Chesterton on the “Dream” vs. the “Vision”

Metaphysics of the Music, part 40

In the last few posts I have been developing a possible parallel between the differences between the Music and the Vision of the Ainur, and the opposition Tolkien constructs between the Dream and the Fairy-Story in his essay. Like the Dream, the Ainur’s Music possessed a kind of “perfectly self-contained significance,” but did not clearly point to any reality beyond itself. Instead, the Ainur “knew not that it had any purpose beyond its own beauty.” The Ainur’s Vision, by contrast, is more redolent of Tolkien’s remarks about fairy-stories in their suggestion of and eliciting of a desire for realities, worlds, and realms outside or beyond oneself. I’ve noted, furthermore, this same opposition between the Dream and true Art in Tolkien’s fellow 20th century Thomists Jacques Maritain and, under his direct influence, American novelist Flannery O’Connor.

It is in another reader of Maritain, however, that the most suggestive reference to the dream-image for our consideration of Tolkien appears. In his biography of St. Thomas, Chesterton writes:

That strangeness of things, which is the light in all poetry, and indeed in all art, is really connected with their otherness; or what is called their objectivity. What is subjective must be stale; it is exactly what is objective that is in this imaginative manner strange. In this the great contemplative is the complete contrast of the false contemplative, the mystic who looks only into his own soul, the selfish artist who shrinks from the world and lives only in his own mind. According to St. Thomas, the mind acts freely of itself, but its freedom exactly consists in finding a way out to liberty and the light of day; to reality and the land of the living. In the subjectivist, the pressure of the world forces the imagination inwards. In the Thomist, the energy of the mind forces the imagination outwards, but because the images it seeks are real things. All their romance and glamour, so to speak, lies in the fact that they are real things; things not to be found by staring inwards at the mind. The flower is a vision because it is not only a vision. Or, if you will, it is a vision because it is not a dream.[1]

Whether Tolkien ever read Chesterton’s biography of St. Thomas is not known for sure, yet the antithesis Chesterton draws between the vision and the dream as metaphors for the opposition between the subjective idealism of much modern aesthetics and the metaphysical realism of Thomas’s aesthetics is certainly striking, and would seem to corroborate further my suggestion that behind the relationship between the Ainur’s Music and Vision is the Dream/fairy-story polarity of Tolkien’s essay.[2] In contrast to the Music, after all, the Ainur’s Vision illustrates Tolkien’s belief that fairy-stories tap into a “primal desire” inherent in human beings, namely that, whatever the reality might be, there at least should exist things other than ourselves. Where the question of desire is concerned, therefore, the Music would seem to be more akin to the Dream in the limited sense that in it the Ainur’s desire-for-the-other, if not exactly “cheated,” at least goes unrecognized, to say nothing of it being unrealized. The Music was certainly beautiful for its time, “unlocking strange powers” in the minds of the Ainur, yet the logic of the Ainulindalë is hard to mistake: had Ilúvatar followed the Vision, not with the creation of the actual, physical world, but instead with a repetition of the Music which had preceded it, the Ainur would have perceived its self-contained, disinterested beauty by comparison as a mere “figment or illusion,” i.e., as a dream.


[1] Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas: “The Dumb Ox,” 182-3.

[2] The sequencing of the publication of Chesterton’s biography of St. Thomas in 1933, Tolkien’s Andrew Lang address “On Fairy-Stories” at the University of St. Andrews in 1939, and his revision of the Ainulindalë in the early 1950s to give the Vision (now named for the first time as such) a much more prominent place in the narrative (MR 24-6), is consistent at any rate with the possibility of Tolkien having read and been influenced by Chesterton’s biography.

Aquinas vs. Augustine on The Metaphysics of the Dream

Metaphysics of the Music, part 38

The previous post compared Tolkien’s rejection of the Dream as a legitimate framing device for the authentic fairy-story, with Jacques Maritain’s contrast between the lawlike character of genuine artistic inspiration and the dark unreason of dreams. Ironically, the negative associations of the dream-image for these two Thomists stands in opposition to the much more positive connotations it enjoys, for example, in the word’s first appearance in the Summa Theologiae. Using dream as an analogy for the redeemed human soul’s superior, post-mortem, disembodied, and hence abstract knowledge of God in his essence, Thomas writes:

the more our soul is abstracted from corporeal things, the more it is capable of receiving abstract intelligible things. Hence in dreams and withdrawals from the bodily senses divine revelations and foresight of future events are perceived the more clearly. It is not possible, therefore, that the soul in this mortal life should be raised up to the uttermost of intelligible objects, that is, to the divine essence. (ST1.12.11)

For Augustine, however, and notwithstanding his own tendency to view the physical realm along the “tragic” lines he inherited from Neoplatonism, the dream was a metaphor for the diminished degree of reality things have in the mind in comparison to the reality they have in the real world: “everything that occurs in the spirit is not necessarily better than everything that occurs in the body. The true is better than the false. Thus a real tree is better than a tree in a dream, although a dream is in the mind” (De musica 6.7).

Music or Vision, Dream or Art

Metaphysics of the Music, part 37

This issue of desiring things for their otherness—conjured in the Vision but conspicuously absent, in retrospect, from the Music—may be further related to the literary distinction Tolkien draws in his essay between fairy-stories and what he calls the “Dream.” As Tolkien explains, the Dream and the fairy-story are alike in that in both “strange powers of the mind may be unlocked,” yet Tolkien says he would nevertheless strongly distinguish the two and “condemn” the Dream as

gravely defective: like a good picture in a disfiguring frame… [I]f 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 Faërie: 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. (Tolkien Reader 41-2)

Tolkien’s argument concerning the dream-device is interesting on a number of levels, one of which is its link to other literary Thomists of his day for whom the dream symbolized the antithesis of true art. In Art and Scholasticism, Jacques Maritain had contrasted genuine artistic inspiration—defined along the Thomistic lines of “reason superelevated by an instinct of divine origin when it is a question of human works ruled according to a higher measure”—with the mere “seeking the law of the work… in dream and in the whole organic night below the level of reason…”[1] This concern, as we have just seen, Tolkien parallels in his point about how “strange powers of the mind may be unlocked” in dreams. Under the direct influence of Maritain, for American novelist and self-described “hill-billy Thomist” Flannery O’Connor, the dream-image was less a metaphor for a sub-rational and therefore illegitimate source of artistic inspiration, so much as a symbol of the artist’s temptation to impose his own alien purposes (whether rational or otherwise) onto the work of art, rather than letting the work’s own form come to the fore. As O’Connor explains to one correspondent to whom she had sent a copy of Art and Scholasticism: “Strangle that word dreams. You don’t dream up a form and put the truth in it. The truth creates its own form. Form is necessity in the work of art.”[2] Finally, John Milbank, in his essay-review of Rowan Williams’s Grace and Necessity, a study on Maritain’s influence on twentieth-century Catholic authors and writers such as O’Connor, has similarly touched on the specifically realist dimension of Tolkien’s fairy-story/dream antithesis when he comments on how “the metaphorical presence of one thing in another alien thing has to be related back to the distinctness of temporal and spatial finite realities if art is to exceed dream.”[3]


[1] Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 183n101.

[2] O’Connor, The Habit of Being, 218. In an earlier letter to the same correspondent, O’Connor had written: “The artist dreams no dreams. That is precisely what he does not do, as you very well know. Every dream is an obstruction to his work.” Ibid., 216.

[3] Milbank, “Scholasticism, Modernism and Modernity,” 656-7.

Vision of the Ainur: From Form to Being

Metaphysics of the Music, part 35

To return to our discussion of the Ainur’s Vision, we see, then, that there is an orientation towards the other, an intentionality, in other words, that was absent in the Music but is present in the Vision. It is through this other-directedness of the Vision that the Ainur are pointed away from their own minds and the comparatively pure conceptuality of the Music and challenged with the prospect of a reality whose intractable physicality cannot be reduced to the formal properties of the aesthetic presentation alone.[1] Thus, if the Music in its comparative abstractness should resemble St. Thomas’s account of mathematics, to continue the analogy, we might compare the Vision—as Tolkien himself indirectly does in the figure of Bombadil—to natural science, whose intelligible forms, we recall, abstract from individual matter while retaining an intentional or notional reference to the kind of matter out of which natural substances are actually made. As Robert Collins has put it in an apt application of the Aristotelian terminology of Boethius and Aquinas, “[w]hereas the music had established an abstract pattern, the vision had indicated the nature of Ilúvatar’s translation of form to matter…”[2] This “translation of form to matter” anticipated in the Vision but not in the Music, moreover, far from involving a tragic “fall” of ideal form into matter, implies rather the future realization, perfection, or actualization of those forms in and through the material substances which they are the forms of.[3] Thus, in the Vision we see the comparative “disinterest” of the Music transcended by a new kind of form that is not indifferent to, but is intentionally oriented towards the real, mind-independent and material realization through which the actual existence of these realities must ultimately have its being. Much as the Music represents a state of potency with respect to its corresponding actuality in the Vision, so the later, physical world is the actuality with respect to which the Vision is merely the corresponding state of potency. In either case the Ainulindalë portrays not the tragic motion from a higher existence and actuality to a lower, but dramatizes in a temporal fashion the otherwise logical relationship of the comic and Thomistic trajectory from intelligible potency to existing actuality.


[1] Thus the Ainur’s Vision would seem to embody what Maritain argues on Thomistic grounds to be one of the essential elements of all imitative art: “art as ordered to beauty refuses—at least when its object permits it—to stop at forms or colors, or sounds or words grasped in themselves and as things (they must first be grasped in this manner—that is the first condition), but it grasps them also as making known something other than themselves, that is to say, as signs. … [T]he more the object of art is laden with signification…, the greater and richer and higher will be the possibility of delight and beauty. The beauty of a painting or a statue is thus incomparably richer than the beauty of a carpet, a Venetia glass, or an amphora. It is in this sense that Painting, Sculpture, Poetry, Music, and even the Dance, are imitative arts, that is, arts which effect the beauty of the work and procure the delight of the soul by making use of imitation, or by rendering, through certain sensible signs, something other than these signs spontaneously present to the spirit.” Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 55.

[2] Collins, “‘Ainulindalë’: Tolkien’s Commitment to an Aesthetic Ontology,” 261.

[3] Or, as Flieger puts it using similarly scholastic terminology, “the Music is not the physical act of creation, but only its blueprint. It is the pattern for the world in potentia.” Flieger, Splintered Light, 58.

From Domination to Annihilation

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 44

The fifth and final stage in Tolkien’s “lowerarchy” of evil, already anticipated in his account of domination and thus revealing the latent motive within it, is that of outright annihilation, the will not simply to control and subordinate the being of others, but to destroy them all together. In the Ainulindalë, accordingly, although Melkor is initially satisfied, when the Vision of the world is first given, with making himself the lord and master over it, when he fails (as he must) to achieve this, he falls into utter nihilism in his efforts simply to undo all the demiurgic work of the other Valar. In a commentary titled “Notes on motives in the Silmarillion” (a variant manuscript refers to it as “Some notes on the ‘philosophy‘ of the Silmarillion–Morgoth’s Ring 394), Tolkien distinguishes the domination of Sauron from the later annihilationism of Melkor in this way:

when Melkor was confronted by the existence of other inhabitants of Arda, with other wills and intelligences, he was enraged by the mere fact of their existence… Hence his endeavor always to break wills and subordinate them to or absorb them into his own will and being, before destroying their bodies. This was sheer nihilism, and negation its one ultimate object: Morgoth would no doubt, if he had been victorious, have ultimately destroyed even his own “creatures,” such as the Orcs, when they had served his sole purpose in using them: the destruction of Elves and Men… [L]eft alone, he could only have gone raging on till all was leveled again into a formless chaos…

            Sauron had never reached this stage of nihilistic madness. He did not object to the existence of the world, so long as he could do what he liked with it. He still had the relics of positive purposes, that descended from the good of the nature in which he began: it had been his virtue (and therefore also the cause of his fall, and of his relapse) that he loved order and coordination, and disliked all confusion and wasteful friction…

            Morgoth had no “plan”: unless destruction and reduction to nil of a world in which he had only a share can be called a “plan.” But this is, of course, a simplification of the situation. Sauron had not served Morgoth, even in his last stages, without becoming infected by his lust for destruction, and his hatred of God (which must end in nihilism). (MR 395-7)

The will to dominate, as typified by Sauron, still at least admits the existence and therefore at some level the desirableness of other things, provided they can be made to enlarge oneself. This ambition, however, is never wholly achievable, inasmuch as the otherness of things is ultimately an irreducible, transcendental prerogative and gift of all being, and so the unwavering pursuit of absolute domination invariably devolves into annihilationism, the will to power, in other words, into the will to obliterate. In his suggestion that, following the success of his own domination, Melkor “could only have gone raging on till all was leveled again into a formless chaos,” Tolkien articulates the same logical progression of evil that he may have observed in Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism, wherein Maritain alludes to Thomas’s discussion in the Summa on the potentially infinite hunger of the concupiscible appetite (ST 1-2, 30, 4):

Material progress may contribute [to the production of art], to the extent that it allows man leisure of soul. But if such progress is employed only to serve the will to power and to gratify a cupidity which opens infinite jaws—concupiscentia est infinita—it leads the world back to chaos at an accelerated speed; that is its way of tending toward the principle. (Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 75)

In summary, in Melkor we see the misguided, primeval attempt at making things other than himself, after passing through the Sauronic desire to assimilate all other things to his own self, devolve finally into its complete antithesis in the desire to unmake those things other than himself, the feeling of one’s own being as threatened by and impinged upon by the mere fact of their existence. The contemporary application of this fact, finally, is a stinging indictment of where modern, industrial and mechanized culture is headed. The Sauronic “will to mere power” (Letters160), according to Tolkien (and in contrast to Nietzsche), is not the solution to, but the presaging of, the Melkorish will to nothingness.

Magic, domination, and the Ring

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 38

If the aim of domination is the reduction of the being of another to the image or extension of one’s own being, the principal means for accomplishing this end is what Tolkien refers to as “Magic,” not in the sense of a generous “Enchantment,” but in its negative, occult, and manipulative sense, or, as its modern counterpart has it, “the Machine,” which leads to the third aspect of the Ring I wish to consider. Although Tolkien in general discourages his readers from allegorizing the Ring (the Ring as nuclear power or the atomic bomb, for example), in one letter he nevertheless says that the “primary symbolism of the Ring” is “the will to mere power, seeking to make itself objective by physical force and mechanism, and so inevitably by lies” (Letters160). (That Tolkien may have had Nietzsche’s notion of the will to power particularly in mind here is further implied in his statement, in the same passage, that one “moral” of The Lord of the Rings is, consistent with Nietzsche, “the obvious one that without the high and noble the simple and vulgar is utterly mean,” and yet, contrary to Nietzsche, “without the simple and ordinary the noble and heroic is meaningless.”) Note that Tolkien does not say that the Ring symbolizes technology or mechanization, but that it symbolizes the will or intent to dominate through the production and use of these means. Thus, if the Ring in Tolkien’s fiction should appear as a thing inherently evil, as Shipppey points out, I submit that it is less because Tolkien has momentarily lapsed into a Manichaean, evil-objectifying dualism, than it is a matter of the Ring embodying mythically an inherently problematic attitude towards reality. Also, as the mythical incarnation of Sauron’s corrupt will, the Ring possesses (ironically) a personal dimension or connection that sets it apart from ordinary inanimate objects. One reason the Ring cannot be used for any good whatsoever, therefore, is not because it is an objectified form of independently existing evil, but because the Ring represents and embodies a person, and even evil persons such as Sauron are (as Kant recognized) to be treated as ends and never as means only.

Even considered as a material object, however, Sauron’s Ring might be compared to what Thomas describes in his Summa, in an article on “Whether the adornment of women is devoid of mortal sin,” as a case of “art directed to the production of good which men cannot use without sin” (ST 2-2.169.2 ad 4), a passage Jacques Maritain refers to in his Art and Scholasticism (a work, as I have suggested previously, Tolkien may have been aware of). In such cases, Thomas argues, “it follows that the workmen sin in making such things, as directly affording others an occasion of sin; for instance, if a man were to make idols or anything pertaining to idolatrous worship.” In addition to it being the mythical embodiment of Sauron’s corrupted will, therefore, the Ring in and of itself is evil in the sense that it is was made for one purpose alone, namely the tyrannous domination of others, and therefore has this evil as its only “proper” use (for which it is indeed useful, and therefore in that sense “good”).

Another passage from St. Thomas, this time from the Summa’s discussion of evil proper, that might possibly inform a reading of Sauron’s Ring is found in his explanation, discussed earlier, as to how good can be the cause of evil (ST 1.49.1). When there is a “defect” or “ineptitude” in the instrument or matter of the agent, Thomas argues, then there will be a corresponding defect in the action or effect of the action. And this is the problem with the Ring: designed as a means for dominating others, in addition to it being the literal embodiment of a corrupt or defective will, the Ring has an inherent defect which must corrupt every action, no matter how well intended, in which it is used. (For a related discussion on how “Aquinas also has something to contribute to the problem of the Ring of Power,” see Alison Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 24.)

Divine “unshatterable” action and human “shatterable” activations

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 19

The previous post saw Tolkien’s raising the problem of God’s causality with respect to evil, and suggested that his depiction of the problem in his fiction, such as it is, is broadly consistent with St. Thomas’s solution. In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas explains that, in voluntary things, whenever there is an evil effect, it is always the result of some pre-existing evil in the agent, specifically, some pre-existing defect in the will of the agent, so that when the agent acts, “it does not actually subject itself to its proper rule” (ST 1.49.1 ad 3).[1] Thus, Thomas implicitly distinguishes two dimensions to every evil action: first, there is the action itself, caused by the will itself, both of which, taken by themselves, are good (as created, existing things); second, there is the specific defect in the action, which is the result of a corresponding defect in the will causing the action. Now God in no way, says Aquinas, is the cause of the defects in the will of voluntary agents, since God is altogether perfect and thus incapable of actively producing an imperfection in the will (ST 1.49.1). Having parsed out the evil action in this manner, Thomas is able similarly to parse out the responsibility for it: “whatever there is of being and action in a bad action is reduced to God as the cause, whereas whatever defect is in it is not caused by God, but by the deficient secondary cause” (ST 1.49.2 ad 2).[2] In an oft-cited illustration Thomas compares God’s creative power by which he gives being to an otherwise evil action with the “moving power” of a lame leg: while the moving power is the cause of the leg’s motion, it is not the cause of the leg’s motion being a limping motion. What causes the limp is not the leg’s native moving power but rather the defective curvature of the lame leg. In this illustration, the lameness of the leg is analogous to the “curvature” or defect of the sinning agent’s will. In a passage that could almost double as a commentary on Tolkien’s statement to Hastings that God “guarantees” even “sinful acts” with the “reality of Creation,” Leo Elders explains Thomas’s argument this way:

It is true that God is the cause of the content of being in any human act, just as all beings exist by participating in the First Being. But a human act is not God’s action and a human choice is not God’s choice. God gives only the entitative content and occurrence of an action without being the cause which does something through this action. Hence God is [in] no way, not even per accidens, the cause who commits this action and so he is in no way the cause of the moral evil. He permits sin to take place in that he grants his causal support to the will to enable it to perform an act, despite its deviation from the rule of reason. The person who performs the evil action is per accidens the cause of the privation of subordination to moral law. To clarify this St. Thomas gives an example: if a cripple walks, the cause of his crippled gait is not his power to move, but his leg which is too stiff or too short. Therefore all of the entity in an evil action goes back to God as to its First Cause whereas the privation which renders it evil, comes from the acting person who does not conform himself to moral law.[3]

Jacques Maritain explains this same argument, albeit in terms of a distinction between what e calls the “unshatterable divine action” of creation and the “shatterable activations” of the individual human will, a metaphor evocative of the images of kindling fire and splintering light at the heart of Tolkien’s mythology. According to Maritain, the creative “activations or motions” given by the First Cause to his individual free agents

contain within themselves, in advance, the permission or possibility of being rendered sterile if the free existent [agent] which receives them takes the first initiative of evading them, of not-acting and not-considering, or nihilating under their touch… [B]efore the unshatterable divine action, by which the will to good of creative Liberty infallibly produces its effect in the created will, the divine activations received by the free existent must first be shatterable activations.

            It depends solely upon ourselves to shatter them by making, upon our own deficient initiative, that thing called nothing (or by nihilating).[4]

The soul or will, in short, is like a window pane or, to use another image shared by Tolkien and Maritain, a “prism”: the light it receives is God’s creative, activating, “moving” power; the light it admits or which shines through the window is the actions of the soul. Should the light it admits become shattered (as distinguished, say, from its being beautifully refracted through the sub-creative act), it is the fault, not of the light it receives, but of the cracked or shattered soul or will that receives it.


[1] “Sed in rebus voluntariis defectus actionis a voluntate actu deficienti procedit, inquantum non subiicit se actu suae regulae.”

[2] “Et similiter quidquid est entitatis et actionis in actione mala, reducitur in Deum sicut in causam: sed quod est ibi defectus, non causatur a Deo, sed ex causa secunda deficient.”

[3] Elders, The Metaphysics of Being, 135.

[4] Maritain, Existence and the Existent, trans. Galantiere and Phelan, 100-1.

Tolkien’s angels and Descartes’s “angelism”

I concluded the post of a couple of weeks ago on the “machine” like quality of the bodies of Tolkien’s fictional, voluntarily incarnate angel beings, by saying that one of the endemic dangers or temptations of such a being is to want to exercise the same kind of domination over other creatures that the angelic spirit exercises over its material body. If so, in this oblique manner Tolkien may be seen to touch on what his contemporary, the Thomist Jacques Maritain, had criticized as the “angelism” of Cartesian mind-body dualism, the modern subject-object split that helped lay the philosophical foundations for modern scientism, industrialism, and technocracy—the very developments, in other words, which Tolkien so deplored and from whose evils his fiction was meant to provide some measure of “escape.” As Fergus Kerr summarizes Maritain’s critique,

The ‘sin’ of Descartes is a ‘sin of angelism.’ By this Maritain means that Descartes conceived human thought on the model of angelic thought: thought was now regarded as intuitive, and thus freed from the burden of discursive reasoning; innate, as to its origins, and thus independent of material things. What this ‘angelist psychology’ introduces is nothing less than a revolution in the very idea of mind, and thus of intelligibility, scientific understanding and explanation… (Kerr, After Aquinas: Versions of Thomism, 24)

In his effort to advance human mastery over nature, in other words, Descartes had to drastically re-conceive the relationship between the human mind and body, construing these two phenomena as two completely distinct and isolatable substances corresponding to two completely distinct, irreducible, and independent realities. As Descartes famously expressed this dualism in his Discourse on Method, “I knew that I was a substance the whole essence or nature of which was merely to think, and which, in order to exist, needed no place and depended on no material thing” (Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, trans. Cress, 18).  In freeing the mind from its involvement or rootedness in the world, thereby allowing it to see its own body as a kind of machine at its disposal, Descartes is plausibly credited by many with having uniquely situated the modern subject to assert itself in an unprecedented manner, both theoretically and practically, over the natural world. As Maritain’s charge of “angelism” is meant to suggest, however, from a Thomistic standpoint what Descartes did, of course, was effectively to substitute a properly angelic psychology and epistemology, which do not require a body, for the properly human one, which does.

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.

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

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

“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.