Friday, April 21, 2017

Music out of Time

One of the largest distinctions between the Ainulindale and the Christian creation story is the point at which Time is created.  In the Christian creation story Time is one of the first things that God creates, God says "let there be light", light is put into the world, separated from the darkness and Time then simply Is. In the Ainulindale however, Time enters the story on about the sixth page when the Valar enter into Ea "at the beginning of Time".  For thinking about the music of the Ainur, and the sequence of events in Tolkien's creation story, this introduction of Time six pages into the story creates quite a few conundrums as we discussed in class.

The first conundrum has to deal with the creation story itself because as Tolkien states just after the Valar enter into Ea, "the World had been but foreshadowed and foresung".  Foreshadowing tends to imply at least in my mind that the foreshadowing had to occur before the events that were foreshadowed.  However if the Valar are existing at the beginning of time how could something have foreshadowed Time?  Now it is silly to think that the music of the Ainur was not sung before the world was created because the world could not have been created without the music of the Ainur, at least as far as my reading of the story goes.  This then begs the question of when Tolkien says "the beginning of Time" does he mean the beginning of Time for Ea and that some other master Time that Iluvatar and the Ainur are operating under already exists?  Or does he actually mean that Time did not exist before Ea was created and that we simply do not really have a way to comprehend what a lack of Time is like?  For my purposes I am going to assume, correctly or not, that when Tolkien says "the beginning of Time" the capital T implies that Time as we understand it did not exist before the moment the Valar enter into Ea.

The second conundrum deals with music.  As multiple people pointed out in our class discussion, music has a hard time existing without the concept of Time.  The temporal relation of sounds with one another is a crucial component to our conceptualization of music.  Without Time, music as we perceive it can not exist.  This leads to some interesting conclusions.  Is the music of the Ainur even music as we could comprehend it, or did the Valar try to think of someway to describe the experience of world creation to the Elves in a way that they could comprehend it?  I have been trying to wrap my mind around what music without time could sound like, but I think understanding this might be outside the realm of human imagination.  If the music of the Ainur is not actual music as we understand it, what does that mean for music in Tolkien's world?  If we think of music as the instrument of creation, whenever we see music in Tolkien's story that relationship between music and creation is always in the back of our mind changing how we see the power of music in Middle Earth.  However if music is just a way for us to attempt an understanding of how the Ainur helped to create existence, music loses a lot of its power.  Sure it is still helping people in Tolkien's world try to understand creation, but is no longer as if when the people of Tolkien's world make music that they are somehow participating in an ancient tradition of creation.

The third conundrum deals with the "music" of the Ainur itself.  As I stated earlier it does not really make sense for me to try and comprehend the mode by which the Ainur assisted in creation other than music, because as a human that is all i am capable of doing.  In class a discussion arose over whether or not we can think of the "music" of the Ainur as a story.  One might think because of my issues with Tolkien's use of Time I would be against thinking of this "music" as a story, however upon further reading i feel that this is the only way to comprehend the "music" of the Ainur.  This "music" is not just a story, but the story of everything.  Iluvatar states that "those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done."  Iluvatar goes on to say "Behold your Music!" when "this World began to unfold its history."  The "music" of the Ainur is the story of everything wrought by the hands of a multitude of voices.  Because of the knowledge that each Ainur has of the music that he sung, "the Ainur know much of what is, what was, and is, and is to come,and few things are unseen by them".  While Iluvatar did not reveal to the Ainur all the he added to the story, from my reading it seems as if in Tolkien's world the history and story of everything is fairly planned out from the "music" that the Ainur sung.  While perhaps Men have some freedom to create their own stories, it is hard to not read everything as being a part of Iluvatar's overall plan for the universe.

Like all stories a major issue of the Ainulindale is how we hear/receive the story.  The Valar clearly had to describe creation to the Elves in a manner that the Elves could understand, otherwise there would be no story that we could read and have any hope of comprehending.  A music without temporality?  Sound in a void? Time before existence?  These are all concepts this mythological story must work around so that we can garner what little meaning we can from it.  What is clear though is that the Valar are "elf friends" and sub-creators in the ultimate sense that they definitely belong to multiple worlds and help create the world as well as our understandings of the world.  Some great mysteries, such as those surrounding creation, are mysteries for a reason, and bashing our heads into a wall trying to think about them will give us a headache that not even the most beautiful music in the world can cure.



  1. I agree that music doesn't seem to be a coherent concept without time, leading to the conclusion that whatever "music" the Valar used to subcreate the world isn't music as we or the elves would have comprehended it, but I don't think that necessarily takes away from music in Middle Earth being part of an ancient tradition of creation dating back to before the creation of Ea. The Valar explained the concept of how they created as music for a reason, so even if it isn't precisely music as we would understand it, I think it's reasonable to think that music is the closest analogue to how the Valar shaped Ea. Also in spite of the details of how time fits into the story, I think it's otherwise not terribly difficult to wrap one's head around a basic image of what's supposed to be happening in the Ainulindale, which is probably what was intended by how the Valar told the elves of the creation of the world. It's a fairly common theme in Christian mythology for there to be certain facts about the creation of the world and the nature of God that are simply beyond the comprehension of humans, and placing strange fragments like music and causality existing before time seems to me to be Tolkien reflecting theological mysteries of Christianity in his own subcreation.

  2. I agree, it is hard to understand what Tolkien meant the Ainur's music to sound like if we cannot imagine it playing in time. I am intrigued by what you suggest about the relationship between the music that the children of Iluvatar play--all the songs in the Lord of the Rings--and its relationship to the music of creation. It is like the metaphor of splintered light that Flieger explores: every song somehow a fragment of the greater Theme. RLFB