i estaina ná Ilúvatar Ardassë;
ar ónes minyavë Ainur,
i ner i híni sanweryo,
ar nentë ósë nó ilúvë ontaina né.
There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. (The Silmarillion, p. 15)
Thus begins the Ainulindalë (“music of the Ainur”)–the great elven tale of Eru’s creation of the world, Arda. The manuscript history of the tale is difficult and controverted. One ancient tradition attributes the written form of the tale to Rúmil of Tiron, who presumably learned its substance directly from the Valar. The Ainulindalë thus represents the most important ancient testimony to the creation of the cosmos, second in authority only to the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. It describes the process of divine creation in five stages:
1. The creation of the Ainur.
2. The communication by Eru of his Design to the Ainur.
3. The Great Music, which was as it were a rehearsal, and remained in the stage of thought or imagination.
4. The ‘Vision’ of Eru, which was again only a foreshowing of possibility, and was incomplete.
5. The Achievement, which is still going on.
(Tolkien’s commentary on Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, in Morgoth’s Ring, p. 337)
The Ainulindalë explicitly identifies the initial step of God’s creative work as the making of the Ainur, “the offspring of his thought.” Like the angels of the Christian tradition, the Ainur are disembodied beings, “rational spirits or minds without incarnation, created before the physical world” (J. R. R. Tolkien, Letter 212). We may think of them as filling in a metaphysical gap, as it were, between the transcendent One and physical beings.
St Thomas Aquinas suggests that angels are necessary to the perfection and beauty of the cosmos:
I answer that, There must be some incorporeal creatures. For what is principally intended by God in creatures is good, and this consists in assimilation to God Himself. And the perfect assimilation of an effect to a cause is accomplished when the effect imitates the cause according to that whereby the cause produces the effect; as heat makes heat. Now, God produces the creature by His intellect and will (14, 8; 19, 4). Hence the perfection of the universe requires that there should be intellectual creatures. Now intelligence cannot be the action of a body, nor of any corporeal faculty; for every body is limited to “here” and “now.” Hence the perfection of the universe requires the existence of an incorporeal creature. (ST I.50.1)
Jonathan McIntosh elaborates:
Angels are important to Aquinas not only for the light they shed on man, but … because they fill an ontological gap that would otherwise intervene between God and man if they did not exist. As intelligent beings that are both incorporeal (being spiritual substances that are not naturally united to a body) and immaterial (being pure form without any adjoining matter), angels represent a real ontological possibility that, while fundamentally related to human beings, is nevertheless not instantiated or fulfilled by them, so that their existence is necessary for the perfection of the created order as God has made it (ST 1.50.1-2). (The Flame Imperishable, p. 187)
One might even say, if angels did not exist, God would “need” to invent them. The necessity here is not so much metaphysical but aesthetic. It is befitting, given the shape and structure of the cosmos, that angels should exist (also see “Morning Stars of Creation“).
In the Middle Ages scholastic theologians debated whether the angels were composed of matter and form or were pure spirit, surpassing the form/matter distinction. St Bonaventure affirmed the former, positing a difference between the spiritual matter of angels and the corporeal matter of human beings. Only God, in his utter simplicity, transcends form and matter. To be a creature is to be hylomorphic (see David Keck, Angels and Angelology in the Middle Ages, pp. 93-98). Thomas, on the other hand, affirmed the latter: angels are incorporeal substances; they are not intrinsically united to bodies and do not acquire their knowledge through sensory perception. Keck explains the difference between the Seraphic Doctor and the Angelic Doctor:
For Aquinas, matter is equivalent to corporeality; he considers matter as it is already in existence in the world. For Bonaventure, matter is a metaphysical construct that is equivalent to indeterminate potency, something capable of being rendered into existence by being joined to a form. Thus for him matter is capable of being either spiritual (if joined to a spiritual form) or corporeal (if joined to a corporeal form), whereas for Aquinas “matter” is always corporeal. (p. 99)
Aquinas would agree with Bonaventure that angels are metaphysically composite beings, but he locates the composition differently: like all other creatures, angels are a compound of existence and essence. They need not exist. They do not possess being within themselves but receive it as a gift from the holy Transcendence.
While it would be anachronistic to insert the Ainulindalë into the scholastic debate, the Ainur appear to be somewhat closer to the vision of Aquinas than Bonaventure. Tolkien describes the Ainur as ëalar (beings, subsistences), discarnate spirits who exist independently of matter, in contrast to elves and men who are composed of fëar (souls) and hröar (bodies). For both incarnate races, the separation of fëa and hröa is unnatural. From the moment of their creation, both races were united “in the association of fëar with, or ‘housing’ them in, hröar belonging to Eä, in such a way that either were incomplete without the others. But the fëar were not spirits of a wholly different kind to the Ainur; whereas the bodies were of a kind closely akin to the bodies of living things already in the primary design (even if adapted to their new function, or modified by the indwelling fëar)” (MR, p. 337).
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I dedicate this series to my beloved son Aaron. He loved The Silmarillion. He read it multiple times, knew the stories and genealogies inside-and-out. We had many conversations about things Tolkien. May his memory be eternal.