Perhaps the most obvious difference between the Ainulindale and the Christian story of creation is the all-maker's role. In the Christian story, the exact means by which God creates shifts a bit, but one thing is constant: God creates everything. Iluvatar's role is much less involved by contrast. To make this very obvious, we can look at what the Christian God did:
- Created the heavens and the earth
- Created the angels
- Separated light from dark
- Gave form to land and separated it from water
- Created all plants and vegetation
- Created all living beasts
- Created mankind
- Created the Ainur
- Played three music themes
- Gave a vision to the Ainur of Arda
- Created the world (unformed)
- Created the Children of Iluvatar - elves and men
Tolkien's clearest definition of subcreation comes from Mythopoeia:
"The heart of man is not compound of lies, / but draws some wisdom from the only Wise, / and still recalls him. Though now long / estranged, / man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed. / Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned, / and keeps the rags of lordship once he / owned, / his world-dominion by creative act: / not his to worship the great Artefact, / man, sub-creator, the refracted light / through whom is splintered from a single / White / to many hues, and endlessly combined / in living shapes that move from mind to mind. / Though all the crannies of the world we filled / with elves and goblins, though we dared to build / gods and their houses out of dark and light, / and sow the seeds of dragons, 'twas our right / (used or misused). / The right has not decayed. / We make still by the law in which we're made. "The Ainur are the original subcreators. This is a long quote, but by breaking it down we can see many of the Ainur's motives are textbook subcreation. As they enter the world, forever estranged from Iluvatar, each Ainu "draws some wisdom from the only Wise, / and still recalls him. Though now long estranged..." and all of their works are based off of the vision that Iluvatar showed them. They have power through creation, specifically through creation that praises and worships Iluvatar, the vision he showed them, and his Children. Finally, we can see a direction connection to the line "We make still by the law in which we're made." Iluvatar made the Ainur and the original themes, and nothing can happen that was not in those original themes. Likewise, the Ainur go about their making in ways that mimic (but do not surpass) the way in which they were made and with the information put into them by Iluvatar. Iluvatar gives knowledge to each of them, and they use this knowledge to give body to Iluvatar's vision. They are not successful in matching his original vision (now that they are embodied they aren't capable of matching Iluvatar's power and vision), but they still work out of love for that original vision. There were, however, some of the Ainur who went against these rules for subcreation.
Aule and Melkor are the clear examples for subcreation gone wrong. Melkor does not seek to create in order to praise or worship Iluvatar, he seeks to create for his own gain. We can see this in the line "When therefore Earth was young and full of flame Melkor coveted it, and he said to the other Valar: 'This shall be my own kingdom; and I name it unto myself!" (Ainulindale). Melkor covets the Artefact itself and works only for his own gain, not for the glory of Iluvatar. On the other hand, Aule's works go from subcreation to creation itself when he makes the Dwarves, which is another red mark for subcreators. Subcreation should be done in reference and in reverence to creation, it shouldn't seek to challenge it.
This brings us to the final point: it's important to remember that the Ainulindale itself is subcreation. Tolkien clearly struggled with fairy-stories and their relation to religion (as can be evidenced by the existence of the Mythopoeia) and his answer seems to have come in the answer of subcreation. He wouldn't have written a mythology that would somehow challenge or attempt to be 'greater than' the Christian one, and so it wouldn't make sense to write a creation myth that is too similar or could somehow exist in contrast to or as an alternative to Genesis or any of the other Christian accounts of creation. Instead, he wrote a creation myth which focuses on the beauty of creation mediated through music and gave power to a group of angels. His work is done in reverence to the beauty that he saw around him.
- V. Pressler