In Tolkien’s creation-story, when the angelic Ainur first perceive the material reality of the physical universe, they see it as “a light, as it were a cloud with a living heart of flame” (in the Valaquenta it is described as a “light in the darkness”). This perspective on matter stands in marked contrast with the intellectualism of much ancient thought. For both Plato and Aristotle, it is form that is the principle of actuality and hence of intelligibility, or what we might here refer to as “intellectual luminosity.” Matter, by contrast, as the principle of potentiality, in and of itself was held to be unintelligible and, as later Neoplatonists such as Plotinus would deem it, a principle of “non being” and therefore “evil.”
Tolkien’s cosmogony, by comparison, reflects a much more biblical and Christian evaluation of matter, even in its original, primordial, and comparatively formless state. The potentiality of matter, as we see in his account of creation, is not an original, uncreated darkness to which the “form” of light, as it were, must be added, but is itself a created and therefore an existing, good, and hence actual, albeit undifferentiated light that may then be “refracted” (as Tolkien puts it in his poem “Mythopoeia”) and so made more determinant through the subordinate act of sub-creation. This is not Platonism, but Christian creationism.
This divergent evaluation of matter, moreover, may be further related to the Valar’s love for and desire to enter into Eä in the first place. In Plato’s creation-myth found in the Timaeus, the creator deity, the “demiurge” or world-craftsman, is first moved to “create” (it’s not ex nihilo) out of a sense of pity and distaste for the otherwise chaotic conditions of original matter. In Tolkien’s creation-myth, by contrast, the “demiurgic” Valar (as he describes them in various places) are drawn to intervene in the material world, not out of disgust, but out of love and desire for the beauty already exhibited in the primal elements themselves:
And they observed the winds and the air, and the matters of which Arda was made, of iron and stone and silver and gold and many substances: but of all these water they most greatly praised… Now to water had that Ainu whom the Elves call Ulmo turned his thought, and of all most deeply was he instructed by Ilúvatar in music. But of the airs and winds Manwë most had pondered, who is the noblest of the Ainur. Of the fabric of Earth had Aulë thought… (Ainulindalë, emphasis added)
Through the Valar’s love affair with matter, of course, Tolkien dramatizes what he argues must be the case for any true sub-creator worthy of the name:
Fantasy is made out of the Primary World, but a good craftsman loves his material, and has a knowledge and feeling for clay, stone and wood which only the art of making can give. By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and Moon root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory.
And actually fairy-stories deal largely, or (the better ones) mainly, with simple or fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting. For the story-maker who allows himself to be “free with” Nature can be her lover not her slave. It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine. (“On Fairy-Stories”)