Periodically, I teach a survey-style course on the works of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. One of our long-running discussion topics in the class is music: both authors’ works are filled with it. What’s more, when both authors give us creation accounts of their worlds–Middle-Earth in The Silmarillion, and Narnia in Magician’s Nephew–both worlds are created through music.
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 Ilúvatar to a great music . . . and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void. (15)
In Narnia, Aslan sings the world into existence:
A voice had begun to sing. . . . Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. . . . If you had seen it and heard it, as Digory did, you would have felt quite certain that it was the stars themselves which were singing, and that it was the First Voice, the deep one, which had made them appear and made them sing. (106-107)
Both authors were Christians seeking to represent the moment of creation in their works. But the biblical creation account involves God just speaking. Why, then, the music?
The easy answer is that music is emotionally powerful as well as a creative act, and the creation of a world is a powerful moment of creativity, to say the least. Going deeper, though, why is music powerful to us? Surely knowing this would help explain its connection to creation even better.
One theory I’ve liked over the years is that music holds both rhythm (order) and melody (change), just like our world does. Real creation has predictable rhythms, like the seasons, tides, and all manner of cycles. It also has differences (the melodies): new people coming and going, changes in the landscape as storm and erosion and plant growth moves earth.
But I found the answer I like best in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
In Episode 1585, Mr. Rogers sits down at the piano, as he often does, and shows the children how “each key plays a different tone.” Then he plays them an alternate version of “It’s Such a Good Feeling” in which he only strikes one note repetitively to the rhythm.
“And that wouldn’t be such a good feeling, would it?” he says. “It’s great that there are all different notes, and different animals, and different people in the world.” (You can watch the clip starting at 24:57 here.)
Listening to it as my children watched, I was struck by how he was able to use such childlike terms to make such a profound observation. If everything were one note, the same color or texture or scent, it wouldn’t be so good, would it?
In Magician’s Nephew, Aslan’s voice changes to create earth, stars, plants, and animals: a different tone for each creation. But Tolkien’s Silmarillion especially promotes this idea, emphasizing all different strains coming together at once to make one glorious song.
When Ilúvatar [the God figure] first tells his sub-deities of his planned song, “each comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly” (15). In other words, each of them is different: different interests (trees vs. metalwork), different talents (hunting, poetry), and different personalities (solitary or “a hardy friend” ). Ilúvatar’s many desirable attributes are such that each of his creations can express only part of his greatness.
“Of the theme that I have declared to you,” says Ilúvatar, “I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. . . . ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will” (15, emphasis added). In harmony shows that they are not all singing the same note. The differences create the beauty. And differences create the value: they learn more–about Ilúvatar, about the world–by listening to the other voices.
So that’s music. Diversity in artistic form. Different notes, different tempos, different instruments and vocal ranges…they all must work with each other for music to be as powerful as it is. Moreover, though there’s a kind of diversity that can lead to cacophony, music presents diversity coming together to accomplish a great and noble purpose.
So problems (the cacophony potential) arise when one part tries to drown out the rest, as Melkor the Satan figure attempts in Silmarillion: “it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters that were of his own imagining . . . for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself” (16).
Of course, if you’ve read The Silmarillion, you know that Melkor doesn’t succeed. (And I highly recommend that you read at least the first chapter: it is one of the most beautiful pieces of prose in the English language.)
But the point is that the good music comes from everyone in their unique ordained place, doing what they’re supposed to be doing—not piteously comparing or trying to increase their part to help their egos, but contributing competently to the awesome whole. As Mr. Rogers says at the end of his clip, “And what’s even greater is that we all can learn to play together and care for each other.”
Are you tempted to compare your writing to someone else’s today? Your ability to instruct your children? Your appearance? This comparison is joy-sucking whether it’s from the top (“This person should be more like me”) or the bottom (“I wish I were more like that person”). It’s us desiring to be the same note as someone else. It takes away the music!
So let’s not seek to increase the power and glory of the part assigned ourselves. Pride is like trying to perform a trumpet solo during the Moonlight Sonata. And let’s not undermine the very important musical effect that even the “unnoticed” of us can have. What if the piccolo player, because she doesn’t like the shrill sound of her instrument by itself, chose not to participate anymore? The orchestra would lose a vital component.
Trumpet soloist, take your place again; you’re noisy and unhelpful during Beethoven, but you’ll shine when we play Louis Armstrong. Piccolo player, pick up your instrument; we can’t do this thing without you. The music metaphor for creation tells us our place in it. It tells us not to be arrogant and not to lose heart, either. It tells us there’s a time and a place for us to come in, and we don’t have to engage in endless self-promotion to force it. It also tells us that there’s something only you can contribute to this world.
“There’s only one person in this whole world that’s exactly like you,” says Mr. Rogers. “And that’s you yourself. I say that often to you because it’s very, very important that you know it.”
Lewis, C. S. The Magician’s Nephew. HarperTrophy, 2000.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Silmarillion. Edited by Christopher Tolkien, 2nd ed., Houghton Mifflin, 2001.