Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic and Philomythus (myth-lover), and these two things had a big influence on his writing, especially his creation myth for his world, the Ainulindalë. There are a lot of relations and references in his writing from Catholic lore, such as the Bible, and similarly structured hierarchy from Greek and Roman mythology.
Firstly, there is Eru Illuvatar, the almighty entity who brings the world into creation. There is not much to say about this. Eru of course, hence the name of the story, brings into being his children, named the Valar. Powerful beings who aided Eru in the creation of Arda. Similarly, God also created the Angels before the creation of Earth.
Now, if you have read the Silmarillion, you will know that Melkor, one of the Ainur, plays a big part in the story. Melkor was the Ainu that fell. He became powerful, more powerful than many of the Valar, and abused his power, foiling the attempts of the Ainur to bring life to Arda. It is widely believed that Lucifer, the Light Bringer, was God’s favorite and most powerful angel, but he also defied God, and became the first to “Fall”.
The Ainur were the most powerful class of Valar, and then there were the Maiar, still very powerful beings that assisted them in their tasks (The wizards mentioned in the Legendarium, E.G, Gandalf and Saruman were Maiar who chose to be clothed in mortal bodies so as to aid the Elves and Men against Sauron and the other evils of Middle Earth. They were known as the Istar.) This is very similar to Greek and Roman mythology, where there was the main council of Olympians, and then the lesser gods such as Iris, Nike, and Eros, are just like the Maia and Istar.
In Greek and Roman mythology, Zeus, or Jupiter, is the most powerful god of them all, the ruler of the sky. Similarly, in the Ainulindalë, Manwe is the king of the Valar and is also the ruler of the air and sky. Then, of course, comes Poseidon, or Neptune, powerful god of the sea, just like Ulmo, lord of the waters, king of the sea. And then, the third and final, Hades, or Pluto, god of the Underworld, is the most evil of them all. Just like our good friend Melkor, spreader of discord.
Now if we go back to the similarities of Roman Catholicism we get to the fall of the Angel Lucifer. Melkor’s thoughts and ambitions were appealing to many of the Valar, and a large group decided to leave with Melkor and bring darkness to Arda. Just like Lucifer, many Angels fell alongside him and became his demons. These myths and beliefs inside the text are fascinating, and even more so how Tolkien managed to subtly incorporate so much of it into the Ainulindalë.
But, to almost counteract the purpose of this post, we have to remember something. Tolkien himself felt very strongly on this.
It is not the similarities which make this text special. It is the differences which make the text unique and worth reading. Our entry into Tolkien’s world should not begin by analogizing characters, because that takes away from the individuality of the characters themselves. It should be approached from an almost childish perspective, one in which we gasp and admire every aspect of this new world, and the beings which inhabit it. Only once we have taken in all it’s glory should we begin to draw these similarities and further conclusions.
“Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Iluvatar to a great music; and 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 Iluvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion