The Secret Fire: Tolkien, Boehme, and the Golden Chain of Wisdom

In Tolkien’s creation myth, Ainulindalë , Eru Ilúvatar – the All-Father – first calls forth the Ainur – great beings, offspring of his thought, each being a specific idea or aspect of his spirit. Ilúvatar propounds to them a musical theme, and each gradually express their part as a harmony, comprehending themselves as part of the mind of Ilúvatar; their melodic voices ‘like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing…’




But Melkor, the greatest of the Ainur, is impatient of all this, and desires to invent his own ideas. He wanders the void in search of the Flame Imperishable – the Secret Fire – that vitalizes ideas, in order to appropriate it for his own purposes and to empower and aggrandize himself. Eventually, he introduces his efforts into the harmony and brings about discord. An ensuing tension results, as harmony reacts to the discord and the discord elevates itself to attain the primacy. Some of the Ainur attune to Melkor, and a development of both sides continues. Finally, Eru Ilúvatar strikes a master chord that shatters the whole scheme and the music stops.

Then, Ilúvatar speaks, and as he speaks produces a vision to the Ainur:

“Behold your Music!’ And he showed to them a vision, giving to them sight where before was only hearing; and they saw a new World made visible before them, and it was globed amid the Void, and it was sustained therein, but was not of it. And as they looked and wondered this World began to unfold its history, and it seemed to them that it lived and grew. And when the Ainur had gazed for a while and were silent, Ilúvatar said again: ‘Behold your Music! This is your minstrelsy; and each of you that had part in it shall find contained there, within the design that I set before you, all those things which it may seem that he himself devised or added.”

“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. Thou 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. Therefore I say: Eä! Let these things Be! And I will send forth the flame imperishable into the Void, and it shall be at the heart of the World, and the World shall Be; and those of you that will may go down into it.”

So much for the abbreviation of Tolkien’s Ainulindalë. What of it? There are unmistakable points of identity between this and the German illuminate Jacob Boehme’s mythic account of the world and the nature of its origin as given in The Signature of All Things, some three hundred years prior. This is not to suggest that Tolkien knew Boehme – there are no records I have been able to find to confirm he ever did – but this is what makes it all the more interesting; Tolkien in a letter to Milton Waldman states that “after all, I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth’, and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear”. With that in mind, there are between Tolkien’s Ainulindalë and Boehme’s Signature these points of identity:

1) Prior to the visible world, a melodic prototype preceded it and is the template of the processes that occur within creation. This idea is connected to Pythagoras’ Harmony of the Spheres.

2) Great Beings arose as living aspects or ideas spoken forth as an expression of the primordial Being or God. These are the Platonic Ideas, or Gods; As Boehme states, “they bear the great name of God”, and illustrate His manifold creative power. Tolkien accords with this by telling Milton Waldman that with the Music of the Ainur, “God and the Valar (or powers: Englished as gods) are revealed. These latter are as we should say angelic powers, whose function is to exercise delegated authority in their spheres (of rule and government, not creation, making or re-making)”.

3) King Lucifer stood as the highest of these beings, but desired to appropriate the generation of the magical fire, and in order to do this departed from the heavenly harmony and into variance with it.

4) Nonetheless, even Lucifer unwittingly worships the primordial Being, as each effort on his part to elevate himself drives on the eternal mystery of the great drama of manifested life, and is only the agent of a power beyond himself – just as Melkor.

To exemplify all of these points of similarity, I will cite from Boehme’s Signature of All Things, but it will be a bit lengthy, so bear that in mind. If you are more interested in what this connection entails,  skip the immediately proceeding excerpts:




“God has not brought forth the creation, that he should be thereby perfect, but for his own manifestation, viz. for the great joy and glory; not that this joy first began with the creation, no, for it was from eternity, yet only as a spiritual melody and sport in itself. The creation is the same sport out of himself, viz. a platform or instrument of the Eternal Spirit, with which he melodises: and it is even as a great harmony of manifold instruments which are all tuned into one harmony; for the eternal word, or divine sound or voice, which is a spirit, has introduced itself into forms, viz. into an expressed word or sound, as an organ of divers and various sounds or notes is moved with one only air, so that each note, yea every pipe has its peculiar tune, and yet there is but one manner of air or breath in all notes, which sounds in each note or pipe according as the instrument or organ is made.

After the creation of the highest spirits, God created this visible world with the stars and elements as an external birth out of the mother of all essences; all which proceeded out of the eternal beginning, and took a temporal beginning…All the angelical beings are a manifestation of the eternal sound of the voice of God, and are as a particularity out of the great mystery, and yet are only one in the divine eternal speaking word, sound, or voice of God; for one only spirit rules them; each angelical prince is a property out of the voice of God, and bears the great name of God; Every one is a peculiar harmony or operation, like a kingdom, and yet all proceeds in one harmony; like a clock-work, which is entirely composed in itself, and all the pieces work mutually together in one; and yet keep their peculiar property in the essence of operation….

….King Lucifer stood in the beginning of his creation in highest joyfulness, but he departed and put himself forth out of the accord [or heavenly concert] into the cold, dark, fiery generation, out of which the hot fiery generation arises; he forsook his order, and went out of the harmony, wherein God created him; he would be lord over all, and so he entered into the austere fire’s domination, as a dissonant discording melody or sound in the great excellent well-tuned harmony, so that now he is the instrument in the eternal fire of God, and the anger-spirit strikes his instrument, and yet it must stand to the honour and admiration of God, and be the sport and play in the desire and property of the wrathful anger. 

…And thus hell is even an enemy of the devil, for he is a strange guest therein, viz. a perjured fiend cast out of heaven: every creature must remain in its place wherein it was apprehended in its creation and formed into an image, and not depart out of that same harmony, or else it becomes an enemy of the Being of all beings, as Lucifer now is.…this is his shame, that he is a king, and yet has fooled away his kingdom in pride; the royal creature remains, but the dominion is taken away; of a king he is become an executioner; what God’s anger apprehends, there he is a judge as an officer of God’s anger, yet he must do what his Lord and Master wills.

…All things must praise the Creator of all beings; the devils praise him in the might of wrath, and the angels and men praise him in the might of love, as Saint Paul speaks thereof; “The holy man is unto God a sweet savour unto life, and the wicked a sweet savour unto death.” All whatever does live and move must enter into the glory of God; one works in his love, the other in his anger: All is generated and created in the infinite being to the manifestation of the infinite great God; out of all the properties of evil and good, creatures were brought forth by the will of the speaking word, and therefore there are evil and good creatures.”

This embarrassing frustration of being the butt of a tragic joke only fuels Lucifer’s fire, and perpetuates his wrath and hate. Hell, indeed. There is a minute point as to the fire Lucifer seeks to command, as Boehme describes it. It is my thesis that this magical fire is identical to Tolkien’s Imperishable Flame. To get an idea of it, first Boehme:

“The soul is also a magical fire, and its image or form is generated as a light from the magical fire; We give you therefore to understand that when the mind thus enkindles itself in an idea, it enkindles the whole spirit and body, and forthwith carries its imagination into the inmost fire of the soul. In whatever it has enkindled itself, in love or anger, such a fire it is, and gives also such a fire of light. And thus we understand also the devil’s fall, who was an angel; he imagined into the [magical ground] and sought great strength and might and despised love. He willed to enkindle himself still more vehemently, to see if he could dominate over all thrones, and over the essence of the Deity in gentleness; which proved to be his fall.”

This Secret Fire is an abstruse point, found dispersedly throughout Boehme’s texts and other Hermitco-Alchemical sources. Whether Tolkien knew it or not, he was trafficking in the same territory, as for instance:

The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power.”

I do not know to what extent I ought to cite sources to support the increasingly convincing thesis that both Tolkien and Boehme are part of a tradition that illustrates the nature of the world in modes of music, myth, and the identity of the creative process between  art and nature. But that IS my thesis; they are exponents of a tradition whose origins trace to the foundation of western civilization, a tradition that contains both Christian and Pagan forms – Hermetic and Platonic modes being very apparent examples of the latter. Boehme and Tolkien were embedded within a Christian framework, but their metaphysical and natural philosophy share ties with these aforementioned Pagan traditions whether they knowingly accepted this or not.

What is the conclusion to all of this? Of what significance does this thesis have if true?  To the last question, a thorough answer has been my intent throughout the entire catalogue of articles available on this website; the scope is too comprehensive for me to meaningfully capture in a few succinct sentences. As to the conclusion, well, the conclusion is The End, and so we look toward the end of this great cosmic drama of Life and Death – the Beginning and the End.  Tolkien and Boehme both saw the grand finale well enough:

‘In Paradise perchance the eye may stray
from gazing upon everlasting Day
to see the day-illumined, and renew
from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.
Then looking on the Blessed Land ’twill see
that all is as it is, and yet made free:
Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys,
garden nor gardener, children nor their toys.
Evil it will not see, for evil lies
not in God’s picture but in crooked eyes,
not in the source but in the tuneless voice.
In Paradise they look no more awry;
and though they make anew, they make no lie.
Be sure they still will make, not been dead,
and poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose for ever from the All.’

…”Then shall the themes of Ilúvatar be played aright, and take Being in the moment of their utterance, for all shall then understand his intent in their part, and shall know the comprehension of each, and Ilúvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased. “


“Death is the only means whereby the spirit may enter into another source and form: If it dies to itself and breaks its will in death, then a new twig springs forth out of the same, but not according to the first will, but according to the eternal will; If a thing enters into its nothing, then it falls again to the creator, who makes that thing as it was known in the eternal will, before it was created to a creature; there it is in the right aim or limit of eternity, and has no turbulence, for it is in nature’s end.

Whatever runs on in nature torments itself, but that which attains nature’s end, the same is in rest, and yet works, but only in one desire: All whatever makes anguish and strife in nature, that makes mere joy in God; for the whole host of heaven is set and tuned into one harmony; each angelical kingdom into a peculiar instrument, but all mutually composed together into one music, viz. into the only love-voice of God:

Every string of this melody exalts and rejoices the other; and it is only a mere ravishing lovely and delightful hearing, tasting, feeling, smelling, and seeing: Whatever God is in himself, that the creature is also in its desire in him; a God-angel, and a God-man, God all in all, and without him nothing else. As it was before the times of this world in his eternal harmony [or voice], so also it continues in the creaturely voice in him in his eternity; and this is the beginning and the end of all things.”





Ainulindale by kuliszu on DeviantArt

The Music of the Gods by KipRasmussen “

Gustave Doré, Paradise Canto 31

This early rare engraving was obtained from the personal library of 
the late Jacob Boehme scholar, Charles Muses, who lived in Canada.


Related Articles:

Tolkien, Magic, and Ensoulment

Mysterium Magnum 

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