Monday 16 October 2017

The nature of Tolkien's Subcreation

I have found it difficult to understand exactly what JRR Tolkien meant by Subcreation in his essay On Fairy Stories. Indeed, I think that it is probably not possible to produce a coherent account of Subcreation within Tolkien's own (Roman Catholic) theology.

Of course many RC Tolkien commentators have tried to do exactly this - explain how Subcreation works within the official theology of the Catholic church; what I am saying is that I have found all such attempts to be incoherent, hence unconvincing.

The problem (as I see it) is to produce an account of Subcreation that applies to Tolkien's own work and is both genuinely 'sub' and also genuinely 'creation'.

The way I envisage it is in terms of my own understanding of metaphysics - in particular the way that Primary Thinking relates to ultimate and universal reality.

So, there is, first of all, the original act of creation by God.

This original creation can be described by Men, and it can be imagined - but these are essentially secondary and indirect communications, prone to distortion and selectivity - they can't really be distinguished as creations.

But the reality of original creation is directly, universally and continuously accessible to men in the activity of Primary Thinking. When we think in this Primary mode, the thoughts are not 'in our heads' (nor located in our personal minds) - but instead we personally participate in the universal realm of reality; and we think with the same thoughts as were original in creation (however, only a minuscule proportion of such thoughts, and only perceived from our own distinctive and partial perspective).

In this universal realm, all is true and all is wholly Good - because divine. But this realm is not fixed, but rather it is a living, dynamic, and evolving-growing realm; and Men are sometimes able to contribute to it.

We can therefore participate in this realm - initially by knowing it directly, but also potentially (in so far as our thinking is divine) by contributing to it  - and this I regard as Subcreation.

So, Subcreation is significant because it is an actual, universal and permanent contribution or addition to the 'content' of the universal realm of creation; which we personally may access by Primary Thinking.

A genuine act of human Subcreation is therefore an act that adds-to the totality of original creation - such that, from then onwards, any Being that is participating in the universal realm may (in principle) be able to discover the content of Subcreation.

So, if Tolkien is regarded as a genuine Subcreator - then his work has not only been present in the world of human communications, but also has affected, permanently, the ultimate and universal world of reality and truth. Such that any person who is participating in that universal realm, and who is mystically in-contact-with God's original creation; may also potentially discover the truth and reality of Tolkien's permanent contribution to that realm.

Whether JRR Tolkien actually attained to this fullness of Subcreation (I judge that he did; but others may disagree) - this is an account of possible Subcreation which is both Sub (to original creation, which came first) and also a genuine act of Creation, when evaluated by the highest and eternal standards.


John Fitzgerald said...

I've just come home and read this post. Funnily enough, I've been thinking a lot about Tolkien today. The sun appeared to turn red for quite a long time earlier. It cast no light, however, and the sky was slate grey. An eerie stillness filled the air. The first thing that came into my mind - I don't know why - was the fall of Numenor. Later on I saw a number of fallen branches on cars and pavements as Hurricane Ophelia gets going. Again I thought about JRRT - this time the storm in the Notion Club Papers.

Bruce Charlton said...

@john - We had a similar perhaps more extreme, experience in Newcastle - a case of 'darkness at noon'. No doubt at all that it would have been regarded as a portent in the past (the Anglo Saxon Chronicle often begins its annual report with an account of astronomoical portents - eclipses, changes in the colour of sun or moon, and the like). Of course, we can 'explain' (and predict) such things - but I wonder whether that makes a real difference?

Keri Ford said...

Thanks Bruce, this was a good post for me, I hadn't really placed Sub Creation and accepted what it means.
I like how Barfield's set of essays are called Romanticism comes of age, and it seems that Barfield's (Steiner influenced) thinking is gathering up the romantic sensibility including Lewis and Tolkien into it.
Interior is anterior, so in contributing to our mythic imagination Tolkien is actually extending reality.

This last week two books recommended by yourself arrived, Colin Wilson's Tree by Tolkien which I just finished reading prior to reading your blog and Sauron Defeated with the Notion Club Papers, I had actually just started re reading Lord of the Rings so it might be a while before I get to that.

I thought the Wilson book good, interesting in being quite early Tolkien criticism and having to contend with some pretty rudimentary criticism, which I think is still around. Wilson correctly sees Tolkien as being a romantic and his imaginative work having real consequence. But it is odd that he didn't know Tolkien was a Catholic, but more importantly he doesn't really grapple with Myth and what that means for Tolkien's vision of the past, also his dismissal of the relevance of Tolkien's languages makes me think he isn't aware of Barfield's early works on language History in English Words and Poetic Diction and how that too related to Myth and again that interior is anterior.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Keri - I agree that Tree by Tolkien is *pioneer* criticism - but has many flashes of insight.

For me, the first fully-formed and really helpful Tolkien criticism was Paul Kocher's Master of Middle Earth; A Question of Time by Verlyn Flieger is superb (and discusses Barfield's significance); but the best Tolkien criticism is the work of Tom (TA) Shippey - especially The Road to Middle Earth.

Keri Ford said...

I'm not aware of The Road to Middle Earth but was very impressed with his Author of the Century, I'll follow that up sometime.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Keri - There is some overlap with Author of the Century - but in Road to Middle Earth Shippey made clear (from his shared professional knowledge) the huge importance and extent of Tolkien's philology in his writing. Shippey's collection of Tolkien related essays Roots and Branches is absolutely superb too.