A while back I reviewed Philip Esler’s book on the Watchers in I Enoch, and I consider its thesis unassailable. However, at one point Esler notes in passing that
“It is inaccurate to speak of the Watchers’ ‘fall’ from heaven, because it could suggest some kind of accidental or unplanned action. This was not a fall, but a planned descent by the Watchers to earth to marry human women (with whom they defiled themselves), preceded by a joint oath sworn by the Watchers not to turn back from this course (I Enoch 6:4-5).” (p 79)
This caught my eye, as I have always referred to the “fall of the Watchers” without thinking. But I Enoch 6-11 is admittedly different from Genesis 3, where Eve was deceived without any real intent to rebel against God. The serpent tricked her into thinking that God had made her capable of judging right from wrong, and Adam went along with it. Christian theologians would later expand on the Genesis story, where for example in Milton’s Paradise Lost the devil tells Eve that God actually wants her and Adam to eat from the tree, and that his order is simply a test of their courage. In C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra, the Green Lady has no desire to disobey God, but she becomes convinced after long arguments with the devil that God secretly wants her to break his commandment — that God longs for one act of disobedience, so that his creatures may grow up and stand on their own. Thus he has given one special commandment “for the mere sake of forbidding”, precisely so that it may be broken.
The Genesis account, in other words, portrays a second-guessing of God made possible by the lies and deceptions of an evil agent. The Enoch story depicts a straightforward rebellion against God, unprompted by the cunning of an outsider. The Watchers just look down on earth, see beautiful women, and desire them (I Enoch 6:2). Far from trying to persuade the others with trickery, the leader Shemihaza is willing to rebel against God on his own (6:3), but the other Watchers assure him they are on board with his plan, declaring, “Let us all swear an oath, and bind one another with a curse, that none of us turn back from this counsel until we fulfill the deed” (6:4). The Watchers do that, and rebel against God and His court, leaving their home in heaven to mate with womankind on earth (7:1). The giants are born as a result (7:2), and their violence and hideous appetites tear apart the earth (7:3-5), triggering a chain reaction among all God’s creatures (8:1-9:11) — to which God retaliates by destroying the world with the Flood (10:1-3). Where the transgression of Adam and Eve resulted in severe punishment (men will have to labor hard for a living, women will labor painfully in childbirth), the revolt of the Watchers results in the obliteration of all living things.
In this light I can understand Esler’s distinction. The Watchers “broke the rules” more severely than Adam and Eve did. There’s a substantive difference between being led astray and second-guessing God out of confusion, and being purposefully defiant so as to bring about chaos and destruction. But if that’s the distinction we should make, then what about the elves and men in Tolkien’s stories?
“Fall” in The Silmarillion
For those unfamiliar with The Silmarillion (shame on you if you never read it), it’s the history of our world’s First Age, thousands of years before the events in The Lord of the Rings. It narrates the “fall” of the elves and its disastrous consequences — the elves’ rebellion against the gods (the Valar), their exile from paradise (Valinor), their evil oath to pursue the Silmaril jewels and kill whoever stands in their way, and their journey to Middle-earth to make hopeless war on the Enemy (Melkor). Because of the elves’ lust for the Silmarils, Middle-Earth is convulsed by wars over a 600-year period, and eventually all the kingdoms of the elves and men are destroyed. In the final battle, the gods intervene and the devastation is so great that a whole piece of Middle-Earth (Beleriand) is broken apart and swallowed by the sea. The Silmarils are recovered only to be lost again in tragedy.
Tolkien called his story a fall, but if we apply Esler’s distinction, does The Silmarillion depict an unplanned fall or a purposeful rebellion? Both actually, but more the latter. On the one hand there is the evil counselor Melkor (the renegade Vala), who deceives the elves with lies about the Valar. If not for his lies, it is doubtful the elves would have been turned to evil purpose. On the other hand, once the rot sets it, they act resolutely, intending to set up shop for themselves in Middle-Earth where they can rule various kingdoms and wage war to fulfill their hideous oath. In this the elves resemble the Watchers far more than Adam and Eve.
Here’s how the drama unfolds: The evil god Melkor, having recently been put on probation by the Valar (the fourteen gods and goddesses), ingratiates himself with Feanor, the most powerful and gifted elf of all time. Feanor has created the three Silmaril jewels which contain the light of the Two Trees, and Melkor wants them. He seeks to corrupt the Noldor (the high elves) by turning them against the Valar, as well as against their own Noldor kin. So he tells Feanor “secrets” which the Valar have supposedly kept from the elves: that the race of men will soon awaken in Middle-Earth and challenge the elves; and that Manwe (the highest of the fourteen Valar) has been essentially holding the elves captive in paradise, so that the Valar can keep them on a leash, and leave Middle-Earth to the race of men, who are weaker than elves and thus more easily managed from a distance. Melkor also poisons Feanor against his brothers Fingolfin and Finarfin, not least with the lie Fingolfin and his sons are attempting a coup against Feanor and their father King Finwe. Feanor believes the lies, in anger draws a sword on Fingolfin, and is banished by the Valar from the city of Tirion for twelve years. He and his sons and other Noldor go to Formenos in the north, accompanied by King Finwe who can’t bear to part with his firstborn son; Fingolfin is left to rule the city of Tirion. Melkor goes into hiding, since the Valar have now exposed his deceptions. Melkor soon comes to Formenos to ingratiate himself with Feanor again, but Feanor sees through him, rightfully guessing that Melkor lusts after his Silmaril gems, and throws him out. Melkor disappears, going deeper into hiding, and Finwe sends a word of warning to Valmar (the city where the Valar live). But even though Melkor has been outed, the damage has been done. He has sown enough dissent in Feanor and his sons to initiate an elvish “fall” from paradise.
Years later, Manwe tries to heal the feud between the Noldor and summons Feanor to a festival on the high peak of Taniquetil. Feanor is reconciled with Fingolfin, but in that very hour Melkor and the giant spider Ungoliant descend on the Two Trees outside Valmar and destroy them, cutting off light in the world (this was the time before the sun and moon). The Valar ask Feanor for his Silmarils, as they are the only way to restore life and light to the Two Trees. Feanor refuses, highly possessive of his Silmaril gems. But he couldn’t have given them if he wanted to: at that moment messengers arrive from Formenos saying that after destroying the Trees, Melkor hurried to Formenos, killed Finwe, stole the Silmarils, and crossed the sea to Middle-Earth. Feanor curses Melkor, and curses the summons of Manwe which brought him to Taniquetil at this hour. Soon after, Feanor comes with his group of Noldor to Tirion (though his 12-year banishment is still in effect), summons all the Noldor elves to speak to them, and openly rebels against the Valar. With his father Finwe dead, he claims the kingship of the Noldor against his brother Fingolfin, and scorns the decrees of the Valar. For all his hatred for Melkor, he repeats Melkor’s lies as he still truly believes them: that the Valar had tricked the elves in order to confine them in paradise so that men might rule in Middle-Earth. He calls upon the Noldor to leave Valinor and forsake the gods. Then he and his seven sons swear a hideous oath: to pursue the Silmaril jewels at all costs, after which they plan to rule in Middle-Earth as lords of light; and to kill anyone who might stand in the way of their cause. If the drama began like in the book of Genesis, with Melkor leading Feanor astray with cunning lies (as the serpent did to Eve), it ends like in the book of the Watchers, with thousands of elves proudly and defiantly rebelling against the Valar (as the Watchers did in the heavenly court). Feanor and his sons even swear a Watcher-like oath. Then they proceed to the coastal city of Alqualonde and kill many of the Teleri (the sea elves) when they refuse to join the rebellion and supply the Noldor with ships. This is the first kinslaying in history (elf killing elf), signaling beyond doubt that the Noldor have “fallen” from grace.
That’s what happens in the early chapters of the The Silmarillion. The rest of the narrative tells what happens when the Noldor reach Middle-Earth and rule kingdoms in Beleriand. The world is on borrowed time. Like the Watchers in I Enoch, the elves initiate actions that spiral out of control. There are reprieves here and there, but the trajectory is clear: the forces of good continue losing ground to Melkor, they end up doing more harm than good in the name of fighting evil (both intentionally and unwittingly), and after six centuries it finally takes an apocalypse, with the intervention of the Valar, to get Melkor in chains. In the process, the entire realm of Beleriand is destroyed and sunk into the ocean. The forces of good and evil are both decimated.
“Fall” in the Second Age: The Rings of Power and the Elvish Paradises
The story of The Silmarillion is followed by two brief accounts of the Second Age: the creation of the Rings of Power (involving the elves), and the destruction of the island of Numenor (involving the men). Both involve a fall, and in both cases the evil agent is Sauron, who had been Melkor’s lieutenant in the First Age. The idea of a “second fall” seems counter-intuitive. What is there to fall from? The elves and men have already fallen (or rebelled) in the First Age, and they remain in their broken states. Neither race has been reconciled to their original destiny. But in Tolkien’s world it is possible to “fall” lower than before, if one keeps opposing the will of the gods. First let’s consider the elves.
To deceive the elves, Sauron disguises himself with sorcery to look fair, and takes a new name (Annatar), as he wouldn’t stand a chance otherwise. He finds the elves’ weak point in suggesting that they work together to make Middle-earth as beautiful as Valinor. Out of their joint efforts come the Rings of Power, and with the Three Elvish Rings the elves work magic to establish places of refuge: the hidden valley of Rivendell, the enchanted forest of Lothlorien, and the Grey Havens on the western coast where ships sail for Valinor. We know these places from Lord of the Rings, as they are the safest sanctuaries against Sauron and his evil minions. This is especially true in the Third Age, when the elves are free to use their Rings (since the One Ring is lost and Sauron can’t dominate them when they use theirs). Elrond uses the Ring of Air (Vilya) to hide Rivendell and make it a place of healing; Galadriel uses the Ring of Water (Nenya) to make time pass differently in Lothlorien and insulate it from hostile penetration; and Cirdan at the Grey Havens uses the Ring of Fire (Narya) to warm hearts and give people courage. These refuges become the cherished pocket paradises of Middle-Earth, and it’s hard to see anything evil about them.
Yet for Tolkien these sanctuaries represent a second fall of the elves. They were nothing less than
“… a veiled attack on the gods, an incitement to try and make separate independent paradises. In this we see a sort of second fall or at least ‘error’ of the elves. There was nothing wrong essentially in their lingering [in Middle-Earth] against counsel. But they wanted to have their cake without eating it. They wanted the peace and bliss and perfect memory of paradise, and yet to remain on the ordinary earth where their prestige as the highest people, above wild elves, dwarves, and men, was greater than at the bottom of the hierarchy of Valinor.” (Preface to The Silmarillion, xviii-xix)
I remember first reading this explanation decades ago, and it was then that I finally “got” The Lord of the Rings. It wasn’t the feel-good fantasy that was becoming popular in the ’80s. It’s a very somber fantasy about the long defeat of Eru’s (God’s) children, who keep falling and falling despite their best efforts. Sauron may have been defeated at the end of the Third Age, but The Lord of the Rings is about everyone’s defeat: the suffering and passing of Frodo, the foreordained deterioration of men in the Fourth Age — and not least the fading of the elves, as their earthly paradises are rendered impotent by the destruction of the One Ring, which nullifies the power of their own Rings. That’s what it takes to bring the elves back home to the true paradise of Valinor; and that’s why the Grey Havens epilogue is so moving and sad. The elves are finally reconciled to the gods — at the cost of their power.
But what kind of “fall” is this? Is it more akin to Adam and Eve in Genesis, or the Watchers in I Enoch? It seems that in this case the elves are closer to the Genesis model. There is no purposeful rebellion here. The elves don’t defy the Valar, invoke any oaths or curses, or act out in righteous anger. They genuinely believe the Rings of Power are a project for good, until Sauron reveals himself and they realize their error. In Genesis terms, they “see themselves naked for the first time” when Sauron puts on the One Ring. They are exposed and must use the powers of their Three Rings guardedly. There are no apocalyptic consequences to this fall. The elvish paradises are never destroyed. The elves’ punishment rather is that they are now tied to the fate of Sauron and will remain so throughout the Third Age. Their paradises depend on the evil of the One Ring to exist. When Frodo embarks on the quest to destroy the One Ring, the elves fear that outcome; they’re not fully on board with his quest. Galadriel tells Frodo, “Your coming is as the footsteps of doom. If you fail, then we are laid bare to the Enemy. Yet if you succeed, then our power is diminished, and Lothlorien will fade, and the tides of Time will sweep it away. We must depart into the West, or dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and to be forgotten.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, “The Mirror of Galadriel”) The elves are screwed either way — whether the One Ring is destroyed or re-obtained by Sauron — thanks to their own investment in the Rings of Power.
“Fall” in the Second Age: The downfall of men and destruction of Numenor
To reward the men who fought against Melkor in the First Age, the Valar give them Numenor, a huge island they raise out of the sea about halfway between Middle-Earth and Valinor. They forbid the Numenorean men to sail westward, for fear they will get too close to Valinor which mortal men cannot set foot on. Naturally, this ban — like the ban against eating the fruit of the tree in Eden — is what will lead to their second fall.
This is how Tolkien describes the second fall of men:
“It is partly the result of an inner weakness in men — consequent upon the first fall (unrecorded in these tales), repented but not finally healed. Reward on earth is more dangerous for men than punishment. The fall is achieved by the cunning of Sauron in exploiting this weakness. Its central theme is (inevitably, I think, in a story of men) a Ban, or Prohibition. The Númenóreans must not set foot on immortal lands, and so become enamored of an immortality which their nature could not in fact endure.” (Preface to The Silmarillion, xxi-xxii)
It’s crucial to note that the first fall of men, which is the Genesis account, happened in the First Age, though Tolkien never describes it. (Tolkien didn’t want to explicitly portray the Judeo-Christian myths in his stories.) The transgression in Eden happened 200 years after the elves’ rebellion in Valinor, though where the garden of Eden is on Tolkien’s map is something he never clarified. It’s also noteworthy that Tolkien believes men need special bans to constrain them. While the immortal elves “fall” or “rebel” when they become gods of their creations (the Silmaril jewels, the Rings of Power), mortal men “fall” or “rebel” when they break a commandment to pursue immortality.
Under their first twelve Numenorean kings, the men obey the Ban of the Valar freely and willingly. The 13th king Tar-Atanamir the Great is the first to speak out against the Ban, and also the first who is unwilling to surrender his throne voluntarily before dying. Subsequent kings follow his lead with increased resentment, until they finally rebel under the 25th and last king, Ar-Pharazon, who captures Sauron in Middle-Earth and brings him back in chains to Numenor. Sauron wastes no time corrupting Ar-Pharazon with lies, and soon graduates from prisoner to chief counselor.
Specifically, Sauron denies the existence of Eru (God), saying that the One is a mythical invention of the Valar, and that the Ban is a jealous commandment to keep men small and inferior to the elves and Valar. He starts a new religion in Numenor, building a temple and leading hideous rites of blood sacrifice and necromancy. Finally he convinces Ar-Pharazon to go to Valinor and seize everlasting life. The king begins building a great fleet to attack Valinor, and within ten years he breaks the Ban and sails west. For this outrageous act of blasphemy, he and his warriors who set foot on paradise are buried by an avalanche of falling hills, while the rest of the fleet is swallowed by the sea, and the island of Numenor itself is completely destroyed by the Valar — pulverized by cataclysm and sunk into the ocean.
This “fall” is clearly more a rebellion like that of the Watchers in I Enoch than the ban-breaking in Genesis. Not only is there purposeful defiance, the men actually have the audacity to wage war on the gods. And while it does take Sauron’s lies to bring them to this point, the first grumblings of discontent come naturally, starting with the 13th king, without any prompting or trickery from an outside agent.
Comparing the accounts in Genesis and I Enoch to those in Tolkien’s stories yields the following:
||Adam & Eve (Genesis)
|The Watchers (I Enoch)
|The Elves (The Silmarillion)
|The Elves (II) (The Rings of Power)
|The Men (II) (Numenor)
|Deceived by an evil agent?
|Yes (the serpent)
|Unplanned fall or purposeful rebellion?
|Men labor hard to live; women labor hard in childbirth
||Destruction of the world (the Flood)
||Destruction of Beleriand (the War of Wrath)
||Elves are tied to the fate of evil; their powers depend on the existence of the One Ring
||Destruction of Numenor (Cataclysm and engulfed by the sea)
I have no idea how familiar Tolkien was with I Enoch. But these patterns are striking when we apply Philip Esler’s distinction between “fall” and “rebellion”. While there are serious repercussions to a fall, a rebellion calls forth a divine retribution that is wholly uncompromising: annihilation. I can’t help think the Watchers were in Tolkien’s mind when he wrote the rebellions of the elves and men.
“There cannot be any story without a fall,” wrote Tolkien, and he meant business by that remark. A proper story for him involved alienation from an intended harmony, and miserably unhappy endings. He was obsessed with the consequences of those who “crave godliness” — whether elves wanting to be gods of their own creations, or men wanting immortality. The result may be fall (men in the First Age, elves in the Second Age) or catastrophic rebellion (elves in the First Age, men in the Second Age), but either way, Tolkien held out precious little hope for the children of Eru.