Tolkien on the relationship between art and Creation

I wrote in an earlier post that, for Tolkien, part of the aim in sub-creating secondary worlds is imitating something of the consistency of the primary world’s own reality. But it also has the further aim of reflecting or revealing something of the truth of that reality. An alternative, secondary reality, after all, is still part of our own world and as such has the duty of “recovering” the truth of that reality, as Tolkien argues in his essay “On Fairy-Stories”: “Creative fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it” (TR 74-5). Thus, beyond his regional (“a mythology for England”), linguistic, moral, narrowly theological, and aesthetic or artistic concerns, a further motive behind Tolkien’s fiction involves the exploration of the real-world relationship between the divine “art” of creation on the one hand and, subordinate to it, the human art of “sub-creation” on the other, a fascination Tolkien shared with Thomist Jacques Maritain and the many Catholic lay artists of the early to mid-twentieth century who were influenced by him. In his long letter to potential publisher Milton Waldman, Tolkien writes of his legendarium: “It is, I suppose, fundamentally concerned with the problem of the relation of Art (and Sub-creation) and Primary Reality” (L 145n). Here we see a further dimension to the metaphysical thrust of Tolkien’s literary project coming into focus, inasmuch as at the core of his mythology lies a concern with the being of “Primary Reality” and the basis this reality provides for the secondary worlds or realities of human imagining. In another letter written to acquaintance Peter Hastings, Tolkien reiterates this point when he says that “the whole matter” of his mythology “from beginning to end is mainly concerned with the relation of Creation to making and sub-creation,” and therefore “references to these things are not casual, but fundamental” (L 188). Thus, much of Tolkien’s genius lay not only in his view that all human sub-creation presupposes or is made possible and meaningful by virtue of a prior, divine act of creation, but in his express purpose of foregrounding this relationship within his own mythology by making it one of the central themes of his fiction.


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