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).

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