The Metaphysics of the Vision

Metaphysics of the Music, part 27

In addition to this progressive, eschatological element within the Music, and again, notwithstanding the exceeding level of beauty already accomplished within it, Tolkien depicts a similar transformation from glory to greater glory as taking place in the transition from the Music to the Ainur’s Vision of the world’s history following after it. In comparison with the attention that has been given to the Music, the Ainur’s Vision has been a much neglected subject in discussions of the Ainulindalë, yet it is not at all apparent that the Vision is any less important than the Music where the underlying metaphysics of Tolkien’s mythology is concerned. In the earliest editions of the Ainulindalë Eru had created the world, unbeknownst to the Ainur at the time, simultaneously with their playing and singing of the Music, with the Vision of the world’s history being given only after the fact. In the revised edition published in The Silmarillion, Tolkien heightens the dramatic role of the Vision by placing it between the Music and the actual creation of the world. On the one hand, the Vision represents simply a visual counterpart to the Music, as when Ilúvatar tells the Ainur that in the Vision he has merely given them “sight where before was only hearing,” and a little later, when he further explains that “each of you shall find contained herein, amid the design that I set before you, all those things which it may seem that he himself devised or added” (Silmarillion 17, emphasis added). As the Ainur quickly realize, however, the Vision is no mere superfluous repetition of the Music, but goes radically beyond the Music in its representation of a reality not at all anticipated by the Music. We see this, for example, in the Ainur’s differing responses to these two stages of the creation-process. Contrary to the nascent avarice and presumption of Melkor, who alone during the Music foresees the possibility of his thoughts being given their own existence, the humility of the rest of the Ainur is reflected in their utter astonishment at the Vision:

And so it was that as this vision of the World was played before them, the Ainur saw that it contained things which they had not thought. And they saw with amazement the coming of the Children of Ilúvatar, and the habitation that was prepared for them; and they perceived that they themselves in the labour of their music had been busy with the preparation of this dwelling, and yet knew not that it had any purpose beyond its own beauty. (18)

Not only does the Vision, then, contain “all those things” which the Ainur “devised or added” in the Music, it also contains “things which they had not thought” in the Music.

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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).

Through, not by

In a recent post I quoted the passage from The Book of Lost Tales version of the Ainulindalë in which Ilúvatar states that it is “through” Melkor and “not by him” that much good will be brought about as a consequence of his evil. This logic of “through, not by” is something of a motif in the opening books of Augustine’s Confessions as the Bishop of Hippo tries to understand God’s mysterious agency and working of grace in his pre-converted life. Thus, in book one, speaking of the nourishing milk he received from his nurses, observes that “the good which came to me from them was a good for them; yet it was not from them but through them” (bonum erat eis bonum meum ex eis, quod ex eis non sed per eas erat–1.6.7).

Sovereignty and evil in the Ainulindale

The Ainulindalë contains what is undoubtedly one of the best literary treatments of the relationship of divine sovereignty, providence, or predestination on the one hand, and creaturely freedom and the so-called “problem of evil” on the other (indeed, even measured as a philosophical statement of these issues, the Ainulindalë doesn’t fare too badly). In the early version from The Book of Lost Tales, the Creator Ilúvatar’s explanation to the diabolus Melko(r) concerning the former’s supremacy and purpose over all that transpires is even more explicit and expanded (even if somewhat less poetical). In addition to the logos and pathos of the passage, it is remarkable also to bear in mind it’s author’s ethos. The following was penned sometime between 1918 and 1920 (during Tolkien’s stint working on the Oxford English Dictionary), and hence within a couple of years of when Tolkien had directly experienced the horrors of the Great War and in which, as he himself would later observe, all but one of his closest friends had been killed:

“Thou Melko shalt see that no theme can be played save it come in the end of Ilúvatar’s self, nor can any alter the music in Ilúvatar’s despite. He that attempts this finds himself in the end but aiding me in devising a thing of still greater grandeur and more complex wonder: –for lo! through Melko have terror as fire, and sorrow like dark waters, wrath like thunder, and evil as far from my light as the depths of the uttermost of the dark places, come into the design that I laid before you. Through him has pain and misery been made in the clash of overwhleming musics; and with confusion of sound have cruelty, and ravening, and darkness, loathly mire and all putrescence of thought or thing, foul mists and violent flame, cold without mercy, been born, and death without hope. Yet is this through him and not by him; and he shall see, and ye all likewise, and even shall those beings, who must now dwell among his evil and endure through Melko misery and sorrow, terror and wickedness, declare in the end that it redoundeth only to my great glory, and doth but make the theme more worth the hearing, Life more worth the living, and the World so much the more wonderful and marvellous, that of all the deeds of Ilúvatar it shall be called his mightiest and his loveliest.” (LT 55, emphasis added)