Friday, April 21, 2017

Can the music of creation be accurately described as a narrative?

I have argued that the temporal terms with which the music is described, and in particular the crucial order of events in Tolkien’s account of creation, suggest that the fundamental substance of creation- that is, the music- can be understood in narrative terms, as both song and story. We have, of course, a narrative account of the music in the form of the Ainulindalё. Naturally any aspect of a creation myth occurring before the world was created should be interpreted somewhat figuratively- e.g. the Ainur were not literally singing as they did not have vocal chords, and strictly speaking time as we experience it did not exist - but the importance of a particular temporal sequence of events, enacted by characters, are important abstract features of the music that must be taken seriously as keys to the nature of creation. Its directionality differentiates the music of creation from songs of praise and joy commonly ascribed to angels. The music of the Ainur has a purpose it builds toward, and furthermore it involves interactions between distinct voices, including some who oppose each other. In other words, it has a plot, characters, and a conflict. The music takes a form similar to that of a narrative, with Melkor’s discord causing increasing tension until the third theme resolves it.

When Ilúvatar shows the Ainur their music as a vision, its true nature as the story of Arda is revealed: the Ainur watch as “this World began to unfold its history, and it seemed to them that it lived and grew” (Silmarillion, 17). By the end of the vision, they are “engrossed in the unfolding of the World… the history was incomplete and the circles of time not full-wrought when the vision was taken away” (20). That the music takes visual form as the history of a world is more evidence that it is fundamentally a story as much as a melody. The Ainur were not necessarily aware in the beginning that their music was creating a story, just as they did not foresee the existence of the Children whose world they had created, yet the telling of a great story was evidently Ilúvatar’s intention. It is crucial that the elements of creation are not, as in biblical creation accounts, light or water or earth; they are harmony, discord, and theme. There are also, from the very beginning, witnesses and actors- sentient beings besides God who are present during creation. It is these fundamentally aesthetic elements which comprise the world. They are best understood as literary elements as well. The music is a drama that plays out first among the Ainur themselves before anything else was made, and second in the physical world.

I would further argue that there is strong evidence outside the Ainulindalё for Tolkien’s stuff of creation being fundamentally narrative in nature. In Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories”, he explicitly identifies sub-creation with story writing, saying that in a successful fantasy “the story-maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator.’ He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter” (The Tolkien Reader, 60). If this is an example of perfect sub-creation, the original creation must have taken a similar form- and is not the creation of a secondary world, into which other minds could enter, precisely Ilúvatar’s feat in the Ainulindalё? Of course, sub-creative acts can take the form of many types of art, but it does seem that Tolkien specifically had story-telling in mind when describing its successful attainment: “To make a Secondary World… we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode” (70). He even speculates that the real world, created by God, may be well described by this literary explanation: “The Gospels contain… a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories… But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation” (88). Since Tolkien identifies biblical creation with the crafting of a narrative, he may very well have applied this idea to his own creation myth.

If the music is a narrative, then what is Melkor’s role in it, and to what extent was this role anticipated or intended by Ilúvatar? To answer this question, we must view Ilúvatar as an author with similar motivations to Tolkien’s. 

Despite his destructive intent, Melkor is credited with creating many beautiful things in Arda, just as he made the third theme possible with his discord. I mentioned my favorite example in class: his creation of ice and clouds from water. These inventions were born out of his conflict with Ulmo, and his attempts to meddle with and disrupt Ulmo’s province. The result, however, is that water becomes “fairer than [Ulmo’s] heart imagined”, demonstrating that “all things have served most faithfully the purpose of Ilúvatar” (19). In this way, a character with Melkor’s motivations proves necessary for the creation of certain good things- and in particular, beautiful things- for the benefit of both Ilúvatar himself and those who have entered into his secondary world, here represented by Ulmo. He plays a similar role within the rest of Tolkien’s story. Without the theft of the Silmarils, for example, the light of Eärendil could not have given hope to Sam upon the slopes of Mount Doom, and could not have inspired the many songs and poems about his voyages. From the perspective of a reader in the primary world, there would be no story worth reading without the Darkening of Valinor and all of Morgoth’s subsequent deeds. We should remember that the music of creation is characterized as “beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from whence its beauty chiefly came” (16-7). Why Melkor’s rebellion? In Tolkien’s own words, “There cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall” (Letter 131). What, then, is Melkor? He, like all other elements in the great story, is a source of beauty- perhaps even one of its chief sources.

To summarize, we can liken Ilúvatar to Tolkien himself in that he is first and foremost an author who desires to create a beautiful story. Ultimately, beauty requires sorrow, loss, conflict and resolution, and unexpected events. It is the task of the creator or sub-creator to combine these into a compelling narrative.


Finally, as an alternative to the songs we explored in class as possible analogues to the Ainulindalё, I would like to propose Tool’s Lateralus. This song has a clear directionality, beginning with a single, simple melody and growing into a complex piece characterized by polyrhythms (lines in different time signatures played simultaneously), with the effect that seemingly different or even incompatible parts come together to create a unified whole. Careful listening reveals even more complexity and craftsmanship- for example, the number of syllables in each line of the verse correspond to the first few numbers of the Fibonacci sequence. Of course, the song’s lyrics also mirror its structural progression toward combined complexity and unity, most obviously in its central image: an ever-growing spiral.

H. Bell

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, ed. Christopher Tolkien (New York: Mariner, 2001).
_____, Letters, ed. Humphrey Carpenter with Christopher Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000; first published 1981)
________, The Tolkien Reader (New York: Del Rey, 1966).


  1. I'm not sure to what extent Illuvatar can be thought of as a creator in the same vein as Tolkien. Presumably given his role in its mythology, Illuvatar is supposed to be a benevolent deity (especially given Tolkien's Christian background). Certainly Tolkien is trying to create a beautiful story, but I think Tolkien would agree that Illuvatar's motivations are more difficult to parse, just as theologians would say of God. As a result, Melkor's relationship to Illuvatar can be thought of in similar terms to that of Lucifer and his relationship to God, leading us to the problem of evil (i.e. if God is just why is there evil in the world). One possible formulation to solve this problem (and which you seem to be moving towards by placing Illuvatar and Tolkien on similar footing with respect to crafting a beautiful story) is that evil must necessarily exist in order for good to have meaning. In this sense, one could think that while Illuvatar anticipated Melkor's fall, he also knew that evil was an inevitability within Ea and that Melkor would simply become another force to create a better and more beautiful world. In this sense Illuvatar and Tolkien can certainly be compared, and to some extent it even makes sense to draw the parallel.

  2. The more we talk about Melkor's role in all this, the more I become convinced that the Ainulindale has to be a story - or at least, a progression. So much of Tolkien's philosophy is centered around motion - motion through history, motion in the form of language change, the central structure of the Lord of the Rings as a Journey. But the Ainulindale itself had no such motion until the discordance struck by Melkor's desire for power. I don't mean to comment on the particular theological relationship between Melkor and Eru, but just on the role Melkor played in transforming a static song into a progressing narrative. I suppose this doesn't have to mean that the Ainulindale became a story, but I think (like you said) that this ties nicely into Tolkien's writing in On Fairy Stories.

    I suppose we can't nail down Eru's intentions, and Tolkien may not have wanted us to. But the embodiment of the Ainulindale in the form of Ea - and the progression of this form over time - speaks to a necessary dualism that I think borders on equivalence. Which is another reason why I find your point about sub-creation compelling.

    Also, I appreciate the reference to Tool!


  3. I think you are onto something about the necessity of story in the way Tolkien imagines the music of the Ainur. Stories require plots and conflict in a way that songs of praise do not. Which then makes me wonder about the role of the angels' "Holy, holy, holy" in the Christian story: it is what the heavenly hosts sing to the LORD, but they are singing *about* the creation, not singing it into being. Somehow the music of the Ainur provides the pattern for the story of Arda, which is different. RLFB

  4. I'm interested in your main claim, that "the fundamental substance of creation- that is, the music- can be understood in narrative terms, as both song and story." As a musician, I found this creation story to be beautiful. The songs we listened to in class, specifically Smetana's "Homeland", clearly in my opinion evoked the images that were described in in the caption. I felt like I was back in a boat on the Vltava interacting with the nymphs and seeing giant castles emerge from the countryside. The recurring themes become characters in a story. It's no secret that music can evoke images of people and places from our past, and from these sites, it is not a huge jump to assume a narrative. Once you have characters, all you need is a plot. The temporal aspect of music can turn the interactions between themes into a plot. While I won't argue that everyone should view all pieces of music as narratives, this argument makes a lot of sense when looking at Tolkien's creation story.