The Garden of Eden

Tolkien was a slow reader. He certainly read Beowulf, yet we shall see in later posts his mind was always drawn back to the first story of this Old English poem. We may be certain he also read all of the Latin Bible, and no doubt looked on occasion at the Hebrew and Greek originals. Yet, again, he never quite got beyond the first story.

The story at the heart of Tolkien’s imagination throughout his life is that of the first family, the man who first named the animals and dwelled together with a woman drawn from him in the Garden of Eden. The first family, who broke the prohibition by eating of the forbidden fruit, knew themselves sexually, and so received the doom of death and were exiled from paradise so they could no longer eat of the tree of life. Tolkien’s imaginative life can be delineated in relation to distinct phases of his reflection on this biblical myth and its sequels.

In 1916 a young soldier sick with trench fever began writing a cycle of stories of the elves in the ancient north. At the heart of these stories is an idea of elves as humans who never broke the prohibition and so hardly knew themselves as sexual beings and never received the doom of death. These ‘Silmarillion,’ which Tolkien dedicated his life to, were from the beginning bound up in an imagination of the story not told in Genesis, the story of humans who did not eat the forbidden fruit and continued to eat of the tree of life – the human ‘others’ who did not take the mortal road out of paradise.

Yet Tolkien’s youthful history of the elves in the ancient north had soon discovered an immortal fall, the consequence of a jealous love bound up, not with sexual relations, but in precious stones magically wrought by cunning hands.

In 1936, a forty-four-year-old Oxford Professor reconceived his stories of the elves in the ancient North. This was achieved through an unfinished novel about time travel, entitled ‘The Lost Road,’ which Tolkien began in early 1936 having agreed with C.S. Lewis that each would compose a story that touched on myth.

Tolkien’s novel begins with a father and son pair of early twentieth-century academics who travel back through various legends of the old north until they reach a mythological beginning of history in the story’s concluding chapter, entitled ‘The Fall of Númenor.’

Now the elves told a story of a second mortal fall, a northern sequel to the story of the Garden of Eden, in which mortals doomed to die try to take the immortality they have lost. The story cemented Tolkien’s imagination of the culture of the ancient north as complementing that of the ancient Hebrews by telling stories bound up in the fruit of the other tree, the tree of life.

Sauron the Necromancer, tempted a righteous mortal people into once again rebelling against the will of God. A story from neither the Old nor the New but an imagined Northern Testament.

6 thoughts on “The Garden of Eden

  1. Giovanni Costabile

    I am not sure that Tolkien associated sexuality with the Fall the way you seem to state. Obviously there is Letter 43, which I discussed here ( ) a few years ago, and I think I had a point, especially since in The Laws and Custom of the Eldar he says that sex for the Elves is the same thing as marriage, i.e. having intercourse with someone is considered a valid marriage. This confirms that it is not sex which is sin, but as he says in Letter 43, “the dislocation of sex instinct”, or turning into sexuality things that are not so, as in incest, which makes a kin relationship sexual, or in adultery, which turns the respect owed to another man’s wife into lust. Psychoanalysis, which sees literally everything as sexual, is another reference which Tolkien probably had in mind for modern times.
    This is very interesting because it calls into question the very nature of desire and reciprocity: in Eden, and in a lesser sense also for the Elves in Aman (although there are exceptions, like Feanor and Galadriel), desire is always fulfilled and love is always reciprocated, or rather it is always reciprocal. Thus many theologians in the Middle Ages discussed whether the holiness of Paradise meant that there was no sex there, or that sex was sinless, painless, natural and joyous there! Many thought the latter was the case (which one would not expect, since we are so much used to thinking of the Middle Ages as a moralistic period?). The Celtic Paradise, also called the Land of Women exactly in this (androcentric) respect, was conceived as a place where everybody could make love any time he wanted, so that getting there is usually the reward granted only to the best among men, who may be brought there by their fairy mistresses, whose love may even be thought of as an anticipation thereof (see my recent writing at ).
    How perfect a definition of Aman, then, is the land East of the Sun, West of the Moon, as it is called in the song in the last chapter of LotR? But in folklore and folktales, the land East of the Sun, West of the Moon, is the place where lovers torn apart from each other finally are able meet again and have their happy ending. Interesting, uh? Also, one wonders what it means for Frodo and Bilbo to be allowed to visit there, in relation to their having always been single (but Bilbo may have married in an early draft!).
    You can therefore see how Tolkien was no Puritan at all, instead he coherently confirms to be a proper Catholic under closer scrutiny.

    1. simon Post author

      This is, as you say, very interesting. But I am not clear how what you are saying runs counter to the way I state that Tolkien associated sexuality with the Fall (and you do not say what I say that you seem to disagree with).

      1. Giovanni Costabile

        Sorry for answering late, usually my e-mail notifies comments, but in this case it didn’t. I mean that sex may not be the cause of the Fall according to Tolkien, if that is what you are claiming, since that is more usually pride, despite some moralists who say the contrary and which I doubt Tolkien agreed with for the reasons I explained in my previous comments (guiltless sex of the Elves, connection of sin with the dislocation of sex instead than simply with sex tout court).
        By the way, I just found a Thomas Aquinas quote according to whom “if Adam and Eve had made love before the Fall, their carnal union would have been the holiest of prayers, and Adam’s seed pure as the water of baptism”. Hey, that’s St. Thomas, not me! 🙂

        1. simon Post author

          Hi Giovanni,

          Thanks for the clarification. I think we are in agreement, which is to say that I did not mean to claim that sex was the cause of the Fall! I will read over the original post to make sure that any phrasing that gives that impression is removed.

          Adam and Eve fell because they broke an arbitrary prohibition – do *not* eat *this* fruit. (One can then add commentary ad infinitum. E.g. they were expelled from paradise not after they ate the fruit but after they refused to take responsibility for doing what they had been told not to. But the basic point is that they broke a commandment – the only commandment!)

          But as a result of breaking this commandment they knew each other as sexual beings. This sexual knowledge seems to me the silver lining of a much darker cloud, namely death. (Adam and Eve, as Aquinas intimates, may indeed have had sexual relations, as too may elves, but only mortals *need* to have sex).

          If you think what I am saying in this comment is wrong please let me know. On the post, over the next few days I’ll tweak the phrasing – and then, if you are kind enough, you may tell me if it is still objectionable.


  2. Giovanni Costabile

    Thanks a lot, Simon. Indeed we agree.
    I was only afraid there might be the common mistake to think that the fruit represents the carnal union, but I see that you know what you are doing. Sorry for even having thought any less.
    By the way, that may be an important point, but anyway would not have subtracted to the great work of analysis you are doing through these posts. I’m very interested because (especially in this particular post) you touch on many subjects of my own research, which is particularly involved with Tolkien’s religiosity, his interest in the Earthly Paradise and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as reflected in his works.
    You are very kind besides knowledgeable and reasonable, all rare qualities these days (sigh!).
    Thanks a lot!

    1. simon Post author

      Good – on the agreement. And thanks. On the complement, having glanced at your page, I return it: the titles awoke my interest and suggested some real thought – which is not my usual reaction on encountering Tolkien studies. I will read over your papers slowly.

      By the way, my own reading of the Book of Genesis has been shaped by my living in Israel for the last decade and so exposed to some Jewish commentary on the stories. Actually, this situation provides a more general context because it has shown me what it means for a cycle of stories to be part of a still living tradition. My sense of Catholicism is not as strong as I would like it to be (given I am reading Tolkien), but my encounter with living stories and commentary in Israel has at least provided an antidote to the lukewarm Anglicanism I encountered in my primary school in London in the 1970s, a form of Protestantism, or so it seems in retrospect, that focuses on the Gospels and dismisses the Old Testament stories as fairy tales (in a derogatory sense).

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