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


  1. I love this idea, Murphy, and it made me think of something that I had originally been complaining about. Now it seems to make a little more sense in the light of your comments. When listening to the books at the end of last quarter and over the break, I noticed (and been extremely annoyed by the fact) that Tom Bombadil spoke, even when not singing, in meter which, upon later research, I discovered was traditional Anglo-Saxon poetic meter. What can we make of this, if as you say, those who sing are good and are affirming their connection to the Ainur by singing? For the elves, though their songs are frequent, speak in prose, where Bombadil's words are entirely verse, sung or no. For elves, men, and all other races of Middle-Earth, their connection to the divine is something that needs to be re-affirmed and re-established. They must actively reach out in the form of song and their songs are conscious decisions.

    Conversely, Bombadil's song is innate to him and, it would seem, is not something he willingly 'turns on and off'. His song is constant, ever-flowing and, though he may have the capacity for prose speech or blank verse, he is never seen to use it. His connection to the Music of the Ainur is an open channel and, it would seem, as much a part of him as he of it.

    If the "the peoples of the world are all notes in song", then is Bombadil then even more deeply embedded in the melody?

    -Emma Pauly

  2. This is a wonderful reflection on the repurcussions of creation through Word, music, and procreative sex amongst dieties. I'm not sure I'm quite on board with the distinction you are trying to draw between the sexual generation of the Greek deities and what you see as repressive attitudes towards sex in the New Testament—yes, the creation is spoken, but why then bother with the physical incarnation of Jesus, born of a human woman? Why not just speak him into adult existence? In fact, I think this could strengthen your argument—the immactulate conception you refer to is celebrated in the form of the “annunciation of Mary,” and is often depicted in medieval art as an act of speech (the angel appearing to Mary and telling her she will bear a son)—more creation by words! However, I do very much like how you have connected the ideas of creation by speech with the emphasis on prophets and those who carry the Word.
    I am even more impressed with your analysis of those who sing and those who do not in Tolkien's world—music is the fabric of creation, and the creators are good! And what a closing line: “the peoples of the world are all notes in song!” I agree.


  3. This is a lovely post; I very much enjoyed the connection between the creative singing of the Ainur and the experience of Frodo in Rivendell. I would just like to point out that there is at least one counter-example where we find evil beings singing. In The Hobbit, when Bilbo, Gandalf, and the Dwarves have fled the Misty Mountains, the goblins who pursue them into the trees sing the “Fifteen birds in five fir trees” song. But I do not think that this in any way diminishes your point, because the song appears to me mocking and vile rather than creative in the lofty sense we have been using. However, I am curious about what it might mean that even these truly horrid things (“Bake and toast 'em, fry and roast ’em!
 | till beards blaze, and eyes glaze;
 | till hair smells and skins crack,
 | fat melts, and bones black in cinders lie beneath the sky!” is a rather disturbing verse) have the ability to produce some form of song. What if the goblins did mean for their song to be part of the music of creation, assuming the unlikely scenario that they know about such a thing? You mention that Melkor’s discord is over-pride rather than evil, but what would happen when real evil does attempt to create through song? Or is Tolkien’s world so fundamentally based on the pairing between song and goodness that such a thing is unthinkable? Melkor clearly has a considerable understanding of creation, he is said to be at least the equal of Manwe in that respect. I would be very surprised if he had not also thought of using music to create, so I suppose the fact that he does not appear to do so once he enters into the world indicates that the sub-creative power of music is either too fundamentally good for him to access or does not have a physical impact in Arda, at least in a way that Melkor considers important.
    Ian Chronis