The Third Theme of the Music of Iluvatar – a Mighty Echo of Owen Barfield’s “Final Participation”

If there is one connective tissue between the fantasy imaginations of the Inklings, it is the theme of our participation in the Divine Music – the Music of Iluvatar.

The worlds of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Owen Barfield are born in Music and governed by Music.

In Tolkien’s legendarium, the Ainur descend into Arda, the created Realm, as individual themes of the Music of Iluvatar to behold their unique part becoming incarnate in the visible elements of air, earth, water, and other substances.

Enamored of their part in the celestial symphony, the Ainur follow this “music-made-flesh” into Arda and dwell therein because each yearns to participate in the Divine Thought.

They didn’t yet know how the Music would end – the only thing they knew was that the discord of Melkor would somehow be resolved by the coming of the Second-born to whom Iluvatar gave “strange gifts.”

The Third and final theme in the Music of Iluvatar announces the coming of Men in a soft, slow, and immeasurably sorrowful theme, from which its beauty chiefly comes.

How does Narnia start?

C.S. Lewis’s Narnia also begins in Music, the Song of Aslan, which is “the deeper magic” of his fantasy world – the magic of growing that opposes the black magic of domination.

Aslan sings his world into existence, and all the stars join him in the Song.

Owen Barfield’s The Silver Trumpet is a metaphor for the Music from the invisible realm that awakens us from the spell of unconsciousness when we hear the call. Its call is irresistible and shatters all man-made idols, or the “unsaved images,” so our transformed consciousness can commune with the Music.

Like Tolkien’s Elves awakened the trees from slumber, so Owen Barfield’s Silver Trumpet makes us alive by the Sound of Beauty.

Every element of the created realm still reverberates to the tune of this ultimate Music, and we hear the voice thereof.

Every visible element is a theme of music woven into the patterns of the Great Music. Every drop of rain, every weeping willow, every distant constellation, and every whiff of wind are the very flesh and blood of the Divine Logos.

Under the guise of the visible elements, we hearken unsated unto the voice of the Silver Trumpet that calls us to discover our true Names and perform our part in the Music of Iluvatar.

We are all notes in the Divine Symphony, and each note yearns to find its place in the Thought of Iluvatar.

But how do we find our place in the Music?

Quoting Samuel Coleridge, Barfield explains: “We receive but what we give.”

We can only participate in the Divine Music if we discover who we truly are – and give of our Name. When we know our true Name, we can share it with the world.

This is Owen Barfield’s “final participation.”

What made Melkor evil?

Providentially or intentionally, Owen Barfield’s main philosophical idea – that of final participation – was metaphorically captured in the Third Theme of the Great Music in Tolkien’s Silmarillion.

Never since have the Ainur made any music like to this music, though it has been said that a greater still shall be made before Iluvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Iluvatar after the end of days. Then the themes of Iluvatar shall be played aright, and take Being in the moment of their utterance, for all shall then understand fully his intent in their part, and each shall know the comprehension of each, and Iluvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased.

In the Third Theme, Tolkien intuitively (or rather prophetically) weaves together three things:

  1. Each person is a note in the Divine Symphony.
  2. Each has a unique part to play in the Music of Iluvatar at the end of days together with the Ainur.
  3. This final Music will be greater than the original Music (the first theme).  

Melkor disrupts the original Music – the first theme of creation (original participation) – by elevating “the matters of his own imaginings” above all other voices.

But now Ilúvatar sat and hearkened, and for a great while it seemed good to him, for in the music there were no flaws. But as the theme progressed, it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar, for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.

The “original participation” was broken by Melkor’s desire to elevate his own voice above all others. This starts the “war” of the Second Theme in the Music of Iluvatar and corresponds to the second stage in the evolution of consciousness in Barfield’s philosophy – that of separation, individuation, non-participation.

Our original unity with Nature was broken when humans started thinking of themselves as separate from the phenomena of the world. This gave rise to the “subject-object” consciousness that marked the beginning of the Great Strife – the war between Melkor and Iluvatar and the alienation of human beings from themselves:

[The music of Melkor] was loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated; and it had little
harmony, but rather a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes. And it essayed to drown the other music by the violence of its voice.

Melkor’s braying, Tolkien says, “achieved a unity of its own” – a clamorous unison, which represents the rise of idolatry in the present scientific age. In Barfield’s thought, the modern mind is a mind of separation that mistakes images for reality, and, mixing the two, creates a false unity between them.

A modern man looks at the Sun and believes that the appearance of the Sun equals the Sun. There’s nothing more to the Sun than meets the eye.

This separation consciousness gives birth to idols – when images are equated with the things they point to. Melkor’s “clamorous unison” is the ultimate confusion of the modern mind, a false unity between appearances and reality.

The mind of Melkor is the mind of separation that inevitably leads to idolatry – equating images with what they represent. 

What is the gift of Iluvatar?

Barfield says that this separation stage in the evolution of consciousness may have been providential. It will be woven into the solemn patterns of the celestial Music at the end of days.

In Saving the Appearances, Barfield gives a summary of final participation like this:

 It is for the heart to enliven the images.

Lost images can be saved! Dead images can be enlivened! Idolatry can be transcended! The separation between the image and what it represents can be mended!

But how?

Quoting Samuel Coleridge, Barfield explains,

“We receive but what we give.”

The Third Theme of Iluvatar is the theme of overcoming the discord of Melkor by the “strange gifts” given to Men. It represents the third stage in the evolution of consciousness – our return to participation. From the world of separation and dumb idols and into the Music of Iluvatar through receiving “the strange gifts.”

The strange gifts given to Men are the gifts of mortality, letting go, imperfection. The Third Theme is slow and immensely sorrowful, and yet its beauty comes from this sorrow.

Arwen Undómiel calls the fate of Men “the gift of the One to Men.”

But why would Eru Ilúvatar call death a gift? A strange gift indeed!

It is because the ability of Men (and Hobbits) to let go, diminish, and give up control is the only way to triumph over evil. The discord of Melkor is not suppressed, squashed, or subdued through power or force. It is redeemed through sacrifice.

The Music of Iluvatar foreshadows a sudden “U-turn” in the history of the world. Salvation will come through Men. The Third Theme is a prophecy of how the discord of Melkor is overcome not by power or force but by “Christological sorrow.”

The “music” of Melkor

…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 loudest, the most triumphant and violent notes of Melkor were woven into the sorrowful pattern of the Third Theme. Eru does not simply end the braying of Melkor in the Second Theme. No. The braying, the Strife, continues,

there were two musics progressing at one time before the seat of Ilúvatar, and they were utterly at variance.

What happens with Melkor in the Music of Iluvatar?

The violence of Melkor’s pride was not destroyed by Eru but rather softly woven into the beauty of human imperfection. The strange gifts of Men are the gifts of imperfection — the ability to let go, remain little, powerless, and empty. Yet, by shedding this Earth, Men transcend the circles of the world. 

The most triumphant notes of evil are “taken and woven” into the soft solemn beauty of the Third Theme of the Music of Iluvatar.

The second stage in the evolution of consciousness – the separation – did not happen without Providence. Barfield says that now that we have tasted the “discord of Melkor,” the alienation of the non-participatory view of life, our hearts yearn to go back to participation.

But it’s not the original participation but a final one – where each fully understands Iluvatar’s intent in their part, and Iluvatar gives their thoughts a secret fire, being well-pleased.

Frodo, representing all mortal Men doomed to die, discovered his true Name by sacrificing his own flesh – the ultimate letting go.

A minstrel of Gondor stood forth… and behold! he said: 
‘Lo! lords and knights and men of valour… now listen to my lay. For I will sing to you of Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom.’

Frodo of the Nine Fingers was Frodo’s true Name. He received from Eru his “strange gift” – his Name – and then he gave of his own Name.

We receive but what we give.

As we receive our gifts of imperfection from Eru, we become one with our secret Name, and suddenly, in the twinkling of an eye, at the call of the Silver Trumpet, we know our part in the Music and join the celestial harmony.

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