Music, figure, and style in the Ainulindalë

This essay has ended up a good deal longer than I foresaw. There are three sections. This is long enough to require an epigraph, and I can think of none better than these lines from Bob Dylan’s heartbreaking and all-wise song “Red River Shore”:

Now I heard about a guy who lived a long time ago,

a man full of sorrow and strife,

that if someone around him died and was dead

he could bring ‘em on back to life.

Well I don’t know what kind of language he used

or if they do that kind of thing anymore…

 

Figurative language

In the spring of 2004 a particular species of cicada that leads a subterranean existence for seventeen years before emerging aboveground to procreate, surfaced and flourished for some weeks in a magnitude of several billion individuals across southwest Ohio. The creatures covered the surface of the earth, whether built or natural, like a biblical plague. At no time in the day or night was it possible to be unaware of them. The destination of these autochthons was the arboreal canopy, and they achieved their goal in wave upon wave of rising life, but when the time for death drew near the insects fell back to the earth, where their spore had been dropping all along in a kind of sticky rain. So you would see people walking in a sunny afternoon with open umbrellas, and in the wealthier quarters of Cincinnati women, wary of the creatures becoming entangled in their hair, carried tennis rackets around to swat at them as they flew clumsily from tree to tree or plummeted. Restaurants began to offer cicada dishes. In the vestibule of my apartment building piles of cicada carcasses accumulated and the reek of them was ubiquitous indoors and out.

But the aspect of this phenomenon that persists in my memory most tenaciously and, I might even say, endearingly has nothing to do with any of that: it is sound. The cicadas made a constant, loud, and actually somewhat complex sound. Many people referred to this as song and saw something poetic, perhaps the sad effervescence of the carpe diem spirit, in an otherwise disgusting creature that came into the air and the daylight only to sing and mate and soon die. Others called the din noise or even cacaphony, which means not a chaotic sound, as is sometimes thought, but an evil one. I’m not sure what word is most appropriate to describe the combined effect of the distinct noises the males and females of the species made unceasingly as they sought each other in the boughs, one a high constant whirring and the other a lower, more jagged and raucous chorus that heaved and quieted rhythmically. But I know that that sound subtended and permeated and rose above all of life in that high spring fourteen years ago.

Most of us moderns, though we may wish it were otherwise, cannot really hear anymore a musica unversalis, the harmony of the spheres. We have lost our primordial, participatory consciousness and our cosmological imagination — though perhaps only in the way one forgets a language one used to know, which is to say not completely, with the ghosts of beloved foreign words still occasionally slipping unpremeditated off your tongue — and so the world for us is not enchanted, though at times we seem to remember enchantment. I wonder if, strange though it may seem, one of those times occurred, for me, in late May and early June of 2004, if maybe I perceived in the song of the cicadas an analogue or figuration of what it would mean if a divine music were the font and framework of all being; or then again if, as Robert Hass writes in a poem — his poem “about grace,” as the first line states — “the world’s so full of pain / It must sometimes make a kind of singing.”

It is with music and figurative language and a primordial fall from grace in the Ainulindalë, Tolkien’s creation myth, that I am concerned here. All these things are related, because the question about what sort of language you can use is always also the question about how or in what way you are “fallen”; that is, how you exist (as we all do) to some degree insensate of the originary grace and giftedness of the creation to which we no longer feel perfectly connected. But before I go any further, I had better define my terms as best I can, particularly as I use them in ways that may strike some as idiosyncratic.

Figurative language, as I construe it, is language that means more than it says or language that transcends itself. It is hyperbolic, not in the sense of exaggeration for effect, but in the sense of being open-ended at one end or asymptotic, like the hyperbola of mathematics. (I believe that the counterpart — I do not mean the opposite — of figurative language should then be ironic language, which means other than it says or gazes reflexively on itself.) Figure, it may be interesting to note, shows the same root as fiction: figurative language, rather than simply representing or referring to something directly, gives shape (that is the bedrock meaning of fingere) to something that cannot be otherwise made known in language. It may be possible to uphold the superficial sense of a figure (or it may not), but the figure’s essential meaning is always something more, something that can only be hinted at through the figure. Generally, if one appreciates a figure, one not only delights in the figuration, the particular shape, but as well in that which is figured, that ‘something more,’ both the transcendence and the implications (if you would like yet another etymology, that would be the infoldings) of the shape. It is of course possible to appreciate a figure simply as a shape, without subscribing to the further meaning. In such a case we appreciate or understand only artistically or archeologically.

But what if a figure appears in a work of fiction? Perhaps this would be the occasion, if one appreciates the figure fully, of what Tolkien called “second-order belief.” If the fiction works, it is because it is able to kindle and cultivate this sort of belief and so the secondary world or subcreation possesses the same sort of “density,” as he calls it, as that to be found in the primary world. So runs one idea that Tolkien sometimes credited. I am not quite sure. I think a figure, if it shapes something and works for us in the fullest way as a figure, has to shape something we hold to be a truth and not something that we merely pretend is a truth for the sake of enjoying a tale. Though we do wish to enjoy the tale, and that is in itself a legitimate desire, we also want more from art than pleasure — which, in the case of an imperfectly effective figure, one we only pretend to believe, would be a somewhat illusory pleasure, would it not? And I think in illusion there is the least and most questionable of all pleasures. Myths, understood as extended figuration, may then, according to this second view, be true or contain some truth, something we don’t have to hold in pretense; moreover these would be truths that could take on no other shape than, or that are particularized by dint of, the figuration. Tolkien certainly subscribed to this second view as well. It seems to me there is some tension between these views. And yet it is necessary to retain both in order to understand the truths of fiction: for if those truths work it is both within the fiction (I would call this their ‘function’) and with us (I would call this their ‘value’), who remain always partially outside the fiction and urgently concerned with the truths of the primary world. We walk a fine line with a piece of writing like the Ainulindalë. In writing the Elvish account of the creation of Middle Earth (and again this point surfaces and is crucial: within the logic of the fiction, Middle Earth is supposed to be this real Earth), Tolkien did not assert himself as a latter-day editor of Genesis. But then again he did, through his subcreation, give a certain shape, the shape that he uniquely was able to imagine, of what he (as a Catholic, and therefore not uniquely) considered to be true of the origin and ground of creation.

Well then, so much for figurative language in the abstract. Contrary to the manuals and textbooks I have looked into over the years, I discern only two essential kinds of figurative language, the metaphorical and the analogical. It is the role of figurative language to reveal the hierarchical ecology of being. Metaphorical figuration brings together that which is distinct and unifies. Analogical figuration brings together that which is distinct and compares. Whenever there is comparison there is both like and unlike. In other words, analogy draws attention to an interval, which can be very large or small but an interval all the same; while metaphor asserts that something, at a level not ordinarily perceptible, truly is something else. People commonly talk of something being a metaphor “for” something else, but this sounds incorrect to my ears. A metaphor’s whole business is to collapse the interval, to make you forget that there are two parts of it: “God is a consuming fire” is the complete metaphor. The old rhetorical terminology talks of the tenor and vehicle of a metaphor – in this case, God would be the tenor and fire the vehicle – but to my mind this undermines a proper understanding of the function of metaphor and almost turns it into analogy.

I began this essay with an analogy: the all-encompassing music of the cicadas, I proposed, was like what I imagine would be the music of cosmic order, such as Tolkien figures it quite differently in the Ainulindalë. I wasn’t using the cicadas as a metaphor. Had I been doing so, I would have been saying that I was able to hear in the cicadas the cosmic music. At that time, such a perception was beyond my ken (though someone else might have been able to hear it, and in that case metaphor would have been appropriate). But then again, when I say that the cicadas are like the cosmic music, I am not saying that I think that that higher music literally resembles the sound of cicadas. This is what I mean by the “hierarchical” ecology or interconnectedness of being. Analogy compares things of different ontological orders or degrees of being; and in making that comparison it both asserts a likeness and connection, and an enduring unlikeness and disjunction. Two things can only be like in some respect, otherwise they are not like but either identical or unified. Metaphor’s power, inverse and complementary, is to startlingly conjoin, to blur those ‘respects’ or qualities. If it is a fusion, it is like atomic fusion in that it releases astonishing energy. Perhaps I should say the energy of astonishment, for in that joining is revealed and perhaps even realized (in the stronger sense of the word) the unity and all but incredible unison of created being. Metaphor can be extremely arresting but, paradoxically perhaps, it can also be dead. Language is full of so-called dead metaphors. Nearly everything you say, no matter how abstract or intellectual, is said in words whose meaning was originally or in its elementary parts very concrete. This is why I am always inserting etymological asides, to bring a little life back to some of our dead metaphors. Analogy, on the other hand, has a much harder time concealing itself. It’s difficult to say why this is. I think perhaps the reason is that analogy requires a grammatically explicit form, a “like” or an “as… so” or other such construction.

I apologize for the dry and flavorless (except for a soupçon of cicada) exposition. It seemed necessary, but now it’s high time we turn to the Ainulindalë, where hopefully some of what I’ve been saying will begin to make sense. The Ainulindalë is a surprisingly complex piece of writing, and perhaps not what it seems at first blush.

 

The music of the prose

The musical quality of the prose of the Ainulindalë is perceptible in its structure. It is a cosmogony in three parts: first there is the music of Tolkien’s angelic hierarchies, the Ainur; then there is a vision or fantasy of what that music has somehow signified in a very concrete or you could say incarnate way, which takes the shape of the world, Arda; and then there is the bringing into actuality from potentiality of Arda, the realization of the vision. These three parts are clearly indicated by gaps in the text. I am not at all convinced, as many readers seems to be, that these three episodes form as clearly a series of stages in the creation of the world in something like the hexameron of Genesis, or like a Neoplatonic theory of emanation from the One. The Ainulindalë is indeed an account of the creation of the world, but as I hope will become clearer in a passage which I will quote shortly, it is also more than that. In any event, to me, this triadic structure is essentially musical, rather than narrative, a kind of sonata form. And it cues me to tripartite construction that is visible in smaller modules throughout, to unmistakable rhythmic effect.

It is in rhythm that I more clearly perceive the music of the prose style. The Ainulindalë is not in the style of Genesis, despite its content. (Though in point of fact its content isn’t all that close to the opening chapters of Genesis, either, as Tolkien’s creation story never quite arrives at the coming of Men.) The most basic stylistic component of the Ainulindalë is the paratactic and occasionally editorial procedure of the learned chronicler, with which Tolkien was familiar from his reading in medieval literature. If there is a ‘mythic’ prose style, this is not it. Neither is it an epic style, if epic is understood to be verse, though as I will indicate our chronicler, so to call him, is capable of elements of epic style. But the dominant style here is that of the chronicler, albeit a musical, ‘poetic’ style, the work a chronicler who has put some effort into his composition. We might call him a ‘pseudo-chronicler’ or a chronicler on the way to becoming a novelist. Insofar as this chronicler permits himself editorializing, which is a kind of narrative omniscience, he approaches a novelistic style, or I might say polystyle. In my opinion the chronicler’s voice is closer to a novelistic omniscience than to the much more traditional self-awareness and self-reference of the storyteller. To show what I’m talking about, I will quote first my favorite paragraph in the Ainulindalë. Note that it is composed of three sentences, and that the sentences all follow more or less the same grammatical and therefore logical structure. In each sentence there are three parts: statement, additional statement, counter-statement (or, to use the terms of a Greek chorus, which might be apposite: two strophes and an antistrophe) signified by a logical disjunction, either “but” (twice) or “and yet” (once). The construction “it is said by the Eldar” is a construction typical of the learned chronicler displaying his learning, a citation of his authority or source, which constitutes a minor demonstration of what in literary terms is called omniscience (not to be confused with divine omniscience, a separate topic to be treated in due course!):

But the other Ainur looked upon this habitation set within the vast spaces of the World, which the Elves call Arda, the Earth; and their hearts rejoiced in light, and their eyes beholding many colors were filled with gladness; but because of the roaring of the sea they felt a great unquiet. And they observed the winds and the air, and the matters of which Arda was made, of iron and stone and silver and gold and many substances: but of all these water they most greatly praised. And it is said by the Eldar that in water there lives yet the echo of the Music of the Ainur more than in any substance else that is in this Earth; and many of the Children of Ilúvatar hearken still unsated to the voices of the Sea, and yet know not for what they listen.

What we are looking at in this expertly balanced paragraph is the Vision that Eru shows to the Ainur, whose music he has thrice had to stop because of the interpolations of Melkor; we are not in fact looking at an Arda that has been made in actuality, at “this Earth.” Were that the case, then the chronicler would refer to Arda, as he will do four paragraphs later, as the “World,” after Eru makes the Vision real with his single word, “Eä.” The word “World,” so capitalized, is used in a different way at that point in the Ainulindalë, meaning the whole cosmos wherein Eru and his Ainur and their music abide. Tracking this diction is crucial to understanding the metaphysics of the Ainulindalë, and I would only suggest that in following a word’s changing usage we are reading in a way that is very like listening for the mutations of a motif in music.

But what I most want to notice in this passage is that although the object of sight is the Vision, as beheld by the Ainur, and not the true made Arda (the Ainur do not even realize yet what a difference there will be between Vision and Reality), the chronicler’s editorialization serves to add another dimension of meaning and tone to the passage. Observe what happens by the end of the paragraph: the chronicler is no longer talking about the Vision or the primordial fall of Melkor at all, instead he is talking about how the actual Arda, which has not yet been made real in the main line of his narrative, is perceived not by the Ainur (or Valar), who are the main actors of the Ainulindalë, but by the Children of Ilúvatar, who have little real place in its narrative. In other words, the style of this passage has everything to do with what I might call its amplitude. It appears, grammatically, to be a chronicler’s utilitarian, paratactic, linear listing of events or attributes or what have you. But through the introduction of the narrator’s concern on the one hand to establish his authority by referencing the ideas of the Eldar and on the other to tie his report of inconceivably distant events to the present interest of his readers (who are, within the fiction, all Children of Ilúvatar) — we are presented with a moment of pathos, and the scale of this cosmogony shrinks momentarily to accommodate a more human (or Elven) perspective. Some people call this telescoping of “narrative distance.” It is a kind of commentary or editorialization, and it is characteristic of the classic novel (whatever changes the genre may have undergone in more recent generations), which entire genre is founded on narrative omniscience.

That, then, is how I would describe the narrative voice of the Ainulindalë, a chronicler who is on his way to becoming a narrator, i.e. the narrative voice of a novel. The telescoping of narrative distance, usually brought about by the chronicler’s manifest need to establish both authority and its counterpart contemporaneity (authority is always a recourse to the past), results in some of the most theologically important moments in the Ainulindalë, the moments whereby it transcends the confines of a simple creation myth to become on the one hand an apocalyptic vision of what in Christian terms would be called the eschaton, and on the other a kind of insight or statement of wisdom regarding the psychological origin of evil. Here is the narrator or chronicler once again being authoritative and using that authority or, in novelistic terms, omniscience, to establish his contemporaneity, to speak to the concerns of his readers. Notice again the passive construction, “it has been said” which works to both ends:

Never since have the Ainur made any music like to this music, though it has been said that a greater still shall be made before Ilúvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar after the end of days. Then the themes of Ilúvatar shall be played aright, and take Being in the moment of their utterance, for all shall then understand fully his intent in their part, and each shall know the comprehension of each, and Ilúvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased.

These sentences come only from the fourth paragraph of the Ainulindalë. They are thus an instance of what you could call the most extreme prolepsis imaginable. Almost nothing has happened yet. Only the first movement, so to speak, of the Great Music has been accomplished. Melkor has not fallen, history has not yet unfolded because Arda and time itself perhaps have not even been made, though they have been prefigured, in part, by the Music. But we don’t know anything yet about the metaphysics of that prefiguration, of how the Music somehow contains or can contain the secret fire of “Being.” And yet the chronicler is reporting the theology of the end of time, as it has been speculated by the Eldar and others, I suppose, long since the events that the main narrative reports. This is a kind of narrative omniscience.

A telltale use of narrative omniscience in the novel is psychological insight into character. We have become used to this kind of thing, desensitized to it. Interest in the innermost motivations of subjectivities more or less like our own is the fundamental province of the novel, whatever else it might do in its own particular ways. The forms of literature that preceded the novel certainly exhibited great passions of one form or another, or they showed much plotting in the sense of cunning and maneuvering. Passion and cunning are the two opening gambits of the Homeric poems — the rage of Achilles and Odysseus “polytropos,” of many turns (both outward and inward, in his case). But generally earlier literary forms showed those passions and machinations — figured them, you could say — in action and speech. I think that despite its archaic style the following sentence tends toward a novelistic theodicy, or at least a venture in Satanic psychology; in any case it jumps out at me: “But as the theme progressed, it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.” That right there is the Fall, the felix culpa, of Tolkien’s legendarium. It is made all the more poignant for two reasons: Eru has actually commanded the Ainur to do something that is almost the same as what Melkor does (“ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will”); and because of the passive construction, “it came into the heart of Melkor.” Where was this faulty desire before it entered Melkor’s heart, and is he responsible for its gaining the core of his individual being in this way? But I don’t want to get into the psycho-theodicy, for that is not after all where the heft of the Ainukindalë falls.

Think of the way that Milton presents us with Satan in Paradise Lost, and you will see how modern Tolkien’s cosmogonic tale really is. And the speaker or narrator of Milton’s poem is certainly concerned to vaunt his epical techniques. He is notorious for compound, extended similes (analogical figuration), a perpetual striving with the heritage of antiquity. The medieval chronicler who can be heard in Tolkien’s prose does not seem impelled to such extremes, though he will occasionally give us a classical simile, e.g. “And [Melkor] descended on Arda in power and majesty greater than any other of the Valar, as a mountain that wades in the sea and has its head above the clouds and is clad in ice and crowned with smoke and fire; and the light of the eyes of Melkor was like a flame that withers with heat and pierces with deadly cold.” It’s not the most wrought simile you could imagine, and perhaps we’re grateful for that. In fact, for my money this kind of writing rings false; it is ‘Miltonic’ — imitating an imitator — rather than a successful imitation, as most of the rest of the Ainulindalë is, of a genuine historical style. But in another sense, though, as I will be talking about in the next section, all of the Ainulindalë is a single massive figuration, and thus Tolkien — and here I must mean the author and not his narrator, who is barely more than a scribe — quite overgoes the Miltonic and neo-classical, and does so by being modern.

I have been talking about narrative voice and style, much of which comes to a certain musicality, because the narrator is the logically and ontologically prior element in all fiction, and the narrative voice determines which specific possibilities of prose style will be actualized. There is nothing more important in fiction than the narrator. You can do without any other element, without characters or plot or coherent setting, but there is always at least by implication a narrator (who may of course also be a character). The writer who capitalizes on this, as I think Tolkien did in the version of the Ainulindalë that has come down to us, weaves a subtle text indeed. I am not suggesting that Tolkien read a lot of classic novels and decided to allow such reading to influence his mythopoeia. But it is hard to miss the influence of the classic novel, still dominant for people of his generation, on the whole legendarium, and much to the benefit and appeal of the work, I might add. The chronicler on his way to becoming a narrator, or stealing tricks from the novelist, could be called something like Tolkien’s default style and emblematic of his larger project to bring into the modern world the feeling of a mythic English past. As Tom Shippey has pointed out, nothing could be more novelistic than hobbits. To finish out this section of the essay, I’d like to compare the first extended passage I quoted, the paragraph made of three balanced sentences about the elements of Arda, to the last paragraphs of The Lord of the Rings (not including the appendices). Note here again the parataxis, hallmark of the chronicler’s rather than the novelist’s mode of narration. But then note that what these paragraphs lead up to is a single line of text that is quintessentially novelistic, for there is nothing that identifies the genre of the novel more explicitly than a conclusion in domestic scene (think of the epilogue to War and Peace, for example) — the husband, the wife, the child, the hearth — and dialogue itself. So in the beginning of the legendarium as at the end, the merging of the medieval — and I would certainly say medieval rather than classical or mythical — and the modern comes to the fore, in the very grammar, as part of the unique atmosphere of Middle Earth, an atmosphere equally familiar and uncanny, which is precisely what Faërie must be:

At last the three companions turned away, and never again looking back they rode slowly homewards; and they spoke no word to one another until they came back to the Shire, but each had great comfort in his friends on the long grey road.

At last they rode over the downs and took the East Road, and then Merry and Pippin rode to Buckland; and already they were singing again as they went. But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back upon the Hill, as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.

He drew a deep breath. “Well, I’m back,” he said.

In terms of actual literary history, there are about five hundred years lying hidden between the end of the second paragraph and Sam’s casual closing line. And by the way, here are threes again: three remaining hobbits, then the triad of Sam, Rose and Elanor in their home — don’t make too much of this, but it never hurts to be attuned to number, even just for practice. Music, when it is not thought of as a kind of time, is a kind of number.

 

Music as figure

This brings me to my last thoughts on the Ainulindalë, not about the musicality of the prose (which is to speak metaphorically) but music as a total figure. I have already quoted the passage in which the chronicler shares the longstanding theology, as it seems to be, that holds the Music of the Ainur to be both protological and eschatological, at the origin of things and at their end. So, to be a bit crude about it, the Ainulindalë is not a concert review. Because it is a narration, it seems like it is about a music that plays, and then some other things happen — there is a great Vision or fantasy, then there is the making of the actual Earth, or Arda, and then there is a fight over the shaping and mastery of Arda. But if we thin about what we’re really reading here, if we pause to consider that this is not actual music as we know it, then we see the whole piece of writing is a great figure. What it reports to have happened in the “Deeps of Time” we must assume really happened, within the logic of the fiction. But as a figure of the metaphysical state of affairs, the Ainulindalë is always happening; just as in Jewish and Christian tradition (or, for that matter, according to a later reteller of the tradition like Milton) Adam and Eve and their lives in the Garden are always playing out for each one of us: or we are they. And Eru’s fiat to existence, his Great Word (for once, this my capitalization, as a coutnerpart to the text’s “Great Music”) that allows all to really be and not only to be fantasy, “Eä,” must be ever spoken for as long as we are here to speculate and tell stories about it.

The report that our chronicler gives us of Elven theological speculation seems to be confirmed or at least reduplicated in Ilúvatar’s declaration 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.” But apart from the clear articulation of such metaphysical doctrine, there are textual, grammatical reasons that the Great Music must be understood only analogically. This essay has gone on far too long, so I will quote one last passage, the first half of the fourth paragraph of the Ainulndalë, the latter half of which I have already quoted. This is the first full rousing of the Music, before Melkor’s fall and after the first awkward efforts of the Ainur:

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 Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void.

This is an astonishing analogy, for the music of the Ainur must be either nothing like what this passage describes, or else the passage describes the inconceivable. The kind of music described is approximately that of the late nineteenth century or early twentieth century sprawling and gigantic choral symphony, of the order of Mahler or Bruckner or Sibelius, one of Tolkien’s favorite composers. Such music could be enormously complex in its structure and displayed an almost overwhelming variety of color, or kinds of sound. But even Mahler and Bruckner could not write music for countless choirs, or pen melodies that were endless. Nor, I think, has any conductor ever had to consider how best to handle the acoustics of a music that is capable of echoing even in a void.

But it is all figure. There are not dwelling places and a non-place, the Void, in which they music may resound, it there is not time. The chronicler will later refer to Ilúvatar’s heavenly dwelling where the action of the Ainulindalë begins as the “Timeless Halls.” In the same sentence he will describe the Valar coming to shape and indwell the real Arda as entering in “at the beginning of Time.” Any notion we might entertain of music, of speech, certainly of narrative, presupposes time. But these observations are really extraneous, for the game’s afoot from the second clause of the fourth paragraph. What we are reading about is what the voices of the Ainur are like unto. They are not even singing with words, but only like choruses that sing with words. And after all, what words could they be using? To what concrete objects and discrete actions could their language refer?

What I want to finish with is simply the thought that the Ainulindalë is the maximum of figuration, the exemplar of what it means for myth to contain otherwise unsayable truth in figure. It is a demonstration and advocacy of that means of truth-telling. In wonderfully sensuous language, clear narrative, and with a complex polychronic and polystylistic narrative voice, the purely intellectual limits of thought are set down. Beyond the frontier of the figuration is the single — in some all but unthinkable sense the only — Word, and “the World that Is.” The Ainulindalë models the translation of the highest registers of allegory into a tale you can carry easily in memory or in your pocket. Or in other words the Ainulindalë is more than story, but it is a more-than-story whose goal is to arrive at story.

7 thoughts on “Music, figure, and style in the Ainulindalë”

    1. Thanks, Brian. That’s a good question. I am unfortunately quite ignorant about this sort of thing. I think that usually if you’re in the post itself and you hit Control+P it should automatically send something reasonable to your printer. But as far as just the text… I’m not sure. I’ll tinker with it when I have a moment.

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    2. Brian, his formatting lends itself pretty well to pdfs. It’s pretty clean that way, and if you print to pdf you can turn off headers and footers and the like. You may have already considered that, and have something more specific in mind. But in the event that you hadn’t…

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      1. Thanks, Patrick. I am not clever about these things. I ended up copying the whole thing into a Word Document. I just googled Malcolm Guite. He looks like he could be a character from Middle Earth. Aside from that undoubted excellence, he sounds interesting. I will check him out, in any event. I am unsure how far Tolkien would follow Barfield. I am personally ambivalent about Steiner, but I do think Barfield has some significant insights.

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  1. Wow. Really nice. Tolkien found a way to speak to modern man’s soul. He first got to mine as a very young lad.

    Jonathan, a lot of Barfield in there. Especially his fondness for perceiving the imagination in a way which Coleridge articulated well. Actually, Malcolm Guite has a lecture on the Mariner, where he notes this at some point.

    And now, finding out that you haven’t been all that exposed to Guite, I really must exhort you again, in earnest.

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  2. Great analysis. One of the first questions that comes to mind is how Ainulindalle is then connected to Valaquenta. It bears some similarities to the movement from Genesis 1 to 2-5, but also with clear differences. Both Genesis 2-5 and Valaquenta seem to move into history and genealogy that assume and modify their prior cosmogonies. Have you explored this much? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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    1. Hi, Jedidiah. That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure I have much of an answer right now, separated as I am from my books. I can say that the textual history of both Tolkien’s posthumous oeuvre and that of the Bible are tremendously complex, and this complexity makes it hard to grasp what sort of relation there may be between the Valaquenta and the first few chapters of Genesis after the first creation story. The motivations of the writers and compilers of the Bible had to have been very different from those of a twentieth century author of prose fiction who did not understand himself to be discovering and communicating truth on the same level as the Bible purports to do. We have to consider that the Bible was something that Tolkien actually accepted as a unique vessel of divine revelation. This makes the analysis different than if we were dealing with an author known to not have been a Christian or Jew. In that latter case, it would suffice to point out the formal similarities between the two pieces of writing. But with Tolkien, because he was a faithful Catholic Christian, I think that if we place his mythopoetic work in relation to any part of the Bible, we have to look at it more as some sort of comment than a question of artistic influence. But as far as formal comparison goes, I would guess that were I to read the Valaquenta right now I would find it at least as surreptitiously modern as I find the Ainulindalë. However, would also note that, as with the Ainulindalë, there are more precedents for its basic form than the biblical. The nearest kin to Valaquenta that I can think of, not knowing Norse and Finnic literature the way Tolkien did, is Hesiod’s Theogony. Where I think we might see a greater parallel with the Bible is if we step back a bit and look at the overall narrative arc of the texts that Christopher Tolkien compiled and edited and published as The Silmarillion in 1977. But really, I would have to read all of The History of Middle Earth to get a proper sense of the ways Tolkien’s imagination literary imagination might have been influenced by his lifelong absorption of the Bible. And that would be an eminently worthwhile task, if only I had the time to do it. — I mean primarily with regard to literary technique, narrative structure. Plenty of people have written well already about the spirituality of Tolkien’s thought and writing.

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