Misreading the Music

Metaphysics of the Music, part 8

As the preceding posts in this series have intended to show, Tolkien’s music-metaphor has significant metaphysical and cosmological implications, and the attention given by commentators to the classical and medieval heritage behind his music imagery is well-merited. The history of the world, as Tolkien has conceived it, consists in the gradual unfolding of a primeval, cosmic symphony whose governance extends all the way down to the meanest creature. As much in the great events of human history as in the seemingly most mundane natural processes, such as the oak growing from acorn to tree, or even in its changing of colors over the course of the year, what we are beholding is nothing less than part of a now silent sonata played and sung from before the foundations of the world. This is the profound way in which Tolkien’s creation-myth would have us think not only about human history, but also about the constitution of created being itself.

Nevertheless, while the significance of the Ainur’s Music—as an illustration of such central Tolkienian themes as creaturely sub-creation and freedom, cosmic harmony, and the temporal development of creation—can hardly be overstated, the emphasis placed on it by commentators has been to the neglect of some of the more important metaphysical points made in the Ainulindalë. More than this, there has been a tendency to read Tolkien’s music imagery in a way that directly contradicts its ultimate meaning, a meaning that I suggest is best understood in light of St. Thomas’s thoughts on being, beauty, and even music. One notable trend in this regard is an exaggerated reading of the Ainur’s Music that sees it as a truly creative or causal power of the world. One reader, for example, says that “Tolkien’s music of creation actually creates the entire cosmos” (emphasis original), and that the Ainur’s Music represents the “vibratory force in creation, and it is that force which has the power to create and sustain worlds” (Davis, “Ainulindalë: The Music of Creation,” 6, 8). Another commentator has written that “Middle-earth is created and sustained through the sung words of the ‘Great Music’,” and mistakenly attributes the idea of “creation through music” not only to Tolkien but to the Pythagoreans as well (Grubbs, “The Maker’s Image: Tolkien, Fantasy & Magic”). Bradford Eden, in his Boethian interpretation of Tolkien, also overestimates the contribution of the Ainur’s Music to the world’s creation when he identifies it by turns as “the creative and omnipotent force,” “the creational and binding force that sets in motion the entire drama of Middle-earth,” “the generational force out of which much of the drama of Middle-earth develops,” the “creational and cosmological power,” and “the ultimate power in the cosmological history of Middle-earth” (Eden, “The ‘Music of the Spheres’,” 185-8). Tolkien scholars Verlyn Flieger and Brad Birzer are similarly carried away in their estimation of the power of the Music, as when Flieger variously describes the Music as “the initiating force,” “creative force,” and “ordering force of the universe” (Flieger, Splintered Light, 57-9), or when Birzer claims that after Eru created the Ainur, “He gave to each of them a piece of his wisdom and knowledge, and together they sang the universe into existence” (Birzer, Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, 53). Robert Collins, finally, while acutely describing Tolkien’s philosophy of being as an “aesthetic ontology,” nevertheless mistakes matters when he asserts that the musical paradigm of Tolkien’s creation myth is the “key to” and the “essential nature of” his theory of being (Collins, “‘Ainulindalë’: Tolkien’s Commitment to an Aesthetic Ontology,” 257, 264). As we shall see in the posts to follow, however, the Music of the Ainur, while important, is and does none of these things, and what is more, understanding this fact turns out to be the true key to his theory of being.

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One thought on “Misreading the Music

  1. Pingback: Music of the Ainur as “Tragic Metaphysics” | The Flame Imperishable

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