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Ainulindalë – The Music of the Ainur
The "Ainulindalë", although not part of the Silmarillion proper, sets the stage for the story ahead. We are introduced to a creator god, Eru Ilúvatar, and the Ainur, "the offspring of his thought". The creation of the universe is presented as a sort of symphony in three movements. It begins harmonious, but as each theme progresses, a powerful Ainu named Melkor tries to introduce new thoughts into the music, causing discord. Twice, Eru interrupts the discord to impose new themes of his own; when his third theme again has to struggle against the tune introduced by Melkor, Eru stops the music. He then shows the Ainur a vision of their music made real: the world and its history. The Ainur also see things that they did not come up with, most notably the Children of Ilúvatar, i.e. Elves and Mortals. Amazed by the vision and enamoured with the Children, several of the Ainur – including Melkor - wish to go into this world. Eru then makes it real; however, the Ainur who enter it find that none of the history they've seen has actually happened yet. They begin to shape the world, always disturbed by Melkor who wants to shape and rule the world alone.
Interestingly, the earliest in-universe author of the "Ainulindalë" is Rúmil, a Noldorin elf, who cannot have been present for the events he describes. The text is therefore set up to be a third-hand retelling ("yet did Manwë Súlimo, Lord of Elves and Men, whisper them to the fathers of my father in the deeps of time" (The Book of Lost Tales 1) rather than an eyewitness account (as it could have been if Tolkien had given, say, Vairë as the author). This, along with several remarks by Tolkien in "Myths Transformed", suggests that the "Ainulindalë" has never been meant to be a factual account of "Creation". Even within the fantastical context of the Legendarium, "The Music of the Ainur" is supposed to be a myth, which the characters may or may not believe or even know about.
Our Favourite Quotes
"And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang beore him, and he was glad.But for a long while they sang only each alone, or but few together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly. Yet ever as they listened they came to deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony."
"In the midst of this strife, whereat the halls of Ilúvatar shook and a tremor ran out into the silences yet unmoved, Ilúvatar arose a third time, and his face was terrible to behold. Then he raised up both his hands, and in one chord, deeper than the Abyss, higher than the Firmament, piercing as the light of the eye of Ilúvatar, the Music ceased."
"And amid all the splendours of the World, its vast halls and spaces, and its wheeling fires, Ilúvatar chose a place for their [Elves and Men's] habitation in the Deeps of Time and in the midst of the innumerable stars."
Different versions of Tolkien's creation myth can be found in various volumes of the History of Middle-earth series. Following the nomenclature offered by Christopher Tolkien in Morgoth's Ring, these are:
"Ainulindalë A", woven into the framework of Ælfwine's/ Eriol's "fieldwork" on Tol Eressëa, written between 1918 and 1920 and published in HomE 1: The Book of Lost Tales 1.
"Ainulindalë B", written in 1930; this is the "Flat World Version" sent to Katherine Farrer in 1948. It has been published in HoME 5: The Lost Road and Other Writings.
"Ainulindalë C*", based on B but with some drastic changes which we will discuss later. This is the "Round World Version" that Katherine Farrer read in 1948. It has been published in the "Ainulindalë" section of HoME 10: Morgoth's Ring.
"Ainulindalë C", rewritten from C* after its return, probably influenced by Katherine Farrer's commentary. Tolkien kept most of the changes that he had made to B, but returned to a "flat" view of the world. This can likewise be found in Morgoth's Ring.
"Ainulindalë D", finished before 1951, which appears to be Tolkien's final extant revision of the text; also in Morgoth's Ring.
Christopher Tolkien also mentions an additional manuscript from 1946, of which only one single page has survived. (Morgoth's Ring, Part One: Ainulindalë.)
If one disregards changes of wording and of names as well as other small additions and omissions, the ideas presented in the "Ainulindalë" have changed remarkably little throughout the decades. There are only a few truly noteworthy changes:
In its first appearance, the "Ainulindalë" is told to Eriol/ Ælfwine by Rúmil himself. In later versions, Rúmil continues to be named as the author, but the text is no longer presented as a narration framed by the Eriol story, but as a formal chronicle: "This was written by Rúmil of Tûn (The Lost Road and Other Writings)"; "This was written by Rúmil of Túna and was told to Ælfwine in Eressëa (as he records) by Pengoloð the Sage"(Version C) (who however does not speak to Ælfwine in person; rather, Ælfwine had access to and translated his works) (Morgoth's Ring). No in-universe author is given for the version in The Silmarillion.
Before Version C*, Eru immediately after the Third Theme "gives Being" to the music; the Ainur see the World, rather than a vision of it. Accordingly, the Valar do not find the world "unshaped" as they do in C*, C, D and the final version; neither have they seen its history unfold.
As the name "Round World Version" suggests, Version C* paints the image of a world that is round from the beginning, rather than being made so in the Drowning of Númenor. The sun exists right from the start; the moon comes into being when the Valar expel Morgoth's first stronghold into space. It is said to be "clean, yet utterly barren... a mirror to the greater Earth, catching the light of the Sun, when she is invisible". In this version, the Great Lamps never appear. As Tolkien did not further follow the idea, it is impossible to say what he would have done about the Two Trees.
It is notable that the events that, in the published Silmarillion, form Chapter 1 ("Of the Beginning of Days") are part of the "Ainulindalë" in Versions C*, C and D. These versions will therefore be relevant when we discuss Chapter 1, too.
Food for Thought
In 1948, Katherine Farrer, who had a chance to read both the "Flat World Version" and the "Round World Version" long before publication, expressed that she much preferred the "Flat World Version" to the one that better fits our modern understanding of the world. Do you agree?
Tolkien himself noted: "The Elvish myths are 'Flat World'. A pity really but it is too integral to change it." Why do you think Tolkien would have preferred to give the Elves a 'round' world view, if it had not been too complicated to implement the change? What changes would have to be made to the Legendarium to make a 'Round World' myth work?
How effective do you find the "Ainulindalë" as a creation story? Imagine that you are a young Elf (or Man) of the First, Second or Third Age who, when asking how the World came into being, is presented with the "Ainulindalë" story. Do you think you'd consider your question answered in a satisfying manner?
In- universe, Eru asserts that no part of the music could be played without his consent, and that every theme, even Melkor's, ultimately originates from him. Nonetheless, he appears upset about the discord caused by Melkor. Why do you think that is?
In a similar vein, we are told that the Ainur see the world "unfold its history", including the coming of the Children of Ilúvatar. However, there is no mention of the Dwarves, even though they should surely appear in a vision of the world's history. Likewise, the Valar's continual struggle against Melkor should have been visible - as a warning, so to say. Nonetheless, it all seems to come as a surprise to the Valar. What do you make of that?
Do you think the characters of the Silmarillion are aware of the mythical nature of the "Ainulindalë", or do you think they accept it as true history? In what way would it be significant how they view the traditional text?
Did you know that the "Ainulindalë" was supposed to be purely myth or did you treat it as factual history? Knowing the former, will your treatment of it change?
Can you see any parallels to real-world mythologies or legends that may have influenced Tolkien?
The Silmarillion. "Ainulindalë".
The History of Middle-earth: The Book of Lost Tales 1. "II: The Music of the Ainur".
The History of Middle-earth: The Lost Road and Other Writings. "IV: Ainulindalë".
The History of Middle-earth: Morgoth's Ring. "Part One: Ainulindalë" and "Part Five: Myths Transformed".
Please note: We don't know everything and it's perfectly possible that we missed something. These summaries and questions are by no means supposed to be complete and exhaustive. If you have looked further into this particular topic or would like to discuss something that we've overlooked, please share it!