Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Aulë, the Artist’s Pattern

In this biweekly series, we’re exploring the evolution of both major and minor figures in Tolkien’s legendarium, tracing the transformations of these characters through drafts and early manuscripts through to the finished work. This week’s installment takes a look at the role of the Vala Aulë in the legendarium, specifically questioning his appearance in the background of other characters’ narratives.

As I’ve written these character studies this year (since February, to be precise!), I’ve found that the Vala Aulë has been a consistent presence in many of the pieces. His influence is surprisingly pervasive, especially for a Power who has neither the might of Manwë nor the actual textual presence of, say, Varda, Morgoth, or even Ulmo. What better way to close out the year, I thought to myself, than to investigate why this is the case?

It is a curious situation, after all. Aulë is one of the Aratar, the chief of the Valar, but once the narrative history shifts entirely, even mostly, to Middle-earth, he all but vanishes. And yet, for all his apparent invisibility, his influence permeates the fabric and the score of Arda.

The key to this mystery turns out to be a surprisingly simple one—simple, but with profound implications. It is that Aulë is the primordial Craftsman, the pattern into which all other craftspersons have the ability to fall if they so choose. I’ll say more about this momentarily; first, let’s take a look at Aulë’s position in The History of Middle-earth series.

We should note first of all that Aulë was present in the beginning, when Tolkien first began drafting his tales of the world’s beginning. In fact, the hosts of the Valar appear in those first drafts in a remarkably complex, developed form; like Athena, they seem to have sprung full-formed from the mind of their creator. This is particularly true in the cases of Manwë, Varda, Melko/Morgoth, Ulmo—and Aulë. Here’s a passage describing Aulë from one of the first drafts of what would later become The Silmarillion: “The earth and most of its goodly substances did Aulë contrive, whom Ilúvatar had taught many things of wisdom scarce less than Melko” (The Book of Lost Tales 1, hereafter BLT1, 53). Aulë is thus the maker and mover of the foundations of the earth, no insignificant role. But the passage also hints at a tension that Tolkien elaborates on elsewhere: a rivalry between Aulë and Melkor, two craftsmen who approach their roles as sub-creators very differently, with world-changing implications.

We also know that Aulë “dwelt in Valinor and fashioned many things; tools and instruments he devised and was busied as much in the making of webs as in the beating of metals; tillage too and husbandry was his delight as much as tongues and alphabets, or broideries and painting. Of him did the Noldoli, who were the sages of the Eldar and thirsted ever after new lore and fresh knowledge, learn uncounted wealth of crafts, and magics and sciences unfathomed” (BLT1 56). At first glance, some of these concerns might seem foreign to Aulë’s primary occupation, that of smith; a closer look, however, encourages us to see the ways in which the Vala’s role in the shaping of Arda’s form leads to his intimate knowledge of its processes. Aulë—and this is important to his character—doesn’t simply create a thing and then distance himself from it, nor does he exert control over it. Instead, he becomes accomplished in the things which allow him to work with his creations in order to produce something even more beautiful. He spends his time learning, and teaching, those things which require patient and humble dedication. According to The Lost Road, “the delight and pride of Aulë was in the process of making, and in the thing made, and not in possession nor in himself, wherefore he was a maker and teacher and not a master, and none have called him lord” (LR 175). Take another look at Aulë’s interests: tillage, husbandry, tongues, alphabets, broideries, painting, crafts, magics, and sciences. These are all things that cannot be done in a moment. Each of these (some more than others) ask the worker to invest time and effort before seeing a result. They are not accomplished in a moment; in these tasks, loving devotion to process is as important as the piece of artistry that emerges in the end.

Aulë is, furthermore, an eager creator. One draft notes that soon after Ilúvatar brought him into existence, his “mind and fingers itched already to be making things” (BLT1 69). Aulë, perhaps like Tolkien himself, is a sub-creator who is ready, willing, and excited to enter into the process of making alongside of his own Maker. He feels himself compelled, in fact, to fulfill the purpose for which he was created. It’s important to point out here that in no way is Aulë’s eagerness presented as wrong or misguided. On the contrary: his industry produces not only the “bones” of Middle-earth, but also Valinor; the dwelling-houses of the Valar; the vault of the sky (along with Yavanna; BLT1 74); the great pillars on which the first lights of Arda were set; the vats into which the lights of the Two Trees of Valinor were gathered; the great chain Angainor which bound Melkor in his first imprisonment; the foundations of the island of Númenor; and in some stories, the first Seven Stars of the heavens, which are said to be ever-living sparks from his forge (BLT1 122). Later, Aulë will be the one who sunders Valinor from Middle-earth at the Helcaraxë with the hammer of his forge, because of his anger over what he sees as the betrayal of the Noldor (BLT1 237). Finally, after Melkor and Ungoliant attack Valinor and drain the Light of the Two Trees, Aulë contrives his greatest work: he takes fruits from the dying Trees and makes the vessels of the Sun and Moon, and they were “the most cunning-marvellous of all the works of Aulë Talkamarda, whose works are legion. Of that perfect rind a vessel did he make, diaphanous and shining, yet of a tempered strength, for with spells of his own he overcame its brittleness, nor in any way was its subtle delicacy thereby diminished” (BLT1 208).

For all that, though, Aulë’s eagerness does get him into trouble, but even then, Tolkien never blames his creative impulses, but rather the fact that he succumbed to his impatience. We noticed above that Aulë is for the most part willing to take part in tasks that require patience; in the matter of the Children of Ilúvatar, however, he is notoriously impatient, unwilling to await the fulfillment of the will of the Creator. He creates the Dwarves, and attempts to give them Life, but learns in the process that only Ilúvatar can bestow independent life; the best Aulë can hope to achieve in this situation is the role of puppet-master, directing every thought and movement of a mindless and inferior creation. In a letter, Tolkien explains,

Aulë, for instance, one of the Great, in a sense ‘fell’; for he so desired to see the Children, that he became impatient and tried to anticipate the will of the Creator. Being the greatest of all craftsmen he tried to make Children according to his imperfect knowledge of their kind. When he had made thirteen, God spoke to him in anger, but not without pity: for Aulë had done this thing not out of evil desire to have slaves and subjects of his own, but out of impatient love, desiring children to talk to and teach, sharing with them the praise of Ilúvatar and his great love of the materials of which the world is made. (287, emphasis original)

In this case, Aulë’s fault is that he overreaches his creative allotment and attempts something not only beyond his skill, but beyond his prerogative. It is not, Tolkien is clear, that his desire was wrong, or that his motivations were misplaced. The problem is that his creative energies were misdirected and thus produced something that ultimately was less than that of which he was actually capable. As we learn in Morgoth’s Ring, “Aulë wanted love. But of course had no thought of dispersing his power. Only Eru can give love and independence. If a finite sub-creator tries to do this he really wants absolute loving obedience, but it turns into robotic servitude and becomes evil” (MR 411).

But, because Aulë’s motivations were pure, and because he did not attempt to retain lordship over his creation, Ilúvatar has mercy. “[T]he making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee,” Aulë confessed to his Creator; “and the child of little understanding that makes a play of the deeds of his father may do so without thought of mockery, but because he is the son of his father. But what shall I do now, so that thou be not angry with me for ever? As a child to his father, I offer to thee these things, the work of the hands which thou hast made” (Silmarillion, hereafter Sil, 31-2). And so saying, Aulë moved to destroy the evidence of his misdeed. But Ilúvatar was gracious and gave Life, the Flame Imperishable, to the Dwarves. What he does not do is erase all evidence of Aulë’s mistake; the Dwarves bear the sins of their father, as it were, in that they face constant prejudice and racist treatment at the hands of those who consider themselves true Children of Ilúvatar. Many even claim they are soulless (LR 160).

His actions also cause hitherto unimagined tensions to appear between his wife, Yavanna, and himself. Seeing what her husband has created and what the proclivities of the Dwarves are likely to be, she tells Aulë that he ought to be abundantly thankful for the grace of Ilúvatar. She then goes to Manwë and pleads for intercession on behalf of all things that grow in Middle-earth, because, she says, they are unable to defend themselves. Manwë takes her concerns before Ilúvatar, and thus the Ents and the Eagles are sent to Middle-earth to guard against whatever harm might be done to the natural world (see The War of the Jewels, hereafter WJ, 340-1; Sil 34-5).

The sad irony of this tale is that had Aulë waited, he would have seen the fulfillment of his desire to teach in the coming of the Noldor. As it is, he does take them under his wing, teaching them his skills and the love of his crafts—only now an element of competition, of unfortunate rivalry, has entered the scene. This occurs, I suspect, because Melkor is particularly enraged that Aulë’s transgression was pardoned while his own was not. Of course, there was a key difference in their responses to the ultimate authority of Ilúvatar, one that The Silmarillion summarizes succinctly:

Melkor was jealous of him, for Aulë was most like himself in thought and in powers; and there was long strife between them, in which Melkor ever marred or undid the works of Aulë, and Aulë grew weary in repairing the tumults and disorders of Melkor. Both, also, desired to make things of their own that should be new and unthought of by others, and delighted in the praise of their skill. But Aulë remained faithful to Eru and submitted all that he did to his will; and he did not envy the works of others, but sought and gave counsel. Whereas Melkor spent his spirit in envy and hate, until at last he could make nothing save in mockery of the thought of others, and all their works he destroyed if he could. (15)

I believe this passage gives us all the explanation we might need in order to understand exactly why Aulë’s influence is such an important feature in many of the Arda’s most important figures. It’s so easy to assume that Melkor’s real rival is Manwë, and in many respects this is true; as the Ainulindalë says, they “were brethren in the thought of Ilúvatar” (Sil 14). But it’s not hard to imagine that Melkor cherished a special resentment towards Aulë, for they were both craftsmen and they both found themselves compelled to create. They were Makers both. It could be said of either that the “desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own, and it seemed to him that Ilúvatar took no thought for the Void, and he was impatient of its emptiness” (Sil 4). The difference is, as I have already said, in their responses to Ilúvatar’s attempt to bring them back in line. Melkor becomes bitter, resentful, and rebellious; his desire for domination increases in direct correlation to Ilúvatar’s efforts to redirect his energies. Aulë, on the other hand, becomes penitent, recognizing that the path he is on will lead only to disappointment and the ability to make only that which is a mockery—rather than a celebration—of the Life Ilúvatar gives.

This fundamental opposition introduces an important pattern into the story of Arda: it sets before each and every sub-creator an important choice: will they follow the pattern of Aulë, or that of Melkor? Fëanor is perhaps the most significant and obvious participant in this choice. Certain markers (which I don’t have space to talk about here, but intend to when I get to write about Fëanor) alert us, as readers, to the fact that Fëanor walks a knife edge. In each and every decision he makes, we’re encouraged to wonder whether he will ultimately choose the path of Aulë or the path of Melkor. One of these signals, as I wrote about in my piece on Nerdanel, is the rejection of his wife and his accusation that she has not been a “true” wife, but has been “cozened by Aulë” (The Peoples of Middle-earth, hereafter PM, 354). This is significant particularly because Nerdanel herself was a craftsperson in the tradition of Aulë; her people were “devoted” to that Vala, and her father was one of Aulë’s special students (PM 354). But in this moment, Fëanor rejects the influence of Aulë, and his understanding of sub-creation, for that of Melkor.

The crisis comes to a head when Fëanor is asked to relinquish the Simarils so that Yavanna can return light to Arda. Some of the Valar pressure the Noldo for a quick answer, but Aulë quiets them. “Be not hasty!” he says, perhaps remembering his creation of the Dwarves and his sorrow as he raised his hammer to destroy them. “We ask a greater thing than thou knowest. Let him have peace yet a while” (MR 107). But with his refusal of the Valar’s request, Fëanor proves himself to be altogether different from Aulë. He desires domination and power; he is possessive and jealous, becoming like Melkor in that he “[spends] his spirit in envy and hate” (Sil 15).

The same is true of others, including Sauron and Saruman, both of whom are Maia in the service of Aulë. Faced with the ultimate choice of the craftsperson, both choose, in their own way, to align themselves with the pattern of Melkor.

Aulë, then, is an important symbol in Tolkien’s legendarium; and this is, I believe, why he appears so often in discussions of other characters. As we know, Craft and Art and Sub-creation are all central to the story Tolkien is telling, so it stands to reason that the great Craftsman, the ultimate Sub-creator, should provide a potential blueprint for other sub-creators. Are there any who choose to follow his example, though? Most of the more memorable craftspeople are, granted, those who reject Aulë for Morgoth; but there are a few who do otherwise. Nerdanel is one. Galadriel is another: she “like others of the Noldor, had been a pupil of Aulë and Yavanna in Valinor” (Unfinished Tales, hereafter UT, 247). Consider the moment in The Lord of the Rings in which Frodo offers her the Ring. This is, I believe, Galadriel’s great test: will she take up the Ring to create the reality she desires, though it comes through the hand of absolute power and domination? Or will she let that opportunity, tempting as it is, pass her by, thereby proving that she has learned the lesson of her kinsman Fëanor and chosen the path of Aulë instead? Of course, she chooses to “diminish,” and it is this, I believe, that signifies that she has chosen her pattern, thereby showing her repentance for rebellion against the proper uses of power. Rather than become “stronger than the foundations of the earth” (which Aulë made!), she will “go into the West, and remain Galadriel” (LotR 365).

Through Aulë and those who follow him, Tolkien seems to be illustrating what he believes to be the proper approach to sub-creation. It’s one that values process and not just product; it foregrounds generosity over possessiveness, humility over pride, and celebration over envy. There’s a certain broad-heartedness about Aulë that shows the true potential of the ethical artist. He’s able to learn as well as teach, and he desires to work with his materials rather than abusing them or using them up in the process of creation. His creations enhance those of others, instead of overshadowing them. His narrative asks the question of all artists who come after: what kind of creator will you be: a tyrant, or a giver?

Megan N. Fontenot is a dedicated Tolkien scholar and fan who loves, almost more than anything else, digging into the many drafts and outlines of Tolkien’s legendarium. Catch her on Twitter @MeganNFontenot1 and feel free to request a favorite character in the comments!

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