Friday, April 22, 2011

The Secret Fire and Iluvatar's Music

Can the mind exist without sensory input from the world? It is unclear. Many, however, believe that the spirit maintains an independent existence. Pure essence, as some schools of theology hold, attains a higher level of being when freed from all material superfluities. Tolkien’s cosmology directly challenges such a notion, which is inherently senseless on the most literal level. In tandem with Biblical genesis, Ainulindale tells a creation tale thoroughly suffused with sense perception and material interaction, even paradoxically before the making of Arda. In Genesis, after God’s famous speech brings about the first illumination, it is also God who first sees and judges. On the other hand, Tolkien’s creation myth extols music – that is, so much more than ‘organized sound’ – as a divine exultation and source of pleasure. The first recorded sensory action of Iluvatar: “they sang before him, and he was glad,” (Silmarillion 15). Leaving aside any discussion contrasting God’s judgment with Iluvatar’s rejoicing, it is sufficient to say, simply, the music of Iluvatar’s creation is no tool, but rather the original end of His intention.

There is, however, a clear implement of Iluvatar’s primary creation in Ainulindale, one that Tolkien does not fear to characterize as such. The Flame Imperishable, with which Iluvatar “kindled” the Ainur into their spiritual form in the Void, is the image Tolkien uses to represent the primary creative force. Sought after in vain by Melkor, whose will allows him to form independent thought, this secret fire has the special property of remaining always and inextricably bound within Eru (at least until the end times). In a universe with gradients of spiritual light, ranging from the flickering torch to a Silmaril’s radiance, Iluvatar’s Flame Imperishable unquestionably reigns. Flieger’s analysis treats the pervasive light theme thoroughly, associating it closely with primary creation. In her analogy, the “White Light of God” represents the course of primary creation, which passes through the prism, man, as he engages in a multitude of sub-creative acts (Flieger 46). Tolkien capitalizes the term “Being” several times throughout Ainulindale alongside Iluvatar’s use of the Flame Imperishable, indicating that a definite act of creation has taken place. In other words, the Flame allows Iluvatar to call into Being things that are ontologically independent from himself, and not based upon any previously-created material.

Flieger observes that Tolkien used the word “demiurgic” to describe the mode of creation in Ainulindale (Flieger 55). Creation is divisive rather than amalgamative, deriving substance from a unified but “strikingly remote and disengaged” godhead via lesser emanations of that Supreme Being. Such terminology invariably calls into mind the Gnostic tradition. The parallels between Tolkien’s creation and Gnostic metaphysics are distinct, especially in regard to the sub-creation of material reality by demiurgic lesser deities derived from an aloof and transcendent God. It is striking in this context that the imagery of the eternal flame is al so prevalent in Zoroastrianism, from which the Gnostic belief of late antiquity partially flows. Despite clear parallels, there is also a sense in which Tolkien’s creation lies in opposition to Gnosticism, which generally posits the superiority of pure ethereal spirit over any of its manifestations in material reality. The attainment of gnosis, the rough equivalent of enlightenment, implies withdrawal from the physical plane – seen as a prison created by a rebellious demiurge – into a cleaner realm of union with the Supreme Being. Iluvatar’s relationship to material creation and to the demiurgic Melkor is decidedly different. The chorus of his own thought-offspring generates the themes synonymous with Arda, and while the other Valar believe the world is marred by Melkor’s discord, Iluvatar makes the pivotal claim “[…] nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined,” (Silmarillion 17). This is huge. Instead of repudiating Melkor, Iluvatar relegates him along with the loyal Valar into a striking position of childlike dependence and blind faith, of course exciting Melkor’s jealous envy even further. Unlike the Gnostics, Tolkien’s Elves revel in the material world formed by the Valar and set into Being by Iluvatar’s secret fire. Sense perception is not base, but rather a high art. A light source is ever necessary to support vision, as is audible language to facilitate sub-creation. Finally, joy rather than judgment is the highest and original end. But the question remains: why music?

Given his philological tendencies, it is curious that Tolkien chooses music to be the medium of his creation myth rather than Word. Several hypotheses have been advanced, each likely containing some element of truth. The music of the spheres as a cosmological organizing force is both powerful and appropriately medieval. The Elven cultural frame for Ainulindale necessitates music’s primacy. Flieger relates music to language by the concept of logos, in which words as a class assume implications of harmony and order in a Pythagorean sense (Flieger 59). Despite their elegance, I believe these theories ignore an essential element of Tolkien’s creation myth. The music, in point of fact, is a language like any other, distinguishable from human speaking not by its superior logic, but by the depths to which it can probe the heart. Unlike the case of spoken word or written text, the attributive “meaning” of a musical phrase cannot be determined. Rather, music pierces directly to the non-linguistic emotional core of the sentient being; it is potent by itself and capable of greatly enhancing our sense of portent and unexplored country when experienced in unison with words. The process by which music achieves this is shrouded in mystery, granting it the flavor of God. In Ainulindale, even the Valar cannot interpret what lay behind their symphony – this is the purview of Iluvatar alone. Additionally, Iluvatar’s musical themes are assumptive while Melkor’s are repetitious: God’s music can absorb discord to create “an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came,” (Silmarillion 17). Discord is not erased or changed to harmony, but rendered beautiful, and thus pleasing to God. As Iluvatar explicitly warns him (see above), Melkor’s true existence is not one of rebellion, but of special service to his creator’s end.

Music is the auditory element in Iluvatar’s grand opera of sense, just as the Flame Imperishable is the visual one. The great paradox of Tolkien’s creation myth is thus the presence of sense perception, understood by our ascetic religiosity to be mundane, in the Deeps of Time before material creation. Although the entire story can be interpreted as allegory and fable, if one takes as literally as literature requires, the paradox is answered: sense is divine. A fuller appreciation of Tolkien’s creation myth requires that we look beyond order and rational organization to the variegated beauty and richness of the world around us. Language connects the mental to the material, allowing sub-creation to take place. Tolkien invites us to ponder the instinctual agent that connects the inner spark of the divine – the spirit that the Gnostics called pneuma – to pervasive natural divinity. While such a language cannot be rationally conceived, music is our closest equivalent. At the same time, we must bear in mind that while music may satisfy this connective role, both human mind and material world spring from musical themes into primary Being by the agency of Iluvatar’s Flame Imperishable. Music and light are primary, and their purpose is to give God joy until the end of days, at which point – as Ainulindale reports – He will grant the secret fire to his children and they will be primary creators alongside him.

-Philip R.


  1. Exquisitely argued! You had me worried there for a moment invoking the Gnostics, but you are right: Tolkien's myth is the very opposite of gnosticism; it would make no sense for him (as a Catholic) to argue against the goodness of material, sensible creation. I particularly like the way in which you describe the way in which music, while a language of sorts, goes beyond language; I think that Tolkien would most definitely agree!


  2. While over all I do agree with your argument of music as another form of language I’m not sure I agree, or possibly understand, you point about distinguishing music from speaking because of the “depths to which it can probe the heart,” or not being able to determine the “attributive ‘meaning’ of a musical phrase.” This may be because I don’t necessarily see our emotional core as being specifically “non-linguistic.” It is what it is, emotional, and I don’t particularly think music is an easier, or superior way of reaching that part of ourselves. Personally, I find myself to be moved by both certain passages of music and certain passages of text. Words have their own sort of power, and part of that is that their very “meaning,” the definition of any word, is so easily changed and altered. As we’ve seen in class and in discussions, the meaning of words is also subjective, especially when issues of translation arise. I’m not sure if I think Tolkien found music more powerful than words, and so used music as the basis of his creation myth, but I do think the contrast of the two is very interesting, especially in light of your discussion of the Gnostics.


  3. So first off, this was super cool and well thought out. I also freaked out when you were talking about the gnostics, but then you were spot on, so it was great. At first I wasn’t sure what you meant at the very end when you described the Flame Imperishable as the visual element of creation, but upon further reflection I saw (heh) that just as sight lets you see discrete things, so does the Flame make things discrete, giving them, as you said, ontological independence. But then that made me think more about the role of the Music and of meaning, and I realized that another way that they relate is that the Music creates interaction and interdependence between what the Flame creates independent. Music is, after all, all about harmony, and from the separate parts working in tandem a greater whole emerges. Similarly, the Music of the Ainur creates a world descended from all of Eru’s thought-forms interwoven with each other to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. With this in mind, Melkor’s sin becomes especially abhorrent, as by trying to establish “independence” using his music, he was actually perverting its very purpose of creating meaning through relation. The Flame shows what something is, the Music shows how it is related to everything else, giving it meaning which cannot exist in a vacuum.
    -Daniel Betancourt