“For trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow'”

An exposition of “Mythopoeia,” part 2

for trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow.’ Here we have an example of what labeling consists of. There’s no real mystery, just an identification of something someone already knew. There’s been no process of defamiliarization, of “making strange,” followed by “Recovery.” In epistemological terms, you might call this a mere “correspondence” theory of truth. Things are already a certain way, and our statements come along and merely affirm that instead of entering into dialogue with things and changing them as a result.

you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace /one of the many minor globes of Space. Here we see a scientific diminishment of earth, in contrast with the mythopoeic representation Tolkien will give later when he refers to the earth as “mother.” Earth, in other words, is what myth tells us what it is, whereas here, in the scientific conception, earth is merely one globe amongst many, and not a particularly remarkable one at that.

The Pacifist of Wootton Major

From J.R.R. Tolkien’s short story, Smith of Wootton Major:

“he soon became wise and understood that the marvels of Faery cannot be approached without danger, and that many of the Evils cannot be challenged without weapons of power too great for any mortal to wield. He remained a learner and explorer, not a warrior; and though in time he could have forged weapons that in his own world would have had power enough to become the matter of great tales and be worth a king’s ransom, he knew that in Faery they would have been of small account. So among all the things that he made it is not remembered that he ever forged a sword or a spear or an arrow-head.”

Judge not lest ye be judged: Tolkien on fairy-stories

In the opening paragraph of his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien characterizes his exercise in literary criticism of this genre as itself a kind of fairy story:

“I propose to speak about fairy-stories, though I am aware that this is a rash adventure. Faërie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold. And overbold I may be accounted, for though I have been a lover of fairy-stories since I learned to read, and have at times thought about them, I have not studied them professionally. I have been hardly more than a wandering explorer (or trespasser) in the land, full of wonder but not of information.”

Studying fairy stories properly, in other words, is itself a kind of Faërian adventure, and like such adventures, it is one that does not come without its own set of warnings: it is possible to get such stories wrong, to ask the wrong sorts of questions, or even to ask the right sorts of questions in a wrong sort of way. As in fairy stories themselves, so in the study of fairy stories, making mistakes can be dangerous, even to the point of being deadly. In the second paragraph, he continues:

“The realm of fairy-story is 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.”

For Tolkien, clearly, even the study of fairy stories is a serious business, as he effectively denies one the ability to approach them in a dry, objective, or disinterested light. More than a mere object of literary study, fairy stories are for Tolkien a fundamental reflection of what it means to be human, and if this is so, then they are also a fundamental reflection of all that humans do, including what they do in their capacity as literary critics, even of fairy stories. The literary evaluation of fairy stories, accordingly, is an evaluation of that genre which, to Tolkien’s mind, is ultimately about the evaluation (and enchantment!) of ourselves. For this reason, he issues his readers a caution that they take care, for when it comes to the kingdom of Faërie, like the kingdom of Heaven, “with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”

Tolkien’s Romantic Eschatology

This passage from the Ainulindale captures well Tolkien’s ability to bring together and harmonize two otherwise very distinct literary and emotional themes:

Never since have the Ainur made any music like to this music, though it has been said that a greater still shall be made before Iluvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Iluvatar after the end of days.

On the one hand, in the unrepeatability of the original Music of the Ainur, we have the idea of a longed-for yet lost and irretrievable past that dominates much of Tolkien’s writing. On the other hand, in the very same sentence, Tolkien balances this nostalgic theme with the uniquely Christian hope and expectation that, within time, we will also see all things made new, every hurt mended, and every desire fulfilled. Call this Tolkien’s “romantic eschatology.”

Tolkien, Servant of the Secret Fire

Upon the death of their fellow T.C.B.S. (“Tea Club and Barrovian Society”) member Rob Gilson, Tolkien explains to G.B. Smith his own understanding of the “greatness” to which the group believed they as a whole had been destined by God:

The greatness I meant was that of a great instrument in God’s hands–a mover, a doer, even an achiever of great things, a beginner at the very least of large things. What I meant… was that the TCBS had been granted some spark of fire–certainly as a body if not singly–that was destined to kindle a new light, or, what is the same thing rekindle an old light in the world; that the TCBS was destined to testify for God and Truth… (Letters no. 5, p. 9-10)

This image of God “sparking a fire” whereby he achieves “great” ends through otherwise small and humble “instruments” was one that Tolkien would go on to employ within his own literary effort at “rekindling an old light” and “testifying for God and Truth” in the world. As I’ve noted here before, it’s the same imagery that Tolkien uses, for example, in interpreting the story of Beren and Luthien (in many ways the heart of the Silmarillion), to depict the agency of the “Secret Fire” of Iluvatar at work in the world, and finally how he depicts the mission and ministry of Gandalf (particularly as it pertains to hobbits), the self-identified “servant of the Secret Fire” (also deserving of mention here is Elrond’s programmatic statement at the end of the Council of Elrond: “such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere”). The point to be made here is how in each of these, or so it would seem, Tolkien gives us a literary depiction of the significance and responsibility he initially felt lay upon him and his friends as members of the T.C.B.S.. Tolkien himself, in short, was his own, original type of the “servant of the Secret Fire.”

Flame Imperishable as Incarnation

I’ve discussed before how Tolkien’s image of the Flame Imperishable refers to God’s creative power over the world, by which he, first, gives existence ex nihilo to his creatures generally, and second, by which he bestows the power of free will and (sub-)creativity upon his rational creatures in particular. Upon review of his explanation of the Flame Imperishable in his commentary on the Athrabath Finrod ah Andreth (Morgoth’s Ring), however, I think the interconnection between these two effects (created being and free, creative will) is a deeper one than the mere genus-species relationship suggested above. As Tolkien explains, the Flame Imperishable

appears to mean the Creative activity of Eru (in some sense distinct from or within Him), by which things could be given a ‘real’ and independent (though derivative and created) existence. The Flame Imperishable is sent out from Eru, to dwell in the heart of the world, and the world then Is, on the same plane as the Ainur, and they can enter into it. But this is not, of course, the same as the re-entry of Eru to defeat Melkor. It refers rather to the mystery of ‘authorship’, by which the author, while remaining ‘outside’ and independent of his work, also ‘indwells’ in it, on its derivative plane, below that of his own being, as the source and guarantee of its being. (Morgoth’s Ring 345)

As Tolkien makes clear, the act of Creation, in which Eru sends the Flame Imperishable into the heart of the world to cause it to be, is a distinct act from the act of Incarnation by which, as Finrod conjectures in the dialogue of the Athrabeth, Eru himself would personally enter into his creation in order to purge it of Melkor’s corruptions. That having been said, it is equally evident that Tolkien still very much conceives of Eru’s creative presence within his creation (and hence of the sub-creator’s presence within his art) in incarnational terms. Creation itself, according to Tolkien’s theology of the Flame Imperishable, involves the Creator being both “‘outside’ and independent of his work” as well as “‘indwell[ing]’ in it, on its derivative plane, below that of his own being…” In this manner, Tolkien may be seen to re-interpret God’s act of Creation as a type of proto-Incarnation.

A few observations. The first is the way this normalizes and naturalizes the idea of Incarnation: if Creation is a kind of Incarnation, it is little wonder that Finrod is able to infer (partly from what he knows of the Flame Imperishable) the possibility of Eru’s future condescension to enter into Arda. Eru will at some point and time enter into the world to give it new being because, in a very real sense, this is what Eru has always been doing. A second observation is how this logic complements but reverses the line of reasoning Tolkien uses in “On Fairy-Stories” in explaining how, in the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has given the fairy-story structure of eucatastrophe the reality of history and creation itself: “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 Incarnation, in other words, is God giving our fairy-stories the gift of created being, of sending the Flame Imperishable, as it were, into the heart of our own sub-creative imaginings (themselves the product of God’s creative inspiration), and causing them to become real. Thirdly, and as I’ve also pointed out before, the latter is of course precisely the same drama we find in the Ainulindale, when Iluvatar takes the “fairy-story” that is the Ainur’s Music and Vision and gives it the same being that they themselves enjoy, making the Ainulindale not only a retelling of the story of the world’s creation, but also an allegory for its re-creation in Christ.