Thursday, 18 April 2019

For Tolkien, Subcreation is a type of real - objective - creation

When, in the essay On Fairy Stories, JRR Tolkien discusses Subcreation, which is what he terms the world-building Faerie fantasy he was then engaged upon in Lord of the Rings; he does so in an explicit relationship to the primary creative activity of God.

What an extraordinarily audacious comparison! - especially from a devout and traditionalist Roman Catholic. Just think! Tolkien is comparing his writing to God's creation of... everything. And not just comparing, but asserting that his writing is a subtype of the same general activity.

This suggests that Tolkien did not regard his writing as 'merely' something that could entertain; and even attributing a educational and inspiring effect seems insufficient to account for 'Subcreation' if it is being assumed that this occurs only in the minds of Men and is temporary.

The activities of the Notion Club (written about 1945-6), with their fictionalised Inklings personae seem to confirm that Tolkien - covertly, inexplicitly - likely regarded imaginative, truthful writing as potentially having an objective effect on the real world.

The Notion Club are engaged in a variety of Subcreative activities - writing stories and poems, and engaging in types of meditation and lucid dreaming. And the effect is to create a physical link with the drowning of Numenor - such that the massive storm is 'channeled' through this imaginative-link into the modern Atlantic, where it assaults the West coast of Ireland and Britain, causing damage and flooding even in Oxford.

The question is whether this was 'only' fiction, and 'not really true' from Tolkien's point of view; or whether perhaps he was using fiction to present his deepest beliefs in a way that avoided any suspicion of conflict with the official Roman Catholic theology which he whole-heartedly affirmed.

I am confident of the latter - I think there is a great deal of evidence consistent with Tolkien using the Notion Club Papers to reveal, at a remove, some of his most heartfelt convictions. This also seems confirmed by some of the comments by Tolkien concerning the Lord of the Rings, in letters to readers written after its publication.

Tolkien believed, therefore, that it was possible for fantasy to be truth-full, and for this truth to have 'real world' and objective effects - working via the minds of Men, but not confined to the minds of men.

And this is what he meant by the term Subcreation. 


Ranger said...

In "Leaf by Niggle", Tolkien suggests that sub-creation does have effects on the World, when it is accepted and fulfilles in Heaven. Niggle, upon seeing his tree, exclaims "It's a gift".

Of course, once something exists in Heaven, it is quite capable of influencing Earth.

Bruce Charlton said...

@R - Yes, that seems to be the kind of thing; although I was thinking of a mechanism that was more direct.

Anonymous said...

Just finished the second-last section of Flieger and Anderson's fascinating On Fairy-stories, Expanded edition, and - wow!: "For all we know, indeed we may fairly guess, in Fantasy we may actually be assisting in the evolution of Creation." (Tolkien in one of the many previously unpublished draft passages.)

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - Well spotted! I hadn't noticed that explicit statement.

Bill Wright said...

I suppose an alternative explanation (and to me, at least, an easier one to understand and embrace) is that Tolkien is in fact writing about reality, if by that word we mean people, places, and events that actually existed in some form or fashion.

In this sense, sub-creation is not merely the act of having an impact on the minds and hearts of men through new literature, creating something in heaven, etc., but of bringing ancient stories to modern men in a way that we can both understand and engage with these stories. Tolkien would have done this both through the use of his own imagination, as well as with the assistance of those who knew these stories... the result being a form of 'sub-creation' that was not imaginary in the sense that it was made up, but that actually came from or had roots in 'Creation' -- with what is real.

In addition, this view becomes even more supportable (and for me almost inescapable) when one starts to compare the stories and metaphysics in Tolkien's world with the writings, stories, and metaphysics of Joseph Smith's world (but not, necessarily, with what has become modern Mormonism).

Tolkien and Smith were drawing from the same well. Sub-creation for both of them was in taking stories from the past and re-creating them for their respective modern-day audiences.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Bill - BTW: I've previously commented that subcreation fits comfortably into Mormon theology:

Bill Wright said...

Right... but I think what I am saying maybe makes that connection more explicit, and thus different, than what you have written in that post or otherwise (at least if I accurately understand what you have written - I may not).

To be clear, I am suggesting that both Tolkien and Smith, in their own respective times, ways, and writings, are in fact restoring stories - real stories that describe real participants, times and places, and that these stories are part of a larger narrative of God's work involving the redemption of men (and elves!).

Further, that these stories are, for various reasons and purposes, important for individuals - living and dead - to have again in this age.