Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Relative realities, framing, and religion

Today, we discussed the similarities between the Ainulindale and the Jewish and Christian creation myths.  It is hard to deny that Tolkien’s Elven creation myth is very similar to the obscure Christian mythology from the book of Job and Jubilees.  Tolkien himself, based on his Letters, suggests that he intended his Legendarium to be not incompatible with Christianity, although the characters themselves are not Christians.  Indeed, one could say that the mythology of the Legendarium MUST be Christian because the fictional Legendarium is meant to take place in our “real” world; as a Christian himself, Tolkien probably believed in the Bible in some way, so the history of the world was (perhaps), for him, tied up with that history set forth in the Bible.  If the real world was created by God and his angels, and Middle Earth is the real world (even if the peoples inhabiting it are not real), then Middle Earth was created by God and his angels.  Therefore, the Ainulindale is simply the Elves’ interpretation of the true act of Creation, of which the Bible is another interpretation—the interpretation, perhaps, of Men.  It is possible that Tolkien would have supported the Bible as the literal record of Creation, but this seems unlikely, as he seemingly picks and chooses parts of different biblical creation myths to put in his Ainulindale: the angels in Job sing and shout for joy at Creation, whereas the Genesis account doesn’t talk about angels; the Jubilees version has angels of many things including snow and rain, which is similar to the Ainur/Valar.  Because Tolkien combines elements of different, somewhat contradictory biblical creation stories, I think that he would not have supported the idea that the Bible is the literal, factual, unbiased record of Creation, but rather that it contains multiple interpretations of Creation.  (I’m not sure that Tolkien would say that ANYTHING is an unbiased record.  By  having different peoples call the same character different names, such as Gandalf and Mithrandir, and having none of them be the ‘right’ name, but rather each name describes how that people sees that character, Tolkien implies that there is no ‘right’ way to view things.)

The framing of the Ainulindale is, I think, important to this point.  In the explicitly framed version, which starts by saying that this was said to Aelfwine, the frame emphasizes that this is an Elven interpretation of Creation.  When the frame is deleted, it reads more like the Bible, but this in itself does not actually help make it seem more “real.”  Genesis lacks a frame, and I would guess that this is much of the reason why people think it must record the 100% literal, factual truth: who is the narrator?  Whose interpretation is this?  Without a frame, we don’t know, and many people seem to assume that this means the narrator is God (I suppose because who else could have been there and seen it all happen?) Indeed, reading the Ainulindale as a literal, unbiased record of actions (due to the lack of a frame) makes it much harder to match up with the Bible, (especially if we read the Bible literally, too).  Without a frame, we can say that the Ainulindale is the Elven equivalent of the various Christian creation myths, in that it is a creation myth with many similarities to that in the Christian Bible.  But if you compare them both as the “word of god,” rather than interpretations, then they are ultimately describing two different, if similar, religions.  When we insert the frame, however, everything changes.  Now we see that the differences in the stories can be explained by differences in the interpreters.  Perhaps the story was passed down differently—Aelfwine hears it through a (short) grapevine, so maybe some details got jumbled up along the way.  (I’m not sure whether Tolkien would grant the same flexibility to the biblical account.)  The frame shows that the person doing the telling may be altering the story a little.

The following is an example of what I am trying to get at.  Imagine that you’re reading online about amusement parks.  One website describes one amusement park as having a lot of fast, exciting rides, and a few snacks, too. Another website describes one amusement park as having an incredible array of concession stands, from award-winning ice cream to water ice to pizza to giant marshmallows, and a few rides, too.  It sounds like these websites are talking about different amusement parks.  But now imagine that you’re reading the same descriptions, but you know that they are posted by two kids whom you know, John and Mary.  John is a real thrill-seeker, and he could spend weeks just riding roller coasters over and over.  Mary doesn’t like scary rides, but she loves sweets and food.  Suddenly, it seems as if both descriptions could be describing the same park.  John emphasizes the parts that stood out to him, and Mary does the same.  Perhaps their personal biases even cause them to exaggerate a little.

In this way, I think the frame of Aelfwine is important if Tolkien wanted the reader to read the Ainulindale as reflecting Christian ideas; the Elves love music, and perhaps their love of music drives them to emphasize and exaggerate the musicality of creation.  The Elves, of course, place themselves before Men in creation, just as Men place themselves before all others in their version of Creation. 

However, I am not entirely convinced that Tolkien wanted the reader to draw this conclusion—or at least, he did not want to shove it in the reader’s face.  He tried very hard not to be preachy and to emphasize that the Lord of the Rings was not an allegory.  Perhaps he took out the frame so that the reader would not immediately draw the conclusion that this was the Elven version of the Bible.  Perhaps Tolkien meant to subtly imply that both the Ainulindale and the Biblical Creation are biased interpretations of the true Creation, and he didn’t want readers to assume from the frame that he was creating an Elven “mistaken” version of the “true” Bible.

Anna M


  1. It was Christopher Tolkien who took out the frame when he published the Ainulindalë in The Simarillion. His father's manuscripts always seem to have included a frame. RLFB


  2. ‘Therefore, the Ainulindale is simply the Elves’ interpretation of the true act of Creation, of which the Bible is another interpretation—the interpretation, perhaps, of Men.’

    I like this phrasing. At first, I had some trouble wrapping my head around the fact that this creation myth is so explicitly a Christian creation myth. Tolkien makes such a big to-do in all of his letters and supporting material that Arda, with its Elvish languages and histories, is NOT a Christian world, which in my mind meant it should be impossible to draw explicit parallels between his secondary reality and our primary one. Therefore, his creation myth seems (or it did in my indignant first impression) to be in complete violation of these proud and meticulous and earnest statements.

    However, I think your interpretation sums his project up nicely: the idea that he offered the Ainulindale (with its frame) as an alternate interpretation of the act of creation, in keeping with the alternate Judeo-Christian versions of creation, is a very beautiful and subtle way of connecting his secondary reality to our primary one. There is no assumption that the creation story will or must end in modern religious practices, by that I mean that his history is not progressive, it does not need to end with Christianity or with the religion of the Numenoreans, but this event involving a creator and angel like creatures has passed down through the ages, changed and refracted like one of Tolkien’s languages.

  3. I think you underestimate the degree to which a classical Biblical hermeneutic, especially the Catholic understanding that Tolkien brings to the test, can accommodate seeming contradictions in the text. Put briefly, I'm not sure that Tolkien would recognize the distinctions between Job and Genesis as contradictions, perhaps "elaborations" would be a better word. So, I think you're very much correct that the Ainulindale offers up the elves view of creation, accounting for the differences, but wrong to suggest that by this Tolkien understands their to be a bias operative in his account (or the one in Genesis) which gives us an imperfect view of creation. The Ainulindale and Genesis are both *true*, and, in so far as they are true, they are in agreement with each other. However, this does not mean that they are factually true (I'm avoiding the use of the term "literally" here, as the literal sense in the classic understanding, which Tolkien gives every indication of accepting, is not the same as the one most commonly encountered today).

    I think a useful way to think about this might be in the same terms as Plato's creation account in the Timaeus. Despite it's obvious differences from the account in Genesis, theologians regularly pointed to the Timaeus as true and even referred to Plato as a sort of proto-Christian. The Ainulindale is even closer to the Christian creation story (indeed, I can easily imagine a 12th century poet writing about creation in very similar terms), and I think Tolkien would say express the same fundamental truths. As a sidenote: it's worth mentioning that Christian theology often understood music to be at the basis of language (Thomas Aquinas famously argues this), I would be surprised if Tolkien were unaware of this and if it did not inform his work.