Imagination and Desire in Tolkien and Descartes

In yesterday’s post I contrasted Descartes and Tolkien in their respective views of tradition. Paralleling this is their differing attitudes towards the value and propriety of imagination in kindling human desire for things that aren’t in fact real. In his Discourse on Method, Descartes lists four maxims–his provisional ethic–that he resolved to live by while he undertook his program of tearing down his long-held beliefs and re-constructing a more secure edifice of certain knowledge. Descartes explains the goal of his third maxim this way:

always to try to conquer myself rather than fortune, and to change my desires rather than the order of the world, and generally to accustom myself to believing that there is nothing that is completely within our power except our thoughts, so that, after we have done our best regarding things external to us, everything that is lacking for us to succeed is, from our point of view, absolutely impossible. And this alone seemed to me sufficient to prevent me in the future from desiring anything but what I was to acquire, and thus to make me contended. For, our will tending by nature to desire only what our understanding represents to it as somehow possible, it is certain that, if we consider all the goods that are outside us as equally beyond our power, we will have no more regrets about lacking those that seem owed to us as our birthright when we are deprived of them through no fault of our own, than we have in not possessing the kingdoms of China or Mexico, and that, making a virtue of necessity, as they say, we shall no more desire to be healthy if we are sick, or to be free if we are in prison, than we now do to have a body made of a material as incorruptible as diamonds, or wings to fly like birds. But I admit that long exercise is needed as well as frequently repeated meditation, in order to become accustomed to looking at everything from this point of view… (AT 25-6)

The irony of Descartes’s posture of Stoic resignation to the way things are, of course, is that as he makes clear at the end of his Discourse, the goal of his philosophical and scientific project is the Baconian one of “mastering” nature. Descartes, in short, wants to change the world, but he recognizes that to accomplish this peculiarly modern goal he must first change the way he thinks about himself, and by writing and publishing his experience, change the way European man in general thinks about himself. Unlike the Stoicism of the ancient and medieval periods, which sought to bring about inner tranquility and a conviction of adiaphora by aligning one’s own wants and desires with the beautiful order of the cosmos as a whole, Descartes’s objective in disciplining his and humanity’s desire was actually to help prepare them to assert their own will-to-order on the world. Descartes’s injunction to chasten counterfactual speculation, accordingly, really belongs to the tradition of Machiavelli’s rejection in The Prince of all those political dreamers before him, from Plato to Dante, who constructed wonderful thought-castles in the mind but who substituted fanciful utopian ambitions for a sober reflection on the way things really work politically. To cultivate such realist men, Descartes recognized, they must habituate themselves into a new way of thinking about what is really possible, and hence feasible, in the saeculum of the here and now.

In contrast to all this is Tolkien’s very different evaluation of the role of imagination in eliciting desire for seemingly impossible things. In his essay “On Fairy-Stories” he praises the “magic” of the Elves for its “power to play on the desires of his body and his heart.” He goes on to explain how this

magic of Faerie is not an end in itself, its virtue is in its operations: among these
are the satisfaction of certain primordial human desires. One of these desires is to survey the depths of space and time. Another is … to hold communion with other living things. A story may thus deal with the satisfaction of these desires, with or without the operation of either machine or magic, and in proportion as it succeeds it will approach the quality and have the flavour of fairy-story.

Man for Tolkien has a “primordial desire” that is only fulfilled in and through Fantasy, and accessed through imagination. This desire is not for a mastery of things, but the aesthetic, poetic appreciation and “surveillance” of them; not the control and conquest of nature, but a “communion” with it. It is on account of this primordial desire that Tolkien rejects the dream device as an appropriate technique in fantasy or fairy-story:

if a waking writer tells you that his tale is only a thing imagined in his sleep, he cheats deliberately the primal desire at the heart of Faerie: the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder….  It is at any rate essential to a genuine fairy-story, as distinct from the employment of this form for lesser or debased purposes, that it should be presented as “true.” … But since the fairy-story deals with “marvels,” it cannot tolerate any frame or machinery suggesting that the whole story in which they occur is a figment or illusion.

Whereas it was Descartes’s purpose to strongly differentiate the feasibly possible from the fancifully impossible, and to discourage the mind from indulging the latter and to limit itself to the former, the glory of fairy-story, for Tolkien, is the way it deliberately obfuscates the two (though he does claim later on that “creative 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”). And here we perhaps get a unique perspective into the Cartesianism of the “machinery” of the dream device: by casting the would-be fantasy tale as a mere illusion, its content is thereby banished to the realm of the impossible, and hence the impractical and unachievable.

But let us conclude with that which Tolkien actually holds in common with Descartes: the world must be changed. Whereas Descartes, however, saw (or at least would see) the imagination of Faerie-land as a distraction and impediment to the kind of world-conquest he saw as imperative, for Tolkien, it is less through human science than it is through human sub-creation (a form of which is what science really should be), founded in human fancy and ignited by primal human desire, that the world at last becomes–and that by God’s ordination–what it ought to be. It is this theological and creational context, moreover, that reveals that the possibility of actually realizing our human imaginings are not so limited as we may have thought. “So great is the bounty with which he [man] has been treated,” as Tolkien finishes his essay,

that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.

To return to Descartes’s third maxim, he praises those philosophers “who in earlier times were able to free themselves from fortune’s domination and who, despite sorrows and poverty, could rival their gods in happiness.” For Tolkien, by contrast, it is only when man abandons his pretenses to divinity and is content with his role as a mere sub-creator that he surprisingly discovers that his own ambitions and desires for the world have in fact become (or rather always already were) God’s own goals.

On the possibility of picturing impossible things

What do Tolkien, Vitruvius, Alan of Lille, and Gothic gargoyles have in common? They all touch on the problem of representing impossible things. According to historian of modality Simo Knuuttila,

[Alan of Lille] found no difficulty in asserting the possibliity of picturing impossible things. People drawing or painting chimeras and other fancy objects actually illustrate such things… In his book on architecture written in the first century before Christ, Vitruvius had condemned the use of pictures of things which cannot be (De architectura VII, 5). In the twelfth century, strange figures were not unusual in the decoration of church buildings. It is not always easy to say whether they were meant to be pictures of real or of non-existent animals, but in both cases they were intended probably to demonstrate God’s power by showing the actual or possible plurality of what divine power could bring about. (Knuuttila, Modalities in Medieval Philosophy, 102)

As I have argued before, for Tolkien sub-creative fantasy ultimately serves much the same theological purpose as Knuuttila here attributes to fantastical medieval architectural forms, namely the artist’s participation in God’s own freedom from the “channels the creator is known to have used already,” thereby accomplishing “a tribute to the infinity of His potential variety” (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien no. 153). In a more Vitruvian moment, however, Tolkien cautions in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” that such fantasy is best achieved through literature than in the visual arts. In painting, for example, he says that “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.” As he suggests later, in such cases “disbelief [has] not so much to be suspended as hanged, drawn, and quartered.”

 

Sub-creation and Augustine’s “seminal reasons”

John Houghton has pointed out a number of similarities between Augustine’s account of creation in his commentaries on Genesis and Tolkien’s depiction of creation in the Ainulindalë. One of the comparisons Houghton draws in particular is between Augustine’s doctrine of “seminal reasons,” according to which God in the beginning enfolded within the initial, created reality the potentialities for all the kinds of beings and processes that would later be realized, with Tolkien’s representation of the structure and history of the world as the outworking of the primeval Music sung by the angelic Ainur and Ilúvatar the Creator. As Simo Knuuttila summarizes Augustine’s doctrine of seminal reasons:

Augustine was very fond of associating the conception of simultaneous creation with the doctrine of seminal reasons (rationes seminales or rationes causales) which was found in slightly different forms in Stoic and Platonic philosophy. He was not the first to regard this as a theologically significant conception, but he systematized it more than his predecessors. According to Augustine, the members of the natural kinds which unfolded later on their own were created in seminal form at the beginning, but the seminal reasons also involved the seeds of all miraculous deviations from the common course of nature. In this way God remained the ultimate creator of every new being (De Gen. ad litt. 6.10.17-11.19, .14.25-15.26; De Trin. 3.8.13-9.16). (Knuuttila, “Time and Creation in Augustine,” in The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, 104)

In addition to providing a powerful, fictional representation of the Augustinian theory of cosmic history as the providential unfolding of an original plan embedded in creation from the beginning, Tolkien’s purpose in the Ainulindalë was, of course, to dramatize on a mythic and cosmic scale the profound metaphysical contribution of the human act of sub-creation in the fulfillment of the being of creation. If so, then it is reasonable to see Augustine’s theory of seminal reasons as standing behind not only the Ainulindalë, but also behind the theory of sub-creation which it so beautifully illustrates. In particular, and with this in mind, it is difficult not to see Augustine somewhere in the background of Tolkien’s statement in “On Fairy-Stories” that

[s]o great is the bounty with which [man] 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. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.

To adapt the Apostle Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 3, God the Creator has planted, Man the Sub-creator has watered, and it is God the Redeemer who gives the increase.

A Theology of the Possible

A Theology of the Possible, part 1

This summer I’m hoping to continue work on my “theology of the possible” project, the goal being to formulate a more expressly sub-creative and Trinitarian theology of divine power (omnipotence) than I have heretofore been able to find. The bearing this theoretical issue has on Tolkien (or more precisely, the bearing that I think Tolkien has on this theoretical issue) is explained more fully in this and connected posts, but the idea is this. Tolkien viewed art–and specifically his preferred and privileged art form of fairy and fantasy story–in terms of his notion of “sub-creation”: as he puts it in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” “we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.” As may be seen, the Christian understanding of God as Creator and the world as his creation deeply influenced Tolkien’s understanding of what it means for man to be a maker: we make both as and because God makes. To understand our making, we must see it in light of God’s own making.

Yet inasmuch as it seeks (in good, pedagogical fashion) to explain the unknown in terms of the known, Tolkien’s thesis implies that the relevant structures or principles of creation are in some sense more intelligible, familiar, or accessible than their parallel, analogous, and derivative and dependent counterparts on the side of human making. It is to suggest, in other words, that creation is not only metaphysically and causallybut therefore also explanatorily and hence epistemologically, prior to our understanding of art as sub-creation.

As I have also had occasion to argue before, to Tolkien’s mind this subordination of human to divine making had the effect not of degrading but of elevating and dignifying human creativity within the economy of creation. In Tolkien’s divine humanism (or “superhumanism,” as I like to call it), man is most fully human when (paradoxically) he is submissive and put in proper relation to that which infinitely transcends him. As Tolkien himself states this principle in his essay,

the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man… he 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. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.

Without questioning, therefore, the basic validity of what we might dub the “Tolkienian inference” (i.e., his movement from creation to sub-creation), and indeed, presupposing it, the concern of the present project is how the insights of Tolkien’s theory of sub-creation in their own turn may be used to challenge, critique, and refine the very traditional (i.e., Augustinian-Thomistic) theological understanding of creation that Tolkien otherwise largely took for granted. (Related to this is Tolkien’s own deeply ambivalent relationship to the traditional–and to my view, regrettable and erroneous–privileging of theoria over poiesis, of the comparatively passive act of human contemplation over the transformative act of human making.) I am interested, that is to say, in how Tolkien’s theory of sub-creation in important ways makes for a more robust paradigm for thinking about God’s own act of making than that typically allowed for in the conventional theological understanding from which he drew in developing that theory. If Tolkien’s great observation was that human making is far more like God’s own making than had perhaps hitherto been appreciated, the need of the hour, I contend, is to see how God’s making may be far more like ours than has thus far been recognized. The revolution, in a word, that Tolkien initiated by theologizing human poiesis stands to be completed by a more perfect poeticizing of theology.

A couple of objections may need to be answered at this point, the first of which is that this thesis may seem the equivalent of having water rise above its own level. How can Tolkien’s poetics (philosophy of making), which distinguishes itself in part by its drawing upon the conceptual resources of the Christian doctrine of creation, in turn be used to correct and improve that same doctrine? As paradoxical as it may seem, such a hypothesis is really nothing more than the theoretical application of Tolkien’s view of sub-creation. As we have just seen, sub-creation means that God has chosen to take up our art and actions by giving them a permanent place within–using them to perfect and complete–his own designs and purposes for being and history. What I am am suggesting is that, in an analogous fashion, how we as humans also think about sub-creation must no less be taken up into and perfect how we think about creation. In this manner our doctrine of sub-creation may, to paraphrase Tolkien, likewise actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of our doctrine of creation.”

A second concern might be that my claim that God’s act of making is far more like ours than often recognized, seems to run the danger of blurring the Creator-creature distinction. This is a valid concern, and my response to it is that, if I am right about the latent criticisms that Tolkien’s theory of sub-creation has in store for the standard view of God’s power and act of creation, it is because the standard account of creation has in important ways already compromised on the Creator-creature distinction. If so, a reconsideration of divine immanence within and likeness to creation (by re-conceiving the nature of the analogy between divine and human making) may in fact put us in a better position for understanding divine transcendence over and difference.from creation. The goal is not to domesticate the divine power, but on the contrary, precisely to free it (or at least our understanding of it) from some of the too-limiting concepts with which it has been burdened for the past millennium and a half.

Tolkien and Heidegger on the possessiveness of representation

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 29

In criticizing the Elvish motive of preservation and possessiveness, one of Tolkien’s purposes is to draw attention to and comment on what for him is a very real human temptation. I have noted how, through the Elvish quality of loving things for their “otherness,” Tolkien positively displays the role of “recovery” that all fairy-stories have, the “regaining of a clear view,” as Tolkien puts it in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” a “‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’—as things apart from ourselves” (Tolkien Reader 77). What we may also see is how the Elves, as “the artistic, aesthetic, and purely scientific aspects of the Humane nature raised to a higher level than is actually seen in Men” (Letters 236), at the same time represent some of the very human motives that these same fairy-stories are meant to deliver us from. For as Tolkien continues in the same passage from his essay,

We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness. Of all faces those of our familiars are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces. This triteness is really the penalty of “appropriation”: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them. (Tolkien Reader 77)

It is important to note that Tolkien is not yet critiquing here the kind of practical, technological mastery and “appropriation” of things that, as we shall see in later post, he warns us against elsewhere. His target in this passage, rather, is the much more subtle, intellectual, and even aesthetic and artistic form of possessiveness that, left unchecked, can lead (and in modern times arguably has led) to the outright domination and tyranny of nature. Nevertheless, the two forms of “appropriation,” however dissimilar, are closely related in Tolkien’s mind, as when he refers in his essay to the dissimulating dream-device in fairy-stories as a “machine” that “cheats deliberately the primal desire at the heart of Faerie: the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder” (42). In other words, the dream-device, not unlike the genre of allegory as a whole, for Tolkien, is a literary technique that effectively domesticates and so controls the narrative by denying it any actual or even possible real-world truth. Tolkien’s likening such intellectual and aesthetic appropriation to a matter of “locking” things up in some kind of mental “hoard,” moreover, is noteworthy for its resemblance to Martin Heidegger’s critique in Being and Time of the modern, Cartesian view of human perception:

the perceiving of what is known is not a process of returning with one’s booty to the “cabinet” of consciousness after one has gone out and grasped it; even in perceiving, retaining, and preserving, the Dasein which knows remains outside, and it does so as Dasein. If I “merely” know about some way in which the Being of entities is interconnected, if I “only” represent them, if I “do no more” than “think” about them, I am no less alongside the entities outside in the world than when I originally grasp them. (Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Macquarrie and Robinson, 89-90, emphasis original)

For Tolkien as for Heidegger, we must avoid reducing the existence or being of things to that aspect which lends itself to conceptual or perceptual apprehension (this is why, incidentally, it is so important that in the Ainulindalë the Ainur must eventually move beyond the abstract formalism of the Music to a love for the existing reality of Eä itself). Instead, our task, in the language of Heidegger, is to remain “open” to things “disclosing” themselves to us in new and even unexpected ways. It is precisely such openness, finally, that Tolkien attempts to model for us through the Elvish love of nature and “things other,” while at the same time warning how the things we are open to and value today in their unfamiliarity can quickly become the things we possessively render familiar and trite tomorrow.

Elvish Escapism

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 26

In The Lord of the Rings, it is the idealization of unchanging timelessness and preservation that characterizes the idyllic yet somewhat static Elvish enclaves of Rivendell and LothlorienFor all their elusive beauty, epitomizing the land of Faërie’s depiction in “On Fairy-Stories” as a wide realm of enchantment, peril, and longing, Tolkien nevertheless would not have us take their goodness entirely for granted. Indeed, through the theme of Elvish preservationism, it may be instructive to see Tolkien as revisiting with renewed seriousness and subtlety the problem of “escapism” (in the negative sense of that term) that he briefly acknowledges but otherwise dismisses in his essay. As he writes of the Elves in a 1956 letter,

Mere change as such is not represented as ‘evil’: it is the unfolding of the story and to refuse this is of course against the design of God. But the Elvish weakness is in these terms naturally to regret the past, and to become unwilling to face change: as if a man were to hate a very long book still going on, and wished to settle down in a favorite chapter. Hence they fell in a measure to Sauron’s deceits: they desired some “power” over things as they are (which is quite distinct from art), to make their particular will to preservation effective: to arrest change, and keep things always fresh and fair… (Letters 236)

Much as Tolkien, as I’ve suggested before, satirizes himself as author in characters such as Aulë and Niggle, through his Elves Tolkien similarly holds up what we might call a kind of “mirror for readers,” reflecting back to them their own temptations to “escape” into his and other like stories, to “appropriate,” “possess,” and so “preserve” his story in such a way as to inoculate themselves against living in the real world, instead of peculiarly equipping them for it.

Tolkien’s “Divine Comedy”: Purgatory as Faërie-land

Furthering the Tolkien-Dante connection I’ve been entertaining lately are some passages from Tolkien’s early writings which re-cast the Middle-earth mythology as a kind of Tolkienian “Divine Comedy.” Summarizing an episode from his father’s account of the Valar’s arrival in Arda and their settlement in Valinor as originally told in The Book of Lost Tales, Christopher Tolkien writes:

Nienna is the judge of Men in her halls named Fui after her own name; and some she keeps in the region of Mando (where is her hall), while the greater number board the black ship Mornië–which does no more than ferry these dead down the coast to Arvalin, where they wander in the dusk until the end of the world. But yet others are driven forth to be seized by Melko and taken to endure ‘evil day’ in Angamandi (in what sense are they dead, or mortal?); and (most extraordinary of all) there are a very few who go to dwell among the Gods in Valinor. (Book of Lost Tales 90)

An early name for Arvalin, the purgatorial region where the souls of the deceased men go who are neither “seized by Melko” nor “who go to dwell among the Gods in Valinor,” is Habbanan, which also happens to have been the subject of a poem written even earlier by Tolkien while he was in camp during the Great War. Much like Dante’s Purgatory, the star-imagery in Habbanon beneath the Stars is pervasive and determinative; both regions are also places of song, of desire, and of new and clear celestial vision.

One key difference between the two, however, is that in comparison to Dante and other traditional accounts, already at this early stage Purgatory in Tolkien’s imagination is less a place of penitence for and purgation of sin than it is a place of healing, rest, and the satiation of restless desire, a distinctive that we see preserved, for example, as late as the characterization of Frodo’s anticipated convalescence in Valinor at the end of The Lord of the Rings. (Tolkien does give, it should be noted, a slightly more conventional, though still highly original and imaginative portrayal of Purgatory in Leaf by Niggle.) Many readers have no doubt been tempted to see Frodo’s departure from Middle-earth into the West as an iconic image of Christian death and the soul’s departure to Heaven at the end of its mortal life. Yet such an interpretation overlooks an important intermediary stage in Tolkien’s Catholic understanding of the afterlife, to say nothing of his Faërie-fascination with the perpetual mediation of desire and the postponement of its satisfaction (a postponement that is itself intensely and strangely desirable). Tolkien’s more typical treatment of such mediation, of course, is through his mythopoetic creation of a longed for but now lost and irretrievable past, yet in cases such as Frodo’s we may see Tolkien as working in the opposite temporal direction, eliciting and sustaining desire through an indefinitely delayed consummation of all things (a deliberately “non-immanentized” eschatology, as it were). As Tolkien writes in one letter of the circumstances surrounding Frodo’s fate:

‘Alas! there are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured’, said Gandalf … – not in Middle-earth. Frodo was sent or allowed to pass over Sea to heal him – if that could be done, before he died. He would have eventually to ‘pass away’: no mortal could, or can, abide for ever on earth, or within Time. So he went both to a purgatory and to a reward, for a while: a period of reflection and peace and a gaining of a truer understanding of his position in littleness and in greatness, spent still in Time amid the natural beauty of ‘Arda Unmarred’, the Earth unspoiled by evil. (Letters 328)

Thus, much as Tolkien, for example, in his apologetic poem “Mythopoeia,” profoundly reinterprets the traditional, Thomistic account of heavenly beatitude, exchanging theoria for poiesis–the beatific vision for beatific sub-creation–as the pinnacle of human potential (“In Paradise perchance the eye may stray / from gazing upon everlasting Day / … 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), so we also find him remaking that other region of the Christian after-life in his own image. In Tolkien’s hands, Purgatory becomes nothing less than Faërie-land, a realm

wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost. (“On Fairy-Stories”)

Returning, in conclusion, to Tolkien’s purgatorial poem Habbanan beneath the Stars, I find Christopher’s following analysis to be on point:

This poem … offer[s] a rare and very suggestive glimpse of the mythic conception in its earliest phase; for here ideas that are drawn from Christian theology are explicitly present…. [and] they are still present in this tale [of The Coming of the Valinor]. For in the tale there is an account of the fates of dead Men after judgement in the black hall of Fui Nienna. Some (‘and these are the many’) are ferried by the death-ship to (Habbanan) Eruman, where they wander in the dusk and wait in patience till the Great End; some are seized by Melko and tormented in Angamandi ‘the Hells of Iron’; and some few go to dwell with the Gods in Valinor. Taken with the poem and the evidence of the early ‘dictionaries’, can this be other than a reflection of Purgatory, Hell, and Heaven? (Lost Tales 92)

As I say, Tolkien’s Middle-earth mythology as a kind of modern, fantasy “Divine Comedy.”

Easter, the Eucatastrophe of Eucatastrophes

A couple of passages from Tolkien on Easter, the first from “On Fairy-Stories”:

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this [story-telling] aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairystory, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: ‘mythical’ in their perfect, selfcontained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the ‘inner consistency of reality.’ There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.

And the second from a 1944 letter to his son Christopher (in which he alludes to the above passage from his essay):

the Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Fairy Story – and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love. Of course I do not mean that the Gospels tell what is only a fairy-story; but I do mean very strongly that they do tell a fairy-story: the greatest. Man the story-teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story. But since the author if it is the supreme Artist and the Author of Reality, this one was also made to Be, to be true on the Primary Plane. So that in the Primary Miracle (the Resurrection) and the lesser Christian miracles too though less, you have not only that sudden glimpse of the truth behind the apparent Anankê [Greek: necessity, constraint] of our world, but a glimpse that is actually a ray of light through the very chinks of the universe about us.

The truth of myth

Another point of contrast between Plato and Tolkien concerns the conflicting evaluations of the truth-capacity of myth implied in their respective metaphysics.  Gergely Nagy has observed that “Plato, like Tolkien, draws heavily on traditional myths, also including his own ‘myths’ (nowhere else attested and probably written by him) in his dialogues,” and says that this parallels Tolkien’s “mythopoeic enterprise” in its ultimate aim of “show[ing] ‘truth,’ in Plato always expressed in mythic scenes and language…” (“Plato,” in Drout, ed.,J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, 513). Similarly, Frank Weinreich emphasizes Tolkien’s debt to Plato for his “metaphysics of myth” when he writes how the “quintessence of Tolkien’s ontology” behind his theory of myth is “at the core a Platonic one” (“Metaphysics of Myth: The Platonic Ontololgy of ‘Mythopoeia’,” 325). For Plato, however, the philosopher uses myths not out of choice, but of necessity. As the principle is stated in the Timaeus, “the accounts we give of things have the same character as the subjects they set forth” (29b), meaning that just as the world (on account of the ananke or constraint of its pre-existing matter) only ever achieves a tragically partial and thus never fully-realized participation in the divine, so the “likely story” (eikos mythos) that Timaeus has to tell about the origins of the cosmos achieves at best a tragic likeness to the ideal logos or rational account that the philosopher would prefer.

In Tolkien’s creation-myth, by contrast, and following the Christian doctrine of creation, while the world’s participation in the divine is limited by its finitude, because creation is nevertheless from nothing, the world—including its matter—has its entire existence through a participation in and likeness of the divine without remainder. For Tolkien, in short, the world in its entirety is a story about the divine, a metaphysical reality that at least in principle allows the stories or myths we tell about the world a much greater participation in the truth that remains to be told about that world. As Tolkien puts it in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” myth is no mere “disease of language” (TR 48), but given the inherent and irreducibly storied structure of reality itself, is a uniquely privileged way of communicating the truth of that reality. Indeed, for Tolkien it is through such myth-telling that reality for the first time comes into its own, accomplishing by God’s own ordination the “effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation” (TR 89).

Hoarded Silmarils

Consuming Sons: The Nihilism of Fëanor and Denethor, part 2

The statement that Fëanor loved his father even more than the “peerless works of his hands”—an oblique and hence, again, possibly ironic reference to the Silmarils—leads us to the next great exploitative relationship of Fëanor. Although not exactly “consumed” by Fëanor, the Silmarils are nonetheless by him “locked in the deep chambers of his hoard.” In this we have echoed the almost identical expression Tolkien uses in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” to describe the effect familiarity and possessiveness have in stifling the otherwise marvelousness and wondrousness of the things of our everyday experience. As Tolkien describes them, things have been made to suffer the “drab blur of triteness” that is “really the penalty of ‘appropriation.’” They are “things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them” (emphasis added). Through Fëanor’s possessive love and admiration for “these things that he himself had made,” accordingly, Tolkien’s purpose in part seems to be to symbolize the kind of greedy, “consuming” mentality that must eventually suffocate or suppress the very beauty and allure that the Silmarils represent and embody.

That Fëanor’s attitude towards the light of the Silmarils is, finally, (like Ungoliant’s) ultimately a devouring rather than ennobling and freeing one may be seen in his refusal, after the attack of Melkor and Ungoliant, to sacrifice the Silmarils so that the Trees of Valinor, the source of the Silmarils’ own light, might be healed and their light restored. For Fëanor, what is of value in the Silmarils is apparently not their light per se (otherwise he presumably would be more solicitous for the good of the Trees from which their light came), but the fact that the Silmarils are his. Thus, in his very possessiveness Fëanor himself has effectively denied them their fantastical “otherness” and independence from himself and so reduced the Silmarils to something less than what they truly are and meant to be.

Sub-creative Omnipotence

In a recent post I made the case that, in essence, what the late medieval voluntarism of Ockham, et al, represented was theology abandoning its sub-creative task. Specifically, it ceased to properly contextualize its fantastical, counterfactual claims about the possibilities open to divine power, by not carefully crafting an imaginative, secondary world in which those possibilities could be seen as internally consistent or proportionate. Late medieval voluntarism, to use Tolkien’s expression, is “green sun” theology–less imaginative or creative than simply ugly and lazy. Theology forgot that God is no mere “possibility actualizer,” but a world-maker. Creation is not the mere realization of a bare logical possibility, but to borrow Heidegger’s apt phrase, involves instead the “worlding of a world.”

That Aquinas, for his part, retained a better sense of the sub-creative nature of speculation over divine power may perhaps be seen in this passage from SCG 2.23.3:

Now, there are many entities which do not exist in the realm of created things, but which, if they did so exist, would imply no contradiction; particularly obvious examples are the number, quantities, and distances of the stars and of other bodies, wherein, if the order of things were different, no contradiction would be implied.

Implicit in this passage is an awareness on Thomas’s part that, unless the order of things were made different, any change to just the number, quantities, and distances of the stars might in fact involve a contradiction, and so prove impossible. For Aquinas, logical possibility is deeply world- or “order”-relative.

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.

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.

Heidegger and Tolkien on Art vs. Technology

Yesterday’s post looked briefly at the presence of the Augustinian doctrine of divine exemplarism in Tolkien’s creation-myth, the Ainulindalë. According to the influential critique advanced in the last century by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, such traditional and orthodox views of God and reality, ironically, far from avoiding the kind of technological approach to nature which Tolkien, for example, so deplored and from which he sought to provide some escape in his fiction, instead unwittingly enfranchised the technological outlook at the deepest metaphysical and theological level. In his famous essay “The Question Concerning Technology,” Heidegger makes the case that the commonplace definition of technology in terms of an instrumental alignment of causes and effects or means and ends—a definition implicit, perhaps, in Tolkien’s account of the modern “Machine” as an instrument designed for “making the will more quickly effective” (L 145)—fails to get at the essence of technology, inasmuch as causal thinking itself has presupposed since ancient Greek times the technological or instrumental paradigm of techne. And yet it is precisely in terms of this technological, causal framework, according to Heidegger, that theology has traditionally articulated God’s relation to creation, with the result that, as Heidegger puts it, “even God can, for representational thinking, lose all that is exalted and holy, the mysteriousness of his distance. In the light of causality, God can sink to the level of a cause, of causa efficiens. He then becomes, even in theology, the god of the philosophers, namely, of those who define the unconcealed and the concealed in terms of the causality of making, without ever considering the essential origin of this causality.”[1] While Heidegger in his essay is resigned to the inevitability of technological thinking, he hopes modern man might nonetheless find his “saving power” by “confronting” and “questioning” the technological paradigm through the cultivation of an alternative mode of thinking and “revealing,” namely that of poeisis or art.[2]

In other respects, of course, Tolkien’s analysis of the problem of modern technology is very much of apiece with Heidegger’s. Like Heidegger, for example, Tolkien links modern technological with representational thinking, and contrasts both of these with an alternative model of true, authentic art. In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien argues that one of the purposes of such fantasy is the “recovery” of the strangeness or mystery of things from the “dreary” or “trite” “familiarity” into which they fall through our “appropriation” of them. By “appropriation,” Tolkien does not necessarily limit himself to the kind of practical or technological mastery or domination of things that he criticizes elsewhere, though it would certainly include this. Rather, “appropriation” would seem to include an even more subtle, intellectual, and even aesthetic and artistic form of possessiveness, the kind of thing, for example, Tolkien thematizes in his legendarium, most notably in the character of the Elves. On the one hand, while the Elves symbolize “a devoted love of the physical world, and a desire to observe and understand it for its own sake and as ‘other’,” as well as embody a “‘subcreational’ or artistic faculty of great excellence,” on the other hand Tolkien sees them as for that reason being peculiarly susceptible to what he refers to as the “will to preservation,” i.e., the desire “to arrest change, and keep things always fresh and fair…” (L 236). Thus, Tolkien too recognizes the ease and sometimes imperceptibility with which the true, selfless artistic impulse—which ideally seeks only communion with and knowledge of things through a sub-creative process that simultaneously brings things to their own completion or fulfillment—can slide into the self-interested imposition of one’s own purposes or plans; the ease, that is, one might say, with which “art” or “poetry” can devolve into mere “craft” or “technological making,” and hence the necessity for the one to be distinguished from the other. Here I submit we also gain a further perspective into Tolkien’s well-known preference of myth or fairy-story over allegory. In allegory’s “purposed domination of the author,” as Tolkien puts it in the foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, we seem to have exactly the kind of “bad exemplarism” associated with the craft-model of making criticized by Heidegger, in which the act of making is preceded and almost wholly predetermined by a prior act of knowing. In contrast to the “domination” of allegory Tolkien juxtaposes the “discovery” and “applicability” of fairy-story and myth, a form of knowing, in other words, that takes place only in and through the act of making.


[1] Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. Lovitt, 26.

[2] Ibid., 34-5.

Tolkien’s “Fairy-Exemplarism”

Tolkien’s Augustinian exemplarism is not confined to the Ainur or the Ainulindalë generally, but extends to his view of Fairies as well. In their critical edition of Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Verlyn Flieger and Douglas Anderson quote Tolkien as writing:

a tree-fairy (or a dryad) is, or was, a minor spirit in the process of creation who aided as ‘agent’ in the making effective of the divine Tree-idea or some part of it, or … even of some one particular example: some tree. He is therefore now bound by use and love to Trees (or a tree), immortal while the world (and trees) last—never to escape, until the End. [cited in Michael Milburn, “Colderidge’s Definition of Imagination and Tolkien’s Definition(s) of Faery,” Tolkien Studies 7 (2010): 57]

According to Tolkien, in other words, part of the metaphysical function of fairies is to serve as intermediary agents by which the patterns of the natural order as they exist in the divine mind might be instantiated or made efficacious in the physical world. In this, as Milburn goes on to observe, “Such fairies are rather like the Valar, the sub-creative ‘gods’ of Tolkien’s mythology, and their lesser kin, the Maiar.”

“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.

Tolkien on God’s existence, part 3: the conversion of reason through imagination

Judging from his letter to Camilla Unwin, the daughter of his publisher Rayner (Tolkien on God’s existence, part 2), Tolkien evidently believed that the kind of teleological reasoning about the world which he attributes to the Elves was at the same time something intelligible and appreciable even to a child. On the other hand, like the fairy-stories whose popular relegation to the nursery he laments in his essay (TR 57-8), Tolkien was also well-aware that this line of argument (i.e., from the apparent order, design, or purposefulness of things to the existence of a divine and intelligent cause) was one that many among his modern audience no longer found persuasive.[1] Thus, at the beginning of his commentary on the Athrabeth, for example, Tolkien admits that the central “argument” of the dialogue—an argument, as we have seen in the previous posts, based on God’s existence and his purposeful governance of the world—would likely not have “any cogency for Men in their present situation (or the one in which they believe themselves to be)…” (MR 329). Tolkien is aware, in other words, that he is writing for an audience that has largely not only lost its faith in God, but also its confidence in even reason’s ability to discern God’s presence and purposes in the world. Similarly, in his discussion of the “recovery” role of fairy-stories in his essay, Tolkien clarifies: “I do not say ‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’—as things apart from ourselves” (TR 77). As Paul Kocher has commented on this passage, however, in stating that fairy-stories help us to see things merely as we were “meant” to see them, Tolkien is not avoiding entanglements with the philosophers so much as he is exchanging a frontal attack for a more subversive and indirect approach:

Yet of course Tolkien cannot escape metaphysics. By introducing the word meant he implies intention, and only a person of some kind can have an intent for mankind. He is merely turning an epistemological problem into a theological one. Without using blatantly theological terms his ideas are often clearly theological nonetheless, and are best understood when viewed in the context of the natural theology of Thomas Aquinas…[2]

Instead of pitting the natural theology of St. Thomas, for example, against the skeptical idealism and phenomenalism of modern philosophy directly, Tolkien’s “‘response’ to modernity,” as Peter Candler has aptly observed,

is to re-enshrine narrative, particularly the “fairy tale,” as the medium of Christian persuasion to beauty. That is, it is not apodictically that Tolkien seeks [to] make a case for Christianity; rather he “argues’’ for Christianity by making an appeal to the beautiful in the form of the story… After modernity (or at least, within its death-throes) the Christian appeal is, with a certain element of charm (if not “glamour”), to a story that is in some way more attractive because more beautiful, and beautiful because true.[3]

This basic apologetic method Tolkien would also have been familiar with from his reading in Orthodoxy, in which Chesterton makes the point that, although the modern unbeliever, represented by Chesterton under the image of the “madman,” might indeed be “vanquished in mere reason, and the case against him put logically,” his curse is not that he has lost his reason but that he has in fact lost everything but his reason. Thus, the case against him might “be put much more precisely in more general and even aesthetic terms.”[4] There is no neutral, autonomous, secular reason upon which the question of God’s existence might be adjudicated without bias, for to suppose such an account of reason is already to enthrone reason as God, itself a peculiar form of “mental evil” which, as Chesterton observes, one cannot simply “think himself out of… for it is actually the organ of thought that has become diseased, ungovernable, and, as it were, independent. He can only be saved by will or faith.”[5] The suggestion being made here, finally, is that Tolkien’s self-appointed task throughout his mythology, and brought out explicitly so in the Athrabeth, is to appeal—in the absence of any kind of religious faith on the part of his audience—at least to their aesthetic sense and their capacity for  “literary” or “secondary” belief. Through his own powerful combination of faith, imagination, and reason, Tolkien seeks to re-enchant the world in such a way that, when taken on its own, internally consistent terms, the kind of metaphysical and theological vision outlined by traditional Christian thought might once again be glimpsed not simply as plausible or intelligible, but as even beautiful and highly desirable; a vision in which the Christian synthesis of faith and reason might not be merely theorized about, but thoroughly imagined and experienced.


[1] Chesterton noted a related irony between what a child was able to recognize in his innocent wisdom and what the enlightened, “adult,” modern mind could not: “When a child looks out of the nursery window and sees anything, say the green lawn of the garden, what does he actually know; or does he know anything? There are all sorts of nursery games of negative philosophy played round this question. A brilliant Victorian scientist delighted in declaring that the child does not see any grass at all; but only a sort of green mist reflected in a tiny mirror of the human eye… Men of another school answer that grass is a mere green impression on the mind; and that he can be sure of nothing except the mind. They declare that he can only be conscious of his own consciousness; which happens to be the one thing that we know the child is not conscious of at all… St. Thomas Aquinas, suddenly intervening in this nursery quarrel, says emphatically that the child is aware of Ens. Long before he knows that grass is grass, or self is self, he knows that something is something. Perhaps it would be best to say very emphatically (with a blow on the table), ‘There is an Is.’ That is as much monkish credulity as St. Thomas asks of us at the start. Very few unbelievers start by asking us to believe so little. And yet upon this sharp pin-point of reality, he rears by long logical processes that have never really been successfully overthrown, the whole cosmic system of Christendom.” Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas: “The Dumb Ox,” 165-6.

[2] Kocher, Master of Middle-earth, 77.

[3] Candler, “Tolkien or Nietzsche, Philology and Nihilism,” 6. As Tolkien himself states, following St. Thomas, the ultimate convertibility of truth and beauty or of intelligibility and aesthetic desirability, in a letter discussing his admiration for the Eden story in Genesis, “the beauty of the story while not necessarily a guarantee of its truth is a concomitant of it, and a fidelis is meant to draw nourishment from the beauty as well as the truth” (L 109).

[4] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 27. As Chesterton puts it in a passage the echoes of which we might faintly discern in Tolkien’s decline to involve himself with the philosophers, “[c]uring a madman is not arguing with a philosopher; it is casting out a devil.” Ibid., 26.

[5] Ibid., 26.

[6] As Chesterton similarly puts it, “[i]t is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.” Ibid., 38.

Faith and Reason in Middle-earth, finale

[Faith and Reason in Middle-earth, part 1part 2, and part 3, and part 4]

Yet if at one level Tolkien’s literary theory involves him in a kind of scholastic collaboration and synthesis of faith and reason in their respective roles, at another level his goal was to go beyond, or rather to get behind or beneath, such distinctions or dualisms. Tolkien, after all, viewed his mythology as literally a mytho-logy, a unity, that is, of the sub-creative and mythic imagination (mythos) on the one hand and a philosophical rationality and rigor (logos) on the other. As Philipp Rosemann has suggested, in an important respect the whole scholastic preoccupation with the relation of faith and reason represented a Christian continuation and recapitulation of the ancient dialectic of mythos and logos which French scholar Jean-Pierre Vernant has argued to constitute the heart of classical Greek culture.[1] If so, what Tolkien was interested in achieving was not yet another scholastic truce between the biblical mythos and Greek logos, as he was in recovering a now-lost vision of these perspectives in their putatively original, mythic unity. This unity Tolkien went so far as to symbolize in one of The Silmarillion’s central images: “The Light of Valinor (derived from light before any fall) is the light of art undivorced from reason, that sees things both scientifically (or philosophically) and imaginatively (or subcreatively) and says that they are good—as beautiful” (L 148n). Here Tolkien seems to have in mind the epistemological dimension to the “ancient semantic unity” that English philologist, mythologist, philosopher, and sometimes Inkling Owen Barfield argues in his Poetic Diction to have once existed within human language and perception. As Verlyn Flieger summarizes Barfield’s position in her study of the latter’s influence on Tolkien, Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World,

Language in its beginnings made no distinction between the literal and the metaphoric meaning of a word, as it does today. Indeed, the very concept of metaphor, or one thing described in the terms of another, was nonexistent. All diction was literal, giving direct voice to the perception of phenomena and humanity’s intuitive mythic participation in them… Humankind in its beginnings had a sense of the cosmos as a whole and of itself as a part of that whole, a sense that has long since been left behind. We now perceive the cosmos as particularized, fragmented, and entirely separate from ourselves. Our consciousness and the language with which we express that consciousness have changed and splintered. In that earlier, primal worldview every word would have had its own unity of meaning embodying what we now can understand only as a multiplicity of separate concepts, concepts for which we (no longer able to participate in the original worldview) must use many different words.[2]

For Tolkien, accordingly, part of the contemporary task of fairy-stories or myths is to help reinvest language with its ancient literality, and in doing so to help heal the breach between philosophic and mythic perception, all by tracing these two now-splintered lights back to an imaginatively reconstructed moment of primordial confluence.

That this involved for Tolkien something more than the merely nostalgic, romantic desire for a tragically lost past, but also a specifically Christian hope for an as yet future fulfillment, is glimpsed in a letter he wrote to his son Christopher. Describing his own, semi-mystical experience of direct, intellectual illumination when he first came to realize that “Man the story-teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story,” namely, the Christian Gospel, Tolkien writes:

I was riding along on a bicycle one day, not so long ago, past the Radcliffe Infirmary, when I had one of those sudden clarities which sometimes come in dreams (even anaesthetic-produced ones). I remember saying aloud with absolute conviction: “But of course! Of course that’s how things really do work.” But I could not reproduce any argument that had led to this, though the sensation was the same as having been convinced by reason (if without reasoning). And I have since thought that one of the reasons why one can’t recapture the wonderful argument or secret when one wakes up is simply because there was not one: but there was (often maybe) a direct appreciation by the mind (sc. reason) but without the chain of argument we know in our time-serial life. (L 100-1)

Not unlike St. Thomas, then—for whom there is a sort of planned obsolescence or provisionality to the distinction between faith and reason, one that is to diminish asymptotically until the day it dissolves altogether in the completely unified and unifying vision of God (and vision of all things else) in his essence—Tolkien looks both backward and forward to what is for him a simultaneously ancient and eschatological vision of things in their created glory. Tolkien naturally took it as some measure of his success, accordingly, when, toward the end of his life one reader, a self-described “unbeliever, or at best a man of belatedly and dimly dawning religious feeling,” wrote telling him how he had “create[d] a world in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like light from an invisible lamp” (L 413). Tolkien reported these words to another correspondent who had made a similar observation, and to whom Tolkien replied, “[of] his own san[ct]ity no man can securely judge. If sanctity inhabits his work or as a pervading light illumines it then it does not come from him but through him. And neither of you would perceive it in these terms unless it was with you also” (413).


[1] Rosemann, Understanding Scholastic Thought with Foucault, 50-4.

[2] Flieger, Splintered Light, 38. Similar views to Barfield’s on the interrelationship between myth, language, and reality were developed about the same time in the 1920s in Germany by Ernst Cassirer and later in France by Vernant. For a discussion of Tolkien and Cassirer on the relationship between language and magic, see Zimmer, “Creation and Re-creating Worlds with Words.”

Faith and Reason in Middle-earth, part 4

[Faith and Reason in Middle-earth, part 1, part 2, and part 3]

In the two previous posts I commented on a couple of notable instances where the question of faith and reason is raised within Tolkien’s fiction. There is another, more fundamental level, however, at which Tolkien’s entire project may be seen to touch on this issue, and this concerns the whole matter of what he calls “literary belief” and which he addresses at some length in his essay “On Fairy-Stories.” According to Tolkien, the task of the “successful ‘sub-creator’” is that of making “a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside” (FS 60-1). Entering into the secondary world of story, in other words, requires an act of “faith,” of trusting the good will of its author.

Literary faith, however, is not literary fideism: it is not an irrational faith. The successful sub-creation of a secondary world capable of sustaining at length such literary or “Secondary Belief,” after all, requires a great deal of ingenuity and art. The capacity first to produce a literary image, combined with the power further to grasp and control the manifold “implications” of the image, Tolkien calls “Imagination,” whereas “Art” signifies the actual “achievement of the expression, which gives (or seems to give) ‘the inner consistency of reality’.” Art, in other words, is the “operative link between Imagination and the final result, Sub-creation” (68). Because of the peculiar “unreality” of its images, their freedom, that is, from the “domination of observed ‘fact,’” this kind of “inner consistency of reality” within Fantasy (defined here as the combination of sub-creative Art and the “quality of strangeness and wonder in Expression” (68)) is especially difficult to accomplish, so that Fantasy often “remains undeveloped; it is and has been used frivolously or only half-seriously, or merely for decoration: it remains merely ‘fanciful’” (69-70). Tolkien gives the example of a green sun, the mere imaging or mental picturing of which is relatively easy to accomplish but which is by itself insufficient: “To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode” (70). While a kind of “faith,” then, is required for the reader or audience to enter imaginatively into the world of a story and to accept it on its own terms, “reason” is not on this account suspended or ignored. It has an important role to play, first on the part of the author in elucidating, and on the part of the reader in afterward comprehending, the “inner consistency,” credibility, and rationality of that world. Reason would thus seem to play a role in fairy-stories analogous to the function of manifestatio which St. Thomas assigns to it in sacred doctrine.[1] Put in more Anselmian terms, what Tolkien is describing here is the literary equivalent of fides quaerens intellectum, “faith seeking understanding.” As Tolkien himself relates these matters in one place, while it is true that the “stories come first,” it is “some test of the consistency of a mythology as such, if it is capable of some sort of rational or rationalized explanation” (L 260).


[1] Or as Peter Candler has put it, “there is an implicit Thomism to Tolkien’s understanding of philology as it seeks not to recover a lost antiquity, but to create an imaginary world in which the aspirations of this world may be glimpsed with greater luminosity.” Candler, “Tolkien or Nietzsche, Philology and Nihilism,” 22.