Music of the Ainur & Valaquenta- Tolkien’s Creation Myth
Before I take a formal approach on any of the long form Tolkien books, I feel there is one more text that should be tackled to give a bit of context. That is Ainulindalë, The Music of the Ainur. Technically it’s an introduction, of sorts to the Silmarillion but it sets the scene and rules for Tolkien’s secondary world in its entirety. There are themes and events that happen in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings that are strengthened by a deeper understanding while never being dependent upon having read it.
Ainulindalë is Tolkien’s creation myth. It is a legend that describes how Middle-Earth was made by an all powerful deity, and populated by elemental forces of creation and stewardship. These forces are present in the Third Age tales in various ways and explain most of the issues and perceived ‘plot holes’ or skewed character motivations that some readers commonly take issue with. A prime example would be the use of Eagles to save the day.
The legend begins as an abstract description of celestial beings. Eru, or Illuvatar is the supreme creator in this made up universe. It is an absolute monotheistic representation, hardly surprising as Tolkien was a staunch Catholic. Though this theology does have some very vital and interesting differences that I’ll try to delve in to later, it is far from an allegory of Catholicism, though there are, inevitably, clear parallels.
Iluvatar first created the Ainur, they could be called the choir of angels. They are celestial beings, second only to the ultimate creator, first thing He devised. Illuvatar asked the Ainur to make music for Him. Through their song they began to know one another, to realise the aspect of the creator they were made to represent. They also began to harmonise with one another, and learn about their brethren. They would gather together into a choir and Illuvatar provided a theme for them to behold, a grand plan of sorts.
He wanted his creations to furnish the theme, to flesh out his plan, as parts of Him. He wished to listen to their work and see his will made rather than simply create Himself. They sang in wonderful harmonies, complimenting one another, weaving and building upon the initial seed of creation something wonderful. This music went out into the void of creation, a suggestion of what might be.
One of the Ainur, named Melkor, sought to aggrandise his part in the music, to introduce parts of his own making. He was the most powerful of his brothers and sisters. As he sought to change the music in a way that was contrary to Illuvatar’s plan he created discord. This imperfection spread as the other Ainur tried to harmonise with the new refrain.
Iluvatar perceived the turmoil and introduced a new theme, causing the imperfection to cease. Melkor’s music rose once again to oppose his Father’s will. Once again Illuvatar countered with a third theme. Melkor would not relent. There were two utterly opposing compositions battling until the Creator stood for a third time and the music stopped entirely.
Illuvatar rose and proclaimed that he would show the Ainur the creations they had made through their songs but gave a warning to the one that dared to oppose His will:
“And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.”Illuvatar – Ainulindalë
This quote is of utmost importance in the Legendarium as a whole. It is the concept of fate, that there is always a greater plan in place despite the beings within the world having free will. That free will is still at the behest of a greater power and falls within a celestial design. All of the evil in the world, no matter how twisted it might be from it’s original intent has been allowed by Illuvatar, it has purpose. ‘Shall prove but mine instrument’ is the vital part. It’s interesting to consider which character or what actions in the Third Age might fall under that banner?
At this point it’s pertinent to consider the form Tolkien chose to render his creation myth, as it’s quite fascinating. Music. Throughout the stories of Middle Earth throughout the ages there is always power in music and song. It could be said that power decreases as time progresses. In the First Age in the tales of The Silmarillion music is used as a weapon, as magic, as an elemental force. There are instances in the Third Age stories, Tom Bombadil, springs to mind, though one could argue he is very much a remnant from The First Age, maybe even before then! Though song is integral throughout. The peoples of Middle-Earth remember through song, they celebrate, they mourn. It is an elemental force in the world that is ever-present.
There are many references throughout Tolkien’s letters and in the Carpenter biography referring to the role of Music in the author’s life. He admits many times that he is not particularly talented himself, but it always surrounded him. His father was a piano maker and music teacher before Tolkien was born, it was a long standing family business before they decided to emigrate to South Africa.
Tolkien’s Mother took responsibility for his early education, it can be assumed music formed part of that before he was enrolled in a Catholic school. The role of music in Catholic mass could have been a huge influence in forming an opinion of its power.
Edith Bratt, who would become Tolkien’s wife, was a talented musician, at one point expected to be a concert pianist. This is my favourite possible influence. I like the idea that Tolkien took a great passion his wife held and made it pivotal to his creation.
At the very least Tolkien regularly expresses a love for musicality or a particular rhythmic aesthetic in his personal obsession, language. Highlighting Welsh and Finnish at certain points as pleasing to the ear. I wonder if he might have viewed music as an extension of language, a different form of communication that had as many intricacies and forms of expression as Latin, Gothic and Middle English?
Back to the text… Illuvatar then showed the Ainur a vision of the music they had made in the void. A full world. Each could see their part of the song rendered so they might understand their roles and how they worked together and complimented one another. They also witnessed things that none of them could have guessed, that none of them could claim as their own work. Clearly there were parts of the music that were the Creator’s alone. One such feature were the ‘Children of Illuvatar’. Elves and Men, created together to be two sides of the same coin.
The Ainur delighted in this creation, seeing something separate from their own works and getting an insight into the workings of Illuvatar through what he had wrought. Most wished to aid these beings. Melkor desired to rule over them.
The vision of what the Ainur’s music could make was taken away by Illuvatar. They yearned to see it again, to learn of its potential and ultimate fate as they had been witnessing the world they had built evolve and change through the ages. The Creator then made their music a reality and cast ‘the Flame Imperishable’ into the void to make the universe, Eä.
At this point the Ainur made a choice. To stay with Illuvatar in the abstract beyond or to descend to this new world, but they had to agree that this power would be bound to their chosen home and not stray outside it’s confines. The Ainur that chose to live on the Earth were called ‘The Valar’.
A lot of comprehension with Tolkien lore comes down to keeping the names straight in your head. Every ‘group’ sometimes singular people or beings routinely have two or three names and it’s simple to get lost as the author tends to switch between them, seemingly on a whim. However, Tolkien was the ultimate word nerd, all of his names have a deeper meaning, the stories are derived from his invented languages, the names he chose for everything, are the result of rigorous thought. His thinking being that all stories and histories depend on language to be relayed. If his secondary world was built on it’s own language everything would have an authenticity that would make his creation achieve the aim of ‘enchantment’, of a story feeling real. At some point it may be fun to go through some of the names and look into their etymology in context.
The Valar reached the earth to find it nothing like the vision they had seen in the void. It was a place that needed shaping. The music had been a device to show them what they could achieve with their thought and power, now the actual work had to be done.
The Valar laboured for eons. Each one bending their will and power to their suited creation. Each creating a part of the whole that they represented in the world, sometimes working in harmony with others. During all of this, Melkor, who had descended to the earth because he coveted it and planned dominion, would try to bend the creation of others to his purposes.
All of this is a physical manifestation of what happened during the creation in the music. The Ainur creating melodies based on a theme, harmonising with each other, then Melkor causing discord, forcing the others to accommodate his contribution. Compromising, changing their own plans from what they wished to achieve.
The Valar laboured to make the world ready for the Children of Illuvatar. They had seen there coming in the vision. They decided to fashion themselves in similar bodies so when the ‘children’ awoke, they might walk among them. Though these bodies were only ‘raiment’, a decorative covering. They still kept their power, and were able to cast off their guise to travel the earth in spirit.
Upon seeing his brethren walking the world in the guise of Illvatar’s Children, Melkor (who had been rebuffed twice in his meddling), sawthey were beautiful and powerful, reveling in their works unhindered by his influence. His envy grew and he waged war on the others intent to spoil what they had made.
The first battle of the Valar happened before the Elves and Men awoke. Melkor set to destroy all that had been made, the others built and re-built, between them they raised mountains and dug valleys. Melkor sought to damage all that he could not have dominion over. In this battle the landscape of Arda (the world) was forged in flame and ice, with earth air and water.
The actions of the Valar mirrored the music they had made as the Ainur. All that happened sits squarely within the plan of Illuvatar, because from the very beginning of creation Tolkien made sure one vital element was included, and it’s a large departure from the usual monotheistic beliefs. He included freewill.
Freewill existed within the creators first works, the Ainur. They could think for themselves, they had desires. They were capable of envy, of coveting, they were capable of evil from the very beginning. Evil was not a result of a fall, or of a sin against the creator. Evil was created as a possibility from the very start. Evil must therefore be as much a part of Illuvatar’s grand plan than any other wonder or force in creation. Evil exists to test his Children, to make them grow, perhaps? To show their worth in adversity? Perhaps without the presence of evil in the world people cannot be forced to show the true extent of their courage and compassion? It would seem that in Tolkien’s creation evil exists simply to give the major players situations that would test their characters. Choices that would define them. Simply put without the existence of evil, good cannot be.
There is a neat correlation with Tolkien’s thoughts from his essay ‘On fairy tales’ in Ainulindalë regarding sub-creation. Tolkien sees any creation by humankind as sub-creation, which is the making of things within a world or universe that was crafted by a supreme creator. No works can outstrip those of the creator, in fact as products of the ultimate creators design, our works are simply a product of his original plan. It’s quite clear that this reflects Tolkien’s own Catholic beliefs. Illuvatar is God, the Ainur are the host of angels, Melkor is Lucifer. The choice to build sin (or evil) into creation itself and not have it be the ‘Children’s’ fault is a huge deviation, and tellingly deliberate.
My own opinion is that Tolkien made this choice to give all beings agency. Everyone has the ability to be good or bad, it is actions and choices that define someone not purely nature. It also speaks to the main theme of the Lord of the Rings, being the ennoblement of the humble. A Hobbit briefly becoming the most important being on the Earth, holding its fate in his small hands. Of course even Frodo fails his test in the end, but that’s a discussion for another day.
I want to move on to briefly mention ‘Valaquenta’, this is another short piece that precedes the main body of The Silmarillion. It is a short account of the Ainur from the perspective of the Eldar (these are the Elves that chose to live with the Valar). This brings up an interesting point in the narrative of Ainulindalë. Nearly all of the stories in the Legendarium are framed by a narrator. The narrator may not be obvious initially, but Tolkien never presented himself as the author of these stories, he saw himself as a historian that discovered ancient texts. Texts written or recorded by fictional people within the fictional world. The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings are accounts of the end of the Third Age from the perspective of Hobbits, as recorded in the Red book of Westmarch. The Silmarillion is Elvish lore, passed down to and transcribed by the Men of Numenor. What I’m getting at is that there is a perspective these works are written from, one that sits firmly within the sub-created world. Ainulindalë lacks this. It is written as scripture, or as a story that has been passed down in an oral tradition that is finally recorded. Nobody can claim authorship over it, it simply is, and stands as an immutable and sacred text.
Back to the Valequenta. I’m going to skim this a bit just to highlight the main players, how they relate to this creation myth and how they affect things in the events at the end of the Third age in the familiar stories.
The pecking order:
Eru (Illuvatar): God, the supreme being and ultimate creator.
The Ainur: The host of beings first created by Illuvatar. Spirits, demi-gods or angels are a good comparison.
The Valar: A selection of the Ainur that chose to descend to the Earth to shape it and guide the beings that would live there.
The Valar had seven Lords and seven Ladies that were held up as Kings and Queens of the Valar, being the most prominent of the order and the most powerful. Each of them controlled or influenced a part of the natural world.
Manwë – Lord of the air (most powerful of the Ainur after Melkor).
Ulmo – Lord of water.
Aulë – Lord of the earth (The Smith).
Oromë – Lord of the forests (The Huntsman).
Námo – Judge of the dead.
Irmo – Master of dreams.
Tulkas – Champion of the Valar (The Wrestler).
Varda – The star-queen.
Yavanna – Lady of the earth.
Nienna – Lady of mercy.
Estë – Lady of healing.
Vairë – The weaver (of stories).
Vána – The queen of flowers (the fair).
Nessa – The dancer.
Melkor – The creator of dark powers (the most powerful of the Ainur/Valar but expelled from their ranks).
In the third age the Valar are mostly passive forces in the world. They are custodians, but they do effect things indirectly. For example the eagles who are pivotal in the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are the messengers of Manwë. The eagles are a conduit through which Manwë, and arguably Iluvatar, can influence what happens on Earth.
Great power is still shown in water (Ulmo). The Black riders do not like crossing it, Rivendell is protected by the waters of the Bruinen. The Elves believe that the Music of the Ainur might still be heard in the waters of Middle Earth. There are also countless references to the power of the sea and it’s influence on people, especially Elves.
Stars also hold great power and act as a symbol of hope against darkness thanks to Varda (named Elbereth, by the Elves). And of course there is an old power in the things that grow in Middle Earth initially nurtured by Yavanna (she made the Ents).
There was also a less powerful order of the Valar named the Maiar. The servants and helpers of the Lords and Ladies of the Valar (I told you the names would get a bit much). Now some of the Maiar you WILL recognise!
“Wisest of the Maiar was Olórin. He too dwelt in Lórien, but his ways took him often to the house of Nienna, and of her he learned pity and patience.”The Valequenta.
“Many are my names in many countries: Mithrandir among the Elves, Tharkûn to the Dwarves; Olórin I was in my youth in the West that is forgotten, in the South Incánus, in the North Gandalf; to the East I go not.”Gandalf – The Two Towers.
So Gandalf is a Maia. As is Sauraman, and Radagast and two others (Alatar & Pallando, the Blue Wizards who do not come into the stories). Collectively these five are the Istari; Maiar that took mortal form and walked the Earth as wizards, to use their powers to influence the people and gently steer them in a positive direction.
From the description of the Maiar above, it is clear to assume that the Eagles are in fact Maiar. Lending them power on the same level as the wizards.
Sauron is a Maia (originally a servant of Melkor), as is the Balrog Gandalf encounters in Moria.
There are many more links back to the earlier ages. Hopefully, those few examples from the creation myth and its order all the way through to the Third Age stories that are best known will plant a few seeds of how deeply related the stories and mythology are to the central idea surrounding its conception.