Friday, April 22, 2011

Why Discord?

Would Iluvatar’s music be just as beautiful without Melkor’s music? Why did Iluvatar not wipe out Melkor from the very beginning? These questions stuck out to me during our class discussion because they were ones that I myself pondered over as I was reading these various texts. One idea that came up in class was that discord and dissonance lead to resolution in music – we cannot have resolution without discord. Dissonance in music allows us, the listeners, to appreciate harmony more and experience the satisfaction and joy of reaching a resolution. We do not know and appreciate harmony and resolution in music as well when there is no dissonance. Indeed, there can be no resolution in music without dissonance.

So, would Iluvatar’s music be just as beautiful without Melkor’s music? Well, I want to say – and I think – yes, it would be. After all, Tolkien did say that the music before was full of “endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Iluvatar were filled to overflowing” and “never since have the Ainur made any music like this music” (Silmarillion, 15). These descriptions hardly seem to me to be ones of incompleteness and inferior beauty. It was “great music” before Melkor brought discord to it. But just as dissonance allows us to appreciate harmony and resolution in a way that is not available to us without it, I think Melkor’s “music” lets the Ainur – and us, by extension – know and appreciate the harmony and beauty of Iluvatar’s music more.

This idea of contrasts is not one that is unique to Tolkien. Like many of the themes in Tolkien’s work, there is biblical precedent/basis for it. The Bible itself is filled with contrasts in the creation accounts. Genesis 1:3-4 says, “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.” The other seven days continue in a similar vein: there is day and night, sky and water, earth and sea, sun and moon. None of these are evil, per se, but neither would any of these be quite the same without the other. Each pairing serves to highlight the unique qualities of the two things being created and compared: the solidity of the earth stands in contrast with the fluidity of the sea, the brightness of day with the darkness of night. In the Ainulindale, when Melkor’s music comes in, new themes arise from Iluvatar, themes that are “deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came” (Vol. X, 10).

There is this idea of contrasts providing us with greater understanding and appreciation of harmony in Iluvatar’s music, and at the same time, the contrast and discord from Melkor’s music draws attention to how much Melkor himself does not understand Iluvatar and Iluvatar’s music. In the Ainulindale, Melkor first begins to bring in his “matters of his own imagining” to the music of the Ainur because he does not know Iluvatar’s plans and “it seemed to him that Iluvatar took no thought for the Void” (Silmarillion, 16). And yet, how wrong he was because we see later on that Iluvatar did have a plan for the Void – “[Iluvatar] showed to them a vision, giving to them sight where before was only hearing; and they saw a new World made visible before them” (Silmarillion, 17). Melkor thought that there was no plan for the Void, but with the revelation of the Vision, and later on with the coming of the Children of Iluvatar, he and the other Ainur “learned yet a little more of [Iluvatar’s] wisdom, which otherwise had been hidden even from the Ainur” (Silmarillion, 18). Iluvatar himself says, “no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, not 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). Iluvatar has a greater power and plan that even the Ainur do not know about – he is sovereign over his creation and his imagination and understanding is above all else. Melkor’s discord, when taken in light of Iluvatar’s grander scheme, is merely a part, a small portion of the music. The discord allows for resolution and new themes, and draws out the beauty of the harmony in Iluvatar’s themes.

The ironic – and, I think, truly sad – thing is that while Melkor’s willful discord creates a profound appreciation and knowledge of what harmony is and contributes to the beauty of Iluvatar’s music, it only happens because Melkor does not understand Iluvatar and the beauty of Iluvatar’s music. Yet somehow, Iluvatar is able to take the discord arising Melkor’s misperception and misunderstanding, and he uses that to bring others into a fuller appreciation of his music. And that is what lends even greater beauty and majesty to Iluvatar’s music. “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:5). The darkness’ lack of comprehension does not detract from the Light, but darkness – perhaps unknowingly – serves to bring the Light to further glory and brilliance. So, I think Iluvatar chooses not to wipe out Melkor when he begins to bring discord to the music is because he knows it will not take away the beauty of his music, but rather draw out the beauty in it.

Veronica L.


  1. I certainly agree that by establishing a strong contrast in a situation like this, we are better able to appreciate the good things, since they are put into a much different perspective and are no longer taken for granted.

    An aspect that has always stood out strongly to me in this tale is the remark you pointed out from p. 17, when Iluvatar explains to Melkor that his attempt at defiance was part of the plan all along, and would ultimately lead to greater things than he or the other Ainur could imagine. It calls to mind an aspect of the Biblical origin story that I think we briefly mentioned in class - even in the Garden of Evil, amongst all the "good" creations of God, the snake was created as well, introducing temptation and "evil." Men and elves are given free will and God/Iluvatar allows evil to enter the world, even though He ultimately could have just made everything remain perfectly good. I think this idea you've brought up of the importance of contrast in order to bring out beauty and inspire appreciation may be a solid step toward determining why Iluvatar would incorporate imperfection in his greater, secret schemes.

    -Catrina D.

  2. And yet, it seems to me that you would still prefer the music of the Ainur before Melkor's intervention--is this right? You make a very good point here: it is not that the first music was not beautiful or complete; only that even Melkor's discord can be brought into harmony by Ilúvatar. Which raises the question (as such musings always do), why was Melkor there in the first place as one of the Ainur? Couldn't Ilúvatar simply have not thought him? I'm not sure I know how to answer this question myself!


  3. You make an excellent point that discord and dissonance lead to resolution, and I like that you think Iluvatar’s music would have been as beautiful without Melkor (I agree!).

    You focus a lot here on how the light enhances the darkness, the discord enhances the harmony. But I think it not just contrast that is created here, the bad does not just highlight the good – I think the good cannot exist without the bad, the light without the dark! Without the opposite to distinguish and define it, the fundamental thing IS NOT.

    Good point that, while Melkor’s discord ultimately contributes to the music of creation, it comes out of Melkor’s lack of understanding (sad!). Melkor’s greatest failings (or ‘sins’), before pride and a desire to dominate, seem to be his impatience with and lack of faith in Iluvatar. I really like – and totally agree with – your conclusion that the darkness does not know how it affects the light or the light affects it (and perhaps the light doesn’t know either) – and by this same token, Iluvatar doesn’t stop Melkor because, while Melkor doesn’t understand what effect his discord might have, Iluvatar does.


  4. I suppose I agree that Iluvatar's music would have been beautiful, but without discord, it would have also been quite boring.

    Like you say, "discord allows for resolution and new themes, and draws out the beauty of the harmony in Iluvatar’s themes." This means that Melkor is not only complementary to the history of the Valar, but essential to its development. Without discord, Iluvatar's music would have remained in its harmony. It would not have needed to change according to the discord from Melkor. The history of Arda and Middle-Earth, despite all the suffering, also produces great works of splendor like the elven rings, Lothlorien, and Rivendell, which arose to combat evil. Without evil all the good of the Ainur would have been good, but not exceptional, as they became once faced with adversity.


  5. I really like your approach to understanding all the different pairs which create a strong sense of balance in Tolkien's world. Opposing forces have a way of defining each other and a need to both exist in order to understand the other. Melkor's discord helps to further parallel that world to this one of our own if you think of the way in which we default to basic concepts of good and evil.

    The ability to recognize the beauty of something is to understand what is bad. To isolate oneself completely from these concepts would push us beyond a concept of reality we are able to understand. And certainly discord is necessary on a basic level just to create a plot line if we must be simplistic about it.

    One of my favorite ways to describe how creation (goodness) is different from destruction (discord/evil) is to say that destruction is easier, creation is much harder. This is how there will always be a difference between the two despite the pull of balance.


  6. "The ironic – and, I think, truly sad – thing is that while Melkor’s willful discord creates a profound appreciation and knowledge of what harmony is and contributes to the beauty of Iluvatar’s music..."

    1. What an awesome thing to say!
    2. I think you can go deeper than that. I think another remarkable and tragic realization that grows out of Melkor's discord is this- the only way to be effectively discordant is to understand intimately what a harmony is doing. As a musician, it takes as much skill to be consistently discordant as it does to be consistently melodic and a number of excellent musicians have created remarkable music this way. Isn't it interesting that Melkor's ability to be SO discordant, SO anti-Iluvatar tends to imply an intimate knowledge of what Iluvatar actually is and stands for? What I'm saying here is that while I agree that Melkor doesn't value Iluvatar's music in the way we think he should, I don't know that I feel comfortable saying that it's a result of a total lack of understanding. He has to have some understanding of what is going on in Iluvatar's themes, how else could he be so diametrically opposed?

    E. Moore