J. R. R. Tolkien begins The Silmarillion with Ilúvatar (the “Father of All”) engaged in the act of creation. Creation unfolds according to the theme of the Great Music that Ilúvatar inspires in each of the Ainur (“Holy Ones”) through the Imperishable Flame. For Tolkien, God invites creatures to participate in the act of creation by enflaming their creative passion and ordering it toward a particular end. The Great Music has a theme that enters each of the Holy Ones and comes forth through their own voice as it is enflamed with divine ardor.
Tolkien’s decision to describe the arc of creation as a hymn is no doubt in part because of the influence of the seventh century peasant poet Cædmon. Like the prophet Daniel, Cædmon received the nine-line hymn of creation in a vision at night. As Tolkien scholars have noted, it was from Cædmon’s hymn that Tolkien retrieved the term “Middle-earth,” which was the poet’s way of describing the habitation God made for humanity.
More to the point for Tolkien, however, was the connection between poetry and peasantry. With its fusion of creativity and charismatic inspiration, it was a folk culture that gave birth to the first English Christian poet. The nightly revelations and the spontaneous burst of hymnic praise placed Cædmon in touch with cosmic harmonies that dwelled just beneath the surface of things. On this wave of inspiration, Cædmon began to Christianize the Old English poetic tradition in keeping with the Icelandic view of poetry as the capacity to peer into the runes and find the meaning of the world.
Bubbling up from the cultural landscapes of everyday life, the creativity behind poetry and music places the person in touch with another world, the enchanted one hidden in plain sight. It is how the theme of the Great Music continues to play in and through the particularities of life.
Yet, this music has a theme that the artist must discover. In his Exhortation to the Greeks, Clement of Alexandria invites readers to listen to the new song of “my minstrel.” The minstrel turns out to be the “salutary Word” who harmonizes the universe and the soul. As a microcosm of creation, the interior movements of thoughts, emotions, and desires in the soul find their counterpart in the rhythms of life. They must be brought back into order and harmony.
This is one reason why the church calendar remains an important feature of Christian cultureit teaches Christians to conform their lives to the rhythms of the macrocosm once again. The artist finds the theme in the Word who stands behind the words and whose healing balm delivers from a slavery to the creation that prevents the artist from fully seeing the world. Desires conceal as much as they reveal.
As the minstrel of humanity, the Word turns humans into seers once again in the same way that Cædmon, the herdsman became a visionary who transformed a culture. Because the rational structure of the human mind finds its source in divine rationality, this Word illuminates the eye of the soul turning ordinary persons into prophets who can begin to read creation. The Father has sown seeds of the Word into the fabric of human rationality, which, when enkindled by the muse of the Spirit, causes persons to participate in the praise of creation for its Creator.
The reason why symbolic modes of discourse are important is because creation is a divine language whose symbolic meaning must be unlocked. It always and ever retains its capacity to communicateits analogia entis. Humans become co-creators as they peer into creation and finds its meaning. This is the ancient and medieval idea of the artist as an artifex who mimics divine artistry by cultivating new art forms as the creation “speaks.”
One glimpses this at work in T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, which are set in the spaces between nature and the folk cultures emerging in concert with nature. With the epigraphs of Burnt Norton, Eliot reminds his readers that the “Logos is common to all.” As the beginning and the end, the Logos is woven into Eliot’s symbolic discourse on open fields, dances around bonfires, rivers, waterfalls, and other aspects of nature’s and culture’s delights. All of this unfolds through the changing seasons. Elliot concludes,
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning
Eliot’s effort to read creation as God’s language, coupled with his pronounced fear over human inhumanity creates a tension in the poems. Instead of resolving the tension, Eliot pronounces the prophetic word of Julian of Norwich, another seer of a different time, that “all shall be well.”
Tolkien and Eliot paint a picture of the artist as co-creator with God whose Word indwells creation and the structure of human rationality. The transformation of culture occurs at the level of the folk, the hoi polloi, who open themselves up to visions and dreams at night.
While scientists may unlock some secrets of nature, scientific discourse falls short of her teleology. For that, even the experience of a herdsman (or a hobbit), when filled with the Spirit, will due. In and through these encounters with God, artists discover the symbolic modes of discoursewhether poetry, music, pottery, architecture, or otherwiseto express the language of creation as they peer through the East Cokers of this world and find that “in my end is my beginning.”