Tuesday, April 29, 2014

String Theory: Creation, Music, and Humanity

Tolkien’s story of the creation of his world, the “Ainulindalë,” tells the tale of the world coming to be by music. The creation myth involves the interweaving of melodies by the “All-Father” and his Ainur into a complex counterpoint which Tolkien says creates Middle-Earth. While this tale might sound strange and distinctly modern, the very idea of counterpoint and instrumental music at least post-medieval, if one compares it to not only other creation myths such Genesis and Jubilees but also to other forms of ancient music, one will find that the tale is not so strange and, in fact, can tell us much about Tolkien’s views of the world in general. This insight can give us a look into why one could make the argument that Middle-Earth and its stories have just as much relevance to a reader today as to the fictional characters that inhabit it.
            In his creating everything, Iluvatar is said to have started with a single line of music: “Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music” (HME 10, 8). Already, it seems that Tolkien has chosen to make his creation myth one of plurality and harmony, as harmony not only requires more voices (both in the musical sense and physical sense), but more complexity—at the same time, it seems to place his myth in a more modern vernacular, as harmony was not fully theorized until the Renaissance. When the “Holy Ones,” the Ainur, go on to make music “like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs,” a “sound arose of endless interchanging melodies, woven in harmony” (HME 10, 9). Again, here it looks as if Tolkien is providing a creation myth of multiple bodies and voices, a confused tale in which it seems that there is no one origin of the world—in fact, in music, the leading voice (which is seemingly represented by Iluvatar) is often displaced by other parts in complex counterpoints. How can a story that fails to enumerate a single origin of the world, or even an organized one, ever be considered a viable creation myth?
            The answer lies in other creation myths, songs, and vibrating strings. While the Christian creation myth as told in Genesis seems to speak of a single origin, God, who creates the world, which is given a metaphor by John (the “Word made Flesh”), the book of Jubilees tells the exact same myth—but here in the same “plural” style as the Ainulindalë. On the first day, God does not only create the heavens and the earth, but also “all of the spirits which minister before him,” angels (like the Ainur) who work as God’s “messengers” during the Creation: “On the third day he did as he said to the waters, ‘Let them pass from the surface of the whole earth into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And the waters did as he said” (Jubilees 2:5-6). Just like the Ainur took up Iluvatar’s single theme and added their own harmonies, so, too, do these angels take up God’s word with their own powers and add to them.
            If we stop with confusion at this re-telling of Genesis, we will end up at the same point as our previous confusion over the Ainulindalë. However, if we consider (correctly so, and logically) Genesis and Jubilees to be the same thing, we will realize that “plurality” and “singularity” are also the same thing. Look at Hildegard von Bingen’s hymn to Mary. While the song consists of a single voice (only one part with no harmony), it says: “Thus your womb held joy, / when the harmony of all Heaven / chimed out from you.” Hildegard is implying the same idea in two senses: just as “all Heaven” arose from her singular womb, so, too, can we hear the music of “all of Heaven” from this single line of music. This is also a very medieval view of music, the scientific study of how all ratios and harmonies of music emanate form the vibrations of a single string (which, not coincidentally, is also the go-to laymen’s explanation of string theory, a modern-day creation myth). Iluvatar and the Ainur, God and his angels, and the Virgin and her heavenly vibrations all represent pairs of the same idea: all from one.
            We can see here that stopping to protest against creation myths as “making up” multiple confused origins of the world is futile, since the very operation of our own world (not just our music!) depends on the same physics. Tolkien’s myth is just as viable of an explanation as any other. But what is the importance of considering the creation of the world as being “all from one”? In a letter to his son (No.96), Tolkien writes that modern Christians consider Genesis as being “not very fashionable furniture [and are] a bit ashamed to have it about the house” (Letters, 109). He explains this is because it does not seem to carry any “historicity…[since] Genesis is separated by we do not know how many sad exiled generations from the Fall” (Letters 109-10). But he goes on to remind us that “certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy Earth” and “If you come to think of it, your (very just) horror at the stupid murder of the hawk…are derived from Eden. As far as we go back the nobler part of the human mind is filled with the thoughts of sibb, peace and goodwill, and with the thought of its loss” (Letters 110). If we cannot prove Creation’s historicity, we can still feel its effects—the vibrating string which is God, the theme which is Iluvatar, continue to pulsate. Dismissing creation myths is denying what makes us human—how could we even so much as communicate with one another, not to speak of empathize, if there was not one thing (scientific or not) which must make us feel the same things?

            This brings up a consequence of The Lord of the Rings and, really, all well-done fiction. Just as (as previously discussed) the story takes place “in an imaginary historical moment” in our world, it also takes place in the same creation—for us to empathize with Frodo means we have partaken of the same world of emotions as him, in the world created by Iluvatar or God or a string. This is not to say LotR is the Bible, but that it is simply illogical to call a creation myth false, as it denies humanity at the same time.

--Scotty Campbell

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Scotty, for the post.

    I think one of the keys is that the Valar are really extensions of Eru (significantly described as “the One” and if Flieger is right, whose truest name may mean “the Extant” or “Who Is” or “the Cause” or “the Mover”). Although they seem to have some sort of independent will or personality or temperament, it’s subordinate or permitted by Eru’s. It’s not until the rise of Men that we see beings that actually can ignore or resist the music—given entirely free will on their own. Melkor seems to have a very long chain, but you get the sense that his discordances and ruinous rebellions are merely permitted given Eru’s proclamation that they will, in the end, prove and help establish the glory of the master music. (Perhaps Eru is here anticipating jazz or Schoenberg…). So I think the “lack of organization” is only apparent. Or, rather, perhaps, it’s a self-organizing system that is dynamically generating information and complexity—like a fractal, a market, or (now that I made the joke above), a jazz ensemble. And the players (along with the so-subtle-he-seems-absent bandleader) are good enough to cope with even the craziest, messiest solos from the sax player.

    (Wow, that metaphor careened out of control.)

    Anyway, I think you very perspicaciously put your finger on the unity of Creation in Tolkien (as well as many traditional religions). Eru provides or, if we believe Flieger’s argument, is the ground of being (the “secret fire”) which unifies all created things (and creatures)—as well as the Valar.

    Bill the Heliotrope