Was Tolkien Manichaean?
“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate….For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:15,19)1
Perhaps I am being a smidgen anachronistic, but I am starting to wonder if Paul, in composing those famous lines in his letter to the Christians in Rome, was speaking of Reddit. Of course, Paul predates the “Front Page of the Internet” by more than a few centuries—but he describes with uncanny accuracy how I routinely find myself browsing Reddit and loathing every minute of it. As a matter of fact, just last week I found myself perusing a thread that had strayed from the original topic and devolved into criticism of J.R.R. Tolkien. Most of it was innocuous and plainly subjective; there was, however, a particular comment so unexpected and curious it gave me pause—this writer accused Tolkien of Manichaeism.2
If you’re wondering, “What the heck is Manichaeism?”, you’re not alone. This obscure religion, born in ancient Persia and long since extinct, is largely an academic curiosity today. Unless you study the religions of the late Roman period, there is little reason to have heard of Manichaeism, much less know enough about the religion to accuse a famous Catholic writer of entertaining it. Readers of Augustine’s spiritual biography, Confessions, may perhaps recall that the great philosopher-theologian pursued Manichaeism for some years before quitting in frustration. (Augustine, by the way, left for an amusing reason: after nine years with the religion, he realized it was very dumb.3)
Manichaeism is a third-century syncretic religion founded by the “prophet” Mani, blending Christianity, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism together and pours the syncretic admixture into a mold of Gnostic dualism.4 In Manichaean thought, Light and Dark were equal and opposite co-eternal principles of the universe. Like in Gnosticism, the material is the evil (or “Dark”) aspect of existence, whereas the spiritual is the good (or “Light”) aspect. In Mani’s cosmogony, an ancient mingling of Light and Dark led to the creation of our material universe of stars, planets, and sinful people. This mingling means that there is Light and Dark in all things, and only by revealed knowledge (cf. the Gnostics) and a regime of ascetic purgation would the devotees of Mani find their way back to the Light. This meant abstaining from meat, wine, and even sex. Mani also described himself as an apostle of Jesus Christ, teaching that he and the prophets of other religions were sent into the world to release souls of Light from their material bodies. Like the Roman cult, it was a smorgasbord religion.
This is about all you will find about Manichaeism in most secondary sources, save for maybe a paragraph on how the religion was so pervasive and widespread that it rivaled Christianity for a period. However, that doesn’t help us understand just how weird Manichaeism really was. The texts of the other religions on which he based his teachings were not sufficient for Mani. Instead, he concocted a series of bizarre myths that explained how Light and Dark, which once were separate, came to mingle. I once took a course in college under Zlatko Plese, an authority on religions of the late Roman period, and we did a unit on Manichaeism. In order to help the students parse the bewildering complexity and comic strangeness of Mani’s myths, Plese assembled an elaborate Powerpoint presentation that retold the stories with Angelina Jolie, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Neo from The Matrix. It was surprisingly helpful.
I wanted to explain Mani’s cosmogony more in depth, but I don’t have the space and I think it’s better if you read a good, scholarly take on it yourself. There is one available here. It starts out strange, and then you get to the part where the sun and moon are starships and some demons ejaculate and have spontaneous abortions into the sky.
Getting back to the original topic: how on earth could someone construe Tolkien as a Manichaean? It’s certainly not by his private life. His Catholicism is well documented and it’s common knowledge that Tolkien even helped bring about the conversion of C.S. Lewis. I assume the author of that comment meant Tolkien’s writings were Manichaean. If so, then I can think of no other basis for the remark than The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s creation myth for the Lord of the Rings universe. This too, however, confuses me. The defining characteristic of Manichaeism—other than the weirdness with the demons—must certainly be its dualism, an ontology rooted in the equipotency of good and evil, of light and dark. All things trace back to the separation and equilibrium of light and dark. Is there any hint of this in Tolkien’s cosmogony?
No, not really. Even a cursory glance at The Music of the Ainur shows a distinct monotheism: “There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made the first Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were offspring of his thought.”5 In Tolkien’s creation myth, there is a single, ultimate existence from which all others are derived. Eru has creative and authoritative power over all his creations; it is he who grants wisdom and power. There is no opposing dark side, no King of Darkness. “The One” has no enemies at the start of the story. There is no evil; there is only the inert Void, which becomes the canvas of creation.6
Evil does enter the story, yes, but Melkor is a creation of, and subordinate to, Iluvatar, and this fallen angel figure owes everything to his creator. “To Melkor among the Ainur had been given the greatest gifts of power and knowledge, and he had a share in all the gifts of his brethren.”7 When Melkor tries to wrest control of the primeval music that Iluvatar and the Ainur performed in concert, Iluvatar subdued him each time. Iluvatar then chastises him, saying, “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.”8
For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument. This is classic Christian doctrine: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). God turns evil things to good in the end. Evil is robbed of its power to be evil, for in the end it is doing good. So it is with Tolkien’s legendarium; Melkor’s resistance is robbed of meaning by his creator, who will turn his evil deeds into good. Far from being the equal to Light, the Darkness is ultimately powerless.
If one wanted to be pedantic, one could accuse Tolkien’s mythos of unitarianism or paganism. You’d have to contort the narrative to come up with a decent parallel to the Trinity, and the mingling of mortals and minor gods has much more to do with pagan myths than Christianity. However, I don’t want to be pedantic, so I will leave those criticisms in the hands of whoever wishes to take them up. In any case, painting Tolkien with the Manichaeism label is patently absurd.
2. I tried in vain to find this comment a second time, but it seems to have been deleted. There was no mistaking, however, the message.
3. Augustine, Confessions, translated by Henry Chadwick. (Oxford University Press. Oxford, 1998.) 74-79. Augustine found numerous mathematical errors in doctrines pertaining to astronomy, and Manichaean leaders were utterly unequipped to provide answer the challenges of an educated man.
4. Chadwick, Henry, The Early Church. (Penguin Books. London, 1993.) 169.
5. Tolkien, J.R.R. ed. Christopher Tolkien. The Silmarillion. (Ballantine Books, New York. 2001.) 3.
6. Ibid, 4.
8. Ibid, 6.