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.