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song of creationIf we reconstruct J.R.R. Tolkien’s reading of Genesis from the opening pages of The Silmarillion, then, on Tolkien’s interpretation, only days four through six involve the actualization of material existence, whereas the first three days concern creation in an immaterial realm.

Stratford Caldecott notes three correspondences between Genesis and Tolkien’s myth: between heaven and the Ainur; between earth as a formless void and the formless void that surrounds the Ainur; and between the waters (over which the Spirit of God is moving) and the song.[1]

“Of these,” writes Caldecott, “the song is perhaps the most intriguing. If the deep mentioned in Genesis is the primordial substance of creation, the sea of potentiality, then the music of the Ainur could be said to be the pattern of vibration created on the surface of the deep by the ‘spirit’ of God.”[2]

Of water in the material creation, Tolkien writes “that in water there lives yet the echo of the Music of the Ainur more than in any substance else that is in this Earth; and many of the Children of Iluvatar hearken still unsated to the voices of the Sea, and yet know not for what they listen.”[3]

But the precedent for this material water lies in God’s immaterial creation. On day one, the Creator, who is pure Act, distinguishes himself from creation, by creating prime matter—pure potency—according to the divine Idea whereby creation is achieved through the distinction of potency and act. In the language of Genesis, darkness is distinguished from light.

Ainulindale_by_Alassea_EarelloHowever, this is not yet the material creation: it is an immaterial action achieved through God’s divine Idea of the angels, who, as creatures distinguished from the Creator, are composites of potency and act. (Think of it as an immaterial creation that may perhaps be best symbolized by the “air” of the four traditional primary elements, since angels are immaterial; e.g., we speak of them flying about invisibly “in the air”.)

On day two, heaven and earth are distinguished within the angelic (“water”) Music, as the angels try to grasp in song the creation that is to come, for God sings to them of the coming distinction between heaven and earth: in the language of Genesis, this corresponds to the separation of the waters.

On day three, the earth and seas are distinguished within dynamic Images, as God makes the song visible in a luminous vision of the terrestrial creation. The angelic response to this display of “earth” as light within the void is their song of the vegetative: plants are their angelic, musical development of the suggestive seeds (rationes seminales) sung by God and displayed in the vision of light proper to the third day.

Only on the fourth day, with “fire,” is material being actualized in material creation, as opposed to the three immaterial days of word, music, and light (i.e., the immaterial counterparts to air, water, and earth). On days four through six, the secret fire breathes life into the living Drama, thereby distinguishing icons of Ideas, Music, and Image on each of the days.

power of the ringThe heavenly bodies (sun, moon, and stars) of the fourth day are the icons of the divine, immaterial (“airy”) Ideas that are being made material.

The sea and sky animals of the fifth day are icons of the “wet” angelic Music that orders the material hierarchy after the pattern of the immaterial hierarchy. They correspond with the primordial division between heaven and earth on the second day.

On the sixth day, man is icon of the divine Image. The land animals on earth are nearest to him in imaging in matter, in material creation, the seed that grows into creation’s summit.

Clearly, the action of fire is crucial in the latter three-day sequence, but it is also involved in the first creation sequence. For this reason, Caldecott titled his book on Tolkien, Secret Fire, thereby making an allusion to a vision-speech from St. Hildegard of Bingen. Note that the American publisher (against Caldecott’s wishes) changed the title to The Power of the Ring. But tellingly, in that book, Caldecott quotes St. Hildegard.[4]

I will use below my own translation of parts of St. Hildegard’s Latin transcription of the vision’s speech. I do so in order to relate the vision-speech to the first four days of creation as Tolkien conceived of them, following Caldecott’s suggestive interpretation.

Ego summa et ignea vis,
quae omnes viventes scintillas accendi,
et nulla mortalia efflavi,
sed illa diiudico ut sunt,

circu[m]euntem circulum

cum superioribus pennis meis,

idem [id est] cum sapientia circumvolans,

recte ipsum ordinavi.

Sed et ego ignea vita substantiae divinitatis

super pulchritudinem agrorum flammo,
et in aquis luceo,
atque in sole, luna et stellis ardeo,

et cum aereo vento quadam invisibili vita,

quae cuncta sustinet, vitaliter omnia suscito.

Integra namque vita sum,
quae de lapidibus abscissa non est,
et de ramis non fronduit,
et de virili vi non radicavit,
sed omne vitale de me radicatum est.
Rationalitas enim radix est, sonans vero verbum in ipsa floret.

Unde cum Deus rationalis sit …

[Liber Divinorum Operum (The Book of Divine Works), I.I.2]

“I am the Force, fiery and first.

Every spark that lives, I have set ablaze:
nothing mortal have I exhaled;
but, as they are, so have I limited their essence.

The circumference of the cosmos—
circumscribed by the wings of my angels,
circuited thus in accordance with wisdom—
rightly have I ordered the same.

But I, the divine essence’s fiery life, also
flame forth in the beauty of the fields;

in the waters, too, I do shine;

and I burn within sun, moon, and stars.”

The creation on the first day that Tolkien distinguished is named when the vision says:

“I am the Force, fiery and first.

Every spark that lives, I have set ablaze:
nothing mortal have I exhaled;
but, as they are, so have I limited their essence.”

The creation on the second day that Tolkien distinguished is named when the vision says:

“The circumference of the cosmos—
circumscribed by the wings of my angels,
circuited thus in accordance with wisdom—
rightly have I ordered the same.”

The creation on the third day that Tolkien distinguished is named when the vision says:

“But I, the divine essence’s fiery life, also
flame forth in the beauty of the fields;
in the waters, too, I do shine.”

The creation on the fourth day that Tolkien distinguished is named when the vision says:

“And I burn within sun, moon, and stars.”

For the fifth and sixth days, I return to the Nasr translation that Caldecott employed:

“In the breeze I have secret life
Animating all things and lending them cohesion.

I am life in all its abundance,
For I was not released from the rock of ages
Nor did I bud from a branch
Nor did I spring from a man’s begetting:
In me is the root of life.
Spirit is the root which buds in the word
And God is the intelligible spirit.” (Nasr 1996)

For Tolkien, the “secret fire” of creation was expressed with his Ainulindale song about the elements of creation that bridge the material realm and the immaterial realm. With their common imagery, both Tolkien and St. Hildegard seem to offer poetic insights into the divine song of creation and its elemental transcendence of the material.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

Notes:

[1] Stratford Caldecott, The Power of the Ring (Crossroad, 2012): 100–101. In Hesiod, the triad of music, light, and fire corresponds to the triad of Chaos (or the Void), Gaia, and Eros. The Muses precede Zeus’ living drama.

[2] Caldecott 2012: 101.

[3] Quoted at Caldecott 2012: 99–100; cf. passage and illustration at Tolkien 2004: 6–8.

[4] He uses the translation found in Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Religion and the Order of Nature (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1996).

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Published: Dec 8, 2015
Author
Christopher Morrissey
Christopher S. Morrissey teaches Greek and Latin on the Faculty of Philosophy at the Seminary of Christ the King located at the Benedictine monastery of Westminster Abbey in Mission, British Columbia. He also lectures in logic and philosophy at Trinity Western University. He is a Fellow of the Adler-Aquinas Institute and a Member of the Inklings Institute of Canada. He studied Ancient Greek and Latin at the University of British Columbia and has taught classical mythology, history, and ancient languages at Simon Fraser University, where he wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on René Girard. His book of Hesiod’s poetry, Hesiod: Theogony / Works and Days, is published by Talonbooks.
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