Feast of St. Aquila of the 70
IN TOLKIEN'S Silmarillion the material universe comes into being by means of a song, the Music of the Ainur.
Actually, the song preexists creation, and Eru shares it with the angelic Ainur, the “Holy Ones.” As they sing under Eru’s direction, the world is “made visible before them . . . globed amid the void.”
I was a teenager when The Silmarillion appeared in print. I wasn’t much of a reader at the time, but a friend of mine, Ron, was fanatically invested in Middle-Earth. His copy of the book, not yet a week old, was already worn and its cover creased.
Ron was a big guy, and he’d already spent time in juvenile detention. So I complied when he insisted that I sit down, shut up, and listen as he read the entire creation account aloud. He read with more passion than I could muster for anything but food and baseball.
The moment stayed with me. The narrative stayed with me. I remembered my friend’s declamation when, just this year, a reader, deeply moved by the same passage, posted a question in an online forum for Tolkien fans. He asked if Tolkien’s work had been based on any “real creation myths.”
Well, yes. The idea of a “music of the spheres” is at least as old as Pythagoras. The ancients often spoke of nature in terms of harmony and dissonance, and history in terms of melody that moves from theme to theme.
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The idea resonated with the followers of biblical religion. Philo of Alexandria, the great Platonizing Jew of first-century Egypt, spoke of creation’s musicality with images astonishingly similar to Tolkien’s. “Heaven is always singing melodies,” he wrote, “perfecting an all-musical harmony, in accordance with the motions of all the bodies which exist therein. . . . Therefore the heaven, which is the archetypal organ of music, appears to have been arranged in a most perfect manner, for no other object except that the hymns sung to the honor of the Father of the universe, might be attuned in a musical manner” (On Dreams 1.35, 37).
The ancients were not blind to sin, and so they were aware of the off-notes in the song of salvation history. But everything changed with the advent of the Christ. Redemption brought about a restoration of cosmic order—a resolution to all the cacophony brought about by sin.
The earliest Christians imagined this new creation, again, as music. St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote at the beginning of the second century: “A star shone forth in heaven above all the other stars, the light of which was inexpressible, while its novelty struck men with astonishment. And all the rest of the stars, with the sun and moon, formed a chorus to this star, and its light was exceedingly great above them all” (To the Ephesians 19).
Similar passages resound a couple generations later in the Adversus Haereses of St. Irenaeus of Lyons. But it is Clement of Alexandria who develops the theme most stunningly in his Exhortation to the Heathen. He speaks of God the Son as “the harmony of the Father.” Jesus is “the all-harmonious, melodious, holy instrument of God”; and as Savior he makes a symphony, once again, of fallen creation. Just listen: “The union of many in one, issuing in the production of divine harmony out of a medley of sounds and division, becomes one symphony following one choir-leader and teacher, the Word, reaching and resting in the same truth, and crying Abba, Father. This, the true utterance of His children, God accepts with gracious welcome.”
Tolkien was a devoted reader not only of Scandinavian myth, but also of the Church Fathers. In his formative years, the works of these ancients were appearing in new English translations. I like to think that what we find in The Silmarillion is an echo of what the novelist had long before encountered in the relics of Alexandrian Christianity.
This harmony between Tolkien and the tradition occurred to me as I read the Fathers down the decades. I was pleased last year to see it made explicitly by the priest-scholar Doru Costache in chapter 13 of his book Alexandrian Legacy.
The Fathers believed that the music of the spheres would achieve its intended harmony, first, in the Church of Jesus Christ. May our fraternal love be harmonious, true to the Composer’s intentions.
Mike Aquilina is the author of many books, husband to one wife, and father to six children (most of them semi-crazed fans of the Inklings). He has hosted two documentary films and nine television series. His songs have been recorded by Rock and Roll Hall of Fame artists Paul Simon and Dion.