Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Religious Fragmentation in Tolkien's Legendarium

           At first glance, creation as depicted in the Ainulindalë differs significantly from the creation myths of the Judeo-Christian canon. Does this necessarily mean that the two tales of genesis are mutually exclusive? In fact, the similarities between the Ainulindalë and Judeo-Christian creation stories, which become apparent upon further inspection, coupled with the clear differences between the two traditions lend to the argument that these disparate tales are in actuality of a common origin. Looking at a few concepts that underlie the entirety of Tolkien’s body of work, namely the presence of cultural “fragments” and the way in which ideas become “splintered” as time passes, it can be seen that the tale of Eru’s creation and that of YHWH’s can be said to have sprung forth from a common tradition.
            Similarities between the creation of the Ainulindalë and that of the Judeo-Christian tradition are subtle, but their presence is of vast importance. Critically, in both instances the agent of creation is noise. In the Ainulindalë, the Ainur “fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music,” a song that variously forms the World That Is and the blueprint of the World That Is, depending upon the version. (The Silmarillion, pg. 15) In Genesis, “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” (Genesis, 1:3) The agent of  creation in both cases derives from auditory sources. While the Judeo-Christian God is traditionally considered a single entity (or three consubstantial beings, as the case may be), in the original Hebrew Genesis the Lord is titled “Elohim,” the plural form of “El”; the us of the plural as opposed to the singular suggests the presence of God in all of his aspects. Adding on to that, in John’s account of creation, “The Word was in God’s presence, and what God was, the Word was.” (John, 1:1) The Word is not defined well, but it seems to be some sort of a divine Existent. In yet another Judeo-Christian account of creation, Jubilees, God creates “all of the spirits who minister before him,” which is to say he creates a host of angels. (Jubilees, 2:2) Similarly, while the Ainur may be perceived as beings separate from Eru, they are described as “the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made,” a description that indicates the Ainur could possibly be aspects of Eru’s being contained within the larger being of Eru. The nebulous nature of the divinity responsible for Creation is clearly shared by both mythologies. Easily the most recognizable similarity between the two mythologies is the rebellion of the Divine’s chief lieutenant. In the Aindulindalë it is Melkor (or Melko, again depending upon the version), the greatest of the Ainur, that brings discord into creation, while in the Judeo-Christian tradition it is the angel Lucifer that rebels (an act that is not depicted but referred to throughout the canon).
The similarities between the Judeo-Christian account of divine creation and that of the Ainulindalë provide the groundwork for the assertion that the two mythologies share a common origin, but it is the differences between them that truly make this claim a valid one.  Differences between the two mythologies are manifold. Whereas in Genesis, YHWH of course creates light first and foremost, in the various forms of the Ainulindalë the sun is already preexisting or the Valar create the Northern and Southern towers of light. Furthermore, in the Judeo-Christian tradition YHWH literally creates Man, whereas in Tolkien’s account of creation the Children of Ilúvatar more ambiguously awaken into existence. A final difference to note (although there are surely more) is that the creation of the Ainulindalë occurs over an indeterminate amount of time; in fact, time itself seems to begin only when the Valar enter the World and creation goes on “in the Deeps of Time” for an undefined period. (The Silmarillion, pg. 20) This contrasts heavily with the six days of creation in the Judeo-Christian tradition (six days in that the seventh day was spent resting; is that part of creation?).
            Clearly there are both similarities and differences between the accounts of creation present in the Ainulindalë and in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but what does that mean? As was stated earlier, the similarity of the two mythologies points towards a common origin. The differences on the other hand, indicate what Flieger describes as “the pattern of fragmentation…that underlies the whole mythology.” (Splintered Light, pg. 63) Flieger is specifically referring to linguistic fragmentation in this quote, but she also points to the fact that ideas too can become fragmented. Such fragmentation creates “distinct and separate groups [that] will lead to misunderstandings and alienation of one [group] from another, but it will also therefore give rise to new perceptions and greater individuality.” (Splintered Light, pg. 78) These ideas come from a common source (as indicated by the notable similarities between the two mythologies) but throughout the course of time people subscribe to increasingly differing versions of the original source, leading to visions of creation as distinct as that of Judeo-Christian tradition and that presented in the Ainulindalë. As much as the two mythologies represent differing ideas of a common source (Flieger’s definition of fragmentation), they also represent fragments in the way Tolkien often discussed. An example of this is Frodo’s Man in the Moon song in Book I, Chap. IX, a ditty clearly to be taken as a precursor to the traditional Hey Diddle Diddle rhyme. Similarly, by offering the Ainulindalë, Tolkien provides either a precursor that the Judeo-Christian tradition is a fragment of or, alternatively, another fragment of the same origin tale that the Judeo-Christian account is derived from. It should be noted that even within the two traditions there is further fragmentation, as evidenced by the multiple versions of the Ainulindalë (of course this could also be accounted for as a case of obsessive editing on Tolkien’s part) and the various accounts of Judeo-Christian creation in Genesis, John, and Jubilees. Such fragmentation within already fragmented traditions indicates where accounts are moving in the future; fragmentation of mythology is not a process that ends but one that endures.

            What does this intimate connection of the Judeo-Christian tradition with Tolkien’s mythology amount to? It works to further ground Tolkien’s Legendarium within our primary reality. Mythology and history are further blurred; the line between our primary reality and Tolkien’s sub-creation becomes unclear. All of this serves to move forward Tolkien’s objective of creating an English mythology. If the mythology he creates is as believable as possible, as grounded in the primary reality as a work of imagination can be, then he will have all the more effectively crafted a National Mythology and not just a sprawling individual work of fiction.

- B. M. McGuire

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