In The Fundamentals of Music, the late Roman author Boethius (c. 480-524) imparted to the Middle Ages a Neoplatonic theory of music that held there to be three kinds of harmony: the harmony of the spheres, the harmony of instruments, and the harmony of human living. In Boethius’s philosophy, descended from Pythagorean theory, music resulted from the movements of the Planets and all the workings of the cosmos and nature. Music as we ordinarily think of it, the music of voice and of devised instruments, is sort of like a radio that does not simply produce music, but actually allows us to hear the music of the universe. Human life, when lived individually and socially in accordance with virtue, also constitutes a kind of music. After all, insofar as we exist, we are a part of the cosmic music, and by learning to live well, we learn to harmonize with that music. In the ancient and medieval perspective, this musicality in the human condition is why learning to play and appreciate instrumental music was so valuable: learning musical craft combines human discipline with cosmic principles of harmony. The musician, in playing and understanding music, harmonizes with the symphony of an instrumental, virtuous, and cosmic melody.
As an Anglo-Saxonist and medievalist, Tolkien surely knew of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy–both the Old English version and Chaucer’s Middle English translation, as well as the original Latin itself. Whether he knew of Boethius’s textbook on music I do not know, but Boethius’s musical theory is alluded to in the Consolation, where Lady Philosophy says, “My pleasure is to sing with pliant strings/How mighty Nature holds the reigns of things” (3.m2.50). Chaucer’s likewise weaves the symphony of the spheres into many of his works, including one which influenced Tolkien,The House of Fame, which depicts a giant eagle who swoops in to rescue the somewhat hefty narrator.
Whatever the precise influences explicit in his mind, however, Tolkien’s creation myth resonates explicitly with Boethius’s understanding of the Pythagorean belief in a musical universe, where Iluvatar, as choirmaster, leads his first creations, the Ainur, in a magnificent, orchestral creation of the world in which Middle-Earth will have its being:
“Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Iluvatar to a great music…. and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void.”
More particularly, we see in the Ainulindale a three-part structure: first, there is the song of the Ainur’s strife (between Manwe and the faithful Ainur and Melkor and the rebellious Ainur), then, they have a vision of the history of the world which their music has created, and finally, they enter into that world and labor to bring the Vision into reality. So they engage first in an instrumental (if heavenly) type of music, using the power of voice to create song; then they perceive the cosmos and the cosmic history created by their music; and finally, they become committed to fulfilling their attempt to live virtuously according to the music for their own sake and the sake of the Children of Iluvatar to come. The Ainulindale is a three-fold melody between the music of the Ainur, the cosmic vision which their music produces, and their mighty labors to bring the created world into physical harmony.
Melkor, as an agent of disharmony, becomes a disruptive voice in the music of the Ainur because his imagination is reduced to a narcissistic obsession with his own virtue: “it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Iluvatar: 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.” The nature of Melkor’s disobedience is not simply pride; it is a disjointed concern for the locus of pride. Or, to state it otherwise: Tolkien’s myth defines pride in musical terms, where to become a Melkor is to become one who makes his own talents the source of harmony, and to reduce social and universal order to a mere outlet of one’s own will. Instead of using the pattern of music as a way to order himself, Melkor strives to pattern the music after himself. In Boethius, the musical instrument was a conduit for the individual to imagine his own virtue as in harmony with the cosmos; Melkor uses his music instead for conquest, as a weapon to strike his enemy down. As a result, Melkor is always depicted as alone–he has no comrade, only cohorts, for social camaraderie is a harmony, and Melkor has made himself an enemy of harmony.
This depiction of evil’s isolated disharmony is contrasted by the discussion that Ulmo and Iluvatar have about Ulmo’s kinship with Manwe in the midst of their vision: “Behold rather the height and glory of the clouds, and the everchanging mists; and listen to the fall of rain upon the Earth! And in these clouds thou art drawn nearer to Manwe, thy friend, whom thou lovest.” Ulmo’s music had put water into the Vision of the World, but Manwe’s love of the airways mixed with that water in unsurprising ways; ways moreover caused by Melkor: “Sees thou not how here in this little realm in the Deeps of Time Melkor hath made war upon thy province? He hath bethought him of bitter cold immoderate.” Ulmo’s thought is neither to make war on Melkor, his enemy, nor to be jealous of his brother Manwe. Interestingly of Ulmo we are told that “of all most deeply was he instructed by Iluvatar in music.” Given his remarkable gifts, Ulmo is a corollary to Melkor, but in his brotherly attitude towards Manwe offers a three-fold note of harmony against Melkor’s disharmony: “Truly, Water is become now fairer than my heart imagined, neither had my secret thought conceived the snowflake…I will seek Manwe, that he and I may make melodies for ever to thy delight!” Ulmo remains in accord with Iluvatar his maker; he resists the discord introduced by Melkor and even sees how Melkor’s ill-intentioned disruption has made his own design more beautiful; and, above all, he seeks out Manwe to work new labors to please his Maker.
Ulmo strives for the good life and seeks to make beautiful music, all to contribute to the symphony of Arda’s formation. Ulmo’s attention is not on the sound of his own voice and the tenor of his own virtue, but on the things he can make and the people with whom he can make them. The same is true of Manwe and Aule: “But of the airs and winds Manwe most had pondered, who is the noblest of Ainur. Of the fabric of Earth had Aule thought, to whom Iluvatar had given skill and knowledge scarce less than to Melkor; but the delight and pride of Aule is in the deed of making, and in the thing made, and neither in possession nor in his own mastery.” In their devotion to the shared Music, Ulmo, Aule, and Manwe are blessed with brotherhood, unchained by the torments of wrath Melkor suffers by limiting his imagination to the circle of his own will.
Elves and Men live in a mixed world of cosmic harmony and disharmony, the collision of music with noise, and sorrow is the note of beauty by which evil is reconciled to good. “And thus was the habitation of the Children of Iluvatar established at the last in the Deeps of Time and amidst the innumerable stars.” In The Silmarillion and Tolkien’s Mythopoeic Philosophy we will explore further how medieval philosophy, including Boethius, emerges in Tolkien’s profound worldbuilding.
Dr. Anthony G. Cirilla is an Associate Professor of English at College of the Ozarks. He is also associate editor of Carmina Philosophiae, the journal of the International Boethius Society. Originally from Western New York, he lives in Missouri with his wife, Camarie, who writes poetry and fairy tales. Anthony serves as an assistant priest in the United Episcopal Church of North America.