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Tolkien, Faeries, and Creation: A Featured Article

Tolkien's monogram, and Tolkien Estate trademark

Tolkien’s monogram, and Tolkien Estate trademark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My family has a standing joke about my talks and articles – no matter what the subject, Papa somehow manages to work Tolkien into every one. Probably an exaggeration, and I certainly don’t “manage” it; Tolkien’s works have found a privileged place in that central storage of thought and image known as memory or heart or imagination that spontaneously produces connections.

Naturally, then, the theme of this year’s Circe Conference, Creation, could not but make me think immediately of Tolkien. If the conference were to have a patron, I can imagine none more fitting than Tolkien, for Creation in all its divine and human manifestations dominated his works. The Creation myth expressed so beautifully in the Ainulindale sets the theme of the Silmarillion – that the One created intelligent beings with a desire to create at the core of their being. The Quenta Silmarillion portrays the fall of Melkor (Tolkien’s Lucifer figure) and Feanor (the greatest of the Elves) as corruptions of this desire, for each treats their creative inspirations and productions as coming from himself alone. In one of its most dramatic moments, Feanor is urged to acknowledge that his greatest works, the jewels called the Silmarils, are not his own; yet Aule, one of the angelic powers that governs the world, sympathetically understands the love that binds the maker to his work.

Then Tulkas cried:’Speak O Noldo, yea or nay! But who shall deny Yavanaa? And did not the light of the Silmarils come from her work in the beginning?’ But Aule the Maker said: Be not hasty! We ask a greater thing than thou knowest. Let him have peace yet awhile.’

Tragically, Feanor had let his heart so rest in his work that he could not see them as a gift given to him for the sake of all, and Feanor, himself one of the greatest works of Iluvatar, is lost. Tolkien shows a sensitivity to craftsmen of all kinds that seems unusual in a literary man.

The theme of making and possessing that drives the Silmarillion continues into Lord of the Rings through the rings of power, which were conceived by Feanor’s grandson to enhance the power of the Elves to enchant the exterior world according to their own visions of beauty. Galadriel seems to have achieved this most powerfully in Lothlorien, where even the stream of Time was changed. For her, as for Elrond, the destruction of the One Ring meant the loss of her heart’s desire, which she could never conceive or attempt again. In consenting to the loss of her land, she undid her share in Feanor’s rebellion: “I pass the test… I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.”

Tolkien’s own profound love of making drove him to spend a lifetime making and re-making and shaping the world of the Silmarillion and caused him to feel Feanor’s tragedy and Galadriel’s redemption so deeply. He considered that his literary works of fantasy were made by the same desire as the craftsman’s, though he poured his heart out for greater object – not merely to make something of this world beautiful but, like the Ainur of his mythology to make an entire cosmos. Arda, the cosmos of the Silmarillion, was more Tolkien’s creation than the Valar’s (though, perhaps, not than Iluvatar’s).

The story-maker has the power to enchant and draw the mind, heart and imagination into a world of beauty and terror not possible in world of the senses. Tolkien expressed this understanding of story in his 1947 essay, “On Fairy Stories”. The essay, along with the companion allegorical story, “Leaf by Niggle”, was published as a small book entitled “Tree and Leaf”, a sine qua non for those who wish to understand Tolkien’s compelling sub-creations and to gain a God’s-eye view of the creative arts. Having explained that fairy stories are best understood as stories about Faerie, the land of enchantment where elves and dragons are at home, and where many men long to be though they do not belong, Tolkien turns to discuss their origin, which he finds fundamentally in Ianguage itself.

The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval. The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look on), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent. And that is not surprising: such incantations might indeed be said to be another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythical grammar.

The power of abstraction frees the imagination to make new combinations, and awakens a natural desire to imagine how the world might be, and to attempt to bring our imaginings to reality. Of course, all story-making involves imagining new characters, new situations, (or as Aristotle would say of drama, the possible rather than the actual of history), which develop what might lie within the world that has been created by the Creator of all, and are bounded by the natures that He has made. But this world is only one of an infinite realm of possible worlds that He might have made. Fantasy allows the imagination to enter the extra-natural realm of possibilities, to develop new kinds of beings, new kinds of worlds.

When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power – upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to the mind awakes….In such “fantasy”, as it called, new form is made; Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.

To create new form demands more than imagination; it demands thoughtful, powerful, inspired control of the wild imagination, which is achieved through art. This links it with other works of craft, which proceed from imagination through art to creation. But Fantasy, the name Tolkien gives to his art, encounters no limitations of matter or nature and so is art in its “most nearly pure form”.

J.R.R. Tolkien

Cover of J.R.R. Tolkien

The achievement of the expression, which gives (or seems to give) “the inner consistency of reality,” is indeed another thing [other than Imagination], or aspect, needing another name: Art, the operative link between Imagination and the final result, Sub-creation….That the images are of things not in the primary world (if that indeed is possible) is a virtue, not a vice. Fantasy (in this sense) is, I think, not a lower but a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent.

To sub-create in this sense, to make another world, other creatures, which “in living shapes move from mind to mind,” demands great power. It is not sufficient to produce a “willing suspension of disbelief”, an act of choice to pretend that something matters which really does not; the Fantastic author must enchant his reader into believing his world and his story matter deeply. He must create an imagined world which is desirable and believable. If the world lacks “inner consistency”, the mind fails to find satisfaction in exploring the creation, and continually distracts the heart from committing itself to the story. Like any creator, the fantasy writer must infuse his creation with unity as well as beauty.

Tolkien frequently refers to his art as “elvish”, for the elves have the power to enchant, to make their stories of such texture that “both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses, while they are inside….” As we see in Tolkien’s Elves, such as Legolas, the sub-creative desire does not withdraw those who enjoy it from the real world, for the elves are ever attentive to the deepest natures of the natural world. As Treebeard says, “Ents are more like Elves: less interested in themselves than Men are, and better at getting inside other things….” Rather, since “a good craftsman loves his material, and has a knowledge and feeling for clay, stone and wood which only the art of making can give,” so the fantasy maker helps us see with fresh eyes what has become mundane to us. Which brings us back to the close connection between the literary creator and the craftsman.

All craftsmen and artists share the common drive to imagine the world more beautiful, more powerfully alive, than we find it, and to bring that vision to reality (either primary or secondary). So Niggle the painter and Alf the baker and Smith the ironmonger, even Parish the gardener, are all employed by Tolkien in stories (“Leaf by Niggle” and “Smith of Wooten Major”) that image the desire of the fairy story maker. Perhaps it is best exemplified by the friendship of Legolas and Gimli. The dwarves are craftsman par excellence; they are man’s expression of his desire, his love of making and material and artifact. Deeply moved by the Caves of Aglarond, Gimli expresses the craftsman’s love for his material:

No dwarf could be unmoved by such loveliness. None of Durin’s race would mine those caves for stones or ore, not if diamonds and gold could be got there. Do you cut down groves of blossoming trees in the springtime for firewood? We would tend these glades of flowering stone, not quarry them.

Yet dwarves are temperamentally opposed to the makers of stories woven with words and consisting in mere imagination. They do not see that Elves, though more contemplative in their regard for things, love their stories and what inspires them in the same way. Gimli begins to understand the Elves when he experiences Galadriel’s sympathetic understanding for him, and he finds in her an object of loveliness that he cannot make buy only enjoy. From then on, he is open to the wonders of Lothlorien, and becomes fast friends with Legolas. Tolkien, sub-creator par excellence, who shared the passion of elf and dwarf, of author and maker, no doubt experienced also the central temptation – to cling to the product as one’s own. He must have wondered to what extent his passion, so central to his being, was a matter of pride or an inspiration from God. He invented the term, sub-creation, to express the metaphysical connection between the human and divine senses of creation, which the creator must embrace if he is to properly exercise his gift.

“Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light

Through whom is splintered from a single White

To many hues, and endlessly combined

In living shapes that move from mind to mind.”

When the human creator embraces his role, his sub-creations become consolations in the trials of this world and he can dream that they will become vehicles for preparing the mind and heart for the fullest experience of Creation in the next life. “Leaf by Niggle” ends with supernatural “Voices” remarking on the merits of the world that Niggle had spent his life painting.

It is proving very useful indeed,” said the Second Voice. “As a holiday, and a refreshment. It is splendid for convalescence; and not only for that, for many it is the best introduction to the Mountains. It works wonders in some cases. I am sending more and more there. They seldom have to come back.

Tolkien knew the redemptive instrumentality of faerie stories and myths personally. The poem cited above was addressed to CS Lewis under the pseudonym, “Misomythus”, which means, “Myth-hater”. Beguiled by the dominant scientific “just the facts, Ma’am,” attitude, Lewis, not yet a Christian, did not at that time (1931) realize how deeply truthful the myths that he loved were. Tolkien persuaded Lewis that the beauties that touched his soul so deeply as a young man were akin to the divine, thus becoming an instrument in the re-birth of one of the English-speaking world’s greatest evangelists and myth-makers.

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