Tale of The Music of the Ainur

I have always been struck by the beauty of the prose and symbolism of the Music of the Ainur.  To me, it is one of the best conceived and executed of all Tolkien’s tales that make up the mythology of The Silmarillion.  The truly awe-inspiring thing about this work, however, I have discovered in reading the Book of Lost Tales I.

There is very little that is different between the final published chapter in the Silmarillion and the earliest draft of the Tale; and those are not significant and largely do not change any of the meaning.  This tale contains some of Tolkien’s most gorgeous prose, as well as his most awesome (spiritually) storytelling.  It only impresses upon me the greatness of this piece and its significance for Tolkien himself that it remained so pure and authentic in its conception throughout his life.  Most other tales Tolkien wrote, though static in much of their overarching structure, were transformed and grew in the telling, but not the Music of the Ainur.

While there are few significant differences in the two texts, I give here a few of my favorite passages as seen in the Tale:

“Behold, Iluvátar dwelt alone.  Before all things he sang into being the Ainur first…teaching them all manner of things, and the greatest of these was music.” (TBoLTI p.49)

As I’ve stated in previous posts, the power of song and music, particularly in the form of praise, supplication and thanksgiving are a constant theme in Tolkien’s writing.  In reading the Tales, I have found this theme was actually once much more prominent in the mythology, and of all symbols I believe this is one of Tolkien’s most potent for prayer and faith.  Just as song can be uplifting and a pure expression of our emotions and desires and evoke a sense of sublime, so too does prayer.  This pairing is an ancient one, and lends great potency and beauty to Tolkien’s creation story.

Iluvátar presents a great theme to the Ainur, though only as an outline, trusting in their skills and ingenuity, given and nourished by him, to build on what he has created:

“It is my desire now that ye make a great and glorious music and a singing of this theme; and (seeing that I have taught you much and set brightly the Secret Fire within you) that ye exercise your minds and powers in adorning the theme to your own thoughts and devising.”  (TBoLTI p.50)

Here explicitly can be seen the creation so to speak of free will.  It is also in a sense a call to all to utilize their God given talents to the greater glory of God:  to nourish our talents and use them to the fullest of our ability, expending the utmost of our energies in the act of sub-creation.  Here and throughout the Ainulindalë I see the greatest explanation of the concept of sub-creation in Tolkien’s written work.  God has built the framework, we are called by Him to build off His creation and fill in the “adornments.”  And yet, as human beings we are prone to sin and vice, and so our creations may be contrary to God’s Theme.  Here the human experience follows the tale of Melkor; who wishing to create of himself for himself inserted his own theme into the Great Theme of Iluvátar:

“…straightaway harshness and discordancy rose about him, and many of those that played nigh him grew despondent and their music feeble, and their thoughts unfinished and unclear, while many others fell to attuning their music to his rather than to the great theme…” (TBoLTI p.51)

Twice Iluvátar introduces a new theme, the second of which is described below:

“Then Iluvátar raised his right hand, and he no longer smiled, but wept; and behold a third theme, and it was in no way like the others, grew amid the turmoil, till at the last it seemed there were two musics progressing at on time about the feet of Iluvátar, and these were utterly at variance.  One was very great and deep and beautiful, but it was mingled with an unquenchable sorrow, while the other was now grown to unity and system of its own, but was loud and vain and arrogant, braying triumphantly against the other as it thought to drown it, yet ever as it essayed to clash most fearsomely, finding itself but in some manner supplementing or harmonizing with its rival.“ (TBoLTI p.51)

I have always been struck by the tremendous beauty of this passage, which remains essentially unchanged in the Silmarillion.  As Tolkien said to CS Lewis when discussing the veracity of myth, “Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.” (p. 151 Carpenter).  No matter what we do, what we create we are always working towards the plan of God; and He utilizes everything we do, even our failings, for His greater glory.  Again, this is beautifully described in the passage below from the Tale:

“…no theme can be played save it come in the end of Iluvátar’s self, nor can any alter the music in Iluvátar’s despite.  He that attempts this finds himself in the end but aiding me in devising a thing of still greater grandeur and more complex wonder…” (TBoLTI p. 52)

Unlike The Silmarillion, in the Tale Iluvátar continues to describe the wonders that have been created through the discordant music of Melkor: the birth of hope and mercy and the sense of the greatness and worthiness of life sprang of the cruelty, terrors, wrath, and tortures of Melkor.  His “biting colds” and “undue heats” have been used by Iluvátar to increase the glory of creation, giving birth to ice and snow crystals and clouds and rain.  All has been molded to Iluvátar’s will.

So this post has been significantly longer than I intended, but I hope you too may come to enjoy this tale as much as I do.  For me, it is one of the most thought provoking stories Tolkien ever wrote and probably the most overt window into his own faith to be found in the legendarium.


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