One of the things that most draws me to Tolkien is the way he deals with theodicy, or the problem of evil. What exactly is the “problem of evil”? I’d define it this way, complete with tones of horror and despair: “O God, why would you allow this to happen to us?”
In response to this question, the Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of the “happy fault.” This is perhaps where the rubber of Christianity meets the road of human experience. After all, as anyone who has wondered why Crucifixion Friday is called “Good” Friday can tell you, Christians hold up the Crucifixion, that most evil of all events, as somehow also the greatest good. It is one of the mysteries at the heart of the Christian conception of reality: that out of evil, some greater good will emerge.
In Chapter 11 of The Silmarillion, Tolkien deals with the inherent tension in the problem of evil head on. In the aftermath of Melkor’s destruction of the Two Trees and Fëanor’s subsequent rebellion against Valinor, Manwë and the other Valar ponder the destruction and what good can possibly come of it. It is Manwë, known for being closest to the mind of Ilúvatar (God), who exclaims “[E]ven as Eru spoke to us shall beauty not before conceived be brought into Eä, and evil yet be good to have been.” Manwë remembers the Music. Every time Melkor tried to insert something of his own devising, Ilúvatar, the conductor, was able to create something even more beautiful by it.
Manwë sets an example for us. As we survey the devastation of evil in our lives (no matter the cause), it can be an occasion to despair or defeatism. Yet Manwë is able to remember how this played out before. He remembers the Halls of Ilúvatar, those ancient moments when Melkor sought to ruin the Music of the Ainur and somehow Ilúvatar used his work to make the Music even more beautiful. This is an act of visionary might, a spiritual reflex to cultivate within ourselves. Have I known triumphs to come from tragedy before? Do I believe that it will happen again? Do I trust God to work not just good, but even greater good, out of this?
Still, it’s important to note that it is not Manwë who has the final word here, but Mandos, the master of doom. To Manwë’s epiphany that evil shall “yet be good to have been,” Mandos soberly retorts “And yet remain evil.” Now it would be easy to write off Mandos as some sort of cosmic Debbie Downer here, but that would miss the point. No, Mandos is keeping Manwë (and us) grounded to the reality of evil’s immediate effects. In this, I see an important spiritual qualifier for Christians, even as they trust God to work all things for good. Though we do most certainly hope in Him who seems to have proven Himself by the reality of Christ’s Resurrection, evil and suffering yet remain something that each human being must deal with on her own terms. Each of us is given different crosses to bear, different ways in which we must suffer, and we must never presume to know what another is experiencing within themselves.
Mandos reminds us that we shouldn’t try to sugarcoat evil or suffering. Though we hope for triumph and a greater good to result, we must never lose sight of suffering’s bitter reality, of the existential horror associated with so much evil. This is the tension of the mystery, the reason comprehending it rises above the power of our intellects. In brief, we must never presume to triumph over another’s suffering for them simply because we know the ultimate outcome. It is a commendable thing to encourage hope and strength in our neighbor who suffers; it is the worst sort of pride to presume to know their pain better than they do.
The Outcome of Tragedy
The remaining chapters of The Silmarillion bear witness to the good that is to emerge from the tragedies of Valinor. One of the most immediate effects is the adorning of the sky with the Sun and the Moon. Further on, we witness the great and beautiful valor of heroes like Fingolfin, Finrod Felagund, Beren, Lúthien, and Eärendil. Glorious cities are founded, and the lines of Elves and Men are joined in ways that will lead to the births of great heroes in ages to come. While there is plenty of evil yet to occur, we learn that Melkor’s powers are slowly diminishing with every evil act he commits. There is an end to the tragedy in sight.
Like the heroes of Tolkien’s world, our lot is not to labor in the full light of the good that is to come, but nor is it to labor in darkness or despair over the evil that seems to abound. Instead, we train our hearts to hope, to recall the triumphs and eucatastrophes of the past, and so to look with expectation to the glorious new reality that is to come.