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).