In Which Ilúvatar, After Creating the World, Presents Specific-Yet-Vague Plans for the Future, and Melkor Becomes a Rebel Without Probable Cause
The Ainulindalë—“the Music of the Ainur” in Elvish—is a kind of prelude story to The Silmarillion proper. It’s the literal beginning to the legendarium, and though it’s only a few pages long, there’s a lot packed in there! For an author famous for long passages and rich detail, J.R.R. Tolkien does a surprisingly good job at concision with his ancient history. With so much foundational material to grasp—and much of it important for future chapters—I am therefore only going to talk about the Ainulindalë in this article.
To start off, if you can pronounce Ainulindalë (eye-noo-LINN-da-lay), you’re already in great shape…
Dramatis personæ of note:
- Ilúvatar – the One, the creator of all
- Melkor – an Ainu, the most gifted (and rebellious) of them all
- Ulmo – an Ainu who sure likes water
- Manwë – an Ainu, air enthusiast
- Aulë – an Ainu, into earth and making things
Things get underway in a very Genesis-like fashion; in fact, the earlier the chapter, the more biblical everything sounds. In the very first sentence, we meet the legendarium’s one and only all-powerful god, Eru, the One. But Eru is just how he signs his name. He’ll actually go by Ilúvatar (ill-OOH-vah-tar) among the Elves, and therefore us. But I’m getting ahead of myself, as there are no Elves yet. And I say “he” because the narrator uses such pronouns, but gender itself seems to be a trait of the world—and there is no world yet. You’ll see.
Presumably because no one else existing is rather dull, Ilúvatar makes the Ainur (EYE-noor) from his very thought. The Ainur (singular, Ainu) are entities reminiscent of both archangels and polytheistic deities, as they are divine beings of enormous power who will assist Ilúvatar in the creation of the universe and help oversee its future. We don’t know how many of them there are—hundreds, millions, who can say?—but by the end of this section we will be concerned only with a dozen of them. And of those, only a few are even named in the Ainulindalë.
Though there is apparently no familial bond between the Ainur and their maker, I cannot help but see Ilúvatar as something of a godparent, or maybe foster parent, or even benefactor. I hesitate to say father, for reasons I’ll get to shortly. He cares for the Ainur and invests power and trust in them—desiring their company and their artistry for what he’s planning. He lets them dwell with him in the Timeless Halls, which must be some prime real estate indeed, considering there is nothing but a great Void everywhere else.
Music as power is a recurring concept in The Silmarillion, especially in creation itself. And though Ilúvatar loves music, he doesn’t do any singing himself. Rather, he is the composer, the muse, and the audience. He gives the Ainur vocal themes to sing, writ not on sheet music but within them, kindled like a “secret fire” by the Flame Imperishable. Think of that as the ultimate cosmic power source. (And yes, it’s the same Secret Fire referenced by a certain wizard on the bridge of Khazad-dûm.) Thus empowered, the Ainur can now “adorn” the musical themes he has given them, and Ilúvatar requests that they sing to him while he listens—if they wish to.
Well, yes. Possessing the free will to choose—in this particular case, to sing or not to sing—is going to be a huge recurring motif throughout The Silmarillion. And this is no mere illusion of choice, either: sometimes the “wrong” decision is actually made and consequences unfold accordingly. But here we see, from the get-go, that the Ainur do elect to sing the themes that Ilúvatar has given them. They want to. And they find that when they sing, they hear and thereby learn more about each other.
Now, the Music of the Ainur is not some lockstep chorus, but the mother of all jam sessions. Ilúvatar has presented the themes, but he’s left each Ainu to improvise, harmonize, and experiment however they wish, as long as it’s in accordance with those themes. If one Ainu desires a folk rock version of the theme, then soft and melancholic it shall be; if another finds heavy metal truer to their hearts, then darker and graver that same theme shall be. Ilúvatar likes rock either way, is what I’m saying. He wants the Ainur to be individuals, to express themselves, to be artists in the Music. I can’t stress that enough, because those differences are going to take shape in the world to come.
Interestingly, the Ainur are effectively “blind.” But it’s fine, as all of this is playing out in a great Void, where there is nothing but the dwellings of Ilúvatar and the Ainur and their music—and that music spills out into the Void, making it less so. They still perceive each other and Ilúvatar, and can obviously hear as with ears, but they are bodiless, spiritual beings. And time doesn’t really exist yet as we understand it. Heck, the universe itself doesn’t exist yet. But what does exist so far—and the Music of the Ainur—is perfect, flawless, and Ilúvatar seems pleased.
But every great story must have conflict, right?
“Spoiler” Alert: There’s really only one passage that peeks far ahead into the future. Speaking of this great music, we are told:
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 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.
So, if the themes of Ilúvatar are going to be “played aright,” then I guess that means you know they’re going to go awrong first. Not too spoilery, as spoilers ago, since one paragraph later, we’re introduced to the instigator of all that goes wrong.
Thus do we meet Melkor, one of the Ainu, and kind of a prodigy among them. We are told he has at times gone off into the Void alone in search of the Flame Imperishable, seeking it as if it were some Pac-man Power Pellet floating all by itself for the taking. In going off alone, Melkor has developed some ideas and desires that are not quite in line with those of the other Ainur. He wants to make things of his own, independent from the boss, wanting the Void to not be so void. He is, at the first, impatient. He won’t be the only Ainu to exhibit impatience about creating things—and his impulse to create is not necessarily a bad thing in itself—but he will be the only one to carry it to a terrible conclusion.
Melkor fails to find the Flame Imperishable—because of course it’s with Ilúvatar alone—so he tries to assert his ego in the music itself. He’s a powerful jack-of-all-trades; we are told he has “a share in all the gifts of his brethren.” And though he’s been singing with the others, Melkor now wishes to stand above them. He is the student not content with being the most talented; he also needs to be team captain, prom king, prom queen, and valedictorian. So he begins to deviate in his singing, adding his own selfish thoughts to it. He strays from Ilúvatar’s theme, not because he thinks a face-melting solo will totally impress the others—that would almost be okay, if it was just to make them happier—but because he wishes to increase his own glory. He must upstage, outshine, be acknowledged as greater than the rest. Melkor is the ultimate Me Monster.
He brings discord to the music of the Ainur. It disturbs those around him, making them falter in their own singing, and it grows louder and louder, becoming infectious. Some of his fellow Ainur even start to attune themselves to his deviant melodies like a particularly nasty earworm. It becomes increasingly disruptive as it grows, and like a “raging storm” the discord eventually roars around Ilúvatar’s own throne. It might be tempting to sympathize with Melkor as a nonconformist, to regard him as simply thinking outside the box—but as we’ll see, that’s not really the problem. It’s that Melkor wants to own the box.
Ilúvatar does not scold Melkor for his transgressions yet. He has placed trust in the Ainur, after all, and does not prevent them from doing what they will, even if that means allowing disharmony. Ilúvatar smiles like a patient elder and responds to the discord by initiating a new song, a second theme that swells and increases the power of the whole. And Melkor, spiteful little brat that he is, fights this one, too. He needs to be the best, to be shown as mightier than his creator. The whole thing becomes a war of sound so cacophonous that some of the other Ainur stop altogether, too bothered to continue.
Ilúvatar thus prompts a third theme in the Music, which is especially momentous and foreshadows events to come:
This one was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came. The other had now achieved a unity of its own; but it was loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated; and it had little harmony, but rather a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes.
“Beauty from sorrow” is worth remembering. Though Melkor’s music tries to drown that third theme out, his “most triumphant notes” are actually woven right back into Ilúvatar’s own. But it does seem like Melkor has managed to at least piss Ilúvatar off, though that may be overstating it. By whatever means the Ainur can perceive, Ilúvatar’s face becomes “terrible to behold” and it is clear that he has had enough. He halts the music suddenly, right after an epic crescendo.
Ilúvatar addresses the Ainur now, reminding them who they are—and who he is—and informs them that he will now show them what all their singing has been for. And then, specifically addressing Melkor, he drives home a particular point which will also be well worth remembering in chapters to come:
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.
Which is to say, “Know that whatever you even think of started with me first. Whatever deviation or evil you make in days to come I will use to enact even better things, things that will blow your mind.” Melkor, like a scolded kid, is shamed but quietly harbors anger. He does not ask forgiveness, he does not repent. He just broods and pouts. He certainly never takes Ilúvatar’s “shall prove but mine instrument” statement to heart. He will only try again and again to exert his own will upon events.
After this, Ilúvatar gives the Ainur the power of sight, and reveals to them a great vision. As if in a huge metaphorical classroom, he flips off the lights, turns on the projector, and plays for them a holy-crap-totally-amazing movie. It’s like watching a film adaptation of their music! The music was not for mere entertainment, as they might have thought, but has provided the blueprints for the universe itself—for the World with a capital “W”—which Ilúvatar will soon make “globed amid the Void.”
Hmm. Time for a helpful sticky note to keep some terms straight.
Let’s change the metaphor a bit. Like space rebels looking at a holographic schematic of a moon-sized battle station—only way bigger, more lovely, filled with bright and colorful creatures, and intended not for destroying but for designing—the Ainur gaze upon this vision with wonder. They can see now what their thoughts, their artistry, their musical imaginations, will become when the World is made manifest. Ilúvatar has given all the Ainur a hand in creation, though the actual creation hasn’t happened quite yet. He goes on to talk to them, and from his words they inherit the wisdom and foresight that we will henceforth associate with the Ainur—that which makes them godlike in knowledge compared to all other peoples. Through Ilúvatar’s narration over this vision, they even see the future history of the World unfold. This will give them foresight—but it’s not complete, nor fully predetermined; what they’re looking at is still just a hologram, a pre-production film.
It is in this vision, this glorious animated PowerPoint presentation, that the Ainur first begin to see other things that they had not imagined, things that come from Ilúvatar directly and not from their individual contributions. Most importantly, this is where they first glimpse the Children of Ilúvatar—the catch-all term for both Elves and Men, the peoples fated to populate the coming world, each in their own time.
Note that the Ainur themselves are not called Ilúvatar’s “children”: the relationship between their creator and these two distinct classes of beings is not the same. While the Ainur will always be mightier than both Men and Elves by a long shot, the Children of Ilúvatar still present a great mystery to them precisely because they are not like them. The Children are exotic, alien, and seem to reflect parts of their maker that the Ainur have not understood. And this fascinates them. Which makes sense—aren’t things different from us usually intriguing? Who doesn’t love a good mystery?
The Ainur are wowed by these (still hypothetical) Children and feel an immediate affection for them. Ilúvatar tells them that he has chosen a specific place for these Men and Elves to live, “in the Deeps of Time and in the midst of innumerable stars”—which is to say, the Earth. Arda, it will be called, a much smaller habitation within the vastness of the universe. Immediately, a bunch of the Ainur desire to go to this place and get involved with these strange new beings. Of these, who do you think is the most anxious to go?
Well, Melkor, of course, who had wanted to create things of his own to govern. And after all, this may be the next best thing! Tragically, he lies even to himself at first, claiming that he simply wants to go down and make things right again, to “order all things for the good of the Children of Ilúvatar.” Sound legit? Of course, what Melkor really wants is to have servants, “to be called Lord, and to be a master over other wills.”
Ilúvatar makes a few interesting points about the nature of the World they’d helped to shape, and here we are introduced to three more of the Ainur who will play major roles in upcoming events: Ulmo, Manwë, and Aulë. Ulmo’s voice in the Music had focused on the concept of water, so that will become his forte. Winds and air had been Manwë’s aerial style, so he’ll have mastery over those. And the substance of the earth itself, like rocks and soil, had been Aulë’s—let’s say percussive—contribution, so he’ll get to shape those in ages to come. But because of Melkor’s earlier discord, dangerous extremes of weather and temperature have also been introduced into nature, things like “bitter cold immoderate” and “heats and fire without restraint.” Still, Ilúvatar assures the Ainur that because of such extremes, other wonderful things can and will happen—the cold allows for snow, which can be beautiful, along with “the cunning work of frost.” Fire creates steam from water, vapor collects into clouds in the air—now the skies can look more awesome!
Ilúvatar’s point is that the results of Melkor’s meddling can be worked with, and right away the other Ainur become excited at all the possibilities; Ulmo and Manwë will even have a bromance over the many ways their elements can intermingle. It’s interesting to note, however, that in the mind of Ilúvatar, Melkor and Manwë are as brothers. Here, then, is a familial bond of sorts that predates any actual genetics, though their relationship will play out more like sibling rivalry than anything else.
Anyway, at this point, Ilúvatar switches off the vision abruptly, ending it before its full runtime. And this means that while the Ainur have learned much of what will come to pass, or could come to pass, they don’t know everything. They don’t know how it’s all going to end. They didn’t even get to the part of history where Men are supposed to take over on Earth and Elves reach their ultimate decline. Ilúvatar is keeping that ending to himself, for now.
So yes, the End of the World is under wraps. It’s the final act, the final reel, that even the Ainur don’t get to see. So neither do we. Welcome, reader, to the human condition—am I right?
But seeing the Ainur so anxious to begin, Ilúvatar calls out “Eä!”—simultaneously naming and creating the entire universe according to the vision. And within that universe, the tiny little Earth, Arda, is also formed. Now at last—yes, after all the hoopla and hypotheticals—actual existence has come to be, and now the Void and the Timeless Halls aren’t the only things around. Instead of being nearly everything, the Void is just a place outside of Eä (AY-ah).
With both Eä and Arda now in existence, those Ainu most eager to enter it—fourteen of the mightiest Ainur—now come forward. Ilúvatar will make them custodians of this world, but only on the condition that they’re in it for the long haul. There’s no going back. When Arda’s time is done—however many ages that will be—only then will they be released from this service.
And so these fourteen volunteers become the Valar, the Powers of the World, and down they go…
And as soon as they’re in, they’re caught off guard. It’s in a very raw state. Whaaaa? Sure, they recognize it—yeah, this is the place they’d seen in that cool vision—but it’s not fully formed yet. It’s like unbaked clay still in need of shaping. But the Valar (singular, Vala) are nothing if not industrious and optimistic—particularly the three elemental buddies Ulmo, Manwë, and Aulë, who spearhead the operation. Of course, Melkor is here, too, and he tooootally for sure wants to help. He’s actually rather pleased to see it in this uncooked condition. Straightaway he starts meddling with the others’ work, spoiling it. He’s the most powerful Ainu, remember. And, delighted to see that Arda was “yet young and full of flame,”
he said to the other Valar: ‘This shall be my own kingdom; and I name it unto myself!’
Basically, Melkor is doing what a bully does when reaching the sandbox first. “Mine! I called it first! And I licked it. All mine.”
Which is a no-no, if Manwë has anything to say about it. In fact, Manwë will be given the very role that Melkor really wants for himself: King of the Valar and lord of Arda. Manwë then summons spirits—beings lesser than he, some being other Ainur, some not—to help him deal with the Melkor problem. (“The Melkor Problem” could very well be a nickname for the entire First Age of Middle-earth, as we will see.)
Because they’re in the World now, the Valar can take physical shapes. There was no need to before, and sure, they can still go about invisibly, bodiless, whenever they choose. But now they choose Earth-like forms for themselves. Since their love for the Children of Ilúvatar had inspired them to come down in the first place, they select shapes reminiscent of those they’d seen in the vision. Remember, though, that the Children haven’t appeared yet, so for any given Vala it’s still just guesswork as to what Men and Elves will really look like. Certainly the Vala will have humanoid features, and the text does describe some specifics in the next chapter.
Then there is this:
But when they desire to clothe themselves the Valar take upon them forms some as of male and some as of female; for that difference of temper they had even from their beginning, and it is but bodied forth in the choice of each, not made by the choice, even as with us male and female may be shown by the raiment but is not made thereby.
Gender is an artifact of the World, and so the Valar choose to manifest in body according to their core temperament. It’s marvelously philosophical despite being such a short passage, but it’s still open to our interpretation. The Valar do not procreate, are not of the World itself and therefore have no biological connection to nature, yet we will also see some of them—not all—join with one another as spouses…though it’s possible these bonds began much sooner. Still, these things are established later on.
Like gods in pantheistic mythologies, the Valar can choose forms either splendorous or terrible. Even Melkor has a choice, but his temperament and his malice naturally lends itself to a horrific form. And he makes sure to appear in greater majesty than his brethren…
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 heat and pierces with a deadly cold.
Melkor splits from the other Valar and makes war against their labors. He is impotent to create new things but is highly skilled at corrupting what has already been made.
As the Valar form up the lands of Arda, Melkor breaks them down; as they delve, he fills; as they contain, he spills. He is the mightier still, but he is also alone; they are more numerous and they cooperate with one another, working in concert and in harmony as they did in the Music. Slowly, over untold ages that even the Elves cannot account for, Arda comes together and is “made firm” despite Melkor’s sabotage. It’s not fully as the Valar intended, but neither is it a ruin. It is still Arda, but it is also Arda Marred.
A final word about the Valar, which may be said of all the Ainur (and we will meet a bunch more in the Valaquenta, our next installment): as powerful spirits formed from the sheer thoughts of Ilúvatar, they can be thought of as vast as the world, yet as fine-tipped as a needle. There is a particularly twisty but fascinating sentence in the Ainulindalë that describes this, but it amounts to referencing both the enormity of a Vala’s power and the precision and interest with which they approach this world they love. Why would such mighty cosmic beings come down into this tiny little world when the universe itself is so vast? Because even small things are of worth. The Valar had fallen in love with the vision, and wanted to keep and protect it, and make it thrive. One might just as well wonder why a wise old wizard would take an interest in a single hobbit.
It can also be asked why Ilúvatar allows the troublemaker Melkor to enter into the World at all. That’s the universal question, isn’t it? Why would an all-powerful god allow discord to exist in the World and spoil its harmony? In the context of Tolkien’s legendarium, it’s not enough to consider the conditions placed upon the Ainur who volunteered to enter it—forever to remain within it, while it lasted. Because then you could say Melkor’s evil could be contained in this way, but when you see what his long term fate will be, you’re left still wondering. So for now, instead consider what “things more wonderful” will be devised in the wake of his deeds?
Read on; we will see some of them some soon.
In the next installment, we’ll dive into the Valaquenta and Chapter 1, “Of the Beginning of Days,” where a cast of mighty characters work out a means of exterior illumination.
Top image: “Ainulindale VIII” by E. F. Guillén
Jeff LaSala can’t leave Middle-earth well enough alone. His son has a Quenya middle name, for Eru’s sake. He also wrote a Scribe Award–nominated D&D novel and some other sci-fi/RPG books. Oh, and works for Tor Books.