“And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.” (Pg. 5-6).

(Artist Credit: Matej Cadil – Ainulindale).

Sp-b-mi (Spih-bih-mee). This is the amusing pronunciation of the title, which I first heard about eighteen months ago. I was searching for a podcast based on Tolkien to listen to at work and I happened to find the “Prancing Pony Podcast”.  I would not be surprised to learn that the majority of our readers are familiar with it, but for anyone who is not, I highly recommend that you check it out. It was started back in 2016 by Shawn Marchese (as per his surname, “The Real Life Lord of the Mark”), and Alan Sisto (“Man of the West, The Aragorn to his [Shawn’s] Eomer”). I have followed them as they plotted a course through the Silmarillion and the Hobbit, and I have just begun to listen to their episodes on Book One of the Lord of the Rings (so I am way behind their current episodes on The Return of the King). They provide content on Tolkien’s life and literature that is entertaining, humorous, poignant and, above all, highly educational. I have learned so much about Tolkien and his literature from their podcast, and I wanted to highlight this, especially since “spbmi” is their humorous original ‘word’. 

S.P.B.M.I refers to the phrase found in the quote above, “…shall prove but mine instrument”. The words are spoken by Eru Iluvatar, the Creator of the Universe in Tolkien’s work, to Melkor, who had produced great musical disharmony in the divine symphony. This symphony was to be participation by the first created beings (the Ainur) in the creation of , the cosmos in which Arda (and Middle-earth by extension) is found. Since the music was ‘composed’ by Eru, who is God, it was perfectly beautiful. Insofar as the orchestra of the Ainur followed the intention of the composer, it would show forth that beauty, and indeed, the Silmarillion says 

“… 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.” (Pg. 1-2).

Alas, all was not well despite the beauty of Eru’s dwelling. For the sake of his pride and his own “power and glory”  Melkor introduces music which clashes with the original music of Ilúvatar. Such is the disturbance that many of the Ainur cease to perform, and Eru personally intervenes in the symphony twice before bringing it to a complete stop. He admonishes Melkor and informs the Ainur that he will show them what they have done by participating in the music. He shows them a vision of a new World, and says

…Behold your Music! This is your minstrelsy; and each of you shall find contained herein… all those things which it may seem that he himself devised or added…” (Pg. 6). 

This World is based on divinely beautiful Music and is therefore fundamentally beautiful too. However, the Music was marred by Melkor’s additions, and consequently, so too was the World. The phrase “Arda-Marred” is used to refer to the corrupted, fallen state of the World. Where there are roses there are thorns. Corruption enters the world, ‘piggybacking’ on goodness, like a parasite.

It is because of this, that that general corruption, or evil, is doomed to fail from the beginning. No music can be made that changes the overarching theme of Iluvatar. Accordingly, any instrument that attempts to play out of harmony remains an instrument for good. The first evil sows the seeds of its own downfall from the moment Melkor sings a note out of tune. This is evidenced not only by the words of the Supreme Authority but by the playing out of Melkor’s story, from this beginning to its partial end, in the War of Wrath. Evil always shoots itself in the foot, since it acts in the context of reality based on Ultimate Goodness. Iluvatar can take any evil Melkor does and turn it to a greater good. His third theme shows us this: “…[Melkor’s music] essayed to drown the other music by the violence of its voice, but it seemed that its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern”. 

The first example we see of this providence making beauty from evil on Arda is the strengthening of the relationship between Manwe and Ulmo. This is achieved through things apparently unrelated to the events thus far described as clouds, snowflakes, and rainfall. Manwe, though lord of the Valar and of all Arda, is associated most of all with the airs and winds, from “the utmost borders of the veil of Arda to the breezes that blow in the grass” (Pg. 16). Ulmo, on the other hand, is the Vala who rules over (or rather, under!) the waters of Arda. In the primordial time of Arda, the skies and the waters are seemingly more separated realms than we would be used to. This implies that the water cycle does not exist. That is until Melkor steps in (with a wound in his foot, not from Fingolfin, but a bullet!).  

(Eru) “Behold the snow and the cunning work of frost! Melkor hath devised heats and fire 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! And in these things, thou art drawn nearer to Manwe, thy friend, whom thou lovest”. 

Then Ulmo answered: “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. I will seek Manwe, that he and I may make melodies for ever to thy delight!’ (Pg. 8-9).

Melkor uses heats and fires in his attempt to subjugate Ulmo’s realm of water. However, all he achieves is the subcreation of clouds through evaporation, and subsequently rain and snowfall. The lords of sky and water are brought closer together and further beauty is added to the world. This is in Melkor’s despite, though he had tried to act in his own interests, and ultimately, to spite Iluvatar. Sadly, I cannot claim to be so observant as to have seen the relatively small detail that Melkor is owed some credit for the origin of clouds and rains. If you have not done so before, again, I highly recommend visiting the Prancing Pony (Podcast)!

Taken from: “https://www.tor.com/2017/10/18/meet-the-valar-and-the-foundations-of-middle-earth/”

Speaking more broadly, it is a metaphysical principle that evil is self defeating. It acts in such a way as to lead to its own demise. As mentioned, corruption ‘piggybacks’ on goodness. It is a parasite that relies on its ontologically good host for its existence. This is eventually to the point of the destruction of the host, if that is allowed to happen. But once the host is destroyed, so too is the evil. This is always the case. The most immediate and relevant example I can give is Melkor’s disharmony in the Music. When Eru ceases the Music, the disharmony dies too. 

One could not speak of disharmony without there already being a harmony, or proper ordering of the musical theme. The good order of a thing is determined by its being directed towards its proper end, or purpose. What was the end of the Music?

[Eru] “…I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you, great beauty has been awakened into song”. (Pg. 1)

The intention of Eru in composing the Music was to produce “great beauty” and to simply enjoy listening to it. He is a person of simple but fine tastes! Insofar as the Music was performed by the Ainur in accordance with the intention to create beauty, harmony, or good order, existed in its performance. Insofar as any musician deviated from this intended purpose, disharmony and disorder spoiled the Music. Melkor needed the well ordered theme of Iluvatar in order to produce his own disordered sound, which was directed away from the original purpose to a new one (his own glory). The original Music was good because it followed the Composer’s intention. Melkor’s music was bad because it deviated from that intention. Thus, evil intention morally corrupts what is fundamentally good. That underlying ontological goodness always remains, unless a thing is destroyed. In fact, this is what makes renewal or redemption possible (the theme of redemption is explored by Jordan Taylor in another article on this site). Evil is cleansed in redemption and the good remains. Ultimately, the point is that evil cannot exist in and of itself, but is always a corruption of something that is fundamentally good. 

The consequence of this is that evil is less real than good. Good things exist in and of themselves (God is the example par excellence because he exists by nature; for an explanatory article, click here). Good has its own proper and robust sense of existence. Evil relies on the existence of an underlying reality that is good. It, therefore, lacks a proper and robust sense of existence, insofar as it cannot exist without that good foundation. It is always the disharmony of harmony, like in the Music. Melkor himself can be used as another example. He is created as the mightiest of the Ainur, with a share in the gifts of all his brethren. His purpose is to cooperate with Iluvatar in creating beauty through the Music and the wise ordering (or governance) of things in Arda as one of the Valar, should he choose to go there. In both his personal identity (which includes form and being: again, for an explanation, you are invited to read the same article already mentioned in this paragraph) and his created purpose, Melkor is fundamentally good. It could not be other, since he has been created by someone perfectly good. His being and intended purpose are good because of this. It is only when he deviates from his purpose in the Music that he becomes evil. And so he is an ontologically good being, who is morally corrupted by his malintent.

Therefore, there is no such thing as ‘pure evil’. Since evil needs a good host, an evil thing is not purely evil. Pure evil would be no-thing, or nothing, the antithesis of Eru Iluvatar (who, as God, is Being Itself – I promise that is the last link to that article!). Tolkien himself calls such a thing “Zero” in Letter 183 (Pg. 243). This is precisely why evil’s final defeat is assured, both in Tolkien’s subcreation and our own Earth. It is inclined to eventual nothingness, as we see in the case of the Ringwraiths. They become shadows of who they were, and permanently invisible. Evil wanes, becomes “like butter scraped over too much bread” and eventually dies. The final and official conclusion to the primordial battle between Good and evil in the Dagor Dagorath is not part of Tolkien’s canon, since his son Christopher elected to exclude it from the published Silmarillion. Nonetheless, we can be assured of the outcome. The end is written from the beginning:

“And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument…”.

Eru Iluvatar is good and so creates good things. Good things with free will can choose evil. Evil relies on goodness as its “uttermost source” of existence. So in acting out its skewed desires against goodness, it attacks its ontological foundation. This leads not only to its own destruction but the unforeseen further beautification of the World. This is a theme that runs throughout the legendarium, from the Music, to the subcreation of clouds and the later subcreation of the Sun and Moon, to the rising of the star of Earendil in the sky, to the founding of Numenor, and much later, to Gondor and Arnor, all the way down to the revitalisation of the Shire after Saruman’s death, and finally to Frodo’s rest at last in the West. All of these good things are results that are directly linked by causality to evil deeds, because evil proves, time and again, to be but Eru’s instrument for “the devising of things more wonderful”. Remember “spbmi” next time you visit Middle-earth, and don’t forget to call in to the Prancing Pony!    

Further Reading:

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien).

The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview behind the Lord of the Rings (Peter J. Kreeft).