Angelic Creation in the Patristic Era

From the earliest days of their encounter with pagan philosophy and religion, the question of angelic “creation” has been a subject of interest to Christian theologians. As David Keck explains in his study on Angels and Angelology in the Middle Ages:

The question of the creation of the angels was problematic for Philo and the church Fathers primarily because several schools of pagan philosophy advocated doctrines concerning uncreated spirits that somehow mediated between God and the corporeal creation. Aristotle’s spirits were eternal and uncreated (as was the universe itself). The Neoplatonists’ scheme of emanations from the divine as the source of eternally uncreated spiritual beings provided these philosophers with angellike spirits who were the real creators of the universe. In addition to the philosophers, the Gnostics of the patristic era also saw the angels and their own peculiar beings, the aeons, as participating in the creation. Their God was quite removed from the created, material universe, which the Gnostics regarded as evil.[1]

In response to the pagan representation of the world as having been created by spirits or “gods,” early Christian thinkers defended the inherent goodness of creation and the one true God’s identity as the sole “maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible,” as the Nicene Creed of 325 had stated.[2] Thus, whereas in the first- and second-century Jewish and Christian commentators were still able to read the us in the “Let us make man” of Genesis as referring to the Lord God’s angelic assistants, later theologians such as the Cappodocians in the East and Augustine in the West were led to argue that this was in fact a reference to the persons of the Trinity.[3] In the City of God, moreover, the Bishop of Hippo denied that the angels were creators, though he confessed ignorance as to “what kind of service the angels, who were made first, afforded to the Creator in the rest of his creation.”[4]

[1] Keck, Angels and Angelology in the Middle Ages, 17.

[2] Ibid., 17-18.

[3] Ibid., 20. See also Pelikan, What has Athens to Do with Jerusalem? “Timaeus” and “Genesis” in Counterpoint, 105-6.

[4] Augustine, City of God 12.26, trans. Bettenson.

[5] Keck, Angels and Angelology in the Middle Ages, 18-21. On late medieval angelology, see also Colish, “Early Scholastic Angelology.” On the medieval reception of Plato, see Gersh, ed., Platonic Tradition in the Middle Ages: A Doxographic Approach.

Valinor: Plato’s realm of the forms?

According to Tolkien, some fairies serve the semi-Platonic function of acting as “agents” in impressing upon creation the divine ideas of the natural world. Possibly related to this is the description in The Silmarillion of the withdrawal of Valinor from the circles of the Arda following the rebellion and destruction of Númenor:

“For Ilúvatar cast back the Great Seas west of Middle-earth, and the Empty Lands east of it, and new lands and new seas were made; and the world was diminished, for Valinor and Eressëa were taken from it into the realm of hidden things.” (Silmarillion 279)

Rather than “Platonizing fairy-land,” perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Tolkien “Fairy-izes Plato”: the undying, transcendent “realm of hidden things” that men long for and which infuses our own world with its sense of beauty and wonder, is not some putative, unchanging “intelligible” realm of the forms, but the perilous land of “Faërie,” a source of song, of enchantment, of desire, of light.

A sub-creative critique of Ockham and medieval theological voluntarism

In previous posts I have, on the one hand, noted some parallels between Tolkien’s approach to Fantasy and the apparent Humeanism, Ockhamism, and general nominalism of Chesterton’s discussion of fairy-stories in Orthodoxy (see his chapter on “The Ethics of Elfland”); on the other hand, I have argued that Tolkien’s theory of sub-creative possibility holds much in common with the general aesthetics and metaphysical theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, including the latter’s teaching on divine power. Here at last I want to develop what I think would be Tolkien’s own, uniquely sub-creative critique of the otherwise theological position of Ockham and the late medieval voluntarist position on divine power.

From a Tolkienian perspective, in short, the whole tradition of later medieval theological speculation over what God can do or make fundamentally boils down to the question of sub-creative imagination. As a number of intellectual historians have suggested, moreover, it was precisely this new kind of theological imagination practiced by voluntarists such as Ockham—with their emphasis on the utter contingency of the world—that helped prepare the way for the scientific revolution in the modern era.[1] As has also been noted, however, even comparatively conservative theologians like Aquinas entertained such possibilities as the Father or the Spirit having become incarnate instead of the Son, that God could have become incarnate in any creature he wished to, including an angel or a woman, and that the head of a man could have been made lower on his body and his feet higher, though as Lawrence Moonan points out, Aquinas was in general not one to “encourage unsatisfiable expectations.”[2]

Similarly, for Tolkien, while God is truly all-powerful, and the world correspondingly radically contingent, and while speculation about how the world might have been differently constituted is not only a legitimate, but at some level an essential human activity—indeed, one that has been divinely sanctioned as a means for bringing to completion this world—not every imaginable creature or world is equally valid. Successful sub-creation, as Tolkien puts it in his essay, requires “labour and thought, and will certainly demand special skill, a kind of elvish craft” (TR 70). When achieved, however, the result is something almost godlike: “narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.” Tolkien goes on to caution that such Fantasy “is a thing best left to words, to true literature,” rather than to other art forms such as painting where “the visible presentation of the fantastic image is technically too easy; the hand tends to outrun the mind, even to overthrow it. Silliness or morbidity are frequent results.”

Yet the problem with much medieval counterfactual speculation, from a Tolkienian perspective, involves more than an arguably “silly” or “morbid” failure of the sub-creative imagination, a failure, that is, to contextualize sufficiently speculations about what God could do or make de potentia absoluta within a secondary world capable of exhibiting that action as something good, wise, or just for God to perform. What is ultimately at issue here, after all, is the whole question of the theology of possibility, of whether the perfections and possibilities contained within the divine essence, in other words, are in fact exhaustive of the possible, or if divine power and possibility extend “beyond” even these. For Ockham, the possible is the logically possible, a determination vacuous and permissive enough in itself to suggest to Ockham the possibility, for example, that God could, de potentia absoluta, just as easily reverse the moral order by endorsing instead of prohibiting blasphemy, murder, theft, and adultery.[3] If Aragorn’s well-known statement to Éomer might be applied here, however, Ockham’s hypothesis is one that Tolkien would be unwilling to countenance in any possible world: “Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house” (TT 41).[4] Thus, for Tolkien every sub-created world should doubtless have the same goal he set for himself in constructing his mythology, namely “the elucidation of truth, and the encouragement of good morals in this real world, by the ancient device of exemplifying them in unfamiliar embodiments, that may tend to ‘bring them home’” (L 194). Ockham by contrast, in divorcing the question of a thing’s intrinsic, logical possibility from a consideration of its possibility with reference to other created entities, to the created order as a whole, and above all, to the nature of the Creator himself, effectively places both human art and science—by placing the domain of sub-creative possibility upon which these human enterprises depend—in an amoral and ultimately atheological sphere.

For Tolkien following Aquinas, of course, no such sphere does or can exist. There are only two options: either one will take inspiration for one’s sub-creative imagining from the Flame Imperishable by which the existence of all creation has been kindled (as the faithful Ainur do), or one will attempt (after the fashion of Melkor) to seek out one’s own personal “secret fire” in the Void. The two possible sources for the possible, in short, are the God who is being or the non-being that is nothing. It is a dilemma already somewhat anticipated by Ockham, and one which Umberto Eco captures well in his novel The Name of the Rose when the Ockhamist William of Baskerville is asked by his novice Adso of Melk whether affirming God’s absolute omnipotence and freedom, even with respect to his own essence, isn’t “tantamount to demonstrating that God does not exist?”[5] The lesson of the Ainulindalë, however, is that sub-creative possibility is not even to be discovered in the Void, and that the only “alternative” to the humble, sub-creative “interpretation” of the “mind of the One” and the themes of his creation is the violent “alteration” and distinctly unimaginative negation of those themes, achieving a sort of “possibilism on the cheap.” For Tolkien, in conclusion, our human making will either involve an enabling and ennobling “Enchantment” of creation through its imitation of the Creator, an account of human making which St. Thomas, for example, provides for, or will involve rather the tyranny of “Magic” that “is not an art but a technique” and whose “desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills” (TR 73).


[1] See, for example, Funkenstein, Theology and the Scientific Imagination from the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century, 117-201.

[2] Moonan, Divine Power, 292-3.

[3] Ockham, Commentary on the Sentences 2.19, in Tourney, Ockham: Studies and Selections, 180-1.

[4] Similarly, Tolkien writes elsewhere: “Evil is not one thing among Elves and another among Men” (MR 224).

[5] Eco, The Name of the Rose, 493. William’s reply is intended to be unsatisfying: “How could a learned man go on communicating his learning if he answered yes to your question?” On the alleged, Thomistic philosophical sub-text behind Eco’s novel, see Sweeney, “Stat rosa pristine margine: Umberto Eco on the Role of the Margin in Medieval Hermeneutics and Thomas Aquinas as a Comic Philosopher,” 255-69.

The Possible is the Beautiful: Tolkienian Fantasy and Thomistic Beauty

Previous posts have made the case that, for Tolkien, sub-creation at a fundamental level is a kind of “interpretation” of the divine mind and hence being. The question remains, however, as to how this theological perspective might practically inform the sub-creative act. One application, touched on already, is that “humility and an awareness of peril is required”: the function of sub-creation is to explore imaginatively the possible, which is to say, that which is creatable by and therefore imitable of God. As Tolkien implies in his letter to Peter Hastings, a “possible” or “efficacious” world is one that is “possibly acceptable to and by Him!” This means that the act of sub-creation is never a merely theoretical enterprise, a theologically neutral or indifferent speculation into the artistically or aesthetically possible. Rather, every sub-created reality is an implicit statement about who the Creator is and what he is like—a “perilous” venture indeed.

In his essay “On Fairy-Stories” Tolkien develops his criteria for distinguishing good from bad sub-creativity in the realm of Fantasy in more immediately aesthetic or artistic terms, yet the above account enables us to appreciate the theological subtext behind his remarks. As I argued in the series of posts on the role of faith and reason in Tolkien’s fiction, while the reader of a fairy-story must exercise the literary virtue of “secondary belief” when he voluntarily submits himself to the world of the author’s imagining, taking it on its own terms, the author at the same time has the responsibility of imbuing his sub-created, secondary worlds with the kind of “inner consistency of reality” that we find in our own world. The example Tolkien gives is that of a “green sun,” which is relatively easy to imagine but exceedingly difficult to render “credible.” In using the consistency of this world as a measure of any possible sub-created world, Tolkien reflects something of his own Thomistic “actualism,” his conviction, that is, that the world in its actuality is the standard for determining what is possible, and not vice-versa.[1]

On the other hand, Tolkien’s requirement that a sub-created world invite and sustain secondary belief by exhibiting the inner consistency of reality may be further appreciated as a literary application of Aquinas’s three conditions of beauty, namely integrity, harmony, and splendor. This parallel is brought out rather precisely in Rowan William’s summary of these three principles: “integrity, the inner ‘logic’ of a product; then ‘proportion’ or consonance, its harmony and adaptation to the observer’s receptive mind; then splendor or claritas, the active drawing-in of the observing mind.”[2] For Aquinas, any hypothesis that God can do something other than what he in fact does do must of necessity presuppose a context, an alternative potentia ordinata, in terms of which the actualization of that hypothesis might be rendered just or wise. In like manner, we find Tolkien here demanding that the fantastical inventions of a sub-creator be situated within a secondary world in which those inventions might be rendered proportionate. As with God’s own creativity, so with the finite maker’s sub-creativity: the possible is one with the beautiful. Similar to Aquinas, then, who essentially maintains that what God can do or make is the beautiful because only the beautiful has the nature of being and hence of possibility, Tolkien maintains that only an internally consistent and hence beautiful world is to be sub-created because only such a world is creatable by and imitable of the Creator himself. For both Thomas and Tolkien, in summary, every possible world is an ordered world, a world arranged and governed according to a rule or law, and so a world reflecting the justice, wisdom, and goodness of its actual or would-be Maker.[3]

[1] As Tolkien puts it in his essay, “[c]reative fantasy 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 74-5).

[2] Williams, Grace and Necessity, 12.

[3] Randel Helms represents this fact well in an early study of Tolkien: “My point is that fantasy literature is based on an aesthetic as demanding and uncompromising as any realism. The realistic writer must, to maintain his credibility, make clear (however implicitly) how his events could have happened, for realism stands upon an ontology that grants reality only on a basis of cause-and-effect sequences. Fantasy stands upon a different theory of reality, but one demanding with equal rigor that the fantasist keep always in mind his aesthetic principles: that what happens in his world accord not with his daydreams nor with our own world’s laws of common sense, but with the peculiar laws of the sub-created cosmos.” Helms, Tolkien’s World, 77.

Sub-creation as Interpretation: On Exegeting the Divine Being

According to Tolkien’s theology of sub-creation, then, human Fantasy is a divinely appointed and even privileged means for imaginatively exploring and so celebrating (paying “tribute”) to God’s own infinite “variety,” and in that way extending or “effoliating” God’s own purposes within creation. Not surprisingly, it is the same theology of sub-creative possibility, as rooted in God’s own act of creation, that Tolkien brings to bear on and gives poetic expression to in his literary writings.

In his poem “Mythopoeia,” for example, Tolkien characterizes the work of sub-creation in terms of a lens through which the “white light” of God’s creation becomes “splintered” into “many hues, and endlessly combined / in living shapes that move from mind to mind” (TL 101). The image of the sub-creator as God’s agent for refracting God’s own light of creation parallels Maritain’s account in Art and Scholasticism of how the artist’s concepts find in God “their sovereign analogue” and which therefore represent “dispersed and prismatized reflection[s] of the countenance of God.”[1] Consistent with this sentiment, in the conclusion of his poem where he describes man’s future state of glory, Tolkien indicates that the light of creation from which the sub-creator takes his inspiration is itself only one ray within the infinite, uncreated light that is God’s own being:

In Paradise they look no more awry;

and though they make anew, they make no lie.

Be sure they still will make, not being dead,

and poets shall have flames upon their head,

and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:

there each shall choose for ever from the All.

Sub-creative freedom involves, both now and forever, a choosing from the divine “All” in whom all possibility is contained.

And it is this same theology of sub-creation, finally, which Tolkien presupposes and in part dramatizes in his Ainulindalë through the Ainur’s sub-creation of their Music. On the one hand, while the Ainur are able and invited to sub-create beyond the original theme taught them by Ilúvatar, the sub-creative possibilities which they discover through their Music are in no way independent of Ilúvatar. Rather, as Tolkien describes the Ainur’s sub-created themes in one letter, they represent so many “interpretations of the mind of the One” (L 284). Their act of sub-creating, in other words, is an act of exegeting, as it were, the divine being. In their act of sub-creation, accordingly, the Ainur are best seen as imitating something of God’s own act, as Thomas puts it, of “inventing” or “devising” the divine ideas through the self-knowledge or interpretation that constitutes the divine Word and “art of God.” David Bentley Hart illustrates well the affinity here between Tolkien and St. Thomas in his account of the traditional view of divine possibility held by Thomas, yet using the same musical imagery employed by Tolkien:

The “theme” of creation is the gift of the whole, committed to limitless possibilities, open to immeasurable ranges of divergence and convergence, consonance and dissonance (which always allows for the possibility of discord), and unpredictable modulations that at once restore and restate that theme. The theme is present in all its modifications, for once it is given it is recuperated throughout, not as a return of the Same but as gratitude, as a new giving of the gift, as what is remembered and as what, consequently, is invented. The truth of the theme is found in its unfolding, forever. God’s glory is an infinite “thematism” whose beauty and variety can never be exhausted, and as the richness of creation traverses the distance of God’s infinite music, the theme is always being given back. Because God imparts the theme, it is not simply unitary and epic but obeys a Trinitarian logic: it yields to a contrapuntal multiplicity allowing for the unfolding of endlessly many differing phrases, new accords, “explicating” the “complication” of divine music.[2]

Ilúvatar himself hints at this respect in which the Ainur’s sub-creative discoveries, for all their freedom and lack of coercion, are nevertheless already anticipated within and pre-contained by the divine mind, when he tells them how in the Vision of the history of the world corresponding to the Ainur’s Music, each of them will behold “all those things which it may seem that he himself devised or added” (S 17, emphasis added). In the earlier version of the Ainulindalë from The Book of Lost Tales, Ilúvatar is slightly less subtle about the source of the Ainur’s sub-creative possibility when he gives them the command to develop the original theme he has taught them: “I have not filled all the empty spaces, neither have I recounted to you all the adornments and things of loveliness and delicacy whereof my mind is full. It is my desire now that ye make a great and glorious music and a singing of this theme…” (BLT 53, emphasis added). As Michaël Devaux has observed—and quoting from Aquinas’s discussion of Augustine’s notion of angelic “morning knowledge,” or their “knowledge of the primordial being of things… according as things are in the Word” (ST 1.58.6)[3]—“[t]o perceive the Word, before the creation, is precisely the situation which the Music has made possible for the Ainur.”[4] Yet in The Silmarillion edition Ilúvatar makes matters plain enough when he explains to Melkor how, despite the latter’s efforts to achieve true novelty through his musical innovations, or rather deviations, in the Vision he will come to learn that all sub-creative possibility finds its home in Ilúvatar: “And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined” (S 17). In his effort to go beyond the boundaries established by the beautiful rhythms of Ilúvatar’s original theme, Melkor succeeds not, as is his intent, in discovering or creating hitherto unrealized musical possibilities, so much as he does in nihilistically negating or distorting those possibilities provided for by the infinite perfection of Ilúvatar’s own being. What Melkor produces, in other words, is not music but anti­-music, not an “interpretation” of Ilúvatar’s original theme, but an “alteration” of it (L 284). Yet even here, because his musical distortions are parasitic upon those rhythms and melodies which derive their possibility from the divine “mind” or “variety” of Ilúvatar, it follows that the ultimate meaning even of Melkor’s distortions are likewise beyond his control, but fall under the sovereignty of Ilúvatar. To the extent, in other words, in which evil is “real” and therefore possible, its own significance is determined by the one who is the God of the possible.[5]

[1] Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 30.

[2] Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth, 282.

[3] “[I]ta cognitio ipsius primordialis esse rerum, dicitur cognitio matutina: et haec est secundum quod res sunt in Verbo.”

[4] Devaux, “The Origins of the Ainulindalë,” 102-3. On Augustine’s doctrine of angelic morning and evening knowledge as it applies to the Ainulindalë, see Houghton, “Augustine in the Cottage of Lost Play: The Ainulindalë as Asterisk Cosmogony.”

[5] As David Harvey observes, “[t]he [Ainur] are always second to Ilúvatar. The foundation of all that they do is within His design. Any incursion by Evil powers, any attempts to change the theme or the design, are taken and skillfully worked into the Theme so that the conclusion is exactly as it was intended.” Harvey, The Song of Middle-earth: JR.R. Tolkien’s Themes, Symbols and Myths, 32.

Fëanor’s Nietzscheanism, Dionysianism

Fëanor is one of Tolkien’s most tragic characters, not only in the classical sense discussed by Aristotle in his Poetics, but also in the sense developed by Nietzsche in that other landmark analysis of the ancient genre, The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music. I hope someday to develop the Nietzschean undertones of Feanor’s character, motives, and speeches (undergraduate thesis, anyone?), but for a teaser, here are a couple of passages juxtaposing Fëanor’s demagoguery in persuading the Noldor to leave Valinor and return to Middle-earth, and Nietzsche’s (remarkably similar in spirit) exhortation to a Dionysian renunciation of the complacent life and the affirmation of forging one’s character and hearty-hood through the hammer and anvil of conflict and strife:

“‘Fair shall the end be,’ he [Fëanor] cried, ‘though long and hard shall be the road! Say farewell to bondage! But say farewell also to ease! Say farewell to the weak! Say farewell to your treasures! More still shall we make… But if any will come with me, I say to them: Is sorrow foreboded to you? But in Aman we have seen it. In Aman we have come through bliss to woe. The other now we will try: through sorrow to find joy; or freedom, at the least.’” (Silmarillion, “Of the Flight of the Noldor,” 83, 85)

“Yes, my friends, believe with me in Dionysian life and the rebirth of tragedy. The age of the Socratic man is over… Only dare to be tragic men; for you are to be redeemed… Prepare yourselves for hard strife, but believe in the miracles of your god.” (Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, sect. 20)

A people may be best ruled by its own

And yet another passage on political authority in Middle-earth:

“But after a time the Elf-kings, seeing that it was not good for Elves and Men to dwell mingled together without order, and that Men needed lords of their own kind, set regions apart where Men could live their own lives, and appointed chieftains to hold these lands freely. They were the allies of the Eldar in war, but marched under their own leaders.” (Silmarillion, “Of the Coming of Men into the West,” 147)

Two observations. First, its implied (Platonic? Aristotelian?) principle that two heterogeneous elements can only coexist and cooperate according or in conformity to a third principle or law. If Men and Elves are to live together, they may do so successfully only according to an established order. Anarchy, for all Tolkien’s sympathy expressed for it elsewhere, is not a live option. Second, prudence and justice dictate that a people may be best ruled by its own.

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.

A Prescient Understatement

Friend and fellow member of “Tea Club and Barrovian Society” (or “TCBS”), G.B. Smith, writing to Tolkien in 1915: “It struck me last night that you might write a fearfully good romantic drama, with as much of the ‘supernatural’ as you cared to introduce. Have you ever thought of it?” (quoted in John Garth, Tolkien and the Great War, 105)

Tolkien’s Chestertonian Nominalism?

The previous post noted the similarity between Tolkien’s use of the law of non-contradiction as a limit on legitimate sub-creative possibility and the use of this same law by medieval schoolmen such as Aquinas and Ockham to help define God’s own creative possibility. A further, at least apparent similarity between Tolkien and Ockham in particular on this point is the seeming permissiveness of the limit of mere logical possibility in allowing for all manner of outrageous speculations as to how God, or the finite sub-creator, might make the world otherwise than it is.

In Tolkien’s account of sub-creative fantasy, for example, and similar to that given by his mentor in the ways of fairy-land, Chesterton, the theme of creaturely contingency is so exaggerated that one might almost be lead to wonder if it isn’t Ockham rather than Aquinas who exerted the more significant philosophical influence over Tolkien’s imagination. In his chapter from Orthodoxy on “The Ethics of Elfland,” a passage which made a deep impression on Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Chesterton gives us the following account of the philosophical import of fairy-stories which might sound more like a page lifted from Ockham’s Enlightenment counterpart, the nominalist David Hume, than it does from a man who would later write the world’s most famous biography of St. Thomas:

We have always in our fairy tales kept this sharp distinction between the science of mental relations, in which there really are laws, and the science of physical facts, in which there are no laws, but only weird repetitions… All the terms used in the science books, “law,” “necessity,” “order,” “tendency,” and so on, are really unintellectual, because they assume an inner synthesis, which we do not possess. The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, “charm,” “spell,” “enchantment.” They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched.[1]

Later on in the same chapter, Chesterton spells out explicitly the theology implicit in this philosophy of fairyland, a philosophy that, again, would seem to channel more the spirit of the “unconquerable doctor” (doctor invincibilis) than that of the angelic doctor:

the fairy-tale philosopher is glad that the leaf is green precisely because it might have been scarlet. He feels as if it had turned green an instant before he looked at it. He is pleased that snow is white on the strictly reasonable ground that it might have been black. Every color has in it a bold quality as of choice; the red of garden roses is not only decisive but also dramatic, like suddenly spilt blood. He feels that something has been done…. So one elephant having a trunk was odd; but all elephants having trunks looked like a plot…. But the repetition in Nature seemed sometimes to be an excited repetition, like that of an angry schoolmaster saying the same thing over and over again… But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them… I had always vaguely felt facts to be miracles in the sense that they are wonderful: now I began to think them miracles in the stricter sense that they were willful. I mean that they were, or might be, repeated exercises of some will. In short, I had always believed that the world involved magic: now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician…. There was something personal in the world, as in a work of art; whatever it meant it meant violently.[2]

While Tolkien’s approach to fairy-land is perhaps less exaggerated than Chesterton’s, his own fairy-tale speculations about the kind of metaphysical “magic” able to “make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey led into yellow gold, and the still rock into swift water,” are similarly evocative of the brand of outlandish, counter-factual hypotheses about divine absolute power associated with Ockham. In the comparatively more sober, tidy, predictable, and reserved Aristotelian outlook of Aquinas, after all, where knowledge is primarily a matter of intellectually apprehending the immutable essences of things, one is much more disposed (as Aquinas is) to dwell on the naturalness, the fittingness, and in some sense even the necessity of created structures. In the fairyland of Tolkien, by contrast, a very different spirit seems to dwell, one in which knowledge of a thing is almost a knowledge of its contingency, of its lack of necessity. Finally, in his ability to produce “new form” by the mere command of his “will,” as he puts it in his essay, the Tolkienian sub-creator might seem to resemble in small-scale the voluntarist God of Ockham, that supremely free and powerful deity whose sovereign and unfettered will not only freely posits the created world itself, but also the very forms or divine ideas according to which the world is created. In a world so conceived, the forms or universals by which the human mind gains knowledge are in fact nothing real independent of the mind that conceives or “names” them, but are rather mere “fictions” of the mind, fictional in the etymological sense of things having been “made.”

These similarities notwithstanding, and as I hope to demonstrate in follow-up posts, not only is Tolkien not, in the final analysis, at least, an Ockhamist, but his reflections on the nature of sub-creation may in fact provide us with an altogether unique and powerful critique of Ockham’s theology of divine omnipotence which helped lay the foundation for the modern age.

[1] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 56, 58. Chesterton’s distinction between the “science of mental relations” and the “science of physical facts” derives from Hume’s well-known distinction between “relations of ideas” and “matters of fact” as the two fundamental classes of human knowledge. Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 15. (Alison Milbank draws a similar comparison between Chesterton and Hume in Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 9.) In Chesterton’s claim, moreover, that in nature we do not find “laws” but “only weird repetitions,” we would also seem to have Hume’s occasionalist theory of causality, also anticipated by Ockham, according to which our experience of causality is never that of “necessary connection” but merely of “constant conjunction.” As Chesterton himself writes a couple of pages later, “[a] forlorn lover might be unable to dissociate the moon from lost love; so the materialist is unable to dissociate the moon from the tide. In both cases there is no connection, except that one has seen them together.” Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 58.

[2] Ibid., 64-70.

“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.