Wednesday, April 30, 2014

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.



  1. The examples of music I played in class were meant to be just that, examples, not definitive answers. When you read the description of the music that the Ainur played, what comes to mind? If nothing, then it is as useless to think in terms of language (see Sayers, The Mind of the Maker on this!). We will be talking more about metaphor and its limitations in our discussion today (Wednesday). RLFB

  2. Dear LDD,
    Thanks for this post, which both argues a specific point and raises a theme for discussion that we have not yet worked through in class (but which we spoke of today), freedom and fate.

    For the first you ask whether the music should be read so literally. Here you are pushing back against Flieger (which is fine, of course). I personally can see the plausibility in your view, that the Valar had explained creation and the music to Rumil of Kor but has transposed it into elven ways of thought and so discussed it as music. The actual events however lay outside our conceptual world. But is there specific textual support for this view?

    Secondly, I am surprised at your suggestion that the Ainur have no free agency in the Music. Where, I wonder, does the text support that?

    Also, Iluvatar says to the Ainur (first page) “…ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will. But I will sit and hearken…” Does this not seem to indicate that each Ainu has the choice to add from their own thoughts? Or did I misunderstand your point?

  3. LDD,

    I’m not too sure about the ridiculousness of attempting to find an approximation. I agree with you that there is not a correct answer and that no music will ever match the music of the Ainur as it is simply beyond human (elven?) comprehension. However, striving to understand the music is what makes it more interesting. I enjoy listening to music while reading and will freely admit that an appropriate selection can draw me deeper into the reading of the book. I’ll admit I wasn’t listening to music during the this particular reading, but I could easily believe some of the music we listened to in class to be music I would expect to hear from a type of creation. It may be ‘endless interchanging melodies’, but I interpreted that as meaning it could be any different music depending on who heard it, and when. I might hear a vocalization, whereas another might hear a solely instrumental piece. An approximation is all that could be achieved, but I’d say it would be fairly achievable for any person who could be asked “What did you think it sounded like?” I wouldn’t necessarily discount it as a exercise in futility.

    -Joseph H

  4. LDD,

    In your post, your raise the problem of the introduction of evil in the form of Melkor. Specifically, that a conception of Melkor as a sub-division of Eru's mind would tie his evil to Eru, which, you say, is impossible.
    Yet there is no reason to say that Eru could not have a conception of evil within himself, even if he is a being of supreme good. If we are to compare Eru to the Judeo-Christian god, as he so often is, we can very easily see this in the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil which resides in the garden of Eden. Genesis 2:9 reads, "The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground...the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." This god is also referred to as a supreme good, yet he is able to create something that includes evil within it. The Tree also exemplifies the fact that you cannot have good without evil as both require the existence of the other. Even if you choose to discount the similarities between Eru and the Judeo-Christian god, this simple fact offers an explanation as to how Melkor, being a sub-division of Eru, could have received some knowledge of evil. Without the totality of Eru's understanding, Melkor may have simply been unable to turn the evil within him towards good.

    -J Nocton

  5. I recently watched a David Foster Wallace interview where he posited the idea that imperfection is perfection. What he was getting at is that constantly seeking perfection prevents you in seeing the beautiful in what is imperfect. I believe that this is how Eru has approached the problem of evil. He has created a world and has adopted the watch-makers role. There is no doubt he could make it perfect by intervening when things go wrong and reminding people who is truly in charge. That would however make for a crappy story. That I believe, is Illuvatar’s reason for creating Arda. Why would a God whose number one love is that of creation interfere with the sub-creations he has put into place? Evil is just a sub-creation and is also beautiful in its own right. Without evil, we could not classify the good and neither would we be able to have the good be tested.

    -Javon Brown