Friday, April 22, 2011

On the Nature of the Ainur

Creation according to Genesis 1 (and Tolkien’s Catholic paradigm) is a rather straightforward process: it happens via the fiat of God. Tolkien’s Ainulindalё narrative has a much more descriptive explanation of the origin of the world; the history of Arda was planned out according to the musical themes of Iluvatar, two of which he gave to the Ainur, and one which was of himself alone (from which his Children were later generated), and these themes were manifested into physical reality (Arda) by Iluvatar. The most obvious difference in these two creation stories is the addition of a third wheel in the Ainulindalё narrative; where in Genesis there is only God and His creation, in Ainulindalё there is Iluvatar, the created world, and the Ainur. I wish to explore how the Ainur fit into Tolkien’s theological schema.

The Ainulindalё story asserts that the Ainur are “the offspring of [Iluvatar’s] thought,” (Silm.), evoking a relationship rather akin to the Trinity. This is especially apparent in the Ainur’s role in creation. In the Christian Creation story, all of creation exists “through and for [Christ]” (CCC 331). According to the narrative of Ainulindalё, the Ainur are the means by which Iluvatar creates the world; he “declared to them a mighty theme” and had them “show forth [their] powers in adorning this theme,” and he created Arda, the physical embodiment of the “Great Music” they had played (Silm.). While the Ainur rely on Iluvatar to supply inspiration for their music, Iluvatar does not himself play the music, but rather his will is enacted via the Ainur. This description emphasizes the intimate connection between Iluvatar and the Ainur.

However, the interrelatedness between Iluvatar and the Ainur raises an interesting question related to their free will. St. Thomas Aquinas (everyone’s favorite scholastic) kindly explains that God has a completely free will except when limited by necessity: because God is by definition good, “He wills His own goodness necessarily” (ST Part 1. Q. 19. Art. 4). If Iluvatar and the Ainur are interdependent, then according to St. Thomas’ definition of free will, Melkor would not have been free to oppose Iluvatar’s theme (in essence, his will) in his music. The fact that Melkor does oppose Iluvatar suggests that describing the relationship between Iluvatar and the Ainur in Trinitarian terms does not correctly characterize the independence of the Ainur.

In opposition to this view, Tolkien describes the Ainur as “angelic powers” (Flieger 54), and indeed, they do share many characteristics with angels. Just as in the Christian Creation story, God is the creator of all things –including angels – so does Iluvatar explicitly create the Ainur. Angels and the Valar also have similar roles as guardians of the earth, and the Ainur even “sing before [Iluvatar]” like angels before the throne of God (Silm.).

Like the angels, which were bestowed with free will by God, the Ainur are characterized in all versions of Ainulindalё as independent, rational, willful beings, “each with his own thoughts and devices” (Silm.). When Melkor chooses to use his music to oppose Iluvatar and his fellow Ainur, and to create disharmony and imperfection in Arda, his doing so is within St. Thomas’ definition of freedom. This description solves the problem raised above because it considers the Ainur not as “one in being with the [All-]Father,” (Nicene Creed) but as individuals –not as a unity, but as a plurality.

However, this view, too, is imperfect. To describe the Ainur as angels falsely suggests a rigid hierarchy that is much less defined in Ainulindalё than in Christian canon. Thus, the relationship of Iluvatar to the Ainur lies in the middle of the spectrum, between that of the Trinity and that of God to the angels. The Ainur are both one with Iluvatar and separate from him, both created by him and subcreators in their own right. Expressed this way, the similarities between the relationship of Iluvatar and the Ainur to that of God and the Church becomes (to me at least) apparent.

This comparison takes into account the paradoxical conjunction of inseparableness and independence of the Ainur and Iluvatar. According to Catholic doctrine, “Not only is [the Church] gathered around [Christ]; she is united in him, in his body” (CCC 789). The relationship is often described in terms of the Body of Christ. Consider this passage from the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians:

“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.... For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Cor 12:4-12).

Similarly, the Ainur are given different personalities and talents by Iluvatar, and they use their talents in order to do the will of Iluvatar –first, to expound on Iluvatar’s theme and embellish the plans for the world which he plans to create, and then to guard over it. However, the Ainur are also different aspects of their creator, Iluvatar, or as Flieger describes it, “division[s] of the godhead” (Flieger 55).

However, the Church is not a perfect, unified entity; although “She is one,” she is also “formed of two components, human and divine” –and the human components have a tendency of breaking away from the will of God (CCC 779). Melkor’s revolt against the will of Iluvatar accords with this inherent imperfection of the Church.

As with the other two options described above, this description for the relationship between Iluvatar and the Ainur has its limitations. The most obvious one is that to consider the Ainur as Tolkien’s analogy to the Body of Christ implies that Middle Earth has a Christ –a divine that gives up his divinity in order to redeem the world. Most of the Ainur do not even fall, and so do not need a redeemer. Melkor has neither redeemer nor repentence, and so he would not allow himself to be redeemed even if the opportunity should be presented to him. The fact that Iluvatar is not entirely analogous to God further muddles any effort to compare the two stories. Despite these (and, I'm sure, many other) limitations, I nevertheless think that the description is a useful one. Better than the relationship amongst the Trinity, or of God to the angels, the mysterious bond between Christ and the Church reflects the seemingly paradoxical relationship between Iluvatar and the Ainur.

Lisa Pawlowicz


  1. I never thought of that analogy, but it's very interesting.

    --Luke Bretscher

  2. I wonder. I agree that the Ainur do not work as angels and most certainly not as a Person (or Persons) of the Trinity, but I have a hard time seeing them as related in quite the same way as Christ and the Church. Rather, I would see the different Peoples of Middle-earth (Elves, Men, Dwarves, Hobbits) as taking on this diversity--which still leaves the Ainur a bit of a mystery. The closest analogue I can think of are the "goddesses" or "daughters of God" of medieval literature: Wisdom, Love, Philosophy, and Nature. They are not God as such, but nor are they distinct from God (particularly Wisdom). I'm still not sure where to put Melkor, however.


  3. But doesn't Tolkien say in Letter 131, a.k.a. the Preface to the Silmarillion, that "God and the Valar...are revealed. These latter are as we should say angelic powers..." (emphasis mine) ?

    --Luke Bretscher

  4. The Christo-ecclesiological analogy is very provocative. It allows for a relationship that isn’t characterized by the paradox of divine identity (Trinity/Christ) or by a strict hierarchy of being (angels). As you note at the end, it also implies things that are not reflective of Tolkien’s description. While it allows for differentiation within a corporate body - indeed, the Ainur comprehend that part of Ilúvatar of which they are offspring – the Christian ecclesiological idea would (if I understand it correctly) make the individual a possessor of the entire body – a paradox with vast implications. For my own part, I had thought of the Ainur as Greek muses, the divine expression of the arts. After all the Ainur do make music (itself derived from ‘muse’). Perhaps the art of the Ainur seems less concrete (but is it?), but the convention of assigning each muse a specific art comes long after their first literary appearance in any case. The muses are born, moreover, from the mind, their mother being called Mnemosyne/memory. Both have a role in creation: the Ainur sing the music of creation, just as the Muses sing of creation (poetically embodied in Hesiod’s Theogony). As a final note, concerning the possibility of a Christian or indeed any analogy, I suspect that Tolkien can entertain a creative mythology that, in its discursive, theological explication, may be at odds with Christian theology, and yet it is not something that he perceives as significantly conflicting. Creation and conviction do not always go together.

  5. Lisa, I think that this is a really interesting reflection on our fascination with the Ainur and the way that they fit into a Christian schema. I agree that the complicated Ainur deny us the possibility of classifying them as part of the trinity or as strictly angelic figures. However, while I find many of your arguments for the Ainur as the Church very compelling, there are a few things that I feel complicate that relationship as well.

    Like Professor Fulton Brown, I also feel that making an analogy with the Church as a body would necessarily encompass all of the peoples of Middle Earth. The Church functions well in this analogy in terms of its unity with Christ, but thinking of the way the Church manifests itself on Earth complicates this relationship for me. Since the Church is not just composed of the ordained, but also all of those who choose to follow Christ and strive to praise him, the metaphor would seem to necessarily require all of the children of Iluvatar, even the "indirect" ones, to be included.

    Like you pointed out, there doesn't seem to be a perfect parallel anyway, but I think you've done well to draw our attention to yet another possibility.