Tolkien and Jacques Maritain on Art

There are a number of noteworthy parallels between Tolkien’s whole approach to art or sub-creation and the same approach found in other lay Thomists during the early and mid-twentieth century. Here the name of Jacques Maritain is of some importance, as his little treatise, Art and Scholasticism, which develops a Thomistic theory of art based in turn on Thomas’s theory of being, had a particularly galvanizing effect on many Catholic artists and writers during this period. Maritain’s treatise, for example, was adopted as a sort of manifesto by the art guild at Ditchling in East Sussex in the 1920s, an affiliation that included artist Eric Gill, poet David Jones, and Fr. John O’Connor, the co-translator of the first English edition (1923) of Maritain’s text, as well as the purported inspiration behind Chesterton’s famous clerical sleuth, Fr. Brown.[1]  Chesterton may very well have had the Ditchling group particularly in mind when, in his biography of St. Thomas, he alludes to the existence of a contemporary Thomistic renaissance: “In this not very hopeful modern moment, there are no men so hopeful as those who are today looking to St. Thomas as a leader in a hundred crying questions of craftsmanship and ownership and economic ethics. There is undoubtedly a hopeful and creative Thomism in our time.”[2] Although it is unknown as to what extent Tolkien himself may have been familiar with Maritain’s book, a title which influenced even Catholic writers across the Atlantic such as Flannery O’Connor,[3] according to Tolkien’s son Christopher, his father would certainly have been aware of Maritain’s work,[4] and Alison Milbank in Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians has pointed to a number of parallels between Tolkien’s and Maritain’s views on art. Some of the notable similarities I have observed in my own reading of Maritain and Tolkien include their agreement on the simultaneous practicality yet integrity and dignity of the work of art;[5] art’s freedom from and yet imitation of nature;[6] the responsibility of art both to communicate truth to the intellect and simply to delight the will;[7] the consequent rationality or intelligibility of art; its likeness and submission to the Creator’s act of creation on the one hand and the antithesis between it and the technological tendency towards the domination of one’s “medium”; and, more concretely, even the image of art as a “prism” through which the light of divine beauty may be further refracted. Beyond these and other similarities, it is noteworthy how the Ditchling community influenced by Maritain also shared with Tolkien an idealization of rural and agrarian living, a wariness toward modern technology, and what Elizabeth Ward in her biography of David Jones identifies as a “passion for the home-made or authentically crafted artefact,” idiosyncrasies all of which the members of the Ditchling guild in one way or another saw as being rationally defensible in terms of and even mandated by the common-sense, sacramental realism of St. Thomas Aquinas.[8]


[1] MacCarthy, Eric Gill: A Lover’s Quest for Art and God, 161. See also Candler, “Tolkien or Nietzsche,” 9-14.

[2] Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, 189. Chesterton also bears witness in his biography to a more general resurgence of interest in and work being done on Thomas at the time of his writing (1933). As Chesterton self-effacingly writes, “this book, I hope (and I am happy to say I believe) will probably be lost and forgotten in the flood of better books about St. Thomas Aquinas, which are at this moment pouring from every printing-press in Europe, and even in England and America.” Ibid, 197.

[3] See, for example, the references made to Aquinas and Maritain in Flannery O’Connor’s published letters, The Habit of Being.

[4] Personal email (12/06) sent to me from the Tolkien Estate.

[5] According to Maritain, “Art belongs to the practical order. It is turned towards action, not towards the pure interiority of knowledge.” Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 6. Tolkien similarly identifies a very practical or moral aim to his fiction: “I would claim, if I did not think it presumptuous in one so ill-instructed, to have as one object the elucidation of truth, and the encouragement of good morals in this real world…” (L 194). At the same time, however, Maritain argues that, as a productive action, “Making” was contrasted by the medieval schoolmen with mere “Doing,” for whereas in mere Doing the action or result of the action is a means used for some further end, in Making the art product is an end in itself. Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 8. Tolkien also affirms the distinction between Doing and Making when he describes the attitude of Elvish art toward the natural world: “they have a devoted love of the physical world, and a desire to observe and understand it for its own sake and as ‘other’—sc. as a reality derived from God in the same degree as themselves—not as a material for use or as a power-platform” (L 236). The Elvish love of the world “for its own sake and as ‘other’” which lies at the heart of their art is also shared by Tom Bombadil, whom Tolkien describes as desiring “knowledge of other things, their history and nature, because they are ‘other’ and wholly independent of the enquiring mind, a spirit coeval with the rational mind, and entirely unconcerned with ‘doing’ anything with the knowledge” (L 192, emphasis original). Alison Milbank has further suggested that the two races of Elves and Men basically correspond to Aristotle’s distinction between poesis and praxis, respectively. Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 20.

[6] On the freedom of art, Maritain writes: “Doing, in the restricted sense in which the Schoolmen understood this word, consist in the free use, precisely as free, of our faculties, or in the exercise of our free will, considered not with regard to the things themselves or to the works which we produce, but merely with regard to the use which we make of our freedom.” Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 7. And because the artist must be free, “servile imitation is absolutely foreign to art” (56). The purpose behind art’s freedom from nature, however, is not so that it might despise nature, but rather so that it might be an agent in its beautification. For Tolkien, the importance of free will in art or “sub-creation” is so great that the two terms are used interchangeably by him, as may be seen in his letter to Peter Hastings: “having mentioned Free Will, I might say that in my myth I have used ‘subcreation’ in a special way… Free Will is derivative… So in this myth, it is ‘feigned’ … that He gave special ‘sub-creative’ powers to certain of His highest created beings…” (L 195). And like Maritain, Tolkien also believes that art, especially as represented in Fantasy literature, 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 75).

[7] According to Maritain, following Aquinas, “[t]he beautiful is what gives delight—not just any delight, but delight in knowing; not the delight peculiar to the act of knowing, but a delight which superabounds and overflows from this act because of the object known. If a thing exalts and delights the soul by the very fact that it is given to the soul’s intuition, it is good to apprehend, it is beautiful.” Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 23. Compare this with the following statement by Tolkien describing a good fairy-story: “But first of all it must succeed just as a tale, excite, please, and even on occasion move, and within its own imagined world be accorded (literary) belief. To succeed in that was my primary object” (L 233).

[8] Ward, David Jones: Mythmaker, 32.

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