Ainulindalë: The Secret of the Secret Fire

You cannot pass. I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.

Gandalf’s confrontation with the Balrog is the climactic moment in The Fellowship of the Ring. We knew that the Grey Wizard was a man of wisdom and power, as well as a master of fireworks; but at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, we are given a glimpse of his true identity. As powerful as the Balrog may be, Gandalf is its equal. Readers of the ancient texts know that both Gandalf and Balrog are in fact Maiar, lesser spirits who, with the Valar, entered into Eä at the beginning of time. But what is “the Secret Fire”? The answer is not given in The Lord of the Rings. For the answer we must turn to the The Silmarillion:

Then Ilúvatar said to them: ‘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.’ (Ainulindalë, p. 3)

Gandalf and the Balrog were present when Eru communicated to the Ainur the theme of the Great Music: both had been brought into being by Eru and quickened by the Flame Imperishable (also known as the Secret Fire); both contributed to the demiurgic symphony that became the universe of energy and matter. As with all the Ainur, they possess genuine freedom and power to shape the world.

At the conclusion of the Great Music, Eru reveals its meaning, now clarified, ameliorated, and redeemed. The Ainur are enraptured by its beauty and drama, and when Eru withdraws the vision, they are filled with a desire for what they had seen:

Then there was unrest among the Ainur; but Ilúvatar called to them, and said: ‘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. Therefore I say: Eä! Let these things Be! And I will send forth into the Void the Flame Imperishable, and it shall be at the heart of the World, and the World shall Be; and those of you that will may go down into it. And suddenly the Ainur saw afar off a light, as it were a cloud with a living heart of flame; and they knew that this was no vision only, but that Ilúvatar had made a new thing: Eä, the World that Is. (pp. 8-9)

! Vision becomes reality; the music of heaven becomes bodies and movement and life. means both “It is” and “Let it be.” Analogous to the biblical account of creation, where Elohim speaks the world into existence, so here also: “Eä!” The Valenquenta provides a concise summary:

In the beginning Eru, the One, who in the Elvish langauge is named Ilúvatar, made the Ainur of his thought; and they made a great Music before him. In this Music the World was begun; for Ilúvatar made visible the song of the Ainur, and they beheld it as a light in the darkness. And many among them became enamoured of its beauty, and of its history which they saw beginning and unfolding as in a vision. Therefore Ilúvatar gave to their vision Being, and set it amid the Void, and the Secret Fire was sent to burn at the heart of the World; and it was called Eä. (p. 13)

The Void (Kúma) is the mythological expression of absolute nothingness, a nothingness that cannot be thought and from which, according to Christian doctrine, God has made the cosmos. The image is one of empty space, darkness, and pure poten­tiality. Into this void God sets the cosmos, and in the heart of the cosmos he sets the Flame Imperishable–uncreated, boundless power, the power to bring into existence that which had never been. Melkor coveted the sacred Flame, and searched the “void places” to find it and make it his possession—”for desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own.” Yet he could not discover it, “for it is with Ilúvatar” (p. 4). In his commentary on the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, J. R. R. Tolkien offers the following magisterial interpretation:

[The ‘Flame Imperishable’] appears to mean the Creative activity of Eru (in some sense distinct from or within Him), by which things could be given a ‘real’ and independent (though derivative and created) existence. The Flame Imperishable is sent out from Eru, to dwell in the heart of the world, and the world then Is, on the same plane as the Ainur, and they can enter into it. But this is not, of course, the same as the re-entry of Eru to defeat Melkor. It refers rather to the mystery of ‘authorship’, by which the author, while remaining ‘outside’ and independent of his work, also ‘indwells’ in it, on its derivative plane, below that of his own being, as the source and guarantee of its being. (Morgoth’s Ring, p. 345)

The Flame Imperishable, suggests Tolkien, is both “distinct from” and “within” Ilúvatar, imperishable (and thus divine) yet sent by the One. It appears to exercise a mediatorial function between Eru and his creation: through the Flame Imperishable all beings are given existence independent of their Creator, while remaining ontologically contingent upon him. Stratford Caldecott proposes that the Fire “represents life, love and creativity, the wisdom and love of God that burns at the heart of the world and sustains it in existence–it is a willed emanation from the creative energy of God’s own self; it is the life of God shared with the world” (The Power of the Ring, p. 103).

The creation of the dwarves by Aulë, the Vala who is concerned with rock, metal, and craft, illustrates nicely the power of the Secret Fire. Aulë desires intelligent beings whom he can instruct in his craft and is unwilling to wait upon the appearance of the Children. In secret he forms the Seven Fathers of the Dwarves, but at the moment of their making, Ilúvatar confronts him:

Why has thou done this? Why dost thou attempt a thing which thou knowest is beyond thy power and thy authority? For thou hast from me as a gift thy own being only, and no more; and therefore the creatures of thy hand and mind can live only by that being, moving when thou thinkest to move them, and if thy thought be elsewhere, standing idle. Is that thy desire? (Silmarillion, p. 31)

Aulë answers: ‘I did not desire such lordship. I desired things other than I am, to love and to teach them, so that they too might perceive the beauty of Eä, which thou hast caused to be.’  Aulë thus learns the limits of his creaturehood. While he can make and shape material entities, he cannot create autonomous rational beings. He cannot bring into existence beings with a life of their own. He can only create simulacrums. Only the One possesses this power. This power is the Flame Imperishable, and it eternally dwells with Ilúvatar.

Orthodox Christians will immediately think of St Gregory Palamas’s distinction between the divine essence and energies. The Ainulindalë distinguishes between the transcendent One and his uncreated activity; the Palamite doctrine between the divine essence (God in himself) and his ad extra processions (God outside himself). The Ainulindalë speaks of the One placing the Flame Imperishable in the world; the Palamite doctrine speaks of God freely communicating himself to the world, not in his substance but in his energies. Consider how Vladimir Lossky describes the uncreated energeia:

God’s presence in His energies must be understood in a realistic sense. It is not the presence of a cause operative in its effects: for the energies are not effects of the divine cause, as creatures are; they are not created, formed ex nihilo, but flow eternally from the one essence of the Trinity. They are the outpourings of the divine nature which cannot set bounds to itself, for God is more than essence. The energies might be described as that mode of existence of the Trinity which is outside of its inaccessible essence. God thus exists both in His essence and outside of his essence. (The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p. 73)

The divine energies are within everything and outside everything. … God has created all things by His energies. The act of creation established a relationship between the divine energies and that which is not God, and constituted a limitation, a determination of the infinite and eternal effulgence of God, who thereby became the cause of finite and contingent being. For the energies do not produce the created world by the mere fact of their existence, that they are the natural processions of the essence of God; if they did, either the world would be as infinite and eternal as God Himself, or the energies would be only His limited and temporal manifestation. Thus the divine energies in themselves are not the relationship of God to created being, but they do enter into relationship with that which is not God, and draw the world into existence by the will of God. (p. 89)

Does the Flame Imperishable intimate the uncreated energies of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

Jonathan McIntosh brings a Thomist perspective to his reading of the Ainulindalë. He quotes the following passage from St Thomas:

Now since God is being itself by his own essence, created being must be his proper effect; just as to ignite is the proper effect of fire. Now God causes this effect in things not only when they first begin to be, but as long as they are preserved in being; as for instance light is caused in the air by the sun as long as the air remains illuminated. Therefore as long as a thing has being, God must be present to it, according to its mode of being. But being is innermost in each thing and most deeply inherent in all things. … Hence it must be that God is in all things, and most intimately. (ST 1.8.1)

If God is Being, the unity of existence and essence, then deity’s proper work is the bestowal of being. Note Thomas’s figurative comparison to fire: the “proper effect” of fire is to ignite, to transfer heat and flame to other beings—that is what fire does. What God does is donate being. He brings into existence things that were not, and he does so not by natural emanation but by creatio ex nihilo. McIntosh puts it this way: the proper effect of God “is his communicating to or igniting other things with something of his own nature, namely with their own act of being or existence” (The Flame Imperishable, p. 55). McIntosh sees this principle dramatically depicted in the Ainulindalë, noting the result of God’s sending the Flame Imperishable into the heart of the world. I requote Eru’s words to the Ainur: “Therefore I say: Eä! Let these things Be! And I will send forth into the Void the Flame Imperishable, and it shall be at the heart of the World, and the World shall Be.” Through his creative energy God generates reality that is truly other. “And suddenly the Ainur saw afar off a light, as it were a cloud with a living heart of flame; and they knew that this was no vision only, but that Ilúvatar had made a new thing: Eä, the World that Is.” McIntosh concludes: “The Imperishable Flame, in sum, is nothing less than the creative force or power of the Creator whereby he gives the gift of being—whether it be the gift of material existence, in the case of the physical world, or the gift of free, spiritual sub-creative existence bestowed on rational yet finite beings. The Imperishable Flame, in short, is the power whereby Ilúvatar brings things ‘into Being'” (pp. 52-53). Or to express it in Thomistic idiom: “God’s ‘proper effect’ is to set aflame his creatures with the blaze of being that is his own existence” (p. 56). The God who is Esse does esse.

Or one might typologically interpret the Secret Fire as prefiguring the divine Logos of the Gospel of John:

In the origin there was the Logos, and the Logos was present with God, and the Logos was god; this one was present with God in the origin. All things came to be through him, and without him came to be not a single thing that has come to be. In him was life, and this life was the light of man. (John 1:1-4 DBH)

The Logos is distinct from God, yet always with God and ineffably identical to God. By him God creates all beings and sustains them in their existence. In the pre-Nicene theology of the Church, the Logos was considered the hypostatized principle of God’s immanence in the world. As David Bentley Hart writes: “In late antiquity it was assumed widely, in pagan, Jewish, and Christian circles, that God in his full transcendence did not come into direct contact with the world of limited and mutable things, and so had expressed himself in a subordinate and economically ‘reduced’ form ‘through whom he created and governed the world” (The New Testament, p. 534). On the other hand, the image of fire might suggest the Holy Spirit. St John the Forerunner tells us that the coming one will baptize with Holy Spirit and fire (Matt 3:11). When the Spirit is poured out on the day of Pentecost, it rests upon the disciples as tongues of fire (Acts 2:3). Christian exegesis has traditionally identified the ruach of Gen 1:2 as the third person of the Holy Trinity: “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.” Do we hear echoes here of the Flame Imperishable? In his book Tolkien & The Silmarillion, Clyde Kilby reports that in private conversation Tolkien told him “that the ‘Secret Fire sent to burn at the heart of the World’ in the beginning was the Holy Spirit” (p. 59).

Nevertheless we must not expect a one-on-one correspondence between Elven mythology and Christian theology. The Quendi did not have the benefit of the divine revelation given in the Incarnation of the eternal Logos.

(Go to “The Cacophony of Melkor“)

* * *

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.

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4 Responses to Ainulindalë: The Secret of the Secret Fire

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    In “it shall be at the heart of the World, and the World shall Be” there seems to me even something of the cadence of “In him was life, and the life was the light of men” and of “That was the true light, which enlighteneth every man that cometh into this world.”

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  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I don’t know that Tolkien read them, and, if so, what he may have thought of them, but I have a vivid but sadly not detailed recollection of George MacDonald’s discussion of Light and Life in his Unspoken Sermons – not only in “Creation in Christ” (text, St. John 1:3-4), but in “The Last Farthing” and “Life” (text, St. John 10:10) and “Light” (texts, 1 John 1:5, and John 3:19) and I think elsewhere as well (happily the Project Gutenberg transcription is easily searchable) – and think (as far as I recall) what he says invites and rewards comparison with what Tolkien writes here.


  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    It is good to compare and contrast Aulë and Melkor in their talents and aspirations, but I wonder if “the dark fire” in Gandalf’s proclamation has a distinct sense beyond the fieriness of this Balrog (for whom Gandalf appears to use the epithet “flame of Udûn”) and however that ‘works’. (The Tolkien Gateway interestingly says, of the ‘Flame of Anor’, “Only speculation can be done about its meaning and nature” and links an interesting discussion by Michael Martinez.) If Anor is the sun, there is presumably something creaturely about its wieldable “flame” (even as the light of Eärendil’s Star, which can be enphialed). Presumably, whatever it is, “the dark fire”, however subtle and powerful, is a perversion of something creaturely.

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  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    David Bentley Hart has a lovely quotation from a longer passage on “his perpetual light” in The Anathemata in his First Things review of books by and about David Jones which seems apt here:

    Upon all fore-times.
    From before time
    his perpetual light
    shines upon them.
    Upon all at once
    upon each one
    whom he invites, bids, us to recall
    when we make the recalling of him
    daily, at the Stone.
    When the offerant
    our servos, so theirs whose life is changed
    not taken away
    is directed to say
    Memento etiam.
    After which it is allowed him then to say
    Nobis quoque.

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