Music and Magic in the World of Arda

MUSIC AND MAGIC IN THE WORLD OF ARDA In Tolkien’s legendarium, magic as it appears in contemporary sword-and-sorcery stories does not exist. Tolkien makes it clear in essays and debates that his magic is far more complex than the waving of a wand, and does not follow strict, clear-cut rules. Instead, power over the laws of nature and reality lies to a great extent in song and music.
The first act of creation in the “Ainulindale”, by which the foundations for Arda’s creation were laid, was the singing of the Music of the Ainur by Iluvatar and the divine beings beneath him. When the beings of Arda create song, the result is often ‘magical’, whether in an emotional sense or if it has a tangible effect upon the world around it. In both the “Ainulindale” and “Of Beren and Luthien” this is quite evident.
Singing in Tolkien’s legendarium is in some ways a magical act, in that any of the Children of Iluvatar engaged in it are reflecting the original creative acts of the Ainur, sub-creating and greatly affecting the world around them, and that the only limits on a being’s ability to create music are its purpose – whether to dominate or to create – and the sheer force of will it places behind its magical, musical intent. Singing has a variety of effects within Tolkien’s works, but the most dramatic ones by far are those visible in the “Ainulindale”.

Here, singing is synonymous with creation itself. The notes of the many Ainur, including Melkor, as well as those of Iluvatar, all coalesce in order to form the basis for Arda and its history. The act of song-making as creation is not metaphorical: the Ainur originally conceive of the world through music, and the voices of the Ainur are even described as “like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs with words” (Tolkien 4).
Even the conflict between Iluvatar, who seeks to create a world of beauty and freedom for its future inhabitants, and Melkor, who seeks to dominate all that is, is done through their respective melodies. No music existed before that of the Ainur in their acts of creation, and although a great deal of music existed afterward, none was ever as powerful or influential in shaping the world, as the passage reads “Never since have the Ainur made any music like to this music” (Tolkien 4) This original music created the first true polarization between good and vil – through the conflict between Iluvatar and Melkor – and initiated the creation of the world. The fact that the Music of the Ainur created the world itself is no less visible than when Iluvatar declared “behold your music! ” and the Ainur first saw the world (Tolkien 6). In fact, all later music stemmed from this music, in that the Music of the Ainur set the stage for the genesis of all Children of Iluvatar and the music they would go on to produce. The effects of song are equally as visible, if not quite so dramatic, in the tale of Beren & Luthien, particularly through Luthien herself.
Throughout the story, many of Luthien’s actions revolve around music and song. When Beren first sees her, he is spellbound by her appearance, and it is not until she sings out loud and “flowers [spring] from the cold earth where her feet had passed” that he is released from his shock enough to call out to her (Tolkien 194). Her music is also powerful enough to put the great wolf Carcharoth, as well as Morgoth himself in Angband, to sleep. In addition, it aids her and Huan in combating Sauron at Tol-in-Gaurhoth.
Finally, her heartfelt song of sorrow at Beren’s death at the end of the tale proves moving enough to warrant restoring Beren to life, and allowing Beren and Luthien to spend their final, mortal years together in peace. Indeed, it is stated that “The song of Luthien before Mandos was the song most fair that ever in words was woven, and the song most sorrowful that the world shall hear” (Tolkien 221). She is not the only character who uses song to great effect, however. When King Felagund and Sauron battle in the dark lands of Morgoth, they duel with words and songs of power rather than physical weapons.
Felagund fights with inspirational songs, harkening up images of “trust unbroken” and “resisting”, while Sauron utilizes songs of “treachery” and “betrayal” (Tolkien 201). Sauron proved more powerful however, and once he defeats Felagund, the others are entirely helpless against him. In these particular stories, the greatest singers are either connected to the Ainur, or are Ainur themselves. This point is fairly obvious in the case of the “Ainulindale”, in which all participants of the Music were Iluvatar’s “Holy Ones” , but is also quite evident in “Of Beren and Luthien” (Tolkien ). There, Luthien is half-Maia as the daughter of Melian, and her power is extraordinary for a Child of Iluvatar. She proves capable of contending with a fallen Valar, a powerful Maia, and a vicious beast-servant of Morgoth through her skills with song. Sauron himself is also quite skilled in the art of song as a Maia, and in a duel with a mortal he “had the mastery” (Tolkien 201). The reason for the magical superiority of the Ainur is quite simple: they were involved in the original music of the world.
They were originally formed by Iluvatar for the express purpose of creating “in harmony together a Great Music” and through it the world, and so it is far more natural to them (Tolkien 3). Although Luthien herself has no experience with true creation, as Sauron and her mother do, she nonetheless has the blood of a being that was essentially created for song, as Melian also sprang from the mind of Iluvatar for the purpose of creating the world. By no means are all great singers in Tolkien’s world Maiar however, or even those related to them, as the example of Felagund illustrates.
While Felagund may not be able to best a Maia such as Sauron, he is still able to compete with a Maia for what appears to be the majority of their conflict, and it is outright stated that “the power of the King was very great” in the conflict (Tolkien 201). He lacks the experience and inborn purpose for song that any Maia would possess as a being originally born to create Arda, but he remains a force to be reckoned with, and he is unquestionably more powerful through his skill with song than most other characters in the tale.
It is clear, then, that force of will and drive can – to an extent – mitigate the difference in natural ability between a Child of Iluvatar and an Ainu. Luthien’s exemplary skill with song in the latter half of the tale may have thus been influenced by her drive to help Beren and the “weight of horror” that her love caused her to feel at the possibility of his death (Tolkien 202). The act of song-making in the “Ainulindale” is, at its core, an act of creation.
What is present throughout “Of Beren and Luthien” however – and, for that matter, all other stories set in Middle-Earth during the First through Fourth Ages – is sub-creation. Just as Iluvatar created the Ainur originally for the purpose of creation, the Children of Arda and those that Iluvatar would – humans, elves, hobbits, and dwarves – were made to sub-create. In other words, they were meant to create even further, through art, literature, and above all, song. By attempting to emulate the song of creation, the Children would make the world even more vibrant, rich, and pleasant than the Valar had originally managed.
Tolkien states in his letter to Milton Waldman prefacing “The Silmarillion” that for the Elves, magic is “Art, delivered from many of its human limitations…” and “Art not power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of creation” (Tolkien xvi-xvii). The effect of song in “Of Beren and Luthien” was somewhat different. If songs made by the Valar were what originally brought about and shaped the world, then songs made by the Children could do the same, beyond merely in terms of producing music for pleasure’s sake.
As exemplified by Felagund, a sufficiently strong, refined will could sub-create in a way that mirrored creation itself, and shape the world despite lacking the natural affinity for song that an Ainu possesses. What this evidence points to is a notion that at first may seem ridiculous: that the magical song-making of the Ainur and the Children are fundamentally exactly the same. The ability of several of the Children in “Of Beren and Luthien” to contend with Ainur in contests of power through song already lends credence to this idea, suggesting that the music created by the Ainur is the same, only greater.
It would appear that the difference between the use of songs by the Ainur and the Children merely results from the inherently greater willpower of the Ainur. As beings that are not only older but are also “the offspring of [Iluvatar’s] thought”, their wills are considerably more refined and honed than those of the Children (Tolkien 3). Theoretically however, any elf, man, hobbit, or dwarf with sufficient mental discipline and/or training could make music as great as that of an Ainu.
Thus, the closeness to the natural world and ‘magic’ of the elves is simply a consequence of their having spent more time amongst the Valar and within the world than the other Children, gaining more competence with song and closeness to the musical skill of the Ainur as a result. In addition, the ability of Melkor to overpower the songs of the other Ainur in the “Ainulindale” resulted from him having “been given the greatest gifts of power and knowledge” and resulting musical affinity, and that greater force of will alone was that set him apart (Tolkien 4).
The two sections being discussed point to one other significant notion: that there is an inherent difference between the music produced by the Children and good Ainur, and the music produced by the Dark Powers of Morgoth. The “Ainulindale” indicates that the Music of the Ainur was initially harmonious, with “endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony” (Tolkien 4). It was only once Melkor, desiring to overpower and control the course of the Music, decided to interfere, that the Music became disjointed and violent.
Eventually, Iluvatar himself steps in, at which point it is clear that the melodies of Iluvatar and Melkor are diametrically opposed, and that only Melkor’s music “hath not its uttermost source in [Iluvatar]” (Tolkien 6). The music of the other Ainur, which was harmonious with that of Iluvatar, was gentle, melodious, and pleasant. Melkor’s music was violent and aggressive. To an extent, the musical conflict between Felagund and Sauron in “Of Beren and Luthien” mirrors this, though in that case Sauron’s aggressive, spiteful song proves victorious due to his superior will.
While the songs produced by the forces of good and evil are somewhat similar, their basic nature and purpose – to create, and to dominate, respectively – are polar opposites, and the dominative nature of evil is the source of the violence and cacophonous nature of the songs. Indeed, Tolkien’s statement of the Elves’s magic as “Art not Power, sub-creation not domination…” in contrast with that of Melkor and Sauron, supports the notion that the nature of their magic – and this applies to all other forces of good as well – is irreconcilable with that of Melkor and his minions (Tolkien xvi-xvii).
In the “Ainulindale”, as well as “Of Beren and Luthien”, Tolkien reveals the true nature of magic and song: in his world, they are synonymous. While there may be major differences in the fundamental nature of the songs used by good and evil, only force of will and purpose make the song of an Ainu such as Morgoth any greater than that of a half-Maia such as Luthien, or a mere elf-king such as Felagund. Keeping these conclusions in mind, one may reach a single, overarching definition of magic in Tolkien’s works: an act of musical creation or sub-creation with enough force of will behind it to tangibly affect the world.
There is no need to understand the mechanics of music in the legendarium, only that any being is capable of it and that it is the source of all magical acts. Truly, the significance of song in Tolkien’s work, especially for the purpose of understanding the magic of the world and the nature of the conflict that ps the entire legendarium, cannot be overstated. WORKS CITED Tolkien, J. R. R. , and Christopher Tolkien. The Silmarillion. 2nd Ed. Del Rey Books, 2001. Print.

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