Ainulindalë: The Great Music and the Cacophony of Melkor

Eru teaches the Ainur his divine music and invites them to elaborate upon the theme, each according to his gifts and creativity. And so they sing, fashioning “the theme of Ilúvatar into a great music.” Their voices fill the halls of Ilúvatar, a flawless, perfect music flowing even “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 before the end of days” (The Silmarillion, pp. 3-4). But it enters into the mind of Melkor, the greatest and most gifted of the Ainur, “to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.” Evil is born. The result is predictable–discord, dissonance, cacophony, noise. The melodies of the Ainur are overwhelmed in “a sea of turbulent sound.”Eru arises and utters a new theme amid the storm, “like and yet unlike to the former theme, and it gathered power and had new beauty.” But Melkor refuses to relent and continues to sing his dark and violent thoughts. The unholy din achieves the mastery. The Ainur retreat into silence.

Eru arises yet again and sounds a third and different theme–“soft and sweet, a mere rippling of gentle sounds; but it could not be quenched, and it took to itself power and profundity,” incorporating the satanic disharmony, weaving it into a chorus “deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came.” Melkor cannot match the complexity and sublimity of the divine composition. All he can do is to sing louder and louder, seeking to overcome it by mere volume and monotonous repetition.

In the midst of this strife, whereas the halls of Ilúvatar shook and a tremor ran out into the silences yet unmoved, Ilúvatar rose a third time, and his face was terrible to behold. Then he raised up both his hands, and in one chord, deeper than the Abyss, higher than the Firmament, piercing as the light of the eye of Ilúvatar, the Music ceased.

Then Ilúvatar spoke, and he said: ‘Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined. … And thou, Melkor, wilt discover all the secret thoughts of thy mind, and wilt perceive that they are but a part of the whole and tributary to its glory.’ (p. 5; emphasis mine)

Eru then shares with the Ainur a vision of the Music, allowing them to see what they had only heard: “and they saw a new World made visible before them, and it was globed amid the Void, and it was sustained therein, but was not of it. And as they looked and wondered this World began to unfold its history, and it seemed to them that it lived and grew” (p. 5). The Music becomes corporeal, enjoying its own being and integrity. Perhaps most strikingly, the Ainur see that their contributions to the Music have shaped the life and history of the cosmos (see Jonathan McIntosh, “The Vision of the Ainur as Theodicy“).No other ancient mythology speaks with such profundity of the origin of evil and its redemption by the transcendent Creator. Melkor seeks not only to sing independently of Ilúvatar but in opposition to him; he essays to destroy the Great Music and replace it with his own soundings. Recall how Melkor had earlier searched the Void for the Flame Imperishable. He desired the power “to bring into Being things of his own, and it seemed to him that Ilúvatar took no thought of the Void, and he was impatient of its emptiness” (p. 4). Such is Melkor’s wisdom that he foresees the purpose of the Void (namely, to be the receptacle for physical entities), but his wisdom is limited: he does not understand that the power to bestow finite being belongs to Eru alone.

“And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite.” We first need to ask what the archaic expression “in my despite” means. I checked my handy Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, but it wasn’t as much help as I hoped it would be. It cites the expression but notes several semantic possibilities, depending on context. I then tweeted Tolkien expert Corey Olsen (@tolkienprof), and he tweeted back this answer:

Dr Olsen’s interpretation of “in my despite” seems exactly right. God is God, and no creature can alter nor ultimately defeat his plans. Such is his omnipotence that he is able to assimilate the Melkorian disso­nance into the music of the Kingdom. Just as a Kintsugi craftsman takes a broken piece of pottery and makes it into something new and beautiful, so Eru takes the violence and horrors of the world and uses it to advance his providential purposes. The ancient text The Music of the Ainur reports these words of Ilúvatar spoken to the Ainur:

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 the 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 overwhelming 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. (The Book of Lost TalesI:55)

The redemptive power of Eru is exhibited throughout the tragic history of Arda–from Melkor’s killing of the Two Trees and his theft of the Silmarils, the terrible Oath of Fëanor, the long, hopeless war of the Noldor against Morgoth, the glory, apostasy, and inundation of Númenor, the rise of Sauron and his establishment of the black land of Mordor, the making of the Rings of Power, the War of the Last Alliance, the tumults of the Third Age. Yet in the end Gollum takes the One Ring from Frodo and falls into the fiery abyss of Orodruin. O felix culpa! Yet evil remains in Middle-earth–wars are fought, terrible horrors committed, death and violence reign.

Ainur, Elves, and Men alike await the glorious consummation of the Music.

(Go to “Angels, Demiurges, and the Making of Arda)

* * *

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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21 Responses to Ainulindalë: The Great Music and the Cacophony of Melkor

  1. Jonathan says:

    I do think the phrase “means” that, but it might be worthwhile to think about why it means that.

    It is not your contempt for me that allows you to alter the music.

    You cannot, simply by scorning me, alter the music.

    You cannot spite me simply by altering the music.

    — I believe these are all accurate paraphrases of the original, or statements strongly implied by it. The beauty of the original, as so often happens with archaism, comes from the combination of precision and ambiguity, which is not a lack of clarity but a superabundance or allegorical layering of meaning.

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  2. matushkamarychristine says:

    “Eru arises yet again and sound a third and different theme – soft and sweet, a mere rippling of gentle sounds…”. When reading this paragraph I was struck by the comparison of this third theme to the Incarnation. The Father’s response to evil and sin is to sing a new song, a song of His son Who will incorporate into Himself the discordant melody of pain, terror, war, and death and will rise triumphant with a song of joy.

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  3. Jonathan says:

    This series has inspired me to go back and read the Ainulindalë carefully, something I have not done in ten years. In it I have found much beauty. This is actually a stumbling block, in its own bizarre way, because one has to ask why Tolkien’s mythos is so admired and well-received while the biblical mythos, essentially the same in content, is so easily discarded. It is as if everything has been overturned, and now it is the works of man that can claim authority and the revelation of God that is intrinsically suspect, inferior, unpersuasive.

    But even the great prophet and poet Tolkien cannot penetrate beyond the first mystery of evil. You write, “No other ancient mythology speaks with such profundity of the origin of evil and its redemption by the transcendent Creator.” Even so. But we still have questions: Why did the heart spoil in Melkor rather than in some other of the Ainur, or in none of the Ainur, or in all of them? And what, exactly, went wrong with Melkor? Here is the beginning of the problem, which you quote:

    “…in the music there were no flaws. But as the theme progressed, it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.”

    The “matters of his own imagining” are clearly not the problem, because Ilúvatar has instructed the Ainur to craft such matters. The One takes delight in devolving his own power and glory. The origin of evil is in the desire of the ego for self-aggrandizement. We sense that Ilúvatar has given Melkor the most power and glory already — so that he might use it to the greater glory of its source. The origin of evil, then, lies in a deflection or disordering of desire. But we still have to ask what causes that deflection. Could it be precisely because Melkor was the greatest among the Ainur, and he couldn’t help but see this? It’s a possibility, though not a totally convincing answer, to me.

    The disturbing phrase is “it came into the heart of Melkor.” Just think about that impersonal construction. Now, we could take this as simply an idiom. But that would be to write off the problem, and to beg the question, whence such an idiom? I think the impersonal construction exists because it reports well about how things are in the world. So we ask, how can there be a disordered, unholy desire existing somehow outside of me that invades me to my very core and takes over my being? Can we make metaphysical sense of this? We can make perfect experiential sense of it. I am sure everyone, at some point in his or her life, comes to know exactly what this phrase means. For my part I have been overwhelmed by desire more times than I can count, and more times than I care to acknowledge that desire has not been a right desire. I still have to take responsibility for my actions and even for my feelings, but there is the lingering sense of having been invaded or overwhelmed by something extrinsic to me. All the poets speak of this, from the first to the last. The phenomenon is right there for all to see in the eery grammar of the impersonal construction. But what sense does it make theologically? It’s not about the will, the thing that gets disordered, it is about what causes that disorder in the first place, the individuality that is (in this version of the story) Melkor succumbing to something outside itself, something unnamed, unidentified. Can we give it a name? Or is this all illusion, are we trying to exculpate ourselves through grammar?

    And by the way, there is something to be said about music here, and a criticism of modern, post-tonal music that I often hear from the same religious/conservative crowd that thinks a lot of literature is at best morally suspect and at worst deliberately and unredeemably evil and perverse (not accusing anyone reading here of holding such opinions). What happens in the Ainulindalë is the breakdown of tonality. Melkor overthrows the beautiful harmonic constructions of the other Ainur. And yet, Ilúvatar insists the end result will be something more perfect than any of the Ainur could have imagined, and it will be this without negating what Melkor has done, but rather the triumph will come precisely through the atonalism or chromaticism, as it were. A lot of modern art, in any medium, is really tough. It makes hard demands of its audiences. Many people grow frustrated with this. And in many instances, the more mediocre, they are right to do so, because the art is not directed toward a final consummation. It is simply the repetitive, mindless discord of Melkor. But sometimes and, I think, in the superior examples, even without the artist necessarily conceiving of things in this way, the difficulty of modern music (or poetry or what have you, though I’m thinking mainly of music right now, as I listen to Schnittke’s second cello sonata — Schnittke was deeply Christian and he wrote terribly hard music) is actually part of an ongoing effort to set the perversions of Melkor in a larger, more ultimate beauty. “Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain.” So sings Bob Dylan in one of my favorite lines of his. I think it is one of the most important truths we can utter. Sometimes we say it in despair, sometimes in resignation, and sometimes with that precious, fleeting inkling of eventual triumph.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Great comment, Jonathan. I agree with you that in the most fundamental sense, the Ainulindalë does not, and cannot, resolve the problem of evil. All it does it does is to push the problem back “before” the creation of Arda. We are still left to ask, “Why did Melkor fall?” and “Why did God proceed to create Arda knowing full well that in doing so he was creating a world marred by Melkor’s sin?” etc.

      I wonder if David Hart has read the Ainulindalë. When I reread it two weeks ago, I was reminded of this passage from Doors of the Sea:

      The Christian understanding of evil has always been more radical and fantastic than that of any theodicist; for it denies from the outset that suffering, death and evil have any ultimate meaning at all. Perhaps no doctrine is more insufferably fabulous to non-Christians than the claim that we exist in the long melancholy aftermath of a primordial catastrophe, that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is the shadow of true time, and that the universe languishes in bondage to “powers” and “principalities” — spiritual and terrestrial — alien to God. In the Gospel of John, especially, the incarnate God enters a world at once his own and yet hostile to him — “He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not” — and his appearance within “this cosmos” is both an act of judgment and a rescue of the beauties of creation from the torments of fallen nature.

      “Primordial catastrophe” need not refer to the fall of angels, of course, but I can’t help wondering if this is not what Hart is thinking of.

      I do question your initial comment that the Ainulindalë is now preferred by folks over the Genesis account. I imagine that is only true for a handful of Tolkien afficionados. 🙂

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      • Jonathan says:

        You’re right, of course, far more people would affirm some sort of credence in Genesis than have ever even heard of the Silmarillion (I have no figures to back this up, but I’d wager the vast majority of people’s encounter with Tolkien starts and ends with the extended story of the Ring, including The Hobbit).

        I should expand just a little on what I was thinking. I suppose I had in mind a kind of triumph of fiction over revelation. The modern person reads fiction and if the fiction is working right, while he reads it he believes — or rather he pretends to himself — that it is true. Give him Genesis, though, and the default response is either some sort of qualification, “Well, you see, it’s a metaphor…” or outright disdain: what a stupid, unscientific account of the origin of the cosmos. People sometimes refer to Tolkien and his ilk as myth-makers, but that’s nonsense. Myths are precisely what we don’t believe. Tolkien wrote fiction, and therefore we can believe it… at least while we’re reading. People dismiss the Bible, or any other story or account or idea, with the word “myth.” The revolution that Tolkien and his many 19th and early 20th century predecessors and peers did was to lift the mythical, folkloric, archaic kind of story out of the mire of disbelief into which the Enlightenment had confined it: they turned myth into fiction. If you teach me about the Norse gods in school, you’ll teach them to me as a myth and I’ll know not to believe in them. Show me those gods in a novel, something by Neil Gaiman for instance, and I may know the belief of fiction, second-order belief.

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      • Jonathan says:

        This may strike you as way out there, but I wonder if there is some connection to be made between the kind of reality fiction enjoys, or which people find in fiction, and the vision of Arda that Ilúvatar shows to the Ainur, a vision so real-seeming that it astounds Ulmo and inspires him to pledge friendship with Manwë.

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    • Jonathan,

      Forgive the long response…

      You’re raising some interesting issues:

      Why did the heart spoil in Melkor rather than in some other of the Ainur, or in none of the Ainur, or in all of them? And what, exactly, went wrong with Melkor?:

      My passion is and has always been Old Testament studies, especially the book of Genesis. Tolkien’s cosmogony is complimentary not only to Genesis, but to the concepts behind creation that run throughout the OT canon, in the intertestamental literature, the Rabbinic tradition, and on into the NT. So, to riff off of your comment, while folding in some modern concepts behind chaos theory, I will venture an answer:

      1) If you dive into the semantic and rhetorical context of Genesis 1-3, some interesting things come to light, especially regarding good and evil. The first thing that emerges is that when we look at ‘good’ or ‘evil’ our first reading jumps to moral categories. However, the primary categories within the Hebrew/Ancient Near Eastern context are first to be understood as functional, and only thereafter are they moral. The the usage of tov (good) in Genesis 1 and 2 elucidates the use of ra’ (evil) when we come to the tree of knowledge. In Genesis 1, it is reiterated time and time again that God saw his creative work each day as good, meaning that it functioned just the way he designed it. And when we come to Genesis 2, and the formation of Adam, it was not good (lo tov for him to be alone, meaning he could not function properly without his counterpart; after all the animals he names all have mates. Only after Eve is formed from his side are the kingly and priestly functionality of the Divine Image (fruitfulness, stewardship) complete. So, when we examine what the merism that encompasses the knowledge of good and evil mean within their functional context, it can be said that this knowledge is and understanding of what works and what doesn’t in a broad cosmic context. That which works (i.e. functions as it is supposed to) is ‘good’ and that which doesn’t work (i.e doesn’t function as it is supposed to) is ‘evil’, and both good and evil exist within a wide range of variability.

      2) The problem with the knowledge of good and evil, function and chaos, is not in its acquisition, but in the manner in which it is acquired. It was certainly necessary for Adam and Eve to have wisdom as they walked in creational blessing (i.e. the creation mandate – but I think it is a mandate only secondarily to the blessing) of extending the sanctum of Eden over the whole earth. There is an uncanny connection between the Wisdom literature in the OT and the Creation texts. Proverbs 1 teaches that the beginning of wisdom flows from a positive relationship (fear/trust) with God. Adam and Eve were never meant to acquire the knowledge they needed from a tree, they were to gain it through a process of growth in their relationship to God. The poisoned knowledge surfaces again in Genesis 4 where the sons of Cain use this knowledge to develop key aspects of human society (metallurgy/toolmaking, arts, animal husbandry) but these all bear the marks of the fall and culminate in the catastrophe of the Flood.

      3) This understanding of cosmic variability, which is latent in ancient cosmogonies, is now being articulated by science in chaos theory – the capacity for variability. I think this sheds some light on what may have happened to Melkor. There was clearly variability in the Music of the Ainur because there was the harmony of their individual voices, but this does not mean that variation is bad, because their Music was in accord with Illuvatar’s beneficent rule. However, Melkor’s lust for the Secret Fire lead him to search into the void, the chaotic place that did not yet function in accordance to the will of Eru, and when he returns his relationship to Eru and the Ainur was that of discord, which he introduced into the music. Of course Eru showed his mastery over this by weaving in the discord into melodies and harmonies an eschatological beauty that was only present in a protological sense during the cosmogony.

      I could belabor this further, but it is the power of variability and the freedom implicit in it to act in accord or in discord to Eru that occasioned Melkor’s fall.

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  4. Jonathan says:

    Just a couple more random thoughts in appreciation of the Ainulindalë…

    Is it perfectly fitting, or is it a sort of jest, that it should be music, of all things, that turns into the Earth/Arda? Because music is utterly physical, it is physically manifold. There is nothing more dead than an unrealized, an unplayed written score, it is somehow deader even than an unread book. We don’t get the impression that the Ainur are hunched over writing musical scores. No, they are likened to true music, music actually played and sung. And yet, for all that played music is the realization of music, it is a stunning and beautiful conception that that music could, in another mode of reality, another realization, be a world as we know it — in fact, precisely the world as we know it. So is the music of the Ainur absolute music? Or is it the original and greatest tone poem? From our point of view, absolute music is, by its more ardent and mystical advocates, taken to be the kind of music the Ainur made, that is to say, having a referent beyond what we usually think of as reality, but a referent nonetheless, i.e. it is not pure form; for if it were, why bother playing it when you could just contemplate the score in silence? No, in playing the music one realizes something in the strongest sense of the word.

    But the real reason music is so appropriate for the Ainulindalë, in my opinion, is because playing music, realizing it, is an intimately interpersonal activity, one moreover in which individual desires have to be ordered to a common end. This common end far exceeds simply getting the notes right and not screwing up all that intricate harmony. There is much intricacy in getting the acoustics, timbre, phrasing, dynamics, tempo and the overall expressiveness of wordless music (what does it express???) just right. And of course, there is more than one way to get it right. There is, potentially, an infinite number of right realizations of, say, a string quartet; and infinite number of wrong realizations. I am using an unusual word: usually we say of the musician that she interprets the music. We prefer this interpretation over that other. Music is the only one of the arts that is communal and performative-interpretive in this way.

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  5. Jonathan says:

    And finally, let me bring to your attention this beautiful paragraph of three sentences (Tolkien wrote in a time when people still knew how to use the colon and semi-colon), which made me think of Masefield and Melville, and also reminded me that for most of Tolkien’s life people traveled by ship to get to distant places, and ships would sometimes founder; indeed, Tolkien was twenty years old when the Titanic sank, and in those days the sea was not the flyover repository of plastic waste and the beleaguered domain of dying coral reefs that it is to us today, but a thing of wonder and mystery and some terror. To give some idea of the very deliberate cadence of Tolkien’s prose, which I feel is obscured by his obligatory use of paragraphs (a very modern convention and without any good aesthetic standard), I’m going to transcribe this passage in long verses comprised each of a singe sentence. The cadence, or rhythm, is a major part of the musicality of this prose, and it seems to me that if we are going to be talking about music *in* the Ainulindalë, we should also acknowledge the music *of* the Ainulindalë:

    “But the other Ainur looked upon this habitation set within the vast spaces of the World, which the Elves call Arda, the Earth; and their hearts rejoiced in light, and their eyes beholding many colors were filled with gladness; but because of the roaring of the sea they felt a great unquiet.

    “And they observed the winds and the air, and the matters of which Arda was made, of iron and stone and silver and gold and many subtances: but of all these water they most greatly praised.

    “And it is said by the Eldar that in water there lives yet the echo of the Music of the Ainur more than in any substance else that is in the Earth; and many of the Children of Ilúvatar hearken still unsated to the voices of the Sea, and yet know not for what they listen.”

    Two choices in diction stand out to me in this passage. One is “substances.” It is of a different register than the rest of the passage, ostentatiously Latinate. Is it out of place? I don’t think so. My first instinct was to say “substances” has come to us from scholastic metaphysics. But that is not actually how Tolkien is using it. He is using it in the more colloquial and literally earthier way we commonly use it to. A non-Germanic origin for a word in a passage such as this one makes that word stand out. Of course, “music” is non-Germanic. “Song” would have been the Germanic alternative. But we don’t feel that “music” stands out, it has been naturalized in English, so I don’t consider it remarkable diction; also, “music” is clearly the more complex term and the appropriate choice for the content of the Ainulindalë. The other unusual choice of diction is “World,” so capitalized. I note it because Tolkien does not use “Cosmos,” and I suppose I’m thinking of this because of David Bentley Hart’s recent NT translation, in which he eschews the usual translation of cosmos as world, and instead transliterates the Greek. I think Tolkien saw the same problem Hart saw in using world for cosmos, but opted for the opposite solution, which is to accentuate the potentially cosmic meaning of “world.” But that is a later accretion of meaning to “world.” Cosmos is really a very different word, as much larger than “world” as “music” is larger than “song.” Yet somehow “Cosmos” would have been off here, and “Music” is not. Tolkien gets it right.

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    • Jonathan says:

      Note that by p.9 “World” has come to mean basically Arda, or the first vision of Arda that is presented to the Ainur before the “Eä!”, the World that Is. It is really a marvelous word in English, this word “world.” I greatly prefer it to “Cosmos,” because it has amplitude. In the fullness of time, on which Tolkien capitalizes here, “world” has taken on many degrees of meaning. John Donne was able to write, “I am a little world made cunningly,” in the 17th century. He meant by that neither cosmos nor earth, but something analogous to both and also quite other: a kind of consciousness.

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  6. brian says:

    Well, this is all too good for a pithy comment and I am too harried by existential concerns to properly engage such profound reflections. My token may be somewhat pedantic. I have praised Max Picard’s World of Silence before: here, Silence is a Plenitude from which Music and language emerge. I suspect Melkor’s level of imagination is too fixated on Void as an Emptiness upon which he may write determinate being. He is unaware of a Nothing that is Full. There may then be a temptation to see the made thing as devoid of value outside of one’s own making. Destruction may come to seem an energy that compensates for an initial and fatal lack, even while the conatus essendi glories in its making.

    Appropos of not much perhaps, I’d also like to recommend this work by Gabriel Marcel translated and edited by two of my former professors: https://www.amazon.com/Music-Philosophy-Marquette-Studies/dp/087462665X

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  7. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Upon re-reading my article, I note that I may have erred. I write that in the vision the Music becomes corporeal. But this is not strictly true, is it? The Music does not become corporeal, truly other, until the moment of creation itself.

    So what is the role of the Vision here? It stands between the music and creation. The singing of the Ainur invokes the metaphor of vocalization and hearing; vision, sight; creation, ___. Thoughts?

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    • Isn’t the music connected to the physical creation when Eru pronounces Ea, and gives corporeal life to the vision of the Ainur expressed in the music? I don’t have my copy of the Silmarillion with me today, but I am also interested to see how the Secret Fire connects to all of this. My guess is that it is correlative to the Orthodox notion of the creation aflame (both in protology and eschatology since they are woven from the same cloth).

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    • Jonathan says:

      Well, I don’t know, but if the Silmarillion were written in Greek the word for Vision in that passage might be. . . fantasy. As I suggested above, it may be analogous to the kind of reality fiction enjoys. But could be that it’s weirder even than that. The better analogy would seem to be with what is called absolute music. Because there is language in the Ainulindalë, we have to remember that. Language isn’t part of the Music of the Ainur, though, one the Vision. The Vision is what I think is then called a foreshowing. There’s a good middle English word for you. As you know from your study of Julian of Norwich, “showing” was replaced or synchronized to some extent with the later addition of “revelation” to the language. (And showing, btw, is very close to the root of Greek phantasia.) Anyway, the Vision is a revelation of what the Ainur have been. . . stating, let’s say, in music (we speak of “stating” a musical theme). It’s wordless music. As I pointed out in a comment on another post, Tolkien sticks to simile, this music is only (some of it) “like” that of choirs. (And anyway a choir doesn’t have to sing words.) So the Ainur make a kind of absolute music, a music devoid of verbal apparatus of any kind. And this music, it is shown to them, though it is without language, has a referent: the World, as it will come to be called once it has been actually made. To be sure, the Vision is a fascinating moment in the Ainulindalë, especially because purely in terms of the narrative it doesn’t need to be there. I love that it leads to Ulmo and Manwë’s friendship (I think I’m remembering this right) which functions as a little mise-en-abyme, a demonstration of what Ilúvatar means when he says he will make all things well despite Melkor’s meddling.

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  8. Grant says:

    In relation to the Ainulindalë being more popular or being responded to more positively by Tolkien and fantasy readers then say Genesis (and philosophical arguments as well sometimes) are I think for a couple of reasons. I think you have already touched on a few Jonathan in that myth is no longer a central part of Western cultures (and unfortunately a number of other cultures too influenced in these areas by post-Enlightenment Western cultures). They are no longer central to our identity as a culture, people and forming a key way we understand reality around us, the functional knowledge (the how things work, what makes them up, the processes the form or produce things), and while it has yielded extensive understanding of the world around us, it has also left a shallow and flat vision and relation to the world. It has little depth, and becomes stuck in some quite simplistic and literalistic approaches to things, even the stories that back the current Western world’s understanding of itself are similarly flat and literalistic (very much just a how it came about story, which tends to simply history to justify the current view(s)).

    Myths become something strange and outlandish, not in the original way of confronting their hearers with the Other, and the mysterious and the unknown and sometimes even dangerous depths of reality and being, but just odd stories. Perhaps some are fun, and perhaps some psychological or moral principles could be reclaimed and rescued from some, but otherwise they are just felt to be fun but absurd stories, not really a thing to be taken seriously at all. They devolve into children’s stories (with that arrogant disdain which has dismissed any story or fiction not in current favour as a subject of serious consideration as just for children, when this is itself an entirely arbitrary choice of current fades), which of course was the very situation Tolkien was facing with myth, elves and other mythic elements having devolved into little fun fairies just told to children, robbed of their depth and power.

    And Genesis has been approached in a similar manner (and often other myths and their creation stories when they are read), just as a way ‘superstitious’ people sought to explain the physical processes formed things or explained reality around them, and understood it only as a myth in that diminished sense. And then it is a myth that is inherently untrue, without much to say (or on the other side, you have the movement that lead to young earth creationists who share the same take on reality really and are very modern in outlook, they also take it very superficially and simplistically, but just seek to prove that false impression both have but most of the Western world disdains). So for some Genesis and the Bible is a ‘book of old, superstitious ‘myths’, and is saying things clearly untrue and they are unable to easily relate to it, re-framed in their own perceptions and understanding they cannot relate to it, and have no idea to being to relate to it as they should. Myth really being something now completely alien and foreign to them.

    And it’s here I think that not just the Ainulindalë but the whole mythology has it’s power, as you say Tolkien and others have lifted mythology from the box it has been placed in and brought it through fiction into a new mode that can bring people into seeing, breathing and re-inhabiting myth and fairy story once again. Particularly with Tolkien actively attempting to engage in an imaginative recovery of an older myth, and to breath new life into it, people can step into that cycle and being without even realising it, and are able to being to wear new glasses for a least a moment to look at things. Concepts and tastes long lost and brought back to them, and they begin to apprehend them, blurry like someone coming from a darkened room into the light, ideas not fully formed come to them in different ways. Why a number of fans of Tolkien’s work often react to or believe that it is in some ways real is because it is, like all myths are real, just not real in the way that our Western age largely understands any-more or can naturally relate to, but it is something Tolkien understood very well. It creeps under their defences and prejudices, and unsuspectingly they can once more come through and inhabit myth once more, and see reality differently. It becomes true escapism as Tolkien understood it, an escape from current perception of reality, as from a prison, to be able to see things differently and more clearly, and return with a different and changed understanding of reality around us. To see it with new eyes and how deeper, grander and more mysterious things are, with the monochrome world we where in charged with riotous colour and indescribable beauty. To be reminded that creation really is other, and glimpse the truth of things at a deeper level not understood by any other path.

    Here also to return to a subject discussed earlier is another advantage of Tolkien not including a religious structure on the whole within his mythology (and certainly not one similar to Christianity). Because here is something that if it were present, as the beliefs of a people and the medium for conveying certain ideas that would be dismissed in many reader’s minds as well that’s just the books religion. True perhaps in the book, but like all religion it is under the heading of ‘not really true’, a myth in the derivative sense only interesting perhaps as information about a particular people in the world but not something really real. Instead with Tolkien’s mythology it is the world itself that is charged with and alive with the theological reality underlying his sub-creation, it is a present other in every tree, rock, mountain, Vala, Maia, Elf, Dwarf, nature spirit, Eagles, etc. In both parts and whole it is a reality the readers enter, not just some ideas they read about, it’s something they experience and even ‘see’, ‘taste’ and ‘smell’ without fully understanding, and it can awaken something inside, a new vision of things is given and then returned with them from this sub-creation to the primary world. The world is at some level perhaps if only for a moment apprehended as much larger and deeper then previously ever even dreamed off. This is where unfortunely much modern fantasy goes wrong for me, it becomes often just about the nuts and bolts of the world it creates, with religions created for the peoples, but often the detail feels flat without much depth. Sometimes it feels the same of the view already held in the West of the primary world written onto a fantasy world that doesn’t lead to an escape and renewing and regaining of vision. No a gaining of a new experience and vision of reality but the same already held, but this might be just myself alone.

    As the Melkor’s fall, and to the mystery of evil both here and in Genesis and the sense of inadequacy with both I can definitely feel it, as I think the problem of evil is mysterious and perhaps it is not fully comprehensible to us right now. Perhaps it is the terrible mystery of that effect, both in Tolkien’s sub-creation as in the primary world and Genesis that is so haunting, we don’t really fully understand the effect we’ve seen, only understand the effects and results, but something mysterious and beyond understanding remains, mocking us. With Tolkien’s sub-creation there remain unknown mysteries, the famous Tom Bombadil of course, but more pertinently Ungoliant (or Ungoliantë), her origin is mysterious, and seems to represent the consuming nature of the Void itself (and sometimes was held, an idea present in the Lost Tales quite strongly, to be in some way from that darkness itself, a manifestation of it). So it is a world with mysterious features, in which the effect if evil, seen in a different manner in the wraithification process as a mysterious but terrible effect present. Both a diminishment and absence of being, and yet also a very present threat, both within and without of us. We don’t know fully how it is, how this effect is present in either the sub-creation of Tolkien or how it fully works, only that it is very real, dangerous, insidious and will consume all if we are not careful. It is at once both an internal and external threat, on often missed before it is to late, one we cannot fully grasp yet fully recognise when it is present when it’s terrible consuming effect is in full display (such as the darkening of Valinor, or the Witch-King confronting Gandalf before the gates of Minas Tirith. It is that mysterious power of non-being, of death, which we cannot understand but only know in it’s many complex effects is the terrible foe of all things in creation.

    With Melkor, a key element, not one which explains things, but hints that the emergence of this effect, is the searching into the Void as others have mentioned. Here seeking for the Secret Fire where it isn’t, and seeing wrongly in his impatience to create, the Void becomes something else then just a where creation has yet to take place, it becomes that twist of non-being, of death, that begins with warp Melkor’s thoughts and being. It as though the webs of darkness Ungolaint has already began to form around him, and he begins to be consumed and beings his decay. He is it’s first slave, as it’s effect warps and dominates him more and more. Then in the music it becomes something that increasingly spreads and disrupts much else, not just to the extent of those Ainu, powers and things that would fall directly into Melkor’s tune, but others are disrupted, misguided and confused by the overall effect (and of course later the Valar themselves would make mistakes and ill judgements, as would others that would contribute to the woes of the world besides Melkor/Morgoth and his servants as these themes played out). Only Iluvatar is above, beyond and transcendent of it, and the themes arising from Him incorporate it’s effect to bring about His purpose and frustrate it. It is derivative and dependent not only as the Ainu or any other creation is but even less, it is a effect that seeks non-being but as having no being or existence in itself is dependant on creation to be and effect anything. It is defeated from any ultimate victory and frustrated but this fact alone.

    These also give the mysteries in say Genesis 2, on one hand the story depicts the fall of humanity in Adam and Eve, and the world then seems to follow, yet evil is already there in the world before this in the story. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil sits there, presenting this awareness of the current reality of the world, as does the serpent, both animal and more, who serves as it’s ambassador, the world is already dangerous and evil is already at work. Yet the tree of life, like the vision of Eden, what the world should be is also there, perhaps in some ways Adam and Eve in their action aren’t just relating to us the fall of humanity, but in the priestly role of humanity, giving voice to the very fallen nature of creation as a whole sense through the lens of the human couple which leads into the world as It Is. And yet they also see the world as It Should Be, and that vision remains with Eden, and with it a promise of what will be, and is seen in Christ. Perhaps it isn’t just about us, but it’s much larger with a much more complicated dynamics of the Fall then human emergence and development alone (and like Ainu perhaps whatever angelic and spiritual realities and beings relate and embody different aspects and natures in our reality didn’t fully understand everything either, and even those unfallen were not wholly unaffected and may only have began to understand God’s purposes or gain understanding with His revelation through those are his image, and thus really though Christ Himself, perhaps it was as much God’s disclosure to all creation, including the angelic as to us).

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  9. Tom says:

    Is it pronounced: Eye – New – Linda – Lay?

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  10. Tom says:

    I will have to explore Tolkien. I work with a notion of the Void I inherited from James Loder which I think would fit well with Tolkien.

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