Discover more from Wraith Land
Tolkien's Creation and the Creator
"The Music of the Ainur" reveals a vision of intuitive grace
“…and the greatest of these was music.”
It’s right there at the very beginning of his mythology. J.R.R. Tolkien tells us that the greatest “thing” is music, which his God teaches the gods and angels, and even the Devil and his demons. Implicitly, he is arguing that music is the DNA of all cosmic matters and experience. That is, the universe is music. And music is the beating heart of everything — all things ever-changing.
Where did this conception come from? Clearly many musicians and composers over the ages would not disagree with Tolkien — if one is predisposed to think of music as change or movement beyond just the medium of sound waves, indeed of music as the sonic expression of an even deeper symphony of physics — from astrophysics to quantum mechanics to biology to cybernetics.
Rather, it is more accurate to call it an “articulation” of a perception instead of a “conception.” For like his art-languages, Tolkien had an instinctive sense that he was discovering his mythic world, not inventing it. In fact, he did not see his work principally as mythological, but spiritual. As a philologist, a lover of words and a scientist of sounds and symbols that communicate ideas and memories as well as quests and questions into the unknown, he was well aware that we are often shaped or trapped by semantics — by the bounds of existing music.
So finding new things relies on discovering and expressing new movements within that original Creation or composition. Mathematics and computer code can be thought of in the same way. They begin by articulating and reflecting certain truths, realities, laws, symmetries, or behaviors, often with an observable and repeatable logic, that then builds up to maxims and tenets, expanding into far greater complexities and calculations.
The instrumental is one way to think about it, versus the lyrical; the poetic versus the prosaic. The second chapter of Tolkien’s Book of Lost Tales from The History of Middle-Earth series (THOME), is greatly concerned with the process of Creation itself, laying the foundation for all the mythological melodies that will proceed within the chronology of Tolkien’s legendarium, from The Silmarillion to The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings.
We began this journey on THOME with its first chapter, The Cottage of Lost Play, and now we move into The Music of the Ainur, which is Tolkien’s vivid cosmogonic Creation myth. We’ve also looked at comparisons of Tolkien’s epic Ring cycle to Richard Wagner’s own operatic Ring cycle, parsing the shadows that lie therein — which Tolkien explicitly countered. For all the overtures of Wagner devotees that Tolkien’s mythology is dwarfed by Wagner’s own vision — an uninformed view — the Creation myths contained within The Silmarillion set in motion a vision of not just nations or continents, but of the universe itself, that out-dreams anything in Wagner or arguably in any other major fictive project in the history of literature and art, except perhaps the connected empire of Disney’s franchises and themed entertainments — inclusive of Star Wars and Marvel. But whereas those worlds have been the collective works of many, Tolkien’s Middle-earth sprang from his imagination alone.
“Before all things he sang into being the Ainur first, and greatest is their power and glory of all his creatures within the world and without,” the elf bard Rúmil tells Eriol; both we meet first in The Cottage of Lost Play, when Eriol comes to the Lonely Island of Tol Eressëa. “Thereafter he fashioned them dwellings in the void, and dwelt among them, teaching them all manner of things, and the greatest of these was music.”
For those joining us for the first time, or unfamiliar with Tolkien’s works, the Ainur are angels in Tolkien’s mythology. So what are angels? In The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s son Christopher Tolkien, and his assistant Guy Gavriel Kay, reshaped this language in a more succinct posthumous fashion: the Ainur were the “Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought.” So angels in Tolkien’s legendarium are in fact individuated forms of a conscious universe. Tolkien never calls the Ainur “angels” specifically, but as powerful supernatural beings, he is clearly drawing them from the holy “messenger” status that ancient religions, from paganism to Zoroastrianism to Christianity, gave to cosmic phenomenon.
Interestingly, in this version of The Music of the Ainur (later titled by its Elvish name, Ainulindalë), the four most powerful Holy Ones represent the four elements: earth (Aulë), fire (Melkor), air (Manwë) and water (Ulmo). And yet, they start as thoughts, musical thoughts, “sang into being,” the “offspring” of thought, long before they become physical forces or facets of nature. In a word, spirits.
Out of one, many; out of many, one — another key way to understand Tolkien’s grand mythology is to see it within a Hegelian framework — a dialectic of vast historical change — the thesis, antithesis and synthesis of Western reason. This can be extrapolated to Eastern thought as well, in the form of the Tao, the Yin-Yang, the “Watercourse Way,” as the philosopher Alan Watts described it. You could also interpret the binary code of computer science as a corollary.
And yet at the heart of Tolkien’s worldview is a Christian and highly moral orientation — the Abrahamic point-of-view born of exile and persecution and forgiveness combined with the Hellenic and Roman traditions of self-government and fierce objectivity. Astrology and Astronomy were obsessions of the ancient Greeks; Socrates, Plato and Aristotle spent many a thought on the heavens. Objectivity — the foundation of science, the rationalism that maintains that everything can be known — however, exists next to Subjectivity in Tolkien. Escaping one without the other is impossible. To live, is to be subject.
This is the great lesson in his stories: that never far is the fall, the slide, the betrayal. Tolkien is pessimistic, goes the argument. And yet it’s always balanced with the opportunity for redemption and free will — the self-government of the self; ego mastered by the moral code — the “Golden Rule” as it were — allowing new ideas and new creations to unfold through fellowship, compassion and good will. Here you find that same musical sensibility that rules the fate of many, right up to Gollum’s fall into oblivion, an outcrop of Frodo’s cultivation, that saves the world — going right back to the beginning, with God and his most powerful descendant, Melkor, i.e. Lucifer, the “Light-Bringer,” before he became the “Night-Bringer” — the eclipse of God’s first holy spark.
And yet the eclipse passes, even after it darkens and distresses the first music of Creation. For Melkor, called “Melko” in this early version, is the Shadow, the shadow of thought, the shadow of God’s first thought, the first echo in the universe to confuse and dissemble. For Melko, the mightiest of the Ainur…
“fared often alone into the dark places and the voids seeking the Secret Fire that giveth Life and Reality (for he had a very hot desire to bring things into being of his own)”
Which begs the question, what is God? Tolkien’s answer is both complex and eloquent. In his mythology, the Creator is given Elvish names, Eru (“the One”) and Ilúvatar (“All-Father”). The latter name phonetically resembles “illuminate.” And obviously, this is a paternalistic God — a “father,” not a mother. Even so, the way I think of Eru Ilúvatar is as the prime consciousness, and the universe as that same consciousness, that goes way beyond the polarities of gender. And while the text itself may indicate Eru Ilúvatar as a sentient supreme being, that does not abrogate more poetic and metaphoric readings. In fact, it invites it.
I have read the Ainulindalë several times, but this past week was the first time I read “The Music of the Ainur” — its English title — in the context of its origins. What I have found in THOME is a new appreciation for its both modern and classical sensibilities, a unique fusion of science and art in mythic form. Also, I thought more about its emotional content and how music inspires the “divine” imagination, whether in one’s own life, art or science, no matter how we may define the spiritual, from atheism to polytheism — no one really knows.
Reading it from this more historical angle — historical in the sense of when Tolkien wrote The Music of the Ainur and the larger cultural context of when he dreamed it up and wrote it — forces us to think about modern currents in philosophy, science, art and technology. Everything from the trauma and aftermath of the First World War (Tolkien served and saw action) to the technological advances in the form of radio and film, shaped his life.
For one, while Tolkien did not frame his mythos within Space Age language, I would argue that his description of Creation relates to the Big Bang theory, or echoes it by way of the expanding techno-scientific consciousness of the early 1900s. It was Georges Lemaître — interestingly, a Belgian physicist and Roman Catholic priest — who proposed in 1927 that the inferred recession of observed nebulae in space was due to the expansion of the universe, which could be traced back in time to a “primeval atom.” The American astronomer Edwin Hubble also provided photo-telescopic evidence in 1924 of spiral galaxies that were apart and beyond the Milky Way. Both Lemaître and Hubble’s observations and theories had built upon the work of galactic observers like Vesto Slipher, who first discovered galactic redshifts in 1912, indicating that nearby intergalactic bodies were receding from each other, advancing models of an expanding universe.
We don’t have documentary evidence that Tolkien was keeping up with developments in extragalactic astronomy and observational cosmology, but we do know that he was fascinated by stars and celestial events, going so far as to name and give constellations their mythical backgrounds, from Menelvagor — “heaven-swordsman” in Sindarin — as Orion, to the red star Borgil — likely the stars Betelgeuse or Aldebaran. And then there is Eärendil, the mysterious name provoking his whole mythology, an angel that is Venus, the Morning Star.
Tolkien actually first wrote the Ainulindalë sometime between November 1918 and the spring of 1920, during his stint working on the Oxford English Dictionary. He was 27 to 28 years old, and Christopher Tolkien tells us that the form and content of The Music of the Ainur changed little in essence from that time. This is fairly remarkable, given how much Tolkien’s cosmogonic Creation myth reflects Lamaître’s own theory of the universe.
Unlike the great science-fiction myths of the 1900s — Isaac Azimov’s Foundation trilogy and Frank Herbert’s Dune — Tolkien looked far back through time in order to find the forms and functions that shaped his own time, and from there, formed a deeper perception of the future, like looking far out into space to the center of the universe and the flashpoint of the Big Bang. In a way, you could say Tolkien was Hari Seldon — the fictional “psychohistorian” who mathematically predicts the future in Azimov’s Foundation — charting the origin of the spirit, and hence the music that then unfolds and transforms all manner and matter of the human experience, but via the language of “fantasy,” instead of science fiction.
I find that the Ainulindalë and indeed Tolkien’s myth cycle taken as a whole is rather consonant with the structure, sequence and spirit of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Not in all ways, but in some of its motifs and themes. If one were to read the Monoliths as “messengers” of some greater consciousness, then there is much that echoes with The Silmarillion. This is a coincidence of course, like Lemaître, Hubble and Slipher most likely, but it demonstrates that there was a cultural convergence that Tolkien intuited.
And like 2001, the Ainulindalë, which is the opening act of The Silmarillion, uses imagery and music — in the form of Tolkien’s own lyrical yet biblical tonalities, combined with the melodious Elvish names that play like sparkles on his waves of words — to take us into something of a dream state. The film rolls. The text flows. This is then layered with a meta consciousness, a double melody, in the story of the Music itself. So what is that Music?
The Music of the Ainur is sung and played in three acts. In the first, Ilúvatar lays out his vision to the Ainur. But in the second, the Ainur join him, and while it is beautiful at first, Melko starts to strive for control, bringing in “harshness and discordancy” so that those Ainur who made music with him became either confused or corrupted, “their thoughts unfinished and unclear,” his chaos “darkening the music” in a “war of sounds” — the Devil and his demons.
The first theme is Ilúvatar’s, the second is marred by Melko, and then a third theme takes the strains of the second and makes a music more beautiful than the first two. Ilúvatar “wept” as he set it forth, a music “mingled with unquenchable sorrow,” creating a music with more depth and power than had been imagined, a “clash of overwhelming musics.” Bringing both his hands down in a closing chord, Ilúvatar then explains to the Ainur the physics and laws of this Music:
“Thou Melko shalt see that no theme can be played save it come in the end of Ilúvatar’s self, nor can any alter the music in Ilúvatar’s despite. He that attempts this finds himself in the end but aiding me in devising a thing of still greater grandeur and more complex wonder…”
As one reads Ainulindalë, it takes on the contradictions and multiple meanings of any great art, so that it dawns on the mind that Ilúvatar is in a sense the universe, anthropomorphized, talking to itself. Melko is a reaction to the “primeval atom,” a shockwave of shadows, “death without hope,” the bottom of the wavelength, the darkest night before the dawn. And always keeping us plowing ahead is a circadian memory of the first Music, now like the setting sun.
For in The Music of the Ainur, we learn that in water itself can still be heard the deeper echo of the Music of the Ainur. Ilúvatar explains to Ulmo and Manwë, two of his greatest angels, that their domains will be made more wondrous by Melko’s striving. His cold will help create snow, frost and ice out of Ulmo’s water. His heat will help create clouds, mists and rain out of Manwë’s air and winds. They see this unfold in a globed world that will contain the Earth and all life. Before us, is the first horizon of countless to come, until the end of Time.
He then tells the Ainur of the “Children of Ilúvatar” — elves and humankind. To humans, he gives “strange gifts,” including death. For the elves, or Eldar, he gives them eternal life. They both will live in the “hall of play,” and that while the Eldar will be fairer and stronger, humans will have the “greater” gift, what he calls “free virtue” or free will, the freedom to “design their life beyond even the original Music of the Ainur that is as fate to all things else,” for “good or ill.”
There is more here, but I want to emphasize that reading this earlier draft of the Ainulindalë reminded me of something that I believe is inherent in the appeal and power of Tolkien’s mythology: the revelation and idealization of a spirituality that encompasses all consciousness, what Watts once described in Hindu terms as “the You in you is the same as the You in me.” That is, Tolkien’s articulations of the nature of the universe and human experience are deeply intertwined, as they obviously are, but that through story, we talk to each other and therefore communicate through the universe itself. We are the universe.
This brings us to a similar metaphysical koan, as described in Plato’s The Republic. The allegory of the Cave, or Plato’s Cave, describes our relationship with reality through the interface of knowledge, and that most people only see shadows on cave walls, many of them willfully entranced by the shadow-play, whereas the philosopher is able to see through everyday reality to higher truths, to a deeper sun, a Music of the Spheres, which conforms to logic, geometry, science and mathematics, and which informs reason and higher consciousness.
Interestingly enough, concepts of the moral universe were greatly informed by these notions in the Middle Ages, most famously expressed by Boethius in his book De Musica. Consequentially, Boethius was a Roman philosopher in the 6th century A.D., who translated many of Plato and Aristotle’s works to Latin, helping bridge the Classical world with the Renaissance and beyond. He is also often cited as a major influence on Tolkien’s constructions of fate and fortune — the book Boethius composed while awaiting his own execution being his masterwork.
Boethius was a Platonist and a Christian, and like Tolkien, he found a way in The Consolation of Philosophy to explore the moral quandaries of evil and human nature without resorting to platitudes and predictable Sunday School moralizations. He used the tools of Classical philosophy. Obviously, Tolkien was heavily influenced by Norse mythology and Anglo-Saxon language and literature — he taught both at Oxford — but he also studied the Classics as an undergrad. That’s how he got into Oxford, on a scholarship to become a Classics scholar. He did this for two years before switching to Anglo-Saxon as a subject of expertise.
So he almost certainly knew his Plato — including Plato’s Atlantis, the germ for the island civilization of Númenor.* He likely knew his Socrates and Aristotle too. He certainly knew Homer. And he knew well his Boethius. The Tolkien scholar T.A. Shippey demonstrates how Tolkien used the “black and white,” “good versus evil” worldview of Manichaeism, the dualistic cosmology and moral mechanics that drives much of Tolkien’s narratives — light and shadow, Ilúvatar and Melko. But Shippey also shows how Tolkien synthesized this harder edged conflict of Yin and Yang into a more flowing and open-ended rhythm of free will, best exemplified by Boethius. Hence, there is grey too throughout Tolkien’s legendarium — as struggles with fate often yield to conscience.
Plato’s shadow looms here in another way. In The Republic, he tells the story of the Ring of Gyges, a magical ring that a shepherd finds underground after an earthquake reveals a tomb where a corpse has the ring on its finger.
Talking with Socrates, Plato’s brother Glaucon asks the great philosopher to tell him why a just person would logically resist using the ring’s invisibility for evil:
“Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice.”
Socrates explains that the man who uses the ring to abuse power has only enslaved himself to its temptations and his appetites — addiction in the Gollum sense — while the one who resists, remains himself and happy, for his life does not become a pit of insatiable lack. Here, more than Wagner’s Ring, is perhaps the true inspiration for Tolkien’s Ring. And I believe, after reading the second chapter of THOME, that even though Tolkien never mentioned the Ring of Gyges in any of his letters, that this one germ of an idea perhaps found fuller expression in the form of his legendarium, including in Ilúvatar’s wisdom: that no evil can outdo the goodness inherent in the righteous path. For the universe knows.
And so the Ainulindalë is like a Russian doll propagating in waves. From its metaphysical core — its “primeval atom” — it expands Tolkien’s grand vision of Middle-earth ever outward. In The Music of the Ainur, we see how The Book of Lost Tales links Eriol to this arc of justice. After he meets the hosts Lindo and Vairë in the Cottage of Lost Play in the city of Kortirion on the enchanted isle Tol Eressëa (an ancient England), he is taken to his sleeping quarters round and round up a spiraling stair. He passes “broidered stories” on the walls, and comes to a tower room, where swaying lamps “cast a spatter of bright hues upon the floors and hangings.”
In the morning, he comes by Rúmil, the loremaster and sage who invented the first writing system, Tengwar, and who tells Eriol the tale of “The Music of the Ainur.” He explains to Eriol that Eru Ilúvatar “was the very first beginning” and is “Lord of Always who dwells beyond the world; who made it and is not of it or in it, but loves it.” The night before however, while Eriol sleeps, he hears in his dreams a “music more pure than any he heard before, and it was full of longing.”
In his final notes to the chapter, Christopher Tolkien points out that in the THOME draft of the Ainulindalë, the world, Eä, comes into being as the Ainur sing. But in The Silmarillion, which adapts Tolkien’s last version, it is revised so that the world does not come into being until the music is played, and then Ilúvatar shows the Ainur what they have made, and sends into its heart the Imperishable Flame — the Secret Fire. That is, Creation takes imagination. Shaping the imagination takes the interaction of ideas, memories, elements, spirits. Conducting interactions into wonders takes grace.
So that as the universe birthed the world from a Big Bang, so did Tolkien spark Middle-earth from one strange word, “Eärendil,” the name of an angel that no-one could remember save for its mention in a medieval poem. And just as Eriol heard music full of longing in his dream, so does Ilúvatar say to the offspring of his thought, after musical strife and redemption: “Eä! Let these things be!”
*There is no known proof that Tolkien read or knew Plato, though it is likely, especially as part of his education at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, before he went to Oxford. That said, Oronzo Cilli in Tolkien’s Library: An Annotated Checklist, shows no record of Tolkien having owned or borrowed Plato.
To get more background on THOME, go to our first post on its first chapter here. To learn about the power of naming and language in Tolkien, go here. And to learn more about the importance of music in Tolkien, from the serious to the fun, go here and here. We’ve also explored Tolkien’s thematic resonance post-LOTR in pop mythologies and music here.
Our History of Middle Earth Journal Index - The Book of Lost Tales, Part One:
The Cottage of Lost Play / Opening the Heart of Modern Myth
The Music of the Ainur / Tolkien’s Creation and the Creator
The Coming of the Valar / The Valar, Gods of Wisdom and Wonder, Part One
The Building of Valinor / The Valar, Gods of Wisdom and Wonder, Part Two
The Chaining of Melko / Who the Hell is Tinfang Warble?
The Chaining of Melko / The Convolution of Evil in Middle-earth
The Coming of the Elves / Tolkien’s Elves: Dark Seas, Bright Gems, Part One
The Making of Kôr / Tolkien’s Elves: Dark Seas, Bright Gems, Part Two