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. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad. But for a long while they sang only each alone, or but few together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly. Yet ever as they listened they came to deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony.
And it came to pass that Ilúvatar called together all the Ainur and declared to them a mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed; and the glory of its beginning and the splendour of its end amazed the Ainur, so that they bowed before Ilúvatar and were silent.
Then said Ilúvatar: ‘Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. And 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. But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song.’
Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void. Never since have the Ainur made any music like to this music, though it has been said that a greater still shall be made before Ilúvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar after the end of days. Then 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. (The Silmarillion, pp. 3-4)
“In the beginning,” the holy prophet declares, “Elohim [God] created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And Elohim said …” With a mere word the Lord Almighty speaks the universe into being: “Let there be light,” and there is light. “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters.” “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to separate the day from the night”–and so it was and is. Elohim commands, and the chaos obeys. Potentiality becomes actuality. The creation story of Genesis 1 stands out starkly from the ancient Near Eastern myths that preceded and succeeded it. The Babylonian myth, for example, speaks of a great battle between Tiamat, the dragon mother of the gods, and Marduk, the god of rain and storm. Marduk slays Tiamat, splits her body in half and from it creates the heavens and the earth. New creation is achieved through struggle and death. Such are the necessities of existence. Into this world of deities, violence, and blood, a new story is spoken, of the one God, the maker of heaven and earth. This God need only speak, and the cosmos appears; he need only command, and nature obeys. The only necessity is his sovereign will.
But millennia before humanity fell into polytheistic belief and ages before Elohim revealed himself to Abraham, Moses, and the prophets, the first-created race, the Quendi (translated by Tolkien as “Elves”), also spoke of the one Creator and his making of the world. They called him Eru (“The One,” “He that is Alone”) and Ilúvatar (“Father of All”). A comparison of the biblical and Elvish accounts confirms that Eru and Elohim name the same transcendent Deity (see Kevin R. Hensler, “God and Ilúvatar“).
Though notable differences exist between the Ainulindalë and Genesis, perhaps the most striking–and certainly the most profound–is the former’s introduction of the divine music. Whereas Elohim speaks, Eru sings. The Silmarillion text does not explicitly state that Eru sings the Ainur into being, but it is mentioned in another ancient manuscript:
Then said Rúmil: ‘Hear now things that have not been heard among Men, and the Elves speak seldom of them; yet did Manwë Súlimo, Lord of Elves and Men, whisper them to the fathers of my father in the deeps of time. Behold, Ilúvatar dwelt alone. Before all things he sang into being the Ainur first, and greatest is their power and glory of all his creatures within the world and without. Thereafter he fashioned them dwellings in the void, and dwelt among them, teaching them all manner of things, and the greatest of these was music.’ (“The Music of the Ainur,” The Book of Lost Tales, I:52; emphasis mine)
Scholars debate whether this version of the creation story represents a second and independent Elven tradition or a corruption of the original Silmarillion tradition; but both traditions witness to the eternal music of the One.
Eru opens his mind to the Ainur and instructs them in his music. The Ainulindalë states that he propounded to them various themes, which they in turn sing to him, each according to their limited understanding; “for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly. Yet ever as they listened they came to deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony.” Through practice and careful attention, they grow together as a divine choir. When they are ready, Eru reveals to them an even more beautiful theme. “The glory of its beginning and the splendour of its end amazed the Ainur, so that they bowed before Ilúvatar and were silent.” To experience the divine music is to be drawn into the transcendent beauty that is God.
Eru invites the Ainur to improvise upon this great theme he has taught them, not just to repeat it but to add to it, “each with his own thoughts and devices.” This is a remarkable passage. Not only are the Ainur given to participate in the music of their Creator–and thus in his divine life–but they are given the freedom to sub-create, to adorn and develop the theme in new ways, much as a symphonic composer will modify a theme through the course of a movement, introducing new motifs and variations, harmonies and tone colors.
I find the image of divine music powerfully evocative. It immediately brings to mind the eternal communion of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. May we envision their mutual life as one of music, the three persons of the Godhead singing to each other their love and joy to make one symphony? I haven’t yet found any theologians who say exactly this, and I’m not even sure what it would mean, but David Bentley Hart comes close to saying what I cannot yet express:
The harmony of Father and Son is not the absolute music of an undifferentiated noise, but the open, diverse, and complete polyphony of Father, Son, and Spirit. … The most elemental statement of theological aesthetics is that God is beautiful: not only that God is beauty or the essence and archetype of beauty, nor even only that God is the highest beauty, but that, as Gregory the Theologian says, God is beauty and also beautiful, whose radiance shines upon and is reflected in his creatures (Oration 28.30-31). … God’s beauty is delight and the object of delight, the shared gaze of love that belongs to the persons of the Trinity; it is what God beholds, what the Father sees and rejoices in the Son, in the sweetness of the Spirit, what Son and Spirit find delightful in one another, because as Son and Spirit of the Father they share his knowledge and love as persons. This cannot be emphasized enough: the Christian God, who is infinite, is also infinitely formosus, the supereminent fullness of all form, transcendently determinate, always possessed of his Logos. True beauty is not the idea of the beautiful, a static archetype in the “mind” of God, but is an infinite “music,” drama, art, completed in–but never “bounded” by–the termless dynamism of the Trinity’s life; God is boundless, and so is never a boundary; his music possesses the richness of every transition, interval, measure variation–all dancing and delight. And because he is beautiful, being abounds with difference: shape, variety, manifold relation. Beauty is the distinction of the different, the otherness of the other, the true form of distance. And the Holy Spirit who perfects the divine love, so that it is not only reflective but also evocative–calling out to yet another as pure delight, outgoing, both uncompelled and unlimited–also makes the divine joy open to the otherness of what is not divine, of creation, without estranging it from its divine “logic”; and the Spirit communicates difference as primordially the gift of the beauty, because his difference within the Trinity is the happiness that perfects desire, the fulfillment of love; for the Spirit comes to rest in the Son, there finding all the joy he seeks, reinflecting the distance between Father and Son not just as bare cognizance, but as delight, the whole rapture of the divine essence. (The Beauty of the Infinite, pp. 176-177)
Because the divine essence is the music of the Holy Trinity, the singing of the angels becomes theophany and revelation, offered to the glory of the eternal Composer, through the divine Word who is simultaneously Vocalist and Music, in the joy and rapture of the Holy Spirit. The hymnody of the angels resound in the Divine Liturgy of Holy Church:
We who mystically represent the Cherubim,
and who sing to the Life-Giving Trinity the thrice-holy hymn,
let us now lay aside all earthly cares
that we may receive the King of all,
escorted invisibly by the angelic orders.
“Where were you,” the Almighty asks Job, “when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (38:7).
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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 all things Tolkien. May his memory be eternal.