Thursday, April 21, 2011

Creation Isn't What It Used to Be

Reading the J.R.R. Tolkien’s creation myth the Ainulindalë, I grew perplexed. Something didn’t fit, it was certainly a myth but was it a “creation myth,” it bore similarities to others but it felt very different. It tells of the creation of Middle-Earth and of many of the beings that inhabit it. But is that enough? I thought long and hard on the myths and stories of creation which I already knew and after some thought and comparison I realized Tolkien’s story didn’t really fit in with them. Many of the myths that follow in the Silmarillion have strong echoes and build on themes from other myths, but the Ainulindalë is something apart. In fact it is unlike any myth I have come across, and its uniqueness is very telling of its nature.

What first struck me as odd, and different about the Ainulindalë is that its creation story is entirely devoid of the theme dichotomy which is present in every myth which I’ve read. In each story the creation of the world is either a meeting of, or the separation of opposite entities. In Babylonian myth it’s Apsu (fresh water) and Tiamat (sea or salt water) who hitch up together and in turn give birth to the rest of the . In Greek mythology the Titans and Olympians are created by the Uranos and Gaia’s relationship. Though my personal favorite set of myths, and one which Tolkien himself took from, is the Norse tradition. In said tradition in the beginning there was a world of flame called Muspelheim, a world of ice Niflheim, and a vast nothingness between (which may have the best name ever) Ginnungagap. Eventually a wind caused blew over Niflheim into Muspelheim and thus the giant Ymir, whose body Odin and his brothers used to shape the nine worlds, was born.

Of course there are also myths of separation, the notable one being the one recounted in Genesis. In the beginning the world is Tohu Vavohu (two more great words) which is loosely translated as unformed and void. From this mess God creates the world by dividing it up. First he divides the light and the dark, then creates a firmament between the waters of the sky and the waters of the ocean. Every day God either separates or creates two things which are opposites to each other (though on the third day he does create plants as well as a pair of opposites), land and ocean, Sun and Moon, sentient life and animals, and on the seventh day God divides the holy from the everyday when he creates the Sabbath. This dichotomy is different from the myths we saw above, but it still present, it still a very important part of the story. God divides the world, and thus defines it. The other myths as well look at the world as existing in binaries which shape the world. In the Ainulindalë this theme is noticeably absent. There is Illúvitar and from his thoughts he creates the Ainur, and though the various versions of the story don’t agree on all the details they all agree that there was a great music that they made, and that from that the world was shaped and eventually made. Though I don’t think this duality is necessary for a creation myth, its absence in Tolkien’s creation story was what first stuck out as different.

What really made me realize that this wasn’t a world creation myth was the noted fact that the details of how the world is made are glossed over. The general existence of our reality, in the Silmarillion is attributed to Illúvitar saying Eä, Let it be! After that the Ainur mess around with this new world shaping and creating the land, sky, sea, and everything that fills them. Of that process we actually hear very little, and it seems almost trivial. Traditional creation myths are very concerned with where everything in the world comes from. God makes divides the sky from the sea, and Odin uses the brains of Ymir to make clouds. Tolkien attributes certain spheres to certain Ainur, but doesn’t talk about their creation of things in their spheres. This fact in particular leads me to believe that the Ainulindalë isn’t a story about the creation of the world at all. Yes it does contain the making of the world, but that is really just a detail in a different story.

The heart of the Ainulindalë, what the story is really about, is the creation of the Ainur. The story tells of the creation and the growth of this species of spiritual being. We learn of how they were created, their role as cosmic musicians, and later as sub-creators. The story also shows us the growth of these beings through harmonizing, and through interacting with one and other. In fact when you like at the story through this vein a few things make a lot more sense. Above I talked about the act of creation as either combining or separating, and wrote falsehoods when I said that the Ainulindalë was devoid of them. In fact in the first sentence we see this happen, when Ilúvitar creates the Ainur. It says he makes them out of his thoughts, but another way of looking at this is an act of creative separation. Eru separates aspects of himself from himself, and through this he creates the world. This separation even has a little bit of that dichotomy stuff we’ve been talking about. There is Aulë and his wife Yavanna, whose spheres are earth, metal, and crafts, and nature, trees, and other plants, respectively (and the creators of dwarves and Ents). Then of course there’s Melkor himself who is his own dichotomy, embodying both extreme heat and extreme cold at the same time. But this I guess is kind of pushing it.

Regardless what we have is a myth whose concern is the creation of workings of its own cosmology. And of course this is the case. The purpose of this mythology isn’t like the creation myths in the bible, or theogony, or the eddas, which are to actually explain a natural phenomenon. Tolkien is less interested in the specifics, and more interested in how the elves would see them. More so with what kind of gods Middle-Earth would have, and their stories. This was never meant to be a traditional creation myth, they’re interesting sure, but I don’t think Tolkien himself is super interested in how the physical world was made, rather how the beings who perceived and shaped it were made. In fact the Ainulindalë doesn’t even encompass the entirety of creation. For starters there aren’t any beings in Eä save for the Ainur, and even then the story says it isn’t finished. Middle-Earth isn’t ever finished, that’s the whole point of sub-creation, which is covered by the vast wealth of the Lord of the Rings and all the texts about Middle-Earth which came before and after.



  1. What an excellent point! I hadn't thought of this before. You are right, the Ainulindalë isn't really about the creation of Arda; that more properly is the work of the Valaquenta, where the work of the Ainur is described. So why start a cosmogony by concentrating on the creation of thoughts rather than things? What does this tell us about what Tolkien was concerned about?


  2. I think it tells us Tolkien was a bit of a mythology nerd (which we see in his essay on fairy stories), but really shows us what we loves most about myths, mainly its actors. It also reaffirms that Tolkien wasn't looking to myth to explain the natural world nearly as much as he wanted to explain the metaphysical one. As to the importance creation of thoughts, what is a story if not the germination of a created thought.

  3. When I read the Ainulidale I was similarly stuck by Tolkien's emphasis on thought in his description of the Ainur.

    The Ainur "each comprehended only the part of the mind of Illúvatar from which he came" (Silmarillion, 3) and were kindled with the 'Flame Imperishable' by Illúvatar so as to serve in the creation of the themes of the world.

    The creation of this world in turn was brought forth by Illúvatar so that he could have a place to harbour his Children (i.e. Elves and Men) upon their coming into being.

    These children moreover, were kindled with the same flame as the Ainur and are, therefore, of equal standing since they were also created by the One and are not a sub-creation of the Ainur.

    The Children thus possess something perceived by the Ainur as "strange and free, wherein they saw the mind of Illuvatar reflected anew" (Silmarillion, 7). It is solely upon constructing these descriptions with a focus on thought as creative power which establishes this relation of equality.

    Had the Ainulidale been focused on compiling an impressive list enumerating the things envisioned by the Ainur, the importance of this relationship would have been depreciated to a certain degree.

    Instead, Tolkien choses to focus solely on 'thought', and we are thus able to best comprehend the significance of the relationships established between the Valar, Melkor and the Children of Illúvatar upon the unfolding of their History.

    I believe it is the establishment of this relationship that Tolkien is concerned about in his cosmogony, and not so much on the breadth of descriptive wonders of his world. However - any new input to aid me in my thoughts would be highly appreciated! :)

    - J.Machado