Silmarillion Read-Along: Week 1

Welcome to week one of our Silmarillion read-along! In the month of March, we will read and discuss J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. For an in-depth weekly reading schedule, head over to my announcement post.

Disclaimer: All cited passages were taken from The Silmarillion unless stated otherwise.

Week 1: Music & Harmony

Correlation of Music and Harmony
In the first chapter “Ainulindalë” we learn that everything that was, that is and that will be in Arda was conceived by the Music of Iluvatar and the Ainur. Most interesting is the arising tension between personal will and harmony. While the Ainur were given assigned roles in the creation of the music, each had an individuality and certain power within the frames of their assigned roles. By disobeying, Melkor did not simply attempted to break free of his assigned role, he wanted to gain power:“…for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself … for desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own.”

This disobedience immediately manifested itself in a change in music. What once was marked by harmony and beauty turned into a “raging storm” and “turbulent sound” that replaced harmony with a “war of sound”. Already, Melkor introduced violence and destruction to existence. Moreover, those Ainur that “attuned their music to his” not only lost their individuality, but also power. By attuning to Melkor, it is described that those Ainur who followed his music had to abandon “the thought which they had at first”. When following Melkor, beings need to accept his leadership by giving up harmony, individuality, and their own power.

This submission to one ruler is in stark contrast to the harmonious relationship between Iluvatar and the Ainur. While Iluvatar is the source of all being, the Ainur are not enslaved to his will. While Iluvatar propounds “themes of music”, the Ainur sing. While Iluvatar created Adra, the Ainur shaped, built and created everything, except the children of Iluvatar, in it.

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Go and check out Evan Palmer’s wonderful illustration on his homepage: evanpalmercomics.com/ainulindale

Music and the physical world
Again and again, it is described that the Music of the Ainur is deeply embedded into everything that began to fill the void even long after the initial creation of Arda. Creatures of all kinds, including trees, sing, while music is ingrained into every atom of Arda. Nowhere is the relationship between music and the world better symbolized/ defined than in the description of Oromë’s horn:

“The Valaróme is the name of his great horn, the sound of which is like the upgoing of the Sun in scarlet, or the sheer lightning cleaving the clouds.”

In this wonderful simile, Tolkien likened the sound of a horn with events that do not make any sound. Lightning in itself does not make any sound even though we tend to experience lightning mostly in combination with thunder. Moreover, what does sunrise sound like anyway? Yet for some reason, we all have an idea what it might sound like. Just as the Children of Iluvatar “know not for what they listen” when they hear the echo of the Music of the Ainur in the water, we the readers are, in a sense, tricked into believing that we too, may be able to hear an echo of the the Music of the Ainur in our surroundings if only we learn to understand and listen close enough.

While stars and light in general play significant roles on Arda, water is repeatedly described as the only substance, or place “where the echo of the Music of the Ainur” lives “more than in any other sunstance”. Just as the Music of the Ainur, water reaches even the most remote place of Middle-earth. As water is needed to grow trees and plants, “the Great Music had been but the growth and flowering in the Timeless halls”. Also, just as the music of the Ainur, Melkor cannot “subdue it”.

Tom Bombadil and the Music of the Ainur.
This leads me to my final, most controversial thought while reading the first five chapters of The Silmarillion. You are free to disagree with me on this, but I came to believe that Tom Bombadil, alongside Goldberry, is the physical manifestation of the Music of the Ainur. Apart from the most obvious spect of Tom, frolicking and singing all the time while being married to the River-Daughter Goldberry, there are other aspects of him that convinced me.

While we do not know who or what Tom Bombadil is, we learn in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring that he is “the Master of wood, water, and hill”, yet “the trees and the grasses and all things growing or living in the land belong to themselves. Tom Bombadil is the Master” (FOTR). Just as the music of the Ainur is the master, or make up of everything, everything that grows or lives belongs to itself. Moreover, is described as “oldest and fatherless”, as “Last as he was First” and as not being affected by the One Ring’s power (FOTR). Music, just as the Ainur, originated in Iluvatar’s thought. So music may as well exist as long as the Ainur and will cease to exist after everything else vanished.

The idea that Tom Bombadil is a physical manifestation of the Music of the Ainur is, of course, somewhat far-fetched and mostly based on a specific interpretation of descriptions in need of a greater in-depth analysis. Yet, Tom’s constant singing, his marriage to the River-Daughter, his immortality and power, as well as certain detachment from the events in Middle-earth, makes me believe that he may be the music of the Ainur took on a life of its own, yet never truly distancing itself from its close relationship with water.

Do you agree with my theory on Tom Bombadil? What where your thoughts when reading the first five chapters of The Silmarillion? Any favourite quotes or characters you’d love to discuss? Leave a comment down below!

Sources:

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Silmarillion. Grafton 1992.

Tolkin, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings, HarperCollins 2002.

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8 thoughts on “Silmarillion Read-Along: Week 1

  1. gekitsu says:

    great write-up. 🙂

    no surprise to anyone, i have a big honking **schopenhauer** parallel to drag in here. in his aesthetics, schopenhauer hinges on two tenets: 1) a genius can see the ideal idea of a thing in each real, imperfect instance of it. through art, they can communicate it and make other people see it as well. 2) each medium has a suitability to communicate certain aspects – imagery and sculpture, for example, use visibility as their instrument, and are therefore geared most towards communicating the ideal appearance of things, whereas literature and poetry uses words, i.e. concepts and notions. what something looks like isn’t something words can achieve as directly as an image, but they can directly convey someone’s inner reality, which drawings can do to a much more limited extent.

    this ties in with the ainulindale in schopenhauer’s treatment of music: music, he says, is the topmost art form, made of nothing but pure succession, pure sequence and ‘becoming’. therefore, while visual art’s mother tongue is what things look like, and literature’s is what someone’s individuality is like, music is the medium that can naturally express the underlying driving force of all existence, its constant state of becoming. (‘the will’, it is called in his terms.) that always struck me as incredibly tolkien-ish. (or, conversely, tolkien struck me as schopenhauerian.)

    one notion to your analysis on **harmony vs free will**, though: while iluvatar imbued the ainur and his children with free will and independent existence (also exemplified in aule and the dwarves, when iluvatar says: ‘for thou hast from me as a gift *thy own being* only, and no more; and therefore the creatures of thy hand and mind can only live by that being, *moving when thou thinkest to move them, and if thy thought be elsewhere, standing idle*.’), all action seems still confined by iluvatar’s big picture: ‘these too in their time shall find that all that they do redounds at the end only to the glory of my work.’ (on men), and ‘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 instruments in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.’

    there seems to be an implication in there that the disharmony in music/strife in the world isn’t entirely counter to iluvatar’s devising, but a necessity of existence to bring out the best of it. (iluvatar to ulmo: ‘seest thou not how here […] melkor hath made war upon thy province? he hath bethought of him bitter cold immoderate, and yet hath not destroyed the beauty of thy fountains, nor of thy clear pools. behold the snow, and the cunning work of frost! melkor hath devised heats and fire without restraint, and hath not dried up thy desire nor uterly quelled the music of the sea. behold rather the height and glory of the clouds, and the ever-changing mists; and listen to the fall of rain upon the earth!’)

    as for your theory of **tom bombadil**: i don’t think this is far-fetched at all! rather sensible, i’d say. not only does he sing all the time, he talks in verse. the only thing we need to make fit is how he stays within certain borders and won’t travel beyond them. maybe that’s a untamed nature vs civilisation thing – only where nature is unencroached upon, the music itself (rather than other players in it) shapes things.

    at the very least, you’re not alone in this reading of tom: the tolkien gateway features a few paragraphs on it: http://www.tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Tom_Bombadil/Nature#Tom_as_the_Spirit_of_the_Music_of_the_Ainur

    finally, as for **other characters** i’d like to at least mention: i found myself intrigued by the triangle of manwe, aule, and melkor. both manwe and aule are linked to melkor one time or other: aule and melkor share the drive to create, and manwe and melkor are said to be brothers in spirit – maybe in their characteristic as ruler/king. that would be an interesting configuration, where creation for its own sake is a force for good (much of aule’s description sounds a lot like the maker movement or the free software movement!), and governance concerned only with itself is good, but creating for dominating, i.e. having a personal end to either of those, becomes destructive.

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    • Maria says:

      Oh, I love your parallels between Tolkien nd Shopenhauer. Even though many put Tolkien’s fantasy off as “trivial”, claiming that it lacks connection to philosohy and other significant literary theories literature simply by being fantasy (here the argument bites in it own butt), I do believe that Tolkien was heavily influenced in his writing by Schopenhauer and other philosophers and theories. So yeah, your connection seems to me very convincing!

      As for your second point: “there seems to be an implication in there that the disharmony in music/strife in the world isn’t entirely counter to iluvatar’s devising, but a necessity of existence to bring out the best of it.”
      I’ve never seen it that way, but I think you are right. I really do like this theory a lot!

      AAHH thankk you for the link, I’ve never encountered that theory of Tom Bombadil before, otherwise I would’ve linkied it in my article. No matter what or who Tom truly is, I think it is this very mystery that makes him so amazing and the more I think about him/read his passages, the more he becomes my favourite character of all Tolkien’s work!

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      • gekitsu says:

        i can’t tell you how much that ‘it’s fantasy, therefore it’s trivial’ line of argumentation makes my bile rise. and doubly so with tolkien. and triply so, when it’s by fellow fantasy nerds. (‘song of ice and fire is the only fantasy where people are acting politically! tolkien fantasy is all fairy tales!’)

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        • James M says:

          Tolkien is not trivial. I love the Ainulindale, one reason being its philosophical depth. As far as I can see, the words of Eru to Melkor mean, not that evil and disharmony are necessary to the being of Arda, but rather that Eru’s purposes will be fully realised, even from the evil and disharmony produced by Melkor.

          Tolkien’s myth is more true and realistic than many superficially more realistic tales, because it is truer to human nature. It talks about, and explores, evil attitudes like pride, possessiveness, selfishness, anger and their consequences, by showing how these attitudes and choices are worked out in the lives of characters like Melkor and others: these attitudes are all too real in the Primary World that we the readers live in, as is the damage they do. The fiction is not in them, but in the choice of means Tolkien chose for talking about them. A novel which treats these attitudes as harmless is less, not more realistic, than Tolkien’s fairy tale.

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  2. Olga says:

    When I first read The Silmarillion, I was in awe. I couldn’t make head nor tail of it, but the book left such a deep mark in my heart that when I returned to it for the second time, I was determined to understand more. Now it’s my most favourite Tolkien book. I do love all of his writings, but The Silmarillion has a special place in my heart.
    I love the language of the book and was thinking about writing out some of my favourite quotes in a notebook, but then realised that I might end up copying the whole Silmarillion 😀 But here’s one of those I especially like:
    “But the other Ainur looked upon this habitation set within the vast spaces of the World, which the Elves call Arda, the Earth; and their hearts rejoiced in light, and their eyes beholding many colours were filled with gladness; but because of the roaring of the sea they felt a great unquiet. And they observed the winds and the air, and the matters of which Arda was made, of iron and stone and silver and gold and many substances: but of all these water they most greatly praised.”
    That’s certainly a very curious thought about Tom Bombadil. I guess it makes sense in many ways and as the nature of Tom is a mystery, this interpretation is indeed very interesting and to the point. I’ve never thought of him this way, but I do love your theory.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Maria says:

      Hi Olga, I had a similar experience with The Silmarillion. It is a shame that many are put off by the billions of names and the complexity because it is such an amazing novel. The more I read it, the more I love it.
      Ohh I love your quote!.
      I think that is the beauty of Tolkien’s work, you can have so many fascinating and diverese interpretations of it as you can of Tom Bombadil. Tolkien’s wors are, just as Tom, amazing at first sight but the more you analyze it the more you realize how complex and truly amazing it is!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. James says:

    About Tom Bombadil – that is a very thought-provoking theory. I think he is something perhaps less ingenious: one of the ‘people of the Valar’ who descended with them from the Timeless Halls of Iluvatar before the Shaping of Arda. This theory would have him being given responsibility for the area including what later became the Old Forest, and being less in ‘stature’ than Sauron. IOW, he is perhaps similar in kind to Tilion and Arien, who are powerful, but are given specific responsibilities. That suggests he may be a Maia of Yavanna.

    I would be more inclined to accept the musical interpretation if J could think of something in Tolkien to give some sort of precedent to it. I think he sings because Yavanna sang.

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