Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Form of Music and the Fate of Men

(Sorry this is so late in getting up. I've been sick for a while.)

As I was reading Ainulindale, I wasn’t surprised to find that it paralleled the Genesis and John so well. In fact, I expected it given Tolkien’s Catholicism and proclivity towards Christian themes. I wasn’t surprised at all to find the style so like that of scripture. I wasn’t at all surprised to find a Satan figure in Melkor. But one thing, above all other elements, is striking about Ainulindale: the music. Whereas, according to John, “In the beginning there was the Word,” here in the beginning there is music. Why use music to embody creation? Does music help us understand the process of creation? As I read and thought about these questions, the more I started to see how elements of music, as we perceive them, very much parallel the birth of Middle-Earth as depicted by Tolkien.

I want to bring the frame of creation here to the forefront. This story is the organization and performance of the greatest orchestra/choir/collaboration of musicians in history. The story begins only with the existence of our great composer and director, Eru (aka Iluvitar). This is obvious: Iluvitar creates the theme and composes the grand work which his symphony will put forth. He raises his hands in command of his musicians (the Ainur), especially when Melkor introduces discord (which will be central later in this investigation). As I’ve just mentioned, the Ainur are his musicians. But as musicians, they each only play one instrument; they each can only create music according to the part of Iluvitar’s thought from which they were born.

Bear with me; I realize most of this has been pretty obvious thus far, but something strikes me about this analogy in that it simply isn’t complete. More of the story of Middle-Earth fits into the form of music than this segment. This first part of the story introduces the players of the analogy, musicians divided who “sang only each alone, or but a few together while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only the part of the mind of Iluvitar rom which he came” (Silm. 3). It takes the composer to unite them together and create a true symphony that can create the frame of the world. However, Iluvitar’s initial theme seems strange to me. I feel as though I can’t understand it. Perhaps I’m not meant to understand it. After all, Iluvitar is God, and I, characterized by being less than God, shouldn’t be able to comprehend his song. But at the same time, this music is supposed to be the shaping of this world, a world which we do understand.

The issue here is that music, as we understand it, is not flawless. It is not perfectly united in harmony throughout. That is, we need tension, both in music and in the world. Thus, Melkor, the musician who introduces discord to Iluvitar’s theme, enters the fray. Corruption of the good is fundamental to a creation story; that is the only way we may arrive at a world at all like this one. And so, the creation of Middle-Earth, which is supposed to parallel our own world, is shaped as such because of the discord that Melkor introduced. What’s more interesting, however is the way in which discord contributes to Iluvitar’s theme rather than disrupting it. As Melkor writes his own symphony, Iluvitar changes his song, such that “[Melkor’s] most triumphant notes were taken by the other [Iluvitar’s] and woven into its own solemn pattern” (Silm. 5). Melkor’s dissonance ultimately becomes a component of Iluvitar’s theme. This is the same discord that characterizes the music that we hear every day. From classical music with its constantly interchanging melodies, often battling with each other for prominence, to blues and rock with their dominant 7th chords and movements around the tonic, music as we know it is defined by the constant battle between harmony and discord. At this point in the creation story, the music finally resembles something recognizable, something that seems capable of embodying the complexity, chaos and sin of our world.

However, other versions of Ainulindale in HME 5 and HME 10 make it clear that the theme of Iluvitar is a “blueprint,” as Flieger puts it. The act of creation only comes when Iluvitar fills the Void, and bestows upon the Ainur the duty of creating the world which he has shown them. Here, the music ceases to be the literal device of creation, but the form of music holds when we observe how Middle-Earth is actively built and progresses through time. First there is the filling of the Void, the bringing of the world into being, the physical establishment of the theme. Then, as the Valar attempt to construct Earth flawlessly, Melkor, in his discordant mindset, attempts to destroy their creations. Yet this discord is somehow welcomed by the theme, contributing to the beauty of the song, such as when Iluvitar points out how Melkor’s presence, his dominion over the cold and fire, has in fact contributed to the magnificence of Manwe’s water, creating rain and snow. Even the physical creation of the world adheres to the qualities that make music beautiful. The constant battle between harmony and discord that a great composition necessitates plays itself out in the active creation of this world.

Why then would Iluvitar give to men, who are most like Melkor of Iluvitar’s children, the power to see past the song of the Ainur, to shape their fate beyond the song which has already determined the fate and shape of the world? Furthermore, why would Iluvitar have these figures join in the great music after the end of days, as Ainulindale foretells. All of this suggests one undeniable fact: Iluvitar’s great symphony is by no means complete. The history of the Earth hasn’t ended. In the form of the song, where Iluvitar’s symphony maps out all time, we are still missing one key element: the resolution. In (most) music, we have the establishment of the theme followed by the introduction of discord to question it. Yet in the end, the initial theme almost always wins out. It is only upon retrospection that we appreciate the dissonance for making an interesting story; in the moment of the symphony, we are troubled and challenged by discord and love the resolution when it finally triumphs. So where is the resolution in Iluvitar’s symphony, considering that he cut off his composition in response to Melkor’s introduction of a new theme? This is what men are destined to create: the resolution we crave men crave. Iluvitar gives men two great gifts: death and free will. I found the juxtaposition of these two gifts interesting. Ainulindale says that “the Eldar remain until the end of days, and their love of the world is deeper, therefore, and more sorrowful” (HME 5 179). Perhaps, then, in men’s lesser love of the world as is, they may find more joy in shaping it into something better, seeking a deeper love. I ultimately think this is what Tolkien may have had in mind when he put man in charge of a story characterized by music. The form of a composition is intrinsic to us. Most people can at least feel the power that music has over us, and most people can’t stand when something as emotional as music ends in discord. Thus, it only makes sense to Tolkien that of Iluvitar’s creations, it would be men that would ultimately realize a perfect resolution of Iluvitar’s grand composition, his perfect theme with which this entire symphony and all of creation started.

Max L.


  1. Oh, but this does beg the question: what is going to be the resolution? Or, rather, what kind of resolution do human beings crave? Very good point about the human need for the story, the song to have some conclusion, but what kind of conclusion do you imagine would satisfy? Or, put another way, why do you think Tolkien didn't write it? Or did he? Lots to think about here!


  2. Oh there's absolutely a lot to think about here. By no means did I mean to answer the question of what the end of days would look like; I feel like that would've demanded a whole new and much longer essay (although it could also be a phenomenal direction for a project...). That being said, I could easily write an essay twice as long on this subject. But in response to why Tolkien may not have written the ending to this tale, I thinks there something to be said about the idea that this is in some way or another history fading back into myth over time. Given that, I don't think Tolkien intends this tale be separate from our own story despite them being directed at two different parties (Ainulindale directed at Elves, Genesis at men). Simply put, we haven't come to the end of our story, so his own story isn't over yet either. He didn't necessarily know what this resolution was, nor did he really have a sense of what that initial theme was in detail outside of perfect. I suggest that the resolution at the end is essentially like that initial theme, although I find what that might sound like to be somewhat unfathomable. It certainly makes for demanding meditation though; I'm sure I'll be thinking a lot about this.

  3. I like the point you made that discord in music often helps us recognize and appreciate the true beauty of music. It’s something that I have also been thinking about, and I believe similarly that Melkor’s discord embodies the idea that everything can be used for the glory of God. Although Melkor rebelled against Iluvatar in his lust for power, as you said his disharmony can, in the end, serve to foster greater appreciation for Iluvatar’s creation. The existence of evil allows for the greater recognition and love of good, and by extension God.

    This fits beautifully with Christian theology. Although man rebelled against God in the garden, and subsequently fell and allowed death to enter the world, their sin allowed God to be glorified more completely than a perfect creation could ever accomplish. Man’s ‘discord’ within God’s music allowed for the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus, the most beautiful act in Christian belief. Jesus death exemplifies the love God has for his creation, and allows for the redemption (or in the music methaphor, resolution) of mankind with God. The truth is, without discord there can be no resolution, and without sin there is not true appreciation for God.


  4. You make an interesting point regarding the role of men in the music of Tolkien’s cosmos. In fact, that is backed up by the statement in the myth that the Ainur can no longer see the fate of Middle-Earth after the rise and dominion of men; the music has moved beyond what they helped create into something more.
    A rather unique element in Tolkien’s mythos, if we take this line of thought one step farther, is that he incorporates the concept of evolution into his fabric of reality. Rather than creating things “as is”, as in Christian mythology, Tolkien intentionally introduces an unpredictable element that is specifically given the power to change the world beyond its original design. Its contribution to the symphony’s resolution, then, is the end result of evolution.
    Few other mythologies burden men with such a task overtly; many speak of free will, of drive, and the ability to create and change, but no other mythology that I can think of programs it directly into the fabric of reality itself.
    If Tolkien intentionally wrote evolution into his world from the beginning, then that gives us a new way to look at the act of sub-creation. Through Melkor, we have seen that sub-creation can subvert creation and overwrite it. Is the other side possible? Namely, can pure sub-creation for its own pure purpose be given the ability to surpass its original boundaries?
    -Prashant Parmar

  5. I like your point that, just as a quartet might play beautifully on its own but a whole orchestra needs a conductor to keep it together, the music of the Ainur would not be the complete symphony of creation without Iluvatar to conduct it. I was also intrigued by your sense of not understanding Iluvatar’s initial theme, but being able to comprehend and imagine the music better once it contained the familiar element of discordant tension. I had not given much thought before to the difference between Iluvatar’s original theme and that joined with the music of the Ainur, but it must have been a fundamentally different thing than what was created out of and after it, just as what the Elves create is fundamentally different, even if related, to that which the Ainur created!

    You pose the question of why Iluvatar gave Men the ability to go beyond where the song of creation reaches, given that Men are the most like Melkor. What do you think makes them most like Melkor? Why would these qualities necessarily make it strange that Men should go beyond Eä? And, the big question, why is it that Men, last and, in many ways, least of Iluvatar’s creations are the only ones who will reach this place?

  6. I must say, my immediate thought in response to your statement that you did not understand the song, even though it is the shaping of a world which we do understand, was quite simply: “do we?” For me personally, I feel as though I understand the concept of the song and its themes exactly as much as I do the world in which we live, that is to say, in vague, scattered, metaphorical pieces which may or may not look anything like the actual whole, but which have to suffice, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to carry on with day to day life.
    It is partially because of this fact that I’m such a fan of the “framed” versions of the creation story, because when the story is seen as a human (or in this case, elven) creation, you lose the expectation of exactitude: the story is not the event itself; it is instead a representation and a metaphor, and so for all we know the “music of creation” wasn’t music in any way related to what we know as music, but it’s the closest approximation we have. I also like to consider the Borges story “On Exactitude in Science” when thinking about this concept…when you have a map with a 1:1 scale with the landscape, it becomes completely useless, similarly, just as Iluvatar’s theme would be to us puny mortals if we tried to understand it in its entirety.

  7. Oh, my apologies, above comment was from Ian Goller.

  8. I really like the your point that that the discord in music often make it more interesting and help us appreciate the initial theme more by complementing it. It's something that I've also been thinking about and struggling with, because if one starts to think about the music analogy and apply the idea of discord being necessary to a composition to that of evil, one has to come to term with the fact that evil, while undesirable, is necessary. It's all well and fine that Iluvatar takes the disharmony of Melkor and the evil he causes and turn them into a greater exultation of the good. However, I can't help but to think about the fact that in music composition, dissonances and their resolution are always intentional on the part of the composer. How does one reconcile the image of God, the ultimate composer and conductor in this analogy, as the essence of Good and the possibility that the evils of the world--the discords--are meant to be in order for the Good to truly be "Good"? Just like you mentioned in your post, there can't be a true appreciation of God and/or the beauty of the harmonious music without evil (or the discords, in the music metaphor). So, in that sense, might we say that Melkor, or a similar figure under another name, is meant to strike out against Iluvatar and create discords? What does that say about the nature of God and free will?