Friday, April 22, 2011

God, Cosmogony and Gandalf

How strange it is to suddenly be granted a myth narrated by an unseen storyteller on a subject that is rarely touched on by Tolkien. The Ainulindalë, Middle-Earth’s cosmogony, is a story that seems out of place in the mythos of Tolkien. Religion is markedly absent from The Lord of the Rings and many of the tales that we have read. We rarely see the hand of Ilúvatar act beyond the creation of Eä, and the Valar are excluded from the majority of his mythos extending beyond the Simarilian. Certainly Gandalf and the other Istari have an important role to fulfill in the Lord of the Rings, but their divine origins are not made explicit through the story. Tokien himself states in a letter to Robert Murray that “I have purposefully kept all allusions to the highest matters down to mere hints, perceptible only by the most attentive, or kept them under unexplained symbolic forms.” The obfuscation of religion is then challenged by this cosmogony, an explicit and detailed tale of the beginning of Time. However, the cosmogony of the world that Tolkien has crafted has a purpose. While we may be unable to see much of a presence of Ilúvatar in Middle-Earth, we can see the motivations behind Tolkien’s inclusion of a Divine Creator and creation myth.

The importance of the cosmogony harkens back to Tolkien's need for inner consistency of his reality. Ilúvatar acts as the great Creator, while the fragments of his thought orchestrate, through song, the more physical aspects of the world. While it may have no direct religious governance over the actions of Tolkien’s peoples, the Ainulindalë works as a foundation for Tolkien's creation of Man and Elves, the sinking of Númenor and the eventual destruction of Sauron. The Ainulindalë instructs us on the role of the divine in Tolkien's mythos – it is the origin of Creation, which has consequently sub-created evil.

“I suppose a difference between this Myth and what may be perhaps called Christian mythology is this… Discordant elements of its own nature already when the Let it Be was spoken.” – Letter 212, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien

Ilúvatar states that “in the confusion of sound were made pain and cruelty, devouring flame and cold without mercy, and death without hope. Yet [Melko] shall see that in the end this redounds only to the glory of the world, and this world shall be called of all the deeds of Ilúvatar the mightiest and most lovely.” Evil, then, is no accident. For Tolkien and for Ilúvatar it is an intended aspect of the sub-creative process. In the same quote we also learn that all things may fall by nature of God, but no thing is originally evil. Through this lens, we might better see the natures of characters like Sarumon, Sauron, Gollum and even Melko. Ilúvatar has first created free will in his fragmented thought children – only by Melko’s decision to pervert the Music of Ainur does ‘evil’ manifest itself in the creation of Eä.

We cannot say that Ilúvatar leaves Eä after its inception. A source of divinity must also be in place in order to explain the fall of Númenor, Gandalf and Sarumon. Oddly, Ilúvatar acts in this events as a major intervening force. As such, these stories elucidate two of the infrequent episodes of Ilúvatar’s direct intervention in the course of Middle-Earth’s history. Tolkien reminds us that “there is no ‘embodiment’ of the Creator anywhere in this story or mythology. Gandalf is a ‘created’ person.” I find the intervention on behalf of Gandalf most interesting (although the destruction of Númenor may seem more dramatic). Gandalf and Sarumon suffer the “pains of mind and body… for the same reason, thus involved in the peril of the incarnate: the possibility of “fall’ of sin.” We see that Sarumon succumbs to this evil, whereas Gandalf does not. However, Gandalf does fall, both literally and figuratively. Tolkien states that “Gandalf sacrificed himself, was accepted, and enhanced, and returned… Authority had taken up this plan and enlarged it, at the moment of its failure.” Gandalf becomes endowed with grace and knowledge enough to act when Ilúvatar's original intentions become perverted.

Tangentially, I am also struck by the importance of Light in the role of Ilúvatar. We witness the perversion of Sarumon most clearly by his refraction into the Many Colored, a distance from holy symbolism. When Gandalf is rekindled by Ilúvatar, he dons a robe of White and the appropriate name to accompany it. Proximity to divinity then can also be expressed by Tolkien’s descriptions of color – white as complete acceptance while black is complete rejection. Certainly this isn't a new form of metaphor, but it at least illustrates well the nature of Sarumon's fall. Interestingly, those that are endowed with the greatest power by Ilúvatar are typically the first to fall. Both Melko and Sarumon have glimpsed the most of Ilúvatar's mind. But, as I said, this is largely tangential.

So, we must ask again, what role DOES this cosmogony play? Is it actually a means to an end – specifically a method by which Tolkien can introduce this Authority that can sink cities and bring the dead “beyond time, and space?” The way Ilúvatar functions in Tolkien's stories is almost by deus ex machina. Or does this story actually act as a mode by which Tolkien can express his appreciation for mythology, specifically creation myths, thus expanding his mythos further? Certainly it acts as a supreme foundation for the Simarilian, but what beyond that? If I were to answer this question, I would pose that it allows for Tolkien to make the claim that free will existed first, and that evil is a sub-creation of this preexistence. Thus, no Man, Elf, or Demi-god can be made evil. As is illustrated by the Ainulindalë, one must choose

And perhaps Tolkien has created a cosmogony to express his lamentation for no worldly Eden. He has created Anur and Valinor so that he might have a sub-created Eden. He claims that “we all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it; our whole nature is at best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of 'exile'.” Giving his characters an opportunity to experience heaven on earth, maybe Tolkien grants them what he feels he is denied. Regardless, the Ainulindalë has a purpose in revealing the origins of evil not as an act of God, but instead that of free will and sub-creative forces. More simply, it also expands the richness of his world, allowing for a greater immersion and deeper history from which character’s motivations may be divined.

-Chris Strange
Letters 96, 181, 199, 200, 211, 212, and 246
The Silmarillion
Lost Road


  1. You touch on several important questions here, about which I wish that you had said more! Why is it that it is Melkor and Saruman who fall when, as you rightly point out, it is they who have learned most of Ilúvatar's mind? Is Tolkien trying to say something about ambition? Pride? Temptation? And why, after all, does he leave Ilúvatar so distant after the creation of Arda? Perhaps it has something to do with free will as well?


  2. Hello Chris!
    I am not sure I think of evil as being a sub-creation. Rather, I think it is something necessary in order to make “good” stand out. If everything was perfect, would anyone be able to appreciate fully what that meant? It is much like the elves later on in The Silmarillion. They had the glory of Heaven on earth and they let it be destroyed because they did not understand how wonderful a life they had. Essentially, they sought out strife for the sake of it. Sure, Morgoth stole some silmarils and killed the trees which naturally provoked them, but their lives were better with the Valar than they were fighting orcs and other monsters. However, it was only after they found out how awful life in Middle Earth could be that they fully grasped how miraculous paradise was. I believe Ilúvatar created evil specifically so his children could comprehend the nature of good. After all, the Ainur are nothing more than I Ilúvatar’s thoughts in corporeal (ish) form. The text discusses the Ainur as having their own wills, yet if they are only Ilúvatar’s thoughts then he must have “thought” or intended everything as it came to pass. Perhaps the reason Morgoth and Saruman turned was because they had too much of Ilúvatar’s mind, and still not enough. It’s the idea that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. They knew just enough of Ilúvatar’s mind to understand power and ambition, but not enough to comprehend wisdom and compassion. Ilúvatar let them comprehend that so all of his other creations would understand what Morgoth and Saruman could not. If they knew everything, they would be Ilúvatar, but if all of Ilúvatar’s creations only knew the “good” part, they would never understand its majesty.


  3. I like that you chose to examine the role of this cosmogony in the larger history of Middle Earth, because, as you point out, religion is otherwise largely absent from Tolkien’s work. The Ainulindalë does seem to establish Middle Earth, not set up any particular rules or morality, but simply allow Middle Earth and its inhabitants to evolve on their own. I wish you had gone into more detail in your answer to this question and looked at specific repercussions that arise from the events of the Ainulindalë!

    I agree with RJM’s comment that evil is not an act of sub-creation: evil is not the same thing as pain and death, nor was it planned; it simply exists and is something that must be coped with. I also don’t think that one chooses to be evil, but rather that one chooses things averse to the Good for one’s own reasons, and that evil exists regardless of one’s choices. So, rather than RJM’s view that evil exists ‘to make ‘good’ stand out,’ I would describe evil as a natural consequence of the creation of free will: for one to choose, there must be choice. (NB: the children of Iluvatar’s thoughts (the Ainur) don’t have free will in the same way as do the Children of Iluvatar (Men and Elves).)

    Be careful about word choice – Gandalf does not figuratively ‘fall’ in the way Saruman ‘falls.’ For Gandalf, it is a spiritual, metaphysical transformation, which one could describe as a ‘fall’ since that was, literally, the beginning of this transformation. But Saruman ‘falls’ in the way Melkor, Sauron, and Satan do – a fall from grace, defying the will of, and putting themselves above, the Creator. One is the result of circumstance and self-sacrifice for the sake of Good, the other is the result of corruption by Evil.

    You make a great point about Saruman of Many Colors being further from Iluvatar than Gandalf (or Saruman) the White! This change in Saruman parallels the refraction of the ‘light’/thought of Iluvatar into the Valar and, especially here, the Maiar. There is much discussion about the significance of the colors of the Istari, since Tolkien did not imbue individual colors with a particular meaning; I hadn’t thought about it this way before!