Christianity, J.R.R. Tolkien, Medievalist Monday, Mythopoeia, On Fairy-Stories, Sub-Creation, Sub-Creator
J.R.R. Tolkien was a man who worked to create a mythology for his own nation of England. That was the driving thought behind his entire work, and the reason why his world-building was so extensive and stretched across three ages in his world, including his own version of the creation story. While C.S. Lewis wove Christian elements throughout his Narnia series with allegory, such as having Aslan stand in for Jesus, Tolkien absolutely hated allegory and (mostly) avoided writing it in his own works. Which is why in his books you can hunt for the areas in his book where his own Christian thought influenced his writing, but you won’t find a simple answer such as “Gandalf is Jesus”. It isn’t as simple as that.
The discussions between Tolkien and Lewis on the place of allegory in their fiction ultimately led to Tolkien writing a poem, “Mythopoeia”, in response to Lewis’ claim that myths were “lies breathed through silver”. If you have not read it, the poem is fantastic and worth the 5-10 minutes invested. But the focus I want to spend today is looking at a similar work that Tolkien did, his lecture “On Fairy Stories”, which is also very much worth the 30-60 minutes invested in reading that lecture. I will have links to both of those included at the end of this post.
In the lecture, Tolkien expresses the idea (among many other ideas, such as that Fairy-Stories are not simply for entertaining children) that we like to create things because we were created in the image and likeness of God. When you open the Bible to the first page, the first words you read are “In the beginning, God created”. We serve a creator God, who formed the heavens, the earth, the stars, the oceans, the birds and beasts, men and women, and so much more. When He made man, he created him to be in the image of God. So it stands to reason that, because God Himself enjoyed creating things, it is perfectly normal and natural for mankind to enjoy creating things. Tolkien termed this as sub-creation, because man cannot create something out of nothing like God, but rather can take things and form them into something new. This was, in some ways, Tolkien’s way also of defending his decision to write fantasy stories rather than something that Oxford might find more worthwhile, such as literary fiction.
I have always been drawn to this perspective on the sub-creation, going as far as to view it as an expression of worship. To that end, I strive to glorify God with my writing whenever possible, although sometimes the stories being told may not be obviously Christian. The worldview I have influences many decisions that I make in my own writing, much as it did with Tolkien. That is why, even in some of the darkest and gloomiest moments in his stories, there are times of extreme joy that shine through.
I think it is fitting to allow Tolkien to conclude this post, so here are a few quotes from “On Fairy Stories”, followed by one from “Mythopoeia”.
“Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”
“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending; or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale — or otherworld — setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”
“I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt makingcreatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: ‘mythical’ in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But 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 Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the ‘inner consistency of reality’. There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.”
A link to “On Fairy-Stories”: http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&ved=0ahUKEwip9b6c_9nNAhWHx4MKHeYPBIMQFggiMAE&url=http%3A%2F%2Fidiom.ucsd.edu%2F~bakovic%2Ftolkien%2Ffairy_stories.pdf&usg=AFQjCNFK3iiPL5lTYvB4fU-NZ11XRJHRDg&sig2=1u3yQeAWJbLQiu3bBvc47A
“The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.“
Link to Mythopoeia: http://mercury.ccil.org/~cowan/mythopoeia.html