by Jonathan Geltner
Part II: Luck (and Music)
In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand
In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.
Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?
When the morning stars sang together,
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Job 38:4, 7
These days I catch it mostly out of doors, often at dawn. When I was younger I could get it as easily from books (even from the cover art of certain books), first from genre fantasy, and then from everything else that I read, including a lot of history and travel literature. If I hadn’t pursued a literary life, maybe that would still happen, but books have changed for me. The craftsman, however feeble his skill, pays a price for initiation into the craft. But it is not so with the Earth. Though my heart breaks for her fate under the human dominion, and I know in an informational way so much more about her now, the Earth still generously provides for me what she did on that long ago drive from Massachusetts to Ohio, when I first listened to The Hobbit: the feeling of wonder and desire that I call fantasy. In this aspect, at least, the Earth is inexhaustible.
Like all feeling, fantasy is bodily. Some cold spring morning, say, I step outside at first light, before the rest of my family is stirring, and there’s a wild splayed sky and a wind up, and my senses fire. The feeling of fantasy comes in the sky I see (which is framed in one part by the horizon, human or non-human, spires or treetops) and in the earth and vegetation I scent, in the air moving on my skin, on my tongue. I feel leaping within—the heart, or what in the New Testament’s Greek is called the bowels. Whatever we call it, it’s internal alchemy as the body primes itself… For what? For adventure. For the Quest. The Quest for what? For the world, to hold and behold and uphold the world as if for the first time; to feel that it is all alive, and I am all alive in it and belong in it, a part of it and apart from it just enough to be able to sense all this and say it somehow. When being in the world is like that, some have called the world Faerie or Elfland and life in it a quest: a movement meaningful in every stage.
Perhaps in this moment at dawn, or dawn-like moment—is it already happening or is it always only intimation, preparation?—I even hear something. For one must be called to the Quest. But what I hear is more than the dawn chorus or the wind in the trees—whirring in the needles or clacking bare boughs or the thick rustling of full-fledged summer—though it is that sound, too, and nothing else if not for that sound. But the sound is also a music beyond hearing: the horns of Elfland, to borrow a phrase from Lord Dunsany (who borrowed it from Tennyson). But usually one cannot visit Elfland, cannot get beyond (to borrow the other part of Dunsany’s pair) the fields we know. And do I want to get beyond the fields I know? Or would I rather really know them. That’s a biblical word, too, an older one: for the ancient Hebrews, knowing at its most intense was bodily.
In any case, I think the horns of Elfland is not quite it, haunting as that phrase may be. The music I catch, just beyond sound, is a more complex music than the braying of horns; it is fold upon fold like the landscape that beckons. And this eerie call makes me think there’s another, less clearly bodily sense at work in the moment of fantasy. We in the modern materialistic West don’t usually call it a sense, so I lack an exactly right word for it: memory is close—and the memory here would be made up to a great degree of many long cycling campaigns and backpacking expeditions I made when I was younger. But it’s not some reverie of an actual journey I plan to make or nostalgia for one long since taken, so I might better call it consciousness. A certain feeling for the world and the great Way and the fiery Life coursing through it. A feeling for pattern, and the pattern is moving.
Fantasy is the desire to be conscious of that moving pattern—fully conscious, in all your senses and faculties inward and outward. This is the kind of desire I want to speak about now, still a longing for thing and happening, perceived and experienced in a certain and tangible way. But I want to skirt the idea of a doubled world, Faerie-Earth, and the question it raises as to which world, or face of the world, is real or more real. It is one thing to long for dragons and elves—or angels and demons—however we imagine them. But how many really perceive such beings? In the talk of re-enchanting the world that I encounter, the emphasis often seems to fall on the re-enchantment rather than on the world. There is an idea abroad that if you can’t believe in fairies or green men or what have you, then you’re hopeless for re-enchantment, a poor puppet of scientism who will never taste the tiniest morsel of wonder.
Perhaps I’m being unfair, but anyhow I want to sidestep all that, including the submerged question of just what believing in something actually means, because for me the business of re-enchantment is foremost about the world—the actual world we can all agree (I hope) that we live in, the World That Is, as Tolkien calls it in his creation myth. Except I am not talking just now about that or any other fictional version of the Earth, but about “this very unhappy earth” (as Tolkien wrote to his son away in the Second World War) where we are free to imagine elves and dragons, all of Faerie—and only then and thus make it so in what Tolkien called a further “effoliation,” or making to leaf, of reality.
But I start with the reality we know—the one we know we are laying waste as surely as any dragon could do. My greatest and most persistent desire is to behold and safeguard the sanctity and consciousness of the Earth and all her life. To turn back the forces of darkness which seek to sap reality of its realness and givenness and bleed the mystery and radiance from every last thing and gesture: that is what re-enchantment is for. Somehow or other I have always felt this, but a sense of the urgency of re-enchantment has only grown with me since I became a father. What I want my sons to know, more than anything, is a sense of wonder at the order and beauty of creation. The Greek word meaning both order and beauty is cosmos. I want my sons—and all of us—to live in a cosmos. I’m not looking for paradise or utopia. The Earth will always be very unhappy. Nevertheless the Earth can be the place of truest life, if we behold her—right now wherever we are, not in some deferred political future—and the firmament she is set amidst as a cosmos.
But how do you actually do that? Is it the kind of thing that can be done deliberately? I’m not sure, but I do know something strange and joyful, something for which we may be deeply grateful, and that is that stories of the secondary world of Faerie are uniquely well suited to aiding us in rediscovering the primary world as a cosmos. And why is that? Partly because of the geographical and historical quality of the ever-greater and beckoning that I tried to evoke in the first part of this essay, which we can translate to our real world. Stories of Faerie are a kind of training ground or preparation. And they are preparation in another way, which has more to do with the story and its narration, as distinct from its world. Fantasy, perhaps more freely than many other types of fiction, is apt to show what a cosmos most fully can be, namely a world where luck is real; that is, a world shot through with grace.
It was a turning point in his career, but he did not know it.
So the storyteller of The Hobbit tells us at a moment which has stood out to me since I first heard it in the radio drama, for there is something awesome about the omniscient narrative voice. It takes such omniscience—characteristically the storyteller’s—to peal back appearances and reveal the truth about luck: that in a created cosmos, i.e. one that bears some relation to what lies beyond itself, luck is grace (charis), the sudden turn that is a kind of joy (chara) and occasion for thanksgiving (eucharistia) because it is a piercing of the transcendent frame in order to perfect it, to bring the story to fruition. I’m talking not just about what the quoted sentence refers to, but the very fact that the storyteller gives us that sentence at all.
You can probably guess, even if you haven’t read the book in a while, where that sentence appears: in the fifth chapter, when Bilbo wakes in the goblin caves into which he has been abducted but where he has been subsequently lost by both the goblins and by his companions, the dwarves and Gandalf. He blindly gropes along the stony floor and discovers a ring, puts it in his pocket, and that is all the more we hear about it until later in the chapter, after we have met the character who will go on to fill what is arguably the most important role in The Lord of the Rings: Gollum, who will accidentally (as it seems) complete the action of the main plot, and without whose malicious intervention on numerous prior occasions that plot could never reach its climax of triumphant error and failure.
Of course we may not know all that the first time we come to this moment in The Hobbit. Tolkien himself did not know it when he first wrote the book, and that sentence does not appear in the first edition. So why is it essential? Because this is the kind of moment in narration that is analogous to the action or momentary perceptibility of grace in the primary world, the intervention from beyond the frame of the world or the “web of story,” as Tolkien called it, reassuring us that indeed we are part of a story or, in the case of fiction, witness to the unfolding of a story, participants in that solemn and thrilling ritual that is the telling of a tale. It is not at all necessary for the narrator of The Hobbit to announce this most crucial of turning points. But in doing so (and there are many other instances of the same narrative technique throughout The Hobbit) the tale is made to meet the desire for cosmos.
Not just any cosmos, let’s be clear. Our desire is not only for order and beauty. It is for meaning. Order and beauty are meaningful, but so are suffering and darkness. What is meaning? It is a relation between two (or more) terms. To mean is a transitive verb. Nothing just means: something means something else. In order for the cosmos as a whole to be meaningful, it must stand in relation to something other than itself. Another way of putting this is to say that the cosmos (and so everything and every moment individually within it) is symbolic, for symbol is joining of the two sides. There are various ways of understanding the structure of meaning. One way, which prevailed in the Western imagination for a long time, is to say that it is musical, that there is a kind of musica unversalis. Another way to describe the structure of the relation that is meaning is to liken it to story. We are usually in the position of Bilbo; what we crave is the presence of a Storyteller. Even if we cannot ourselves ever know the full tale, or all the world in which it plays out (it is possible we would prefer not to know these things, or would prefer they not be knowable), it is enough and more than enough to know that the tale is whole and there is a teller of the tale. And no one fashions and tells a tale but for joy. So the kind of cosmos we desire is a created cosmos, one which points in every aspect dark or light to its Maker—or, with fiction as our analogue, to its Storyteller.
There is another very much desired and welcome presence in the particular story that first tuned my mind to such ideas, a curious figure who plays a role somewhere between that of a character and that of the narrator. He, too, is able to reveal the true nature of luck as grace:
“Of course!” said Gandalf. “And why should not they prove true? Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”
These are almost the final words of The Hobbit, when Bilbo has uttered his surprise that the old songs foretelling the return of the dwarves to their mountain home and their treasure proved true. Gandalf is telling Bilbo that he is part of a larger story the full scope of which he cannot know. He is also telling him that he has fulfilled his role, and everything has in fact played out as it was meant to (intended by its teller); the story (or the road, as Bilbo sings) will go on, even if this character will now retire. But it’s worth thinking about what this character’s role has been, just what sort of chain of events Gandalf is, as it were, giving his benediction.
Bilbo, who has all along been called a burglar and whose luck has been a subject of much comment throughout the story, has had to cheat, deceive, betray, steal, fail, kill and risk his own life. It’s no surprise, then, that he meets this moment of grace—the revelation that all that darkness was part of a greater order, that it was meant to be—with joy: he smokes a pipe with Gandalf. That is how The Hobbit ends, which incidentally is how it begins, with Bilbo smoking a pipe on his doorstep. The simple things of the Earth, whether great or small, and the creaturely things we do, whether in terror or delight, are where thrill and joy are to be found for Tolkien. Not in epic struggle or vast wealth (Bilbo brings home out of Smaug’s hoard just two small chests, one of silver and one of gold), though these things have a way of coming up in stories anyhow. But they do not need to, and joyful storytelling—story that imparts through both event and narration the feeling that, however grim, all is as it must be and the possibility of compassion is never perfectly extinguished—can involve the foulest, the lowest, and darkest.
You can see that quite literally in the fifth chapter of The Hobbit, called “Riddles in the Dark.” I’ve already mentioned how it begins, with Bilbo pocketing the magical ring. He follows the tunnel where he wakes down into the very heart of the mountain, where it ends at a subterranean lake. There he meets Gollum, who would like to eat him. But what an ordered world this is! He now exists in a profoundly reduced state, but Gollum was once civilized, very like Bilbo. What do civilized men do? They haggle and strike deals. Bilbo and Gollum agree to play the riddling game. If Bilbo wins, Gollum has to show him the way out of the mountain, and if Gollum wins, he gets to eat Bilbo. The winner is whoever asks the first unanswered riddle, or the loser is whoever first fails to come up with a riddle.
(By the way, riddles were a real medieval literary genre at which the English excelled. Outside of tales they were not associated with such high stakes. In tales, though, it is interesting how riddles and other games of cleverness, guessing and chance can be important. This is true in comedy as well: think of the fatal question about the “airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow” in Monty Python’s The Holy Grail, or the game of poisoned cups that the villain Vizzini plays with the hero Westley in The Princess Bride. Usually historical riddles describe elements of nature, common tools and other implements, creatures (sometimes fantastical), social types, and ordinary situations, in ornate poetic formulae.)
So they go back and forth, Gollum all the while more leering and menacing, smacking his lips and speculating to himself when Bilbo hesitates to answer or to come up with a riddle of his own about what Bilbo will be like to eat. Perhaps not the most sportsmanlike conduct, but not quite cheating either. The answers to the riddles are, in order (alternating, with Gollum asking the first, so you get a sense of the kinds of things on the mind of each): mountains; teeth; wind; sunshine on daisies; the dark; eggs; fish; a man eating fish and giving the bones to a cat; time. This last riddle, which it fell to Bilbo to answer, is where the moral ambiguity sets in. Bilbo cannot guess the answer and Gollum is hounding him to hurry up. Bilbo means to ask for more time, but all he manages to shout is “Time! Time!” The narrator says, “Bilbo was saved by pure chance. For that of course was the answer.”
Is that good luck? If it is, do we grant a certain value or meaning to luck? In sport we do, up to a point. We think of that kind of luck or chance as something one is free to “take.” It’s as if this kind of luck is woven into the fabric of reality as a kind of resource and you can’t really blame someone for making use of it. Innocent luck, we could call it, or dumb luck as it’s more usually known—tellingly, if we would think about it, for what is dumb cannot speak to us. And this is all luck or coincidence or chance ever is in a cosmos that—be it never so beautiful and well-ordered—stands in relation to nothing outside itself. In such a cosmos there is not Grace but only Fate (recall the root of Faerie in Fata), that blind force that is really just another name for How things happen to be. A human’s or a hobbit’s fate is simply the sum total of the chances he or she will have. There is no reason a created cosmos cannot also be thought of us overseen by or embodying Fate, for that kind of cosmos also has a thusness, a sense of holding together just so. But what else is there besides that structure, that necessity?
By now in the episode Bilbo is distraught, and he cannot think of a riddle to ask. He reaches into his pocket in desperate hope this will give him some idea, and feels the ring. He had forgotten that he’d found it and slipped it into his pocket. So he says out loud, “What have I got in my pocket?” The entire story of the One Ring hinges on this moment, this unwitting utterance. The moral order (and by the way where did it come from?) of Faerie breaks down now. By that I mean that neither Bilbo nor Gollum can now be in the right. That such a situation is possible—in Faerie or on Earth—is quite mysterious, but so it is. In fact, the Storyteller (of this our primary world, or of Faerie) seems to prefer such “no-win scenarios” (now I am alluding to another great fantasy, Star Trek), if only to prove that they are illusory, that in fact the greatest good—the Story—comes from just such moments. (The narrator of The Hobbit tells us as much in Rivendell: “Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale…”)
Gollum thinks Bilbo is asking the next riddle with the question about the contents of his pocket, and rightly protests that it is not fair. Bilbo on that account allows him three guesses. Gollum takes four, and the superficial moral structure of reality (anyway of Faerie) vanishes for a little while, even as Bilbo mulls its fading echoes:
“Both wrong,” cried Bilbo, very much relieved; and he jumped at once to his feet, put his back to the nearest wall, and held out his little sword. He knew, of course, that the riddle game was sacred and of immense antiquity, and even wicked creatures were afraid to cheat when they played at it. But he felt he could not trust this slimy thing to keep any promise at a pinch. Any excuse would do for him to slide out of it. And after all, that last question [i.e. Bilbo’s] had not been a genuine riddle according to the ancient laws.
I note the evocation of deep time even amidst such a suspenseful passage. Actually that deep time is part of what gives the moment so much weight. But the more immediate point is that in the present the moral code is obliterated. A state of nature will now prevail for some torturous minutes. Gollum goes back to his island to look for the magical ring that turns you invisible if you wear it, which he does not know Bilbo has found. He means to don it and assault Bilbo. The latter, naturally, beats a hasty retreat. Gollum gives chase, thinking Bilbo knows the secret way out the mountain’s “back door,” which in fact he does not. Gollum gains on Bilbo and when Bilbo trips he thinks all is lost and the vicious creature will get him. But in falling down—another lucky break—his finger slips the ring on, and so Gollum does not see him and instead passes him. Only in this way does Bilbo discover the magical property of the ring. Now Bilbo follows Gollum, realizing that the creature may inadvertently show him the way out.
And so he does. But Gollum is afraid to follow the tunnel that will lead him to the goblins’ guard room at the back door of the mountain, so he crouches down on the ground in front of it, agonizing over the danger—for he lacks the ring to protect him, the ring which has kept him alive for so long in the mountain, a living death. Bilbo is right behind him, still and quiet as can be, hardly daring to breathe. It is a moment of decision awful in its pause. It was awful for me every time I listened to it in the radio drama, and in fact it got worse as the years went by, as if by adolescence, when I finally put the tapes aside, every bleak stream in life had coalesced around this one moment.
Indeed, it is a thrilling passage of writing. Three things come together here—luck, compassion and narrative omniscience—which seem to me, whether individually or combined, to provide some insight into what we desire in stories of Faerie.
Bilbo … was desperate. He must get away, out of this horrible darkness, while he had any strength left. He must fight. He must stab the most foul thing, put its eye out, kill it. It meant to kill him. No, not a fair fight. He was invisible now. Gollum had no sword. Gollum had not actually threatened to kill him, or tried to yet. And he was miserable, alone, lost. A sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror, welled up in Bilbo’s heart: a glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering. All these thoughts passed in a flash of a second. He trembled. And then quite suddenly in another flash, as if lifted by a new strength and resolve, he leaped.
No great leap for a man, but a leap in the dark. Straight over Gollum head he jumped, seven feet forward and three in the air; indeed, had he known it, he only just missed cracking his skull on the low arch of the passage.
Note how the narrator is able to move in a very short span from close third-person, actually free indirect discourse (where we get the actual thoughts of a character—in this case, Bilbo’s debate with himself about the justice of murdering Gollum), to the storyteller’s omniscience (Bilbo’s almost killing himself in his jump). The omniscience of the classic storyteller means precisely the ability to telescope the narrative distance (as it’s called) in that way. Without it, we could have no idea of Bilbo’s great good luck in surviving. Neither could we move into the character and perceive the sudden turn of compassion, the moment (though readers will not understand it until almost the end of The Lord of the Rings) that will prove to be the true heart of the Quest that closes Tolkien’s mythos. Setting that significance aside, in The Hobbit alone the compassionate turn and the leap in the dark are a sudden turn both joyous and grievous, just as Tolkien said, around the same time he wrote this book, in his essay on the stories of Faerie. The moral current of the tale resumes, deeper and purer than ever, and Faerie is a created cosmos once more, bestowed upon us and revealed in its sacred order by the Storyteller.
I have mentioned that the root of Faerie goes back to Latin Fata. That is interesting insofar as stories of Faerie strike me as suited to the transfiguration of Fate into Grace. But if you go a little deeper in etymology and look at what Fata itself means, you see it is a word for speaking, related to the Greek root that gives us prophecy. And this I like very much, because it gives me the image of Faerie speaking forth, calling us to the Quest, as I began this part of the essay by suggesting it does. In Tolkien’s version of the creation myth, called Ainulindalë (glossed as “the music of the Ainur”), we learn that the Earth in its stark elemental presence makes a kind of music or speech, calling to the favored sons and daughters of the Most High—human beings:
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 this 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.
All the feeling of fantasy and love of this Earth are met together in that sentence. Tolkien was perhaps a quintessential Englishman of one kind not the least in his attitude toward the sea.—Quintessential for his era, I mean, the era of the Empire’s heyday, and it was a maritime empire. But remember, too, that Tolkien first came to England by the seaways, as a very young boy from South Africa.—Anyway I doubt anyone who did not love the sea could write such a sentence and lay it in the foundation of his mythical world. I should say: his mythical version of this world, England and all.
There are many things worth saying about the Ainulindalë. Here I only want to point out something about its style and something about music. I said above that the analogy to story is one way of figuring the structure of meaning, and the analogy to music is another. There is a particular property of music, the one that makes it like story, that leads me to say this.
Tolkien seems to have been fond of music, but I might say he rather fancied the idea of music than actual music. Certainly songs feature in his stories. For Tolkien, a philologist learned in the deeper strata of the literary deposit, song and poetry could never be far apart; and poetry fairly ran in the fantasist’s blood. But as for music and the idea of music in Tolkien’s stories of a created cosmic Faerie, I am not thinking of song and lyric but of Western art music, or classical music as it’s commonly called now. That music is of great complexity, and perhaps the chief feature of the complexity is what in musical language is called development. What is developed over the course of a piece of music of this kind is given various names: motif, subject, and theme being the most common and simple. In order to be fully conscious of a large work of Western art music, one must employ the memory, one must be able to look back—or listen back, I suppose—like the omniscient storyteller narrator, and perceive how the themes interweave and change through the course of the music, to leave the listener with a feeling that it always had to be so and yet it was made to be so and became that way with some excitement. One must be able to hear the grace of it at last.
Do that, and the great experience of music is recognition and transfiguration. When we arrive at the end of the music, we behold its beginnings in a new way—I would say in a new light if not for the sensory confusion. (Incidentally, the classical languages Tolkien grew up on work in a similar fashion: because of the freedom of word order in Greek and Latin and the propensity of its celebrated writers to work in long sentences, you have to be able to hold the beginning of a sentence in your mind until you get to its end in order to grasp the meaning.) The experience of music is the same again but different or, in a word—a word from musical terminology, in fact—recapitulation. The Greek word for this, which theologians will recognize, is anacephalaiosis.
It seems to me, from a literary point of view at least, that the Christian story is preeminently one of recapitulation. That is how the Christian Bible is structured, and it is how Christ’s role in cosmic redemption is understood by some. One could simply say that, in the Christian conception, recapitulation is the pattern of redemption. A new heaven and a new earth… It was sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body… The same again but different. In other words, the Christian conception and intuition of the history of the cosmos is essentially musical—at least as far as Western music of highest complexity was understood it in Tolkien’s time. It is a music that reached its apex in absolute form; that is, without words or verbal apparatus of any kind. This is the kind of music that Tolkien chose for his version of the creation myth.
Music beyond words; music beyond even hearing. I want to think about that, for it seems an image of the desire of Faerie. It is in any case some version of the apophatic frontier of storytelling. In the myth, Ilúvatar is God and the Ainur are his angels. Existence is created by the Ainur, first in imagination—or whatever is the angelic analogue of imagination—and then in actuality. Whereas the God of Genesis creates by speech, Ilúvatar and his Ainur create by music. Ilúvatar gave the first theme, and the Ainur “sang before him, and he was glad.” The Ainur are to develop his theme. Tolkien’s God has given them what he calls the “Flame Imperishable,” which is poorly translated by modern English creativity. They are able to come up with new ideas: they are able to behold potentiality. More than that, as they will discover to their shock, what they imagine or conceive in music will become actual. The Flame Imperishable is perhaps the figure in fiction of what Tolkien called the human power of subcreation. I leave it to those who enjoy debating metaphysics to debate it. But they’ve never created before, the Ainur. They just sprang into being, entities in the mind of Ilúvatar. He gives them a song and they sing; they do not know what it means; they are like characters in a story. (They are characters in a story.)
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.
This is the language of analogy, the language of figuration. The technical name for the rhetorical trope is simile, rather than the related and more familiar term metaphor. But all language of analogy or figuration is of a piece. Figuration means … well, it means meaning. It means binding two more or less disparate things more or less firmly in relation. The weaker form, so to call it, of figurative language is simile. Sometimes the weaker is the more appropriate. It is the more appropriate here because we are not to imagine that Tolkien’s cosmic music is actually in some secret way the kind of choirs and orchestras we know on this Earth. It is only like (and so also ever more unlike) that kind of thing. All verbs and constructions of seeming and appearance are this weaker former of analogy. But the overall usage of music, or the idea of music, in Tolkien’s creation myth is metaphorical, the stronger form of figuration.
When the Ainur have been singing for some indefinite time (for time itself, as we know it anyway, has not been created yet), one of them, Melkor, rebels. He goes off into lonely parts of infinitude and introduces a discordant theme of his own invention: in fact, a rash braying as of horn-like music. A musical battle unfolds, with Ilúvatar and his loyal Ainur striving to correct or balance or subtly accommodate Malkor’s jarring, throbbing, simplistic music. But it is a real fray, and Melkor seems to hold his ground, so to speak. Several times the battle rages back-and-forth. At last Ilúvatar grows impatient and declares to the Ainur, including Melkor, that he will show them a vision—of what we would call actuality, the cosmos that all this fraught music will eventually bring into being—to prove that no one “can alter the music in my despite,” not even the mightiest, Melkor, who will discover that all his secret thoughts “are but a part of the whole and tributary to its glory.” Ilúvatar says “Behold your Music!” and what he shows then is nothing more or less—in the fiction—than this Earth.
The Ainur, these semi-divine beings, are astounded, but in this way they gain knowledge of almost all that ever will be. Almost. They gain knowledge, you could say, of the Fate of the world. But they cannot see its Grace; they do not fully grasp that Ilúvatar has given all this, light and dark, his benediction. I will let the last words of this essay be the words of the master fantasist—the finest words on freedom, sudden joy, and the beauty of Faerie or Earth that I know. Note a final time that the name for the narrative voice that can deliver this passage is the Storyteller, the one who knows even what the angels do no know:
Yet some things there are that they cannot see, neither alone nor taking counsel together; for to none but himself has Ilúvatar revealed all that he has in store, and in every age there come forth things that are new and have no foretelling, for they do not proceed from the past.
* * *
Jonathan Geltner serves as fiction editor at Orison Books and teaches at Adrian College. His translation of Paul Claudel’s Five Great Odes is available from Angelico Press, and his novel Absolute Music is forthcoming from Slant Books, where he also writes regularly on fiction. He is currently at work on a collection of essays (from which this essay has been adapted) on the sense of place and the sacred, and a historical fantasy set in the fifth century B.C.E. Jonathan lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife and two sons.