Friday, April 22, 2011

Genesis, Free Will, and Kinship

Being raised Protestant, one of the first things that I noticed about Ainulindalë as a creation myth is that in both Ainulindalë and Genesis, the world comes into being as the manifestation of the thoughts of an Original Divine Being. In Genesis, God’s cognitive process manifests itself in Word (which, according to the Gospel of John, is with God from the Beginning and was God), and through the Word, the things of this world were created. In Ainulindalë, on the other hand, the process is more convoluted. Eru’s thoughts themselves, not his words, are manifested in the Ainur, who are not synonymous to Eru in the fashion of the Christian Trinity.

Because of that, the existence of the Ainur brings up an interesting dilemma of free will. On one hand, they are progenies of Eru’s thoughts, each comprehending “only that part of the mind of Illúvatar from which he came” (The Silmarillion, 3), and therefore not beings that are ever completely independent of Eru nor ones that share in the Divine-ness of Eru in the way of the Trinity. In that sense, the Ainur can be said to be merely the instruments that brought about the things of the World through the music of creation (aside from Elves and Men, who were created by Illúvatar himself). However, after Eru reveals his grand theme to the Ainur, he declares to the Ainur:

"Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will. But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been waken into song.”

With that gesture, Eru seems to be acknowledging that the Ainur do possess some level of free will, or else he would have simply left off “if he will” and made the sentence a command. And with the additional fact that Eru himself is going to sit back, listen, and appreciate the beauty of the song that the Ainur make, it seems to suggests that more or less, the song of the Ainur can be thought of as much as a process of secondary creation as it was an expansion and lyrical manifestation of Eru’s great plan.

Also, taking into account Aulë’s creation of the dwarves, the problem at hand seems like it’s not one of the Ainur not really able to defy Eru’s intentions, but closer resemble the classic theological debate of free will vs. predestination—or rather, what happens when one’s thoughts take on an existence of their own, if the one in question is Illúvatar? In Chapter 2 of Quenta Silmarillion, of the beginning of the dwarves, it’s said that Aulë created them “because he was unwilling to await the fulfillment of the designs of Illúvatar” and the dwarves didn’t turn out identical to Elves or Men because “the forms of the Children who were to come were still unclear to his mind” so he filled in the blanks with his own designs (The Silmarillion, 40). In this story, Aulë doesn’t appear too different from the human protagonists of various scriptural stories who act out of their own accord as a result of impatience. However, Illúvatar knew what was done “in the very hour that Aulë’s work was complete” (40) and was pleased, which begs the question of how much of it was really Aulë not acting according to Illúvatar’s plan if Illúvatar, the originator of the piece of his thought that is Aulë, knew and “was pleased” despite the show of admonition later. Also, from the quoted passages earlier, it's easy to see that the only reason Aulë didn’t try to make cave-dwelling elves instead is because he didn’t know what the Children of Illúvatar are going to look like yet, it really begs the question of whether we even should be talking about free will, or is it a more complicated matter of instruments of creation “malfunctioning,” for lack of a better word, because said instruments are made from segments of Eru’s thoughts and are taking on a separate existence? And for that, I have no answers.

However, free will or no, there seems to be no question that while the Ainur and the Word might appear similar at first glance on the ground that they are both the manifestation of a Divine Being’s cognition, they are fundamentally different in status and function. The most decisive difference, I think, is in where the Father-Son/Creator-Children relationship is placed. As we all know, in the Bible, the Word, as something born from the thoughts of God, is sometimes referred to as the Son of God. In terms of human beings’ original sin and salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus, that distinction plays a crucial role because, using Thomas Aquinas’s theological interpretations, while human beings descended from Adam were created in the image of God, only the Word/Jesus is truly like God, and hence divine. The relationship between God the Father and God the Son in Christianity, on many levels, represents the model of perfection that the imperfect, sinful human beings can only achieve through Christ and his salvation.

With that in mind, the distinction of Elves and Men as the Children of Illúvatar seems a crucial one because in this configuration, while Illúvatar does not necessarily play a particularly active part in Tolkien’s legendarium, the basic undertone of the Creator-Creation relationship is nonetheless a more accessible one because in this creation myth, there isn’t a divine mediator who’s required for the Divine Being’s creations to attain the direct kinship between creator and creation. Elves, after all, can build a ship a sail to Valinor. The chief point of tension—and source of evil, if you will—under this configuration is therefore free will and desire, and not some all-encompassing original sin (which is interesting to think about in connection to Tolkien’s own Catholic faith, but that’s a topic for another day).



  1. Excellent effort at making sense of what the Ainur might be in contrast with the Trinity and/or a creature of God, particularly with respect to the Ainur's free will. How, exactly, can Ilúvatar's thoughts think something other than what he intends? We now get to the point at which theology breaks down and only myth makes sense--and at which myth necessarily blends into metaphor.


  2. I think you do a good job in pointing out what, in essence, is the engine behind Tolkien's creation myth: a sense of ambiguity behind the creator-created relationships. Both of the relationships you discuss are made interesting by their differences from the very separate nature of most religious creator-created relationships. The relationships between Eru, the Ainur, Elves and Men are all organized in this well-integrated class structure, with a not-always-clear dividing line between divinity and the normal, lowly men. This does make the myth more accessible and allows questions of freewill to play a prominent role in the stories, but it also, in a very different vein, enhances the legendary feel of the creation myth. Clearly a creation myth has a lot to do with theology, but the closeness of the characters to Eru is also similar to many of the legends Tolkien draws on, where the mortal protagonists have constant interactions with the divine figures in the story. Homer's epics are probably the best example of this, but Norse and Welsh legends, and even Galahad's quest for the holy grail, are driven by an ambiguity between heaven and Earth. Tolkien replicates this legendary aura for Middle-earth by providing the closeness of mortal and immortal characters you've discussed.

    Ro Ca

  3. This is a question which I, too, struggled with when I was reading The Silmarillion and the tale of creation. I must have marked “free will?” in my notes at least a few times and each time either erased it or added extra question marks. At the end, however, I believe that I decided that the Ainur do not have a full version of free will because their consciousness is so closely dependent upon the consciousness of Eru. Perhaps they have the full power and merely like omniscience? There are two quotes in particular which make me doubt that the Ainur can have free will. The first addresses the creation of the concept of Eä, when all the Ainur are singing and Eru is simply listening to the music. Melkor begins to try to create his own theme, but those very moments where he appears to rise above the rest and take control of the sound, Ilúvatar’s theme steps in and actually appropriates those terms: “The other [Melkor’s theme] had now achieved a unity of its own; but it was loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated... And it essayed to drown out the other music [the themes of the Ainur and Ilúvatar] by the violence of its voice, but it seemed that its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern” (The Silmarillion, 5). At this point, Ilúvatar had entered the theme of the Ainur and taken control of it; he entered as a third theme, but soon meshed with the original Ainur theme and has now begun to take control of Melkor’s. So can Melkor have free will if his own theme is actually a manifestation of the larger theme, just twisted in motivation and intent but not actually subsuming its own form and result?

    And, later, after Ilúvatar has regained control of the theme, he chastises Melkor, saying “no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the divising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined” (6).

    Based on these two quotes, I have to doubt that the Ainur have free will- at least in the very broad, independent way which we associate with our humanity.

    J. Trudeau

  4. I wonder if this would be a problem at all if we didn’t first supply a Christian view. The very notion of free will in modern English usage is heavily conditioned by 2000 years of speaking on it in Christian theology (being in large part an expansion of the problem of evil). Myths often have so many viable interpretations that we can spin circles around them in various explications (as the history of Christian theology well shows). The topic of original sin is not necessarily a problem of Genesis. It is a problem that was largely discovered in that text by Saint Augustine. The story of Adam may very much be one of free will and desire. And the accessibility of the divine strikes me too as often being a tricky problem. One could say that Christ’s incarnate body makes him more accessible (I don’t know, but people have said this). In any case, these things seem to me to suggest important limitations for the explication of myth. They show for one thing that the evidence of the myth will admit much variability in interpretation. Theology comes later, in response to certain changes in assumptions about what language can do.

  5. You question whether the creation of the Dwarves was really an act of free will because Iluvatar knew about almost as it happened. But in this case, as in the case of Melkor’s discord, are knowing about it and causing it the same thing? Would it be possible for Iluvatar to know about Melkor’s and Aulë’s actions without being the reason the two Valar took those actions, since they are a part of him? Is Iluvatar’s decision not to stop them, but rather to work their illicit sub-creations in with his grand scheme of creation necessarily indicative of Iluvatar controlling the will of the Valar? To ‘draw up’ an analogy: if I tell a child not to draw on the walls, but the child does it anyway, and I’m watching and, for whatever reason, choose not to intervene, it doesn’t mean I had actually planned on those walls being drawn on or that I wanted them drawn on, only that I don’t seem to mind too much now that it has happened – maybe it turned out to be a really good drawing! This analogy then begs the question, why didn’t Iluvatar choose to stop Melkor or Aulë? Would it be interfering with whatever free will they may have to do so or would it simply be Iluvatar exercising his free will alongside the Valar’s?

    You compare the Father-Son relationship of the Bible to the Creator-Creation relationship in the Silmarillion, concluding that the Creation has more access to the Creator in the Silmarillion. However, there are two immediate problems there. First, the Elves (although not all of them) are in contact with the Valar throughout the First Age, but not with Iluvatar; Iluvatar is the creator of Elves and the one who woke them at Cuivienon. Second, Men have no contact whatsoever with the Valar or with Iluvatar. So it would seem that the Children of Iluvatar have no more access to their creator than we do!


  6. I suspect that Eru chooses not to interfere with Melkor and Aulë’s autonomous actions because he anticipates that their decisions/temperament would lead them to contribute to his grand design for Arda. Interestingly, the Ainur are unaware of Arda itself during the three themes. When showing the Ainur the vision of the world, Eru claimed that each voice merely manifested a part of the design he already concieved: “Behold your music. This is your minstrelsy; and each of you that had part in it shall find contained there, within the design I set before you, all those things which it may seem that he himself devised or added.” (11). Because Tolkien used minstrel (instead of artist or composer), he implies that the Ainur are embellishing or sub-creating within an outline (unbeknownst to them) already produced by Eru.

    Even though the Ainur freely choose to fill in that outline as they please, they themselves are the embodied thoughts/concepts of Eru. They are pre-figured from Eru’s own cognition. When Melkor grows impatient with the persisting Void, searches for the Sacred Fire in order to be a primary creator, and rebelled against the themes, Eru chastises him for believing that he was anything but a sub-creator: “And thou, Melkor, shalt see the ye may see that no theme may be played that has not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall be but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.” Melkor’s seemingly independent actions are ultimately “but a part of the whole and tributary to [the] glory” of Eru’s mind and design.


  7. I agree with you that the question of whether or not the ainur have free-will in the SIlmarillion is problematic. I think the concept of freewill is intimately tied to the idea of the music. The Valar act as if they have free will but everything they do has been prefigured and pre-sung in the music. I think a good example of this is the creation of the ents and the eagles. When Yavanna hears about the creation of the Dwarves and Aule’s assertion that the other children will also fell trees and use her creations for their benefit, she is upset and wishes for her creations to be able to defend themselves. This leads her to wish for the ents, the tree shepherds. Although this desires seems to be in direct response to Aule it turns out that at the same time it was already included in the music and known to Iluvatar. The eagles have a similar creation. Manwe seems to have forgotten that he joined voices with Yavanna and sang the melody of eagles, but after he consults with Iluvatar this becomes clear to him. It seems that causality and it turn free will works in strange ways with the Ainur. Actions that seem like free-willed responses to the present are actually simply follow the predetermined divine blueprint. When men and elves act, however, their actions seems to be truly of the present and products of their own will independent of outside plans.