Tolkien's Cosmogony

By Professor Ralph C. Wood

The most important information contained in The Silmarillion concerns Tolkien's cosmogony—his account of God and the divine powers and the world's creation—which we hear very little about in The Lord of the Rings. Why this should be so is itself an interesting question. One thing is clear: Tolkien does not believe in progressive revelation--the notion that God discloses himself increasingly over time, so that each age has a larger understanding of the divine purpose for the universe. It may be the other way around—that there can be a radical decline in our knowledge of God, so that our age may be vastly ignorant about divine things. In any case, it needs to be observed that Tolkien's cosmogony is a hierarchy: a subordinated and differentiated creation whose inhabitants have specific traits and responsibilities.

At the top stands Ilúvatar, the All-Father, corresponding roughly to the One whom Christians call God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth. From him all things proceed, and to him all things return. He is the beginning and the end, the One who shapes all events to his own purposes. He dwells in the Timeless Halls and only rarely intervenes in his Creation, preferring instead to work through the agency of his Valar or Ainur. These are the fifteen subordinate beings Ilúvatar created with the Flame Imperishable of his Spirit. They are themselves entirely spiritual creations who work Ilúvatar's will in the world.

In the highest place stands Manwë, the Good and Pure. He is the noblest and mightiest of the Valar, the one who is dearest to Ilúvatar and who best understands his will. He is the Lord of the Valar, ruling their councils, confirming their deeds, and hallowing the things they make. Compassion is his chief trait, and perhaps this is why he does not comprehend the cleverness of evil. He is most concerned with air, wind, clouds, and the birds that fly. Manwë's spouse is Varda, the Exalted. She made the stars, established the courses of the Sun and Moon, and set the morning and evening star Eärendil in the sky. Thus is she known to the elves as Elbereth (Star-Queen) and Gilthoniel (Star-Kindler). She listens to the cries of both men and elves in order to come to their aid and succor.

Next comes Melkor ("He who arises in Might"). Ilúvatar gave to him greater power and knowledge than to any of the other Valar. He is especially gifted in the knowledge of substances and crafts. Thus did he become impatient with the slow workings of Ilúvatar. He desired to have his own power to create things out of nothing—to give them true Being—as the All-Father did. So he searched in the Void for the Flame Imperishable, disturbing the original Music which Ilúvatar had created to keep the Timeless Halls in harmony. Ilúvatar had created Eä—the heavens and the earth—to show Melkor and the other Valar his will and purpose and power. But Melkor in his jealousy claimed Arda (the earth) as his own realm and sought to dominate all its inhabitants. Melkor was defeated in his evil designs by the other Valar, who took him back in chains to Valinor (home of the Valar) where he remained imprisoned for three ages. But at the end of the Third Age, Melkor deceived Manwë into unchaining him, thus freeing him to make war on the elves for having rallied the Valar against him. It is noteworthy that Melkor the Traitor has no spouse, for the Evil One cannot enter into true community with another. Melkor was finally defeated by the other Valar and cast out of Eä into the Void, but the Shadow of his malice lives on in the elves and men whom he had corrupted, and in Sauron his servant.

Of the other Valar we hear much less. Perhaps the next most important is Aulë, whose power is as great as Melkor's, who shares his mastery of crafts and skilled artifacts, but who has no desire to possess and dominate. Aulë fashioned the substances of which Arda was composed, made the Two Lamps of the Valar, and designed both the Sun and the Moon. The elves thus call him the Smith or Maker. In his impatience to see the Children of Ilúvatar (men and elves), he made dwarves, whom he called Khazâd. As the products of Aulë, dwarves were attracted to substances, to the depths of the earth, and to crafts. They were great miners and worked wonders with stones, metals, and jewels. But they were never very friendly with other races, remaining secretive and possessive, never forgetting a wrong or a debt. Yet this very hardiness means that evil cannot easily dominate them. They survive only because Aulë submitted them to the will of Ilúvatar. Aulë's spouse is Yawanna, creator of the Ents.

Ulmo ("pourer, rainer") is next in power among the Valar. He is lord of waters and one of the chief architects of Arda, always in close friendship with Manwë. Within the realm of Arda he dwells in the Outer Ocean or in the waters underneath Middle Earth, governing the movement of all oceans and rivers. Ulmo cares greatly for the Children of Ilúvatar, advising them by direct appearances, by dreams, or through the music of waters. He learned more of Ilúvatar's music than any of the other Valar, and instructed the elves in the arts of harmony. His horns are the Ulumúri, and his music express both the glory and the sadness of life. Perhaps because he has no fixed dwelling place, neither does Ulmo have a spouse.

Irmo ("master of desire") is the author of visions and dreams. With his spouse Estë ("rest"), he provides relief and recovery for the Valar and Eldar (original elves) within the gardens of Lórien, which are the most beautiful in Valinor. They contain many lakes, flowers, and trees. Lórien is a place of soft beauty whose dominant color is silver. It is also the model for the elven lords Celeborn and Galadriel, who create their own silvan realm in Middle-earth, thus preserving in this earthly Lorien the true beauty and timelessness of the Eldar. It is also called Lothlórien, "blossom-dream-land."

Nienna is the greatest of the Valarië (the queen Valar) but she has no spouse. She is the very soul of suffering and grief, the one who has compassion for others, especially for those whom Melkor has harmed in the Marring of Arda. Her tears bring healing. Yet the call of Nienna is not to endless grief but to pity, to hope, and to spiritual endurance. She dwells in the far Western regions of Valinor, and her windows look out beyond the Walls of Night.

Mandos is so-named because he dwells in Mandos ("prison-fortress") and keeps the Houses of the Dead. He is the Doomsman of the Valar, knowing Ilúvatar's final judgment on every living thing. Because he discerns Ilúvatar's will as contained in the Great Music, he is inflexible and dispassionate, but he reveals fates and judgments (Doom) only when Manwë orders it. Only once, when Luthien sang to him, has Mandos been moved to pity. His spouse is Vairë, who weaves all past events into the tapestries which cover the walls of Mandos and which tell the story of all things within Time.

Oromë ("horn-blowing") is the great hunter and battler who, among all the Valar, performs their deeds of prowess. He is stern and dreadful in anger. He loved Middle-earth, where he rode frequently on his great steed Nahar, hunting the monsters of Melkor. On one of these journeys Oromë discovered the Elves, whom he led on the Great Journey from Middle-earth to Eldamar, the permanent home of the elves. His spouse is Vana, younger sister of Yavanna and friend of flowers and birds, both of whom rejoice when she is near. Tulkas, the strongest of the Valar, is the last to enter Eä to undertake the battle against Melkor. Like Oromë, he loves deeds of prowess, especially wrestling and running. Though neither a weighty thinker or good counsellor, he is faithful and true, slow to anger and slow to forget, and he laughs as he fights. He wed Nessa at the Feast of the Spring in Arda. The least of the Valarië, she is the sister of Oromë and is linked with both deer and dancing, being lithe and swift of foot.

Beneath the Valar are ranged the Maiar, who are servants and helpers of the Valar. Chief among them is Eonwë, herald and standard-bearer of Manwë. But like the Valar, the Maiar have freedom to reject the will of Ilúvatar. Bal rogs ("power terrors, demons of might") are Maiar who rebelled with Melkor and are among his most terrible minions. Though they are spirits of fire who bear whips of flame, they also cloak themselves in darkness. Most of the evil Maiar were destroyed in the Great Battle, the massive conflict that ended the First Age. The few survivors hid deep underground, but the dwarves digging for mithril uncovered one of the Balrogs in Khazad-dûm. This demon killed two dwarf kings of Durin's Folk, and thus becomes known as Durin's Bane until Gandalf destroys him in a ten-day battle.

Sauron ("abominable" in elvish; saura also means lizard in Greek) was seduced by Melkor early in the First Age and became the chief of his servants. After Melkor-Morgoth was defeated at the Great Battle, Sauron submitted to Eonwë and seemed to make sincere repentance for his misdeeds. But when Eonwë ordered him back to Valinor to be judged by Manwë, Sauron refused to humble himself so low. Instead, he hid himself somewhere in Middle-earth and allowed the bonds of memory to draw him back into Morgoth's desire to dominate. Sauron emerged in the Second Age to establish his stronghold in Mordor and to build his fortress at Barad-dûr. He corrupted many groups of men and elves. Using the skill of the elven-smiths, he also he forged the Rings of Power—a series of metal bands, each set with a precious stone. Sauron used the Nine Rings of Men to produce the nine dreadful Nazgûl, the Ringwraiths. The Seven Rings for Dwarves were not powerful enough to seduce the little creatures, but they did deepen their wearers' lust for gold.

The Three Rings for Elves were made by the elven-smith Celebrimbor alone and were thus uncorrupted by the touch of Sauron. These rings give power to build and to understand and to heal but not to conquer or control. Celebrimbor gave to Galadriel Nenya, by whose power she was able to create Lothlórien. To Elrond came Vilya, and to Mithrandir (Gandalf) came Narya. Sauron could never discover the whereabouts of these elven-rings because their bearers all heed Celebrimbor's warning not to wear them until Sauron loses the One Ring. When it is destroyed, the elven-rings will also become powerless, and all the things wrought with them will fail.

This One Ring Sauron himself forged secretly and without help, intending thereby to control the other Rings and their bearers. He was successful with the Nazgûl, but the dwarves and elves thwarted his purpose. Because the One Ring was cast in the Fire of Doom at Orodruin, it can be melted back into its elements there alone. The Ring has strange properties of evil. It seems to contain the power of self-determination. It does not do the will of its holder but seeks its own return to Sauron. And it devours its bearers—except for the supernally strong Sauron—by extending their lives while consuming their bodies and souls. It incites jealousy and hate and fear in those who bear it, and greed in those who do not possess it.


Fëanor, the great elven-smith, first fashioned the palantíri, which are crystal globes that reveal things far away in both time and space. Fëanor also created three magnificent Rings of Light out of a new substance called "silima," which is harder than adamant and virtually unbreakable. These Silmarilli were the nearest thing to Ilúvatar's own creations among all the things that were ever made. Melkor (now renamed Morgoth, the Dark Enemy) lusted desperately after the Silmarilli. He created suspicion among the elves by saying that the Valar demanded their return to Valinor lest the elves establish kingdoms in Middle-earth beyond the control of the Valar. He also whispered that the new race of creatures called Men, the youngest born of Ilúvatar, would occupy Middle-earth in place of the elves. Yet Fëanor and certain other elves listened to Morgoth's evil suspicions and began to murmur against the Valar. They also became secretive and possessive about the Silmarils, as if their light belonged to them alone. Finally Morgoth, with the aid of a female rebel maia named Ungoliant (Unlight), stole them.

It was also Morgoth's wicked desire to divide the Valar from the elves, and also the elves from men. This he accomplished not through force but seduction. With the power of the Silmarilli, Morgoth was able to build his fortress called Angband, and also to produce orcs, trolls, wolves, dragons, and bats to aid his evil designs. Morgoth was joined by Sauron, another rebel Maiar. They were thwarted thanks largely to Lúthien an elf-and-maia maiden (also called Tinúviel, the Nightingale) who gave up her immortality because of her love for the man named Beren. Lúthien's father would not allow her to marry this mortal creature unless he brought back a Silmaril from Morgoth's crown. This Beren did, only to have the hand holding the ring bitten off by the werewolf Carcharoth. It came finally into the possession of Eärendil, who is also the product of an elven-human marriage. For his services in reconciling men and elves, Eärendil is allowed to enter Valinor, even though he is partly mortal. The Silmaril was placed at the helm of his ship Vingilot ("foam-flower"), where it still sails the sea of the skies, and can thus be seen shining as the morning and evening star.

Elves and Men are Ilúvatar's first and second Children, and not even the Valar have the power to take away the gifts he has given them. To elves he gave the gift of immortality: they can be slain or die of grief, and their spirits can gradually consume their bodies, but they are not subject to age or disease. The elves are thus meant to dwell in Valinor with the other undying creatures. To men he gave the gift of mortality, the blessing of death that enables men to escape the world with all its grief and pain. Neither mortals nor immortals had any reason, therefore, to envy each other. But, alas, they did. The elves fell in love with mortal beauty and thus became reluctant to make their journey back to Valinor. They were punished with the curse of never being able to leave the world until the end of time, and now they have dwindled to an almost forgotten folk.

The Númenoreans ("the Men of the West") began, by contrast, to long for immortal life. For their service in the War of the Great Jewels, they were given the huge and wonderful island of Númenor, lying at the westernmost point beyond the mainland of Middle-earth and having only the Undying Lands beyond it. At first they excelled in shipbuilding and sailing and all the practical crafts, and they also went to the aid of the human settlements in Middle-earth. But the further westward they sailed, the more they longed for the immortality of Valinor. They tried even to invade the Undying Lands. The Númenoreans thus abandoned the use of the elven tongues, made raids on the mainland, and sought everlasting life in ornate tombs, in embalmed corpses, and in exalted titles. The worship of Ilúvatar was abandoned, shrines to Melkor were erected, and human sacrifice was performed. Ilúvatar was finally brought to destroy Númenor utterly, sinking what was once a high human civilization beneath the sea.

Only the faithful Elendil and his two sons Isildur and Anarion--bringing their families, the White Tree of healing, and the seven palantíri--escaped the massive destruction. Elendil and the other Númenorean survivors established North and South kingdoms on Middle-earth, and taught the wild men who lived there a high degree of civilization. Yet these Númenoreans still longed to sail westward for the Deathless Lands. Thus did they circumnavigate the globe, proving it round and not flat, as it had once been before the drowning of Númenor. The seas are now "bent," returning to where they begin. These men now knew that the Valar have lifted the Undying Lands "into the realm of hidden things" that cannot be reached by ordinary means of sailing west. But they saw that the elves could still reach them, passing by a mysterious "Straight Road" that seems to run to Valinor by a lofty bridge that is impassable to mortal flesh.

After a hundred years of life in Middle-earth, the Númenoreans of the South Kingdom were attacked by Sauron, who captured Isildur's city of Minas Ithil (Tower of the Moon) that watched over Mordor. Sauron changed its name to Minas Morgul, Tower of Sorcery, and garrisoned it with many orcs. He also burned the White Tree that Isildur had planted, and he took back to Barad-dûr the palantír belonging to Isildur. Elendil then made common cause with Gil-galad, the high king of the Noldor elves, in order to make war on Sauron. This became known as the Last Alliance of Men and Elves because never again were the elves on Middle-earth numerous enough to attack Sauron with arms. The Alliance defeated Sauron and the Ringwraiths in a battle so bloody that the place became known as the Dead Marshes: nothing will grow in a place so poisoned.

The victors then stormed the gates of Mordor and laid siege to Barad-dûr. There both Elendil and King Gil-galad were slain, as they in turn slew Sauron (though of course he would eventually re-embody himself). It was also there that Isildur cut off Sauron's finger bearing the Ring and put it on his own hand. Gradually Isildur became filled with such lust for possession that he claimed the Ring as wergeld (compensation) for the loss of his father and brother. In a battle with orcs he put on the Ring to make himself invisible, but the orcs killed him anyway. As Isildur was dying, the Ring "slipped" off his finger and was lost in the River Anduin. It comes at last to Gollum, and there begins our story. One critic calls The Silmarillion a stark tragedy: "a tale which goes ever downhill from the high and the beautiful to darkness and ruin." But The Lord of the Rings is more like a comedy in the true sense: an action moving upward from the hobbits' initial temptation to a victorious ending. Why Tolkien's two great works should point in opposite directions is the question which it is our job to answer.


(A portion of the poem Tolkien wrote to C. S. Lewis after their long conversation in 1929, explaining to him why myths are not "lies breathed through silver" but deep theological revelations, indeed anticipations of the one story which became history, the one myth which became fact.)

The heart of man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise, and still recalls Him.
Though now long estranged
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Disgraced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light
through whom is splintered from a single White to many hues,
and endlessly combined in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled with Elves and Goblins,
though we dared to build Gods and their houses
out of dark and light and sowed the seeds of dragons—'twas our right (used or misused).
That right has not decayed: we make still by the law in which we're made.

Tolkien's Description of His Epic Project

Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had in mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic to the level of the romantic fairy-story—the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths—which I could dedicate simply: to England; to my country. It should possess the tone and quality that I desired, somewhat cool and clear, be redolent of our "air" (the clime and soil of the North West, meaning Britain and the hither parts of Europe; not Italy or the Aegean, still less the East), and, while possessing (if I could achieve it) the fair elusive beauty that some call Celtic (though it is rarely found in genuine ancient Celtic things), it should be "high," purged of the gross, and fit for the adult mind of a land long steeped in poetry. I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd.

Dr. Ralph Wood, Professor of English at Baylor University, is a Tolkien expert and has studied Christian literary classics and the Inklings (the close group of Oxford literary masters including C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams and Tolkien). He taught for 26 years at Wake Forest University, where he won awards for distinguished teaching. His publications include "Traveling the One Road: The Lord of the Rings as a 'Pre-Christian' Classic," Christian Century 110, 6 (February 24, 1993): 208-11.