Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Creation Myth and the Canon: What It Means to be Sung into Being

In the Christian mythology according to John, the world was made by the Word, which was with God (John 1:1). In the ancient Greek pantheon, as represented by Hesiod’s Theogony, creation happens through the births of Chaos and Gaia’s children.  Tolkien’s world, on the other hand, was sung into being. In the Ainulindale, as presented in The Silmarillion, Eru first brings into being the Ainur, each representing an individual aspect of his mind, then after receiving instruction on a general theme from him, the Ainur sing the music of creation:
 “Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Iluvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony … [and] went out into the Void, and it was not void.” (Silmarillion, 15).
In this telling, God – here called Eru, and later Iluvatar – does not create the world, but rather instructs others in its making. After the music ends, Iluvatar, in a display of divine synesthesia, shows his offspring the a vision of what the music, made material, looks like, then sends them forth to achieve that which they have sung.
Each of these stories, however, is about the same world: they all tell of how Earth came into being, the difference being the point of view from which the story is told. John introduces us to the Christian world, which, though sharing the same object of description, shares little in common with the ancient Greek world that Hesiod describes. The Ainulindale describes this same world as well; from his other writings, we know that Tolkien imagined that the Arda he describes in The Silmarillion and Lord of the Rings to be based on the actual topography of Europe, and he explicitly links the worlds in his unfinished work, The Lost Road with the father and son pair Aelfwine and Eadwine.
What does it mean then, to be a part of a world that was sung into being, as opposed to being spoken or birthed? What is the difference between being made by God himself, or by his servants? The differences can be found in the stories that take place in each of these contexts.
Greek myth is fraught with sex from the beginning. Following the arrival of Eros, creation is typically takes place via the literal sexual creation of children between divine beings. The Titans are the children of Gaia and Ouranos; from Echidna and Typhon come the monsters that populate myths alongside many Zeus’s children from his innumerable extramarital affairs. I would posit that because sex functions as the basis by which much of the universe came into being, it creates a more accepting attitude towards it in the stories that take place in that universe. Whereas Helen of Troy most likely would have been condemned as wicked and a sinner in a Christian story, there is a gentler attitude towards her in Greek myth, and though she is the cause of much strife, she is not seen as evil.
The Christian creation story sets up a different attitude. God is never seen as having sex; even his son, Jesus, was supposed to have been conceived immaculately. If he had, I imagine we would not have Corinthians 7:1, where it states “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” Instead, God creates the world with the Word, and instead of having stories populated by the biological children of God, the Bible instead spends much of its time focused on the prophets, or men who carry the Word of God – that same Word which he used to create the world.
All of this is to demonstrate the enormous influence a creation myth has on all the rest of the stories that follow in a canon. In Greek mythology, much of the universe was created by sex; many of the heroes who star in later epics are the children of gods (see Perseus, Achilles).  In Christian mythology, the world was created through the Word, and the Bible follows those who later carry that Word.
This brings us then to The Ainulindale. If Arda was created through song, how does that affect the stories that later take place in it? In looking at the appearance of song in Tolkien’s stories, what immediately becomes obvious is the similarities between the singers. It is difficult to imagine Saruman humming to himself as he waits for Sauron to appear on his end of the Palantir. It is even harder to imagine the Uruk-hai on a night off singing the extended version of Hey Diddle Diddle that Frodo does at the Prancing Pony (LotR, Bk. I, ch. 9).  To sing is, in this world, to be in some way good, or at least not evil. The only time we see evil sing is in the original creation itself, when Melkor introduces discord to Iluvatar’s themes, and then, it is hardly fair to say that Melkor is evil, only overly-proud.
The Elves in particular have a talent for song and are almost always mentioned has singing something whenever they are encountered, from the hobbits’ first meeting with them in book I as they flee from the Black Riders, to their arrival in Loth Lorien, where the elves compose songs of mourning for Gandalf.  Tolkien spends a great deal of time describing Frodo’s experience listening to the songs sung at Rivendell before the Council of Elrond:
“At first the beauty of the melodies and of the interwoven words in elven-tongues, even though he understood them little, held him in a spell, as soon as he began to attend to them. Almost it seemed that the words took shape, and visions of far lands and bright things that he had never yet imagined opened out before him” (LotR, Bk. II, ch. 1).
The kind of music that the elves are here described as making is far and away different than the light-hearted rhymes the hobbits sing as they travel. Frodo is spellbound, and the Elves’ music causes visions to ‘take shape.’ It creates images in his imagination. Even the language Tolkien uses to describe the Elvish music is similar to that of the music of creation: ‘interchanging melodies’ are replaced in Rivendell with ‘interwoven words.’ The music of the Elves, both in description and effect, is more similar to that of the music of creation, and through this medium, the Elves are closer to the Ainur. This is even plainly stated in the Silmarillion when Tolkien likens the minds of the Valar more to the minds of the Elves than to men [citation pending my ability to find that passage].
Because Arda came into being through music, song in Tolkien’s universe takes on an additional significance: Those who sing are, in some way, good, and by singing, those who make the music can become closer to the creators of the world, the Ainur. Each of these different creation myths gives the inhabitants of that world a different identity. In the Christian mythology, man is the Word made flesh; the Greek heroes were often literal children of the Gods; and in Tolkien’s legendarium, the peoples of the world are all notes in song.

-- Murphy Spence

A Concern About Hobbits

Two races are specifically referred to in the Ainulindalë as Eru’s special creation: “Now the Children of Ilùvatar are Elves and Men, the Firstborn and the Followers.”[1] This raises an obvious question: What about hobbits? Or dwarves? Or orcs? Do they have any role in Tolkien’s creation myth whatsoever? Perhaps a better way to phrase the question is "Why are other beings not included in the Ainulindalë?"

The obvious reason here seems problematic. It’s difficult to believe that Tolkien did not intend for hobbits, in particular, to be Children of Ilùvatar, in light of the role they play in his mythos. It also seems racist to introduce a spiritual distinction that only certain races have access to. I hope that exploring the various explanations for this issue may be enlightening.

One possible explanation is the myth’s tellers’ biases. In the original extant versions (labelled B, C, C*, and D by Christopher Tolkien[2]), either Rùmil (B) or Pengoloð (C-D) speaks the myth to Ælfwine. In versions C-D, Pengoloð tells the myth that Rumil had previously written. Notably, both of the tellers are elves, and the myth’s receiver is a man. This means that the two races mentioned in the myth match with the two races mentioned as the Children of Ilùvatar. So one possible reason for the exclusion of other races is that its tellers included themselves, but not others.

That, of course, has several possible meanings. One: The elves were racist and purposely left out other races. Two: The elves (as transmitters of the myth) were simply careless and did not insert other races (except men) into their myth. Three: The Valar, who gave them the myth, gave it to them with an elvish focus, and the elves were loath to change it. Four: The elves didn’t know about other races. This option actually seems possible for the B version, but not for the others, since Rùmil had dwelt in Tirion since the Eldar first traveled to Valinor. Therefore, he may not have known of the existence of hobbits[3] or dwarves or other creatures. Pengoloð, though, as a survivor of the sack of Tuor’s city, would certainly have known of the existence of Melkor’s creatures, and may well have known of the existence of dwarves.

However, this explanation as a whole has one glaring difficulty: The Silmarillion as we have it today is supposed to be Bilbo’s—a hobbit—translation of Rùmil’s works into Westron. Even if Rùmil did not know of the existence of hobbits, Bilbo certainly did, and had to choose not to change or annotate the myth.

Another possible explanation is satisfying for two subsets of the races of Middle-Earth. Dwarves were not actively created by Ilùvatar, but by Aulë. Likewise, orcs were created by Melkor, and not by Ilùvatar. Both of these races were created by Valar—but how? It seems impossible that the dwarves, in particular, could be mere automatons or golems; they act as though they have free will. But free will, like Being itself, is a gift from Ilùvatar. The Silmarillion states that Melkor “had gone often alone into the void places seeking the Imperishable Flame; for desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own…”[4] The Imperishable Flame seems to be crucial to creating Being, especially since Ilùvatar possessed it when he created the Music, but he placed it at the center of Arda when he first called it into existence. Is it possible that both Aulë and Melkor, as two of the most cunning Valar, were allowed to find part of this Flame? This seems especially plausible since Aulë was concerned with the earth and Melkor hid in caves. If it was within the earth itself, they may well have found it. Then the dwarves (and possibly the orcs) would be sub-creations of the Valar, imbued with life through Ilùvatar’s gift to them. They would not strictly be Children of Ilùvatar. Gimli’s voyage to Valinor, then, could be seen as the adoption of his race.

But what about hobbits? In Splintered Light, Verlyn Flieger points out that Tolkien compares them with men.[5] That comparison, though, seems to be made because both races have free will and both have the Gift of Men—death. Dwarves, as a sub-creation of the Valar, also have these two gifts—they too are like men.

The final possibility is that the hobbits are also sub-created beings. Like dwarves, they are given the gifts of man, but are not quite men. They are lesser in both size and number, and they have a ‘racial personality’ that is much more strongly marked than that of men—dwarves are greedy diggers, hobbits are silly drinkers. (Of course, these stereotypes are proven wrong.) Men are marked by nationality rather than by being men. These similarities may indicate that both dwarves and hobbits were sub-created races. This brings up the question of racism again—are these sub-created races less than the races created by Ilùvatar himself? I have no good answer except that their fate, like the fate of men, remains unknown to any but Ilùvatar himself.

I do, however, have a random theory for your amusement.What if Tom Bombadil, like Yavanna, is a Valar who communes with nature? What if his power over the Ring and over nature—power that even Gandalf does not quite possess—indicates that he is even more powerful than Elrond suspects? If Tom Bombadil, as he is described in the books, were to create a race of beings, I believe he would create one very much like hobbits.

[1] Silmarillion, page 18.
[2] The Lost Tales and Morgoth’s Ring.
[3] It is unclear exactly when hobbits came into existence, but it seems to be in the Second Age, after the Awakening of Men.
[4] Silmarillion, page 16
[5] Splintered Light, page 51

--Marguerite Meyer

Ainulindalë is to Elves as Genesis is to Men

Throughout our previous classes, we have discussed how Tolkien intended his world to be not a fictional place but a fictional time. The history of Arda was meant to match the history of our world so it would be much easier for Tolkien to suspend our belief in the lore of his world. According to this logic, Tolkien would model how Ëa was created after how Earth was created. Since Tolkien was a Catholic, the resemblance between the creation of Ëa, also known as the Ainulindalë, and the Biblical account of the creation of Earth is more than just a coincidence. In fact, the Ainulindalë and the Bible tell the same story from different perspectives.
Tolkien clarifies that the Ainulindalë is told from a perspective different from what humans are normally used to through how he frames the Ainulindalë. The frame format of the C through D versions of the Ainulindalë highlight how far removed we as readers are from the original account of the creation of Arda, especially in the D version, which inserts Pengoloð between Rúmil and Ælfwine as a story-teller and interpreter. This D version of the Ainulindalë shows a progression of how the story is told, beginning with the Elves still living in Valinor before being passed on to the Noldor, then to the Anglo-Saxons, and finally to modern human beings. This progression emphasizes how the Ainulindalë does not belong to men but to the Elves. The Bible, on the other hand, does belong to men. Because the Bible does not have a framework, it feels more as if it belongs to us. Likewise, the Silmarillion version of the Ainulindalë does not have the framing that later drafts of the Ainulindalë do, making it seem more like the Bible and deemphasizing the fact that it is a story that does not actually come from mankind.
The content of the Ainulindalë compared to the Bible is much more similar than its format. In both stories, for instance, the universe comes into being through speech. In the Ainulindalë, Eru takes the world that the Ainur sang of and brings it into existence, saying in Ainulindalë A, “Ëa! Let these things Be!” (Silmarillion 10). Similarly, in Ainulindalë D, Eru calls the world into being by saying simply, “Let these things Be!” (Morgoth’s Ring 13). In the Biblical account of creation, although how God creates the heavens and the earth is unspecified, the first thing He is described as bringing into existence is light, which he makes by saying, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3). The fact that Eru and God both need to speak their creations into existence is an obvious enough similarity, but that their word choice should be nearly identical shows just how closely Tolkien was following the Genesis creation story.
Beyond the actual moment of creation, the Ainulindalë continues to parallel the Bible. The creation of man to have free will beyond the music is comparable to how God created mankind in His image. The importance of light throughout the Ainulindalë and the Silmarillion brings to mind the fact that light is the first thing God is described as creating. The Ainur are powerful beings that are much like the angels of the Bible.
However, the role of the Ainur in the creation of Tolkien’s world seems to contradict the role of the angels in the Bible. In Genesis, the world is described as having been created by God alone. John 1 seems to refer to a being other than God who helped create the world, saying, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:1-3), but it is widely accepted among Christians that here “the Word” refers to Jesus, who is one with God in the Trinity. Moreover, the passage explicitly states that “the Word was God” (and not that “the Word was a god” from the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, which is a translation of the Bible that the Catholic Church does not accept).
Nevertheless, the angels in the Bible clearly existed before the Earth was created, like how the Ainur dwelt in the Halls of Ilúvatar before the creation of Arda. As God says when he reprimands Job, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone—while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4-7). Therefore, while the angels did not participate in the creation of the world, they, like the Ainur, were certainly present when it was formed.
When an examination of the Bible is extended into Jubilees, though, the connection between Ainur and angels becomes much clearer. While the book of Jubilees, also known as Little Genesis, is considered by the Catholic Church to be an apocryphal book, it was widely known among ancient Christians, and Tolkien, as a medievalist, must have been familiar with its content. In Jubilees, the angels are given different roles, much like how the Ainur or, more specifically, the Valar each have their own domains. The angels of the spirit of wind, for instance, seem a lot like Manwë, the Valar of the wind and air. While God is still the sole creator of the universe in Jubilees, the fact that control over certain aspects of creation are distributed among the angels aligns much more closely with the Ainulindalë than what is presented in the canonical Bible.
Because of the number of similar factors between the Ainulindalë and the Bible, it is logical to conclude that Tolkien intended the Ainulindalë to be another account of the Biblical creation story. But the Ainulindalë is more than just another creation story—it is the creation story that belongs to the Elves, just as the Bible is the creation story that belonged to the Christian Anglo-Saxons of Ælfwine’s time.

-J Keener

Literalism and the Problem of Evil

In this past class of the Music of Creation, we touched on a number of important themes found in Tolkien’s Ainulindalë – most importantly its connection with the Judeo-Christian creation myth and the nature of the Music of the Ainur itself. On the one hand, I would like to add a couple thoughts to this latter discussion, and on the other, I would like to address a question we didn’t manage to get to in class since in creation there is much to discuss: the role of the Ainur – specifically of Melkor.
            Much of the discussion on Monday seemed to me to be focused on the questions of the literality of the music. What did it sound like? Does Beethoven, or Orlando de Lassus, or Holst, or Smetana, or one of a whole host of other composers best approximate it? On some level this is a ridiculous question to ask since one might as well as what was the instrumentation or orchestral seating arrangement of the Ainur. This music of creation is beyond the scope or understanding of man in its countless voices and ‘endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights’ (The Silmarillion, 3).
Likewise, the question of the physics behind this music was raised. However, regarding the physics of it, one has to be wary of applying too much of our primary reality’s rules of physics to Tolkien’s legendaries, or trying to make everything he says somehow literally work out. Perhaps the void outside the doors of night do not exist in the same way or conform to the rules of the void of our reality.
In the case of both of these types of questions, I find it in fact dangerous to take the Music of the Ainur too literally in that one may arrive at the same error as Mr. Rang when he tried to over parse Tolkien’s names through languages extant in our primary reality. For music, the venture of finding a piece to most resemble the music of creation seems to me to be simply a fool’s errand. Likewise, by overanalyzing the physics of the music by means of our reality’s understanding may not only be improper but also be tantamount to “cutting the tennis ball open to see how it bounces”. Furthermore, I find the literalization of creation myths – myths here being the operative word – to be a dangerous proposition in that this is where people derive beliefs such as creationism which I find to grave and pernicious misunderstandings.
I’m not convinced that these are helpful lines of inquiry – despite how interesting or tempting they may be. Rather, I would argue that a more important question is this: how literal is the music? I see the Music of the Ainur as perhaps being a number of possible things such as a metaphysical music acting as the prime impulse – an instantiation of the thoughts of Eru. Alternatively, I’m interested in how the music of the Ainur resembles the harmony of the spheres – though I’m rather ill-read in this concept – since Tolkien says that one can still hear the echoes or resonances of the Music of the Ainur in the deep seas – this is what instantiates the sea-longing in the children of Ilúvatar. Although I feel as though I’m cutting this discussion far shorter than it deserves, the role of the Ainur and the problem of Melkor still remains.
In the creation of Arda, what then was the role of the Ainur? Some, most likely, would hold that they are sub-creators in the greater creation of Eru; however, I’m not convinced that this is the actual nature of their relationship to Eru. I would argue that they are perhaps more appropriately understood as the instruments – literally or figuratively through a metaphysical music – of creation and the means of realization for the creation of Eru. Just as a violin does not play music but rather a musician makes music by means of a violin, Eru is rather the true source of creative power. Although this analogy is not perfect in that Eru does not need the Ainur to create in the same way the musician requires his instrument.                        
Unfortunately, this leads us to the problem of Melkor and his rebellion, which I see to be effectively the same question as the problem of evil. Now, I do not expect nor even presume to solve the problem of evil in a ~1000 word blog post when already so much ink has been spilled on the matter by greater minds, but the problem of Melkor in short is: if all things have their uttermost source in Eru, how can evil come out of that which is theoretically perfect and good.
To begin with the nature of the Ainur, they are the divisions and offspring of Eru’s thought, and thus, they must be inherently imperfect due to the fact that they are sub-divisions. Even with this being so, it is not clear whether the Ainur as divisions of Eru’s thought had yet any form of agency. Certainly, it seems that they already were individuals since, as they made their earliest music, they “sang only each alone, or but a few together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only the part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came” (The Silmarillion, 3). Whether this individuality implies or requires that they have some sort agency, so Melkor’s evil is a result of his pride, jealousy, and hatred. This seems to most resemble a Christian understanding, but this could also tie Melkor’s evil to the mind of Eru, which can not be.
Perhaps instead, Melkor’s ‘evil’ may in fact be necessary to the larger plan of Eru in which absolute harmony and perfection will be achieved in his second music. This may come about because the offspring of Eru’s sub-divided thought are imperfect, so do not have by nature the understanding and knowledge of perfection and good as does Eru. Therefore, perhaps this creation myth proposes that the plan of Eru is to allow his offspring to come to such understanding by the relief of good against evil. Thus fulfilling what Eru said about Melkor that “he shall prove the instrument in the devising of things more wonderful” in the perfection of the second great music (The Silmarillion, 5).
            To me all this begs the thornier question of why create at all? Why was all this necessary in Eru’s plan? Could he not have just brought his music unmarred into being in order to circumvent all the suffering caused by Melkor and his rebellion? Surely, the music in its perfect form already exists in the mind of Eru?  Perhaps in order to instantiate it into physical reality, which is imperfect by nature, he needed it to perfect itself by this scourging struggle, and as the first music caused the offspring of Eru to become separate from him, the second music will bring all things back into the perfection of Eru.


The Origin of Evil and If God Is Good

In Monday’s lecture, we discussed the Middle-earth mythology of Eru and the Ainur in comparison to the Christian concept of God and angels in the Creation.  To what extent does Tolkien’s story mirror the Christian Creation in its various interpretations?  How would a Christian, such as Ælfwine, receive the Elvish creation myth?  Above all, how much do the differences or lack thereof actually matter?  It seems that the Christian and Elvish stories have a lot in common, at least in the general scheme of things, but the disparities appear to me to have serious implications for the way the Creator and the world are viewed.  In the Christian creation story, God makes everything exactly as He wants it, but Middle-earth, due to the mischief of Melkor, is from the beginning an imperfect world.

In Genesis 1, God simply creates each aspect of the earth without interference and the result is as intended.  The phrase “it was good” is repeated six times (1.4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25) and the chapter ends with an emphatic, “And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good” (1.31).  Nothing gets in God’s way and all things are completed in a manner that is satisfactory, if not perfect.  The Gospel of John says, “All things were made by [God]; and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1.3).  There is no mention of angels or any other helpers in either of these texts; God does all of the work directly.  The Book of Jubilees lists various angels, but they are not given an active part in the Creation.

In “Ainulindalë,” Ilúvatar’s helpers are of the utmost importance.  He makes the Ainur before anything else and employs them in creating Middle-earth.  Ilúvatar himself does not physically make the world.  Verlyn Flieger notes, “Unlike the biblical God, Tolkien’s Eru is a strikingly remote and disengaged figure” (Splintered Light 53).  He is the head architect who directs the plans, but he lets the Ainur draw the blueprints with their music and build the structures they have designed.  Eru only conducts the choir and then shows them a model of what they made under his supervision before sending them off to be the construction workers, or sub-creators.  Unlike in Genesis, the world does not come out exactly as planned.  The Valar try to make lands, valleys, mountains, and seas, and Melkor destroys them.  He does not ruin everything, but “nowhere and in no work was their will and purpose wholly fulfilled, and all things were in hue and shape other than the Valar had at first intended” (The Silmarillion 22).  Things may still be “good” enough, but they are not perfect, as a world made by the Almighty would be.

Who is to blame for this imperfection and original sin, and how far back does it go?  In Christian theology, it is out of God’s hands.  After He makes heaven and earth perfectly, He gives free will to Lucifer, Adam, and Eve, and they misuse it.  He renounces control over his creations, with good intention, and they are separate from him when they sin.  In “Ainulindalë,” evil arises much earlier, while its agent is still connected to Eru, and infects all of Creation.  These small details of whether the Creator makes angels before or during the Creation, when trouble first begins, and if he makes the world himself or delegates the task to agents that are part of him alters the source of sin. 

The big question this raises for me is whether there is evil in Ilúvatar.  The Ainur are described as “the offspring of his thought” (The Silmarillion 15).  He warns Melkor, “…[N]o theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite,” a sentiment reminiscent of the aforementioned quotation from John 1.3 (The Silmarillion 17).  Melkor has indeed introduced his own music!  If everything is derived from Ilúvatar, wouldn’t that mean that Melkor’s discord had to come from the One?  This is a rather terrifying thought!  Even Ilúvatar seems unable to restrain evil.  Still, he claims that one who attempts to change the music “shall prove [Eru’s] instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined,” and that Melkor will see that his evil thoughts “are but a part of the whole and tributary to its glory” (The Silmarillion 17).  Now Ilúvatar seems prepared for Melkor’s misconduct and capable of overriding it, but Melkor is able to do so much damage throughout the history of Middle-earth, and only gets a scolding from Eru.  This leaves us with two equally disturbing possibilities: either Eru has evil within him that he cannot control or he allows evil to interfere.  Is this not blasphemy?

This is actually not so different from questions of belief in Christianity.  People wonder how terrible things can happen if there is a God, whether He causes such things or allows them, and if He has a reason for everything.  “Ainulindalë” makes these issues even more pressing by giving sin an earlier source closer to the Creator.

Flieger’s point in Splintered Light about literalizing metaphors can be of use here.  She says that “Tolkien has used fantasy to reinvest metaphor with literality” (64).  Maybe Ilúvatar is not as anthropomorphic as he seems to be, a single character responsible and blamable for everything.  Isn’t God beyond human conception?  As much as He is anthropomorphized in the Bible, referred to as one being with thoughts and feelings, might He be more of a manifestation of the universe as a whole, which contains good and bad and works in mysterious ways?  The best way for us to understand God is to give him human attributes, but He is really so different from us that it is not a truly accurate way to describe him.  Tolkien does the same with Ilúvatar, putting evil in more direct contact with Eru to give a more literal representation of evil in God’s Creation.  The origin of sin doesn’t truly matter, since an all-powerful Creator would be equally able to stop it at any point, if he so chose.

If we apply the Christian reading to “Ainulindalë,” Eru has everything worked out.  Tolkien indicates that Ilúvatar has a greater plan, but “the Valar have not seen as with sight the Later Ages or the ending of the World,” and only during the second music shall all “understand fully his intent in their part” (The Silmarillion 20, 16).  The idea that someone omnipotent and loving knowingly permits tragedy and suffering when he could prevent it is somewhat disturbing, no matter the justification.  But what would be the point of Creation if the result could not exist on its own after being produced?  Ilúvatar does not go to Middle-earth himself, relinquishing control earlier than God, and despite Melkor’s crimes, it is a work of art with plenty of beauty and good, which hopefully has a happy ending in store.  His logic may seem fallible at times, but maybe that is because he, like God, is not a person and doesn’t possess human “logic.”  Whenever angels and sin come about, “Ainulindalë” can mesh with a Christian interpretation of God with Eru as the literalization of an unpredictable universe, always striving toward balance.

-Laurie Beckoff

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Religious Fragmentation in Tolkien's Legendarium

           At first glance, creation as depicted in the Ainulindalë differs significantly from the creation myths of the Judeo-Christian canon. Does this necessarily mean that the two tales of genesis are mutually exclusive? In fact, the similarities between the Ainulindalë and Judeo-Christian creation stories, which become apparent upon further inspection, coupled with the clear differences between the two traditions lend to the argument that these disparate tales are in actuality of a common origin. Looking at a few concepts that underlie the entirety of Tolkien’s body of work, namely the presence of cultural “fragments” and the way in which ideas become “splintered” as time passes, it can be seen that the tale of Eru’s creation and that of YHWH’s can be said to have sprung forth from a common tradition.
            Similarities between the creation of the Ainulindalë and that of the Judeo-Christian tradition are subtle, but their presence is of vast importance. Critically, in both instances the agent of creation is noise. In the Ainulindalë, the Ainur “fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music,” a song that variously forms the World That Is and the blueprint of the World That Is, depending upon the version. (The Silmarillion, pg. 15) In Genesis, “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” (Genesis, 1:3) The agent of  creation in both cases derives from auditory sources. While the Judeo-Christian God is traditionally considered a single entity (or three consubstantial beings, as the case may be), in the original Hebrew Genesis the Lord is titled “Elohim,” the plural form of “El”; the us of the plural as opposed to the singular suggests the presence of God in all of his aspects. Adding on to that, in John’s account of creation, “The Word was in God’s presence, and what God was, the Word was.” (John, 1:1) The Word is not defined well, but it seems to be some sort of a divine Existent. In yet another Judeo-Christian account of creation, Jubilees, God creates “all of the spirits who minister before him,” which is to say he creates a host of angels. (Jubilees, 2:2) Similarly, while the Ainur may be perceived as beings separate from Eru, they are described as “the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made,” a description that indicates the Ainur could possibly be aspects of Eru’s being contained within the larger being of Eru. The nebulous nature of the divinity responsible for Creation is clearly shared by both mythologies. Easily the most recognizable similarity between the two mythologies is the rebellion of the Divine’s chief lieutenant. In the Aindulindalë it is Melkor (or Melko, again depending upon the version), the greatest of the Ainur, that brings discord into creation, while in the Judeo-Christian tradition it is the angel Lucifer that rebels (an act that is not depicted but referred to throughout the canon).
The similarities between the Judeo-Christian account of divine creation and that of the Ainulindalë provide the groundwork for the assertion that the two mythologies share a common origin, but it is the differences between them that truly make this claim a valid one.  Differences between the two mythologies are manifold. Whereas in Genesis, YHWH of course creates light first and foremost, in the various forms of the Ainulindalë the sun is already preexisting or the Valar create the Northern and Southern towers of light. Furthermore, in the Judeo-Christian tradition YHWH literally creates Man, whereas in Tolkien’s account of creation the Children of Ilúvatar more ambiguously awaken into existence. A final difference to note (although there are surely more) is that the creation of the Ainulindalë occurs over an indeterminate amount of time; in fact, time itself seems to begin only when the Valar enter the World and creation goes on “in the Deeps of Time” for an undefined period. (The Silmarillion, pg. 20) This contrasts heavily with the six days of creation in the Judeo-Christian tradition (six days in that the seventh day was spent resting; is that part of creation?).
            Clearly there are both similarities and differences between the accounts of creation present in the Ainulindalë and in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but what does that mean? As was stated earlier, the similarity of the two mythologies points towards a common origin. The differences on the other hand, indicate what Flieger describes as “the pattern of fragmentation…that underlies the whole mythology.” (Splintered Light, pg. 63) Flieger is specifically referring to linguistic fragmentation in this quote, but she also points to the fact that ideas too can become fragmented. Such fragmentation creates “distinct and separate groups [that] will lead to misunderstandings and alienation of one [group] from another, but it will also therefore give rise to new perceptions and greater individuality.” (Splintered Light, pg. 78) These ideas come from a common source (as indicated by the notable similarities between the two mythologies) but throughout the course of time people subscribe to increasingly differing versions of the original source, leading to visions of creation as distinct as that of Judeo-Christian tradition and that presented in the Ainulindalë. As much as the two mythologies represent differing ideas of a common source (Flieger’s definition of fragmentation), they also represent fragments in the way Tolkien often discussed. An example of this is Frodo’s Man in the Moon song in Book I, Chap. IX, a ditty clearly to be taken as a precursor to the traditional Hey Diddle Diddle rhyme. Similarly, by offering the Ainulindalë, Tolkien provides either a precursor that the Judeo-Christian tradition is a fragment of or, alternatively, another fragment of the same origin tale that the Judeo-Christian account is derived from. It should be noted that even within the two traditions there is further fragmentation, as evidenced by the multiple versions of the Ainulindalë (of course this could also be accounted for as a case of obsessive editing on Tolkien’s part) and the various accounts of Judeo-Christian creation in Genesis, John, and Jubilees. Such fragmentation within already fragmented traditions indicates where accounts are moving in the future; fragmentation of mythology is not a process that ends but one that endures.

            What does this intimate connection of the Judeo-Christian tradition with Tolkien’s mythology amount to? It works to further ground Tolkien’s Legendarium within our primary reality. Mythology and history are further blurred; the line between our primary reality and Tolkien’s sub-creation becomes unclear. All of this serves to move forward Tolkien’s objective of creating an English mythology. If the mythology he creates is as believable as possible, as grounded in the primary reality as a work of imagination can be, then he will have all the more effectively crafted a National Mythology and not just a sprawling individual work of fiction.

- B. M. McGuire