Friday, April 21, 2017

Subcreation versus Creation

The Ainulindale is at its root a creation myth, and so I want to focus on how Tolkien (a devout Christian) handles creation in his own sub-created work. To do this, I want to draw comparisons to the Christian creation story to more clearly show how Tolkien's decisions show his own views on creation versus subcreation.

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
versus what Iluvatar did:
  • 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
Both of these lists are very simplified and neither do justice to the extent of God's or Iluvatar's deeds, but they still bring up an important point: Iluvatar accomplishes much less in comparison to God. Iluvatar creates the Ainur, Elves, and Men, and he creates a blob of mass that will be turned into Arda, but he doesn't actually form the mountains, forests, valleys, and seas - this is the job of Ainur. Why does Tolkien make 'the One' so passive and give so much more agency to the Ainur? We can see this even in the title of this piece - the Music of the Ainur. This title tells us that we're not nearly as concerned with the One, even though he is the one who starts all of the themes that end up creating Arda and nothing can come forth that didn't originally exist in him. Instead, this name focuses on the themes created by the Ainur and the works that come from the Ainur's labors. I believe that part of the answer lies in looking at this piece in relation to subcreation.

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


  1. I don't agree with your assessment of Aule's creation of the dwarves as "subcreation gone wrong." While I agree that he transcends subcreation by making beings on par with humans and elves, I don't think this act is inherently wrong. Unlike Melkor, Aule's subcreation wasn't driven by selfishness, but what I would take to be the noble, selfless goal of passing on his knowledge. I suppose within the hierarchy set up by Illuvatar it "wasn't his place" to make new life, but I frankly don't see why that matters when the dwarves clearly were meant to be a homage to Illuvatar's creation, not a perversion of it. Aule says to Illuvatar that he "desired things other than I am, to love and to teach them, so that they too might perceive the beauty of Ea" (Silmarillion 137), so I don't see how the creation of the dwarves is a "red mark for subcreators". If anything I'd say that Aule's creation of the dwarves was admirable. I'm willing to grant that Tolkien might disagree with me on this point, but I think that striving to make the greatest possible subcreation that one can is a much better tribute to the primary creation than not fulfilling all the potential one has (which Aule would have failed to do had he not also created life).

  2. Good question about the way in which the Ainulindale participates in Tolkien's theme of sub-creation. You raise a number of interesting questions: about the dwarves, as Chris notes, but also about the Ainur as made in the image and likeness of Eru. Aule created the dwarves in the likeness of what he imagined the children of Iluvatar would be, out of love and impatience. But what was the music of the Ainur imitating or reflecting? I need some more convincing that the Ainur can be seen as sub-creators in the same way as human beings or Elves. RLFB