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 Tales, I: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.
* * *
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.