Let’s Begin at the Beginning (Silmarillion Slow Cooker p15)

Welcome to the first post of the Silmarillion Slow Cooker – a series where I take a look at the Silmarillion one page at a time. Today, we’re beginning at the beginning – the first page of the Ainulindalë! Let’s go!

Tolkien jumps right into things, doesn’t he? Right out of the gate, we learn of Eru and the Ainur, his first creations. We are also given the term “Arda,” a place (the world, as it turns out) where they call Eru by the name of “Ilúvatar.” The “they” in this case are the Elves and Men, and Ilúvatar is the father of all. The Ainur, the “Holy Ones,” are separate from both Ilúvatar and the audience for whom the Ainulindalë was written – the Elves. They were the “offspring of his thought” and, as we’ll find out, were formless, as was Ilúvatar.

This covers just the first sentence. It really is a lot to take in. Ilúvatar offered to them themes, described as music, which they then sang to him. Being subtitled “The Music of the Ainur,” there’s quite a bit of musical references throughout.

But the music wasn’t actually music as we know it, rather something unknowable and only slightly comparable to actual music. Whichever and whatever they were doing, it made Ilúvatar “glad” to hear the themes.

The Ainur were powerful, but limited. Each came from specific parts of Ilúvatar’s mind and could only comprehend their own place within that reference. Because of this, mostly they sang alone or in small groups. But as things progressed, and they heard the other parts, they began to understand harmony.

There’s no mention of time here. Time did not exist yet. We (and the Elves) are pretty well unable to wrap our heads around such an idea, so it’s nearly impossible to not refer to these things in a linear fashion. But still, it’s pretty important to remember that everything happening in the first part of the Ainulindalë is happening outside of time – a concept so impossible to explain that I can’t even attempt to explain it without referring to the thing that it is not (time). Even Tolkien began the second paragraph with “And it came to pass….”

The story goes on, telling us of the first theme. Prior (or whatever) to this, they understood only their own themes, but now Ilúvatar showed them “greater and more wonderful” things than they had known before. He showed a theme outside of their own, which momentarily stopped them from singing. Ilúvatar wanted them to take what they had learned about unison and harmony and apply it to this new theme to make a “Great Music.”

It’s here where we learn something about “the Flame Imperishable,” with which Ilúvatar inspired the Ainur. Because of this flame, they would adorn the Great Music with their powers and their own thoughts. Ilúvatar added “if he will” to the mix, making it all a request as opposed to an order or destiny. There’s so much talk in Tolkien studies about freewill and predestination, and the Ainulindalë is a great example of both happening simultaneously. I have no desire at all to go on and on and on about how both may be able to or may not be able to co-exist, but in this creation story, they’re both there.

The “if he will” line at the end had not been there in the original “Music of the Ainur” from the Book of Lost Tales, and wasn’t in the 1930s’ Ainulindalë. It was added in 1948’s version, and with those three words, the question of freewill was put on the table.1

The last paragraph we’ll take a look at talks about the voices of the Ainur, which are compared to “harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs.” This is a very clear indicator that the Silmarillion was written down in the Medieval era. This goes back to the framing which Christopher Tolkien nixed from the published version. The author, Ælfwine, to whom the Ainulindalë was spoken by Pengoloð, was to have been from 11th Century England. At that time, all of those instruments existed, and Pengoloð was trying to figure out a way to explain the voices of the Ainur to a Man.2 This is really no different than when Tolkien said that the “dragon passed like an express train” in the Hobbit. See how lost we can be without proper framing?

So anyway, the voices made the theme into a great music, and the sound produced was beyond simply hearing. It filled Ilúvatar’s realm and spilled into the Void making it no longer the void. When the music entered it, the void became part of creation. As we’ll see, there’s still much more Void out there.

It’s also important to remember that the Ainur were not creating, they were designing. Ilúvatar created, and seemed to be doing so while they were singing. Like I said, this isn’t linear.

Camera: Kodak Cresta 3 Film: FujiChrome Provia 400D (RHP) expired 08/1994

Camera: Kodak Cresta 3
Film: FujiChrome Provia 400D (RHP) expired 08/1994

We’re told that though this music was great, it’s not as great as the music that will come at the end of time, when the Children of Ilúvatar join the Ainur in chorus and concert. Whether this reference to the Children of Ilúvatar included both Elves and Men is something I’m just not sure about. If it included Men, then the line in Chapter 1, “Of the Beginning of Days” doesn’t make much sense. It states that Men were “beyond the Music of the Ainur”. We also learn that Men leave the world after dying. Unless they come back to sing at the end (which is a possibility), Men seem to not be included in this final great music.

Further evidence that (most) Men would not be involved comes from the conclusion of the 1937 Quenta Silmarillion. There, Tolkien wrote about the Second Prophecy of Mandos, when, at the end of days, Melkor breaks out of the Void. To finally defeat him, Túrin Turambar was to back and finally gets the job done – it’s all pretty fun and crazy, but was ultimately dropped by Christopher Tolkien for a multitude of reasons. Anyway, in that it’s stated: “But of Men in that day the prophecy of Mandos doth not speak, and no Man it names, save Túrin only, and to him a place is given among the sons of the Valar.” 3

But going back to the published Silmarillion‘s page at hand, in the final days, “the themes of Ilúvatar shall be played aright.” It’s only then that all of the Ainur will fully understand each other as well as what Ilúvatar originally intended for them. We’re also told that the “secret fire” will be given to their thoughts.

The Flame Imperishable and secret fire are the same thing. At the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, Gandalf tells the Balrog, “I am a servant of the Secret Fire.” In the Ainulindalë, the Ainur did not possess the secret fire, but at the end of days, Tolkien seems to indicate that they would. This is also pretty strange, since that would give them the full power of creating sentient and independent beings.

But also, “secret fire” isn’t capitalized – something I usually don’t pay too much attention to. But in the previous 1937 draft, it’s “secret Fire”. Tolkien seemed to have purposely made both words lower case in the 1948 version, which was used by Christopher Tolkien to create the published Silmarillion‘s Ainulindalë. So then, maybe there’s some sort of difference in the potency of Secret Fire (later referenced in the Valaquenta) vs. secret fire (as used here).

That’s all I’ve got for you today. Hope you enjoyed the very first page of the Ainulindalë!

    A Few Notes

  • Tolkien, thus far anyway, did not use the words “creation” or “create” in any of this. “Made” was used, as was “offspring” and “came,” but not created, etc.
  • Soo…. first post, huh? Thoughts on how to make it better? Footnotes, by the way! Footnotes!



1. The Ainulindalë appearing in the published Silmarillion was based upon the 1951 version, the first half of which is almost identical to the 1948 version. The pertinent parts of this appear in Morgoth’s Ring, p8-9.

2. The viol is generally known as a violin type of stringed instrument, which wasn’t invented until the 15th century. However, there was also a Hebrew viol that was basically a harp. No idea if Tolkien meant this, but it’s possible for viols to have existed in the 11th century, just not the fiddlin’ kind. Also, in the Book of Lost Tales version, some Ainur actually played harps, flutes, lutes, pipes and organs while other Ainur sang. Though, this could all have been allegorical as well.

3. The Lost Road, p333.

Pages & Text

  • Page 15 (and a bit of 16)
  • Chapter: Ainulindalë
  • Starting with:
    “There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar”
  • Ending with:
    “…give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased.”

33 thoughts on “Let’s Begin at the Beginning (Silmarillion Slow Cooker p15)

  1. Interestingly, and I don’t know any way Tolkien could have known this, but secret fire is a common Sufi expression for hidden knowledge of God, and the ability to see past illusion to Him.

    It’s nigh impossible to avoid thinking of religious history when reading the first part of the Ainulindale. I think of the music of the spheres, which Tolkien was undoubtedly familiar with, which also was said to be unlike music yet familiar. Like a vibration or resonance.

    Great beginning I’m so happy you’re doing this!

    • I’ve always dug that definition of secret fire. It’s obviously not where Tolkien was taking it, but still really fun.

      It really amazes me how many creation myths and stories begin with sound.

      I’m happy too! Yay happy!

  2. Rumi’s Masnavi even has a line translated as “I am the servant of the secret fire.” I suppose Tollers could have read it? It’s not the most uncommon of texts. If not, though, super cool. If so… well, still cool he used it.

    • Rumi would definitely have been available, but who knows, really. It’s an odd line in LotR, but within the context of the Ainulindale, it makes perfect sense.

  3. Men _will_ participate in the second “music” of creation, this was clear to me from reading HoME. Unlike Elves, which are bound to the world and will end with with, men are not bound to the world. This suggests that they will eventually become angel-like and, as I have said, sing together with the Ainur in the second song.

    • Nice! Thank you! Do you have a reference? Or something close, even? I can do the legwork. At least which volume. I only briefly looked at the Second Prophecy of Mandos bits, and I’m sure I missed a bunch.

      • Book of Lost Tales – The Music of the Ainur:
        “Yet while the Sons of Men will after the passing of
        things of a certainty join in the Second Music of the Ainur,
        what Iluvatar has devised for the Eldar beyond the world’s
        end he has not revealed even to the Valar, and Melko has not
        discovered it.”

        Lost Road and Other Writings – Ainulindalë

        “Yet the Valar say that Men shall join in the Second Music of
        the Ainur, but Manwë alone knoweth what Ilúvatar hath purposed for
        the Elves after the World’s end: the Elves know not, and Melkor hath
        not discovered it.”

        • Thank you! This, I assume, is in the last few paragraphs of Ainulindale D? I’m at work right now and can’t check this. The past bits were nixed by Christopher Tolkien. Most were added to others bits of the published Silmarillion, some were not.

          I was looking for it in the Second Prophecy parts. Thanks so much for clarifying it. When I get to this part of the Ainulindale, I’ll touch upon this. Thanks so much!

          • Again, thank you for this. I’ve been looking into this, and it seems that it comes form §40 of Ainulindalë D from 1951ish. These are the dozenish paragraphs that were cut by Christopher Tolkien from the published version. Most were pasted into “Of the Beginning of Days,” but §40, the paragraph you quoted, was never included anywhere. I find that incredibly amazing. He gives no reason for dropping it, as far as I can see.

            When Tolkien first wrote this in Ainulindalë C* (the round world version from 1948), he struck out this paragraph and the two preceding it, jotting a question in the margin about whether to include it in the Silmarillion proper or earlier in the Ainulindalë.

            But since he wrote two versions after this, both of which included these paragraphs at the end, it seems to me that he had made up his mind.

            • As I have quoted, it exists in several versions of the “Ainulindale”, starting from the Book of Lost Tales through to the versions in Morgoth’s Ring. There may be more rephrased references to this, as I only searched for the words “second music” in my PDF version of HoME. I’ll try to search for this reference some more, in case it appears in Tolkien’s last writings.

            • I did some poking around with the HoME index, and couldn’t come up with much. The index is pretty useless sometimes. There almost has to be a reference to in the Athrabeth, but I’m not seeing it.

            • One of the references I mentioned (from Lost Road and Other Writings) was in existence by the end of 1937, when Tolkien laid the matter of the Elder Days aside to begin writing Lord of the Rings.

  4. Nice job Eric, I’m glad you’ve decided to go slow. It makes me glad to know you’ve decided to take the Sil on. The Beginning bits are interesting in themselves combining Tolkien’s Christianity beliefs and other World traditions. Ryan and Maksim thanks for adding to the conversation. 🙂

    • Thank you! I love the Ainulindalë – it’s such a nutty creation story. I’m really glad I’m doing this. Even with this one post, I’m learning so much more than I thought I would.

    • If I could figure out a way to give my footnotes footnotes, I totally would. I love books from the 1800s with pages that are 10% primary text and 90% footnotes – it can go on for pages. It was a weird way of doing things, but so enjoyable !

    • Thanks so much! I guess the footnotes have to stay now, no matter how much of a pain they are. And in truth, I’m pretty used to them now and they’re not so bad. I think I’ll keep them around. I was worried they would take away from my oh-so witty “Few Notes” at the end of the post. But no! Those remain as well!

  5. The slow-cook knob turns up a notch with the Flame Imperishable 😀

    Interesting take that Eru inspired the Ainur’s musical compositions with the fire. Me, I took the “… I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable… ” line literally to mean Eru brought the Ainur into being with it, that secret fire of his. (is it just me or does that sound wrong)

    I’m a damned heathen according to definitions popular in some quarters, but I was rather confident that I got the gist, from what I’ve read of creation myths of the western world, plus the different versions of it I grew up knowing. Until the Ainulindale – it feels so meta sometimes I wonder if I even got the gist. Glad for the slow-cook, and the perspectives the discussions bring.

    • Here we go! I took the kindled thing to mean the same. I really thought that I mentioned that, but as it turns out, I really didn’t. Weird.

      Ilúvatar brought the Ainur (and everything) into being with the Flame Imperishable. But it was because of that flame (that existence) that they were inspired to create their own themes – the blueprints of creation. I think we’re saying the same thing.

      Sorry about that! I might be trying to hard *not* to give summaries since there are some excellent ones out there (yours very much among them).

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