Saturday, April 22, 2017

Creation, Temporality, and Transmission

Many of the issues that arose in class regarding the interpretation of Tolkien’s creation myth in the Ainulindalë rest fundamentally on issues regarding the temporality of events described in the text. The issue of when exactly Arda comes into being, i.e. the question of what precisely constitutes the creative act, rests on the distinction between different moments in the tale. For the question to make sense, the playing of the music must be at a distinct time from Illúvatar speaking “Eä!” which in turn must be distinct from the moment in which the Valar enter Arda. Similarly, the problem of whether Illúvatar knew of Melkor’s eventual fall before the discord that he introduces rests intrinsically on the notion of a “before” being distinguishable from an “after”. However, it is not necessarily the case that the true act of creation (as opposed to the retelling of this act in the Ainulindalë) had the same, or indeed any, temporal structure.

The discussion of these concerns is ultimately restricted to the portions of The Silmarillion and The Lost Road detailing the Music of the Ainur. It is true that the Ainulindalë as published in the Silmarillion has a clear narrative and temporal structure. Indeed, notions dependent temporal order are present from the first paragraph:
“There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Illúvatar; and he first made the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding them to themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad. But for a long while they sang only each alone, or but few together, while the rest harkened; for each comprehended that part of the mind of Illúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly. Yet ever as they listened they came to a deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony”. [Emphasis added] (Silmarillion 3) 
This type of temporal language is highly representative of the rest of the Ainulindalë, and rightfully so, for it is still fundamentally a story. Being a story, it necessarily contains a narrative structure. As such, it is not very useful to blindly conjecture on what happened in creation - we should not make guesses as to the ‘true’ nature of events, especially if these guesses are at odds with what is presented in the Ainulindalë. However, in addition to analyzing the narrative presented in the text, we should also analyze the metanarrative, i.e. the frame of the story, or the history of the transmission of the myth from the Eldar to the later (present) ages. Recognizing that the story has come to us through a series of “elf-friends” aides us in seeing past the temporal structure and allows us to gain insight into the “truth” of creation.

The Silmarillion comes to us through at least four elf-friends; first from the Ainur to the Eldalië (Eldar) with the help of the Valar, then from the Eldar to Bilbo via his time spent in Rivendell, from Bilbo to Tolkien via the Red Book of Westmarch, and from Tolkien to us via the work of his son Christopher. For this transmission to succeed, each elf-friend must explain the story in terms that the audience will understand. This means that, as would be expected, there is some diminishing of the true nature of the story over the course of transmission. The Valar had to frame the story of creation in terms that the Elves, embodied and temporal beings, could understand. Similarly, the elves had to transmit the story to Bilbo, a mortal and “simpler” being than themselves. This diminishing continues until we reach the current version of the story presented in the Ainulindalë. I argue that the narrative structure of the Ainulindalë arises out of this transmission. That is, the Ainulindalë is presented with some linear temporal structure not as a reflection of the true events at the creation of Eä, but rather as an artefact of the transmission of those events to us. Creation could be presented as nothing other than a story because we understand the world through stories.

With this reasoning as justification, we can then posit that Eru and the rest of the Ainur exist outside of time without contradicting the texts of the Ainulindalë. This view is not entirely without basis: Eru and the Ainur seem to inhabit some realm separate from our universe. The nature of this realm is not explicitly described, except that it is separate from Eä, and thus somehow separate from all of “that which is”. This notion of a separation between the realms of Eru and the Ainur and the rest of Creation appears to be somewhat constant throughout Tolkien’s drafts: Even in the early drafts of the Music of the Ainur he says “Thereafter [Ilúvatar] fashioned [the Ainur] dwellings in the void…” (Lost Tales 52). If we take temporality or the flow of time to be something that exists, i.e. something that “stands outside of nothingness”, and not simply a quality of existing, then we can say that Eru and the Ainur exist outside of time.

This notion of the Creator outside of time is not new, and certainly would not have been alien to Tolkien, rooted in Catholic thought as he was. St. Augustine discusses such a notion in Book XI, Chapter XIII of his Confessions:
But if the roving thought of any one should wander through the images of bygone time, and wonder that You, the God Almighty, and All-creating, and All-sustaining, the Architect of heaven and earth, for innumerable ages refrained from so great a work before You would make it, let him awake and consider that he wonders at false things. For whence could innumerable ages pass by which You did not make, since You are the Author and Creator of all ages? Or what times should those be which were not made by You? Or how should they pass by if they had not been? Since, therefore, You are the Creator of all times, if any time was before You made heaven and earth, why is it said that You refrained from working? For that very time You made, nor could times pass by before You made times. But if before heaven and earth there was no time, why is it asked, What were You doing then? For there was no then when time was not.
This is the key conclusion that resolves many of our initial concerns. If Illúvatar is atemporal, the problem of his pre-knowledge of Melkor’s discord vanishes, as do our concerns about the specific moment in which creation occurs. What are we to make then of the music of creation itself? Assuming a metanarrative point of view, we can ask why the Valar (or Tolkien, depending on where we place ourselves on the line of transmission) chose to describe creation in musical terms if not for its linearity and progression in time. We touched in class on the idea that music is inherently ordered (in the sense of structured), even if this order falls short of being a narrative in its own right. In explaining creation to the Eldar through the myth of the Music of the Ainur, the Valar hoped to convey this order. Creation therefore, like music, is an ordered act by Eru. This notion is reminiscent of the idea of logos, but the full implications of such a view lead far away from our initial concerns, and whither then? I cannot say.
      - GPL

Works Cited:

Tolkien, J. R. R., and Christopher Tolkien. "Ainulindalë." The Silmarillion. New York: Ballantine, 2002. N. pag. Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R., and Christopher Tolkien. The Book Of Lost Tales V.1. N.p.: Houghton Mifflin, 1984. Print.

The Confessions of St. Augustine. Translated by J.G. Pilkington. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 1. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. Link


  1. I really like your explanation of how we can assign temporal order to Eru's creation (i.e. that there is causal relationship between parts of Eru's creation because he dictated that it be so) and agree that Tolkien was trying to make the Ainulindale reflect Christian creation myths by including somewhat vague and seemingly contradictory ideas in it which upon further inspection and theological reasoning become clearer (and whose remaining inscrutability can be attributed to the translation from the mind of higher order beings than humans). As a result I think that ascribing the atemporal nature of God described by Augustine to Eru is entirely reasonable, as it definitely seems like Tolkien has set up Eru and the Ainur as existing outside of the temporal scope of Middle Earth.

    Going off of the more theological bend you're talking about here, I think the Ainulindale is in part Tolkien coming to terms with his own role as a subcreator and his own role in passing on fragments of the primary creator onwards. As you mentioned, we've received the Ainulindale through a series of elf-friends, and as a result while we have a coherent picture of it, it isn't possible for us to fully understand it as Eru would. Similarly, I think this is a way for Tolkien to articulate through his mythology that our understanding of God's creation is similarly colored by the numerous elf-friends who have translated and conveyed the original message of prophets, who were in themselves elf-friends. As a result of this as well as the inherent limitations of the human mind, I think that Tolkien is trying to understand through his own creation myth how difficult it is for a mortal mind to comprehend the actions and will of an almighty creator.

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  3. While I like the tie-in of Augustine's musings on temporality and I accept your ideas of the true nature of the Creation being lost through a sequence of elf-friends, I disagree with your concept of music simply being an excuse for the Valar to impose an order on their atemporal creation story.

    Simply put, we have already addressed that Tolkien liked the sound of certain words. He believed that names and words have power, and that words must be chosen carefully and intentionally. Biblically, the creation is described using words--just words. "And God said 'Let there be light' and there was light." (Genesis 1:3). Sentences, too, are temporal constructs; words have an order. We, as human mortals, have no problems accepting words as a tool for creation, so there is no reason that I can see that the elves would not as well. If Tolkien cared so much about words and their sound, why would he not use that as his metaphor for creation? There must be some truth to the use of "music" in creation, as prose fully satisfies all of the conditions you lay out (an inherent structure and order, a narrative, etc).

    Music's use does not, by definition, contradict your theory of the creation being atemporal. We must simply redefine our definition of music. Can a chord be music, alone? I certainly think so. There is no reason that you cannot have an atemporal, semi-eternal, ringing chord or note of music for each "strain" of the music of the Ainur, that these notes cannot blend together. Melkor's discord is an egregious note that does not blend with the others. Time, I agree, probably does not exist until Iluvatar wills it to be, and the creation narrative passed to the elves is a projection of a timeless event for the minds of beings constrained to time. Yet I do think that there is a purposeful choice, for the Valar and for Tolkien, in choosing "music" as the way of describing the creation rather than word, and that such a purposeful choice likely reflects the "reality" of the creation.

    1. @Lucas:
      I'm afraid I may not have conveyed my original point very well. I didn't mean to claim that music was only present in the Ainulindale as a way or reason for the Valar to give their story to the Elves order, but rather it is present in order to convey a structure that was active in creation. That is, they did not chose music because it progresses through time but rather in spite of that fact.

      I agree that there must have been some underlying reason in Tolkien choosing music to represent creation and that such a choice probably wasn't arbitrary. However, I maintain that it likely was not to reflect the true reality of creation at least to the extent that we would be able to understand it. To me, it makes sense to look at what features music lacks that language has as a way to distinguish the two. In class, we discussed whether or not music itself has a narrative, but we did not seem to reach a firm consesus. I take the view that music does not, a priori, convey a narrative but that we impose such a narrative on the music upon listening. This seems to be one of the main distinctions between the two modes of creation that we have been discussing. So music is somehow more fundamentally structured than language.

      With this in mind, Tolkien's choice becomes a bit clearer. What I meant to convey in my original post was that music has some more fundamental structure that in some way reflects the nature of true creation (as opposed to subcreation), and it is for this structure that it was chosen. Therefore, the creative act is in some way fundamentally ordered, structured, proportioned, etc. It, like music, is not random and stands somehow outside of chaos or chance. This made me think of the concept of logos (more so in the Greek stoic sense, but also in the "Johannine" sense), but I haven't really developed this thought further.

      I think it's interesting to compare this to Tolkien's views of subcreation, which involved a 'reordering' of what is already created. Hence his regard for adjectives (and language) which allows one to separate the essence of something from its actual existence and apply it to some other object, (sub)creating a new notion. Here we find the idea of making a "soft stone" or taking the idea of gold and imagining lead transmuting and such things. This allows for many possibilities, but is ultimately limited to that which already exists.

      Finally, I'm not sure you're redefinition of music would still work outside of time. I agree a chord could be music, but any chord (or any music, really) relies on some sort of duration in order to be. It is mainly for this reason that if we accept the void as being atemporal, then whatever we mean by music resembles common usage only vaguely. I agree that the idea of creation through words poses similar difficulties, but I don't think the concept is easily accepted upon further thought. In fact, much of the passage from Augustine I quoted is him wrestling with the idea of God existing outside of time yet still somehow participating in creation.

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  5. Your wrestling with the question of time before Time is helping me see some of the difficulties of what it means to think of music as the method of creation. We talked about it in terms of narrative and duration, but we could also think of it in terms of vibration, which could be repetitive without development, like the chord Luke asks about. The larger point is that Tolkien encourages us to think actively about the metaphors we use to describe reality. We have our senses to help us make connections with what is, but also our imaginations, through which we make stories about *why* what is is. Perhaps the Ainulindale is more a why story than a how story? RLFB