Behold your Music: Harmonic Sorrow in Tolkien’s Ainulindale

In The Fundamentals of Music, the late Roman author Boethius imparted to the Middle Ages a Neoplatonic theory of music that held there to be three kinds of harmony: the harmony of the spheres, the harmony of instruments, and the harmony of human living. In Boethius’s philosophy, which has its roots ultimately in Pythagorean theory, music resulted from the movements of the Planets and all the workings of the cosmos and nature. Music as we ordinarily think of it, the music of voice and of devised instruments, is sort of like a radio that does not simply produce music, but actually allows us to hear the music of the universe. Human life, when lived individually and socially in accordance with virtue, also produces thereby a kind of music. After all, insofar as we exist, we are a part of the cosmic music, and by learning to live well, we learn to harmonize with that music. This is why learning to play and appreciate instrumental music was so valuable to the ancient and medieval perspective: learning music craft combines human discipline with cosmic principles of harmony. The musician, in playing and understanding music, harmonizes with the symphony of an instrumental, virtuous, and cosmic melody.

As an Anglo-saxonist and medievalist, Tolkien surely knew of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, at least the version translated into Old English and probably Chaucer’s Middle English translation as well, not to mention the Latin itself. Whether he knew of Boethius’s textbook on music I do not know, but his musical theory is alluded to in the Consolation itself, where Lady Philosophy says, “My pleasure is to sing with pliant strings/How mighty Nature holds the reigns of things” (3.m2.50). In any case, Tolkien’s creation myth resonates with Boethius’s understanding of the Pythagorean belief in a musical universe, where Iluvatar, as choirmaster, leads his first creations, the Ainur, in a magnificent, orchestral creation of the world in which Middle-Earth will have its being: “Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Iluvatar to a great music…. and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void” (15). More particularly, we see in the Ainulindale a three-part structure: first, there is the song of the Ainur’s strife (between Manwe and the faithful Ainur and Melkor and the rebellious Ainur), then, they have a vision of the history of the world which their music has created, and finally, they enter into the World their music has created and labor to bring the Vision into reality. So they engage first in an instrumental (if heavenly) type of music, using the power of voice to create song; then they perceive the Cosmos and the cosmic history created by their music; and finally, they become committed to fulfilling their attempt to live virtuously according to the Music for their own sake and the sake of the Children of Iluvatar to come. The Ainulindale is a three-fold melody between the music of the Ainur, the Cosmic Vision their music produces, and their mighty labors to bring the created world into physical harmony.

Melkor, as an agent of disharmony, becomes a disruptive voice in the Music of the Ainur because his imagination is reduced to a narcissistic obsession with his own virtue: “it came into the heart of Meklor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Iluvatar: for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself…. for desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own” (16). The nature of Melkor’s disobedience is not simply pride; it is a disjointed concern for the locus of pride. Or, to state it otherwise: Tolkien’s myth defines pride in musical terms, where to become a Melkor is to become one who makes his own talents the source of harmony, and to reduce social and universal order to a mere outlet of one’s own will. Instead of using the pattern of Music as a way to order himself, Melkor strives to pattern the Music after him. In Boethius, the musical instrument was a conduit for the individual to imagine his own virtue as in harmony with the cosmos; Melkor uses his music instead for conquest, as a weapon to strike his enemy down. As a result, Melkor is always depicted as alone – he has no comrade, only cohorts, for social camaraderie is a harmony, and Melkor has made himself an enemy of harmony.

This is contrasted by the discussion that Ulmo and Iluvatar have about Ulmo’s kinship with Manwe in the midst of their vision: “Behold rather the height and glory of the clouds, and the everchanging mists; and listen to the fall of rain upon the Earth! And in these clouds thou art drawn nearer to Manwe, thy friend, whom thou lovest” (19). Ulmo’s music had put water into the Vision of the World, but Manwe’s love of the airways mixed with that water in unsurprising ways; ways moreover caused by Melkor: “Sees thou not how here in this little realm in the Deeps of Time Melkor hath made war upon thy province? He hath bethought him of bitter cold immoderate” (19). Ulmo’s thought is neither to make war on Melkor, his enemy, nor to be jealous of his brother Manwe. Interestingly of Ulmo we are told that “of all most deeply was he instructed by Iluvatar in music” (19). Given his remarkable gifts, Ulmo is a corollary to Melkor, but in his brotherly  attitude towards Manwe offers a three-fold note of harmony against Melkor’s disharmony: “Truly, Water is become now fairer than my heart imagined, neither had my secret though conceived the snowflake…I will seek Manwe, that he and I may make melodies for ever to thy delight!” (19). Ulmo remains in accord with Iluvatar his maker; he resists the discord introduced by Melkor and even sees how Melkor’s ill-intentioned disruption has made his own design more beautiful; and, above all, he seeks out Manwe to work new labors to please his Maker.

Ulmo strives for the good life and seeks to make beautiful music, all to contribute to the symphony of Arda’s formation. Ulmo’s attention is not on the sound of his own voice and the tenor of his own virtue, but on the things he can make and the people with whom he can make them. The same is true of Manwe and Aule: “But of the airs and winds Manwe most had pondered, who is the noblest of Ainur. Of the fabric of Earth had Aule thought, to whom Iluvatar had given skill and knowledge scarce less than to Melkor; but the delight and pride of Aule is in the deed of making, and in the thing made, and neither in possession nor in his own mastery” (19). In their devotion to the shared Music, Ulmo, Aule, and Manwe are blessed with brotherhood, unchained by the torments of wrath Melkor suffers by limiting his imagination to the circle of his own will.

Of course, the Ainulindale is a myth about the concept of subcreation Tolkien discusses in On Fairy Stories. Tolkien believed that the imagination, through craft, could produce the Art of a World into which the minds of readers could enter, a Secondary World that depended upon love of the Primary. One could easily read the various beings of Middle-Earth’s creation myth as a psychomachia of Tolkien as artist: Iluvatar, the side of him which loves and longs for the beautiful for its own sake, Melkor, the prideful side that wished for fame, recognition, and followers, and Manwe, Ulmo, and Aule, worldbuilders who get their hands dirty in the painful details of storytelling for the sake of pleasing Iluvatar, the purest desire for beauty in the Author and his Readers alike. Of course, as I wrote in my last blog post, we must be wary of excessively allegorizing Tolkien’s work, especially this one where it is most tempting.

The mythic power of these Beings must not be undone by an excessive rationalism, but must be imagined the same way they were surprised to discover the Children of Iluvatar in the Vision of the World: “Therefore when they beheld them, the more did they love them, being things other than themselves, strange and free, wherein they saw the mind of Iluvatar reflected anew, and learned yet a little more of his wisdom, which otherwise had been hidden even from the Ainur” (18). Even so, Tolkien surely sympathized with the frustrated Valar in their attempts to shape the world: “the Valar endeavoured ever in despite of Melkor, to rule the Earth and to prepare it for the coming of the Firstborn; and they built lands and Melkor destroyed them; valleys they delved and Melkor raised them up; mountains they carved and Melkor threw them down…. and naught might have peace or come to lasting growth, for as surely as the Valar began a labour so would Melkor undo it or corrupt it” (22). So Tolkien himself felt of his own attempts to build a mythology, a world of myths peopled by the imagined authors of those very myths, a tug-of-war between creation and time long agonized over by gods and authors alike.

The brief story of Arda’s creation introduces that atmospheric quality that gives Tolkien’s writings, especially The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, so much power, epitomized in the description of the second Music: “For it seemed at first soft and sweet, a mere rippling of gentle sounds in delicate melodies; but it could not be quenched, and it took to itself power and profundity. And it seemed at last that there were two musics progressing at one time before the seat of Iluvatar, and they were utterly at variance. The one was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came” (16-17). Melkor’s belligerent music strives to overtake this apparently sweet and gentle sound, “but it seemed that its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern” (17). The sorrow of the Shire losing its innocence, the grief of Elves fading into the West, the fall of Numenoreans trying to overmaster death: their stories find a beautiful harmony in the cosmic music in the clash of Melkor’s brass, “loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated” noise, against which the Children of Iluvatar and the Ainur find their melodies resolved.

Elves and Men live in a mixed world of cosmic harmony and disharmony, the collision of music with noise, and sorrow is the note of beauty by which evil is reconciled to good. “And thus was the habitation of the Children of Iluvatar established at the last in the Deeps of Time and amidst the innumerable stars” (22).

Like the Days of the Tree: The Other Voice of Allegory in Tolkien’s Artistic Reflections

So for all of you paying attention to my blog (in other words, for an open letter to myself), you will have noticed that, after finishing The Return of the King, I sort of totally failed to keep up my reading schedule. There’s a lot of reasons for this, but one of them is how long it took me to read through the Appendix. (I was also distracted by Terry Brooks’s newest novel and actual, real-life obligations). My plan, laid out here, was to work through the first five History of Middle Earth volumes again and the Unfinished Tales, and then tackle the Silmarillion (my favorite text in the Middle-Earthen corpus). But then, I got a Barnes and Noble Gift Certificate, and I purchased the second edition of The Silmarillion (I have an old, tattered, well-worn copy of the first edition, the only version I know). So the need is upon me for the legend as I know it, and rather than sticking to an artificial plan (useful as it was initially), I’m going to continue in a way that energizes me the most. Specifically, I will provide separate blog posts for each major section of The Silmarillion (the Ainulindale, the Valaquenta, the Quenta Silmarillion, the Akallabeth, and Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age). In this post, though, I would like to mull over the letter to Milton Waldman included in the second edition (also in the volume of Tolkien’s letters) where Tolkien gives a conception of his world and literary perspective. Because of my Hawthornian “inveterate love of allegory,” I am fascinated by Tolkien’s attitude towards the concept as laid out in this letter and other places, so I would like to make a few comments here as a prelude to my upcoming posts.

Tolkien’s disparagement of allegory as a literary method is well known to readers of his letters. In his truncated literary biography to Waldman, he writes, “But an equally basic passion of mine ab initio was for myth (not allegory!), and for fairy-story” (xi). He is even more explicit as he begins to set out the particular aesthetic behind the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings mythology:

“I dislike Allegory – the conscious and intentional allegory – yet any attempt to explain the purport of myth or fairytale must use allegorical language. (And, of course, the more ‘life’ a story has the more readily will it be susceptible of allegorical interpretations: while the better a deliberate allegory is made the more nearly will it be acceptable just as a story.)”

There is much to be said here, but I will contain myself to two observations. First, in the same paragraph and the one that follows, Tolkien labors (as he often does) to distinguish the Power of the Elves from that of the Enemy. The Enemy’s “desire for Power” leads “to the Machine (or Magic)…. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognized” (xiii). The Magic and Machine of the Enemy is a Power “concerned with sheer Domination” (xiv). By contrast, of the Elves Tolkien writes, “Their ‘magic’ is Art…. And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation” (xiii). Of course, as I have discussed, these different ways of imagining Power form the crux of the drama of The Return of the King. But it also seems quite clear that the juxtaposition of Tolkien’s preference for the fairy-tale over allegory with his preference for Elvish Art over the Enemy’s Machine is no accident – for Tolkien is nothing if not marked by the scruples of implication. What I think we can draw from this is essentially that Tolkien abhors interpretive tyranny of Story as much as he abhors dominating tyranny over the “wills and minds of others,” for in fact precisely the same reason: Allegory, as it overmasters the Story, seeks to overmaster both the author and the reader, to dominate the mind with an inescapable conclusion about the Story that leaves no freedom to experience its actual power. Elvish reading and Elvish writing is contrasted from the Enemy’s reading and writing by the desire to witness the awe of narrative Power, rather than the desire to wield it.

Second, I must offer some slight criticism of Tolkien here, which I do so in full submission to how impetuous that feels and probably is. It is moreover a philological point, and in that I blush to instruct Minerva, to borrow a phrase from Bernardus Silvestris, one of those allegorical authors Tolkien viewed so askance. As Tolkien well knew, the meaning of allegory is simply “other-speaking,” or “other-voiced.” I think it useful not merely to intellectually note a word’s meaning, but to inhabit it – on this point I know Tolkien would surely agree, for he says as much in several places. So I ask that we apply a Tolkienian principle of the word to this word of which Tolkien appeared to disapprove. Another voice, another speaking – for a text to be allegorical is for it to sound with a voice elsewhere, perhaps unseen, perhaps far off, calling through the voice of one text to let the reader hear another. Such other-speaking we encounter in none other than Frodo himself: “At that moment Frodo threw himself forward on the ground, and he heard himself crying aloud: O Elbereth! Gilthoniel! At the same time he struck at the feet of his enemy.” He finds another voice speaking through him – far from being allegorical in the usual sense, this other-speaking is mysterious, enchanting, empowering in a palpably Elvish way, quite literally contrasted with the Machinery of the Enemy (the Nazgul). Now, Tolkien admits the inescapable value of it in articulating the sense of literary meaning he does intend. But this is much like his use of magic, which he both applies to and denies as proper to the articulation of Elvish Art.

Indeed, in a footnote (and I have always been amused by the inexorable nature of scholasticism in Tolkien’s personality that his personal correspondences are rife with adorably pedantic footnotes), Tolkien admits that his “‘elves’ are only a representation or an apprehension of a part of human nature, but that is not the legendary mode of talking” (xvi). No, quite right – it is precisely the allegorical mode of talking Tolkien had so gruffly professed to dislike (and yet confess its utility in the same grumbling breath). (I do so love the grouchy professorish side of our beloved grouchy professor.) Thus we must say that just as Magic, as a kind of Power, has two manifestations (Art and Machinery), so does Allegory as a kind of reading. So let us say that there is allegory which dominates, and there is allegory which, if I may coin a term, enlegends. Legendary allegory speaks an idea to be more filled with the otherness of Elvish Art, while tyrannical allegory consumes the voice of the text with another speaking Power. It is the difference of the impact of the Nine Rings upon the Wraiths and the names of Elbereth and Gilthoniel upon Frodo and Sam.

So if the Machine is the model of allegory for the Enemy, what is enlegended, Elvish allegory? This question is, I think, actually answered by Tolkien quite directly (as directly as Tolkien gets on the subject, at any rate). It is to be found in “the Light of Valinor made visible in the Two Trees of Silver and Gold” (xv). No spoilers here for any readers of the Silmarillion (though for those who aren’t, of course): “These were slain by the Enemy out of malice, and Valinor was darkened, though from them, ere they died utterly, were derived the lights of Sun and Moon” (xv-xvi). Of course, the Sun and Moon are merely the more familiar seeds of those ancient trees; the Silmarils, too, are the fruits of the Trees of Valinor, but they are tainted by the malice of Machinery, implicated as Feanor’s craft is in the works of Melkor. Even “the Sun is not a divine symbol, but a second-best thing, and the ‘light of the Sun’ (the world under the sun) become terms for a fallen world” (xvi). This is a fascinating departure from the standard sublunary picture given by Neoplatonists and Aristotelians: the changing Moon is often the symbol of worldly fickleness, and the Sun the portrait of divine illumination. But Tolkien intentionally departs from this moon-disparaging lunacy, and dims the sun and the false confidence it creates in mortals, for it is too easily enlisted in the works of the Machinists (if is itself also derived from the Artful trees). It is the Trees of Valinor whose light flows like water that are the picture of legendary allegory in Tolkien. Abstract meaning is not necessarily a means of domination over the imagination, but the soil and the water from which the subcreation of Fantasy can grow in the Tolkienesque fairytale.

Isaiah prophesied God’s promise that “Like the days of the tree shall the days of my people be” (Isaiah 65:22). The psalmist wrote of the blessed man, “And he shall be like the tree planted by rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither, and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper” (Psalm 1:3). Hyper-allegorical reading drowns seeds in water, like the Silmaril lost at sea, but the river-rich soil of the land is where the Elvish eye sees a place where trees can grow with room to unfurl their light-thirsty leaves. Like a vast forest interlaced with the rivers of water, The Silmarillion‘s legends are watered by that other voice of allegory, and, if we listen to it very patiently, we can hear a music on the water and glimpse through the fallen daylight the treelike glow of a magic sun.