From Music to Vision, from Vision to Eä

Metaphysics of the Music, part 43

To review my argument thus far about the “metaphysics of the Music,” we have seen that, in contradiction with the metaphysically tragic reading of Tolkien’s creation-myth, the Ainulindalë outlines a much more positive and eschatological movement. As I have further argued, it is a movement intended to dramatize, in part, a progression between what Tolkien distinguishes in his essay, on the one hand, as the mere contented, dream-like disinterest in the possibility of a mind-independent reality, and on the other hand, the awakening of the fairy-desire for real, mind-independent existence. Yet while Tolkien in his essay is hesitant to insist that our “primal desire” for the existence of things other than ourselves is any necessary indication of the way things actually are, as the Aristotelian tradition of Aquinas would maintain, the arousal of this “primal desire” would nevertheless be in vain if there were no means or hope of its existence being realized or fulfilled. As Tolkien in a related fashion writes of the Elves in his commentary on the Athrabeth, they “insisted that ‘desires’, especially such fundamental desires as are here dealt with, were to be taken as indications of the true natures of the Incarnates, and of the direction in which their unmarred fulfillment must lie” (Morgoth’s Ring 343). Thus, even more fundamental to the logic of the Ainulindalë, I contend, than the contrast between the Music and the Vision is the even more basic distinction, also found, as we shall see, in Tolkien’s essay, that this story dramatizes between the world as it exists in mere thought and the real, extra-mental existence the world comes to enjoy as a gift from the Creator himself.

It is this dialectic of mental versus extra-mental existence, for example, that we meet already on the opening page of Tolkien’s entire legendarium, where it is anticipated that “after the end of days… the themes of Ilúvatar shall be played aright, and take Being in the moment of their utterance, for all shall then understand fully his intent in their part, and each shall know the comprehension of each, and Ilúvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased” (Silmarillion 15-16, emphasis added). Behind and prior to the subversive music of Melkor, moreover, is his earlier idolatrous quest into the Void to find the “Flame Imperishable” of Ilúvatar whereby he might “bring into Being” the thoughts of his own mind (16). The antithesis between thought and reality receives further expression when Ilúvatar first informs the Ainur of his intention to create the world of Eä: “I know the desire of your minds that what ye have seen should verily be, not only in your thought, but even as ye yourselves are, and yet other” (20).[1] Ilúvatar even speaks somewhat diminishingly of both the Music and Vision together when he says how the Music had “been but the growth and flowering of thought in the Timeless Halls, and the Vision only a foreshowing,” whereas the task of the Valar, after the physical world has actually been created, is to “achieve it” (20, emphasis added). In the Athrabeth, finally—and almost in express contradiction of the claim reviewed earlier that there is an “unconscious decay of cosmological theory written into The Silmarillion” beginning with the Great Music and ending with Men and Elves—Finrod clearly presupposes the physical world’s metaphysical superiority over the Music and Vision when he tells Andreth that the “errand of Men” in history is “to enlarge the Music and surpass the Vision of the World!” (Morgoth’s Ring 318, emphasis added).


[1] Later on in The Silmarillion Ilúvatar repeats this point, reminding the Ainur how he “gave being to the thoughts of the Ainur at the beginning of the World…” (S 44). And a few pages later the contrast between the Music and Vision on the one hand and the actual history of the world is drawn in these terms: “Thus it was that the Valar found at last, as it were by chance, those whom they had so long awaited. And Oromë looking upon the Elves was filled with wonder, as though they were beings sudden and marvelous and unforeseen; for so it shall ever be with the Valar. From without the World, though all things may be forethought in music or foreshown in vision from afar, to those who enter verily into Eä each in its time shall be met at unawares as something new and unforetold” (S 49).

How the Vision “Saves” the Music

Metaphysics of the Music, part 42

Tolkien’s characterization in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” of the literary device of the Dream as a piece of “machinery” is also of some note. In Tolkien’s bestiary, of course, the Machine is typically a symbol of the tyrannical domination of nature. Yet the technological or instrumental mastery and manipulation of nature is not the only way in which one can exercise a kind of tyranny over things, for as Tolkien explains elsewhere in his essay, it is also possible to “appropriate” and “possess” things “mentally” or even artistically and aesthetically (Tolkien Reader 77). It is in this sense, I think, that the Dream “cheats” the primal desire for otherness: by deliberately suspending the question of the story’s reality or truthfulness, the Dream becomes a kind of instrument of intellectual domination, suppressing the objectifying otherness of the things and the world its story serves to relate. In this way, and as John Betz for example has argued in the case of Kant, “disinterest” in the aesthetic object’s mind-independent existence is really an indirect form of self-interest, and the refusal to recognize and enjoy the existence of an “other” becomes the occasion for a form of self-enjoyment.[1] One of the questions implicitly raised by the Ainur’s Music, consequently, is whether the temptation or at least possibility towards the “interested” and self-idolatrous quest of Melkor for the power to give being to his thoughts might already be latent within the kind of pure conceptual or mental mastery the Ainur enjoy and exercise in their Music. For as Betz again points out, in a passage evocative of  Melkor’s retreat to the Void to seek the Imperishable Flame, or his refusal later in the legendarium to leave the endless halls of his subterranean kingdom, Angband, “once beauty no longer inspires a sense of transcendence, a love for an other, it can only conduct one more deeply and despairingly into the chambers of the modern subject and its ‘horizons’, i.e., into the bad infinite of its ‘mirror halls’.”[2] At the risk of overstatement, there would seem to be a very limited yet important respect in which the Ainur’s Vision of the physical world in all its desirable otherness not only fulfills and surpasses the disinterested conceptuality of their Music, but in doing so possibly even saves them from it.


[1] Betz, “Beyond the Sublime,” 379.

[2] Ibid.

Tolkien’s Thomistic realism vs. modern idealism

Metaphysics of the Music, part 41

In the previous post I compared Tolkien’s and Chesterton’s “metaphysics of the Dream.” Also of interest here is the way Tolkien develops in his essay the implicit realism of fairy-stories—as Chesterton does the metaphysical “vision” of St. Thomas—in juxtaposition with the idealism of modern philosophy, a passage that more than one commentator has related back to Tolkien’s own unspoken Thomism. In saying that fairy-stories accomplish a “regaining of a clear view” of things, Tolkien explains that he does not necessarily mean “‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’—as things apart from ourselves” (Tolkien Reader 77). Commenting on this passage, Paul Kocher has suggested that the “philosophers” Tolkien probably has in mind are “those of the idealist school from Berkeley down to our modern phenomenologists who, each in his own way, echo Coleridge’s dejection, ‘…we receive but what we give / And in our life alone does Nature live.’”[1] As Kocher goes on to argue, his assumed posture of reticence notwithstanding, Tolkien of course cannot and ultimately has no intention to “escape metaphysics,” and what is more, that the metaphysics behind Tolkien’s philosophy of fairy-stories is “best understood when viewed in the context of the natural theology of Thomas Aquinas…”[2] More recently, however, Alison Milbank has commented on this same passage from Tolkien’s essay, this time explicitly contrasting the realist metaphysics common to St. Thomas, Maritain, Chesterton, and Tolkien, with the idealism of Kant in particular, and in the process introducing a further dimension to the problem represented by idealist metaphysics and its corresponding aesthetics:

The “things in themselves” to which Tolkien alludes are those elements of phenomena to which Kant, a critical idealist, believes we have no access, and to which he gives the term, “noumena.” Despite his apologetic tone, Tolkien is actually saying something quite radical: that fiction in the form of fantastic recreation of the world can give us access to the real by freeing the world of objects from our appropriation of them. Maritain states that Kant’s mistake was in believing “that the act of knowing consists in creating the other, not in becoming the other, he foolishly reversed the order of dependence between the object of knowledge and the human intellect and made the human intellect the measure and law of the object.”[3]


[1] Kocher, Master of Middle-earth: the Fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien, 76-7.

[2] Ibid., 77.

[3] Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 19.

Chesterton on the “Dream” vs. the “Vision”

Metaphysics of the Music, part 40

In the last few posts I have been developing a possible parallel between the differences between the Music and the Vision of the Ainur, and the opposition Tolkien constructs between the Dream and the Fairy-Story in his essay. Like the Dream, the Ainur’s Music possessed a kind of “perfectly self-contained significance,” but did not clearly point to any reality beyond itself. Instead, the Ainur “knew not that it had any purpose beyond its own beauty.” The Ainur’s Vision, by contrast, is more redolent of Tolkien’s remarks about fairy-stories in their suggestion of and eliciting of a desire for realities, worlds, and realms outside or beyond oneself. I’ve noted, furthermore, this same opposition between the Dream and true Art in Tolkien’s fellow 20th century Thomists Jacques Maritain and, under his direct influence, American novelist Flannery O’Connor.

It is in another reader of Maritain, however, that the most suggestive reference to the dream-image for our consideration of Tolkien appears. In his biography of St. Thomas, Chesterton writes:

That strangeness of things, which is the light in all poetry, and indeed in all art, is really connected with their otherness; or what is called their objectivity. What is subjective must be stale; it is exactly what is objective that is in this imaginative manner strange. In this the great contemplative is the complete contrast of the false contemplative, the mystic who looks only into his own soul, the selfish artist who shrinks from the world and lives only in his own mind. According to St. Thomas, the mind acts freely of itself, but its freedom exactly consists in finding a way out to liberty and the light of day; to reality and the land of the living. In the subjectivist, the pressure of the world forces the imagination inwards. In the Thomist, the energy of the mind forces the imagination outwards, but because the images it seeks are real things. All their romance and glamour, so to speak, lies in the fact that they are real things; things not to be found by staring inwards at the mind. The flower is a vision because it is not only a vision. Or, if you will, it is a vision because it is not a dream.[1]

Whether Tolkien ever read Chesterton’s biography of St. Thomas is not known for sure, yet the antithesis Chesterton draws between the vision and the dream as metaphors for the opposition between the subjective idealism of much modern aesthetics and the metaphysical realism of Thomas’s aesthetics is certainly striking, and would seem to corroborate further my suggestion that behind the relationship between the Ainur’s Music and Vision is the Dream/fairy-story polarity of Tolkien’s essay.[2] In contrast to the Music, after all, the Ainur’s Vision illustrates Tolkien’s belief that fairy-stories tap into a “primal desire” inherent in human beings, namely that, whatever the reality might be, there at least should exist things other than ourselves. Where the question of desire is concerned, therefore, the Music would seem to be more akin to the Dream in the limited sense that in it the Ainur’s desire-for-the-other, if not exactly “cheated,” at least goes unrecognized, to say nothing of it being unrealized. The Music was certainly beautiful for its time, “unlocking strange powers” in the minds of the Ainur, yet the logic of the Ainulindalë is hard to mistake: had Ilúvatar followed the Vision, not with the creation of the actual, physical world, but instead with a repetition of the Music which had preceded it, the Ainur would have perceived its self-contained, disinterested beauty by comparison as a mere “figment or illusion,” i.e., as a dream.


[1] Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas: “The Dumb Ox,” 182-3.

[2] The sequencing of the publication of Chesterton’s biography of St. Thomas in 1933, Tolkien’s Andrew Lang address “On Fairy-Stories” at the University of St. Andrews in 1939, and his revision of the Ainulindalë in the early 1950s to give the Vision (now named for the first time as such) a much more prominent place in the narrative (MR 24-6), is consistent at any rate with the possibility of Tolkien having read and been influenced by Chesterton’s biography.

Tolkienian Fairy-Story and Nietzschean Tragedy

Metaphysics of the Music, part 39

Tolkien’s critique of the dream-device in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” might be further compared with Nietzsche’s similar critique in The Birth of Tragedy of the dramatic prologue introduced by Euripides into ancient Greek tragedy. Similar to Tolkien’s remarks on the Dream, Nietzsche speaks of the Euripidean prologue as depriving man of the exercise of an human emotion or experience which he believes to be foundational to man’s being. For Nietzsche, of course, it is not the experience that Tolkien hungers for, namely the desire or hope that the imaginatively and marvelous worlds of Faërie should be made real, a hope that ends in joy in the metaphysical event of the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus. Rather, Nietzsche speaks of the tragic prologue as “interfering” with the audience’s pathos, passion, and “pleasurable absorption” in the tragic, Dionysian scenes being represented on the stage. With the introduction of the Euripidean prologue, “[s]o long as the spectator has to figure out the meaning of this or that person, or the presuppositions of this or that conflict of inclinations and purposes, he cannot become completely absorbed in the activities and sufferings of the chief characters or feel breathless pity and fear” (The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Kaufmann, 84). For both Tolkien and Nietzsche, the artistic experience is ultimately about man being reminded of and reconciled to the ultimate nature of things, of allowing ultimate reality, however conceived, to break into man’s routine existence and to revisit and revivify the ordinary with a sense of the extraordinary. It is this fundamental openness to a transcendent (in Tolkien’s case) or immanent/subterranean (in Nietzche’s) reality that the dream-device for Tolkien and the Euripidean prologue for Nietzsche work to impede.

Aquinas vs. Augustine on The Metaphysics of the Dream

Metaphysics of the Music, part 38

The previous post compared Tolkien’s rejection of the Dream as a legitimate framing device for the authentic fairy-story, with Jacques Maritain’s contrast between the lawlike character of genuine artistic inspiration and the dark unreason of dreams. Ironically, the negative associations of the dream-image for these two Thomists stands in opposition to the much more positive connotations it enjoys, for example, in the word’s first appearance in the Summa Theologiae. Using dream as an analogy for the redeemed human soul’s superior, post-mortem, disembodied, and hence abstract knowledge of God in his essence, Thomas writes:

the more our soul is abstracted from corporeal things, the more it is capable of receiving abstract intelligible things. Hence in dreams and withdrawals from the bodily senses divine revelations and foresight of future events are perceived the more clearly. It is not possible, therefore, that the soul in this mortal life should be raised up to the uttermost of intelligible objects, that is, to the divine essence. (ST1.12.11)

For Augustine, however, and notwithstanding his own tendency to view the physical realm along the “tragic” lines he inherited from Neoplatonism, the dream was a metaphor for the diminished degree of reality things have in the mind in comparison to the reality they have in the real world: “everything that occurs in the spirit is not necessarily better than everything that occurs in the body. The true is better than the false. Thus a real tree is better than a tree in a dream, although a dream is in the mind” (De musica 6.7).

Music or Vision, Dream or Art

Metaphysics of the Music, part 37

This issue of desiring things for their otherness—conjured in the Vision but conspicuously absent, in retrospect, from the Music—may be further related to the literary distinction Tolkien draws in his essay between fairy-stories and what he calls the “Dream.” As Tolkien explains, the Dream and the fairy-story are alike in that in both “strange powers of the mind may be unlocked,” yet Tolkien says he would nevertheless strongly distinguish the two and “condemn” the Dream as

gravely defective: like a good picture in a disfiguring frame… [I]f a waking writer tells you that his tale is only a thing imagined in his sleep, he cheats deliberately the primal desire at the heart of Faërie: the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder… It is at any rate essential to a genuine fairy-story, as distinct from the employment of this form for lesser or debased purposes, that it should be presented as “true.” … But since the fairy-story deals with “marvels,” it cannot tolerate any frame or machinery suggesting that the whole story in which they occur is a figment or illusion. (Tolkien Reader 41-2)

Tolkien’s argument concerning the dream-device is interesting on a number of levels, one of which is its link to other literary Thomists of his day for whom the dream symbolized the antithesis of true art. In Art and Scholasticism, Jacques Maritain had contrasted genuine artistic inspiration—defined along the Thomistic lines of “reason superelevated by an instinct of divine origin when it is a question of human works ruled according to a higher measure”—with the mere “seeking the law of the work… in dream and in the whole organic night below the level of reason…”[1] This concern, as we have just seen, Tolkien parallels in his point about how “strange powers of the mind may be unlocked” in dreams. Under the direct influence of Maritain, for American novelist and self-described “hill-billy Thomist” Flannery O’Connor, the dream-image was less a metaphor for a sub-rational and therefore illegitimate source of artistic inspiration, so much as a symbol of the artist’s temptation to impose his own alien purposes (whether rational or otherwise) onto the work of art, rather than letting the work’s own form come to the fore. As O’Connor explains to one correspondent to whom she had sent a copy of Art and Scholasticism: “Strangle that word dreams. You don’t dream up a form and put the truth in it. The truth creates its own form. Form is necessity in the work of art.”[2] Finally, John Milbank, in his essay-review of Rowan Williams’s Grace and Necessity, a study on Maritain’s influence on twentieth-century Catholic authors and writers such as O’Connor, has similarly touched on the specifically realist dimension of Tolkien’s fairy-story/dream antithesis when he comments on how “the metaphorical presence of one thing in another alien thing has to be related back to the distinctness of temporal and spatial finite realities if art is to exceed dream.”[3]


[1] Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 183n101.

[2] O’Connor, The Habit of Being, 218. In an earlier letter to the same correspondent, O’Connor had written: “The artist dreams no dreams. That is precisely what he does not do, as you very well know. Every dream is an obstruction to his work.” Ibid., 216.

[3] Milbank, “Scholasticism, Modernism and Modernity,” 656-7.