Sub-creation as “tribute” to God’s “infinite variety”

Yesterday’s post examined the remarkable parallel between Tolkien’s stress on the contingency of creation and the corresponding freedom of the sub-creator, and Chesterton and Ockham’s stress on the contingency of creation and the corresponding freedom of the Creator. One important qualification to this similarity is that, as Tolkien argues in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” the fact that the human imagination has this “enchanter’s power” to imagine possibilities other than those realized in the present world is no guarantee that we shall “use that power well,” and therefore, as Tolkien puts it in his letter to Peter Hastings, a sense of “humility and an awareness of peril is required.” The need for this humility is made clearer earlier on in his reply to Hasting’s objection to Tolkien’s conceit of Elvish reincarnation. As Hastings had cautioned,

God has not used that device in any of the creations of which we have knowledge, and it seems to me to be stepping beyond the position of a sub-creator to produce it as an actual working thing, because a sub-creator, when dealing with the relations between Creator and created, should use those channels he knows the Creator to have used already … “The Ring” is so good that it is a pity to deprive it of its reality by over-stepping the bounds of a writer’s job. (L 187-8)

Where Hastings saw Tolkien’s idea of reincarnate Elves as transgressing the limits of legitimate sub-creation imposed by the Creator, Tolkien replied that such a conceit was in fact a deliberate and self-conscious exercise of precisely those sub-creative prerogatives granted by the Creator. In his response Tolkien writes:

I have, of course, already considered all the points that you raise. But to present my reflexions to you (in other form) would take a book. … We differ entirely about the nature of the relation of sub-creation to Creation. I should have said that liberation “from the channels the Creator is known to have used already” is the fundamental function of ‘sub-creation’, a tribute to the infinity of His potential variety, one of the ways in which indeed it is exhibited, as indeed I said in the Essay. I am not a metaphysician; but I should have thought it a curious metaphysic—there is not one but many, indeed potentially innumerable ones—that declared the channels known (in such a finite corner as we have any inkling of) to have been used, are the only possible ones, or efficacious, or possibly acceptable to and by Him! (L 188-9)

According to Tolkien, the essence of sub-creation lies in the “liberation” the sub-creator enjoys in imagining (and further, exploring the implications of) possibilities which go beyond the actual “channels the Creator is known to have used already”; as Tolkien puts it in his essay, at the very “heart of the desire” of Fantasy or fairy-stories lies “the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds” (TR 64). These “channels” which the Creator has not in fact used, however, along with the individual yet potentially innumerable “metaphysics” to which these hypothetical channels belong, do not occur in a shallow, theologically independent and de-ontologized infinite logical space, as seems to be the case per the logical possibilism of Ockham, but instead seem to find their home in the kind of ontological depths which Aquinas attempts to plumb in his consideration of divine omnipotence. The “channels” of possibility, in short, are a function of, and indeed, when explored by the sub-creator, become a “tribute to the infinity of [God’s] potential variety.” In this way, according to Tolkien, sub-creation in fact becomes “one of the ways in which indeed it [i.e., God’s infinite variety] is exhibited,” a point he further claims to have made in his essay. Tolkien would thus appear to approximate St. Thomas’s definition of possibility as that which is capable of divine imitation or participation, only now applied to the realm of human making: what constitutes a legitimate sub-creation is that which is capable of “imitating” (Thomas) or “exhibiting” (Tolkien) some aspect of God’s infinite “perfection” (Thomas) or “variety” (Tolkien). To put it differently still, like the primary, divine act of creation upon which it is based, sub-creation is a peculiar form or extension of natural revelation.[1] It is for this reason, finally, and as Tolkien puts it in his essay, that the Christian sub-creator “may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation” (TR 89). In this way Tolkien arrives at the very conclusion that Robert Miner (Truth in the Making) claims St. Thomas’s philosophical theology makes possible, namely the “elevation” and dignifying of human making by granting it a true participation in, and even an agency for the fulfillment of, God’s own act of creation.


[1] Here we have the specifically theological dimension to the point Alison Milbank makes about relationality in general: “enchantment is a mode of relationality as well: neither Tolkien nor Chesterton has the nominalist individualism that would see each thing as totally separately named from every other.” Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 12.

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2 thoughts on “Sub-creation as “tribute” to God’s “infinite variety”

  1. Pingback: “Thoughts of his own unlike those of his brethren”: Melkor’s Second Fall | The Flame Imperishable

  2. Pingback: On the possibility of picturing impossible things | The Flame Imperishable

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