Whether it’s a bold, new take on abstract art, a crisp, professional website, a fanciful book cover, a colorful featured image for a blog post, a YouTube thumbnail, or the contents of a novel, you want your work to be eye-catching. It’s cliché to say “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” and it’s also cliché to point out that cliché and instead say “Everyone judges a book by its cover.” Some books with elaborate covers are best left on the library shelf while others with more simple covers hold within them a portal to another world.
The Silmarillion is one of those unassuming books. The version that I have is this one. (Please ignore all the sticky notes between the pages.) Its cover is an emblem designed by J.R.R. Tolkien for Lúthien Tinúviel, a character we will meet around Chapter 19 of the book. This book cover, with its simple, beautiful emblem, contains a world so well-developed and vibrant that it seems real.
A few weeks ago, I undertook a project to analyze this book and unpack the complicated stories told within. The first of them is called The Ainulindalë, which is translated, “The Music of the Ainur.” What are the Ainur, you ask? Good question! You will need to know these four main terms before you proceed in The Silmarillion:
1. The Ainur
Ainur means “holy ones,” and though there is much speculation about what they represent, I will go with my preference: angels. There are two divisions of Ainur, but that will be explored in The Valaquenta, which is the next section. The Ainur’s music is what forms the world according to Ilúvatar’s design.
Ilúvatar means “all-father,” and he is also called Eru. He is the architect of the world and is representative of God in the allegory that Tolkien puts forth in this book. He is the one who taught his servants the theme which they sang. In an interesting twist on the creation story, Ilúvatar uses the Ainur as “instruments” to create the world he has designed, and he sends them to prepare it for its later inhabitants, the Children of Ilúvatar (Elves and Men).
Arda is the land that was made through the labor of the Ainur when Ilúvatar sent them into Eä (“the World that Is”). Before Ilúvatar made it spherical, Arda was originally round and flat, encircled by a sea which was surrounded by the Walls of Night. The two main land masses of Arda that you will need to know are Aman (the western continent) and Middle-earth (the eastern continent).
The name Melkor, which means “he who arises in might,” will come up a lot because this fellow is rather important. Just like the Biblical account, this creation story includes the presence of a discordant being who basically ruins everything. He initially sought the ability to kindle life of his own with “the Imperishable Flame” that only Ilúvatar possessed. In the Music of the Ainur, he wanted to “increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.” Through what I refer to as Melkor’s discord, extreme temperatures came into existence. Melkor often uses fire for his evil works, and his main motivation is “to be a master over other wills.” He is more commonly known as Morgoth (“The Black Foe of the World”), so you may want to keep that in mind as you read this book.
Here is the illustration I made for this section!
The Ainulindalë tells of when Eru, or Ilúvatar, created the world of Eä. He showed his servants, the Ainur, the theme that he had made for the creation of Arda, a beautiful land, and the Ainur sang together in harmony to bring forth a Vision of that world. One Ainu called Melkor, however, sought to “increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself” (16), and created discord in Ilúvatar’s song. Ultimately, though, Ilúvatar prevailed over him, saying, “‘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’” (17). Though this world was not yet spoken into existence, the Ainur saw its beauty and loved the beings who would dwell therein—Elves and Men. Melkor, along with the other Ainur, sought to enter that world. Melkor pretended that he “desired to go thither and order all things for the good of the Children of Ilúvatar [Elves and Men], controlling the turmoils of the heat and the cold that had come to pass through him. But he desired rather to subdue to his will both Elves and Men, envying the gifts with which Ilúvatar promised to endow them; and he wished himself to have subjects and servants, and to be called Lord, and to be a master over other wills” (18). This dark desire of Melkor’s was the foundation for much strife between the other Ainur and himself once the world was spoken into existence and Ilúvatar allowed his servants to enter it. Some good was brought out of Melkor’s discord, however, as Ilúvatar decreed, “‘[Melkor] hath bethought himself of bitter cold immoderate…Behold the snow, and the cunning work of frost! Melkor hath devised heats and fire without restraint…Behold…the height and glory of the clouds, and the everchanging mists; and listen to the fall of rain upon the Earth!” (19). Instead of destroying the work of the Ainur, Melkor’s discord made it more beautiful, according to Ilúvatar’s design. The Ainur took the newborn world of Ilúvatar’s word and prepared it for the coming of Elves and Men. Melkor, always seeking to corrupt the good work, fought great battles against them. These conflicts served to change the “hue and shape” (22) of the world to what the Valar had not intended, but also made it firm and established it “at last in the Deeps of Time and amidst the innumerable stars” (22).A Reader’s Guide to The Ainulindalë
There is a little more to the story of the Ainulindalë, but there you have the gist of it. Here is my interpretation of what the Music of the Ainur might have looked like:
I see many allegorical parallels between the Ainulindalë and the creation story in the Bible, but I also see many discrepancies, such as the portrayal of the Ainur almost as lesser deities. While this can certainly be attributed to artistic license, some commentators have gone so far as to suggest that Tolkien meant for the Ainur to represent the pagan gods of our world, just a little more noble and benevolent. It all depends on one’s perspective and interpretation of the work. Either way, it’s undeniable that The Silmarillion presents a vibrant world with a lot of intriguing symbolism.
As I read the Ainulindalë, I was reminded of a lovely Bible verse, which says that at the Creation, “the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:7, NKJV). My perspective throughout the rest of the blog series will be that the Ainur represent angels who are subservient to Ilúvatar. 🙂
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Thanks for reading! Until next time, Lightbringers.