Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Completeness of Music

My copy of Genesis is completely filled with scattered markings and notes. The pages of the first two chapters have very little white space remaining. As a religious studies student, I’ve had to read those two chapters, just seven pages in my heavily footnoted edition, probably four or five different times for various classes. There are arrows connecting footnotes to the text, circles, underlines, asterisks, and question marks everywhere. It is nearly unreadable at this point. What is it that makes those chapters of creation so complicated? Those few words seem so straightforward at first. God says things, and they are, and he sees that they are good. Simple, right? But upon looking closer, you find God referred to in the plural, things that seem to exist before God creates them because of the creation of their opposites, and the problem of gender. Suddenly creation doesn’t look so straightforward. This complex narrative, to some people truth and to others myth, is utterly ingrained in our society. My much-marred copy of the text is a testament to its constant presence in our lives, whether that presence is obvious or not. It has become so central to our society and to our understanding of the world that it is difficult to imagine living in one built on the foundation of a different story of origin.

Tolkien’s work provides us with such a society. Middle-Earth is, as Tolkien says, the embodiment of a mythical history of our own world; I find it incredible and yet necessary that his history includes a new story of creation that is seemingly like, and yet so unlike, the one that our society is founded upon. We discussed in class the many ways in which the Ainulindalё is different from Genesis: the preeminence of music, the differences between God and Eru/Ilúvatar, and complicated presence of the Ainur, to name a few. There is something curious, though, that struck me about the Ainulindalё and the relationship between Ilúvatar and the Ainur. In class, it was brought up that the Hebrew word for God used in Genesis 1 is Elohim, a plural, which is why, in the English, God says, “Let us make a human in our image…” (Gen 1:26). Flieger points to this as well, noting that the plural Elohim most closely correlates to Tolkien’s Ainur, while the singular, Jahweh of Genesis 2, corresponds more fittingly to Ilúvatar. (54) That argument, in my mind, corresponds with much of what Flieger continually says about light; that it is gradually fragmented throughout Tolkien’s creation. The power of Ilúvatar is, also, being fragmented. This too seems to fit with what we discussed in class about names; Eru being ‘one’, and Ilúvatar being ‘whole’, the implication being that as one Eru is complete, but as Ilúvatar, after the creation of the Ainur, he is a complete sum of many splintered parts, to borrow Flieger’s language. So the theme of fragmentation holds.

It struck me during this discussion, however, that there is a strong theme of the opposite, of a coming together, throughout the Ainulindalё, which I think gives it its real beauty and strength. The music of the Ainur is initially fragmented, yes, as Ilúvatar gives the Ainur a theme which they break into parts. (15) However, it comes back together. Music, be it Beethoven, Holst, or Blind Guardian, means less when broken into its elemental parts, where it is a complicated run on a violin, a beautiful note on a trumpet, or a cymbal crash. All of those things, in their own right, can be wonderful, but it is when they are combined in harmony that music gains its magic. Tolkien refers often to harmony, and the discord caused by Melkor, in the Ainulindalё. To have either of those things in music, a combining of different parts is required. All of the Ainur come together, providing different elements of Ilúvatar’s three themes, and all of those elements are important. As was discussed in class, the resolution, the beauty, of Ilúvatar’s final theme, the creation of his Children, gains such power because it rises out of the discord of Melkor as its opposite. Thus all of the splintered fragments of the music, beautiful in their own right, are necessary pieces of the ultimate beauty of Ilúvatar’s themes.

All of these elements, too, find themselves brought to fruition in the vision, and later the actual reality, of Arda. Each of the parts sung by the Ainur is incorporated into Arda’s creation, and once the Valar set to work on it they add their own flourishes to its totality. As Ilúvatar points out to Ulmo, all of the special creations of the Valar gain strength and a new beauty from the creations of the others. (19) Again, the fragmented parts come together and make a more beautiful and complete whole. The Ainulindalё even refers to time as circular (“…for the history was incomplete and the circles of time not full-wrought when the vision was taken away.” [20]) which implies that time and the entirety of creation, all of Eä, will return to one unified completeness at the ultimate end.

I feel that the creation myth held by any particular culture speaks to the underlying pathos of anyone, human, Elf, or Hobbit, living under that myth. So it is with Genesis in our primary reality, and so it is with the Ainulindalё in Middle-Earth. Throughout Lord of the Rings Tolkien refers to the fading of the Elves and the coming domination of Men as fulfilling what is meant to be. All that passes in Middle-Earth is striving toward the complete end that the Ainur have sung after the thoughts of Ilúvatar. It is that first music, the music that relies on fragmenting and coming together again, that so distinguishes the creation of Middle-Earth from our own story of creation, to me. The entirety of the course of history in Middle-Earth could be viewed as a great song, with three themes and their variations, evolving in fragmented ways over time not without discord, and always progressing toward a great end that is even more dramatic than anything that has come before it because it is the returning of all of the parts to the whole.

I find the fact that Tolkien created a world that is so complete that its unique creation myth can be believable within its secondary reality amazing. We are so deeply, and almost subconsciously, affected by our own story, by Genesis, that I find it wonderful that Tolkien was so successful in crafting his world and his creation that we can escape ours to accept his. Granted, his Catholicism and his purpose inevitably marry the Ainulindalё to Genesis, and it takes no rejection of Genesis to appreciate the Ainulindalё. But I think it is a credit to Tolkien’s mastery in sub-creation that the majority of us professed a liking to the un-framed version of the text in class today. The music of Tolkien’s creation is so utterly magical and omnipresent in his work that we cannot but believe during our short stays in Middle-Earth. Perhaps the Elven accounts of the Ainulindalё are heavily annotated and studied as is my copy of Genesis, since the former narrative, and music, is just as inextricably tied to Middle-Earth as Genesis is to our society.

I want to close by proposing another song as the music of the Ainur: Eric Whitacre’s Lux Arumque



  1. Ahh. The link to Lux Arumque doesn't seem to have worked.

  2. Wow, I was just listening to that. Congratulations on your excellent taste. Have you ever sung it? It's even more awesome, if that can be imagined. Here's another version.

    --Luke Bretscher

    P.S. "Aurum". "Arum" is a type of flowering plant.

  3. I can well imagine the annotations in your copy of Genesis from the care with which you have helped us read "The Ainulindalë" here. Exquisite! I particularly like what you say about the importance of fragmentation and coming together again, the whole being greater than its parts.


  4. I would just like to second Luke's compliment on your musical taste. Eric Whitacre is so great!


  5. Luke, I've never sung it, but I did play a transcription in band. We played it with our choir singing. It was incredible.


  6. I agree that the very simplicity of a text can actually make it more complicated to understand. You mention the questions that arise from reading Genesis in Hebrew; I had a similar experience reading John in Greek: grammatically, it’s an extremely simple text, but it’s very difficult to understand what it means. What is “the word” that existed in the beginning? How and why did it exist on its own? Not to mention the fact that Greek logos, most simply translated “word,” has at least a half dozen different meanings! What do you think it is that makes a text more difficult in its simplicity? Is it the lack of detail about what occurred and how? Or is it the loaded terms that are used to describe these actions, like Elohim being used as a plural-collective-singular?

    You make a good point about Tolkien’s creation myth containing discord from the very beginning while that in Genesis does not; in the beginning, everything was perfect, balanced, complete. It seems rather ingenious of Tolkien to include discord and disunity in the creation itself, since these are fundamental elements of all that comes to exist. In this way, as you point out, he begins straight away with a theme that will continue throughout all the rest of the mythology of Middle Earth: discord and the Fall, and the harmony that continues in spite of those things.

    I, too, prefer the ‘un-framed’ version of the Ainulindalë, because, to me, the lack of frame makes it seem more ‘real;’ not a story that has been passed down, reforming itself in the transmission, but the ‘true’ events of the first Creation.