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).

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Creation as Decay in the Music of the Ainur

Metaphysics of the Music, part 10

It is in similar, metaphysically tragic terms that Bradford Eden, in his Boethian interpretation of Tolkien, understands the relationship between the Ainur’s Music and the subsequent phases of creation. As we saw earlier, Boethius recognizes three specific kinds of music: cosmic, human or vocal, and instrumental. In Eden’s hands, however, Boethius’s threefold classification becomes also a Neoplatonic progression, or rather digression, from highest to lowest, and the pattern around which the entire subsequent history of Middle-earth is allegedly structured:

The gradations of music’s power in Middle-earth from its appearance in the first page of The Silmarillion all the way down to the Fourth Age in The Lord of the Rings reflects a Neoplatonic hierarchy of being, from the highest form of music, universal or comic [sic] music, down to human/vocal music, and then down to instrumental music. This chain of musical being also embodies the diminution of cosmic love/harmony that ends with the most material and literal, in the instruments of Man. (Eden, “The ‘Music of the Spheres’,” 192)

Again, according to Eden the pattern in Tolkien’s creation-story is a pattern of metaphysical corruption or dilution of being, a “diminution of cosmic love/harmony that ends with the most material and literal.” Pressing the point further, Eden writes:

There may be an unconscious decay of cosmological theory written into The Silmarillion that can only be detected by one who is knowledgeable about the entire mythological reality that is Middle-earth. Each theoretical step taken away from the “Great Music,” which set everything into motion, is a slow descent away from “the divine.” This is a strong thread throughout the writings of Plato and Aristotle, that each gradation and division of music away from the “pure” or “universal” results in a type of gradual descent downward in spirit and soul…. Elves and Men are farther away in both time and space from the “music of the spheres” and closer to the third and lower type of music in the Third Age. (190-1)

On this Platonic reading of Tolkien, each subsequent stage of his creation-account and subsequent mythical history involves a necessary “decay,” a “descent downward” or falling away from the “pure” and “divine” origins of the Music of the Ainur, so that physical reality itself finally emerges, as it does for Plotinus, as a veritable metaphysical catastrophe or accident, necessary yet regrettable.

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.

Some early observations on Tolkien’s Augustinian doctrine of evil

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 6

As John Houghton and Neal Keesee have documented, Tolkien’s readers realized early on that his portrayal of evil in The Lord of the Rings belongs to a wider and older philosophical tradition. Rose Zimbardo remarked in 1969, for example, that, “[a]s in St. Augustine’s, so in Tolkien’s vision, nothing is created evil. Evil is good that has been perverted,”[1] and Clyde Kilby’s made the observation in 1970 that, in regard to Tolkien’s work, “we can mention the inability of evil to create anything but only to mock… Philosophers and theologians have often noted the inessentiality of evil.”[2] To this early consensus concerning the Augustinianism of Tolkien’s ponerology we may also add the following testimony of Paul Kocher, who wrote in 1972:

Some of Thomas’ less specifically Christian propositions about the nature of evil seem highly congruent with those which Tolkien expresses or implies in laymen’s terms in The Lord of the Rings… Literally and figuratively, light is exchanged for darkness. Sauron’s every change is a deterioration from those good and healthy norms which he began. Aquinas would call them all losses of Being. Evil is not a thing in itself but a lessening of the Being inherent in the created order… [T]he losses cry out for ontological interpretation…. Over and over Tolkien’s own words connect Sauron and his servants with a nothingness that is the philosophical opposite of Being.[3]

For Tolkien as for Augustine, Boethius, and Thomas, evil is non-being, which is to say, it is nothing.


[1] Houghton and Keesee, “Tolkien, King Alfred, and Boethius: Platonist Views of Evil in The Lord of the Rings,” 131, citing Zimbardo, “Moral Vision in The Lord of the Rings,” 73.

[2] Houghton and Keesee, “Tolkien, King Alfred, and Boethius,” 151n1, citing John Warwick Montgomery, ed., Myth, Allegory and Gospel: An Interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and Charles Williams (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1974), 138.

[3] Kocher, Master of Middle-earth: The Fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien, 77-9.

Free will and sub-creation

The concepts of sub-creation and free will are very closely associated in Tolkien’s mind, and in at least one place he uses them almost interchangeably: “having mentioned Free Will, I might say that in my myth I have used ‘subcreation’ in a special way… Free Will is derivative, and is [therefore] only operative within provided circumstances…” (Letters #153). As the paradigmatic instance of free will, sub-creation becomes for Tolkien something of a model for free action in general. Human praxis, as it were, is a kind of human poesis–human doing a form of human making–inasmuch as every human action seeks to bring about an alternative state of affairs, and therefore to realize an alternative, “secondary world” or reality to the one currently realized. (As Frodo and Sam realize on the stairs of Cirith Ungol, their own heroic quest to destroy the Ring of Sauron and so save Middle-earth is in fact part of an ancient and on-going “tale” that never ends, “[b]ut the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended.”)

The theme of free will, and especially its relationship to divine providence, has received a good deal of attention in the literature on Tolkien, but what I’m presently interested in here (as usual) is the uniquely metaphysical approach Tolkien also takes to this important issue, an approach that, again, leads one back to his Thomistic doctrine of creation.[1] For Tolkien, not only does sub-creative free will dimly mirror the freedom the Creator himself enjoys in the act of creation, but as with its specific application in sub-creation, creaturely free will is likewise wholly dependent for its very existence and exercise upon divine providence. This dependence, however, involves much more than the Creator passively “allowing” or “permitting” his creatures to make their own choices about things (though Tolkien will also speak of the Creator as “accepting” or “permitting” creaturely sub-creating or “Making” when it is used for evil purposes).[2] As Tolkien puts it, free will is not absolute but “derivative,” being “only operative within provided circumstances,” namely, those circumstances in which the Creator himself “should guarantee it” by giving it the “reality of creation.” It is something like this radical sense of causal dependency that the Ainulindalë hints at on its opening page when Ilúvatar invites the Ainur to develop their Music, explaining to them that “since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will” (S 15, emphasis added). For Tolkien, creaturely freedom is not and cannot be threatened by divine providence, for it is the divine Creator who first brings the creaturely free will into being and by whose providence the individual will, its intentions, and its consequent, real-world effects, are continuously and actively kept in being.


[1] On the relationship between free will and divine providence in Tolkien, see Daniel Timmons’s article “Free Will” and attached bibliography in Drout, ed. J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia.

[2] See, for example, Letters 190n, 195, and 259.

The truth of myth

Another point of contrast between Plato and Tolkien concerns the conflicting evaluations of the truth-capacity of myth implied in their respective metaphysics.  Gergely Nagy has observed that “Plato, like Tolkien, draws heavily on traditional myths, also including his own ‘myths’ (nowhere else attested and probably written by him) in his dialogues,” and says that this parallels Tolkien’s “mythopoeic enterprise” in its ultimate aim of “show[ing] ‘truth,’ in Plato always expressed in mythic scenes and language…” (“Plato,” in Drout, ed.,J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, 513). Similarly, Frank Weinreich emphasizes Tolkien’s debt to Plato for his “metaphysics of myth” when he writes how the “quintessence of Tolkien’s ontology” behind his theory of myth is “at the core a Platonic one” (“Metaphysics of Myth: The Platonic Ontololgy of ‘Mythopoeia’,” 325). For Plato, however, the philosopher uses myths not out of choice, but of necessity. As the principle is stated in the Timaeus, “the accounts we give of things have the same character as the subjects they set forth” (29b), meaning that just as the world (on account of the ananke or constraint of its pre-existing matter) only ever achieves a tragically partial and thus never fully-realized participation in the divine, so the “likely story” (eikos mythos) that Timaeus has to tell about the origins of the cosmos achieves at best a tragic likeness to the ideal logos or rational account that the philosopher would prefer.

In Tolkien’s creation-myth, by contrast, and following the Christian doctrine of creation, while the world’s participation in the divine is limited by its finitude, because creation is nevertheless from nothing, the world—including its matter—has its entire existence through a participation in and likeness of the divine without remainder. For Tolkien, in short, the world in its entirety is a story about the divine, a metaphysical reality that at least in principle allows the stories or myths we tell about the world a much greater participation in the truth that remains to be told about that world. As Tolkien puts it in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” myth is no mere “disease of language” (TR 48), but given the inherent and irreducibly storied structure of reality itself, is a uniquely privileged way of communicating the truth of that reality. Indeed, for Tolkien it is through such myth-telling that reality for the first time comes into its own, accomplishing by God’s own ordination the “effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation” (TR 89).

Tolkien’s use of interlace, sorta

*** West, Richard C. “The Interlace Structure of The Lord of the Rings.” In A Tolkien Compass, ed. Jared Lobdell. Open Court, 2003. An early study of Tolkien’s now well-known use of the “interlace” technique. In West’s lengthy definition,

Interlace … seeks to mirror the perception of the flux of events in the world around us, where everything is happening at once. Its narrative line is digressive and cluttered, dividing our attention among an indefinite number of events, characters, and themes, any one of which may dominate at any given time, and it is often indifferent to cause and effect relationships. The paths of the characters cross, diverge, and recross, and the story passes from one to another and then another but does not follow a single line. Also, the narrator implies that there are innumerable events that he has not had time to tell us about; moreover, no attempt is made to provide a clear-cut beginning or end to the story. We feel that we have interrupted the chaotic activity of the world at a certain point and followed a selection from it for a time, and that after we leave, it continues on it its own random path.

West identifies Tolkien’s use of the interlace structure as a characteristically medieval literary technique, although he suggests that Tolkien’s use of it may have been due less to direct influence than to the inherent exigencies of his fiction: “He may simply have reinvented the interlace to accommodate the story he had to tell: the nature of his material requires just such a form.” (I especially appreciated West’s rehearsal of Tolkien’s own remark that, although “medieval studies fertilized his imagination,… his typical response upon reading a medieval work was to desire not so much to make a philological or critical study of it as to write a modern work in the same tradition.” Would that more scholarship were conducted so!) Perhaps the clearest example of interlace cited by West is Frodo’s dream in the house of Bombadil of Gandalf’s rescue by Gwaihir from Saruman’s imprisonment of him on the top of Tower of Isengard.

West’s definition of interlace is perhaps over-broad, as he comes to include under its rubric virtually any technique used by Tolkien to lend unity and coherence to his narrative. Thus, the complex causal chain leading up to crucial events in the LOTR, the numerous prophecies fulfilled in the course of the story, the mythological background and “untold stories” giving Tolkien’s world its depth, the use of thematic interweave, repetition, foreshadowing, typology, and what West calls narrative “open-endedness”; all of these are hailed as so many instances and varieties of the interlace technique. As a study of the interlace structure in the LOTR, consequently, West’s treatment is somewhat blunted or distracted, but otherwise his analysis of the work is quite accurate and insightful. As Tom Shippey puts it in his foreword to the 2003 reprint of this collection, in terms of the presence of interlace in the LOTR, subsequent scholarship has proven West to be more right than he knows, noting in particular “Tolkien’s deliberate cross-referencing from one area of plot to another, indicated by careful remarks about dates, times, and the phases of the moon, but West’s work is a good place to start.”