Ainulindalë and Augustine’s Commentary on Genesis

As John Houghton has shown in his article “Augustine in the Cottage of Lost Play” (in Tolkien the Medievalist, ed. Jane Chance), the extent of the structural parallels between Augustine’s analysis of the Genesis account of creation and Tolkien’s Ainulindalë are quite remarkable. Houghton begins by pointing out, from the early version of the Ainulindalë from The Book of Lost Tales, Tolkien’s original intention of representing his creation-narrative as an alternative, “asterisk” or hypothetical cosmogony putatively discovered in England sometime in the early Middle Ages. As this conceit would have it, the Ainulindalë would have constituted for the medievals, along with Genesis and Plato’s Timaeus, a third creation-account.[1] Against the supposition that, because the modern reader may find “the Ainulindalë very different from Genesis,” medieval thinkers must therefore also “have found it equally strange,” Houghton argues on the contrary that, owing to the commentary tradition stemming from Augustine, “[h]ad medieval theologians encountered the Ainulindalë, they would have found its picture of a double creation—creation as music in the song of the Ainur and then as fact in the word of Ilúvatar—reassuringly easy to fit into the scheme of Augustine’s Christian-Neoplatonist synthesis.”[2] In his breakdown of Augustine’s De Genesi, Houghton discerns five distinct stages in Augustine’s analysis of the creation-event:

  1. God’s eternal intention to create, enunciated in the Word;
  2. God’s Creation in the minds of the angels of a knowledge of what is to be made;
  3. God’s creation of things, some of them (like the angels) in full existence, but most of them (like trees, plants, and human beings) in the potentials called “causal reasons”;
  4. The angels’ perception of the created things; and
  5. God’s eternal support of the Creation through the Holy Spirit.[3]

Although Tolkien’s account emphasizes music imagery and the sub-creative role of the Ainur, whereas Augustine, following Genesis, emphasizes the metaphors of speech and light and God’s role as sole Creator, Houghton points out that each of Augustine’s five stages finds an important place in the Ainulindalë:

In both cases, God first creates the angels and then reveals to them the further elements of Creation; the angels’ own knowledge reflects ideas in the divine mind. In both cases, as well, after the revelation, God gives real existence to what the angels have perceived, upholding that existence in the void; yet that real existence has only the undeveloped potential of what it will become in the unfolding of time, and God reserves to God’s self the introduction of elements unanticipated in the basic design.[4]


[1] Houghton, “Augustine in the Cottage of Lost Play,” 171.

[2] Ibid., 171-2.

[3] Ibid., 176.

[4] Ibid., 178.

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One thought on “Ainulindalë and Augustine’s Commentary on Genesis

  1. Pingback: Sub-creation and Augustine’s “seminal reasons” | The Flame Imperishable

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