Faith and Reason in Middle-earth, part 4

[Faith and Reason in Middle-earth, part 1, part 2, and part 3]

In the two previous posts I commented on a couple of notable instances where the question of faith and reason is raised within Tolkien’s fiction. There is another, more fundamental level, however, at which Tolkien’s entire project may be seen to touch on this issue, and this concerns the whole matter of what he calls “literary belief” and which he addresses at some length in his essay “On Fairy-Stories.” According to Tolkien, the task of the “successful ‘sub-creator’” is that of making “a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside” (FS 60-1). Entering into the secondary world of story, in other words, requires an act of “faith,” of trusting the good will of its author.

Literary faith, however, is not literary fideism: it is not an irrational faith. The successful sub-creation of a secondary world capable of sustaining at length such literary or “Secondary Belief,” after all, requires a great deal of ingenuity and art. The capacity first to produce a literary image, combined with the power further to grasp and control the manifold “implications” of the image, Tolkien calls “Imagination,” whereas “Art” signifies the actual “achievement of the expression, which gives (or seems to give) ‘the inner consistency of reality’.” Art, in other words, is the “operative link between Imagination and the final result, Sub-creation” (68). Because of the peculiar “unreality” of its images, their freedom, that is, from the “domination of observed ‘fact,’” this kind of “inner consistency of reality” within Fantasy (defined here as the combination of sub-creative Art and the “quality of strangeness and wonder in Expression” (68)) is especially difficult to accomplish, so that Fantasy often “remains undeveloped; it is and has been used frivolously or only half-seriously, or merely for decoration: it remains merely ‘fanciful’” (69-70). Tolkien gives the example of a green sun, the mere imaging or mental picturing of which is relatively easy to accomplish but which is by itself insufficient: “To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode” (70). While a kind of “faith,” then, is required for the reader or audience to enter imaginatively into the world of a story and to accept it on its own terms, “reason” is not on this account suspended or ignored. It has an important role to play, first on the part of the author in elucidating, and on the part of the reader in afterward comprehending, the “inner consistency,” credibility, and rationality of that world. Reason would thus seem to play a role in fairy-stories analogous to the function of manifestatio which St. Thomas assigns to it in sacred doctrine.[1] Put in more Anselmian terms, what Tolkien is describing here is the literary equivalent of fides quaerens intellectum, “faith seeking understanding.” As Tolkien himself relates these matters in one place, while it is true that the “stories come first,” it is “some test of the consistency of a mythology as such, if it is capable of some sort of rational or rationalized explanation” (L 260).


[1] Or as Peter Candler has put it, “there is an implicit Thomism to Tolkien’s understanding of philology as it seeks not to recover a lost antiquity, but to create an imaginary world in which the aspirations of this world may be glimpsed with greater luminosity.” Candler, “Tolkien or Nietzsche, Philology and Nihilism,” 22.

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