“You look at trees and label them just so”

An exposition of “Mythopoeia,” part 1

In an elective I taught recently on Anselm and Tolkien, the class spent a couple of sessions expositing together the meaning of Tolkien’s poem “Mythopoeia.” This series is the fruit of that exercise.

You look at trees and label them just so. Later in the poem Tolkien uses the word name, setting up a contrast between labeling and naming. Labeling is what the modern scientist does; naming is what Adam and subcreators do. So what is the differenence? Labeling is comparatively passive, a mere reflection of what is already there, slaping a label on it without contributing anything to it. There is no “value added.” In modal theistic terms, we might say that labelling is “possibilistic”: it takes for granted the existing reality and seeks merely to represent it as it is; the possibility of what it may be labeled is predetermined. Naming, by conrast, is “actualistic”: what its name is cannot be determined apart from the act of naming itself.

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