So far in the Silmarillion‘s Ainulindalë, we’ve been introduced to only one character: Ilúvatar. And today, on the second page, we meet Melkor. But the way in which he’s brought up seems almost like we should have known of this guy before.
“…it came into the heart of Melkor…”
Excuse me, who?
Just prior to this, Ilúvatar had declared themes to the individual Ainur1 based upon the part of his mind from which they came. They took these themes, sang them, and through the chorus, grew to better understand the themes of the other Ainur.
But the Ainur also had wills of their own, and they added their own thoughts to the themes. This became the Great Music, during which all of the Ainur harmonized their themes. This was, we’re told, “flawless.” That is, until Melkor “sought there in to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.”
At first, it’s easy to interpret this as Melkor just looking for power and glory for himself. But that’s not what’s said. He wanted power and glory for the theme assigned to him by Ilúvatar. It’s a subtle difference, but one that shouldn’t be ignored.
Ilúvatar had given Melkor more gifts than anyone. Not only did he have the most power and knowledge, but also a bit of all the other gifts given to the other Ainur. His theme, then, wouldn’t just be the most powerful, but could potentially be able to harmonize with any or all of the others.
But that’s not what happened. That’s not the path Melkor chose. He didn’t simply want his theme to be the most powerful, and he certainly didn’t have a desire for the present harmony. Instead, he added “matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar.”
Melkor was improvising, but then, so were all the others. All of the Ainur added themselves to the theme. But Melkor’s additions, his improvisations, were out of tune with the rest of them. He was creating discord, but again, not (on the surface) for his own power and glory.
We’re told that Melkor had a desire to create, and would venture alone into the Void seeking the Imperishable Flame, and lamenting that there was all this wide open space that Ilúvatar seemed to be ignoring. It was in this solitude that Melkor began to second guess Ilúvatar.
Melkor was obviously knowledgeable enough to understand that he and the rest of the Ainur were created by the Flame. But I have to wonder just why he thought that Flame was in the Void. We’re told that the Flame was with Ilúvatar, but Melkor wasn’t searching for Ilúvatar. Instead, he was basically walking around a blank canvas imagining all the stuff he’d do if he could create.2
Time is something that really can’t be questioned in the Ainulindalë. It doesn’t seem to be linear, though that’s necessarily how it has to be explained. We have to assume that Melkor went there prior to the Great Music. But since there’s not technically a “prior”, maybe he went during. Or even after. Or even some other designation that we can’t comprehend.
However it happened, as soon as Melkor injected his own imagination into the Music, “discord arose about him.” At first, it only effected those near him, disturbing their own themes. But soon enough, some changed their themes to harmonize with Melkor’s. This eventually wrecked everything, laying waste to the melodies, which were replaced by “a sea of turbulent sound.” The whole thing is described as a “raging storm” at sea.
But then Ilúvatar stepped in, “and the Ainur perceived that he smiled….” He lifted his left hand and introduced a whole new theme with new power and beauty.3 It’s really the smile that gets me. Clearly Ilúvatar was stepping in to deal with Melkor, but what about that smile? Why did he smile? How? Was it a knowing smile? A cocky smile? A shit-eating grin?
In the Book of Lost Tales version from 1917, we’re told “then did he smile sadly.”4 In the mid1930s version, Tolkien wrote that “Ilúvatar was grieved, but he smiled…”5 Both prior versions indicate sadness, and though that emotion was dropped by the 1948 version, it’s probably safe to think that it was still at least mixed with some sort of sadness or frustration.
Ilúvatar’s new theme was countered by Melkor, the violent sound of which dismayed many of the Ainur and caused them to stop singing. This gave Melkor “the mastery.” But Ilúvatar wasn’t finished. Also, he wasn’t smiling, but was perceived by the Ainur as ‘stern’. He lifted up his right hand and a third theme grew. 6
It’s difficult to see how Ilúvatar’s theme wasn’t influenced by Melkor’s discord. Though it was “deep and wide and beautiful,” it was also “slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow”. But that was where its beauty came from – sorrow. Without Melkor’s discordant influence, neither the sorrow nor the beauty would have been there.
Without Melkor there would be no sorrow, but that sorrow was Ilúvatar’s, not Melkor’s. The beauty that came from Ilúvatar’s sorrow was also Ilúvatar’s. It was in reaction to Melkor, but Melkor could not claim the sorrow or the beauty as his own. Once more, he could not create even this.
But at that point, he wasn’t really paying much attention to subtlety. Instead, he was focused upon his own theme, which was joined by a chorus of other Ainur. They had achieved unity, but little harmony. Tolkien described it as “a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes.”
The harshest of Melkor’s notes were violently struck to drown out Ilúvatar’s theme. But Ilúvatar was able to take that violence and weave it into his theme’s “solemn pattern.” Melkor’s theme was also described as being repetitious. Each time that it was most successful in its goal, Ilúvatar used that note in his own theme – over and over and over. Melkor didn’t seem to notice that each time he thought he was getting the best of Ilúvatar, it was actually the other way around.
Ilúvatar clearly had the upper hand, though we’re not really told whether or not Melkor knew it. Perhaps to drive the point home, Ilúvatar raised both of his hands and with an all-encompassing chord stopped the Music.
If Melkor hadn’t caught on yet, Ilúvatar seemed about to make sure that he finally grasped the concept.
- Look! More footnotes! I’m really coming up in the world. Seriously though, they’re not so bad. I be they’ll stick around.
- I’m trying to keep the posts as short as possible (hoping for under 1,200 words), but daaaaamn that’s not easy. I’m so gabby!
- The more I read of the 1917 Lost Tales version, the more I enjoy it more than the later versions. That doesn’t happen often.
1. It’s interesting to note that thus far there’s no distinction at all between the Valar and the Maiar – everyone except Ilúvatar is an Ainu. ↩
2. In the Lost Tales version, we’re told a bit more about the origin of Melkor’s thoughts: “… those thoughts of his came from the outer blackness whither Ilúvatar had not yet turned the light of his face; and because his secret thoughts had no kinship with the beauty of Ilúvatar’s design its harmonies were broken and destroyed.” ↩
3. I’m not sure if this matters, but in the mid-1930s version, Tolkien wrote that Melkor “sat on the left hand of Ilúvatar.” This was dropped in a subsequent draft and didn’t appear in the Book of Lost Tales version before it. ↩
4. Book of Lost Tales, Vol 1, p53.↩
5. The Lost Road, p157.↩
6. In the Lost Tales version, (BoLT I, p54) it’s said that “Ilúvatar raised his right hand, and he no longer smiled but wept….” I know that it changes quite a bit, but I wish he would have retained that in later drafts.↩
Pages & Text
- Page 16 (and a bit of 17)
- Chapter: Ainulindalë
- Starting with:
“But now Ilúvatar sat and hearkened…”
- Ending with:
“…piercing as the light of the eye of Ilúvatar, the Music ceased.”