“The laws of contradiction”: Tolkien on the limits of sub-creative possibility

When the question of the limits of legitimate, sub-creative possibility was posed by one correspondent in a letter, Tolkien interestingly offered the same criterion of logical non-contradiction that the medieval schoolmen, for example, put forward in their discussions of the “limits” of divine power: “Are there any ‘bounds to a writer’s job’ except those imposed by his own finiteness?”, Tolkien responded. “No bounds, but the laws of contradiction, I should think. But, of course, humility and an awareness of peril is required” (L 194). As Tolkien observes at the very end of his letter, the sub-creator is indeed free to take his art beyond the “walls of ‘observed fact’,” but this of course does not mean that he is permitted to make mere gibberish, as there are criteria to which the sub-creator, for all his freedom, must submit. One criterion Tolkien hints at here and which I hope to address more fully later is a moral one: “humility and an awareness of peril is required.” Another limitation he mentions and which finds him, again, in agreement with Jacques Maritain’s Thomistic theory of art, is that the sub-creator’s freedom of necessity will be conditioned by his “finiteness.” Yet what Tolkien is primarily asking in this instance is whether there are any limits “except” those natural to creaturely finitude, any limits, in other words, common to both the finite sub-creator and the infinite Creator. The answer Tolkien gives, echoing Aquinas, Ockham, and even his friend C.S. Lewis (see The Problem of Pain, chapter on divine omnipotence), is that neither God in his creating nor man in his sub-creating may produce a logical contradiction. The parallel is neither insignificant nor accidental, and as I hope to show in follow up posts, in Tolkien’s theory of sub-creative possibility we may find a helpful paradigm for understanding the nature of God’s own creative power and possibility.

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One thought on ““The laws of contradiction”: Tolkien on the limits of sub-creative possibility

  1. Pingback: Tolkien’s Chestertonian Nominalism? | The Flame Imperishable

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