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. … Then the Ainur were afraid, and they did not yet comprehend the words that were said to them; and Melkor was filled with shame, of which came secret anger. But Ilúvatar arose in splendour, and he went forth from the fair regions that he had made for the Ainur; and the Ainur followed him.
But when they were come into the Void, Ilúvatar said to them: ‘Behold your Music!’ And he showed to them a vision, giving to them sight where before was only hearing; 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. And when the Ainur had gazed for a while and were silent, Ilúvatar said again: ‘Behold your Music! This is your minstrelsy; and each of you shall find contained herein, amid the design that I set before you, all those things which it may seem that he himself devised or added. 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. (The Silmarillion, p. 5)
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, 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. Thus it came to pass that of the Ainur some abode still with Ilúvatar beyond the confines of the World; but others, and mong them many of the greatest and most fair, took the leave of Ilúvatar and descended into it. But this condition Ilúvatar made, or it is the necessity of their love, that their power should thenceforward be contained and bounded in the World, to be within it for ever, until it is complete, so that they are its life and it is theirs. And therefore they are named the Valar, the Powers of the World.
But when the Valar entered into Eä they were at first astounded and at a loss, but it was as if naught was yet made which they had seen in vision, and all was but on point to begin and yet unshaped, and it was dark. For the Great Music had been but the growth and flowering of thought in the Timeless Halls, and the Vision only a foreshowing; but now they had entered in at the beginning of Time, and the Valar perceived that the World had been but foreshadowed and foresung, and they must achieve it. So began their great labours in wastes unmeasured and unexplored, and in ages uncounted and forgotten, until in the Deeps of Time and in the midst of the vast halls of Eä there came to be that hour and that place where was made the habitation of the Children of Ilúvatar. (p. 9)
The contribution of the Ainur to the creation of the world represents the most striking difference between the Elven and Christian traditions. In the Ainulindalë God invites the Ainur to elaborate upon the musical themes he has taught them and then actualizes their ethereal singing, with amendments and additions–Eä. The contribution of the Ainur to the making of universe is limited yet nonetheless real. Note J. R. R. Tolkien’s capitalization of the words “Be” and “Is” in the third paragraph quoted above. The cosmos disclosed in the vision gains a different ontological status when it is brought into being through the divine command. It becomes genuinely “other.” Tolkien was a Roman Catholic, though, and it is possible that he has imported into his translation philosophical categories that did not exist in the mythological worldview of the Quendi. Yet who understands the Quendi better than Tolkien? Alas, the original manuscripts were lost long ago.
In his (unsent) letter to Peter Hastings, Tolkien makes a crucial distinction between creating and making: “Inside this mythical history (as its metaphysic is, not necessarily as a metaphysic of the real World) Creation, the act of Will of Eru the One that gives Reality to conceptions, is distinguished from Making, which is permissive” (Letters, L 153; see Jonathan McIntosh, “Tolkien’s Response to Hastings” and “Tolkien’s Demiurges“). In his (again unsent) letter to Michael Straight, Tolkien applies this important difference to the work of the Ainur within Elven mythology:
It is, I should say, a ‘monotheistic but “sub-creational” mythology’. There is no embodiment of the One, of God, who indeed remains remote, outside the World, but only directly accessible to the Valar or Rulers. These take the place of the ‘gods’, but are created spirits, or those of the primary creation who by their own will have entered into the world. … They shared in its ‘making’–but only on the same terms as we ‘make’ a work of art or story. The realization of it, the gift to it of a created reality of the same grade as their own, was the act of the One God. (L 181)
(C. S. Lewis, we may note, also tasked the Eldila of his Space Trilogy with the work of demiurgic making. The Oyarsa of Perelandra, for example, tells how she formed her planet: “I rounded this ball when it first arose from Arbol. I spun the air about it and wove the roof. I built the Fixed Island and this, the holy mountain, as Maleldil taught me. The beasts that sing and the beasts that fly and all that swims on my breast and all that creeps and tunnels within me down to the centre has been mine.”)
The Ainur, therefore, help to fashion the pattern and history of the universe, both through their æviternal singing of the Great Music and by their demiurgic labors. We may think of the angelic making as an act of synergism between Eru and Ainur: Eru creates and the Ainur sub-create. As Verlyn Flieger comments: “The Ainur, and more particularly the Valar, are sub-creators. They participate in the physical making of the world but could not have done so had not Eru first given them the theme” (Splintered Light, p. 55). Yet while the Ainur participate in the design and formation of the world, they do not participate in the translation of the Music into the stuff of existence, what Tolkien described as “Music in being.” Only Eru Ilúvatar bestows being, for he alone possesses the Flame Imperishable.
That moment when the Ainur enter into the world and discover that it is formless and dark, “as if naught was yet made,” immediately draws the Jewish and Christian reader to the tohu wa-bohu of Genesis 1:2 (Everett Fox trans.):
when the earth was wild and waste,
darkness over the face of Ocean,
rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters–
The exegesis of the verse is contested. I gather that the majority of biblical scholars now believe that the Hebrew text literally refers to the bringing of order and balance to primordial chaos. Elohim speaks and the tohu wa-bohu becomes cosmos. Perhaps the storyteller thought of the chaos as preexisting alongside the divine Creator, as that upon which God had to work; or perhaps he thought of it as the initial product of the divine creation—the earth as a desolate, empty place. In either case, Elohim effortlessly brings the world to form. The Scriptures do not explicitly address God’s creation of the angels, though a long tradition in the Church claims they were brought into being prior to the creation of the world. I am tempted to conjecture that the “rushing-spirit of God” (singular) included the spirits (plural) as secondary causes, sculpturing the chaos according to the divine vision. In this way the created agency of the Ainur would be contained, as it were, within the transcendent agency of Word and Spirit. But I shall resist the temptation … for the moment.
But might God in some way have given to the heavenly intelligences the power of absolute creation? This became a live question for the scholastic theologians of the Middle Ages (see Marcia Keck, Angels and Angelology in the Middle Ages, pp. 16-27). Peter Lombard, for example, appears to have thought it possible. St Thomas Aquinas, on the other hand, declared a decided no. God, and God alone, creates ex nihilo. Not even he can delegate this responsibility.
Consider what it means for God to create. It is not a shaping and informing of preexistent stuff, like an artist sculpting a block of marble into a statue of Apollo. It is not a changing of one substance into a different kind of substance, like an alchemist transmuting lead into gold. In the divine act of creation absolutely nothing is presupposed:
Crafts presuppose materials provided by nature; natural causes presuppose matter which they form and transform; but if God presupposed anything in this way he would not be the universal cause of all existence; so he must bring things into existence from nothing. We think of creation as a change, even though it isn’t. In a change something begins in one state and ends up in another; but in creation there is nothing to begin with and the whole substance of a thing is produced, though we imagine the thing as first non-existent then existent. A change relates in one way to the agent causing it (it is that agent’s action), and in another way to the subject undergoing it (it is that thing’s subjection to the agent). If we think away the change, only the diverse relationships in creator and created remain. (Summa Theologiæ I.45.2)
Neither a shaping nor a changing but a relationship—specifically, the relation by which something exists. “The createdness of creatures,” writes Thomas, “is simply their relatedness to their Creator as source of their being” (ST I.45.3).
Once we are clear on the meaning of creation from out of nothing, we begin to glimpse why only God can create (only self-existent Being can donate being) and why creatures are incapable of cooperating in this work (they have nothing to add or contribute):
The most widespread of all effects is existence itself; so it must be the effect proper to the first and most wide-ranging of causes, namely God. In other words, creation is an action peculiar to God himself. Now sometimes things can share in an activity peculiar to something else, not by their own power but by acting as a tool of the other’s power. But this only happens when the tool has something of its own to contribute, preparing the main effect; the tool would otherwise be useless, and specific jobs would not require specific tools. Thus a saw by cutting wood, its own specialty, shapes a bench, the carpenter’s specialty. But God’s proper effect in creating is what every other effect presupposes, namely, existence itself. Nothing can act as a tool and contribute to that effect, for creation presupposes nothing that the operation of a tool could prepare. So it is altogether impossible for creatures to create, either by their own power or as tools and intermediaries. (ST I.45.5; see McIntosh, The Flame Imperishable, pp. 158-162)
Given that absolute creation presupposes nothing at all, there’s nothing for a secondary cause to do, nothing for it to share in, nothing upon which to subject its finite power. Hence the suggestion that angels might function as intermediate creators is meaningless. Not even Omnipotence can square a circle. Creation ex nihilo is God’s proper work. At best created spirits can only be bystanders. What might be possible for angels, though—if divinely willed—is world-formation. And that brings us back to the Ainulindalë.