Trickster: At the Boundary Between Creator and Sub-Creator

I am not going to tell you a story of this world. And I am going to tell you a story of this world. It is for you to find out where the story came from. Or I will tell you. Or something in between.

For no apparent reason the One chose to become many. For no apparent reason. The key here is whether it was apparent, not whether it was without reason. How can one ascertain the appearances of the reason of the One? The One alone knows the reason for being, and from thence does faith in the One arise. A faith based on reason. But no apparent reason.

We are going to enter a world together. Likely it is a world with which you are deeply familiar. Or somewhat familiar if you have chosen me (or I have chosen myself) to be your guide into this world. But to enter the world together we must, on this day, begin outside it. Usually we awaken already within the circles of this world, if we have chosen to explore it. But today we shall suspend time—for who is more able to suspend time than that which (or whom) we wish to encounter on this journey? We shall suspend time and enter the imagination of a world before time, the world before the world, the world even before the waking into reality of imagination.

I wish to explore Creativity as Trickster. If, as Lewis Hyde claims, Trickster Makes This World, who makes Trickster? The ambiguity, the shape-shifting, the amorality, the potential and paradox: these qualities of the Trickster are birthed from Creativity. Is the Trickster really Trickster? Or does Creativity take hold for some time, and make Trickster what Trickster is?

The world into which were are entering is one that happened to be penned by a single author, or so it is often said. You probably already know his name if you know me. Can you imagine that moment when a cosmogonic myth made itself apparent to a single human imagination? What must that have felt like? How many times has that happened in the history of our one species? How many beginnings have been retold of our world?

J.R.R. Tolkien coined the term “sub-creation” to describe the desire to create and experience Art, what he saw as the shaping and crafting of imaginal experience into artistic form. Yet Tolkien used the term “sub-creator” because he believed the desire to create arose within created beings because they in turn were first created by a divine Creator. “We make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”[1] Tolkien saw himself as a sub-creator, making Art—an enchanted, Secondary World—under the creative imagination of God. But the Secondary World Tolkien shaped, a world called Arda, is one that tells the stories of other sub-creators, other divinely created beings who wished to create in their own measure and derivative mode. A world within a world, sub-creators under sub-creators. The desire to create itself, what we might call the embodiment of Creativity, has a Trickster form. Yet no single figure in Tolkien’s world remains Trickster for long: rather the Trickster energy appears to move on, igniting creativity and even chaos, yet ultimately bringing more beauty into the world for its disruption.

I would like to turn to Tolkien’s cosmogonic myth, called the Ainulindalë, the Music of the Ainur. Again, can you imagine that moment when a cosmogonic myth made itself apparent to a single human imagination? The Ainulindalë began with Eru, the One, who first made the Ainur, spirits of divine thought. Eru, called also Ilúvatar in the world of Arda, inspired the Ainur to make music—and they did. Their singing, unbeknownst to them, shaped the world they would eventually build. The Ainur are the first sub-creators under Ilúvatar, shaping the divine imagining they received from Eru. The musical strands wove together and formed the first harmonies:

. . . a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void.[2]

But one among the Ainur wished not to be a sub-creator, one whose musical threads were woven into the melodies of all others seamlessly. He wished to be a creator in his own right. His name is Melkor, and at this moment he is the first embodiment of the Trickster in the Deeps of Time before the world of Arda is brought into being. “He had gone often alone into the void places seeking the Imperishable Flame; for desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own . . . . Yet he found not the Fire, for it is with Ilúvatar.”[3] Melkor’s thoughts and desires began to give rise to a new music, a strand of melody that clashed with the harmonies already in motion. Some of the Ainur followed his lead and soon the music became “a sea of turbulent sound.”[4] From amidst the “raging storm”[5] Ilúvatar, with a smile, brought forth a new theme. Again Melkor’s discord ignited disruptive clashing and violent disharmony. And in response Ilúvatar drew forward a third theme. The two melodies played simultaneously, conflicting yet interwoven: “there were two musics progressing at one time before the seat of Ilúvatar, and they were utterly at variance. The one was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came.”[6] Melkor’s music was loud, violent, drowning, and repetitive, “but it seemed that its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern.”[7] The rebellion of Melkor, the desire for individual creativity apart from the Creativity of the One, was ultimately woven into the very patterning of the third theme of music making it all the more beautiful. For it was the sorrow of the third theme, sorrow in response to the violence of the disharmony, that gave it its profound beauty.

Many Trickster themes are woven into this narrative, although the Trickster is not embodied by one being alone. The Trickster energy moved quickly from being to being, never settling but still creating the dynamism of the moment. In Melkor’s rebellion and Ilúvatar’s creative response, the Trickster moved between them, crossing the boundaries between Creator and sub-creator. The Music of the Ainur is the moment of Creation, when the world is first imagined into being. It cannot be done again, and there are no mistakes. Disharmony is part of the world’s story from the beginning, and the suffering it causes gives rise to greater beauty than if all were melodious. So it is that Trickster does indeed make this world, or rather shapes it, by being many agents of creativity in succession.

After the making of the Music, Ilúvatar showed another of the most powerful Ainur how the discordant Music of Melkor had reshaped his own Music, that which had made the waters:

Seest 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, and yet hath not destroyed the beauty of thy fountains, nor of thy clear pools. Behold the snow, and the cunning work of frost! Melkor hath devised heat and fires without restraint, and hath not dried up thy desire nor utterly quelled the music of the sea. Behold rather the height and glory of the clouds, and the everchanging mists; and listen to the fall of rain upon the Earth![8]

To this, the Ainu of the Waters responded: “Truly, Water is become now fairer than my heart imagined, neither had my secret thought conceived the snowflake, nor in all my music was contained the falling of the rain.”[9]

In his rebellion Melkor became identified with the Trickster. He had wandered through the Void looking for the Secret Fire, that which grants true Being to the creative impulse. To Melkor is seemed “that Ilúvatar took no thought for the Void, and he was impatient of its emptiness.”[10] As Lewis Hyde writes, the Trickster “embodies and enacts that large portion of our experience where good and evil are hopelessly intertwined. He represents the paradoxical category of sacred amorality.”[11] Melkor faced the darkness of the Void looking for the Imperishable Flame of Creativity, searching for consciousness in unconsciousness. As Tanya Wilkinson writes, “The archetypal Trickster faces both ways, toward consciousness and unconsciousness, embodying contradiction.”[12] Melkor’s desire to create was the gift bestowed on him by the Creator, but it was a gift he sought to wrest to his own devices, and the violence of his attempt to rip away that gift and make it solely his own changed the course of all subsequent actions. Ilúvatar showed the Ainur a vision of their Music, that they might see how their melodies each unfolded into form. Ilúvatar then said: “And thou, Melkor, wilt discover all the secret thoughts of thy mind, and wilt perceive that they are but a part of the whole and tributary to its glory.”[13] Perhaps here the One outwitted the Trickster, and became Trickster himself.

Melkor’s role in the beginning was ambiguous, as the role of the Trickster should be. He is the mightiest of the Ainur, “given the greatest gifts of power and knowledge,”[14] and his desire to use those gifts walks the boundary of good and evil. The evils he caused served the ultimate good of Ilúvatar, sorrow and suffering making the poignant beauty of Creation. Only later, when Melkor’s fall was complete, when he became identified no longer as a sub-creator under the One but simply a being marring the sub-creations of the other powerful Ainur, did he lose his ambiguous position. No longer was he named Melkor, meaning “He who arises in Might,”[15] but Morgoth, “the Black Enemy.”[16] If the Trickster is to be found at the boundary, the place of ambiguity, then the moment Melkor chose not to remain in that ambiguity he ceased to be the Trickster. Creative Trickster energy moved on, and found its home in other sub-creators who walk the fine line between good and evil, following the ambiguous path of ingenuity and clever creativity.

Melkor has a foil among the Ainur, one who also desired to make his own independent creations: Aulë, who longed for beings to whom he could teach craft and wisdom. Like the other Ainur, Aulë had recognized that the third themes of the Music signified the coming of the Children of Ilúvatar, the Eldar and Edain—Elves and Humans—who would people the world. Yet Aulë was impatient for their coming, and instead crafted a new race of beings, the Naugrim, called also the Dwarves. In this moment Ilúvatar came to him, and we are able to see here most clearly the divine relationship between Creator and sub-creator. Ilúvatar spoke to Aulë saying: “For thou hast from me as a gift thy own being only, and no more; and therefore the creatures of thy hand and mind can live only by that being, moving when thou thinkest to move them, and if thy thought be elsewhere, standing idle. Is that thy desire?”[17] Aulë replied with an explanation of his seeming rebellion, so like Melkor’s rebellion in many ways: it came not from a desire for power and lordship in his own right but from a desire for “things other than I am, to love and to teach them.”[18] But it was the inherent desire to create, to be a sub-creator, that Aulë gave most convincing voice to: “Yet the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee; and the child of little understanding that makes a play of the deeds of his father may do so without thought of mockery, but because he is the son of his father.” This supplication of the sub-creator is not that of the Trickster, but its effect on the One is such that the Naugrim awaken with their own individual life and wills, independent of their maker. Something new is introduced that would have not existed otherwise, without the seeming rebellion of the sub-creator, or the unexpected move of the Creator to give them life.

A sub-creator shapes a world within a world, Art from the raw material of Imagination. A world within a world naturally has its boundaries, but while within the world it can be difficult to see where the boundaries lie, if it is possible to see them at all. Only when a new world is created do we see that boundary drawn, the moment sub-creator and Creator work together to breathe life into new form. The Trickster waits at the boundaries, the crossroads, the borders, leaping between those who dare to draw a line against what has come before to make something new and different.

In this world we have entered the Trickster seems particularly evasive, changing names and changing shapes, crossing from good to evil and back before there was good and evil to cross between. If he who seems to be a Trickster falls from grace, the Trickster energy moves on, finds somewhere else to be. The Trickster seems to be Creativity itself, the Imperishable Flame that gives life, that is within Ilúvatar and yet is not Ilúvatar. And what is the Imperishable Flame, the Secret Fire?

Why was there a great Music to begin with? Why were the Ainur brought into being? For no apparent reason . . . Is that not the sign of the Trickster?

Works Cited

Hyde, Lewis. Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories.” In The Monsters and the Critics. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. London, England: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.

–––––. The Silmarillion. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001.

Wilkinson, Tanya. Persephone Returns: Victims, Heroes and the Journey from the Underworld. Berkeley, CA: PageMill Press, 1996.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories” in The Monsters and the Critics, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London, England: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006), 145.

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001), 15.

[3] Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 16.

[4] Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 16.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 16-17.

[7] Ibid, 17.

[8] Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 19.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, 16.

[11] Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), 10.

[12] Tanya Wilkinson, Persephone Returns: Victims, Heroes and the Journey from the Underworld (Berkeley, CA: PageMill Press, 1996), 153.

[13] Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 17.

[14] Ibid, 16.

[15] Ibid, 340.

[16] Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 341.

[17] Ibid, 43.

[18] Ibid.

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  1. Becca,

    Thank you for a wonderful article, last night saw your Red & Red lecture, also wonderful and thanks for sharing, hope you have reached ‘the other shore’ and wishing you all the best


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