The Silmarillion
Quenta Silmarillion
Of the Rings of Power
and the Third Age

The Ainulindalë[1] (Quenya, "Music of the Ainur") is the first part of the fantasy work The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien. In Tolkien's legendarium, the Ainur are Eä's divine beings. In Heaven, before Time, they compose a Great Music. This Music is revealed to be the template, or blueprint, commensurable with the entire history of Middle-earth (beginning to end). The Music of the Ainur is later made manifest by a single-word command of Ilúvatar's.



Note on Comparisons

A critical part of Tolkien's Middle-earth legendarium, Ainulindalë plays the role of Middle-earth's cosmogony, or creation myth. Its characters and their actions are exclusively divine (the story takes place for the most part in an abstract "heaven", before Time), and it deals entirely with the nature of the beginning of the World. This internal story of Middle-earth's origins also speaks to the questions of 'Fate' and the Natural Order in the non-mythical Middle-earth of later characters like Frodo Baggins.

As a creation myth formulated in a Western mind, it is possible to compare Ainulindalë to other cosmogonies - especially those of Indo-European origin. Tolkien himself admitted to being heavily affected by Norse/Germanic, Finnish, Greek and Roman myths. Despite similarities, most Tolkien 'authorities' are wary of drawing analogies between his fictional works and the historical narratives they so strongly resemble.[2][3]

Note on Complexities

As a whole, The Silmarillion has received mixed reviews from literary critics and fans alike[4][5][6][7] neither of which groups were expecting the rarefied form of English used, the "removed" voice of the narrator, or the absence of what are called "intermediaries" (a literary technique designed to bring the reader into the story: familiar characters that a reader can personally relate to, or find otherwise 'normal'). Tom Shippey, in The Road to Middle-earth noted that The Silmarillion "could only be hard to read." His point makes good sense when the work is understood as the body of 'myths' and 'legends' for Middle-earth - narratives that are by their very nature difficult to personally relate to or imagine oneself a part of, yet that resonate on a very basic level, and that provide the characters of Middle-earth's later history (e.g., The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings) with a deep cultural/religious background, a genealogy of purpose, and a set of moral justifications/examples for their motives and wills.

Much of the Silmarillion was written in a sort of "biblical verse" narrative style and, as a result, reads like the Judeo-Christian Bible. For this reason it can be somewhat difficult for modern readers to digest, although this narrative style of writing was clearly Tolkien's intent, probably to give the story a legitimate Old World[clarification needed] ambiance but more likely as an expression of his Catholic faith.[8][1]

As the very first part of the Tolkien cycle, Ainulindalë is in some ways the toughest story of all for contemporary readers. Difficult as it can be, most, if not all, of the themes and story lines revealed in the later, better known histories find first expression in Ainulindalë. As a result, this article seeks to represent its plots and themes in unusual detail.

Main Synopsis

The Ainur and the Matter of their Music (paragraphs 1-4)

The opening paragraphs of Ainulindalë tell of the time before Time. First to be named is Ilúvatar (God) (‘Father of All’ , also called ‘Eru – “the One, He that is Alone”’ or the compound Eru Ilúvatar). Ilúvatar, as his names imply, exists before and independently of all else. He can take a particular concept, thesis or theme, and ‘give a secret fire to it’, will it into being, so it exists as a distinct object or entity. Such existence itself is a representation and concretization of divine conceptualizations: there is first the idea, then the concrete, or ‘objective’, manifestation commensurate with that idea. The ‘Ainur’ (meaning ‘Holy Ones’, singular ‘Ainu’) are the first such concepts-embodied or themes-realized; they are the children ‘of Ilúvatar’s thought.’ Upon their creation, when nothing else existed, Ilúvatar taught the Ainur the art of ‘Music’, which becomes their life and work. So the Void (as Tolkien refers to the universe outside Arda) becomes filled with the making of Music.

With each Ainu comprehending at first only those secondary ideas and themes most closely related to that primary idea-theme-thought of Ilúvatar’s which pre-figured itself, these creative musical elaborations only gradually, through exposure to each other, become collaborative. The compositions revolve around themes given to each Ainu by Ilúvatar, which themes correspond respectively to those primary themes/concepts embodied in each Ainu – that indeed are each Ainu. Through listening and contemplation, an Ainu becomes aware of other Ainur, other musics, and the cultivation and adornment of other themes.

After a time of Music, Ilúvatar proposes a first ‘great’ design/theme/plan to all the Ainur at once: a symphony for His pleasure. He then charges them with the collective elaboration of this great design/plan/theme. They are to play themselves at composition.

While it is true that the Ainur are Ilúvatar’s thoughts embodied, they each have a life of their own, and are expected to utilize their ‘freedom’ by cultivating the grand theme. Only in the future, at the ‘end of days’, will all the created beings of Ilúvatar fully understand not only the divinely provided concepts and themes they each personally embody, but how each relates to all the others and fits (as per Ilúvatar’s intentions) in the entire greater scheme of existence.

Melkor and the Great Music of the Ainur (paragraphs 5-8)

1. Melkor is introduced, and the Ainur begin their Chorus. The first Ainu to be named in the histories, Melkor (‘Arises in Might’) is described as the most powerful of the Ainur and as knowing much of Ilúvatar’s thoughts, including something of each of the primary themes that prefigure the other Ainur. He develops impatience with the schoolish process of thematic elaboration: like a precocious child, Melkor begins thinking of certain musical ideas and themes as being ‘all his own’, and he feels compelled to develop them apace. Melkor even harbours the desire to externally manifest his ideas (private ideas, as he thinks them) and to become a creator of beings himself. When the choir of the Ainur finally embark on the fully collaborative elaboration of Ilúvatar’s grand plan, Melkor participates with all the others, yet he stands forth and inserts his very different thematic adornments, which disrupts the harmony. One reason his music is so different is that he’s spent too much time 'alone,' so his themes appear to have a singular, rather than contextual, origin. The ‘battle’ in the choir of the Ainur rages back and forth with the ‘pro-Ilúvatar’ Music described as "deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came." (Silmarillion p 17). Melkor’s music, on the other hand, is said to have been "loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated … And it essayed to drown the other music by the violence of its voice … " (Ibid.) But, despite Melkor’s best efforts to mar and utterly overthrow the Great Music, his discordant music’s "most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern." (Ibid. [Compare The Book of Lost Tales – Vol 1, “One was very great and deep and beautiful, but it was mingled with an unquenchable sorrow, while the other was now grown to unity and a system of its own, but was loud and vain and arrogant, braying triumphantly against the other as it thought to drown it, yet ever, as it essayed to clash most fearsomely, finding itself but in some manner supplementing or harmonizing with its rival.” p 54. also compare The Lost Road “The other had grown now to a unity and system, yet an imperfect one, save insofar as derived still from the eldest theme of Ilúvatar…” p 158.])

2. The Great Music of the Ainur progresses thus: Ilúvatar introduces a First Theme to the choir of the Ainur and Melkor ‘spoils’ it, with some other Ainur starting to twist their music to Melkor's theme. (some of these Ainur may have become in the later histories characters like the Balrogs, Ungoliant and Sauron himself, but for others it could have been a temporary weakness.) Next, Ilúvatar imposes a Second Theme, and again Melkor corrupts it. Ilúvatar then proposes a Third Theme that Melkor attempts to corrupt through sheer force of volume of his own, but the power of the Third Theme is in the very subtlety that Melkor's lacks, and thus he never succeeds. In fact, the Music actually manages to incorporate some of Melkor's elements as a genuine improvement to itself. Still, despite neither Theme managing to gain the upper hand, so much power was poured by each side into their Music, that the halls of Ilúvatar shook, and The One decides to put an end to the strife with the conducting of “…one chord, deeper than the Abyss, higher than the Firmament, piercing as the light of the eye of Ilúvatar…” (Ibid.) After the Great Music stops, Ilúvatar promptly praises Melkor, chastises him, and then leaves the Ainur for time to their own thoughts.

The Prelude: Water, Ulmo, the Music and Fate (paragraphs 9-17)

1. Ilúvatar calls the Ainur together and ‘shows’ them a ‘Vision’. The Vision is of what the transliteration of their collaborative Great Music into a material reality would be like. They are shown that the Music has a point, has a result and effect beyond its composition and singing: it amounts to no less than a highly detailed template commensurate with the entire history – beginning to end – of a material, ‘physical’ Universe that could exist inside ‘time’. During this sneak-preview of the Birth, Life and Death of the Universe, the Ainur behold and contemplate all the aspects of material reality, which aspects are each associated with themes associated with particular Ainu. As the Ainur gaze out on this preview, Melkor sees now in detail how even his most private ideas and themes, even his most disruptive and destructive efforts, in the end serve only to fully elaborate Ilúvatar’s master plan, design, theme and will. Melkor is shown that his private themes (as Melkor thought them) are in fact elements of that plan/design/will and "tributary to [its] glory." (Ibid. p 18)

2. Now the Third theme and the Children (Eldar and Edain) are discussed. The Ainur see in the Vision that there are things none of them remember composing, and things they perhaps remember composing but did not at the time fully understand. The Children of Ilúvatar are first mentioned here, the future home of the Children (Arda – ‘the Realm’, i.e. the Earth) is spotted, and some positively fascinating advice is given: don’t read too much into the relative size of the Earth as compared to the entire Universe, or be overly impressed with the immensity of Space compared to, say, the delicacy and complexity of design in a mustard seed. Many of the Ainur, including Melkor, become enamoured of the Earth, though Melkor still wants to dominate it and the Children. The Ainur, looking out at the preview of all creation, come to believe that Water, of all the substances and energies of material reality, most completely echoes the collaborative elaboration that was the propounding and cultivating of Ilúvatar’s entire creative plan (i.e., the Great Music of the Ainur.) The Ainur rejoice in Light, but at the sounds of the Sea they feel “a great unquiet.” (Ibid, p 19. [Compare “…and for the great roaring of the ocean they {Ainur} were filled with longing.” Book of Lost Tales, Vol 1, p 56.])

3. Ulmo is introduced. While Melkor is the first Ainu properly named, and the first Ainu to whom Ilúvatar directly speaks in the histories, Ulmo (‘The Pourer’ or ‘The Rainer’) is the second on both counts: right after the point is made that Water is the fullest echo of the Music of the Ainur, Ulmo is introduced as the Ainu most identified with that element, and the Ainu most educated in the matter of Music. Ulmo is the second Ainu to whom Ilúvatar specifically speaks in the histories when he points out to Ulmo that Water has from Melkor’s meddling benefited beyond Ulmo’s earlier conceptions. Melkor’s attempts to disrupt with the use of fierce heat and severe cold do nothing to ruin Water (as Melkor must have hoped), but rather leave the World with the beauties of snow and frost and clouds and rain; this does no less than push Manwë and Ulmo more closely together. Ulmo, first of all the Ainur (Melkor included), has his words quoted in the histories when he says “’Truly, Water is become now fairer than my heart imagined, neither had my secret thought conceived the snowflake, nor in all my music was contained the falling of the rain. I will seek Manwë, that he and I may make melodies for ever to thy delight!’” (Ibid.) And so Ulmo and Manwë are revealed as the two chief servants of Ilúvatar’s intentions.

Genesis (paragraphs 18-20)

1. The Vision ends: Ilúvatar’s sneak-preview is snatched away before any of the Ainur can fully see or comprehend the whole work of their music-made-into-substance. Because of this, and because of their nature as beings that must grow to an understanding of themselves in the context of the interplay of all creation, the Ainur know quite a bit of the past, present and future of the Universe and its inhabitants, yet they don’t know everything (the later days, especially, are hidden from them). When the vision is taken away, the Ainur are restless, having fallen in love with the Universe, the Earth and the Children. Even Melkor thinks that he wants to be a benign part of their manifestation, though his tendencies must lead more toward dominance than cultivation.

2. Time begins. In the end (of the Beginning), Ilúvatar takes the entire musical work of the Ainur, including Melkor’s destructive efforts, and makes it manifest, material, real, objective and existing as Eä (‘It is’, or ‘Let it Be’), or what can be called the Universe. Many of the most powerful and influential Ainur enter into Eä, but they enter on condition that the life of the Universe, which has a beginning, middle and end corresponding to the Great Music of the Ainu, will be binding on them, and will become their lives as well. The Valar (‘The Powers’, the most powerful Ainur that enter into the Universe) enter into and became a part of the World at the very beginning of Time. But Melkor is amongst them.

The Struggle to Fulfill Fate (paragraphs 21-25)

1. The remaining paragraphs of Ainulindalë summarize the first efforts of the Valar to fulfil the destiny described in the vision of the Universe they have foreseen in Heaven. The Valar enter into Eä only to find it at the very beginning of its history – unformed and embryonic. The history of the Universe has been only ‘forsung’. The Valar must labour to unfold that history and to build its constituent parts from scratch. The four Valar who are most involved in the crafting of the Earth are Manwë, Ulmo, Aulë and Melkor. Melkor lays claim to the Earth as his own, and makes the initial going very rough indeed. Manwë collects those Valar and Maiar (lesser Ainur who entered into Eä with the Valar) friendly to him and he sets up on Earth a resistance to Melkor. At the moment of this act, a reminder is provided of the fact that Manwë was the chief instrument of Ilúvatar in the Second Theme of the Great Music. Melkor withdraws from Earth and Manwë’s resistance, but later formally (and quite impressively) re-enters and makes open war on Manwë’s throne. But Manwë’s rule is established nonetheless: it sees the Earth finished and made habitable and ready for Elves and Men.

2. The First War inside Time: The Valar assume physical forms as others wear clothes, though the Valar do have temperaments commensurate with the genders these forms reflect. Melkor re-enters the Earth in a form of terrible majesty, and the war for Earth begins in earnest. The history of the first battles are little recorded, but the reports point to Melkor trying to undo everything the Valar do, which are things the Valar do mostly to prepare the Earth for the Children. Melkor’s actions can change, but not destroy or wholly spoil, the original (as they were understood) plans and intentions of the Valar. Despite Melkor, the Earth is made ready.

Here ends Ainulindalë.[9]


  1. ^ Pronounced [ˌɑi̯nuˈlindɑlɛ].
  2. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R. "The Fellowship of the Ring". The Lord of the Rings, Volume One. Ballantine Books, 1965 (pp 11, 12).
  3. ^ Dickerson, Matthew. Following Gandalf. Brazos Press, 2003 (pp 199-229).
  4. ^ Gardner, John. "The World of Tolkien". New York Times Book Review, Oct. 23, 1977 (p 40).
  5. ^ Shippey, Tom. The Road to Middle-earth [3rd Ed]. Houghton Mifflin Co, 2003 (pp 226, 247).
  6. ^ Tolkien, Christopher. "The Book of Lost Tales" [Part One]. The History of Middle-earth, Volume One. Houghton Mifflin Co, 1984 (p 2).
  7. ^ Flieger, Verlyn. Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World. W B Eerdmans Publishing, 1983 (p ix).
  8. ^ Pearce, Joseph. "Why Tolkien Says The Lord of the Rings Is Catholic." National Catholic Register (January 12–19, 2003).
  9. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R. "Ainulindalë". The Silmarillion. George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1977 (pp 15-22).

See also

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