe he can't tell us for sure about Andreth's fate, whether or not she will find estel, because he doesn't know if he will. Maybe the Athrabeth is also his prayer.
RV: I think I can say Amen to that...
Quoted texts and other literature:
• The Bible, Authorised version of 1611
• J..R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
• Id., The Silmarillion (1977 version)
• Id. Tree and Leaf, including Leaf by Niggle and the essay On Fairy Stories
• Id. Unfinished Tales
• The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. by Humphrey Carpenter, with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien
• Chr. Tolkien, J.R.R. Tolkien, Morgoth's Ring, The History of Middle-earth, Vol. 10
• Between Faith and Fiction, J.R.R. Tolkien and the History of Middle-earth, ed. by Nils Ivar Agøy. Proceedings of the Arda Symposium at the Second Northern Tolkien Festival, Oslo, 1997. See especially the essay 'The Fall and Man's Mortality' by Nils Ivar Agøy. ('Whose Myth Is It?' by Verlyn Flieger is also thought-provoking, though the author's claim that the Athrabeth texts present the reader with several different yet equally valid sets of metaphysics seems debatable to me.)
• Andrew Nimmo, Tolkien and Thomism: http://www.cts.org.au/2001/universitas10/tolkienandthomism.htm (becomes somewhat problematic if the Silmarillion is taken into account, but is nevertheless an interesting read)
• Anglachel1, Live Journal, entry of 2/2/2003