Tuesday 19 January 2010

Music of Creation in Tolkien

“There's a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will." (Hamlet V.II.)

Both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien saw the creation of the world as taking place in some way through music. Readers of the Narniad will recall Aslan singing Narnia into being in The Magician’s Nephew. As for Tolkien, he composed a whole “Elvish Book of Genesis” in the form of the Ainulindale, the opening section of the posthumously published Silmarillion, describing the creation of the world by the One God (Illuvatar). In that mythological account – which he believed to be compatible with the creation story in Genesis – God first proposes the world as a musical theme, which he gives to the Angels (the Ainur) to develop and express, much as a composer might give the score to an orchestra – although a jazz analogy might be more appropriate, given the amount of improvisation the players are allowed. One of the Angels, Melkor (Lucifer), tries to force the music in another direction, but his rebellious dissonance is finally integrated within the whole design, much as in the real world evil is at first tolerated and eventually becomes the occasion for a greater good that could not have been anticipated. But this is not yet the creation proper, only the composition of the music “which is over all”. Now God turns the music into light, and shows the Angels the world in a vision in the Void. But even this is not yet the creation. That takes place when music and light become Being through the Word of Iluvatar, “Ea! Let these things be!” God sends into the Void the Flame Imperishable (Holy Spirit) which forms the heart of the world and sustains it in existence.

As I remark in my book The Power of the Ring, drawing on A.K. Coomaraswamy, Fire or “Agni” (in Latin Ignis) is one of the names of God in the ancient liturgical hymns known as the Rg Veda - a spiritual Sun whose rays are the Devas or Angelic Powers (“And sundry sang, they brought to mind the Great Chant, whereby they made the Sun to shine”). Agni is the giver of the Spirit (Breath), a “formal light that is the cause of the being and becoming of all things”. Coomaraswamy sees a connection here with the teachings of Heraclitus. He also points out a linguistic “equivalence of life, light, and sound” in the similar roots of the words for “to shine” and “to sound” – a connection present even in English when we speak of “bright” ideas and “brilliant” sayings.

Tolkien’s mythological construction has deep roots – less, I suspect, from the study of Indian religion than from the implications of philology (he being a seer who, one person rightly said, had gone “inside language”). Also he was theologically better informed than you might think, since one of the great theologians of our age, Louis Bouyer, was a close friend and admirer, according to important research by Michael Devaux. It seems that for Tolkien, the creation is envisaged in three stages - music, light, and being - corresponding in some way to the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. Yet the whole Trinity is involved in every stage, and the Logos or Word, who is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, can justly be called the order, harmony and meaning of the cosmos, revealed to the Angels but only expressed in creation through the Breath of God.

Illustration shows the 2004 edition illustrated by Ted Nasmith.

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