Heidegger and Tolkien on Art vs. Technology

Yesterday’s post looked briefly at the presence of the Augustinian doctrine of divine exemplarism in Tolkien’s creation-myth, the Ainulindalë. According to the influential critique advanced in the last century by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, such traditional and orthodox views of God and reality, ironically, far from avoiding the kind of technological approach to nature which Tolkien, for example, so deplored and from which he sought to provide some escape in his fiction, instead unwittingly enfranchised the technological outlook at the deepest metaphysical and theological level. In his famous essay “The Question Concerning Technology,” Heidegger makes the case that the commonplace definition of technology in terms of an instrumental alignment of causes and effects or means and ends—a definition implicit, perhaps, in Tolkien’s account of the modern “Machine” as an instrument designed for “making the will more quickly effective” (L 145)—fails to get at the essence of technology, inasmuch as causal thinking itself has presupposed since ancient Greek times the technological or instrumental paradigm of techne. And yet it is precisely in terms of this technological, causal framework, according to Heidegger, that theology has traditionally articulated God’s relation to creation, with the result that, as Heidegger puts it, “even God can, for representational thinking, lose all that is exalted and holy, the mysteriousness of his distance. In the light of causality, God can sink to the level of a cause, of causa efficiens. He then becomes, even in theology, the god of the philosophers, namely, of those who define the unconcealed and the concealed in terms of the causality of making, without ever considering the essential origin of this causality.”[1] While Heidegger in his essay is resigned to the inevitability of technological thinking, he hopes modern man might nonetheless find his “saving power” by “confronting” and “questioning” the technological paradigm through the cultivation of an alternative mode of thinking and “revealing,” namely that of poeisis or art.[2]

In other respects, of course, Tolkien’s analysis of the problem of modern technology is very much of apiece with Heidegger’s. Like Heidegger, for example, Tolkien links modern technological with representational thinking, and contrasts both of these with an alternative model of true, authentic art. In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien argues that one of the purposes of such fantasy is the “recovery” of the strangeness or mystery of things from the “dreary” or “trite” “familiarity” into which they fall through our “appropriation” of them. By “appropriation,” Tolkien does not necessarily limit himself to the kind of practical or technological mastery or domination of things that he criticizes elsewhere, though it would certainly include this. Rather, “appropriation” would seem to include an even more subtle, intellectual, and even aesthetic and artistic form of possessiveness, the kind of thing, for example, Tolkien thematizes in his legendarium, most notably in the character of the Elves. On the one hand, while the Elves symbolize “a devoted love of the physical world, and a desire to observe and understand it for its own sake and as ‘other’,” as well as embody a “‘subcreational’ or artistic faculty of great excellence,” on the other hand Tolkien sees them as for that reason being peculiarly susceptible to what he refers to as the “will to preservation,” i.e., the desire “to arrest change, and keep things always fresh and fair…” (L 236). Thus, Tolkien too recognizes the ease and sometimes imperceptibility with which the true, selfless artistic impulse—which ideally seeks only communion with and knowledge of things through a sub-creative process that simultaneously brings things to their own completion or fulfillment—can slide into the self-interested imposition of one’s own purposes or plans; the ease, that is, one might say, with which “art” or “poetry” can devolve into mere “craft” or “technological making,” and hence the necessity for the one to be distinguished from the other. Here I submit we also gain a further perspective into Tolkien’s well-known preference of myth or fairy-story over allegory. In allegory’s “purposed domination of the author,” as Tolkien puts it in the foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, we seem to have exactly the kind of “bad exemplarism” associated with the craft-model of making criticized by Heidegger, in which the act of making is preceded and almost wholly predetermined by a prior act of knowing. In contrast to the “domination” of allegory Tolkien juxtaposes the “discovery” and “applicability” of fairy-story and myth, a form of knowing, in other words, that takes place only in and through the act of making.


[1] Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. Lovitt, 26.

[2] Ibid., 34-5.

Tolkien’s Augustinian Exemplarism

Exemplarism is the theological idea, typically traced back to the Christianized Platonism of Augustine, according to which every creature, and hence all human knowledge of creation, has its originating archetype or “exemplar” in the divine mind of God. Things are what they are, in short, because they are patterned after God’s own thought or ideas, and thus human beings are able to know these things insofar as their own minds conform to or are even “illuminated” by these “divine ideas.”

As a number of commentators have observed, Augustine’s theological exemplarism plays an important role in Tolkien’s own retelling of God’s creation of the world. In the Ainulindalë, the Ainur, for example, are first introduced as the “offspring of [Eru’s] thought” who thus initially “comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came…” Through their music-making, however, the Ainur come into increasing contact and communion with each other—creatures like and yet different from each other who have also been modeled after the Creator—and so come into an increasing knowledge of the mind of Ilúvatar in which each of them originally had a unique share. Having their origin in the mind of Ilúvatar, what the Ainur represent, not only in their own being and essence, but also in the music they perform, are so many dim, finite, yet authentic reflections of the otherwise infinite brightness of the Creator’s own thought and being.[1]

It is not only in and through each other, however, that the Ainur are able to “divinize” or reveal the creative purposes or possibilities of the Creator. When the Ainur receive in the Vision their first glimpse of the coming of the “Children of Ilúvatar,” the race of Elves and Men, the astonishment of the Ainur is captured in these words: “Therefore when [the Ainur] beheld them, the more did they love them, being things other than themselves, strange and free, wherein they saw the mind of Ilúvatar reflected anew, and learned yet a little more of his wisdom, which otherwise had been hidden even from the Ainur” (S 18). As further “reflections” of Ilúvatar’s mind yet differing from that of the Ainur, the Children of Ilúvatar in their very being and essence embody a new perspective or insight into the divine nature and “wisdom” after which both the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar have been patterned. It is also worth noting here that this identity-in-difference—a property I suggested in some earlier posts to have its ultimately theological ground for Tolkien in his Trinitarian conception of the divine being—is also the basis for the Ainur’s affection or “love” for the Children of Ilúvatar. It is for love of the Creator that the Ainur love their fellow creatures.


[1] Verlyn Flieger captures this understanding of the Ainulindalë well—despite her otherwise Plotinian, apophatic reading of Tolkien’s theology—when she writes: “As ‘offspring’ of Eru’s thought, the Ainur are aspects of whole mind, differentiations of Eru’s undifferentiated nature. They are divided parts of that which is undivided, thoughts springing outward from the mind, assuming life of their own. As parts, they express, but cannot encompass, the whole…” Flieger, “Naming the Unnameable,” 131. Robert Collins likewise points out how, as the “offspring” of Ilúvatar’s thought, the Ainur also represent so many “interpretations of the mind of the One,” something Collins connects further with the apparent etymological inspiration behind the name ofIlúvatar itself: “Indeed, the Creator’s name among the denizens of Middle Earth—Ilúvatar—obviously incorporates not only the Indo-European ‘father’ (Sindarin atar/Sanskrit pitar) but also the Latin “vates”—poet/seer—emphasizing the character of the Creator as artist, and that of his creation as art object, the substantive image in time and space of the artist’s thought. His symphonists, the Ainur, are clearly individual avatars of the various aspects of his own aesthetic fecundity.” Collins, “‘Ainulindalë’: Tolkien’s Commitment to an Aesthetic Ontology,” 257. On the etymology of Ilúvatar, see also Flieger, Splintered Light, 50. As Maritain similarly observes, “the Latin vates was both a poet and a diviner,” a point he relates back to his Thomistic claim that human art, like divine art, involves a kind of self-knowledge, and hence represents a “kind of divination.” Maritain, Creative Intuition, 3.

Tolkien’s “Fairy-Exemplarism”

Tolkien’s Augustinian exemplarism is not confined to the Ainur or the Ainulindalë generally, but extends to his view of Fairies as well. In their critical edition of Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Verlyn Flieger and Douglas Anderson quote Tolkien as writing:

a tree-fairy (or a dryad) is, or was, a minor spirit in the process of creation who aided as ‘agent’ in the making effective of the divine Tree-idea or some part of it, or … even of some one particular example: some tree. He is therefore now bound by use and love to Trees (or a tree), immortal while the world (and trees) last—never to escape, until the End. [cited in Michael Milburn, “Colderidge’s Definition of Imagination and Tolkien’s Definition(s) of Faery,” Tolkien Studies 7 (2010): 57]

According to Tolkien, in other words, part of the metaphysical function of fairies is to serve as intermediary agents by which the patterns of the natural order as they exist in the divine mind might be instantiated or made efficacious in the physical world. In this, as Milburn goes on to observe, “Such fairies are rather like the Valar, the sub-creative ‘gods’ of Tolkien’s mythology, and their lesser kin, the Maiar.”

“Creative-concept formation” in Tolkien and Maritain

            The following are some thoughts comparing Tolkien’s notion of sub-creative “discovery” and Jacques Maritain’s psychology of creative-concept formation. As I noted in an earlier post, Maritain’s Thomistic theory of art influenced many lay Catholic artists and writers in the early to mid-twentieth century, including possibly Tolkien. As Robert Miner (Truth in the Making, Routledge) notes in his summary of Maritain, while God’s knowledge of his creative exemplars through an act of perfect self-knowledge must remain essentially different from a human maker’s knowledge of the forms he makes, the “creative intuition” of the poet, like God’s knowledge of the exemplars but unlike the form apprehended by the mere craftsman, does involve a kind of “obscure grasping of his own Self and of things in a knowledge through union or through connaturality which is born in the spiritual conscious, and which fructifies only in the work.”[1] Thus, there is, in Maritain’s expression, a kind of “free creativity of the spirit” on the part of the poet which makes him like a god, albeit a “‘poor god’ because he does not know himself,” and, of course, because his creative insight “depends on the external world,” whereas “God’s creative Idea, from the very fact that it is creative, does not receive anything from things…”[2] As to how the poet first comes by this knowledge of the artistic form, for the medieval Schoolmen, at least, it could not have been by mere abstraction since, in Maritain’s words, the form in question is “in no way a concept, for it is neither cognitive nor representative.”[3] Instead, the “creative idea is an intellectual form, or a spiritual matrix, containing implicitly, in its complex unity, the thing which, perhaps for the first time, will be brought into actual existence.”[4] The result is that for neither God nor man is the Thomist exemplar a mere “ideal model sitting for the artist in his own brain, the work supposedly being a copy or portrait of it. This would make of art a cemetery of imitations.” Rather, “the work is an original, not a copy.”[5] Miner finds particular support for this reading of Thomas in question 44, article 3 of the Summa in which the angelic doctor illustrates his point concerning God’s exemplar causality of all things with the example of the human craftsman who “produces a determinate form in matter by reason of the exemplar before him, whether it is the exemplar beheld externally, or the exemplar interiorly conceived in the mind.”[6] In Thomas’s notion of a human artificer producing form in matter through an “exemplar interiorly conceived in the mind,” Miner sees the suggestion of an analogy between a particular kind of human making on the one hand and the act of generation within the divine mind on the other:

The conception of an exemplar in the mind is like the utterance of an inner word, a verbum which proceeds from the mind, but is not distinct from the mind. Maritain notes the importance of the verbum mentis doctrine for Aquinas’s account of making: “before the work of art passes from art into the matter, by a transitive action, the very conception of the art has had to emerge from within the soul, by an immanent and vital action, like the emergence of the mental word.” He quotes a pertinent text from Aquinas’s commentary on the Sentences: “the procession of art is twofold, that is, from the soul of the artificer to his art, and from his art to his artifacts.”[7]

In summary, then, in Thomas’s divine psychology, including his doctrine of divine ideas and his theory of creation as determined by that doctrine, Thomas makes possible an alternative way of thinking about human making which rescues it from the banal nihilism towards which the technological model has been alleged to lead, by dignifying it with real metaphysical significance in its participation in and mirroring of the profundity of God’s own Triune life.

According to Maritain, then, and taking his cue from St. Thomas, the “creative intuition” of the poet is the result of a kind of god-like “free creativity” on the part of the poet (made in the image of God) as he draws from the “spiritual matrix” produced by his knowing at once “his own Self and of things in a knowledge through union or connaturality,” and so, as Miner put it, the “conception of the art… emerge[s] from within the soul, by an immanent and vital action, like the emergence of the mental word.” Here one may also be reminded of the words Ilúvatar first speaks to the Ainur when he enjoins them to develop the musical themes he has taught them: “And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will. But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song” (S 15). As I have noted perviously, the Flame Imperishable refers to God’s creative power whereby he “kindles” his creatures with their very act of being or existence, but that this fire of existence is meant to include rather than exclude the gift of sub-creative freedom which Ilúvatar has granted to his rational creatures. Creatures, in sum, are able to sub-create because they have been kindled with and by the Creator’s own creativity.

A more obvious application of Maritain’s notion of creative intuition, however, is perhaps to be found in Tolkien’s account of the sub-creative imagination in his essay “On Fairy-Stories.” As Tolkien writes there:

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 upon), 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 Faërie is more potent. And that is not surprising: such incantations might indeed be said to be only another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythical grammar. 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 led into yellow gold, and the still rock into 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—upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well upon any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such “fantasy,” as it is called, new form is made; Faërie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator. (TR 48-9)[8]

As Tolkien observes, by “the power of generalization and abstraction” the mind is able to see not only green grass, but green as distinct from grass. Abstraction, however, is not invention, or as Tolkien implies, it is not “incantation.”[9] Creative intuition is no mere passive, speculative beholding of form, but is a kind of “magic,” an “enchanter’s power” similar to God’s which can—if not literally (and thus unlike God’s power), then at least imaginatively—“make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey led into yellow gold, and the still rock into swift water.” As Tolkien further observes, the fact that we have this power does not mean that “we shall use that power well”; as Maritain has it, we can be very “poor gods.” What accounts for the difference is the use one makes of the faculty of Imagination, or what we found Tolkien in the last chapter define as “the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality.” It is something like this capacity to grasp the manifold “implications” of a given image that Maritain seems to have at least partially in view in his account of the kind of occult sympathy or intuition of things that the artist must have in the development of the creative form or concept.


[1] Maritain, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, 115.

[2] Ibid., 112-13.

[3] Ibid., 135-6. As Miner comments, “with respect to res artificiales, for which there is no counterpart in nature, the abstractive model would be lacking.” Miner, Truth in the Making, 8.

[4] Maritain, Creative Intuition, 136.

[5] Ibid., 136 (emphasis original). For a related discussion as it applies to Tolkien directly, see also Candler, “Tolkien or Nietzsche, Philology and Nihilism,” 16.

[6] “[A]rtifex enim producit determinatam formam in materia, propter exemplar ad quod inspicit, sive illud sit exemplar ad quod extra intueter, sive sit exemplar interius mente conceptum.”

[7] Miner, Truth in the Making, 8-9. As Maritain himself summarizes the resulting analogy between human and divine making in Thomas’s account, “[i]n a way similar to that in which divine creation presupposes the knowledge God has of His own essence, poetic creation presupposes, as a primary requirement, a grasping, by the poet, of his own subjectivity, in order to create.” Maritain, Creative Intuition, 113.

[8] On this passage, see also Candler, “Tolkien or Nietzsche, Philology and Nihilism,” 14-16.

[9] As Maritain puts it, “in the spiritual unconscious the life of the intellect is not entirely engrossed by the preparation and engendering of its instruments of rational knowledge and by the process of production of concepts and ideas… which winds up at the level of the conceptualized externals of reason. There is still for the intellect another kind of life, which makes use of other resources and another reserve of vitality, and which is free, I mean free from the engendering of abstract concepts and ideas, free from the workings of rational knowledge and the disciplines of logical thought, free from the human actions to regulate and the human life to guide, and free from the laws of objective reality as to be known and acknowledged by science and discursive reason.” Maritain, Creative Intuition, 110.

Trinity and Eschatology in Middle-earth

In addition to the divine, Trinitarian-like difference within Eru being a condition for the possibility of creation in Tolkien’s world, it also turns out to be a condition for the possibility of the world’s future re-creation. For as Finrod also confesses in the Athrabeth, unless Eru should indeed specially “enter in” and take upon himself the hurts of the world wrought by Melkor, all the while remaining “the Author without”—the simultaneity of which is made possible by this difference within the divine being—Finrod says he cannot at all “conceive how else this healing could be achieved” (MR 322). Equally inconceivable to the faith or estel of Finrod, however, is the thought that Eru should leave the world he loves forever unredeemed. As Tolkien thus concludes the matter in his commentary, “[s]ince Finrod had already guessed that the redemptive function was originally specially assigned to Men, he probably proceeded to the expectation that ‘the coming of Eru’, if it took place, would be specially and primarily concerned with Men: that is to an imaginative guess or vision that Eru would come incarnated in human form” (335). In Tolkien’s mythology, then, it is the Creator’s own difference, whereby he is “other” even to himself, that allows and leads him first to produce the “other” that is the created order, and consequent to that created order’s fall and corruption, to restore it eventually to an even greater state of perfection. Beneath the creaturely otherness which so transfixed Tolkien’s attention, lies the infinite depths of the divine “otherness” in which all things participate for their being, and therefore from whom they must one day receive it back again.

Trinity in Middle-earth, part 4

While Tolkien deliberately mutes—much as he does the fact of God’s presence—the Trinitarian character of the Creator in his mythology, in this series of posts we have also seen that, again, similar to the point concerning the divine presence, far from this representing a departure from the Christian and biblical traditions, Tolkien has both profound Scriptural and theological reasons for doing so. Tolkien’s relative silence on the question of this “possibility of complexity or of distinctions in the nature of Eru,” therefore, is no reason for thinking it unimportant for a right understanding of the theology and metaphysics of his fiction. While such complexity or distinction may not be properly knowable by unaided, natural reason, like St. Thomas Tolkien clearly ties God’s status as Creator with his identity as divine difference. Eru creates, in short, by sending to burn at the heart of the world the Flame Imperishable that both is and is not himself.[1] Eru thus may be the “One alone,” but this is not to say that he is therefore alone in his aloneness, and as the case of Melkor in his self-imposed isolation confirms, complete solitude is as much a metaphysical vice as it is an ethical one.[2] For Tolkien following Aquinas, God creates a world other than himself because he is the God who is other than himself, meaning that the difference or “otherness” that constitutes creation in its very being receives its own significance and ground in the deepest possible source, the God who is being.[3]


[1] As Devaux puts it, in the Ainulindalë the Holy Spirit is “distinct from God but also in Him.” Devaux, “The Origins of the Ainulindalë,” 106.

[2] Peter Candler writes: “It is not enough simply to say that the world is created ex nihilo by an eternal ‘simplicity,’ but by a Holy Trinity who in its primordial fecundity is not threatened by any kind of ‘original’ violence, strife, or chaos. For this reason Tolkien’s ‘creation myth’ in The Silmarillion depicts a prior, though learned, harmony among the Ainur.” Candler, “Tolkien or Nietzsche, Philology and Nihilism,” 23.

[3] Again, as Candler observes, for Tolkien the “appearances” and “surfaces” of created beings “can therefore be like one another but truly different from one another because they are created by the One God, who in His eternal tri-unity, creates the world from nothing.” Ibid., 37.

Tom Bombadil: Franciscan, Pacifist, Botanist

Tolkien on Bombadil:

“Tom Bombadil is not an important person—to the narrative. I suppose he has some importance as a ‘comment’… [H]e represents something that I felt important, though I would not be prepared to analyze the feeling precisely. I would not, however, have left him in, if he did not have some kind of function. I might put it this way. The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power, and so on; but both sides in some degree, conservative or destructive, want a measure of control. But if you have taken ‘a vow of poverty,’ renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless. It is a natural pacifist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war. But the view of Rivendell seems to be that it is an excellent thing to have represented, but that there are in fact things with which it cannot cope; and upon which its existence nonetheless depends. Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even to survive. Nothing would be left for him in the world of Sauron… He is … Botany and Zoology (as sciences) and Poetry as opposed to Cattle-breeding and Agriculture and practicality.” (Letters 179)