Creatio Ex Nihilo in Tolkien’s Ainulindale

Yesterday’s post examined Tolkien’s response to correspondent Peter Hastings in which he defends a broadly Thomistic doctrine of creation as the exclusive and proper activity of God alone. Today I want to look at how Tolkien gives poetic expression to that doctrine in his own creation-myth, the Ainulindalë.

The first thing that might be said here is that it is Eru, while the angelic Ainur expectantly look on, who speaks the word of command, “Eä! Let these things Be!” that at last brings the world, previously only foreshadowed and longed for but not guaranteed in the Music and Vision, into being, thus giving it the “primary reality” and “fulfillment of Creation.”[1] Coinciding with Eru’s command, moreover, is his sending forth the Flame Imperishable to “be at the heart of the World,” causing the world simply to “Be.” In previous posts I’ve considered Tolkien’s identification of the Flame Imperishable with “the Creative activity of Eru (in some sense distinct from or within Him), by which things could be given a ‘real’ and independent (though derivative and created) existence” (MR 345). This creative power was something sought for by Melkor but was not found by him because it was “with Ilúvatar” (S 16). As much in Tolkien’s secondary world as Thomas found it to be the case in the primary world, “it is manifest that creation is the proper act of God alone” (ST 1.45.5).[2]

In his image of the “Void,” moreover, the place where the Flame Imperishable is sent to kindle the existence of the created world, Tolkien also provides an apt depiction of the orthodox doctrine of creatio ex nihilo central to Thomas’s account of creation. The Void is an absence, a nothingness whose identifying—and for Melkor, most provoking—feature is its “emptiness.” In one commentary Tolkien describes the Void as “a conception of the state of Not-being, outside Creation or Eä,” which “the minds of Men (and even of the Elves) were inclined to confuse… with the conception of vast space within Ëa [sic], especially those conceived to lie all about the enisled ‘Kingdom of Arda’ (which we should probably call the Solar System)” (MR 403n).[3] For Tolkien, like St. Thomas, because creation is the gift of being itself, of being or “Reality” as such, it therefore presupposes the complete and total absence or negation of what it gives, namely non-being or nothing, which is to say, a void. This difference, moreover, between Ilúvatar’s creative “Fire” on the one hand, which is capable of kindling created existence itself out of literally nothing, and all forms of sub-creative making on the other, which are “guaranteed” by and hence presuppose an (ontologically) prior act of creation, is illustrated rather well in The Lord of the Rings in Gandalf’s terse reply to Legolas’s jest below Mount Caradhras that if the wizard “would go before us with a bright flame, he might melt a path” for the fellowship: “‘If Elves could fly over mountains, they might fetch the Sun to save us,’ answered Gandalf. ‘But I must have something to work on. I cannot burn snow’” (FOTR 305). As Thomas puts it in his argument for it “pertain[ing] to God alone to create,” without some already existing effect brought into being through the divine act of creation, the secondary instrumental cause “effects nothing according to what is proper to itself,” and is thus “used to no purpose…” (ST 1.45.5).[4]

To return to Tolkien’s account of the Void, however, in an earlier version of the Ainulindalë from The Lost Road, the Ainur’s first glimpse of the created world is described in these words: “Then the Ainur marveled seeing the world globed amid the Void, and it was sustained therein, but not of it” (LR 159, emphasis added). In his almost scholastic clarification that the world has its being in the Void without being of it, Tolkien echoes St. Thomas’s own clarification of the doctrine of creation ex nihilio: “when anything is said to be made from nothing, this preposition from (ex) does not designate the material cause, but only order; as when we say, ‘from morning comes midday’—that is, after morning is midday” (ST 1.45.1 ad 3).[5] For both Tolkien and Thomas, in other words, the Void or “Not-being” out of which creation has its existence is not to be conceived as a kind of matter or material cause which the being of creation is “made out of.” As for Thomas’s argument in ST 1.44.2 that the prime matter from which the world is made is itself created by God, Tolkien may be seen to credit a related belief to the Elves for whom he writes that “the physical universe, Eä, had a beginning” and that this included its “basic ‘matter’, which they called erma,” and that it was from this “basic matter” that all things else were “made” (MR 338).

Where the doctrine of creation proper is concerned, in summary, careful scrutiny reveals Tolkien’s mythology to be in remarkable agreement with St. Thomas’s teaching that God and God alone creates, an activity both men understand in the precise, metaphysical sense of a “giving,” “sending,” “sustaining,” or “emanating” of the very being, existence, or reality of a thing. What is more, Tolkien’s Thomism on this point, far from being of incidental significance, is in fact essential for rightly understanding the Ainulindalë, inasmuch as it is precisely through Melkor’s mistaken presumption that a creature such as himself can wield the creative power of Ilúvatar, the Flame Imperishable, that evil was first introduced into the world, a point I hope to develop in a future series of posts on Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil. Finally, as we have further seen, there is a level at which, for Tolkien, the account of creation presented in the Ainulindalë is not “not casual, but fundamental” to the meaning of his mythology as a whole, inasmuch as “from beginning to end [it] is mainly concerned with the relation of Creation to making and sub-creation” (L 188).


[1] Michaël Devaux makes the observation that in the first version of the Ainulindalë from The Book of Lost Tales “there is no Eä! This equivalent of the fiat is actually subsequent… Eru’s words ‘Let these things Be’ date only from 1948.” Devaux, “The Origins of the Ainulindalë: The Present State of Research,” 93. Though Devaux doesn’t make the point here, these changes in the Ainulindalë would appear to be part of what Devaux, following the studies of Nils Ivar Agøy and Kaj André Apeland, maintains to have been Tolkien’s increasing “theologisation” of his mythology from 1937 onwards. Ibid., 81.

[2] “Unde manifestum est quod creation est proria actio ipsius Dei.”

[3] David Harvey would thus appear to misinterpret the Void when he describes it as “the Chaos, which is formless and in disorder” into which “are brought the Ainur.” Harvey, The Song of Middle-earth: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Themes, Symbols, and Myths, 26.

[4] “Si igitur nihil ibi ageret secundum illud quod est sibi proprium, frustra adhiberetur ad agendum…”

[5] “[C]um dicitur aliquid ex nihilo fieri, haec praepositio ex non designat causam materialem, sed ordinem tantum; sicu cum dicitur, ex mane fit meridies, idest, post mane fit meridies.”

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