The Ainur’s Music: From “Good” to “Very Good”

Metaphysics of the Music, part 26

When Ilúvatar first begins teaching the Ainur their Music, it is the case that, as the Platonic reading of the Ainulindalë might predict, they are unable to grasp completely the theme in its unity or wholeness: “[b]ut for a long while they sang only each alone, or but few together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly” (Silmarillion 15). As we have seen previously, however, the Ainur mature in their comprehension and skill over time, so that “as they listened they came to deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony,” and yet despite the Ainur’s challenges in learning the initial theme, Ilúvatar follows it with second, “mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed; and the glory of its beginning and the splendor of its end amazed the Ainur, so that they bowed before Ilúvatar and were silent” (emphasis added). Where Ilúvatar’s own music-making is concerned, therefore, it turns out to resemble less a Neoplatonic pattern of iterative decay than it does the gradual, eschatological progression described, for example, in the Book of Genesis, where creation’s initial status as merely “good” gradually gives way to its later consummation as “very good.” More remarkable still is that, despite the surpassing beauty of Ilúvatar’s second theme, this time the Ainur are not told to repeat (however unsuccessfully) its pattern, but as was just noted, are instead exhorted to “adorn” it: instead of imitating Ilúvatar’s theme, in other words, they are to interpret, improvise, and even improve upon it, much as the biblical Adam and Eve are told to complete the work that the Lord God, for all its initial goodness, had already begun. And while the resulting Music is said to have been so beautiful that not even the Ainur themselves have since “made any music like to this music,” in the same breath the narration anticipates a day when “a greater still shall be made before Ilúvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar after the end of days.” Even the discord, finally, introduced into the Music by Melkor ultimately serves not to lessen its overall beauty, but becomes yet another instrument and occasion whereby Ilúvatar is able to enter again into the Music and make it more beautiful still. Here we have yet another parallel to what David Bentley Hart observes in the Bible to be the Holy Spirit’s “power to redeem discordant lines” and “the promise of Christian faith that, eschatologically, the music of all creation will be restored…” (Beauty of the Infinite 281).

Why Ilúvatar Doesn’t Sing

In yesterday’s post I noted how the early, Book of Lost Tales version of the Ainulindalë, unlike the published Silmarillion account, has Ilúvatar
actually “singing” the Ainur “into being” before then instructing them to produce their own music in their turn. Michael Devaux attributes the omission to Ilúvatar’s singing in the later version to Tolkien’s alleged concern to distinguish Ilúvatar’s act of creation from the Ainur’s act of sub-creation:

The difference between a sung creation and a spoken creation of the Ainur by Ilúvatar is not negligible in its theological consequences. In fact, as Carla Giannone has shown, in the 1977 Ainulindale… Tolkien distinguishes two hierarchical levels, God and the gods (Eru Ilúvatar and the Ainur) as a function of this difference between speech and song. Strictly speaking, there is no music played by Eru. God’s prerogative (and his act of creation) resides in the Λογος (‘In the beginning was the Word,’ says the prologue to St. John’s Gospel), which is also thought.” (Devaux, “The Origins of the Ainulindalë: The Present State of Research,” 94)

As Devaux explains again a little later, “the difference between Ilúvatar and the Ainur” may be seen in the fact that, “[f]irst, as Tolkien says, strictly speaking the creation is the work of God while the making is given over to the Valar… Ilúvatar speaks and the Ainur sing…” (101).

The Ainur’s Music and the Trinity

Metaphysics of the Music, part 25

With the account I’ve given of Thomas’s views on music, beauty, and the realism of created being as background, I think we are in an ideal position to understand more precisely the metaphysical significance of the music imagery of Tolkien’s creation-myth. In light of the metaphysically tragic reading of the Ainulindalë surveyed earlier, perhaps the first point that stands to be made—as obvious as it is easy to overlook—is the fact that Tolkien places at the origins of his fictional cosmos an act of divine music, which is to say, an act of divine play. This point is made perhaps more clearly in the early edition of the Ainulindalë from The Book of Lost Tales, in which Ilúvatar is actually said to have “sang into being the Ainur…” (BLT 52). From its very inception, therefore, Tolkien’s narrative arguably sets a much more sanguine metaphysical course than the ontological ennui some of his commentators have credited it with.

It is also possible to connect further the Creator’s music-making at the outset of the Ainulindalë with what we saw in chapter one to be the proto-Trinitarianism of Tolkien’s mythical theology. As Tolkien’s puts it in his commentary on the Athrabeth, “the possibility of complexity or of distinctions in the nature of Eru” is already to be glimpsed in the Ainulindalë, particularly in the Flame Imperishable which he identifies as being “in some sense distinct from or within” Eru (Morgoth’s Ring 335, 345). Linking the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity with the musical universalis tradition behind the Ainulindalë, David Bentley Hart has suggested that the “complexity or distinction” of the Christian godhead means that, behind the cosmic music played out in the world by the Creator is the prior divine music which is the Creator, constituting the Creator in his own being:

the image of cosmic music is an especially happy way of describing the analogy of creation to the Trinitarian life. Creation is not, that is, a music that explicates some prior and undifferentiated content within the divine, nor the composite order that is, of necessity, imposed upon some intractable substrate so as to bring it into imperfect conformity with an ideal harmony; it is simply another expression or inflection of the music that eternally belongs to God, to the dance and difference, address and response, of the Trinity. (The Beauty of the Infinite, 276)

In keeping with this point is Ilúvatar’s explanation to the Ainur that it is because they have been kindled with the Flame Imperishable that they are, as it were, to “kindle” their own music, “show[ing] forth [their] powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will” (Silmarillion 15). It’s possible, in other words, to see the overflowing harmony of divine persons making up the divine being as the basis and originating source for the harmonies produced by the Ainur. And while the finitude and creatureliness of the Ainur’s Music doubtlessly means it must pale in comparison to the “beauty of the infinite” and transcendent rhythms of which the divine godhead is composed, Tolkien’s narrative is less concerned with its status as an inferior redundancy of Ilúvatar’s original theme than it is, as we have also seen, with that respect in which their Music has instead been caught up within and made to share in the divine life and music of Ilúvatar himself. Nor is Ilúvatar in his absolute transcendence in any way oblivious to their Music (as the Neoplatonic One is and must be oblivious, for example, of his emanations), but is rather portrayed as a connoisseur of their Music, delighting in the new state of affairs their Music has brought about: “But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song” (Silmarillion 15).

Embodied Immortality in Tolkien and Anselm

Another similarity between Tolkien’s Athrabeth and Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo to add to the list: the identity of man as a unity of body and soul in their respective arguments concerning the destiny of humankind. In the preface of Cur Deus Homo, Anselm writes:

human nature was instituted with the specific aim that at some stage the whole human being should enjoy blessed immortality, ‘whole’ meaning ‘with both body and soul’…

As Anselm observes, man was created for “blessed immortality,” a state transcending and surpassing his mortal experience here on earth. At the same time, whatever this immortality was, it was not something had by the soul only apart from or at the expense of his body. “Blessed immortality” was and is to be an embodied immortality.

In the conversation of the Athrabeth, Tolkien similarly strives to strike a balance between the alleged other-worldly orientation of Man’s soul and the this-worldly orientation of his body. On the one hand is Finrod’s characterization of the difference between Elves and Men on this wise:

the Eldar say of Men that they look at no thing for itself; that if they study it, it is to discover something else; that if they love it, it is only (so it seems) because it reminds them of some other dearer thing? Yet with what is this comparison? Where are these other things? ‘We are both, Elves and Men, in Arda and of Arda; and such knowledge as Men have is derived from Arda (or so it would appear). Whence then comes this memory that ye have with you, even before ye begin to learn?

As Tolkien argues in “On Fairy-Stories,” they are the Fairies who are “natural,” whereas they are the Men who are, by comparison, “supernatural.” If Men are ordered away from Arda/Earth in this way, however, it raises a question as to the unity of the human person. Finrod asks:

‘But what then shall we think of the union in Man: of an Indweller, who is but a guest here in Arda and not here at home, with a House that is built of the matter of Arda and must therefore (one would suppose) here remain? ‘At least one would not hope for this House a life longer than Arda of which it is part. Yet you claim that the House too was immortal, do you not? I would rather believe that such a feä of its own nature would at some time of its own will have abandoned the house of its sojourn here, even though the sojourn might have been longer than is now permitted. Then “death” would (as I said) have sounded otherwise to you: as a release, or return, nay! as going home! But this you do not believe, it seems?’

Andreth’s response is emphatic and unequivocal:

‘Nay, I do not believe this,’ said Andreth. ‘For that would be contempt of the body, and is a thought of the Darkness unnatural in any of the Incarnate whose life uncorrupted is a union of mutual love. But the body is not an inn to keep a traveller warm for a night, ere he goes on his way, and then to receive another. It is a house made for one dweller only, indeed not only house but raiment also; and it is not clear to me that we should in this case speak only of the raiment being fitted to the wearer rather than of the wearer being fitted to the raiment.

‘I hold then that it is not to be thought that the severance of these two could be according to the true nature of Men. For were it “natural” for the body to be abandoned and die, but “natural” for the feä [soul, spirit] to live on, then there would indeed be a disharmony in Man, and his parts would not be united by love. His body would be a hindrance at best, or a chain. An imposition indeed, not a gift. But there is one who imposes, and who devises chains, and if such were our nature in the beginning, then we should derive it from him – but that you say should not be spoken.

‘… I hold that in this we are as ye are, truly Incarnates, and that we do not live in our right being and its fullness save in a union of love and peace between the House and the Dweller. Wherefore death, which divides them, is a disaster to both.’

So according to Finrod Men are spiritually ordered away from this world towards a reality they-know-not-what, and yet the equally belong to the bodies which are a part of this world. What’s the solution to this conundrum? The solution is what I’ve referred to earlier as Tolkien’s and Anselm’s shared “metaphysics of Mary” (something I hope to address more fully at a later date). Finrod responds:

‘Ever more you amaze my thought, Andreth,’ said Finrod. ‘For if your claim is true, then lo! a feä which is here but a traveller is wedded indissolubly to a hroa [body] of Arda; to divide them is a grievous hurt, and yet each must fulfil its right nature without tyranny of the other. Then this must surely follow: the feä when it departs must take with it the hroa. And what can this mean unless it be that the feä shall have the power to uplift the hroa, as its eternal spouse and companion, into an endurance everlasting beyond Ea, and beyond Time? Thus would Arda, or part thereof, be healed not only of the taint of Melkor, but released even from the limits that were set for it in the “Vision of Eru” of which the Valar speak.’

In his commentary on the Athrabeth, Tolkien expressly refers to this conjectured process by which the human soul would have “taken with it” its soul as an act of “assumption,” a clear allusion to the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Assumption of Mary, according to which the Blessed Virgin, at the end of her earthly life, was taken up into heaven both body and soul into a state of glory. In Tolkien’s fictional eschatology, accordingly, the original fate of all Men was to have been that enjoyed by the Virgin Mary. Or to return to Anselm’s own argument for why God became a man, man’s destiny was and still remains that of an embodied immortality.

The Divine Comedy of Metaphysical Otherness

Metaphysics of the Music, part 24

If God’s own goodness leads him to desire and to effect the existence of things other than himself, the same must invariably hold true for those rational beings whom he has made especially after his own image. As Thomas puts it in his Summa Contra Gentiles,

a thing approaches to God’s likeness the more perfectly as it resembles Him in more things. Now, goodness is in God, and the outpouring of goodness into other things. Hence, the creature approaches more perfectly to God’s likeness if it is not only good, but can also act for the good of other things, than if it were good only in itself; that which both shines and casts light is more like the sun than that which only shines. But no creature could act for the benefit of another creature unless plurality and inequality existed in created things. For the agent is distinct from the patient and superior to it. In order that there might be in created things a perfect representation of God, the existence of diverse grades among them was therefore necessary.[1]

God creates other things to communicate his own goodness, but part of that goodness which he gives to other things is precisely his own propensity for bestowing goodness on others. Thus, in order for creatures to receive God’s goodness, they themselves must have things other than themselves onto whom they in their turn, yet in imitation of God, might pass on this goodness. The fulfillment of the nature of created things, therefore, necessitates the existence of things other than themselves towards whom they might manifest their (and their Creator’s) benevolence. Again, and as Thomas’s great Florentine student Dante well recognized, creation constitutes not a metaphysical tragedy, but a veritable “divine comedy”:

the greater the proportion of our love,

the more eternal goodness we receive;

the more souls there above who are in love

the more there are worth loving; love grows more,

each soul a mirror mutually mirroring.[2]


[1] Summa Contra Gentiles 2.45, trans. Anderson. “Quanto aliquid in pluribus est Deo simile, tanto perfectius ad eius similitudinem accedit . In Deo autem est bonitas, et diffusio bonitatis in alia. Perfectius igitur accedit res creata ad Dei similitudinem si non solum bona est sed etiam ad bonitatem aliorum agere potest, quam si solum in se bona esset: sicut similius est soli quod lucet et illuminat quam quod lucet tantum. Non autem posset creatura ad bonitatem alterius creaturae agere nisi esset in rebus creatis pluralitas et inaequalitas: quia agens est aliud a patiente, et honorabilius eo. Oportuit igitur, ad hoc quod in creaturis esset perfecta Dei imitatio, quod diversi gradus in creaturis invenirentur.”

[2] Dante, The Divine Comedy: Purgatorio 15.71-5, trans. Musa.

The Quadriga: Bonaventure’s Hermeneutics of Humility

Bonaventure’s Breviloquium, part 4

In his defense of the Quadriga or four-fold method of interpreting Scripture (literal, allegorical, tropoglocial, and anagogical), Bonaventure argues that this multiplicity of Scripture’s “mystical understandings” is “appropriate to the subject matter of Scripture, its hearer or student, its origin, and its end.” This one-in-many hermeneutic is fitted to the subject matter of Scripture insofar as Scripture gives us a Triune God who is one-in-many, a Christ through whom all things were first made and then re-made (a many-through-one), and a unified body of belief that nevertheless effectively communicates itself to the “differing states of believers” (a from-one-to-many).

As the final point indicates, Bonaventure also believes the Quadriga as a method of interpretation to be uniquely fitted to its hearer. As he explains:

For no one is a suitable hearer of Scripture without being humble, pure, faithful, and attentive. So, as a deterrent to pride, under the husk of the obvious literal meaning are hidden profound mystical understandings. This depth of meaning lying within the humble letter of the text abashes the arrogant, keeps out the unclean, drives away the deceitful, and arouses the idle to an understanding of the mysteries.

As Bonaventure would see it, an exclusively literal interpretation of Scripture lends itself to a certain pride, a confidence, that is, that the meaning of Scripture can be limited and so contained by the historical-grammatical intention of the text. Bonaventure’s concern is that, in the interest of chastening human speculation and fanciful readings of the text, such a narrow hermeneutic actually indulges in a different form of human arrogance, the assumption that the meaning and riches of the text are so much manna to be breezily gleaned from the ground, and little more. To Bonaventure’s mind, a recognition of the unfathomable allegorical, tropological, and anagogical depths of Scripture provides a check to such hermeneutical pride, and opens the text to a hermeneutical quest that must be as endless as the eternity  in which we will have to carry it out.

“The Hollow of His Hand”: Tolkien and Peter Damian’s Dialectic of Divine Presence

The issue of divine transcendence and immanence is an important one, I have argued before, for understanding appreciating the theology of Tolkien’s fiction. I’m fond of citing Tolkien’s claim, made in reply to W.H. Auden’s review of The Lord of the Rings, that the central conflict of the story is “about God, and his sole right to divine honour” (Letters no. 183). How is it that a story–in which its author deliberately and studiously avoids ever explicitly or unequivocally referring to God–be basically “about God”? At least part of the answer, I contend, has to do with Tolkien’s assumed metaphysical theology of divine presence: God’s supreme transcendence over creation and creation history isn’t in tension with his immanence, but is precisely the basis for his profound and universal ubiquity. Tolkien’s story doesn’t need to refer to God because, after its own fashion, it is always referring to God. As Tolkien writes in another letter, quoting favorably from one of his agnostic readers, his achievement was to “create a world in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like light from an invisible lamp” (Letters no. 328).

It is in the above spirit that I want to list a few passages comparing Tolkien and the eleventh-century theologian Peter Damian (1007-1072) on the issue of divine presence. The first passage is from Manwë’s vision at the end of the chapter “Of Aulë and Yavanna” from The Silmarillion, in which Manwë sees “that all was upheld by the hand of Ilúvatatar; and the hand entered in, and from it came forth many wonders that had until then been hidden from him [Manwë] in the hearts of the Ainur.” In this image, Ilúvatatar’s “hand” symbolizes both his transcendence over creation, sustaining it from without, as well as his immanence within creation, his ability, that is, to enter into it and miraculously, supernaturally intervene on its behalf.

A second, series of passages comes from the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, the “Debate of Finrod and Andreth” from Morgoth’s Ring (vol. 10 in The History of Middle-earth). In it the mortal woman Andreth reports a “rumour” among those men of the “old hope” that someday the Creator “will himself enter into Arda [the Earth], and heal Men and all the Marring from the beginning to the end.” Andreth doesn’t believe the rumour, however, asking the Elf-lord Finrod,

‘…How could Eru enter into the thing that He has made, and than which He is beyond measure greater? Can the singer enter into his tale or the designer into his picture?’
‘He is already in it, as well as outside,’ said Finrod. ‘But indeed the “in-dwelling” and the “out-living” are not in the same mode.’
‘Truly,’ said Andreth. ‘So may Eru in that mode be present in Ea that proceeded from Him. But they speak of Eru Himself entering into Arda, and that is a thing wholly different. How could He the greater do this? Would it not shatter Arda, or
indeed all Ea? ‘
‘Ask me not,’ said Finrod. ‘These things are beyond the compass of the wisdom of the Eldar, or of the Valar maybe. But I doubt that our words may mislead us, and that when you say “greater” you think of the dimensions of Arda, in which the greater vessel may not be contained in the less.
‘But such words may not be used of the Measureless. If Eru wished to do this, I do not doubt that He would find a way, though I cannot foresee it. For, as it seems to me, even if He in Himself were to enter in, He must still remain also as He is: the Author without.’

In his commentary on the Athrabeth, Tolkien elaborates further:

Eru Himself must at some time come to oppose Melkor. But Eru could not enter wholly into the world and its history, which is, however great, only a finite Drama. He must as Author always remain ‘outside’ the Drama, even
though that Drama depends on His design and His will for its beginning and continuance, in every detail and moment. Finrod therefore thinks that He will, when He comes, have to be both ‘outside’ and inside; and so he glimpses the possibility of complexity or of distinctions in the nature of Eru, which nonetheless leaves Him ‘The One’.  

And finally, in his note on the above commentary, Tolkien writes how the above dialectic of divine transcendence and immanence is

actually already glimpsed in the Ainulindalë, in which reference is made to the ‘Flame Imperishable’. This appears to mean 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. The Flame Imperishable is sent out from Eru, to dwell in the heart of the world, and the world then Is, on the same plane as the Ainur, and they can enter into it. But this is not, of course, the same as the re-entry of Eru to defeat Melkor. It refers rather to the mystery of ‘authorship’, by which the author, while remaining ‘outside’ and independent of his work, also ‘indwells’ in it, on its derivative plane, below that of his own being, as the source and guarantee of its being.

To turn, finally, to Peter Damian, the similarities of note between the following discussion of divine omnipresence and the above passages by Tolkien are his image of the “divine hand” and his container-metaphor for describing God’s presence both within and without creation. Damian writes:

he remains immanent and transcendent in relation to the throne on which he presides, for, by measuring the heavens with a span and gathering the earth in the hollow of his hand he demonstrates that on every side he is external to all the things that he has created. Whatever, in fact, is enclosed inside remains external to the container; hence, relative to the throne on which he sits, he is considered to be within and above; by the hollow of the hand in which he is enclosed, however, it is indicated that he is external and beneath. And since he remains within all, external to all, above all, and beyond all things, he is superior through his power, inferior by reason of his support, external relative to his greatness, and internal because of his subtle penetration.” (Peter Damian: Letters 91-120, 358-9)