And it came to pass that Ilúvatar called together all the Ainur and declared to them a mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed…(The Silmarillion, 15)
This post continues my chapter-by-chapter walk through of The Silmarillion. This time, we will look at “Ainulindalë” a.k.a. “The Music of the Ainur” and how it sets the stage for everything that comes after it. You can see all the posts in this series by clicking here. You can also find other Silmarillion resources here.
“Ainulindalë” to the rest of The Silmarillion is something like Genesis 1 to the rest of the book of Genesis. It’s not really a part of The Silmarillion proper, but instead serves as something of a prologue to the rest of the story. Subtitled “The Music of the Ainur,” it is short but incredibly dense with subtle meaning and important concepts. In all honesty, I could probably write a whole book on this one chapter, but for now I’ll focus on some of the important characters, concepts, action, and takeaways.
Eru Ilúvatar: The monotheistic God-figure of Tolkien’s cosmogony. Ilúvatar is the creator of all else and the chief craftsman of the story of Middle-earth.
Arda: Arda is the world created from the Music of the Ainur into which some of the Ainur eventually enter. It is the world containing Middle-earth as well as other lands.
The Ainur: “The Holy Ones,” the great “god-like” figures that come from separate parts of the mind of Ilúvatar and serve as the great and various powers of Arda.
Melkor: The greatest of the Ainur in power and knowledge, he has a share in all of the gifts of his brethren. He sows discord in the Music of the Ainur, seeks domination over other creatures, and becomes the chief propagator of evil and mischief in The Silmarillion.
Ulmo: The Ainu of the waters, he is also given great gifts in music.
Manwë: The Ainu of the airs and winds. Manwë is the noblest of the Ainur, and he and Melkor are brothers in the mind of Ilúvatar.
Aulë: The Ainu of craft, he is chiefly concerned with making and things made.
Valar: This is the term for those Ainur who chose to enter into Arda for love of the Children of Ilúvatar.
Children of Ilúvatar: Elves and Men (aka the Firstborn and the Followers). These are the ones who are to come at times known only to Ilúvatar, and will introduce unexpected themes into the world. They are looked for by the Valar, and are a result of the third theme of Ilúvatar, a theme “at first soft and sweet” but which eventually takes “to itself power and profundity” (16).
The action of “Ainulindalë” takes place in 3 successive parts, each beginning at the word of Ilúvatar: The Music > The Vision > The Reality.
The Music: The Ainur, the offspring of Ilúvatar’s thought, take part in the Great Music, adorning Ilúvatar’s theme with their own skill and craft. Melkor weaves into the music matters of his own imagining which are not in accord with Ilúvatar’s theme. In doing so, he seeks to assert his own power and glory. The music continues to play out in dramatic fashion until Ilúvatar brings it suddenly to an end (and shames Melkor in the process).
The Vision (“Behold Your Music!”): From their Music of the Ainur, Ilúvatar grants a vision of a new world that has come from their music. In this, he reveals The Children of Ilúvatar, Elves and Men, and the Ainur discover that their music has created the dwelling of these creatures (who are still only a vision). Melkor looks upon the vision and seeks to dominate it. The other Ainur look at the vision and sense its beauty and majesty but feel unrest. We learn that three Ainur in particular – Ulmo, Manwë, and Aulë – have a particularly strong stake in Arda.
The Reality (“Let these things Be!”): The vision is taken away before the whole of history can be seen by the Ainur. Iluvatar then speaks Arda into reality. Some of the Ainur enter into Arda with “shape and hue” as powers to labor in it, while others abide beyond the confines of the world with Ilúvatar. Melkor enters the world again seeking to dominate it and all creatures therein, whereas Manwë enters as the chief force to counter Melkor’s efforts, and calls unto himself many spirits both great and less. The Ainur who enter Arda are known as the Valar. We learn that from the very beginning a great war exists between Melkor and the Valar.
Desire of Domination: It is repeatedly emphasized that Melkor seeks to dominate other creatures. He is full of his own grandeur and power, and although he has a will to artistry, he is impatient and seeks to do things of his own accord.
Love of the Children of Ilúvatar: All seems to be ordered to the Children of Ilúvatar and to their coming. The Ainur perhaps look upon these as younger siblings, but however they view them, they see incredible beauty and potential in them and have a will to prepare a way for them.
The Importance of Music: Music is literally everywhere. It is the first action. It is in the waters of Ulmo. Music seems to be the very fabric and force of creation itself, and every Ainur apparently has some musical identity themselves.
To Bring a Vision to Reality: The Valar enter Arda and are faced with work and warfare in order to realize the beautiful vision granted to them by Ilúvatar.
Subcreation: The Ainur build their music off of the themes of Ilúvatar. They are created as “subcreators,” building upon the themes of Ilúvatar. When Melkor seeks to devise his own theme, discord ensues. “Good” subcreation requires cooperation with the nature of the creation and the mind of the Creator.
Phew! Like I said, “Ainulindalë” is incredibly dense. It can leave your mind feeling stuffed with possibility. I hope this serves as a helpful introduction to those looking to get a start on The Silmarillion.