Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.
Of all the character motivations of Tolkien’s world, the Valar are both the most mysterious and frustrating to me. And it relates to their connection to Middle-earth and those who resided in it. What role, if any, did their motivations play in what plays out? Just for the record, this is not a hot-take, but an exploration of the Valars’ thought process and what it creates in Middle-earth.
The God’s Eye-View
The Silmarillion covers this in detail. From the beginning, the Valar represent a constant looming presence, watching the events unfold that are both foreseen and not so when they first saw Illuvatar’s grand vision. Consisting of Manwë, Varda, Ulmo, Yavanna, Aulë, Mandos, Nienna, and Oromë, they act as co-creators, guardians, shepherds, and judges. And once within Arda become bound to it, which also entails capping their power and knowledge, though it is still greater than the other races that follow.
Most people I think see the Valar through the lens of divine beings with great power. However, I'm going to ignore that initially because that is just their outer shells. The focus is their personality and the changes they go through during the Ages.
If you strip away the divine aspects of the story, their struggle is more like a family drama. Their excitement for Project Arda is very much like children' excitement for their parents when they're about to go on a trip. They want to help out. Their creativity in Middle-earth's first incarnation is like a child’s imagination run wild on Christmas Eve. How they approached their peer, Melkor when he first started to claim it as his own, mirrors the relationship between bullies and the bullied, with the Valar intimidated initially because of Melkor’s power.
Their eventual war with Melkor begets the first real growth spurt in their personalities. Prior, they were accustomed to the harmony of Illuvatar, with all spirits on the same page and sharing the same desire to create as their creator. They were not robots who ran off programming, but it was all that they knew. Melkor’s discord was something new and how he acted on his own desires, as well as his ability to corrupt both the world and those around him was something unheard of. It would take a long time before the Valar fully came to grips with what that entailed.
But this was the start of their own maturation, having to learn to adjust to circumstances beyond their control while making the best with what’s available. The Valar forced Melkor back for a long time, allowing them to finish shaping the world, and it was long and exhausting. They needed time to rest, which sets up the next and most profound change to their intentions over Middle-earth. That second major personality shift comes with Melkor’s destruction of Almaren, the first successful incarnation of Middle-earth.
The resting guardians are caught unawares and their guard down when Melkor returns to Almaren and nearly destroys it. Though they were able to save a portion of it which would become Valinor, the rest of Middle-earth is marred, becoming nearly a shadow of what it was: burnt, ruptured and needing time to rebuild itself. The Valar’s first encounter with treachery is devastating. They never fully recover from it and retreat to Valinor, focusing their efforts on blessing and building up that realm. You could almost refer to it as a type of divine version of PTSD because most of them voluntarily have little to nothing to do with the rest of the world for a long time afterwards. Because of this, Melkor was allowed to rule that portion of the world, corrupting it as he would in their absence. This has a direct effect on how they relate to the people under their charge.
Choice and Consequences
There are several results for Middle-earth. First is the Valars’ absence from Middle-earth's growth. While it may never have been the paradise that Almaren was, had the Valar still spent as much effort making the land east of the sea as beautiful as Valinor, the later races may have an entirely different experience coming into the world. Groups such as the Moriquendi may have been just as enlightened as their Eldar kin and not held the Valar in such contempt. Humans would have come into the world with a much more positive view of it and the Valar had they been there to nurture them as they had the first generation of Elves. The Dwarves may have been less war-like and achieved much more than they already did with teachings from the lords. And Orcs would have been less numerous and therefore causing less destruction than they did during the Valar’s absence during the First Age.
The second result relates to the first in that the Valar’s absence made Melkor the first one to discover both the Elves and Humans when they awoke in the world. The consequences of this being the creation and constant menace of the Orcs that would plague everybody, the Moriquendi and Humanity’s disregard for the Valar, and the corruption of Humanity’s conception of Illuvutar’s gift of death. That the evil Vala was the races’ first experience with divinity forever skews their perceptions of the guardians and the world they live in. The negative outcomes affecting how they define their place in it.
Still, much of this could arguably be forgiven since these choices were influenced not by malice, but the newfound experience of emotional and mental anguish caused by Melkor. Like how a child retreats into itself when its been hurt.
Close But So Far Away
The closest relationship the divine guardians had was with the Eldar, the High Elves. They were those of that race who choose to migrate to Valinor when the Valar put out the call that all Elves should remove themselves for their own protection from the corruption of Middle-earth. These Elves had the benefit of higher education and were nurtured better and in safety. The result was stronger, smarter, and more powerful Elves that were leagues above their Moriquendi kin. Because of this, a community in the west was created, inhabited by the Valar, the Miar, and the High Elves themselves, living in a kind of self-imposed paradise.
But this wasn't as much a ‘paradise’ as it was a microcosm of what the original plan for Arda had been all along. What Almaren would have been. The Eldar perceived time and the spirit of Arda similar to the Valar and at the same time nowhere near, because they were born within Arda and time, where as the Valar were before both. Some experiences were therefore unique to the younger race and them alone. The first of those ironically being physical death (not mortality).
Noldor High King Finwe had lost his wife, Miriel, in childbirth. No one in Valinor was familiar with the concept of the physical body becoming lifeless. When Finwe went to the Valar to see if they could heal her or even bring her back, they were unable to. This was a harbinger of future problems.
Experienced as they were with Melkor’s evil, the Lords of the West still didn’t fully grasp how deep it went. Nor did they understand what his corruption did to those it touched and how it manifested. Hence, when the Noldor became prideful and more violent, the rulers were unaware that it was largely from Melkor egging them on. They had no experience with pride and malice within themselves.
When Finwe is murdered by Melkor and his son, Feanor finds out about this while in court with the Valar and his extended family, I believed they felt his grief to a degree, but not as sharp as Feanor because of his own bond to Finwe as his father and the estrangement with them and his brothers. The Valar had never experienced emotions tied to others so powerfully that they created ill-rational thought and provoked rash action despite the order of things. They just knew that they needed to react to it after it began to affect that order.
"The great among these spirits the Elves name the Valar, the Powers of Arda, and Men have often called them gods."
— JRR Tolkien. The Silmarillion
From a Certain Point of View
None of this was from apathy or violence, but from the Valars’ inability for empathy. A similar scenario plays out later during the Second Age and their handling of Numenor: descendants of the Humans loyal to the Elves of the First Age. They blessed them with longer lives, a paradise of their own, and friendship with the Eldar. Yet were unaware of the seed that it would plant within their spirits that would eventually re-open old grudges and grow into open rebellion. They failed to see those gifts through mortal eyes.
From an outside perspective, the actions of the Valar can come across as apathetic and irresponsible. They seem more adept at dispatching judgment than they do at helping the people of Middle-earth in their worst hour. Many in that world genuinely believe that and even go as far as to accuse them of being evil, especially given that some of that is on the basis of the only Vala that they have dealt with was Melkor.
From an inside perspective, the Valars’ actions can be seen as just and patient. Not rushing to rash action and quick judgement, but allowing the races to make their own decisions and bear the weight of those decisions as well. They were following the will of Illuvatar after all. I see it as both and the key element was empathy.
Empathy is the ability to understand another point of view without requiring converting to it. To do that, one must put themselves in the other person’s shoes for that moment. How would Manwe have responded if his father (if he ever had one) was murdered? How would the Valar feel to be bound to such shortened lives and at the mercy of a higher being that had none? How would they deal with no knowledge of the larger picture while still forced to deal with exposure to constant danger and death?
This isn't to say that some of their judgement were not correct. Melkor needed to be put away. They had to wage war to stop him. The Noldor who rebelled needed to face the consequences of their actions. Numenor needed to be put down. It’s just had they the ability to empathize though, the guardians may have seen where their wisdom kept faltering and the weaknesses that those under them were susceptible to. It could have provided insight to curb evil’s influence to corrupt the world.
Like the High Elves, the Valar see things from a much grander perspective that encompasses ages rather than months or decades, but to a near-omnipotent degree. This perspective comes from their origins being beyond time where the weight of such a duration of reality did not exist. They can see mostly that things will work themselves out in the end because its according to Illuvutar’s plan. However, they are unable to empathize with those who do not have that perspective. That for those born within Arda, the experiences are much more powerful, immediate and intense, overriding any sense of the larger picture at work, if they had one at all.
Their origins was a wall between them and their charges that were not immortal. The High Elves- and the Vanyar especially, had that benefit and so they could somewhat approach the deeper mysteries. Therefore the immediate sufferings of those in Middle-earth literally did not seem like much to the Valar. In their perception, war, loss, and death were events that happened in an instant. It had little real consequence as they deemed because it wasn’t prolonged or stretched out enough for it to register with them.
So the Valar were making their judgement based on partial knowledge and these judgments allowed for others to be drawn into the intended punishment that wasn’t meant for them, as what happened with the Beleriand wars. But because the time differential was so small, and also because the Valar were primarily driven by their attachment to Valinor’s bliss, they were oblivious to the suffering in Middle-earth. Their heads were literally and figuratively speaking, in the clouds.
That is until Luthien arrived.
Getting a Clue
I would argue that the Valars’ first inkling about what was really going on the ground was when the spirit of the half-Elf/half-Miar princess arrived in the Halls of Mandos on the far borders of Valinor. Coming to see her love, Beren, a mortal who was mortally wounded and died, she sings a song to Mandos, that is mixed with power and memory of the suffering of the people. The pairing of the two elements breaks through Mando’s draconian nature and he is “moved to pity” for the first and only time. It maybe that this was his first time feeling a sense of failure at their duty to Middle-earth.
This is particularly important because Mandos was the adjudicator of the Valar. No one was more strict on law than he was and while his peers felt some pity for as much of what they knew was going on in the east, he felt none. The Noldor broke the law of Illuvatar, now they face the consequences: done. So that he is finally moved to tears implies that for the first time for any of the Valar, they experienced the suffering of the world from a personal point of view.
When a second ambassador, Earendil, a descendant of Beren and Luthien arrives later to beg for the Valar’s intervention, they guardians finally respond, though much more measured than when they first went into Middle-earth to subdue Morgoth long ago. Luthien and Earndil are the Valar’s first real experience of what is happening in real time outside of Valinor. They finally began to see what life is like for those not able to live in their land safe from any harm and I wonder if that brought back memories of their own experiences at the loss of Almaren. Because that was the closest they had come prior.
The Inside Track
There were three among the Lords of the West though who had greater experience with Middle-earth life than most of their peers: Ulmo- who was a Vala, Melian, and Olorin, a.k.a. Gandalf. Both of the latter were Miar but came into Middle-earth under different circumstances and in different eras.
Ulmo is the third highest ranking of the Valar, in charge of the seas and waterways of the world. Though he aided his peers in its shaping and their initial struggles against Melkor, he spends little time among them beyond that. Mostly he spends the First Age keeping watch on the people of Middle-earth, advising them where he might through the waters, though Humans can’t comprehend it and the Dwarves loath it.
Because of this,Ulmo is always the first aware of the events of Middle-earth, second only to Melkor. He partitions so often on the part of the people for Valar intervention that he can easily be seen as their defense attorney to Mando’s prosecution. Though terrifying to behold, Ulmo always has the best interests of Arda at heart is the only Vala who truly understands and is capable of empathy.
The loss of Almaren doesn’t shock him into retreat but spurs him on to be more proactive. It was Ulmo in fact who was against the Valar retreating to Valinor and calling the Elves to migrate there, as they could not help the world otherwise. He was also the first one to petition his peers for mercy on the exiled Valinor and to come to the aid of Middle-earth much earlier than they did. Ulmo is the only Vala consistently faithful to Illuvatar’s commission.
Melian had lived there since Valinor was made, choosing to be more active in helping the world recover and grow. It was she who nurtured the great forests of Beleriand and that was how she came to meet the Elf-lord, Elu Thingol. She was the first spirit to experience love, though it was initially without the weight of mortality. Through her time with her husband, Melian experienced having a family and the struggles of the world. Though her divine nature still allowed her great power and foresight, she used that to the benefit of her kingdom of Doriath and those who were in need. However like the rest of her own kin, she still never fully grasped the ramifications of mortality in the mortal world, nor of the mortality of humans themselves. The High Queen is aware of it faintly as if it were an idea or some unknown mystery, but without personal attachment, until her daughter returns back from the dead as a mortal rather than immortal.
It is the first time she had fully come to grips with mortal reality and of all the experiences she has in Middle-earth, and causes her the greatest pain. When Luthien dies, Melian will never see her again. Soon after (as immortals deem it), she loses her husband, murdered by Dwarves that betrayed him and she finally returns to Valinor with a deep sense of grief that only she knows.
Olorin was also a Miar, but sent to Middle-earth by the Valar along with four others to help the people against the new threat of Sauron: who himself was also a Miar but had grown mighty while serving Morgoth and was now a Darklord of his own right. The four arrive as old men during the Third Age and the free people come to know them as wizards of mighty power, but not their origins. Olorin specifically is given many names, but his most common one was Gandolf or Mithrandir.
Of all the four emissaries, Gandolf is considered the only one who succeeds in his mission. But to the point of this essay, he doesn’t just fight alongside the many different people, but lives among them as well. He sees what war and the state of Middle-earth does to people there, while gaining and losing friends. Unlike Melian though, he does not leave Middle-earth. Olorin stays, fostering further relationships and continuing the fight until he himself dies fighting with another renegade Miar of the First Age, a Balrog. He returns back to Middle-earth thanks to the direct intervention of Illuvatar, eventually accomplishing his task and helping order Middle-earth at the beginning of the Fourth Age before returning to Valinor.
The Divine’s Vexing Question
What the Valar struggled to grasp most about Middle-earth was humanity and their mortality. Back when the vision was being made, the coming of Humans was foreseen but kept hidden to all but Illuvatar himself. It was a secret that the supreme being gifted them with the longing to transcend the borders of his creation and when they die that their spirits would go there. This unknown place was something even the Valar didn’t know, even before their perception was limited by entering into Arda.
Therefore Humans have always been a mystery to them. A perplexing equation that they could begin to workout, but could never ultimately answer. On the other end, Elves they had a better understanding of because their spirits and bodies were tied to Arda as they were. With Humans, their spirits were not bound as the Elves were, so they did not have the same sixth sense about it. It didn’t help the Valar much either that the mortals die before they could begin to teach them anything, if they had ever really tried. Even the Dwarves, who were also mortal, had lifespans twice that of Humans.
This made it near impossible for the Valar to empathize with them as they did the Elves. They could not see the anxiety and stress that their short lives caused them, thanks to their interactions with Morgoth and Sauron. If they could, they would have understood what giving Humans longer lives would eventually do to them, as what happened with Numenor. There was no malice towards Humans or ill-will, but the Valar just did not know how to deal or communicate with them. It maybe that Illuvutar came to the same conclusion that the Noldor Elves did in Beleriand during the First Age when it came to interactions with mortals, but to a more extreme degree: Separation was better.
With What Time is Given to You
The Valar’s relationship with Middle-earth and its people was going to be a mixed bag. No matter if they were from a time before anything was made, something like Arda had never been attempted before. The guidelines they had visioned were blurred once they entered into it and there were still other aspects Illuvutar kept to himself. Therefore there was no real reference or guidelines of how they should behave or what to do in certain situations.
In other circumstances they were cautioned about potential repercussions, but made their choices regardless. And like with the Elves, the Valar had to be left to experience the results of the choices they made. Ultimately, the two things that affected them most was the betrayal of Melkor from the beginning, and their decision to remain in Valinor after the failure of Almaren. Those two points set the course for all their decisions afterwards, even the removal of Valinor from Middle-earth so that mortals could no longer access it. If there was a time where they could have lived side by side with the Valar, it had long since passed with Almaren.
Regardless, the Lords of the West did what they could, even up into the Third Age with the sending of the five wizards to Middle-earth. While their concern is still for the larger plan of Illuvatar, and their lack of empathy is now a mute point being removed from the world, they had contented themselves with being unknown to Middle-earth’s people. And at the same time, still keep watch over them even as they go about their lives.
© 2020 Jamal Smith