Wednesday, April 30, 2014

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


  1. I’m curious as to what you think of the theory that the Ainulindalë and Genesis are not simply different tellings of the same creation story, but that the Ainulindalë and the events of the Silmarillion may actually predate Genesis. Surely, the Ainulindalë is the creation story for the Elves, and Genesis is the creation story of men, but if you take God’s saying “Let there be light” to be the creation of the Sun and Moon by the Valar, and the seven days of creation to be seven literal days between the origin of the celestial spheres and the awakening of man, then it may be that Genesis starts in a later point in the history of the world, referring not to the genesis of the world, but to the genesis of man.
    This is supported by the fact that there is a possible discrepancy between the first words of Genesis “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”, and His words “Let there be light”. We do not know exactly how long it was after creating the heavens and the earth that God created light. It could have been a minute, or it could have been eons...eons in which the Valar did their work and the elves came into being.
    Granted, there are some issues with this theory. In Genesis, God creates plants and animals after the creation of the light, whereas in the Silmarillion and Ainulindalë, these things already were created by the Valar. The order of other things is mixed around as well, for God creates the stars after he creates the light, and the light appears to be different from the Sun and the moon. But, it is possible that our story of Genesis has been fragmented over time. If Genesis is meant only for the understanding of men, then it is possible that we lost some of the intricacies of the first days when they were told to our ancestors by the Elves.

    -Tate Hamilton

  2. Dear J Keener,

    In class we moved almost in a circle from seeing the Ainulindalë as opposed to the creation accounts in the Bible to seeing many similarities and parallels. I applaud your attempt to extend this trajectory and actively argue for no real disagreement but only an elvish perspective rather than a human one.

    I think you have hit upon something with your parallel of creation by speech in both accounts. Your link between the special gift to men with the image of God in humanity makes me curious, because the image as free will is not so explicit in Genesis. I wonder, to draw the parallel that you aim at, would we have to interpret Genesis (&c) like the Catholic Tolkien might have read it?

    What other points might come into play? As Tate has pointed out, do the seven days present a problem or can the human vs elvish perspective help?
    What about creation ex nihilo, out of no pre-existing material?

  3. This is fantastic, I think there is a lot to be said of the concept that Tolkien saw his project in the Silmarillion as another interpretation of Genesis. In one of the readings for this past Wednesday (I think it was Splintered Light?), the author suggested that both Genesis and the Silmarillion made use of the White Light in creation. I also wonder if there is any continuity with the conception of Jubilees with that of the Saints in the Christian Church. While Tolkien obviously wants us to consider the Ainur as not-human, but there have been comparisons in the past between the Pantheon and the Saints. It also gives us a way of talking about Christianity on a whole, without wondering about how the fact that Jubilees is apocryphal complicates matters.


  4. I really enjoyed the blogger's discussion of creation by speech. It's clear that the act of creation has something to do with Illuvatur / God's action as a first mover, but I actually saw Tolkien as doing something different with the creation myth. While the mechanism of God's creation in Genesis is light, the visual component of his created world for man, Illuvatur's mechanism of creation in Ainulindale is music or sound, the heard component of his created world for the elves. I think this places Tolkien's reinterpretation of Genesis squarely in another frame altogether and is part of what gives Middle Earth and Tolkien's legendarium in general its familiar and alien quality. The stuff in the world we observe is so familiar in its concreteness but at its heart its built out of something different from our primary reality and I think that's part of what gives it that mythic quality.

    However, what Tate brought up in the comments is equally compelling, albeit in a different way. I think Tate's point that Illuvatur's act of creation for the elves might have predated God's for man is a good one. It's especially convincing, I think, because Tolkien concieved of his legendarium's role (as we came to understand through the Notion Club Papers and his letters) as being to transport readers through Time not Space. As a result, I think it's difficult to say definitively whether Tolkien intended for his creation to occur father back in our chronology or in another universe altogether. Good discussion here though, hope it develops even further!

  5. The fact that Iluvatar allows the Ainur to be part of the music is a way to expose how God invite those who follow him to the afterlife to be part of his own causality. It is, in my opinion, a clever and nice instrument used by Tolkien to tell us that life in heaven is fun and beautiful and involves participating actively in God's plans.