Tolkien: Cosmogony

Blogging the Ainulindalë and Valaquenta from Tolkien’s The Silmarillion


If there were some kind of global religious amnesia, and if the cosmogony presented in the first two chapters of The Silmarillion was offered as a genuine religious narrative, its position as scripture might seem entirely natural. This is myth-making at its most remarkable. One uses the word “genuine” guardedly — given Tolkien’s view of myth and Faërie as genuine sub-creations of the ur-Tree, one might already consider the Ainulindalë and Valaquenta as already true, its origin in the mind of Tolkien notwithstanding.

I say that as someone with some knowledge of creation myth — I know a bit about Genesis and have read Enuma Elish in the original Akkadian. Tolkien’s is better, grander. That is my modern aesthetic speaking, of course. The Ainulindalë and Valaquenta enjoy a remarkable verisimilitude with ancient myth but they are, first and foremost, products of the mind of a modern Englishman and Oxford don — my kind of literary creator. Still, if your exposure to Tolkien doesn’t go far beyond the folksy Hobbit, this stuff will blow your mind.

Mormons love it. It’s all there: a council in heaven, free will, a divine plan, God, demiurges (the Ainur), a rebellion and fall.  It’s not exactly the Pearl of Great Price — in Mormon cosmology the angelic demiurges are us; for Tolkien, they nearly always remain aloof from the world, or at least Middle Earth — and in these days of rigid monotheism, the near equality of Eru and the Ainur may not sound particularly Christian. However, let us remember that it was St. Augustine who first believed that when Elohim said, “Let there be light,” he was bringing forth the angels, intellectual creatures such as Himself. Genesis was not a lonely creation, nor was the Music of Eru. (That Eru’s plans are made known through music is particularly charming.)

Once again I am led to marvel at the beauty of myth. Tolkien has the advantage of not being saddled with the heavy burden of literality. Without the need to carbon date the age of the Music in the fossil record of Middle Earth we can simply ponder the truths of the story.

Next: the Quenta Silmarillion (at Kulturblog).


  1. I agree that the Silmarillion is a masterpiece, sadly ignored by most humans today. The Creation Myth really is expansive in it, and one cannot appreciate the Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings without first reading and pondering the Silmarillion. It would be like trying to understand modern Christianity without first knowing the stories of the Old Testament: one can do it, but will fail in understanding things like the Fall.

  2. Love the music of the Ainur.

    In light of the considerable development or expansion/modification that the overall body of Tolkien’s legends underwent from the early formulation in The Book of Lost Tales to the polished “final” version in The Silmarillion, the creation myth and specifically the music of the Ainur remained remarkably intact through the entire process of myth creation. Christopher Tolkien observed that this particular creation myth seemed to have sprung almost intact from his father’s mind, if the surviving early source materials for the myth (contained in The Book of Lost Tales) are an accurate indication.

    The mechanism of music as the means and medium of creation — including the introduction of evil (disharmony) into the works through unauthorized discordant emendations in the celestial score — was, I thought, a very meaningful way to express this fundamental mystery of creation. As you point out there is a lot in this framework that dovetails nicely with a specifically Mormon view. But the real significance of that fact is that, like Tolkien’s apparent fondness for and understanding of an ur-Tree into which his Faerie creations are meant to trap, Mormon cosmology taps into the same ur-Tree as early Christian or other sources.

  3. (typing on a mobile so that got cut off)

    The point I was trying to make supports your thoughts on the ability of Faerie to tap into and express truth unencumbered by concerns about historicity or religious authority, each of which can get in the way of the message when in a religious context. Tolkien’s Faerie, because he took it so seriously and meant it to tap into and express Truth, is enlightening and can potentially draw in the faithful of many different persuasions, drawing us unwittingly together in a cosmologic contemplation.

  4. It actually helped me transition from my more die-hard interpretation of scripture. Knowing that I could read and love the Silmarillion while never having to wrap my brain around it being a real account of things- I never thought “is this real” or “is this fiction”- it was simply a story that spoke to me. I can enjoy Genesis much more with that viewpoint than trying the mental gymnastics of “I must make this fit into my worldview because IT REALLY HAPPENED”.

  5. That’s great Jenn. Now, one of the very cool things about Ronan’s series on Tolkien’s use of Faërie is that it is a meaningful supplement for readers across the faith spectrum and indeed across faiths. It has been enriching and meaningful to me as someone who is open to the idea of stuff in Genesis really having happened and as someone who believes in the historicity of the Book of Mormon and I am delighted to “share” this ability to be enriched by Tolkien’s Faërie with people who do not share my specific religious beliefs on points of dogma like this.

  6. (“It” refers to Tolkien’s use of Faërie, not Ronan’s series — sorry Ronan!)

  7. Love this Ronan, thanks for continuing this grat series.

    I have often been fascinated by the similarities between the Ainulindale and The Pearl of Great Price and wondered about how Tolkien happened on so many similar ideas. The differences are also interesting and one of my favorite parts of the Tolkien story is that music is the means for creation, though it seems to be in some ways a metaphor only, as it doesn’t seem that the music itself resulted in final creation of the world:

    “In this Music the World was begun; for Ilúvatar made visible
    the song of the Ainur, and they beheld it as a light in the darkness. And
    many among them became enamoured of its beauty, and of its history
    which they saw beginning and unfolding as in a vision. Therefore Ilúvatar
    gave to their vision Being, and set it amid the Void, and the Secret Fire
    was sent to burn at the heart of the World; and it was called Eä.”

    Note that the music was a vision only until it was given being by the creator.

    I’m not sure I get from the Silmarillion the idea that Eru and the Ainur are near equals:

    “There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he
    made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought,
    and they were with him before aught else was made.

    But you’re of course correct that the Ainur are orders of magnitude above elves and men, who are the described as the “Children of Iluvatar.” The Ainur become the Valar who resemble much more the Greek and Roman Gods than anything in our doctrine.

    But one thing that always made me think particularly of our own doctrine is the view that Tolkien has of Melkor, who becomes Morgoth, the evil one and the enemy. He is co-equal with Manwe, who is the chief of the Valar, and though he introduces evil into the world through the use of his own themes and dischord in the music of the Ainur, it’s made clear that there is nothing that Melkor did that was not in the original contemplation and plan of the creator, so that it’s clear that the role Melkor plays, while it constitutes a rebellion, is also part of the plan of the creator from the beginning:

    “Then Ilúvatar spoke, and he said: ‘Mighty are the Ainur, and
    mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur,
    that I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth,
    that ye may see what ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see 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.”

  8. MCQ: I have often been fascinated by the similarities between the Ainulindale and The Pearl of Great Price and wondered about how Tolkien happened on so many similar ideas.

    On the point of similarities with the Pearl of Great Price, unless I’m mistaken, the word The Silmarillion could be conceptually translated as “[of] the Pearls [Jewels] most prized by the elves [Fëanor]”. That is, the Silmarilli are the Jewels of Fëanor, which were jewels made by the elves in the First Age out of the essence of the Two Trees of Valinor (the Silver Tree and the Gold Tree — tree of life and tree of knowledge of good and evil?). You add “-on” as a suffix to make it genetive, so “of the Silmarilli”. So a loose translation could actually approximate “Of the Pearls of Great Prize [of the elves]”.

    Just musing here.

  9. oh, sorry, is that too nerdy?

  10. Awesome. Love it. Very, very nice observation, john f.

  11. Actually, the loose, conceptual translation should read “Of the Pearls Greatly Prized [by the Elves]” — two small typos there.

  12. (And substituting “Pearls” for “Jewels” possibly strays a little beyond the integrity of translation but it’s a nice thought.)

  13. Yes, the silmarils are not pearls, but come on, there are no actual pearls in the PoGP either!

  14. “Once again I am led to marvel at the beauty of myth. Tolkien has the advantage of not being saddled with the heavy burden of literality. Without the need to carbon date the age of the Music in the fossil record of Middle Earth we can simply ponder the truths of the story.”

    This is right on Ronan. I sometimes wonder about the incredible beauty of Tolkien’s vision and expression in this book. It seems so out of nowhere and also so underappreciated.

  15. Mark,
    I am glad you gave those quotes. The idea that even Melkor’s evil might have its “uttermost source” in Eru, and that it unwittingly can be turned into something wonderful, is an idea that I have written about with regard to Satan’s instrumentality in God’s hands.

    You are a major nerd, but that’s OK.

  16. Ronan, can we read what you have written on that subject? I for one would love to.

  17. Jeremiah Stone says:

    john f. I never considered the Silmarils as the taking of fruit from the trees, which precipitated the fall of the Noldor and their forced separation from the Gods…very interesting

  18. Jeremiah Stone says:

    BTW, such a beautiful representation of Arda in the pic. Whose work is it?

  19. Thanks for the link Ronan. Very cool.

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