“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.

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