Buckle up, because this one is going to get super nerdy.
This is the fourth in a series of posts about the visions of Enoch in Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible. Part I discusses the historical context of the New Translation and the narrative context of the visions of Enoch. Part II discusses the importance of the visions of Enoch to early Mormonism. Part III reviews the debate about God’s omnipotence that Enoch’s vision of the weeping god has inspired. In this part, we’re going to introduce Nienna, the weeping goddess of Tolkien’s Silmarillion, and in the next part, we’ll draw some comparisons between Nienna and Enoch’s weeping god.
At first glance, the Silmarillion and Joseph Smith’s revision to the Bible would seem to have very little to say about one another. One, written in 1830-33 on the edge of the American frontier, in backwater towns in New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, purports to be a literal revelation from God correcting a narrative that its revelator considered to be not a fictional account, and not a mere spiritual or symbolic account, but a historical account of events that actually took place in this world. The other, begun nearly a century later in the aftermath of the battle of the Somme, and re-written over and over through the following decades in the ancient academic cloister of Oxford, by an academic, a philologist, and devout Catholic who by all accounts had no interest in or significant exposure to Mormonism or to Joseph Smith’s biblical revision project, purports to be a fantasy, the invented mythology of an invented world of faerie.
But there are, nevertheless, echoes between Joseph Smith’s revelations and revisions on Genesis and Tolkien’s invented myths. Some are more interesting than others, and it’s fun to notice those echoes, but it isn’t my purpose to just name every potential parallel between them. Instead, I want to focus on one particular parallel: against the striking image from Enoch’s vision of the God who weeps, Tolkien’s spiritual epic portrays a weeping Goddess. She is Nienna, Lady of Pity and Mourning. But before attempting to search out what Tolkien’s weeping goddess has to say about what Enoch’s weeping God, a brief introduction, for the uninitiated, is warranted.
Overview of Nienna
Who is Nienna, and what does she have to do with Enoch’s weeping God? The short answer to the first question is that she is one of the great spirits that the Elves call the “Valar,” or the “Powers of Arda,” and that men call gods. The Silmarillion 25 (Christopher Tolkien ed., Houghton Mifflin 2d ed. 2001) (1977). They are the “offspring of [the creator’s] thought,” id. at 15, and who rule “Arda” or the earth on the creator’s behalf. Tolkien’s creation tale is really a thing of its own kind, and comparing the Valar to angels or gods from other traditions only gives a hint at what they are. The only real answer to who the Valar are is to tell the tale, which explains the origin of the Valar, their relationship to the creator, and their role in the world.
The Aunilindale: The Creation.
The first book in the Silmarillion is the “Ainulindale,” the “Music of the Ainur.” Id. at 15. It opens with “Eru, the One,” the creator, who wills into being “the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought.” Id. Eru, who the text tells us, is called Iluvatar, then speaks to the Ainur and “propound[s] to them themes of music.” Id. Each of the Ainur sings the theme given to him or her by Iluvatar, and slowly they increase in unity and harmony until finally Iluvatar calls them all together and declares “a mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed.” Id. He then bids the Ainur to make from that theme a “Great music.” Id. In an image illustrating Tolkien’s take on interplay between divine sovereignty and free will, Iluvatar declares the theme, but does not dictate its details, rather, he says “ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will.” Id.
But as the Ainur sing the great music, a discord arises from “Melkor,” the mightiest of the Ainur who will later become a fallen angel and a devil figure, the source and incarnation of evil in the mortal world. Id. at 16. The discord grows until Iluvatar arises, smiles, and lifts up his left hand, whereupon a second theme emerges “like and yet unlike to the former theme,” which grows in power and beauty, but is nearly overcome by Melkor’s discord. Id.
At this point, Iluvatar rises again and “his countenance was stern.” Id. He lifts his right hand, and “a third theme grew amid the confusion.” Id. This third theme was “at first soft and sweet, a mere rippling of gentle sounds in delicate melodies; but it could not be quenched, and it took to itself power and profundity.” Id. This third theme is “wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beuty chiefly came.” Id. at 16-17. It strives against Melkor’s discord and it takes the notes of Melkor’s music and weaves them into its own pattern, thus frustrating Melkor’s attempt to drown it out and in fact only using Melkor’s efforts to overthrow it to further it. Id. at 17.
Iluvatar then arises a third time “and his face was terrible to behold.” Id. “Then he raised up both his hands, and in one chord, deeper than the abyss, higher than the Firmament, piercing as the light of the eye of Iluvatar, the Music ceased.” Id.
After the music has ended, Iluvatar takes the Ainur away from his halls and brings them out into “the void.” Id. He then says to them “Behold your Music!” whereupon a vision of the world opens to the Ainur , unfolding its future to them, including the coming of the “Children of Iluvatar”–elves and men. Id. They wish to go into the world to love and help the children of Iluvatar, but the vision ends. Id. at 17-20. But Iluvatar, perceiving their wish, speaks “Ea! Let these things Be!” and the world that they saw in vision springs into being. Id. at 20.
At that point, some of the most noble and great ones of the Ainur leave Iluvatar and go down into the world. They are called the “Valar,” the “Powers of the World.” Id. at 20.When they arrive in the World, they see that it is not yet as they saw in vision, but is “on point to begin and yet unshaped” and “dark.” Id. “And the Valar perceived that the World had been but foreshadowed and foresung, and they must achieve it. So begun their great labors in the wastes unmeasured and unexplored, and in ages uncounted and forgotten, until in the Deeps of Time and in the midst of the vast halls of Ea there came to be that hour and that place where was made the habitation of the Children of Iluvatar.” Id. at 20. The “Children of Iluvatar” are Elves and Humankind. See id. at 18.
As, through the labors of the Valar, the earth begins to take shape, Melkor begins to frustrate the labors of the Valar, pulling down mountains where they carve them, raising valleys where they delve them, spilling the seas that they fill. Id. at 20-22. Melkor and the Valar do battle, and through their labors and their battles, slowly, the earth takes shape. Id. at 20. “And thus was the habitation of the Children of Iluvatar established at the last in the Deeps of Time and amidst the innumerable stars.” Id.
Nienna is one of the Valar—the most noble of the spirits that were with Iluvatar and helped shape the earth. But there are also lesser spirits–the Maiar–that were among the Ainur, and that are subject to the Valar. Speaking very roughly, the Valar are gods, subordinate deities to a monotheistic God, and the Maiar are something like angels or spirits subject to the gods.
The Valaquenta: the Valar.
The next chapter in the Silmarillion, the Valaquenta, explains the Valar further. There are 14 of them, seven lords and seven queens. Their chief, Manwe, is Iluvatar’s lieutenant on the earth, and is essentially the supreme god of the world. Id. at 26. Each of the Valar has a particular province and a particular personality:
- Manwe – the brother of Melkor and dearest to Iluvatar, ruler of Arda, Lord of the breath of Arda, lord of all swift birds.
- Varda – spouse of Manwe, Lady of the Stars, beloved of the elves.
- Ulmo – lord of waters, no spouse, solitary, lover of elves and men.
- Aule – lord of smithcraft.
- Yavanna – spouse of Aule, giver of fruit, associated with trees and growth.
- The Feanturi – the “masters of spirits.” They are two brothers:
- Mandos – his real name is Namo, but he is referred to as Mandos, the name of his dwelling place, he is the keeper of the houses of the dead, summoner of the spirits of the slain, and doomsman of the Valar.
- Lorien – his real name is Irmo, but he is referred to as Lorien, the name of his dwelling place, he is master of visions and dreams.
- Vaire the weaver – spouse of Mandos who weaves all Time into her storied webs.
- Este, the gentle – healer of hurts and weariness, spouse of Lorien.
- Nienna – sister of the Feanturi, known for weeping and mourning.
- Tulkas – greatest in strength, delights in wrestling and in contests of strength, always laughs in sport or in war.
- Nessa – spouse of Tulkas, sister of Orome, lithe and fleetfooted, delights in dancing.
- Orome – the hunter, less strong than Tulkas, but more dreadful in anger.
- Vana – the ever-young, spouse of Orome, younger sister of Yavanna, flowers spring as she passes and birds sing at her coming.
See id. at 26-29. Nienna is unique among the Valar in that she, along with Ulmo, is one of only two of the Valar that is not married. She is described as the sister of the Feanturi, or “masters of spirits,” Mandos and Lorien, suggesting a special spiritual connection between the dead, doom, or fate, visions and dreams, and weeping. Id. at 28.
In the Index to the Silmarillion, Nienna is given the epithet, “Lady of pity and of mourning.” Id. at 343. Like the messiah in Isaiah, Nienna is described in the Silmarillion as “acquainted with grief.” Id. at 28. She “mourns for every wound Arda has suffered.” Id. In fact, her sorrow goes back before even the creation: “So great was her sorrow that as the Music unfolded, her song turned to lamentation long before it ended, and the sound of mourning was woven into the themes of world before it began.” Id. Significantly, she “does not weep for herself.” Id. Moreover, she “dwells alone,” she “lives West of West, on the borders of the World, and her windows look outward from the walls of the world;” she “comes seldom to the city of Valimar, [where the rest of the Valar live] where all is glad, rather she “goes to the Halls of Mandos.” Id. The spirits of the dead, who are in the halls of Mandos “cry to her” because “she brings strength to the spirit and turns sorrow to wisdom.” Id. Moreover, “those who hearken to her learn pity, and endurance in hope.” Id.
These descriptions are rich with meaning, but the role that Nienna plays later in the narrative further illuminates the importance and the meaning of her weeping in Tolkien’s legendarium.
- Nienna’s Training of Olorin
“Olorin” is one of the “Maiar,” spirits that were among the Ainur, but are lesser to and subject to the Valar. Id. at 30. He is the same as the character that is called Gandalf, Mithrandir, or the Grey Pilgrim in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Later in the Silmarillion, we learn that Mithrandir is chosen as one of the Istari, or wizards, who are sent to the earth to aid the children of Iluvatar in their struggle against evil. See id. at 300-04.
The Silmarillion tells us that Olorin was “wisest of the Maiar” Id. at 30. and that he “dwelt in Lorien,” but that he often visited the house of Nienna and “of her he learned pity and patience.” Id. at 30-31. Olorin’s knowledge of “pity and patience,” learned from Nienna, becomes a major theme in the Lord of the Rings where Gandalf repeatedly discourses on the importance pity, and in particular, the importance of Bilbo’s pity for Gollum, which, in the end, turns out to be crucial for the success of Frodo’s quest, which is the major plot point of the entire epic, and within the context of the story, is the salvation of all the world.
- Nienna’s Role in the Creation of the Trees
One of the major overarching themes of the Silmarillion is the ephemerality of light—the coming of divine light into the world and the struggle to protect and preserve that light from being snuffed out by darkness and evil. Tolkien’s early creation epic differs from the Genesis story in many ways, but one of the biggest differences is that in Tolkien’s creation, there is initially no sun or moon. Rather, the world is lit by two giant lamps built by the Valar and set at either end of the world. See The Silmarillion at 35. Melkor throws down the lamps and the world is left lit only by starlight. Id. at 36-37. The Valar then leave middle earth (the lands in the middle of the world) and go to the land of Aman, west of middle earth, where they build their city. Id. at 37-38. Outside the gate of their city, there is a green mound called Ezellohar. Id. at 38. Yavanna sat down on Ezellohar and “hallowed it, and sang a song of power.” Id. Meanwhile, Nienna “thought in silence and watered the mould with her tears.” Id. With Nienna’s tears watering the soil, two shoots spring up, which grow into two great trees, one silver, named Telperion and one gold, named Laurelin, which glow and give light to Aman. Id. at 38-39.
- Nienna’s Aid of Melkor’s Repentance
Because of his offenses against the earth and against the Valar, the Valar go to war against Melkor, and when they prevail, they banish Melkor and imprison him in Mandos. Id. at 51-52. But when his sentence of three ages is served, he comes to Valinor and humbles himself before his brother Manwe and sues for pardon. Id. at 65. At this point, the narrative says that Nienna “aids his prayer.” Id. Manwe pardons him, but it appears that his repentance is false, though Manwe cannot comprehend that his repentance is false because evil has no place in his heart and he does not understand evil. Id.
- Nienna’s Role in the Creation of the Sun and Moon.
Shortly after his repentance, Melkor betrays the Valar and comes with Ungoliant, an evil spirit of darkness (Tolkien uses the wonderful coinage “Unlight,” id. at 74) and insatiable hunger in the form of a giant spider, and mounts Ezellohar, where he stabs the trees with an iron lance, allows Ungoliant to suck their sap. Id. at 76. In doing so, she poisons them, and belches forth clouds of darkness and filth that shroud Ezellohar. Id. The trees soon wither and die, and at that point, their light survives only in the Silmarils, Id. at 78–jewels within which the light of the trees had been preserved by Feanor, chief craftsman and most talented of the elves. See id. at 67-72. (At that point in the narrative, the elves had awakened in middle earth, but had been summoned by the Valar to come and live with them in Aman. Men had not yet appeared in middle earth.) The Valar ask Feanor to give up the silmarils, that the light of the trees preserved in them may again light Aman, but Feanor loves the works of his own hands too much to give them up to the Valar and he refuses, leading his people to rebel against the summons of the Valar, flee Aman and go back to middle earth to live in freedom, out from under the yoke of the Valar. See id. at 78-88. The majority of the rest of the Silmarillion deals with the aftermath of Feanor’s rebellion and of the oath he and his sons take to declare eternal war on any who would keep the silmarils from them.
At that point, Nienna goes to Ezellohar and “with her tears washed away the defilements of Ungoliant; and she sang in mourning for the bitterness of the world and the marring of Arda.” Id. at 79. Manwe then asks Nienna and Yavanna to “put forth all their powers of growth and healing,” to see if the trees can be revived and their light saved. Id. at 98. Nienna’s tears, however, are not sufficient to heal the wounds of the trees. Id. Yavanna sings long in the shadows until, when hope is gone, Telperion bears a single silver flower and Laurelin a single golden fruit. Id. 98-99. The flower and fruit of the trees are then set into vessels to travel the sky, and they become the sun and the moon. id.
Next time: What can Nienna teach us about Enoch’s vision of the weeping God?