Friday, April 22, 2011

Framing the Ainulindalë

Professor Fulton seemed shocked on Wednesday when most of us expressed our preference for the framing of The Silmarillion’s version of the Ainulindalë. I had not really considered why, but I was one of the people who preferred the unframed version found in The Silmarillion. During class, I realized what appealed to me from the story as I read it, but I also came to understand Fulton’s preference.

First a short summary of the framings of the Ainulindalë:

In The Lost Road and Other Writings (HME5), it is said to be the account of the Aunilindalë as written by Rúmil of Tun and as told to Ælfwine. This account bridges the gap between the creation of Arda and knowledge of said creation by the children of Illuvatar. Rúmil is a member of the second clan of Elves, and the first Elf to develop the written word. Rúmil’s account is therefore the first written account of creation, and this telling to Ælfwine, a man, is the way it came to the knowledge of men.

In Morgoth’s Ring (HME 10) (as I understand it, I’m still kind of shaky as to the timeline of events) the account is taken down a notch further, and it was told to Ælfwine by Pengolod the Sage and written by Rúmil. This means it still represents the moment when it came from the Elves to man’s knowledge through the “Elf-friend,” Ælfwine, the only difference being it was not Rúmil telling the story.

The Silmarillion begins more like Genesis in the simple fact that it does not claim any authorship. It does not begin with a lineage explaining who told the story and to whom, rather it jumps into the first line: “There was Eru. . .”

Now, like Genesis, the story had to come from somewhere. It ends by saying that “what has here been declared is come from the Valar themselves, with whom the Eldalië spoke in the land of Valinor, and by whom they were instructed,” the Valar being the 14 Ainur who chose to live on Arda, and the Eldalië being the Elves that were the first inhabitants of Middle-Earth. This again is similar to Genesis, which is supposedly the account of the creation of our universe as told by God to Moses. Therefore, both of these accounts represent the divine telling the story of creation to the inhabitants of their creation. In other words, these accounts both bridge the gap between creator and created.

This is part of why I found the unframed version to be my favorite. It is the actual account of creation by those who were there to witness it and participate in it. Maybe it was the order I read them in (I followed the syllabus: unframed, framed, more framed), but the ones after The Silmarillion’s version carried less weight. Sure the accounts of the Aunilindalë in HME5 and HME 10 are the accounts as the men of Middle-Earth knew them, but I have access to a much more direct version of the story, so why shouldn’t I read that one as the standard?

Furthermore, since Middle-Earth and the legendarium are Tolkien’s creations, I can actually trust the version as told in The Silmarillion. This I felt to be a little too contentious or far-reaching to bring up in class, but essentially I interpret Illuvatar as being an analogue to Tolkien himself. Tolkien created these stories and so the unframed version he authored, to me in primary reality, represented the actual truth of his secondary reality. What the first Elves heard was a first hand account told by the creators of the secondary reality, the Valar. They were there for the first, second, and third themes of Illuvatar, they saw the world as it could be, and they made it as it was. While not told by Illuvatar himself, the account is still given by creators. Even though it is missing one link to creation, i.e. it is not the account as told by Illuvatar, it has an authenticity that the Bible cannot have: the ultimate creator of this universe of Arda, Tolkien, the one who is writing this “Bible” is an indisputably real person. Illuvatar, though he has primacy within the secondary reality, is merely a sub-creator made by Tolkien, the original creator. I do not feel as though I have to take this story on faith, I trust pretty much every aspect of it, because it is being written by the original creator of Middle-Earth: Tolkien.

Now, all of this does not stop me from appreciating the versions of the Ainulindalë as they are known by the men of Middle-Earth. For them, within the secondary reality crafted by Tolkien, this is the story. It has to be taken by some faith because of the time separating the creation and their knowledge of it, and because of the fact that it is a retelling. In this sense again it is similar to Genesis in particular and the Bible in general. This just means that I’m enjoy the versions of the Ainulindalë on different levels: I like the unframed version as the original creation story of Middle-Earth, and the framed versions with their slight additions and omissions as the story of creation as known by the men who inhabit it. To me, it is like comparing a Bible written by a divine source to a Bible written by people as they know the story. They’re both fascinating, but for different reasons.



  1. Now, you say that the unframed version is "the actual account of creation by those who were there to witness it and participate in it". Does this mean you're saying that the Valar themselves wrote this down and gave it to whatever mortal first had it? If so, that's very unlike the origin stories of most religious texts, which are usually considered to have been written by a mortal on the inspiration of a divine being.

    --Luke Bretscher

  2. LOL! Now I'm confused! Yes, you are right: Tolkien is the ultimate creator of "Middle-earth," and yet in the framing of the Ainulindalë as given by Rúmil to Aelfwine (or via Pengolod to Aelfwine) he is actually following his more usual method of telling us where the story came from. What puzzled me was why, after we had spent so much time working through the purposes of Tolkien's frames, the class as a whole still seemed to prefer the stories frameless, almost as if they had no creator/author to begin with.


  3. I had some thoughts on this myself after class on Wednesday, but never had time to post them. I agree with you that most of us liked the frameless version because it seems more akin to the creation story in Genesis. It is a powerful statement of fact, and its origins are more or less unknown. This fit's with GK Chesterton's idea that religion necessitates mystery. One of the reasons that people believe, in Christianity in particular, is because the existence of a deity outside our complete understanding allows for an unending sense of mystery, that there is always more for us to discover.

    I think that by not explaining exactly where the Ainulindale came from or who is telling it, Tolkien allowed for the sense of mystery that is present in Christian texts. It creates the idea that man doesn't fully understand the creation story, as it was orchestrated by God.

    While the framed story may be better as a literary device, and indeed serves much better to explain Tolkien's legendarium, the unframed story is more striking as a religious text; and because many of us have heard the Christian creation story growing up, we relate to many creation stories in a religious manner first, and a literary manner second.


  4. I also, preferred the unframed account of the creation tale. I think that it creates a more historical and less mythological feeling to it. As an atheist, the more historical feeling of the unframed version in the Silmarillion (even though I am fully aware of it's secondary reality nature) seems much more real to me and less "religious" or "mythological". Having distrust for religion or mythologies leads me to have a personal preference of the unframed version. The framed mythologies appear to have more room for error because it shows how many people the story apparently went through to get to the modern version. And as many of us had drilled into our heads in history classes where we analyzed primary documents that going through different people creates a bias and error of interpretation within the text. I distrust the framed versions because I recognize that there could be an error in the passing from person to person. Much like the concept of the playing the game 'telephone' when you whisper a word to the person next to you and then they whisper it to the person next to them etc. until the end of the chain is complete and then the last person announces what the word is. I have seen Whale changed to Juice in the matter of 10 people. How is a whole story supposed to remain intact through passing through a matter of people?

  5. I also preferred the unframed version of the Ainulindalë over the two framed versions and for similar reasons as well. I thought that the Silmarillion version sounded much more spiritual and mythological. Since the Ainulindale is the story of the creation of Arda and of the children of Ilúvatar, a biblical Genesis-like style is, in my opinion, much more fitting than a more historical-sounding account, with information on how the tale was transmitted over time. Somehow, the two framed versions of the story lose the feel of authenticity for me. With the dramatic opening of “There was Eru…” in The Silmarillion, I was really able to get a sense for this story being the uttermost beginning of all creation. It makes sense that a creation story should begin with the Creator.

    I thought that your interpretation of Ilúvatar being an analogue of Tolkien himself was quite a bold claim. There is no doubt that Tolkien was the ultimate creator of Arda. However, if we were to appreciate his world more deeply and actually place ourselves within Arda itself, then Ilúvatar is the creator for all intents and purposes. The fact that we know Tolkien to be the one who wrote the story of creation should not make us believe it more. Rather, I think that if we focus on the fact that someone in the primary reality, Tolkien, is the author, then we are actually losing some of the magical religiosity of the Ainulindalë. The thing that made it feel most real to me as a creation story was the fact that it simply existed—-with no consideration of origin.


  6. MA, great post! I particularly like the distinctions that you make between your reactions to different versions of the Creation story based on how these different versions were framed. I am especially struck by how you said that the unframed version found in the Silmarillion was “the actual account of creation by those who were there to witness it and to participate in it” and that this account seemed to carry more “weight” than the other versions, which are framed. I agree with you about how, as you see it, the framing devices seem to take away from the impact of the Creation story because they, as I see it, seem to suck out the magic of story. I’ve always felt stories to be very powerful and a good yarn gets me good and the Silmarillion’s version is simple story presented directly and up front. The other versions are transmuted to and through other people, which, to me, at least, made them seem more like pieces of gossip bandied around town than pure stories. That’s a harsh overstatement, of course, but I want to emphasize the power of a simple story that seems to just simply exist on its own, a story that speaks for itself. There’s a kind of assurance and even confidence in the story that transfixes the reader since it refuses to contextualize itself or set itself up.