Friday 26 April 2019

Fantasy assists in the evolution of Creation - Tolkien speaks, and then obfuscates...

The respected Inklings scholar David Llewellyn Dodds (who I am lucky to have as a regular commenter here!) has noticed an extremely important phrase that Tolkien devised for the second draft (Manuscript B) of his Essay On Fairy Stories - which is cited on page 247 of Tolkien on Fairy Stories edited by Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A Anderson (2008).

I will give the paragraph leading up to the phrase. Note: There is an opened bracket which is not closed:

But the presence of the Greatest does not (in God's Kingdom depress the small. Redeemed Man is still Man. Stories and Fantasies still go on, should go on. The Gospels have not abrogated Legends: they have hallowed them. As they have not abrogated motherhood, or fatherhood, or supper. Horses have been ennobled by Pegasus: and still may be. For all we know, indeed we may fairly guess, in Fantasy we may actually be assisting in the evolution of Creation.

In Fantasy we may actually be assisting in the evolution of Creation.

This is a clear indication that Tolkien regarded the proper use of imagination - specifically in his own (and other people's) 'subcreation' of Fantasy (such as Fairy Stories) to be a participation in the ongoing divine work of creation.

In other words, Tolkien is saying that subcreation is part of Creation; and this implies that subcreation is not something that merely happens inside people's minds or brains; but that subcreation actually changes 'objective reality' in a permanent fashion.

But of course, Manuscript B of the essay On Fairy Stories is 'only' a draft - and the wording was changed for the final text - as published variously in Essays Presented to Charles Williams (1947), and republished in Tree and Leaf, The Monsters and the Critics and other collections. I will first put the Manuscript B sentence, then the equivalent sentence from the final draft, as given on page 79 of Flieger and Anderson, 2008, ibid:

MS-B: For all we know, indeed we may fairly guess, in Fantasy we may actually be assisting in the evolution of Creation.

FINAL: So 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. 

Having MS-B in front of us for reference, I think we can see that, Tolkien does not necessarily change the substantive meaning of the sentence - but he does make its meaning much less clear.

Indeed, the final and published version looks rather like obfuscation - a deliberate concealment of meaning! Because it is not at all clear what 'the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation' actually means.

'Multiple enrichment' is clear enough, albeit rather imprecise; but 'effoliation' is a word so obscure that it is not listed in my Longman's Dictionary nor even in the two-volume Shorter Oxford Dictionary. According to some sources, it is an archaic term that means something rather like 'defoliation' - the removing or falling-off of leaves from a plant.

However, the full Oxford English Dictionary defines the obsolete verb effoliate as 'to open into leaf' with a citation from the 1671 Anatomy of Plants by Nehemiah Grew (see discussion in comments below). So, this was an archaic term, known to only a handful of lexicographical experts, and discoverable only by those with access to major libraries... so, why would Tolkien use it in these circumstances?

At the very least, we could infer that in placing the word effoliation at the climax of his conclusion, the penultimate sentence of the whole essay; Tolkien was not aiming at being clearly understood! Quite the opposite.

A further significant change is in altering 'Creation' with a capital 'C' to lower-case 'creation'. With the capital, Creation implies divine making, without it... well the situation is ambiguous - it might refer to divine creation, but it might instead refer to any other kind of human creative activity.

On the one hand, to enrich Creation would be to participate with God in his handiwork; but to enrich creation might be merely to add to the stock of human arts and crafts.

Furthermore, the phrase 'assisting in the evolution of Creation' deserves notice. The evolution of creation implies change in Creation through time, and implies that Creation really does change - that God's Creation is significantly different now from the past. And the word 'assisting' suggests that this evolved difference is partly due to a positive contribution from Man.

This apparently implies that Man has (by Fantasy) added-to the goodness of God's Creation. But by dropping 'assisting' and 'evolution' from the final version; these potentially heretical implications are deleted. 

It is up to the reader to interpret what was going on here; but my understanding is that Tolkien believed what he wrote in Manuscript B (as do I!) - and was quite deliberately (by using an extremely obscure term in an unconventional way) throwing-up clouds of concealing dust in the final and published version - presumably an act of self-censorship, perhaps done in order to avoid accusations of unorthodoxy, or even heresy.


Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Had you not explained, I would have assumed, without feeling the need to look it up, that "effoliation" meant the unfolding of leaves from buds (by analogy with "efflorescence," which originally meant the blossoming of flowers from buds) -- meaning, in Tolkien's context, the manifestation of what was already latent in God's original Creation. (This is, of course, also the etymological meaning of "evolution.")

Might this not have been Tolkien's intended meaning? I know it seems rash to propose that so eminent a philologist as Tolkien misused an obscure word through ignorance of its established meaning, but on the other hand it is just the sort of error -- stemming from knowledge, not ignorance, of etymology -- that we might expect a highly educated linguist to make.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - Yes, I too was thinking it was like efflorescence; and maybe that is indeed an even-more obscure meaning of effoliation - or else a new coinage by Tolkien, based on philology.

Indeed, something like this more-or-less has to be the case, since I can't imagine Tolkien deliberately wrote *nonsense* - he was just being evasive.

Another aspect of this evasiveness that I neglected to mention is the preamble: "For all we know, indeed we may fairly guess," is expanded (and obfuscated) to: "So great is the bounty with which [Man] has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that...".

Anonymous said...

Thank you for so swift and extensive a consideration of this matter!

I assumed much the sense of W.J. Tychonievich and yourself, too - searching a bit, I find in Lewis and Short 'effloreo' (glossed 'to bloom or blossom forth') as well as 'effloresco', with one of their citations being from Vulgate Psalm 102, which I find online as (verse 15) "Homo, sicut foenum dies ejus; tamquam flos agri, sic efflorebit", translated in Douay-Rheims as "Man's days are as grass, as the flower of the field so shall he flourish."

Did he know a Late Latin verb I have not yet run down? Or, indeed coin a term?

The only 'effoliatio' I have so far found is in A.P. de Candolle's Théorie élémentaire de la botanique (1815), with the sense "acte d'ôter les feuilles":

David Llewellyn Dodds

Christopher Gilson said...

The OED defines the obsolete verb _effoliate_ as 'to open into leaf' with a citation from the 1671 _Anatomy of Plants_ by Nehemiah Grew.

Christopher Gilson

Bruce Charlton said...

@CG - Well done! I've checked that source, and there are indeed a couple of references to effoliate that refer to what sounds like embryonic leaves (or 'lobes') developing from the seed.

So, as WmJas suggested, Tolkien was indeed using the word appropriately (as we would have expected from an ex-OED-lexicographer); and in a way that referenced back to the text.

And also he was being very deliberately obscure!

Bruce Charlton said...

It is also worth noting that Tolkien had a lifelong, and technical, interest in botany: as described in this article by Dale Nelson (who sometimes comments here)

NLR said...

The first five sentences in the quote from Tolkien's essay are a significant articulation of his philosophy. They express the idea that the qualities of the things that we experience in natural life still exist even beyond physical nature. That contrasts with the idea that most of what we know in life exists only in the physical universe and things will collapse back down to more fundamental things after our death and at the end of the world.

Arthur Lovejoy in his Great Chain of Being has a good articulation of this view:

"By 'otherworldliness', then ... I mean the belief that both the genuinely 'real' and the truly good are radically antithetic in their essential characteristics to anything found in man's natural life, in the ordinary course of human experience, however normal, however intelligent, and however fortunate."

For example: it is well known that Aquinas believed there will be no animals in the new creation, but he also believed there wouldn't be any plants or minerals either. Only the heavenly bodies will remain (based on the Aristotelian idea of their incorruptibility). I would agree that animals and plants *as they are now* won't exist in heaven. But that's the key issue. The scholastics would have said that being what they are, animals and plants can't be otherwise than they are now. Is that indeed the case?

That's the opposite of the view implied by Tolkien in the above quotation. Those two views, while not often stated as explicit principles, but often intuitions that tie together other beliefs, have had substantial influence in people's worldviews.

Bruce Charlton said...

@NLR "most of what we know in life exists only in the physical universe and things will collapse back down to more fundamental things after our death and at the end of the world."

That certainly seems to be what quite a lot of Christians, that I have come across, have (more or less) believed.

It's probably one of the reasons why people have found Heaven (stripped down to basics - as often described by several Christian denominations) to be pretty un-appealing.

NLR said...

Another area where Tolkien's imagination differed from a widespread philosophy is in his depiction of angels. According to one view, it would seem that angels can't learn. They have the knowledge that they have and if they want to know something, they do something analogous to looking at it. They have more powerful minds than humans, but they can't gain more knowledge. Also, lower angels are superfluous. Higher angels have all the knowledge they have and that's the only way angels can be distinguished, so the lower angels are there to fill up a place in the chain of being. There must be a being with the qualities they have, so there they are.

Part of the reason for this philosophy is that this philosophical view seems to envision angels as humans with the body subtracted. But what positive qualities would they have?

By contrast, Gandalf is an distinct being. He isn't just there to fill up a place, he is an individual in his own right. And he can and does learn.

Bruce Charlton said...

@NLR - There are many and contradictory understandings of angels! - although I suppose the tradition of a 3X3 hierarchy derived from Dionysius is the most influential (which is probably the one you are referencing, I guess).

It's a strange business to suppose this rather complex, but also very simple!, kind of organization for doing God's work, when God is regarded as omnipotent and angels have a rather obscure semi-independence of agency.

On the one hand angels don't seem to be needed, so there doesn't seem to be any point to them... Yet if they do have any kind of independent existence and essential function, then this seems like a deduction from God's omnipotence.

In practice, I think the genuine belief in angels, the folk belief, has an extremely different quality to it - and often includes Men becoming angels - so that angels are Not (contra Dionysius) a separate order of creation from men - but the same beings in a different form or forms, at a different stage of development. (This is my understanding, pretty much.)

Gandalf's conception seems something in between, or oscillating. Being a Maia; Gandalf is of a different (and higher) order of creation than Men - and in some way is primarily a spirit taking on an incarnate appearance - which is like Dionysius-type angels.

Yet he is in practice very human-like, indistinguishably so, in his attributes - more like a holy, or enlightened and learned Man - more like a folk-angel or indeed a wonder-working Saint of the Eastern Orthodox or Celtic type.